The hidden yes, the mastered no

Nietzsche from The Gay Science (the Walter Kaufmann translation):

… for their faith they willingly sacrificed possessions and position, blood and fatherland. We—do the same. For what? For our unbelief? For every kind of unbelief? No, you know better than that, friends! The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all the Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease; and when you have to embark on the sea, you emigrants, you, too, are compelled to this by—a faith!

Ocean Vuong in “The Last Dinosaur,” published days before another catastrophic IPCC report:

I didn’t know God saw in us a failed
attempt at heaven. Didn’t know my eyes
had three shades of white but only one image
of my mother. She’s standing under an ancient
pine, sad that her time on Earth is all she owns.
Oh human, I’m not mad at you for winning
but that you never wished for more. Lord
of language, why didn’t you master No
without forgetting Yes?

Many more books

I recognize myself in these notes by Chris Tiee on tensor analysis—the fever of acquisition, the uses of comparison, and the stray insight that makes the whole book worth it (as the one track does for the whole album):

“One way to learn a lot of mathematics is by reading the first chapters of many books.”—Paul R. Halmos

Ah, the dreaded discussion of texts for tensor analysis. I am addicted to collecting math books (I also often have 10 books checked out from the library simultaneously) and reading the first 20 pages of them. Very occasionally I make it through farther than that. Despite the proliferation of bad tensor analysis texts (some would say all of them are bad), I have to admit I have gleaned everything I have learned about Tensor Analysis from reading these books, collecting the knowledge into a gigantic patchwork. The fact is, each text actually has a gem of insight or two that is not presented in any others. There is much overlap in the bad parts, and some in the good parts too, but of course, it’s always hard to consult so many references, since I often forget the transformation laws on those overlaps. . . not to mention also the transformation laws that tell how the notation changes—regarding this, we have the following

A.1. Joke. Differential geometry is the study of those things invariant under change of notation.

Another problem is also that it’s very hard to strike a balance between being intuitive in the explanations of what these things are—and hence being vague—and also developing a precise, formal theory that is the real deal—hence being obfuscatory.

The quote from Halmos isn’t quite right. It’s actually, “I wish I had read the first ten pages of many more books—a splendid mathematical education can be acquired that way.” As for tensors, a newer book rich in intuition is Dwight Neuenschwander’s Tensor Calculus for Physics.

No knower is an island

Woodblock depicting the island of Bensalem from Bacon’s New Atlantis

Popper on “Crusonian science” in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), a particularly vivid illustration of what has become a central area of research in academic philosophy:

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them: they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or else corroborated) by such experience.

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself. In spite of this, there will always be some who come to judgements which are partial, or even cranky. This cannot be helped, and it does not seriously disturb the working of the various social institutions which have been designed to further scientific objectivity and criticism; for instance the laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses. This aspect of scientific method shows what can be achieved by institutions designed to make public control possible, and by the open expression of public opinion, even if this is limited to a circle of specialists. Only political power, when it is used to suppress free criticism, or when it fails to protect it, can impair the functioning of these institutions, on which all progress, scientific, technological, and political, ultimately depends.

In order to elucidate further still this sadly neglected aspect of scientific method, we may consider the idea that it is advisable to characterize science by its methods rather than by its results. Let us first assume that a clairvoyant produces a book by dreaming it, or perhaps by automatic writing. Let us assume, further, that years later as a result of recent and revolutionary scientific discoveries, a great scientist (who has never seen that book) produces one precisely the same. Or to put it differently we assume that the clairvoyant ‘saw’ a scientific book which could not then have been produced by a scientist owing to the fact that many relevant discoveries were still unknown at that date. We now ask : is it advisable to say that the clairvoyant produced a scientific book? We may assume that, if submitted at the time to the judgement of competent scientists, it would have been described as partly ununderstandable, and partly fantastic; thus we shall have to say that the clairvoyant’s book was not when written a scientific work, since it was not the result of scientific method. I shall call such a result, which, though in agreement with some scientific results, is not the product of scientific method, a piece of ‘revealed science’.

In order to apply these considerations to the problem of the publicity of scientific method, let us assume that Robinson Crusoe succeeded in building on his island physical and chemical laboratories, astronomical observatories, etc., and in writing a great number of papers, based throughout on observation and experiment. Let us even assume that he had unlimited time at his disposal, and that he succeeded in constructing and in describing scientific systems which actually coincide with the results accepted at present by our own scientists. Considering the character of this Crusonian science, some people will be inclined, at first sight, to assert that it is real science and not ‘revealed science’. And, no doubt, it is very much more like science than the scientific book which was revealed to the clairvoyant, for Robinson Crusoe applied a good deal of scientific method. And yet, I assert that this Crusonian science is still of the ‘revealed’ kind; that there is an element of scientific method missing, and consequently, that the fact that Crusoe arrived at our results is nearly as accidental and miraculous as it was in the case of the clairvoyant. For there is nobody but himself to check his results; nobody but himself to correct those prejudices which are the unavoidable consequence of his peculiar mental history; nobody to help him to get rid of that strange blindness concerning the inherent possibilities of our own results which is a consequence of the fact that most of them are reached through comparatively irrelevant approaches. And concerning his scientific papers, it is only in attempts to explain his work to somebody who has not done it that he can acquire the discipline of clear and reasoned communication which too is part of scientific method. In one point—a comparatively unimportant one—is the ‘revealed’ character of the Crusonian science particularly obvious; I mean Crusoe’s discovery of his ‘personal equation’ (for we must assume that he made this discovery), of the characteristic personal reaction-time affecting his astronomical observations. Of course it is conceivable that he discovered, say, changes in his reaction-time, and that he was led, in this way, to make allowances for it. But if we compare this way of finding out about reaction-time, with the way in which it was discovered in ‘public’ science—through the contradiction between the results of various observers—then the ‘revealed’ character of Robinson Crusoe’s science becomes manifest.

To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science.

A rather promiscuous, historically minded syllabus on this subject broadly construed—what we could mean by the “social character” of knowledge—might run through Socratic dialogue; Descartes on self-knowledge; Hegel and the dialectical turn; Freud and the psychoanalytic turn (as rupture of Cartesianism); Marx and the ideological turn (as rupture of autonomous liberal subject); reactions to British idealism, solipsism, and skepticism; Peirce, Dewey, and other pragmatists on communities of inquiry; Kuhn, Lakatos, and midcentury philosophy of science (normal science, research programs); Barthes and Foucault on the author; post-structuralism and existentialism on humanism; more contemporary logical puzzles over private language, self-knowledge, and common knowledge; externalism in epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind; social construction and the science wars (post-Sokal); Foucault, Ian Hacking, and historical ontology; the career of “social epistemology” (compare “standpoint epistemology”) as new research programs (especially the new epistemology of trust and testimony); the rise of sociology and especially political economy of science; epistemic scrutiny of mathematical practice and new anxieties over mathematical knowledge (post-Four Color Theorem); and contemporary work on democracy and epistemology.

Writ large, this story is often as much about the self—its transparency or opacity, its autonomy or social conditioning—as it is about knowledge. How much can one do alone? How far can one be Crusonian? On one side there is inwardness, individuality, privacy, personality, property, skepticism, logic, and pure reason (or at least the romantic artist, the Crusonian pure reasoner); on the other there is outwardness (whether the external world or other selves), community, public life, impersonality, the commons, trust, conversation, and the dialogic imagination.

See also

Elizabeth Anderson, “The Epistemology of Democracy”

Michael Brady and Miranda Fricker, The Epistemic Life of Groups

Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge

The illusion of having dealt with it adequately

Robert Warshow on the New Yorker in Partisan Review (“Melancholy to the End,” vol. 14, no. 1, 1947):

The New Yorker at its best provides the intelligent and cultured college graduate with the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict. It rejects the vulgarity and inhumanity of the public world of politics and business and provincial morality, and it sets up in opposition to this a private and pseudo-aristocratic world of good humor, intelligence, and good taste. Its good taste has always been questionable, to be sure, but the vulgarity of the New Yorker is at least more subdued and less persistent than the ordinary vulgarity of journalism.

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Knowers on a limited scale

From Matthew Price’s review of Alfred Kazin’s diaries in Bookforum:

Cook questions Kazin’s liberal anti-communism—the Soviet Union appalled him—but Kazin would savagely rebuke the neoconservatives. He went to town on the snobbish Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the New York Review of Books, calling it a “normal political novel of our day, didactic to a fault.” (Bellow accused Kazin of slander: “You were saying that its author was a wickedly deluded lunatic.”) After an evening with Irving Kristol and other ex-leftists in 1969, Kazin bitterly ruminated in his journal: “They are all such specialists, such knowers on a limited scale, such professors impaled on their own bitterness. They have to be right . . . the world can go to hell, but they are right.” Kazin despised people who knew that they knew; he often knew that he didn’t know.

Russian poetry and the culture of memory

from Robert Chandler’s introduction to the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:

A friend—a well-read poet and editor—once told me how astonished he had been to discover, many years after first reading him, the Mayakovsky—the Poet of the Russian Revolution—always wrote in rhyme and metre. My friend does not know Russian and all the translations he had seen were in free verse. And he had taken it for granted that a revolutionary poet would want to be free of traditional form… Russian poetry, however, has developed differently from the poetry of most other European countries.


In most of Europe the invention of print made it seem less important that a work of literature be easy to commit to memory. The decline of a magical or religious worldview also did much to encourage the rise of prose and the decline of poetry. Russia, however, has never seen the full emergence of a rational and secular culture—the official ethos of the Soviet era, though avowedly secular, was supremely irrational—and poetry has, throughout most of the last two hundred years and in most social milieus, retained its importance. Almost all Russian see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer.


As for such poets as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and others disaffected with the new reality, they were soon living in what Akhmatova called a “pre-Gutenberg” age. They could no longer publish their own poems and it was dangerous to write them down. Akhmatova’s Lydia Chukovskaya (1907–96), has described how writers would memorize one another’s works. Akhmatova would write out a poem on a scrap of paper, a visitor would read it and Akhmatova would burn the paper. “It was like a ritual,” Chukovskaya says. “Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.” Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. Had his handling of rhyme, metre and other formal devices been less perfect, his widow might have been unable to preserve his work in her memory and much might have been lost.

Russian poetry has been forced, again and again, to return to its oral origins. This is especially evident with regard to the Gulag. There are many accounts of how people survived, and helped their fellow-prisoners to survive, through reciting poetry. The poet and ethnographer Nina Gagen-Torn has written how, in 1937, she and a cellmate were between them able to recite most of Nikolay Nekrasov’s Russian Women, a poem of at least two thousand lines about two aristocratic women, who, in 1826, chose to follow their husbands—participants in the failed December Revolt—to exile in Siberia. Ten years later, imprisoned for a second time, Gagen-Torn recited Blok, Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelstam, Gumilyov and Tyutchev. Every day her cellmates would ask her to recite more. Afterwards it was (in her words) “as if someone had cleaned the dust from the window with a damp sponge—everybody’s eyes now seemed clearer.” Gagen-Torn goes on to reflect on the role of rhythm: “The shamans knew that rhythm gives one power over spirits. He who had power over rhythm in the magic dance would become a shaman, an intermediary between spirits and people; he who lacked this power would fly head over heels into madness. Poetry, like the shaman’s bells, leads people into the spaces of ‘the seventh sky.'”

Fructified in sand


On the bleakness of my lot
Bloom I strove to raise.
Late, my acre of a rock
Yielded grape and maize.

Soil of flint if steadfast tilled
Will reward the hand;
Seed of palm by Lybian sun
Fructified in sand.

Already too long nauseated

From Swift’s “apology” to A Tale of a Tub, in its fifth edition (1710):

The greatest part of that book was finished above thirteen years since, 1696, which is eight years before it was published. The author was then young, his invention at the height, and his reading fresh in his head. By the assistance of some thinking, and much conversation, he had endeavoured to strip himself of as many real prejudices as he could; I say real ones, because, under the notion of prejudices, he knew to what dangerous heights some men have proceeded. Thus prepared, he thought the numerous and gross corruptions in Religion and Learning might furnish matter for a satire, that would be useful and diverting. He resolved to proceed in a manner that should be altogether new, the world having been already too long nauseated with endless repetitions upon every subject. The abuses in Religion, he proposed to set forth in the Allegory of the Coats and the three Brothers, which was to make up the body of the discourse. Those in learning he chose to introduce by way of digressions. He was then a young gentleman much in the world, and wrote to the taste of those who were like himself; therefore, in order to allure them, he gave a liberty to his pen, which might not suit with maturer years, or graver characters, and which he could have easily corrected with a very few blots, had he been master of his papers, for a year or two before their publication.

Not that he would have governed his judgment by the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless, which he mentions with disdain. He acknowledges there are several youthful sallies, which, from the grave and the wise, may deserve a rebuke. But he desires to be answerable no farther than he is guilty, and that his faults may not be multiplied by the ignorant, the unnatural, and uncharitable applications of those who have neither candour to suppose good meanings, nor palate to distinguish true ones. After which, he will forfeit his life, if any one opinion can be fairly deduced from that book, which is contrary to Religion or Morality.

Preceding this is a satirical list of forthcoming works:

Treatises wrote by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published.

A Character of the Present Set of Wits in the Island.
A panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE.
A Dissertation upon the principal Productions of
Lectures upon a Dissection of Human Nature.
A Panegyric upon the World.
An analytical discourse upon Zeal,
histori-theophysi-logically considered.
A general History of
A modest Defense of the Proceedings of the
Rabble in all ages.
A Description of the Kingdom of
A Voyage into
England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the Original.
A Critical Essay upon the Art of
Canting, philosophically, physically, and musically considered.

And from the long-last opening, after pages of other prefatory material:

WHOEVER hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable Pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain Degree of Altitude above them. Now, in all Assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe this peculiar Property, that over their Heads there is Room enough, but how to reach it is the difficult Point; it being as hard to get quit of Number, as of Hell.

Evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.

To this End, the Philosopher’s way in all Ages has been by erecting certain Edifices in the Air; But, whatever Practice and Reputation these kind of Structures have formerly possessed, or may still continue in, not excepting even that of Socrates, when he was suspended in a Basket to help Contemplation, I think, with due Submission, they seem to labour under two Inconveniences. First, That the Foundations being laid too high, they have been often out of Sight, and ever out of Hearing. Secondly, That the Materials, being very transitory, have suffered much from Inclemencies of Air, especially in these North-West regions.