Each readily falls into excess

Bacon’s 55th aphorism in the Novum Organum, translated by Joseph Devey, some two centuries before Darwin on lumpers and splitters:

The greatest and, perhaps, radical distinction between different men’s dispositions for philosophy and the sciences is this, that some are more vigorous and active in observing the differences of things, others in observing their resemblances; for a steady and acute disposition can fix its thoughts, and dwell upon and adhere to a point, through all the refinements of differences, but those that are sublime and discursive recognize and compare even the most delicate and general resemblances; each of them readily falls into excess, by catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance.

Cf. Stravinsky.

One does well to listen to them

The opening of Nietzsche’s lesser-known incomplete book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (c. 1873), translated by Marianne Cowan:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever the tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture—and not every culture at that—which accords it such fullest right.

Under the influence of argument

The opening of David Lewis’s “Elusive Knowledge”:

We know a lot. I know what food penguins eat. I know that phones used to ring, but nowadays squeal, when someone calls up. I know that Essendon won the 1993 Grand Final. I know that here is a hand, and here is another.

We have all sorts of everyday knowledge, and we have it in abundance. To doubt that would be absurd. At any rate, to doubt it in any serious and lasting way would be absurd; and even philosophical and temporary doubt, under the influence of argument, is more than a little peculiar. It is a Moorean fact that we know a lot. It is one of those things that we know better than we know the premises of any philosophical argument to the contrary.

Besides knowing a lot that is everyday and trite, I myself think that we know a lot that is interesting and esoteric and controversial. We know a lot about things unseen: tiny particles and pervasive fields, not to mention one another’s underwear. Sometimes we even know what an author meant by his writings. But on these questions, let us agree to disagree peacefully with the champions of ‘post-knowledgeism’. The most trite and ordinary parts of our knowledge will be problem enough.

To discover the why of it

From the introduction to Robert Hughes’s book on modern art, The Shock of the New:

I am not a philosopher, but a journalist who has had the good luck never to be bored by his subject. “Je resous de m’informer du pourquoi,” Baudelaire wrote after seeing Tannhäuser in 1860, “et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance”: “I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.” Pleasure is the root of all critical appreciation of art, and there is nothing like a long, steady project to make one discover (and with luck, convey) what it was in the siren voices of our century that caught me as a boy—when I first read Roger Shattuck’s translations of Apollinaire, hidden from the Jesuits in the wrapper of a Latin grammar—and has never let me go.

In the same vein see Barthes on jouissance, and Ortega y Gasset on amor intellectualis; in the opposite vein, the Wordsworthian trope of murdering to dissect.

That unto logik hadde longe y-go

Two weeks ago I read Charles Homer Haskins’s slim volume The Rise of Universities (1923), a charming collection of three lectures—”The Earliest Universities,” “The Mediaeval Professor,” “The Mediaeval Student”—on the birth of universities, especially at Bologna and Paris.

I came to Haskins to get my bearings after the disorientation of discovering, while skimming David Bressoud’s new book Calculus Reordered, that the history of science took an important step forward as early as the early 1300s—centuries before Galileo, et al.—when William Heytesbury and colleagues at Merton College in Oxford clarified the relationship between kinematics and dynamics, giving the first purely mathematical treatment of motion. (Heytesbury’s most important work, the Regulae solvendi sophismata—Rules for Solving Sophisms—seems not to have been translated in full into English.) The dark ages were not quite so dark, after all. Clifford Truesdell sums up the contributions of these so-called Oxford Calculators in his Essays in the History of Mechanics:

The now published sources prove to us, beyond contention, that the main kinematical properties of uniformly accelerated motions, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts, were discovered and proved by scholars of Merton college. […] In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a second characteristic habit of Western thought.

Contrary to the received image of abortive medieval scholasticism, Haskins paints a portrait of rich intellectual ferment, drawing a great deal more continuity with the present than we usually assume [cf. the dispute over the so-called “continuity thesis” in the history of science]:

The occasion for the rise of universities was a great revival of learning, not that revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to which the term is usually applied, but an earlier revival, less known though in its way quite as significant, which historians now call the renaissance of the twelfth century. So long as knowledge was limited to the seven liberal arts of the early Middle Ages, there could be no universities, for there was nothing to teach beyond the bare elements of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and the still barer notions of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music, which did duty for an academic curriculum. Between 1100 and 1200, however, there came a great influx of new knowledge into western Europe, partly through Italy and Sicily, but chiefly through the Arab scholars of Spain—the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and the Greek physicians, the new arithmetic, and those texts of the Roman law which had lain hidden through the Dark Ages. In addition to the elementary propositions of triangle and circle, Europe now had those books of plane and solid geometry which have done duty in schools and colleges ever since; instead of the painful operations with Roman numerals—how painful one can readily see by trying a simple problem of multiplication or division with these characters—it was now possible to work readily with Arabic figures; in the place of Boethius, the “Master of them that know” became the teacher of Europe in logic, metaphysics, and ethics. In law and medicine men now possessed the fullness of ancient learning. This new knowledge burst the bonds of the cathedral and monastery schools and created the learned professions; it drew over mountains and across the narrow seas eager youths who, like Chaucer’s Oxford clerk of a later day, “would gladly learn and gladly teach,” to form in Paris and Bologna those academic gilds which have given us our first and our best definition of a university, a society of masters and scholars.

Later in the book, Haskins notes that this renaissance

added to the store of western knowledge the astronomy of Ptolemy, the complete works of Euclid, and the Aristotelian logic, while at the same time under the head of grammar great stimulus was given to the study and reading of the Latin classics. This classical revival, which is noteworthy and comparatively little known, centered in such cathedral schools as Chartres and Orleans, where the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality. Certain writings of one of these poets, Bishop Hildebert of Le Mans, were even mistaken for “real antiques” by later humanists. Nevertheless, though brilliant, this classical movement was short-lived, crushed in its early youth by the triumph of logic and the more practical studies of law and rhetoric. In the later twelfth century John of Salisbury inveighs against the logicians of his day, with their superficial knowledge of literature; in the university curriculum of the thirteenth century, literary studies have quite disappeared. Toward 1250, when a French poet, Henri d’Andeli, wrote his Battle of the Seven Arts, the classics are already the ancients, fighting a losing battle against the moderns:

Logic has the students,
Whereas Grammar is reduced in numbers.
[…]
Civil Law rode gorgeously
And Canon Law rode haughtily
Ahead of all the other arts.

If the absence of the ancient classics and of vernacular literature is a striking feature of the university curriculum in arts, an equally striking fact is the amount of emphasis placed on logic or dialectic. The earliest university statutes, those of Paris in 1215, require the whole of Aristotle’s logical works, and throughout the Middle Ages these remain the backbone of the arts course, so that Chaucer can speak of the study of logic as synonymous with attendance at a university—

That un-to logik hadde longe y-go.

In a sense this is perfectly just, for logic was not only a major subject of study itself, it pervaded every other subject as a method and gave tone and character to the mediaeval mind. Syllogism, disputation, the orderly marshalling of arguments for and against specific theses, these became the intellectual habit of the age in law and medicine as well as in philosophy and theology. The logic, of course, was Aristotle’s, and the other works of the philosopher soon followed, so that in the Paris course of 1254 we find also the Ethics, the Metaphysics, and the various treatises on natural science which had at first been forbidden to students. To Dante Aristotle had become “the Master of them that know,” by virtue of the universality of his method no less than of his all-embracing learning. “The father of book knowledge and the grandfather of the commentator,” no other writer appealed so strongly as Aristotle to the mediaeval reverence for the text-book and the mediaeval habit of formal thought. Doctrines like the eternity of matter which seemed dangerous to faith were explained away, and great and authoritative systems of theology were built up by the methods of the pagan philosopher. And all idea of literary form disappeared when everything depended on argument alone.

Perpetual and immense

Some choice passages from Renée Neu Watkins’s translation (Waveland Press, 1999) of Leon Battista Alberti’s magnificently shrewd De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (The advantages and disadvantages of books), written in Latin around 1430:

[…] I have meditated and thought long and hard, searching with all my ingenuity for a subject I could treat adequately and which would prove the quality of my intellect, so as to satisfy them if it lay within me. But nothing came to mind that had not been beautifully dealt with by the divinely inspired classical authors, so that no one of our time, however learned, could deal with it better than they, nor did there seem to be some topic left of the kind they had treated, that I could handle well and with grace. The ancients had encompassed all serious and comic material, leaving to us only the opportunity to read them and the obligation to admire. Older contemporaries of ours have seized on a few subjects that lay hidden, perhaps overlooked by the ancients, and have thus gained honor and fame. If one wants glory, however, one must be willing to write something that is not perfect and ideal rather than allow oneself to grow old in erudite silence.

 

I earnestly beg you, my brother (if I may borrow your own phrasing in Ephebis) to read this little book of ours, correct it according to your own unswerving judgment, and by your emendations kindly make it better and more beautiful.

 

The life men of learning live is necessarily hard and harsh; by this I mean the ones who, as they should, abandon all other things for the sake of intellectual work. No art, however minor, demands less that total dedication if you want to excel in it. What we know to be true of all arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age.

 

In my experience, however, you won’t find many rich men who think books, let alone the delights of study, are worth the effort.

 

Who, with a mind occupied by love, will be able to focus whole and steadfast attention on texts? Who can then be fully absorbed in his work, intent on the teachings, ready and able to store up and retain them? Who, when captive to the madness of love, will have the will power and intellectual vigor and enthusiasm to perfect himself in any noble art? Don’t we know how love usually affects people? Sapping energy, corrupting conduct, perverting the intelligence, loading the mind with obsessions, filling the intellect with errors, driving a man to madness: these are its well-known services, the gifts that it bestows.

 

A brief period away from study has the power to disperse more material than many long hours of application can restore; things placed in memory slip away faster than they can be rememorized or recaptured.

[Cf. the pianist’s quip, variously attributed to Liszt, Rubinstein, and Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice; two days, and my friends notice; three days, and everybody notices.”]

When you wish to buy clothes, isn’t it true that your library will say to you: “You owe me that money, I forbid…” If you wish to pursue the hunt, or music, or the martial arts or sports, won’t the books says: “You are stealing this energy from us, we will not bring you fame and reputation!” If you inquire into technical knowledge or painting or three dimensional design, the philosophical disciplines will react strongly: “This is the way you defraud us of your energies. From you we will withhold knowledge of the highest things…!”

 

If you want to refresh your spirit by a country excursion […] the vocation you have taken up will pull you back from there to books and writing, and if you do not with much labor and long hours devote yourself totally to these, the books themselves will threaten you with shattering disgrace.

 

But I would not want to obscure the true nature of scholars by concluding that they devote themselves to books with no idea of pleasure. They could not perform such great labors without some notion of pleasure in their minds. There are those who willingly go into mourning, because they take pleasure from being considered very faithful and true to the memory of friendship. Many actions by which we satisfy convention and public opinion seem less painful to us than they really are. The pleasure of study, however, is such that it might better be called pain: sedentary all the time, reading all the time, thinking hard, always alone, renouncing festivities and play. I am not so bitter and hard a man that I would dare call this a pleasant way to live. […] To satisfy the desire to learn is indeed a pleasure, but the very hard work of study and the accompanying anxiety that oppresses the spirit always bring more mental torment than joy. So if we indeed take a certain pleasure in learning, huge cares and labors undermine it. There is a big difference, moreover, between the burden of fighting the intrigues and assault of enemies, which is experienced relatively briefly, and the scholar’s daily anxiety, which is perpetual and immense. For there are innumerable things in books that are supremely worth knowing, nor is it easy to describe how the desire to learn presses upon a scholar. He may participate in difficulty scholarly debates, or explore some elegant, worthy, and learned subject; while he does so, he does not sleep, does not eat, does not rest, and feels almost no satisfaction. The desire to know and to remember it all is constantly gnawing at him. He takes on immense projects, is entangled in an array of possible rhetorical devices, is constantly tense. On top of this, he is always coming across things previously unknown to him: he encounters in his reading adroit, subtle, and clever ideas, finds some unusual illustrative anecdote, or learns new refinements of the power of persuasion; these things provoke in him the desire to learn more, and he is unable to set limits or stop, nor is he granted any peace of mind as long as he has not cleared up every obscurity. Thus, as you see, the scholar is a very complex puzzle himself, and neither physically nor mentally ever, or hardly ever, gets any rest. Bleak solitude, hard labor, endless hours, great anxiety, difficulty questions, total absorption, intense anxiety—as there is no pleasure to be found in this man, so in his whole life there is almost no break in the onslaught of work and worry.

To Alberti’s unremittingly bleak, if otherwise unsurpassed, characterization of the obsessively acquisitive and self-reinforcing anxiety at the heart of bibliophilia (epistemophilia?), one might counterpose a finer appreciation of the compensating blisses and ecstasies: Barthes’s “pleasure of the text,” Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out,” Morris’s account of “pleasure in the work itself” (which he writes about here and here), something—appropriately, I cannot remember what—in Emerson. See also: Aristotle’s “desire to know,” Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” Joyce’s “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

One might almost say for the hell of it

Vincent Cronin on Alberti in his essay “The Humanists,” Horizon magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter 1971:

Alberti did make his mark—as a writer, architect, painter, sculptor, and musician. Such versatility is a distinguishing characteristic of the humanists and another essential ingredient of their ideal man. In part versatility was a practical expression of the tremendous energy released through the study of the classical world, but it must also be seen as a reaction against the pigeonholing of earlier centuries. The medieval division of mankind into oratores, bellatores, laboratores (those who pray, those who make war, those who work with their hands) is well known, and within the latter category men were subdivided by the guild system into armorers, masons, furriers, and the like. These distinctions had been unknown in the ancient world, in which Aeschylus, as is proudly inscribed on his tomb, fought at Marathon, and in which Socrates was known not only as a philosopher but also a sculptor. The humanists returned eagerly to this classical concept, and set no bounds to the skills one man might master.

Versatility went hand in hand with a markedly amateur attitude. Alberti did things for the love of it—one might almost say for the hell of it. Florence never had a university and distrusted the attitude that had once sought to count the angels on a pinhead and now, in less humane cities, tried to count the number of imperfect subjunctives in Thucydides. It was reported of Cicero that he had never been a professional philosopher and that he conducted his philosophical meditations in the corridors of the law courts: “He philosophized most when he seemed to be doing so least.” That became a catch phrase in Florence, and a kind of deal.

In 1469 Alberti wrote a masterpiece of moral philosophy, the De Iciarchia. Here are some quotations from this little-known book:

If you are idle you might as well be asleep: you are neither wholly alive nor wholly dead.

Man is born to be useful to his fellows. And the purpose of all his skills is simply the service of others.

We must so conduct ourselves that when evening comes we have no resource to say, “Today I learned nothing, today I acquired no graceful accomplishment, today I did nothing useful for a friend, nothing that gave me enjoyment.”

Believe me, a man who is eloquent will easily make others carry out his wishes.

Recondite but fertile analogies

The opening of Bertrand Russell’s preface to a 1914 translation of Poincaré’s Science and Method:

Henri Poincaré was, by general agreement, the most eminent scientific man of his generation—more eminent, one is tempted to think, than any man of science now living. From the mere variety of subjects which he illuminated, there is certainly no one who can appreciate critically the whole of his work. Some conception of his amazing comprehensiveness may be derived from the obituary number of the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (September 1913), where, in the course of 130 pages, four eminent men—a philosopher, a mathematician, an astronomer, and a physicist—tell in outline the contributions which he made to several subjects. In all we find the same characteristics—swiftness, comprehensiveness, unexampled lucidity, and the perception of recondite but fertile analogies.

The more things have gone wrong

Colonna, in Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, translated by Richard Dixon:

Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.