The acid of proof, the fire of criticism

The opening two paragraphs of Octavio Paz’s “Knowledge, Drugs, Inspiration,” in Alternating Currents, translated by Helen Lane:

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomenon through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimenter has either subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms, and other material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them in a sort of vacuum chamber, combines them or separates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter. The analogy might be carried further, but it is pointless to do so because the similarity lies not so much in the outward resemblances between verbal manipulations and laboratory testing as in the attitude toward the object.

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religion believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything a priori; he knows that what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as that of the scientist? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and intuitions. But theories (“working hypotheses”) are not what justify experiments; rather, the converse is true. Sometimes the “testing” produces results that are different from or entirely contrary to our expectations. The poet and the scientist do not find this difficult to accept; both are resigned to the fact that reality often acts quite independently of our philosophy. Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts, results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them. The rigorous procedures they follow are accompanied by the strictest objectivity, that is to say, a respect for the autonomy of the phenomenon being investigated. A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or a belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism. Poems and scientific truths are something quite different from the ideas of poets and scientists. Artistic style and the philosophy of science are transient things; works of art and the real truths of science are not.

There’s a whole university curriculum embedded in these two paragraphs. One course it contains is a study of modern poetry. The accent falls indeed on modern: these are not axioms poets of earlier periods (or later, for that matter) would endorse—the anti-expressionism, the emphasis on “objectivity,” the talk of the “object,” the repudiation of religious and mystical fervor (cf. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” T. E. Hulme’s rejection of romanticism as “spilt religion“), and of course the willingness to draw an analogy to science in the first place.

That comparison is a whole genre unto itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a concrete image; I think first of Eliot’s chemical imagery in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.


The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

In the “Defence of Poetry” (1840) Shelley mixes a proto-modernist discourse of impersonality with an older tradition of ecstatic inspiration—the poet as the vehicle of the muse, or of his own inner, inscrutable genius, in either case the body of a force he does not control—in the image of the fading coal:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

In a different direction, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949) can be read as one long meditation on the relation between poetry and science.

Then there is the talk of “ideas.” Even among (American) modern poets there are detractors. On one side Paz might find an ally in the William Carlos William line, those poets who demand “No ideas but in things.” And Eliot had written in memory of Henry James in 1918 in the The Little Review:

He was a critic who preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings. […] It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. […] James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.

On the other side there is the Wallace Stevens line, those for whom “It must be abstract.” (Though at times Stevens is quite fond of things, as in “Man Carrying Thing,” where the poem “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Elsewhere he puts the whole planet on a table.)

Another generative strain of thinking in the passage from Paz is the question of testing one’s words. Testing them against what, Paz doesn’t say—but this is a productive ambiguity. Eliot, again, gives one meaning, in an essay on George Herbert in the Spectator (1932), though it departs from Paz, and indeed from much of modernity, in its talk of feeling and sincerity, and its look back to a prior tradition of religious verse:

All poetry is difficult, almost impossible to write: and one the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a particularly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless—on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation, the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between reality and the unattained aspiration.

The acid test of concepts

A striking passage from Frege’s unpublished essay “Boole’s logical calculus and the concept-script,” which he submitted in 1881 first to Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, then the Mathematischen Annalen, and finally the Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philophische Kritik, but was rejected each time:

I now return once more to the examples mentioned earlier, so as to point out the sort of concept formation that is to be seen in those accounts. The fourth example gives us the concept of a multiple of 4 […]. The eighth example gives us the concept of the congruence of two numbers with respect to a modulus, the 13th that of the continuity of a function at a point etc. All these concepts have been developed in science and have proved their fruitfulness. For this reason what we may discover in them has a far higher claim on our attention than anything that our everyday trains of thought might offer. For fruitfulness is the acid test of concepts, and scientific workshops the true field of study for logic.

This is pp. 32-33 in the translation by Peter Long and Roger White, with the assistance of Raymond Hargreaves, in Posthumous Writings, edited by Hans Hermes et al (Blackwell, 1979).

This remains one of the lesser appreciated themes in Frege’s work. The standard fare in a philosophy major mentions sense and reference, concept and anti-psychologism, but I’d bet even very few working philosophers are familiar with these suggestive passages on fruitfulness. Of course, every time I read the word I can only think of Keats, on autumn: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

Some helpful discussions appear in:

  • Jamie Tappenden, “Fruitfulness as a Theme in the Philosophy of Mathematics,” The Journal of Philosophy (2012)
  • Jamie Tappenden, “The Mathematical and Logical Background to Analytic Philosophy,” The Oxford Handbook of the History of Analytic Philosophy
  • Jamie Tappenden, “Extending knowledge and ‘fruitful concepts’: Fregean themes in the philosophy of mathematics,” in Gottlob Frege: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, Vol. III, Frege’s philosophy of mathematics, edited by Michael Beany and Erich Reck

The rise and fall of therapeutic rationality

This ProPublica story—not just the spread of disinformation about these drugs, but specifically doctors’ complicity in generating runs and shortages, endangering patients who need them for chronic diseases such as lupus—reminds me of what the physician-historian Scott Podolsky calls a “pyrrhic victory” in the battle over “therapeutic rationality” in his wonderful book The Antibiotic Era: Reform, Resistance, and the Pursuit of a Rational Therapeutics—which anyone interested in the history or philosophy of medical evidence should go read immediately.

Podolsky shows that in the 1970s a powerful backlash from a coalition of doctors and pharmaceutical companies against the FDA’s new power to regulate drugs helped ensure we have no robust, centralized public oversight of prescription practices. (If you’re surprised to see doctors opposing what you think of as the public good, you’ll be even more surprised to read about their opposition to universal health insurance in Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry.)

Here’s how Podolsky puts it:

The limits to government encroachment on the prescribing of antibiotics in the United States would be reached with Panalba and the fixed-dose combination antibiotics. While the FDA had been empowered to remove seemingly ‘irrational’ drugs from the marketplace, no one had been empowered to rein in the seemingly inappropriate prescribing of appropriate drugs. The 1970s would witness ongoing professional and government attention given to the increasingly quantified prevalence of ‘irrational’ antibiotic prescribing and its consequences, and such attention would in fact lead to attempts to restrain such prescribing through both educational and regulatory measures. The DESI process, though, had generated a vocal backlash against centralized attempts to further delimit individual antibiotic prescribing behavior in the United States, resulting in generally failed attempts to control prescribing at local, let alone regional or national, levels in the United States.

In the case of antibiotics, the result has been decades of promiscuous prescription, as overuse of antibacterials helped to breed a new generation of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”—at the very same time that pharmaceutical companies, deciding that these drugs weren’t profitable, stopped trying to develop new ones. We thus have very few antibiotics to take the place of the ones that no longer work, even though isolated voices have been sounding the alarm all along—just as others have regarding pandemics. (Obama’s administration not only put in place a pandemic response team that Trump’s administration dismantled. It also developed a “National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistance Bacteria.”) This is maybe the least familiar massive negative market externality of our time. Another result of such promiscuous prescription is much better known: we call it the opioid crisis.

However you view the FDA today—emblem of consumer protection or bureaucratic mismanagement, regulatory capture or government barrier to innovation, success story or failure—there is no question that public oversight of drugs is important and that it is high time to rethink how we regulate prescriptions, too.

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.

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.

Stupid for the rest of the day

From the Wikipedia page on Paul Valéry:

Valéry’s most striking achievement is perhaps his monumental intellectual diary, called the Cahiers (Notebooks). Early every morning of his adult life, he contributed something to the Cahiers, prompting him to write: “Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”

The subjects of his Cahiers entries often were, surprisingly, reflections on science and mathematics. In fact, arcane topics in these domains appear to have commanded far more of his considered attention than his celebrated poetry. The Cahiers also contain the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books. To date, the Cahiers have been published in their entirety only as photostatic reproductions, and only since 1980 have they begun to receive scholarly scrutiny. The Cahiers have been translated into English in five volumes published by Peter Lang with the title Cahiers/Notebooks.

Escaping abstraction

Jacques Barzun, “History as Counter-Method and Anti-Abstraction,” quoted in Arthur Krystal’s 2007 profile in The New Yorker:

History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.

The cultural Cold War

Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (2014)

Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (2015)

Loren Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (1993)

Sarah Miller Harris, The CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the Early Cold War (2016)

John Krige, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (2006)

Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (1993)

Christopher J. Phillips, The New Math: A Political History (2014)

Carroll Pursell, Technology in Postwar America: A History (2007)

Gregory A. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (2005)

Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture (2016)

Valery N. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science (1994)

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999)

Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (1999)

Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019)

Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (1991)

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurtlizter: How the CIA Played America (2008)

Audra J. Wolfe, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (2018)

Audra J. Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (2013)

Mechanism in biology

William Bechtel, Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology (2006)

William Bechtel, “Mechanism and Biological Explanation,” Philosophy of Science (2011)

William Bechtel, “Biological Mechanisms: organized to maintain autonomy,” in Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations (2007)

Carl Craver and James Tabery, “Mechanisms in Science,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015)

Carl F. Craver and Lindley Darden, In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries Across the Life Sciences (2013)

Margaret Gardel, “Moving beyond molecular mechanisms,” Journal of Cell Biology (2015)

Daniel J. Nicholson, “The concept of mechanism in biology,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2012)

Rob Phillips, “Musings on mechanism: quest for a quark theory of proteins?” Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (2017)

James Tabery, Monika Piotrowska, and Lindley Daren, “Molecular Biology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015)