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.

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.

Admirers so few and so languid

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, age 18, to his brother George, with a very green poem setting Euclidean reasoning to verse:

Dear Brother,

I have often been surprising that Mathematics, the quintessence of Truth, should have found admirers so few and so languid. Frequent consideration and minute scrutiny have at length unravelled the case; viz. that though Reason is feasted, Imagination is starved; whilst Reason is luxuriating in its proper Paradise, Imagination is wearily travelling on a dreary desert. To assist Reason by the stimulus of Imagination is the design of the following production. In the execution of it much may be objectionable. The verse (particularly in the introduction of the ode) may be accused of unwarrantable liberties, but they are liberties equally homogeneal with the exactness of Mathematical disquisition, and the boldness of Pindaric daring. I have three strong champions to defend me against the attacks of Criticism; the Novelty, the Difficulty, and the Utility of the work. I may justly plume myself, that I first have drawn the nymph Mathesis from the visionary caves of abstracted Idea, and caused her to unite with Harmony. The first-born of this Union I now present to you; with interested motived indeed—as I expect to receive in return the more valuable offspring of your Muse.

This is now—this was erst,
Proposition the first—and Problem the first.

I.

On a given finite line
which must no way incline;
To describe an equi—
—lateral Tri—
—A, N, G, E, L, E.
Now let A. B.
Be the given line
Which must no way incline;
The great Mathematician
Makes the Requisition,
That we describe an Equi—
—lateral Tri—
—angle on it:
Aid us Reason—aid us Wit!

II.

From the centre A. at the distance A. B.
Describe the circle B. C. D.
At the distance B. A. from B. the centre
The round A. C. E. to describe boldly venture.
(Third postulate see.)
And from the point C.
In which the circles make a pother
Cutting and slashing one another,
Bid the straight lines a journeying go.
C. A. C. B. those lines will show
To the points, which by A. B. are reckon’d,
And postulate the second
For authority ye know.
A. B. C.
Triumphant shall be
An Equilateral Triangle,
Not Peter Pindar carp, nor Zoilus can wrangle.

III.

Because the point A. is the centre
Of the circular B. C. D.
And because the point B. is the centre
Of the circular A. C. E.
A. C. to A. B. and  B. C. to B. A.
Harmoniously equal must forever stay;
Then C. A. and B. C.
Both extend the kind hand
To the basis A. B,
Unambitiously join’d in Equality’s Band.
But to the same powers, when two powers are equal
My mind forebodes the sequel;
My mind does some celestial impulse teach,
And equalizes each to each.
Thus C. A. with B. C. strikes the same sure alliance.
That C. A. and B. C. had with A. B. before
And in mutual affiance
None attempting to soar
Above another,
The unanimous three
C. A. and B. C. and A. B.
All are equal, each to his brother,
Preserving the balance of power so true:
Ah! the like would the proud Autocratix do!
At taxes impending not Britain would tremble,
Nor Prussia struggle her fear to dissemble;
Nor the Mah’met-sprung wight
The great Mussulman
Would stain his Divan
With Urine the soft-flowing daughter of Fright.

IV.

But rein your stallion in, too daring Nine!
Should Empires bloat the scientific line?
Or with dishevell’d hair all madly do ye run
For transport that your task is done?
For done it is—the cause is tried!
And Proposition, gentle maid,
Who soothly ask’d stern Demonstration’s aid,
Has prov’d her right, and A. B. C.
Of angles three
Is shown to be of equal side;
And now our weary stead to rest in fine,
‘Tis raised upon A. B. the straight, the given line.

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.

Right for the wrong reasons

from George Eliot, Middlemarchwith a funny rhythmic echo of the bromide “all good things come to an end, but diamonds are forever” in the second sentence:

Miss Brooke argued from words and dispositions not less unhesitatingly than other young ladies of her age. Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good-luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be. Because Miss Brooke was hasty in her trust, it is not therefore clear that Mr. Casaubon was unworthy of it.

We hear a lot about being right for the wrong reasons, but not so much about being wrong for the right reasons—arguably just as common, if not more so, and perhaps less of a sin. As for being wrong for the wrong reasons, that is still not so bad as being “not even wrong.”

If we care to be scholastic, we might map this fourfold way onto the apparatus of informal logic. If we fudge Eliot’s focus on “conclusions” and take rightness instead to be a matter of having given true premises, then to be right for right reasons is to be sound; to be wrong for right reasons is to be valid but unsound; to be right for wrong reasons is to be invalid and epistemically lucky; and to be wrong for wrong reasons is simply to be a user of Twitter.

If we care, instead, to be cancelled, we might look to the work of heterodox philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, who took his cue from analytical chemistry. In this typology there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. (Rumsfeld himself is an instance of the third.) He thus extends the great philosophical tradition of drawing squares, from Plato and Aristotle to Levi-Strauss.

The method has become so popular it has since been taken up by statisticians.

No lover of disorder and doubt

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902):

The wisest of critics is an altering being, subject to the better insight of the morrow, and right at any moment, only “up to date” and “on the whole.” When larger ranges of truth open, it is surely best to be able to open ourselves to their reception, unfettered by our previous pretensions. “Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive.”

The fact of diverse judgments about religious phenomena is therefore entirely unescapable, whatever may be one’s own desire to attain the irreversible. But apart from that fact, a more fundamental question awaits us, the question whether men’s opinions ought to be expected to be absolutely uniform in this field. Ought all men to have the same religion? Ought they to approve the same fruits and follow the same leadings? Are they so like in their inner needs that, for hard and soft, for proud and humble, for strenuous and lazy, for healthy-minded and despairing, exactly the same religious incentives are required? Or are different functions in the organism of humanity allotted to different types of man, so that some may really be the better for a religion of consolation and reassurance, whilst others are better for one of terror and reproof? It might conceivably be so; and we shall, I think, more and more suspect it to be so as we go on. And if it be so, how can any possible judge or critic help being biased in favor of the religion by which his own needs are best met? He aspires to impartiality; but he is too close to the struggle not to be to some degree a participant, and he is sure to approve most warmly those fruits of piety in others which taste most good and prove most nourishing to him.

I am well aware of how anarchic much of what I say may sound. Expressing myself thus abstractly and briefly, I may seem to despair of the very notion of truth. But I beseech you to reserve your judgment until we see it applied to the details which lie before us. I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather do I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly. That we can gain more and more of it by moving always in the right direction, I believe as much as any one, and I hope to bring you all to my way of thinking before the termination of these lectures. Till then, do not, I pray you, harden your minds irrevocably against the empiricism which I profess.

A willingness to change his own mind

Gary Marcus, “Happy Birthday, Noam Chomsky,” The New Yorker (2012):

One of Chomsky’s most remarkable traits is his willingness to change his own mind, like Bob Dylan suddenly going electric to the consternation of his early fans. Take for example the distinction that he once made between “deep structure” and “surface structure.” In its crudest form, the notion is that an active sentence (“John loved Mary”) and a passive sentence (“Mary was loved by John”) might seem superficially different; yet they have some important underlying commonality, both in meaning and in their representation in the brain. It’s a neat idea that makes certain very specific claims about how language is represented in our mind, and how sound relates to meaning; decades of linguistic work have been based on it. It also (somewhat uncharacteristically for Chomsky) makes for a perfect sound bite; there are plenty of people who know nothing about linguistics, but have the sense that what he was talking about was “deep versus shallow”; there was an even a Nobel Prize winner, Niels Jerne, who used the metaphor in his Nobel address about language and the immune system. Most people would have lived off a metaphor that good for the rest of their careers; Chomsky has spent the past twenty-five years arguing that he made a mistake. Although the basic metaphor is simple, the distinction between deep structure and surface structure required a great deal of behind-the-scenes technical examination in order to make it work with the complexities of different languages. In its place, Chomsky has recently been trying to develop a simpler, more elegant theory (known as the Minimalist Program) that encompasses the spirit of the original. (Not all of us are convinced about the success of that approach; my own view is that language is irreducibly messy, and that the elegance that Chomsky seeks will not be forthcoming.)

More recently, in a co-written 2002 paper, Chomsky seemed to open a door to a view that he’d long criticized: the idea that the “faculty of language,” as he called it, might draw on parts of the brain that weren’t specialized for language. Up to then, Chomsky had been known in part for idea called “the autonomy of syntax,” which, in crude terms, suggested that grammar was cognitively separate from other aspects of the mind (like our understanding of the world and our desire to eat pizza for dinner). I was so surprised by the dramatic shift that I wrote to him to ask. “A lot of people take [your new] paper to be a renouncing of your earlier arguments.” Was that really the case? His response, as immediate as ever, “As for my own views, they’ve of course evolved over the years. This conception of ‘renouncing beliefs’ is very odd, as if we’re in some kind of religious cult. I ‘renounce beliefs’ practically every time I think about the topics or find out what someone else is thinking.”

Nine academics out of ten never change their mind about anything; most (though there are salient exceptions, like Wittgenstein) lock into a position earlier in their careers and then defend it to the hilt. Chomsky, in contrast, has never stopped critiquing his own theories with the same vigor with which he has criticized others. For fifty years, his search for linguistic truth has been relentless.

The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.