Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
Master Chuang (c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)
Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be
Ophelia, in Hamlet,Act 4, Scene 5, by William Shakespeare (1599-1602 ish)
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.
From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available. Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so.
George Orwell, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, the appendix to his ‘1984’ (1949)
At the base of the modern state there is the professor, not the executioner… for the monopoly of legitimate education is more important than the monopoly of legitimate violence.
Nurit Peled-Elhanan, reported here
Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
Kurt Vonnegut, in Hocus Pocus
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.
Paulo Freire, in The Politics of Education, 1985 (apparently)
“Knowledge is potentially infinite. What we can attend to at a given moment is severely limited. So there’s always a question as to what will count as knowledge in a given context, and another about who will decide what counts. These questions ….are almost always properly political, that is they require a judgement about what is good, a judgement which the scientist is no more competent to render than any other citizen.”
David Cayley, discussing the work of Brian Wynne, in Episode 10 of CBC’s How To Think About Science
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.
David Hume, Of Personal Identity, Selection from Book I, Part 4, Section 6 of A Treatise of Human Nature
“They’re Made Out of Meat” is a short story by Terry Bisson. It’s a great rift of the improbability of the human situation, and particularly relevant to psychologists (e.g. “So … what does the thinking?”)
The full text is here. The story has its own wikipedia page, and there’s a YouTube film here.
Now, for your listening delight Erin Revell and Geraint Edwards, at my request, have recorded the story so I can play parts of it during a lecture. The result was too good not to share, so with Terry Bisson’s permission, here’s a link for the whole thing:
Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat”
(Cross-posted at mindhacks.com)
Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house
Henri Poincare, La Science et l’Hypothèse (1901), English translation: Science and Hypothesis (1905), chapter 9 (via Jim Stone)
A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS
I said, Ah! what shall I write?
I enquired up and down
(He’s tricked me before
with his manifold lurking-places.)
I looked for His symbol at the door.
I have looked for a long while
at the textures and contours.
I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
I have journeyed among the dead forms
causation projects from pillar to pylon.
I have tired the eyes of the mind
regarding the colours and lights.
I have felt for His wounds
in nozzles and containers.
I have wondered for the automatic devices.
I have tested the inane patterns
I have been on my guard
not to condemn the unfamiliar.
For it is easy to miss Him
at the turn of a civilisation.
I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the living crea-
tures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see the living God
projected from the machine. I have said to the perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt some beginnings of His creature, but A,a,a, Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste…. Eia, Domine Deus.
David Jones, in The Sleeping Lord and Other Poems (1974), thank you Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country
Defined by their lesser knowledge, students can do nothing which does not confirm the most pessimistic image that the professor, in his most professional character is willing to confess to: they understand nothing, and they reduce the most brilliant theories to logical monstrosities or picturesque oddities as if their only role in life was to illustrate the vanity of the efforts which the professor squanders on them and which he will continue to squander despite everything out of professionals conscience with a disabused lucidity which only redoubles his merit. By definition the professor teaches as he ought to teach, and the meagre results with which he is rewarded can only reinforce his certainty that the great majority of his students are unworthy of the efforts he bestows upon them. Indeed the professor is as resigned to his students and their ‘natural’ incapacities as the ‘good colonist’ is to the ‘natives’, for he has no higher expectations than they just be the way they are.
In secondary and higher education, it is taken for granted that the language of ideas elaborated by the academic and scientific tradition and also the second-order language of allusions and cultural complicities are second nature to intelligent and gifted individuals; or better, that the ability to understand and to manipulate these learned languages – artificial languages, par excellence – where we see the natural language of human intelligence at work immediately distinguishes intelligent students from the rest. It is thanks to this ideology of a profession that academics can vouch for professional judgements as strictly equitable. But in reality they consecrate cultural privilege. Language is the most active and elusive part of cultural heritage which each individual owes to his background. This is because language does not reduce, as we often think, to a more or less extensive collection of words. As syntax, it provides us with a system of transposable mental dispositions. These go hand in hand with values which dominate the whole of our experience and, in particular, with a vision of society and of culture. They also involve an original relationship to words, reverential or free, borrowed or familiar, sparing or intemperate
Bourdieu, P., (1994), Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Polity Press, Cambridge, trans. Richard Teese, p6-7 & p8.
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
snowed for two days and the unit
did not return.
The lieutenant suffered:
he had dispatched
his own people to death.
But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.
The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees
Miroslav Holub, Brief Thoughts on Maps,Times Literary Supplement, Feb 4, 1977
Like other amateurs, Koestler finds it difficult to understand why scientists seem so often to shirk the study of really fundamental or challenging problems. With Robert Graves he regrets the absence of ‘intense research’ upon variations in the – ah – ’emotive potentials of the sense modalities’. He wonders why ‘the genetics of behaviour’ should still be ‘uncharted territory’ and asks whether this may not be because the framework of Neo-Darwinism is too rickety to support an inquiry. The real reason is so much simpler: the problem is very, very difficult. Goodness knows how it is to be got at. It may be outflanked or it may yield to attrition, but probably not to a direct assault. No scientist is admired for failing in the attempt to solve problems that lie beyond his competence. The most he can hope for is the kindly contempt earned by the Utopian politician. If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs.
Although much of Koestler’s book has to do with explanation, he seems to pay little attention to the narrowly scientific usages of the concept. Some of the ‘explanations’ he quotes with approval are simply analgesic pills which dull the aches of incomprehension without going into their causes. The kind of explanation the scientist spends most of his time thinking up and testing – the hypotheses which enfolds the matters to be explained among its logical consequences – gets little attention.
Peter Medawar, from a review of Arthur Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” (New Statesman, 19 June 1964) and republished in ‘The Art of the Soluble’ (1967)
It is possible to see why, despite all the poverty and the hardships and dependence, the agricultural society of the early Middle Ages – and of the later Middles Ages too in many regions – should have been relatively unreceptive to the militant eschatology of the unprivileged. To an extent which can hardly be exaggerated peasant life was shaped and sustained by custom and communal routine. In the wide northern plains peasants were commonly grouped together in villages; and there the inhabitants of a village followed an agricultural routine which had been developed by the village as a collectivity. Their strips of land lay closely interwoven in the open fields, and in ploughing, sowing an reaping they must often have worked as a team. Each peasant has the right to use the ‘common’ to a prescribed extent and all the livestock grazed there together. Social relationships within the village were regulated by norms which, though they varied from village to village, had the sanction of tradition and were always regarded as inviolable. And this was true not only of relationships between villagers themselves but of the relationship between each villager and his lord. In the course of long struggles between conflicting interests each manor had developed its own laws which, once established by usage, prescribed the rights and obligations of each individual. To this ‘custom of the manor’ the lord himself was subject; and the peasants were commonly most vigilant in ensuring that he did in fact abide by it. Peasants could be vary resolute in defending their traditional rights and even on occasion in extending them. They could afford to be resolute, for the population was sparse and labour much in demand; this gave them an advantage which to some extent offset the concentration of landed property and of armed force in the hands of their lords. As a result the manorial regime was by no means a system of uncontrolled exploitation of labour. If custom bound the peasants to render dues and services, it also fixed the amounts. And to most peasants it gave at least that basic security which springs from the hereditary and guaranteed tenancy of a piece of land.
The position of the peasant in the old agricultural society was much strengthened, too, by the fact that – just like the noble – he passed his life firmly embedded in a group of kindred. The large family to which the peasant belonged consisted of blood-relatives by male and female descent and their spouses, all of them bound together by their ties with the head of the group – the father (or, failing him, mother) of the senior branch of the family. Often this kinship-group was officially recognised as the tenant of the peasant holding, which remained vested in it so long as the group survived, Such a family, sharing the same ‘pot, fire and loaf’, working the same unpartitioned fields, rooted in the same piece of earth for generations, was a social unit of great cohesiveness – even though it might itself be riven at times by bitter internal quarrels. And there is no doubt that the individual peasant gained much from belonging to such a group. Whatever his need, and even if he no longer lived with the family, he could always claim succour from his kinsfolk and be certain of receiving it. If the ties of blood bound they also supported every individual.
The network of social relationships into which a peasant was born was so strong and was taken so much for granted that it precluded any very radical disorientation. So long as that network remained intact peasants enjoyed not only a certain material security but also – which is even more relevant – a certain sense of security, a basic assurance which neither constant poverty nor occasional peril could destroy. Moreover such hardships were themselves taken for granted, as part of a state of affairs which seemed to have prevailed from all eternity. Horizons were narrow, and this was as true of social and economic as of geographical horizons. It was not simply that contact with the wide world beyond the manor boundaries was slight – the very thought of any fundamental transformation of society was scarcely conceivable. In an economy which was uniformly primitive, where nobody was very rich, there was nothing to arouse new wants; certainly nothing which could stimulate men to grandiose phantasies of wealth and power.
Norman Cohn, ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages’ (1957/2004, p55-56).
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
John Rogers, on the blog Kung Fu Monkey, as quoted on rec.arts.sf.written by James Nicoll, via here and Paul Krugman (h/t WJJ)
After I’m gone, some of you will seclude yourselves in the forests and mountains to meditate, while others may drink rice wine and enjoy the company of women. Both kinds of Zen are fine, but if some become professional clerics, babbling about “Zen as the Way,” they are my enemies.
Ikkyu (1394-1481, zen priest and poet), trans. John Stevens, via dissolving path
Surely, God could have caused birds to fly with their bones made of solid gold, with their veins full of quicksilver, with their flesh heavier than lead, and with their wings exceedingly small. He did not, and that ought to show something. It is only in order to shield your ignorance that you put the Lord at every turn to the refuge of a miracle.
Galileo Galilei (1564 -1642), via James V Stone
Narratives, then, are a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and “narrative necessity” rather than by empirical verification and logical requiredness,
Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1–21.
Viewed as a language, theory has no substantive content; it is a set of tautologies. Its function is to serve as a filing system for organizing empirical material and facilitating our understanding of it; and the criteria by which it is to be judged are appropriate to a filing system. Are the categories clearly and precisely defined? Are they exhaustive? Do we know where to file each individual item, or is there considerable ambiguity? Is the system of headings and subheadings so designed that we can quickly find an item we want, or must we hunt from place to place? Are the items we shall want to consider jointly filed? Does the filing system avoid elaborate cross-references?
Milton Friedman, in Essays in Positive Economics (1953). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (thanks Dan!)
As important as it is to change the light bulbs, it is more important to change the laws
Thank you, Al Gore. In his 2008 TED talk calling for a ‘new hero generation’ to deal with climate change
“You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use . . . silence, exile, and cunning.”
James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Susan Neiman’s “Moral Clarity – a guide for grown-up idealists” (2009) is a passionate and literary book about moral reasoning and the achievements of the Enlightenment (especially Kant). The book contains fantastic and acute re-readings of the myths of Job and Odysseus, as well as plenty of examples of Neiman’s own moral clarity – she has a great analyst’s knack of being able to articulate clearly and succinctly exactly what was so pernicious about many of the arguments and actions of the neocon government under Bush. Recommended.
“The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it” (p218)