Canonical texts

Something odd here: I am to seek the hidden truths by myself, but in texts selected for me. The method can be too successful. Once one has been officially assured that a text contains more Truth than I have yet been seen in it, it's a racing certainty that I will find something, and call it by that name. One can only hope that these self-discovered truths will turn out to be less non-negotiable than the memorized ones.

Capital letters

John Dewey: "The effect upon German thought of Capitalization has hardly received proper attention."

J. S. Mill: "Italics are bad enough but Capitals make anything look weak."


To argue that everything changes seems paradoxical; that nothing does, absurd. Yet by careful choice of timescale these contraries can be made to look remarkably similar. A lifetime is a convenient slice -- between history (which is over) and science fiction (real soon) -- within which we do what we can to maintain the illusion of an all-but-changeless island in a maelstrom of other eras' whirligigs. As for the rate of change, microscopic would be nice -- which can build up in time, but not (we hope) in our time.

At any one time three groups co-exist: the palæons, who aren't moving fast enough; the neons, who are moving too fast; and the compromising, expedience-driven, not over-principled right-ons. Together the three groups form a set, with each group in some sense defined by the others; the whole has a centre of gravity which we think of as moving in a primitive linear space, labelled ?Tradition at one end and ?Progress at the other. But we need labels which can be used (without clumsy question-marks) equally as terms of extreme approval or of extreme disapproval -- e. g. `Growth' (leading in one context to dividends and in another to chemotherapy).

A contribution from any of the groups can shift that centre of gravity -- that is, can win a convert from one of the other groups -- by using the power of reason or emotion or conformism or bribery or thumbscrews, or more probably a mixture of these.


Richard Hulsenbeck: "It is a fact that at heart I feel unhappy when I have to function well. And I more and more become aware of the fact that functioning well is the sickness of American civilization. I wanted to get back to some kind of chaos: not a chaos that kills, but a chaos that is the first step to creativity."


Two stages: 1 to sense some Discrepancy, however small -- between what the book says and what the eye sees, between word & thought; 2 to do something about it. By itself 1 doesn't sound much: students are supposed to get on briskly to 2, if necessary by economizing on 1.

On stage 1, vital though it is, teachers don't have much to offer, other than the recommendation to check it out (an apparently modest target, but one soon stymied by combinatorics). But how many students have learned even that much?

Helpful formalisms facilitate checking-out. Helpful teaching and theorizing hammer home the painful necessity for checking-out. Byzantine formalisms, shadow-boxing theories and terroristic teaching exploit the fear of that pain.

Child language

G. M. Young: "Every night, tucked up, I used to assemble my Council, headed by my particular friend the butcher in his blue overalls. They questioned me minutely about the doings of the day, and the rule of the game was that every night we agreed on certain taboo words, always verbs. Then they put questions `involving the use of', as the grammar books say, the forbidden vocables, and I had to dodge them. Finally, to corner me, they would ask what I meant by the word I did use, and I would whip out something I had just picked up from the elders, and so break through the net."

Paulette Destouches-Février: "Quand j'entre dans la chambre où j'ai couché ma petite fille d'un an, je la trouve parfois déjà somnolente et sage, mais les yeux encore ouverts. Dès qu'elle m'aperçoit elle se dresse, rejette son drap, court sur son lit et proclame un seul mot: `Dodo!'. Et cela veut dire une foule de choses, entre autres: `Tu veux que je dorme, mais, tu le vois, je ne dors pas. Je fais semblant de dormir pour te faire plaisir, mais je ne veux pas dormir. Mais j'annonce que je vais dormir, et ainsi tu ne peux me fouetter.' Et encore: `C'est un vrai plaisir de te faire enrager en risquant d'être fouettée, sans l'être vraiment!'

Le langage de la vie courante est rempli de ces mots-phrases pleins de sous-entendus parfois complètement inexprimables. Les exclamations qu'on jette dans la conversation sont plus riches que les longues périodes d'un discours ou d'une conférence. `Ah! ah!' s'écria Bosse-de-Nage compendieusement, et il s'arrêta, de peur d'outrepasser sa pensée..."

Thomas Bastard, 1598:

Me thinkes tis pretie sport to heare a childe,

Rocking a worde in mouth yet vndefiled.

The tender racket rudely playes the sound,

Which, weakely banded cannot back rebound,

And the soft ayre the softer roofe doth kisse,

With a sweete dying and a pretie misse,

Which heares no answere yet from the white ranke

Of teeth, not risen from their corall banke.

The alphabet is searcht for letters soft,

To try a worde before it can be wrought,

And when it slideth forth, it goes as nice

As when a man doth walke upon the yce.


'The concepts which philosophy must clarify are everyday concepts.' And one of them is 'clarification', which, like 'bomb-disposal' (but less convincingly), assures us that All is now Clear. The trouble is that the word oscillates in exploitable fashion between 'making clear' and 'making clearer, or a little less unclear'. I submit that 'clarification' is too dangerous a word, even for what that last sentence does. Also invisible to most is the word's own status as a neologism in this sense (OED's earliest example is 1823).

"I have made it perfectly clear" has the same flaw as a marriage with only one "I do". We need English verbs not restricted to the choice between transitive and intransitive a middle, or transactional, or cooperative voice, in which two (or more) participants negotiate a provisionally agreed area of disagreement. Among other benefits, this would help us rid clarification of its associations with parthenogenesis (and, while we're at it, with finality). Clarity

For a logician John Stuart Mill was unusually clear, coherent, and consistent about the limitations of clarity, coherence, and consistency: "M. Comte is an exceedingly clear and methodical writer, most agreeable in stile, and concatenates so well, that one is apt to mistake the perfect coherence and logical consistency of his system, for truth."

His own contribution is perhaps best measured by the words he was (as far as we know) the first to use. We can scarcely imagine how the world managed before, without many-sided (1833), one-sidedness (1831), unpracticalness (1843), workable (1859), unworkable (of a plan, 1861). As these in their various ways suggest, a Route Nationale or the G.W.R. served only to take Mill to where pathlessness and interest began. Not for him Sigmund Koch's `stereotype of science as some kind of inexorable bulldozer which carves out great, linear, ever-lengthening highways of truth' -- what Whewell called the `licensed scientific turnpikes into nature'.

Coleridge: "I say to a Paleyan or Priestleyan my mist, my delving & difficulty, & he answers me in a set of parrot words, quite satisfied, clear as a pike-staff, -- nothing before & nothing behind -- a stupid piece of mock-knowledge, having no root for then it would have feelings of dimness from growth, having no buds or twigs, for then it would have yearnings & strivings of obscurity from growing, but a dry stick of Licorish, sweet tho' mawkish to the palate of self-adulation, acknowledging no sympathy with this delving, this feeling of a wonder."

H. H. Price: "A man may be saying something, even something of fundamental importance, and yet it may be quite impossible for him to say it clearly, and impossible equally for any of his contemporaries; and this not through lack of cleverness on his part or theirs, but simply because the existing terminology is not adequate for the task. There may very well be some things which in the terminology available at the time can only be said obscurely; either in a metaphor, or (still more disturbing) in an oxymoron or a paradox, that is, in a sentence which breaks the existing terminological rules and is in its literal meaning absurd. His successors may be able to divine what he is trying to convey. The terminological rules may eventually be changed."

Niels Bohr: "I try not to speak more clearly than I think."

Melchior Grimm: "Mais, dit-on, la clarté, la précision, l'énergie font le mérite [du français]. Soyons de bonne foi, et disons que ces attributs font le mérite des écrivains français, mais nullement de leur langue. Cette langue est naturellement embarrassé; la difficulté seule des relatifs, des équivoques qu'on fait à chaque ligne, prouve la vérité de ce que j'avance... Les français ont besoin de plus de génie [étant donné] la timidité, le maniéré, l'uniformité et la sévérité des règles de la langue française."

Charles Renouvier: "Qui nous délivrera de la clarté française, si tout son mérite se réduit à l'ordre, à la modération, à l'observation du convenu et des convenances ?"

D'Alembert: "Si on prend à la lettre ce qui se dit communément, que le caractère de notre langue est la clarté, on croira qu'il n'en est aucune plus favorable à l'orateur; il ne faut pour se détromper qu'avoir écrit en français, ou interroger ceux qui ont pris cette peine. Aucune langue sans exception n'est plus sujette à l'obscurité que la nôtre, et ne demande dans ceux qui en font usage plus de précautions minutieuses pour être entendue. Ainsi la clarté est l'apanage de notre langue, en ce seul sens, qu'un écrivain ne doit jamais perdre la clarté de vue, comme étant prêt à lui échapper sans cesse."

Alain: "Des mots bien clairs, et par convention expresse, comme calorie, volt, ampère, watt, ce n'est point langage."


Thorstein Veblen: "There can be little doubt that it is their utility as evidence of wasted time and effort, and hence of the pecuniary strength necessary in order to afford this waste, that has secured to the classics their position of prerogative in the scheme of the higher learning, and has led to their being esteemed as the most honorific of all learning. They serve the decorative ends of leisure-class learning better than any other body of knowledge, and hence they are an effective means of reputability.

In this respect the classics have had until lately scarcely a rival. They still have no rival on the continent of Europe, but lately, since college athletics have won their way into a recognised standing as an accredited field of scholarly accomplishment, this latter branch of learning -- if athletics may be freely classed as learning -- has become a rival of the classics for the primacy in leisure-class education in American and English schools. Athletics have an obvious advantage over the classics for the purposes of leisure-class learning, since success as an athlete presumes, not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money, as well as the possession of certain highly unindustrial archaic traits of character and temperament. In the German universities the place of athletics and Greek-letter fraternities, as a leisure-class scholarly occupation, has in some measure been supplied by a skilled and graded inebriety and a perfunctory duelling.

`Classic' always carries this connotation of wasteful and archaic, whether it is used to denote the dead languages or the obsolete or obsolescent forms of thought and diction in the living language. So the archaic idiom of the English language is spoken of as `classic' English. Its use is imperative in all speaking and writing upon serious topics, and a facile use of it lends dignity to even the most commonplace and trivial string of talk. The newest form of English diction is of course never written; the sense of that leisure-class propriety which requires archaism in speech is present even in the most illiterate or sensational writers in sufficient force to prevent such a lapse. On the other hand, the highest and most conventionalised style of archaic diction is properly employed only in communications between an anthropomorphic deity and his subjects."


Jeremy Bentham: "The idea of a law, meaning one single but entire law, is in a manner inseparably connected with that of a complete body of laws: so that what is a law and what are the contents of a complete body of laws are questions of which neither can well be answered without the other. A body of laws is a vast and complicated piece of mechanism, of which no part can be fully explained without the rest. To understand the functions of a balance-wheel you must take to pieces the whole watch: to understand the nature of a law you must take to pieces the whole code."

When Bentham had finished putting together the pieces of the 1799 edition of hisIntroduction to the principles of morals & legislation, the above note was somehow left over.


The Text is new, but necessarily written under a dictatorship of the status quo ante. It has required from the writer, and requires of its reader, standards of qualification (as to the domain) and quantification (as to the degree of asseveration) which will disturb the habits of friends and enemies alike. Unfortunately it's not just the little matter of arranging to attract the attention of the former while remaining unnoticed by the latter. Part of the worthwhileness of the Text is that it tries to redraw these battle-lines, seeking both to persuade some erstwhile enemies that they are closer to you and some erstwhile friends that they are further from you than they first thought.

It doesn't do to think too hard about all this, for it gets to sound discouragingly difficult. Where is the text that : among allies, tricks some into refining their beliefs, confirms others in their unrefined beliefs, and irritates the lunatic fringe into tearing up their party-cards; and simultaneously, among enemies, seduces the convertible, wounds those it is safe to wound, while seeming innocuous to the really venomous ones? That makes six ways to fail: rigidity, loss of morale, adulation; declining numbers, rusty weapons, death by burning. If that isn't enough, five of these six messages must remain invisible to any one recipient.

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