Without a title


Cogito, ergo non sum qualis eram. Thinking can seriously damage your complacency. Indeed the only way to test whether thinking has occurred is a high reading on the jolt-meter. Perhaps we need a different word for what goes on without the needle flickering: I am trying to think, therefore nothing much yet is.

You want -- as who doesn't? -- to be a better person. There's only one obstacle: the person who ends up better can hardly be the same as the one who did the wanting. Between subject and predicate `you' will have changed its meaning: been born again, perhaps; and again, and again, and again. Choosing what would count as `better' is hard enough, but nothing like as hard as acknowledging that the self will be the malleable object of any such choice.

C. S. Peirce: "We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial scepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not a real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he had given up."

Paul Valéry: "Personne ne dit: `Je suis', si ce n'est dans une certaine attitude très instable et généralement apprise, et on ne le dit alors qu'avec quantité de sous-entendus; il y faut parfois un long commentaire."


Case 1. The text, whether the Great Book or Dr Soap's commentary, claims to prove something. It would be as impertinent for the student to `concur' as it would be Red-Guardish of him to `refute'. Only someone in approximately the same league can decently attempt either. This doesn't condemn the rest of us to silence; but it does require our comments to be in a style consonant with the degree of belief we have so far earned. Where is the style-book of due modesty?

No clear model is held up. It begins to seem that there can be no model, for essays are what nobody but students write. Without a model to set his sights by, without even an anti-model other than last week's attempt, the student soon loses all sense of what it is to expect to have such things.

As far as one can guess (for nothing is made explicit), the model may be something like the minor academic paper or serious review. Odd that they are often more modest in tone than their sophomoric imitations-twice-removed. We don't seem to be teaching the art, or cunning, of small concessions to gain large acceptance -- richly rewarded though this is in Madison Avenue, and elsewhere.

Case 2. The merits of the commentary are not those of demolition or hagiography, but of wry admiration at the shifts to which the author is inevitably reduced. Is it not these which constitute the classic quality of the original? But what sort of second-order comment can decently be offered here? The flattery of imitation? Easier said than done. Or an éloge of the linguistic devices which distinguish `maintaining in tension' from mere inconsistency?

To an audience which hasn't seen the text, no commentary is appropriate. To an audience which has only recently seen the text, only a gently interrogative commentary is appropriate.

The set or sacred text is plain (and must in its essentials be plain enough for all), yet needs a commentary to bring towards articulacy that which previously had some other and more mysterious mode of existence. At its best the commentary seems to remind us of a first glimmering of our own understanding, not consciously noted at the time (if `remind' is the right word for something so minimally articulate). It can also bluff or bully us into pretending to have been so reminded.


David Rapaport: "How to indicate without dishonestly concealing and without prematurely and destructively revealing the secret of one's life one cherishes or dreads, is the great enigma of communication."

Abraham Maslow: "My general thesis is that many of the communication difficulties between persons are the by-product of communication-barriers within the person."


Walter Bagehot: "The plan for a solicitor's education is to rear him in suits; for a miller's to involve him in flour; for a butcher's, to lead the dawning faculties gently and tenderly to the topic of meat."

A. R. Niblett: "If institutions of higher education are to be chiefly centres to provide the technology and technologists for meeting short-term social needs or even chiefly places which add to knowledge irrespective of the human cost, the future is simply not safe in their hands."

John Dewey: "What is the relation between general culture and professional ability? When we go below the surface, most of us, I think, would admit that we are in very great doubt as to what these terms really mean in themselves, to say nothing of their general relationship to each other. The topic lends itself gracefully to purposes of orations in which no cross-examination is permitted. "


The perception that a position is too complex is reason enough for grandmasters to agree a draw. The reason isn't, I imagine, that they fear brain-fever; but perhaps that an over-complex position is one where further play would be uninstructive, the outcome more a matter of luck than judgement. Conversely, a game worth finishing is one which, regardless of the outcome, helps the Game to be a little better understood.

The complexity-horizon of ordinary players is naturally more restricted, but they are also less competent at detecting when that nearer horizon has been reached; and besides, the game they play does not aspire to a capital letter.

Much the same goes for belief-games, and the belief-Game.

The greater the mastery -- i.e. the apprehension of complexity -- the greater the temptation to become (like Coleridge) an uninterruptible monologuizer, to imagine (like Coleridge) that a graduate seminar should be two and a half hours' dictation, followed by ten minutes of discussion, if there's time. How else will they get all the necessary qualifications (in both senses of the word) ?


`I am confident that ...' is English for:

1 am fairly confident that +

2 I think the concept `being fairly confident' is too sophisticated for you, who can deal only in unqualified confidence or its unqualified opposite. +

3 It is impossible / not my job / not the moment to increase your sophistication in this respect, i. e. complete your education. +

4 In any case it may well be in my own interests not to be too hasty about completing your education. +

5 If matters were less urgent, perhaps I could find out more about the issue, thereby improving the chances of getting a more lasting solution and my own level of real (as opposed to declared) confidence. But, as so often, some decision must be reached now, on a less than ideal basis, and will have to be carried out by other people who rely on me for the strategic aspects. We are more likely to pull it off if these executants are enthusiastic about the task; for no action succeeds unless stoked above the fervour-pressure it merits. It would therefore be as well not to mention any little difference between my real and my apparent degree of confidence. This is called Leadership. +

6 Since I have to choose between conveying one of the two absurd extremes in 2, I choose the former. +

7 If there's a danger that, by consistently putting on a braver face than I actually feel, I will fall for my own line, forget my own residual doubts and as a consequence give less thought than desirable to resolving them, i. e. to getting a better solution -- then that's a price that must be paid. You should replace front men like me every so often, before the habit of confident-sounding assertion has ruined their (and your) powers of judgment.

I am confident the above analysis is correct.


Frank Brady: "Few English poems have been so universally admired as Gray's Elegy, and few interpreted in such widely divergent ways. Though almost every critic has concurred in Dr Johnson's judgment that the Elegy `abounds with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo,' these echoes have been disconcertingly dissimilar; after two hundred years not merely are the poem's structure and meaning matters of debate, but no general agreement exists about who is saying what to whom."

Haering: "C'est un secret de polichinelle qu'aucun des interpètes de Hegel n'est capable d'expliquer, mot par mot, une seule page de ses écrits."

Cercle linguistique de Genève: "M. Burger demande où est la limite, dans le vocabulaire, entre fait de langue et fait de parole, ce qui déclanche un débat dans lequel MM. Redard, Burger, Godel, Sollberger et Wiblé essayent successivement et chacun différemment d'établir cette distinction."

Kemp Smith: "There is as yet no general agreement as to the fundamentals of Descartes' teaching. What has been achieved is a more adequate appreciation of how well aware he came to be of the difficulties to be overcome, and how tenaciously, honestly and candidly he wrestled with these difficulties; and how, as the years passed, he dissociated himself, ever more definitely, from several of the positions to which he had at first inclined."

[In Kemp Smith's work Descartes, Kant and Hume] "are depicted as pioneers, who yet at the expense of at least verbal inconsistency reached beyond the apparent rigidity of the system they adopted." (A. C. Ewing)

W. L. Wisan: "There is general agreement that Galileo is one of the most important figures in the history of science and scientific method. His science, method and thought seem clearly to reflect critical aspects of the transition from medieval to modern science. But here agreement ends. There is no consensus concerning the exact nature of the changes which took place or Galileo's precise role with respect to these changes. And what Galileo thought on almost every topic is subject to endless controversy."

Content analysis

A computer could perhaps summarise or anthologise selected controversies in the literature with a thoroughness and objectivity as impeccable as our own. It could invent expensive life-support systems for controversies that in earlier times would long since have been pronounced clinically dead; with the added advantage that it could not be suspected of doing so out of mere vested interest, whether in the patient's survival or in the technology for its own sake.

Alain: "Aussi les reconnaît-on [les véritables auteurs] à ceci qu'un résumé de leur doctrine ne peut jamais remplacer leur doctrine, laquelle n'est nullement séparable de l'expression qu'ils lui ont donné. Mais, poussant plus avant cette exploration, je dirais non seulement qu'un auteur que l'on peut résumer n'est pas un auteur, mais, encore bien plus, qu'une idée résumée et sans ornement, autrement dit sans cette parure du langage, n'est plus une idée."

John Holloway: "When the outlooks of these sages appear in the bald epitome of literary histories, they lose their last vestige of interest. They provoke only bored surprise that anyone could have insisted so eagerly on half-incomprehensible dogmas or trite commonplaces. This suggests that what gave their views life and meaning lay in the actual words of the original, in the sage's own use of language, not in what can survive summarizings of their `content'."

William James: "If we wish to feel that idiosyncrasy we must reproduce the thought as it was uttered, with every word fringed and the whole sentence bathed in that original halo of obscure relations, which, like an horizon, then spread about its meaning."

Louis Trénard: "Qui ne sait combien la manière de dire peut conférer de force et de puissance convaincante, voire contraignante, à une thèse; ainsi, Rousseau, à la limite, n'aurait rien inventé, mais il aurait tout enflammé."


Samuel Butler: "As the fish in the sea, or the bird in the air, so unreasoningly and inarticulately safe must a man feel before he can be said to know. It is only those who are ignorant and uncultivated who can know anything at all in a proper sense of the words. Cultivation will breed in any man a certainty of the uncertainty even of his most assured convictions. It is perhaps fortunate for our comfort that we can none of us be cultivated upon very many subjects, so that considerable scope for assurance will still remain to us; but however this may be, we certainly observe it as a fact that the greatest men are they who are most uncertain in spite of certainty, and at the same time most certain in spite of uncertainty, and who are thus best able to feel that there is nothing in such complete harmony with itself as a flat contradiction in terms."

Ernest Renan: "L'esprit est tout, le dogme positif est peu de chose, et c'est bien merveille s'il n'est pas contradictoire; que dis-je? Il sera nécessairement étroit, s'il ne semble contradictoire."

Henri Wallon: "La connaissance est essentiellement un effort pour résoudre des contradictions."

Coleridge:"By Ideas I mean intuitions not sensuous, which can be expressed only by contradictory conceptions, or, to speak more accurately, are in themselves necessarily both inexpressible and inconceivable, but are suggested by two contradictory positions."

Paul Valéry: "L'âge d'une civilisation se doit mesurer par le nombre de croyances incompatibles qui s'y rencontrent et s'y tempèrent l'une l'autre."


R. Gentis: "Les administrations sont habitées, il faut le dire, par un gigantesque délire collectif. La passion dingue du contrôle, qui n'en est que l'aspect le plus saillant, s'y double évidemment d'une méfiance généralisée qui définit tout agent, et à la limite tout individu, comme un délinquant en puissance, un type toujours susceptible de dissimuler de louches intentions."

J. P. Lambert: "La civilisation des loisirs qu'on nous annonce nous permettra enfin de lire les recueils administratifs. Pour nous qui administrons encore à contre-coeur et comme chevauchant à l'envers notre époque, pour nous qui ordonnons plutôt pour n'être pas désobéis que pour créer, l'Administration demeure un art, dont les intentions de rigueur sont aussi dérisoires que les roses."

P. D. Strevens: "The professional ideal presupposes a teacher who is in complete and constant control not only of his own teaching but also of his pupil's learning."

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