A and B are arguing over an issue q. B raises a larger issue p and claims that it entails his view of q.

A has three lines of play: he can deny B's view of p ; or deny that it entails B's solution of q ; or argue that deciding p is harder than deciding q , i. e. that agreement would get further away than it was before B's ploy.

This last has force if A and B have a common interest in not postponing all q -level arguments until after the settlement of p -level arguments. Conversely, insistence on the larger issue (even when harder) implies an interest in maintaining dis agreement, i. e. is a way of avoiding the acknowledgement of defeat.

However B often succeeds, for he raises p when A is at the low point, of heavy investment in q -level arguments, and before -- just before -- that investment has shown any return; and he raises p in a tone of voice intended to camouflage the fact that p is harder than q -- intended rather to convey that p is really an elementary or primitive issue, deserving to be settled out of hand -- certainly in less time than has already been spent (though so far without result) on q .

A's counter: `You are raising a larger issue, and implying that it will not only settle the one we were previously engaged on, but that it will do so quicker. If that were the case, you have been wasting my time on what you claim to see as at once the derivative and the less amenable issue. At the most charitable, you are now producing an issue to be decided by each of us not on lengthy argument but on primitive feeling, when, if you had produced it sooner, we could (you imply) have decided at once whether we shared enough primitive feelings to make the discussion worth continuing.'


How satisfying to be able to get in first with a definition, or with a demand for one! But formal compliance is all that's required. What's offered never highlights its own hot-spots, i. e. what trauma it is trying to escape. Why is it that giver and receiver are alike so easily satisfied ? Why do they collude in supposing that exposition should begin where discovery ended (or rather, paused); and should present as a straight line what was, in the real-life reverse direction, anything but ?

Perhaps we should do more to cultivate the art of Indefinition? and some tone other than the plonking. For example, we need an alternative for `etc.' which will convey, not `Of course you all know what is meant by that', but rather 'and God knows what floodgates that opens.'

Jeremy Bentham: "Of a set of Definitions read by themselves in a suite, no use appears; the use of a definition then first appears when the word first occurs that is defined."

Marvin Minsky: "It is just like mathematicians -- certainly the world's worst expositors -- to think: `You can teach a child anything if you get the definition precise enough'."

F. C. S. Schiller: "[In mathematics] the process of stretching old definitions so as to permit new operations is particularly evident."


J. F. Herbart, via W. W. Bartley: "At no time, according to Herbart, should a teacher debate with his students on any matter. As he explained in his Outlines of Educational Doctrine : `Cases may arise when the impetuosity of the pupil challenges the teacher to a kind of combat. Rather than accept such a challenge, he will usually find it sufficient at first to reprove calmly, to look on quietly, to wait until fatigue sets in.'"

Leo Strauss: "All Platonic dialogues consist of conversations between a superior man, usually Socrates, and one or more inferior men. In some Platonic dialogues, two genuine and mature philosophers are present, but they have no discussion with each other."

Henri Wallon: "Toute parole, toute pensée parlée, et par conséquent toute pensée même silencieuse, ont été d'abord dialoguée, restent plus ou moins dialoguée chez l'enfant, retournent au dialogue dans les cas de régression ou dissociation psychique, sous l'influence par exemple d'émotions violentes ou dans les cas dits d'automatisme mental, où le sentiment de la pensée personnelle fait place à des conflits interlocutoires et à des impressions de dépossession psychique."


We write in order not to leave the words where we found them -- to wipe the smile off the lexicographer's face.

Every time you look up a word in a dictionary you consult an interpreter, and one who has persuaded most people that he isn't there. Every time you open a book you place in some editor or printer more trust than is good for him.

Diderot: "S'il y a quelque ouvrage où il soit facile de mettre du style, c'est un dictionnaire."

Emerson: "There is no word in our language that cannot become typical to us of nature by giving it emphasis. The world is a Dancer; it is a Rosary, it is a Torrent; it is a Boat; a Mist, a Spider's Snare; it is what you will; and the metaphor will hold, & it will give the imagination keen pleasure. Swifter than light the World converts itself into that thing you name & all things find their right place under this new & capricious classification. There is no thing small or mean to the soul. It derives as grand a joy from symbolising the Godhead or his Universe under the form of a moth or a gnat as of a Lord of Hosts. Must I call the heaven & the earth a maypole & country fair with booths or an anthill or an old coat in order to give you the shock of pleasure which the imagination loves and the sense of spiritual greatness? Call it a blossom, a rod, a wreath of parsley, a tamarisk-crown, a cock, a sparrow, the ear instantly hears & the spirit leaps to the trope; and hence it is that men of eloquence like Chatham have found a Dictionary very suggestive reading when they were disposed to speak."


Why is it so rare for accounts of admired teachers to convey more than the unilluminating fact that illumination occurred? Long after William James had forgotten the incident, a student of his `still remember[ed] vividly how handsome he looked standing on the edge of the platform and saying in a casual conversational tone: "there is no primal teleological reagibility in a protoplasm." ' Perhaps what made this unforgettable was its incomprehensibility. Chers collègues, would we not prefer unforgettability on these terms to none at all? Or perhaps the unforgettable part was the dissonance between content and tone -- a tone intended to convey the message `This bit is suggestive (though I'm not sure what of)'. Or again, perhaps the real message was the non-verbal one, and was well enough understood: `The best view is from the edge of the precipice'.

I give you this dissonance in order to goad you into resolving it for yourself, or, if you can't do so for the time being, in order to keep the puzzle in your memory until it meets its meaning. But the solution is non-unique, like matrimony: each might have married someone else, and may yet.

Many years later your student may come to feel he learned something from you, but what it was he will be unable to express. Its relation to what you thought you were doing (and a fortiori to your `stated objectives') will be so odd it's just as well you died in time not to hear it. And when this student in his turn has become unavailable for interview, someone who was a baby at the time will (it's a safe bet) explain your relationship better than either of you could yourselves. (In manuscript, this last was ironic, but now I see it had better not be entirely so.) All of which is just as well, for (as Lichtenberg says) `what would have become of our world if the cunning hand of chance had not worked its way into our educational system?'


S. Furuta: "The first time Ta-mei went to see the master Ma-tsu he asked `What is the Buddha?' Ma-tsu said,`The mind is the Buddha.' At this Fa-chang (Ta-mei) attained enlightenment. Afterwards he went to live on Mt Ta-mei. Ma-tsu heard of his place of residence and sent a monk to ask him, `Fa-chang (Ta-mei), when you visited Ma-tsu what was it you attained that made you come here to live on this mountain?' `Ma-tsu told me, "The mind is the Buddha," and that is why I came here.' The monk then said, `Recently Ma-tsu has changed his teaching.' `How has he changed?' The monk answered, `Nowadays he says, "No mind, no Buddha!" `The old rascal,' said Ta-mei, `he upsets and confuses people, but that is not the last of it. He can say, "No mind, no Buddha," if he wants, but as for me, "The very mind -- that is the Buddha!"' When the monk reported this to Ma-tsu, Ma-tsu said admiringly `The great plum is fully ripe.' (Ta-mei's name means `Great Plum.')"

Frank Manuel: "This word `discipline' comes up again and again, but the more I hear it, the more I am convinced that it is not there."

Discourse analysis

Hobbes: "This trayne of thoughts, or Mentall Discourse, is of two sorts. The first is Unguided, without Designe, and inconstant; Wherein there is no Passionate Thought, to govern and direct those that follow, to it self, as the end and scope of some desire, or other passion: In which case the thoughts are said to wander, and seem impertinent one to another, as in a Dream. Such are commonly the thoughts of men, that are not onely without company, but also without care of any thing; though even then their Thoughts are as busie as at other times, but without harmony; as the sound which a Lute out of tune would yeeld to any man; or in tune, to one that could not play. And yet in this wild ranging of the mind, a man may oft-times perceive the way of it, and the dependance of one thought upon another. For in a Discourse of our present civill warre, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman Penny? Yet the Cohærence to me was manifest enough. For the Thought of the warre, introduced the Thought of the delivering up the King to his Enemies; The Thought of that, brought in the Thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the Thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for Thought is quick."

George Eliot: "A moment is room wide enough for the loyal and mean desire, for the outlash of a murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance."

Jeremy Bentham: "Frequently when I have got the Syntax of it it is some time before I can make head or tail of it: this often happens when 2 sentences are joined by some sort of conjunction: when each seems to have nothing to do with the other: for tho' I could translate each of them literally, yet till I have found out the Relation they bear to one another, and by what means the Sense is connected, there's no such thing as making an intelligible Translation."

George Santayana: "Homer was better inspired in speaking of winged words than those philosophers who call words sounds or movements of the larynx. Material organs and material occasions are no doubt indispensable to the birth of language, to its evolution, and to its utility. So a flying arrow requires a bow and a target, and the material reed and feathers that are its substance. But discourse is flight, it is signification; and the more we scrutinise its actual being, the more insubstantial, fugitive, and transitive its essence appears. Not only can it never alight or become anything but a flying intent, but even the hits its makes (not to count the misses) are achievements only conventionally; it dies on arrival, and can never know whether it has killed its bird. It is for the gamekeepers who follow in its wake to collect the bag; and how different is this dead body of mundane routine and prosperity and plodding art from the gleaming flight, the intent aim, the miraculous shot of actual thinking."

De Quincey: "A sentence, even when insulated and viewed apart for itself, is a subject for complex art: even so far it is capable of multiform beauty, and liable to a whole nosology of malconformations. But it is in the relation of sentences that the true life of composition resides. The mode of their nexus, the way in which one sentence is made to arise out of another, and to prepare the opening for a third: this is the great loom in which the textile process of the moving intellect reveals itself and prospers. Here the separate clauses of a period become architectural parts, aiding, relieving, supporting each other."


Writing is what gets shown. It is always (for me) preceded by a great deal of low-grade ink-on-paper work that needs an altogether more modest name. Or perhaps two names, one for what produces, over what may be a longish preparation period, a stock of more-or-less isolated Jottings; and another for what combines some of these into a Production. Neither can start without some kind of warm-up for the graphic muscles.

The stages are something like this: In the middle of reading or thinking, a sense that something has gone slightly wrong -- an apparent inconsistency, the faintest sensation of a wrong turning. As the tense shows, there is usually a slowness off the mark here. It takes several lines, perhaps more, for the discomfort to crystallise. By that time the top of the mind has moved on, and has acquired a vested interest in what seems to be its progress. Bottom-of-mind must be polite but firm: `Dear top, for the last five minutes you have been off course. Cut your losses, and cast back to find where we left the track.'

Getting down on paper just what caused the discomfort takes many drafts. The latest for the time being is put into storage, waiting for the stimulus which will suggest combining two or three bits into a larger unit -- lubricating the transitions, adjusting each to fit the others, neutralizing the unintended implications introduced at each adjustment, accepting the necessity of sacrificing the fragment too brilliant to be adjusted to anything else. Then more of the same, and more than once.

One day someone will perhaps analyse this into discrete `skills'; till then, it's enough to know that there's more than one of them, each requiring practice, each potentially creditable. The traditional `essay', it seems to me, distorts practice towards the brick-making end and away from the straw-collecting bit; with melancholy and all-too-familiar results. Yet at every stage before the final product something creditable may have been achieved. It may not be the accepted thing to get credit for, but between us we can arrange for it to be. On condition you can bring yourself to show what isn't ready for showing.

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