Facts which don't fit are to be treasured, as in Darwin's special notebook for those inconvenient discoveries which are the first to be `forgotten'; alternatively they are "properly disposed of by merely naming them as belonging to the domain of other sciences" (Bloomfield).

Coleridge: "Facts! never be weary of discussing & exposing the hollowness of these -- every man an accomplice on one side or other."


Starting from the same moderately obscure Text -- and which text isn't? -- we can, if the rewards for commentary are high enough, produce indefinitely many theologies, in the full range from bestial to angelic. The grounds for banning it, or making its study compulsory, are equally excellent, and in both cases more plausible than any intermediate policy. Learning how to beware the seductions of plausibility is evidently a central item on your curriculum; for without it, what else could count as safely learnt? It must just be by oversight that yours omitted to include it specifically.

So even Theology also has one or two unhappy episodes to `live down' -- that phrase itself perpetuating the silence it purports to break. Stockbrokers at least are now required to remind clients that shares go down as well as up --or rather, can't go up unless they might go down. One hopes that the consequences will percolate, so that omission of a similar reminder, in any field, will instantly indicate naiveté, shadiness, or worse.

We could start by taking it for granted that no innovation is fail-safe. It's never the case that the improvement we propose can't lose. What's more, the not-inconceivable failure, if unacknowledged as a possibility, would make matters worse for our successors, who will have the ruins of our naive hopes to clamber over.

The Left omit all such health warnings; the Right omit all but.

Family rows

C. S. Lewis: "In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the sort of thing: `I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper'. Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken."

Jean Paulhan: "Les observations et les doctrines qu'il s'agit de démêler ... ont toutes l'apparence d'un argument... sans pour autant relever (du moins en apparence) des catégories de la logique classique. Mais tout se passe comme s'il y avait lieu de considérer à côté de cette logique (et, dans une certaine mesure, contre elle) une ou plusieurs logiques appliquées ou brutes, dont relèveraient -- plutôt que les philosophies et les sciences -- les querelles de ménage, la propagande politique et la publicité des grands magasins."


Few did more than Faraday to present science in simple (but not over-simplified) terms -- to teach the young idea what it was like to think as he did. Few were franker in admitting responsibility for the many occasions when his explanations were misunderstood, even by those who might be supposed to be best qualified to understand them. Few were more conscious of the time that must be allowed for new ideas to make their way, unswayed by premature assertiveness in the teacher.

The impression left by some accounts of his discoveries is of a single flash of inspiration clinched by an elementary experiment. Why then the painfully slow series of associated experiments? Was Faraday mistaken in thinking all that checking and re-checking had to be done? It's more likely that it's the single-breakthrough theory which is seriously wrong. Nor was it a case of needing to build a cast-iron case for something he fully understood already.

It's true the theory based on his work can now be compactly expressed. But each such encapsulation rests on reams of interpretation of each word in it, and years of acquired feeling for the details of the manipulations. Maybe most of this can go without saying now (or so we conveniently assume); even if true, that very familiarity and that convenient assumption combine to mask the undeniable fact that it was all a stack of open questions then. And it might do us some good to ask which of the uncertainties which Faraday's experiments were meant to resolve have not become as unproblematic as all that even for today's student (or teacher).

So the teacher must find a way of saying "Nowadays this half-page handles all the problems that held up a whole generation ..." simultaneously with "...who were often much brighter, more dogged and more resourceful than you or me." and "This is sometimes called standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, but don't kid yourselves: it takes more than a good memory, more even than what the curriculum calls `a thorough understanding', to get up shoulder-high."

First contact

meant to resolve have not become as unproblematic as all that even for todayıs student (or teacher). So the teacher must find a way of saying "Nowadays this half-page handles all the problems that held up a whole generation ..." simultaneously with "...who were often much brighter, more dogged and more resourceful than you or me." and "This is sometimes called standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, but donıt kid yourselves: it takes more than a good memory, more even than what the curriculum calls Œa thorough understandingı, to get up shoulder-high." First contact Greetings, Earthlings ! We welcome you, after your long and perilous journey in the starship Ucas, to the planet Yooni. I am glad to see that the Universal Translator seems to be working today; but if at any time it becomes incomprehensible, please indicate in galactic sign-language (scratching of occiput). Our time together promises to be of great mutual benefit. We Yoonians have a plentiful supply of something you greatly desire ‹ namely diplomas; and we understand that you earthlings can lay your hands on a supply, perhaps not quite so plentiful, of something to which we are deeply attached ‹ namely money. To us, therefore, the simplest solution would be to complete the transaction this afternoon, and all go home; but I understand that your species would find this unacceptable, out of attachment to the ethical system you call No-pain-no-gain. But do not be alarmed. In the interests of inter-galactic commerce we are prepared to yield the point. and to lay on, for your benefit, a series of ordeals which will, we hope, seem just like home. Now to go into detail about these impending rituals would, you'll agree, defeat the object. All I'm allowed to do is to whet your appetite. First, there is the Ordeal by Syllabus. Remember that the syllabus has to look good, even if this means including more than can be properly done in the time. At the same time it canıt cover nearly enough, because its essentials are extremely hard to put into words and quite impossible to measure. Then there is the Ordeal by Explanation. Along with the diploma, we will provide, for those of you who already feel perplexed, a quantity of Explanations; and for those not in that position, we are even prepared to provide not only the Explanations but also a matching set of perplexities. This does not, repeat not, mean that we accept responsibility for Explaining absolutely everything to absolutely everybody. (Matters which perplex too many people, or too few, are not mentioned in polite Yooni society.) Some difficulties we will deliberately leave unExplained (and the reason for doing so is one of them); many more will be left out because no-one can foresee (let alone meet) what may be found unclear by someone; and one or two may be left out because no one on Yooni can think of even a half-plausible Explanation. Moreover, the Explanationson offer aren't simple sequences of links in a chain,; rather, they emerge from a general familiarity with various inter-relationships at once complex and fluid. There may be one or two areas where the terms of the equation are few and simple, and where Explanation may proceed step by step; but usually there is a much more untidy cast of inputs and alternative routes of reasoning, with stages in the approach to understanding the Explanation where it is too soon to expect 'the' penny to have dropped, ‹ too soon even to ask "OK so far ?". Also there will be more of these difficulties than Explainers allow for; since even the best of us greatly over-estimate the clarity of our Explanations. Lastly, we come to the Ordeal-by-Lecture. So far we have spoken only of a single idealised Explainer and a single idealised Explainee. But the resources of your planet are no longer sufficient to buy one-to-one Explaining. Generally speaking, each session is one-to-many, and each course many-to-many. This calls for high levels of toleration, not only between the two species but also between those who thought they belonged to the same species. In both cases, individuals' expectations and assumptions will turn out to be more diverse than anyone bargained for, and indeed not entirely compatible. In short, Explaining is the object of a sort of class-contract between a non-homogeneous group of Explainees and a smaller but scarcely less heterogeneous group of Explainers; where the extent of the heterogeneity on either side is unknown; where the terms of the contract are unarticulated; and where precedents or mechanisms for tackling these uncertainties, or even readiness to acknowledge their existence, is not much in evidence. There is therefore every reason why you should enjoy every minute of your stay among us; or at least, in later life, to be convinced that you did.

First person singular

The Self wallows in the role of First Person -- an absolute monarch which can think what it likes. Yet sometimes we glimpse something else at work on a different scale altogether, rewarding us with such addictive illusions while its thoughts have us, and the perpetuation of its species is camouflaged as that of our `own'.

Nietzsche: "The people on their part may think that cognition is knowing all about things, but the philosopher must say to himself: `When I analyse the process that is expressed in the sentence, `I think,' I find a whole series of daring assertions, the argumentative proof of which would be difficult, perhaps impossible: for instance, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an `ego' and finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking -- that I know what thinking is. With regard to the superstition of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasising a small, terse fact, which is unwillingly recognised by these credulous minds -- namely, that a thought comes when `it' wishes, and not when `I' wish."

Lichtenberg: "We should say `It thinks,' just as we say, `It thunders'... I and me. I feel me -- that makes two objects. Our false philosophy is embodied in the language as a whole: one might say that we can't reason without reasoning wrong. People don't bear in mind that speaking, no matter about what, is a philosophy. Everyone who speaks is a folk-philosopher, and our academic philosophy consists of qualifications of the popular brand. All our philosophy is an improving of linguistic usage; that is, an improving of a philosophy -- of the most common of all, in fact. But the ordinary philosophy has the advantage of possessing declensions and conjugations. Thus we always teach true philosophy in the language of the false one. Defining words is no help; for by using explanations, I don't change the pronouns and their declensions."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "In conversation each is the cause of speech in the other, the cause of thought in the other -- makes him become what he is and what he never would have become by himself. In this way things turn out said and turn out thought as if by a Power of speech, a Power of thought -- not possessed by us, but rather possessing us."

J. G. Lockhart: "`Always be sure, before you write any thing, that you have a perfectly clear idea of what you want to say.'

`A good rule -- but by no means of universal application. There are many moods of the mind in which one appears to compose, and in fact does compose capitally, without having any thing like distinct notions beforehand of what one's about. After walking up and down my room for half an hour, I place myself at the table and begin writing. What suggests the first sentence? Probably the title-page of a book lying uncut on the desk. What the next? Of course some turn in the first sentence which suggested itself during the operation of penning that -- and so on -- a long series of minute dovetailings, in fact quite spontaneously evolving and enlinking with each other, down to the end of the sheet. By this time the mouth begins to feel uneasy -- I pick another cheroot from Cotton's last box, and walk up and down reverie-ing as before. Presently I take the sheet I had covered with my fine Roman hand from the table, and read it over. What the devil is this? I never meant to say any of these things when I sat down to write. Here are observations which, if I had heard them from your lip half an hour ago, I should have pronounced new -- thoughts of which, if they had ever entered my sensorium, pineal gland, or whatever the bit is, half an hour ago, I remained entirely unconscious, until the very moment they were oozing in ink from my fingers' ends. Where did they come from? What brought them out? What are they worth, now that they are here? You may take my word for it, that one-half of the books in this world, or, at all events, of the articles, compose themselves.'"


Is there even a word for that quality which is conscious of the seductions of fluency, and can resist them?

Simon Gray: "I wrote all my papers with a fraudulent fluency that could only have taken in those who were bound by their own educations to honour a fluent fraud."

Alexander Bain: "There is nothing in which we are more content to put up with flimsy conceptions than in our ideas of human character and conduct, individual or social. The merest youth, who happens to have read a few histories and fictions, and to have heard the talk of his elders about human affairs, believes that such terms as virtue, goodness, nobleness, decision, judgment, esteem, talent, baseness, pride, majesty, honour, are associated in his mind with bonâ fide conceptions, and that in this respect he does not differ from men of mature age. This conviction is grounded on the ability so far to distinguish them as not grossly to substitute one for another in speech. With this very feeble attainment, indicating the poorest possible conceptions of the real things, we are very apt to be satisfied. As a language becomes more plentiful in terms, and as an individual acquires more fluency in their use, the neglect of real studies increases. The not improper use of the name maintains the show of knowledge, and at this point human indolence rests."

William Hazlitt: "One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world."

Foreign languages, dangers of not knowing

G. B. Shaw: "It would be useless for me to attempt to conceal my hopeless deficiencies as a linguist. I am very sorry; but I cannot learn languages. I have tried hard, only to find that men of ordinary capacity can learn Sanscrit in less time than it takes me to buy a German dictionary.

The worst of it is that this disability of mine seems to be most humiliatingly exceptional. My colleagues sit at French plays, German plays, and Italian plays, laughing at all the jokes, thrilling with all the fine sentiments, and obviously seizing the finest shades of the language; whilst I, unless I have read the play beforehand, or asked someone during the interval what it is about, must either struggle with a sixpenny `synopsis' which invariably misses the real point of the drama, or else sit with guilty conscience and a blank countenance, drawing the most extravagantly wrong inferences from the dumb show of the piece. The torture of this can only be adequately apprehended when it is considered that in ordinary novels, or plays, or conversations, the majority of sentences have no definite meaning at all; and that an energetic intellectual effort to grapple with them, such as one makes in trying to understand a foreign language, would at once discover their inconclusiveness, inaccuracy, and emptiness. When I listen to an English play I am not troubled by not understanding when there is nothing to understand, because I understand at once that there is nothing to understand. But at a foreign play I do not understand this; and every sentence that means nothing in particular -- say five out of six in the slacker moments of the action -- seems to me to be a sentence of which I have missed the meaning through my unhappy and disgraceful ignorance of the language. Hence torments of shame and inefficiency, the betrayal of which would destroy my reputation as a critic at one blow."

Foreign languages, benefits of knowing

Stendhal: "Quelle n'était pas mon ignorance en ce temps-là! Je ne pouvais comprendre, se disait-il, même le latin ridicule de ces traités d'astrologie que feuilletait mon maître, et je crois que je les respectais surtout parce que, n'y entendant que quelques mots par-ci par-là, mon imagination se chargeait de leur prêter un sens, et le plus romanesque possible.

Peu à peu sa rêverie prit un autre cours. Y aurait-il quelque chose de réel dans cette science? Pourquoi serait-elle différente des autres? Un certain nombre d'imbéciles et de gens adroits conviennent entre eux qu'ils savent le mexicain, par exemple; ils s'imposent en cette qualité à la société qui les respecte et aux gouvernements qui les paient. On les accable de faveurs précisément parce qu'ils n'ont point d'esprit, et que le pouvoir n'a pas à craindre qu'ils soulèvent les peuples et fassent du pathos à l'aide des sentiments généreux! Par exemple le père Bari, auquel Ernest IV vient d'accorder quatre mille francs de pension et la croix de son ordre pour avoir restitué dix-neuf vers d'un dithyrambe grec!

Mais, grand Dieu! ai-je bien le droit de trouver ces choses-là ridicules? est-ce bien à moi de me plaindre? Est-ce que cette même croix ne vient pas d'être accordée à mon gouverneur de Naples? Fabrice éprouva un sentiment de malaise profond; le bel enthousiasme de vertu qui naguère venait de faire battre son coeur se changeait dans le vil plaisir d'avoir une bonne part dans un vol. Eh bien! se dit-il enfin avec les yeux éteints d'un homme mécontent de soi, puisque ma naissance me donne le droit de profiter de ces abus, il serait d'une insigne duperie à moi de n'en pas prendre ma part; mais il ne faut point m'aviser de les maudire en public."

Emerson: "When we read a book in a foreign language we suppose that an English version of it would be a transfusion of it into our own consciousness. But take Coleridge or Bacon & you immediately feel that the English is a language also & that a book writ in that tongue is yet very far from being transfused into your own consciousness."


Nature's results seem infinitely rich. `That's because God's resources are infinite.' No: to be God-like is not to need infinite resources, nor brute-force cosmology. Already, the outputs of productive formalisms and programming wizardry seem miraculous to some of us. It's not the achievements but the economy of their means which passeth all understanding -- just because in principle it cometh within the understanding of a child. Your child, and not its parents.

Hao Wang: "The matter of constructing an exact theory of (say) probability contains an additional factor. Since ordinary language is not exact, new words are coined or ordinary words are given technical usage. In order to evaluate the theory, you have first to understand it. In order to understand it, you have first to learn a new language. Since it is usually impossible to explain clearly and exactly even the technical usages, a formal or exact theory can almost always be defended against charges that it does not conform to fact. As long as there is a sufficiently complicated system and a fairly big and energetic group of people who, for one reason or another, enjoy elaborating the system, we have a powerful school of learning, be it the theory of meaning, the sociology of knowledge, or the logic of induction. There is always the hope that further development of the theory will yield keys to old puzzles or fertilise the spirit of new inventions. In any case, since there is mutual support between different parts of a given system, there is little danger that the discrepancy between one part and the facts should discredit the system. And of course if we are interested in the `foundations', there is no need to fear any immediate tests. The worst that can happen to such theories is not refutation but neglect."

J. N. Findlay: "I am further distressed, when so much of the connective tissue of discourse passes unrecognised, that what remains should be forced into the form of strict laws or rigorous isomorphisms and identities which go far beyond the deliverances of empirical science, and that there should be throughout such an exaggerated respect for reasonings couched in that strict deductive form which, despite its admirable, endless, contentless proliferation, is really only a degenerate case of inference, and such a slight respect for the inexact, imperfectly cogent, analogical and other non-formal reasonings which genuinely advance beyond their premisses."

Freedom fighter

You are entitled to your sense of (say) the word `freedom', as I am to mine. What you are not entitled to do is to solicit my support by an argument which depends on my taking the word in my sense, where it would fail if taken in yours.

At this point I could remark: `To do this comes under my sense of the word lie' -- like allowing someone to believe what you know to be false, when that belief is to your advantage. This by way of side-information, not supposing that you share enough of my sense of the word to compel assent.

Or I could say, more brazenly, `That amounts to a lie' = `Let's have a fight about what the word lie ought to mean', = `Let's have a fight, all the better if pointless.' And yet not quite pointless, for such fights (whatever the outcome) protect the best-protected of propositions, -- namely that words must have one right meaning.

Symmetrically, the above wording wasn't mere side-information after all, but a small contribution to linguistic education.

A word like `freedom' is short for a proposition which is itself short for a large set of exemplifications, of experiences had or imagined. Leaving out the doubtful cases, the set is still biggish. Some of those experiences must be shared, or we can hardly be said to speak the same language; others will not be, or we cannot have much worth saying to each other. Real talk -- I would like to say, non-blasphemous use of the gift of language -- can start if there is a hint of empathy, and is kept in play by continuous discovery of examples of each kind. Where empathy, discovery, play are all absent, vehement reiteration is the recommended substitute.

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