To help fellow-teachers I have some things to say which are embarrassingly obvious For all that, they only occurred to me five minutes ago, and might easily have occurred to you in five minutes' time. So if there is any embarrassment, it is pretty evenly shared between us -- provided I can resist the cunning tireless demon tempting me to make a big thing out of my ten-minute lead.

And being rather obvious the things I have to mention can hardly represent any great victory. At most they may bring us one step nearer matters much less tractable. Yet the temptation is real, to let a note of premature triumph leak from this initial pushover to some real battle not yet engaged; but any such contradiction between the message and the tone of voice would be fatal to the enterprise. A lecture advocating dialogue, a general demand for explicitness, a hint of superciliousness in a plea for participation -- it seems unfair, but undeniable, that in such cases the under-message always drowns the main one.

This is the cross that all teachers bear: our every unconsidered word is taken as a sample of our wares. The only defence is a readiness to take our own case as an awful warning. What after all could be more instructive than such an oversight? It must have been some distracting irritation that led to remarks like `a little basic research into psychological theory on attitude change will provide all the answers we need.' Allow five minutes for blushing, and then ask what part of the peremptoriness was really self-directed, was half-awareness of some challenge not adequately met, a twitch in the hazel-rod that said Dig here!

Ideal Lecturer

Emerson: "There was an influence on the young people from Everett's genius which was almost comparable to that of Pericles in Athens. He had a radiant beauty of person, of a classic style, a heavy large eye, marble lids which gave the impression of mass which the slightness of his form needed, sculptured lips, a voice of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance that although slightly nasal it was the most beautiful and correct of all the instruments of his time.

He had a good deal of special learning, and all his learning was available for purposes of exhibition. It was all new learning that wonderfully took and stimulated the young men. It was coldly and weightily communicated from so commanding a platform as if in the consciousness and consideration of all history and all learning. All his auditors felt the extreme beauty and dignity of the manner and even the coarsest were contented to go punctually to listen for the manner, when they had found out that the subject matter was not for them. He abounded in sentences, in wit, in satire, in splendid allusion, in quotation, impossible to forget. Especially beautiful were his poetic quotations. Whatever he quoted will seldom be remembered by any who heard him without inseparable association with his voice and genius. The smallest anecdote of his behaviour or conversation was eagerly caught and repeated and every young scholar could repeat brilliant sentences from his sermons with mimicry good or bad of his voice. Not a sentence was written in a theme, not a declamation attempted in the college chapel but showed the omnipresence of his genius to youthful heads. He thus raised the standard of taste in writing and speaking in New England.

Meantime all this was a pure triumph of Rhetoric. This man had neither intellectual nor moral principles to teach. He had no thoughts."

Ifs and buts

`If I were boss, I'd insist on less authoritarianism.' `I'll trust you if you'll trust me unconditionally.' When English is improved by eliminating either if or conditionally as an unnecessary synonym of the other, self-justifiers will no longer be able to say such things. But they'll have no trouble finding equivalents.

Locke: "`BUT' is a particle, none more familiar in our language; and he that says it is a discretive conjunction, and that it answers sed in Latin or mais in French, thinks he has sufficiently explained it. But it seems to me to intimate several relations the mind gives to the several propositions, or parts of them, which it joins by this monosyllable.

First, BUT to say no more : here it intimates a stop of the mind, in the course it was going, before it came to the end of it.

Secondly, I saw BUT two plants : here it shows that the mind limits the sense to what is expressed, with a negation of all other.

Thirdly, You pray; BUT it is not that GOD would bring you to the true religion.

Fourthly, BUT that he would confirm you in your own. The first of these BUTS intimates a supposition in the mind of something otherwise than it should be; the latter shows that the mind makes a direct opposition between that and what goes before it.

Fifthly, All animals have sense; BUT a dog is an animal: Here it signifies little more but that the latter proposition is joined to the former, as the minor of a syllogism."

Max Wertheimer: "It is a serious matter, characteristic for the structure-blindness of traditional logic, that such terms as `but', `nevertheless', `however', were not considered in the logical system at all."

John Austin: "Clinging to their ancient amateur status, as Platonic gentlemen who do not handle mere facts, philosophers continue to discuss (for example) hypothetical statements in terms of the utmost generality, without distinguishing among the great variety of forms, syntactically or pragmatically different, of `If ... then' sentences."


C. S. Peirce: "The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one's present state of opinion. There lies the secret of why it is that our American universities are so miserably insignificant. What have they done for the advance of civilisation? What is the great idea or where is the single great man who can truly be said to be the product of an American university? The English universities, rotting with sloth as they always have, have nevertheless in the past given birth to Locke and to Newton, and in our time to Cayley, Sylvester, and Clifford. The reason was that they were institutions of learning while ours are institutions for teaching. In order that a man's whole heart may be in teaching he must be thoroughly imbued with the vital importance and absolute truth of what he has to teach; while in order that he may have any measure of success in learning he must be penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge. The two attitudes are almost irreconcilable. But just as it is not the self-righteous man who brings multitudes to a sense of sin, but the man who is most deeply conscious that he is himself a sinner, and it is only by a sense of sin that man can escape its thraldom; so it is not the man, who thinks he knows it all, that can bring other men to feel their need for learning, and it is only a deep sense that one is miserably ignorant that can spur one on in the toilsome path of learning.

That is why, to my very humble apprehension, it cannot but seem that those admirable pedagogical methods, for which the American teacher is distinguished, are of little more consequence than the cut of his coat, that they surely are as nothing compared with that fever for learning that must consume the soul of the man who is to infect others with the same apparent malady."

James Clerk Maxwell: "Some of these results are likely to startle us out of our complacency, and perhaps ultimately to drive us out of all the hypotheses in which we have hitherto found refuge into that state of thoroughly conscious ignorance which is the prelude to every real advance in knowledge."

Phillips: "No man can take away from others the ignorance which he has never felt, or sympathised with."


ŒIncommensurabilityı tempts us into thinking of the competing theories as being each clearly mensurated in its own terms, when each is in fact entertainingly messy, shifty, fudgy, and reconstructible only when it has become history (and even then only if itıs exceptionally lucky in its historian). Without mensurability one-at-a-time, commensurability two-at-a-time hardly arises, though the word helps some to avert their gaze from what they find too messy or too entertaining to be respectable.


How to mark the locus and degree of independence from our predecessors is our task. Sometimes we can do no better, and should yield the floor to them. Or there is a little gain, to be combined in our report with due acknowledgment to the old guard but for whom our wits would never have been forced to their present (relative) sharpness. It is only anxiety which presents its independence as utterly triumphant: the king of Functionalism (or Behaviourism or Structuralism) is ritually sneered to death every October to ensure the fertility of the new student crop.


Good texts carry indicators (for those who know the code) of the degree of effort needed to scale them -- like rock-climbs, and for similar reasons of public safety. The difference is that climb-graders have nothing to gain by misleading. We all know the text which proclaims that only the latest gear will carry you through it. Yet somehow the most interesting texts get `done' both by those in carpet-slippers and those with hand-chalk -- with proportionate differences in the sense of accomplishment.


Planners of new courses are all the products of old ones, and have the usual trouble escaping from indoctrination and negative indoctrination. The trap for the reformer is to talk in the same tone about his central convictions and his proposed practices: the relationship between the two is never one of simple implementation. It is a strenuous task to keep focussed on those convictions, against the distraction, from one side or the other, of would-be implementations either prematurely explicit or self-servingly flexible.

Indo-European tradition

Locke: "The jews, the romanists, and the Turks, who all three pretend to guide themselves by a law revealed from Heaven, which shows them the way to happiness, do yet all of them have recourse very frequently to tradition, as a rule of no less authority than their own written law, whereby they seem to allow that the divine law (however God be willing to reveal it) is not capable to be conveyed by writings to mankind, distant in place and time, languages and customs; and so, through the defect of language, no positive law of righteousness can be that way conveyed sufficiently to remote generations; and so must resolve all into natural religion and that light which every man has born with him. Or else they give occasion to inquiring men to suspect the integrity of their priests and teachers, who, unwilling that the people should have a standing known rule of faith and manners, have, for the maintenance of their own authority, foisted in another of tradition, which will always be in their own power, to be varied and suited to their own interests and occasions.

Q. Whether the Bramins, besides their book of Sandscrit, make use also of tradition, and so of others who pretend to a revealed religion?"

Information explosion

Donne: "That Earth and that heaven, which spent God himself, Almightie God, six dayes in furnishing, Moses sets up in a few syllables, in one line, In principio, In the beginning God created heaven and earth. If a Livie or a Guicciardine, or such extensive and voluminous authors had had this story in hand, God must have made another world, to have made them a library to hold their books, of the making of this world. Into what wire would they have drawn out this earth! Into what leaf-gold would they have beat out these heavens! It may assist our conjecture herein, to consider, that amongst those men, who proceed with a sober modestie and limitation of their writing, and make a conscience not to clog the world with unnecessary books; yet the volumes which are written by them, upon the beginning of Genesis, are scarce less than infinite."

Sir Thomas Browne: "Some men have written more than others have spoken; Pineda quotes more Authors in one work, than are necessary in a whole World. Of those three great inventions in Germany, there are two which are not without their incommodities. 'Tis not a melancholy Utinam of my own, but the desires of better heads, that there were a general Synod; not to unite the incompatible differences of Religion, but for the benefit of learning, to reduce it as it lay at first, in a few, and solid Authors; and to condemn to the fire those swarms and millions of Rhapsodies begotten only to distract and abuse the weaker judgements of Scholars, and to maintain the trade and mystery of Typographers."

Richard Cobb: "In the winter of 1793, there are reports by two commissaires observateurs on a conversation eavesdropped on the terrace of the Café Chrétien. The one who knew what he was about stated that he had heard `un particulier tenir des propos obscènes et indignes d'un républicain, il a avili la représentation nationale, il a mal parlé de la Convention, il a insulté à la souveraineté nationale, il s'est moqué des Sauveurs du Peuple, il a attenté au Gouvernement Révolutionnaire, il a exprimé des voeux nettement contre-révolutionnaires, il a souhaité la destruction du régime républicain, il s'est montré l'agent stipendié de Pitécobourg,' and so on. From the other, either a novice or a man of singular candour, we merely learn that all the fellow had said was `Merde à la Convention.'"


Slowly we learn to read in our inheritance the marks of all the changes which have kept it alive; more slowly still, to see that lesson as the inheritance.

Inkhorn terms

William Pettie: "For the barbarousness of our tongue, I must likewise saie that it is much the worse for them (traducers of England), who if one chance to deriue anie worde from the Latine, which is insolent to their eares (as perchance they will take that phrase to be), they forthwith make a iest of it, and tearme it an Inkhorne tearme. And though for my part I vse those wordes as little as anie, yet I know no reason why I should not vse them, and I finde it a fault in myselfe that I doe not vse them, for it is in deed the readie waie to inrich our tongue and make it copious, and it is the waie which all tongues have taken to inrich themselves.

I meruaile how our English tongue hath crackt its credit, that it may not borrow of the Latine as wel as other tongues: and if it have broken, it is but of late, for it is known to all men, how many wordes we haue fetcht from thence within these few yeares, which if they should all be counted ink-pot tearmes, I know not how we should speak anie thing without blacking our mouths with inke, for what word can be more plain than this word (plaine) and yet what can come more neere to the Latine? What more manifest than (manifest), and yet in a manner Latin? What more commune than (rare) or lesse rare than (commune) and yet both of them coming of the Latine? But you will saie, long vse hath made these wordes current, and why may not use doe as much for these wordes which we shall now deriue? Why should we not doe as much for the posteritie as we haue receiued of the antiquitie? and yet if a thing be of it selfe ill, I see not how the oldnesse of it can make it good, and if it be of itselfe good I see not how the newnesse of it can make it naught, wherevpon I infer, that those words which your selves confesse by vse to be made good, are good the first time they are vttered, and therefore not to be iested at, nor to be misliked. But how hardlie so euer you deale with our tongue, how barbarous so euer you count it, how little so euer you esteeme it, I durst my selfe vndertake (if I were furnished with learning otherwise) to write in it as copiouslie for varietie, as compendiouslie for breuitie, as choiceliy for words, as pithilie for sentences, as pleasantlie for figures, and euerie waie as eloquentlie, as anie writer should do in anie vulgar tongue whatsoeuer."


My insights, in the rarish moments where the moment of their birth can be recaptured, come from a chance conjunction -- as it might be, when sentence A and sentence B pass close enough for a spark to illuminate the gap, revealing evidence for a new pattern or against an old one.

I now have the choice between:

If waiting works, I will be glad I waited. If it doesn't, I will sigh and fall back on the first alternative. The sigh is because I know some will attach as much importance to my conclusion as to the process by which it was reached, and will suppose that, even if they cannot bridge such gaps for themselves, there is a second best, a substitute carrying sufficient (if not quite as much) credit, namely possession of the conclusion.

All this applies only in the rarest case. Often we won't be able to recapture the spark-generating conditions, especially if we've let ourselves get out of practice at looking for them. What we fall back on is an ersatz: what we throw at the students is someone else's A-and-B. Example: Sainte-Beuve's decortication of a page of Chateaubriand. It's possible we had read that page and seen what it implied, and were just reminded by Sainte-Beuve. More probably, we had read the page and not seen what Sainte-Beuve saw. More probably still, we hadn't even known about the page until Sainte-Beuve pointed to it; but can put our hand on our heart and say that we might have come across it ourselves and might have noticed it ourselves and might have drawn those irresistible conclusions by ourselves. There remains a wisp of doubt: are we expecting students to do what we might have done ourselves?

International language

F. Thurot, 1796: "Tout concourt à démontrer l'influence des moeurs sur le langage: mais il n'y a rien peut-être de plus propre à nous faire connoître l'influence réciproque du langage sur les moeurs, que le caractère particulier et vraiment original des lettres du seizième siècle. Ces hommes, étrangers en quelque sorte à leur patrie et à ce qui se passoit autour d'eux, formèrent, au milieu de l'Europe, un peuple à part, et qui avoit ses habitudes, ses passions, ses préjugés, et sa langue particulière: mais cette langue n'acquit jamais la souplesse et la flexibilité des langues vulgaires, parce que les hommes qui la parloient, dispersés dans une infinité de pays séparés les uns des autres par des distances considérables, ne furent jamais dans le cas de l'appliquer aux usages les plus communs de la vie privée. De là cette roideur, cette ignorance absolue des convenances, qui dégénéroit quelquefois en grossièreté et en cynisme; de là cette vanité pédantesque, cet orgueil excessif et si ridicule, d'hommes incapables d'apprécier les rapports les plus ordinaires, parce qu'ils n'avoient pas de moyens assez directs pour les exprimer, parce qu'ils vivoient dans un monde purement idéal. Ils étoient, par rapport à ces distinctions fines, à ces nuances délicates, qui font tout l'intérêt et le charme de la vie domestique, comme un homme dont les sensations seroient obtuses, pour ainsi dire, qui ne verroit les objets qu'à travers un nuage, et qui ne toucheroit les corps qu'enveloppés d'un voile plus ou moins épais qui lui déroberoit toujours une partie des impressions du tact immédiat: tels furent les effets du langage qu'ils avoient adopté. Il n'y a point de langue vulgaire, quelque imparfaite qu'on la suppose, dans laquelle il ne soit plus aisé d'exprimer une foule de détails neufs, ingénieux, et de pensées originales, que dans une langue morte et hors d'usage depuis plusieurs siècles, quels que soient au reste ses beautés et ses avantages."


You know the kind of outsider-arguer who makes a case out of a phrase here and a phrase there, plucked triumphantly from those he calls `authorities'. If authority exists, it cannot suffice to authorize every re-setting (i.e. every interpretation) of its every phrase; nor, more to the point, any definitive interpretation of an isolated phrase.

Even where the problems are `worked through', it is at a rate which of itself implies that treatment as a real problem -- slowly, wrestling with interpretation at every step -- is contra-indicated. Where else are my students getting the Commandments 1 Thou shalt conclude, 2 using a patently inadequate subset of an already loaded dossier, 3 by Tuesday?

The elusiveness of historical reconstruction isn't special. Every use of language depends on interpretation. If you seem to concede that chemistry (say) is exempt, you leave a crack through which will pour armies claiming that theology can surely be cut-&-dried if chemistry is.

Mere opposition to indoctrination misses the real target. The greater danger is not the particular doctrine, but the indoctrinator's assumed monopoly of the right to interpret, which goes with his implicit denial that all doctrines are hospitable, without limit, to revivifying interpretations. Nor is the inevitability of indoctrination, even by those who try to avoid it, any kind of exculpation for not trying.

Interpreters of texts are a mixed lot, using persuasive instruments no less mixed. What matters more than any verdict on a given text is the effort to make the choice of persuasive instruments a little less self-serving than usual.


Grenville Murray: "There are, perhaps, no duties which require more close attention and ability, more tact and judgment than those of an able interpreter. He should not only render the words of his chief, but the very tone and manner in which they are said. A remark made in one voice and repeated in another, may have quite a different meaning, and a sulky stupid fellow might bring about a war. Every smile, every intonation of a chief ought therefore to be copied. A dragoman should look upon himself merely as the faithful mouthpiece of his superior. If he add one word more or less to a phrase, he may spoil the work of the ablest negociator. No one can discharge such duties properly who has not considered and felt them. I will go farther and say that nobody can render rightly the ideas of one English gentleman, but another English gentleman. By the term English gentleman, I mean a man who has been educated in the ideas of persons of our standard of honour, and accustomed to live habitually with them. For we have our own straightforward Island way of looking at things. We may be right, or we may be wrong, but for my part, I believe a high-minded honourable Englishman makes the best and safest of negociators. He must, however, be clearly understood; for if you bother him and put him out, he grows hot and confused. Now, in our negociations with the Court of Dahomey, the British ambassador was not understood, for the simple reason that no one of the dragomen had a thorough knowledge of English. Even their reports to the Embassy on the most trifling occasions were made in a kind of barbarous French, which it was a great question, nine times out of ten, if the ambassador understood in his turn. Bless my heart! Had our schools and universities no youths between the ages of ten and twenty-five, who could make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the English and Dahometan? I have known men who mastered the latter in twelve months. It is the easiest of jargons."

Invented sentences

Specimen sentences, invented (as in language-teaching, linguistics or philosophy) so as to eliminate any distracting ideas are like some of the newer elements: they have a very short half-life. However hard we try to quarantine them in a hyper-sterile environment -- inside a conversational vacuum in a Department of Philosophical Linguistics in a concrete university well away from populated areas -- within milliseconds decay sets in, and they begin to emit contaminating particles of unintended meaning.


This is about belief-complexes in general -- Manifesto, Creed, Curriculum; exemplification from a neighbouring domain may make the analogous but too-familiar defects of our own domain less invisible. It may also help to take the point of view not of the buyer (constituent, confirmand, examinee) but of the earnest or professional sales-person (politician, preacher, pedagogue), who is both more knowledgeable and more influential, and on both counts has more to worry about.

To reduce the possibility of prejudice, we need a neutral term for a belief-complex (say, Xism) and another for its adherent (say, Xist). Thus: As an Xist I have invested many years in acquiring expertise in Xism, where `expertise' includes:

Somehow belief-complexes survive everything -- changes in the constituent molecules, maturation, senescence, mongrelization with the competition -- with their sense of identity undiminished, if anything reinforced by extreme reluctance to change the name. The point in doubt is not whether we will be forced to modify our belief-complex, but only whether we will contrive not to realize that we have done so.

Every ism is shorthand for an anthology of texts, reduced to the right size for a flash-card. With a pack of these we can begin shuffling and house-building, which is better than worrying whether the anthology is canonical.

Isms and their ists

The stretching and pinching in the meaning of `Xist' imposed by living fellow-Xists is painful enough; but to include past generations who shared the same membership-name is a real test of semantic elasticity.

The dilemma is plain: how was it possible for so many and such eminent Xists of the past -- and not just the remote past -- to have been so atrocity-prone, or at least so atrocity-insensitive ? The principles now so beneficent were (it is all too evident) not incompatible with atrocity then, and indeed seem to have been associated with it rather often.

Example: Present-day Christians or Communists sometimes acknowledge (if pushed) that ancestors of the same affiliation were prone to what might now generally be recognised as unchristian or uncommunist behaviour. How was it possible for our dearest principles to have been interpreted in such different ways by those who called themselves what we call ourselves -- and who bequeathed to us the traditions, and even the organization, which played such a large part in making us what we are -- i. e. not exactly what they were?

Another example: Study of the classical languages brings many insights; but readiness to acknowledge that there was an obverse was not prominent among them. How did so much of the transmission fall into the hands of those better qualified to teach the Inhumanities? On the teaching of Latin, de Quincey is severe: "The three lead-mines of the Eton grammar, `Propria quæ maribus,' `Quæ genus,' and `As in præsenti'; of which it is not extravagant to say that the author has undoubtedly caused more human suffering than Nero, Robespierre, or any other enemy of the human race."

Xism, there is no doubt, is not what it was. Some things no Xist any longer believes (though predecessors with the same label did). Other things some Xists have given up believing. Some credal propositions have been changed, and the interpretation of some unchanged propositions has changed, and the inferences drawn from propositions otherwise unchanged have changed dramatically. It must be quite hard for present-day Xists to think of some of their predecessor co-labelees as fellow-Xists.


Preachers, teachers, politicos would persuade us that, in the Issue of the Day, the choice before us is plain enough. But isn't it altogether more likely that at the critical point the choices that matter are damn close-run things -- however catastrophically different in their eventual outcomes? Our reasons for coming down on this side or that are less clear-cut than we like to admit. The relationship of a decision to the reasons behind it is often an elusive or illusive one, to which the metaphor of the clinch or the crux is inappropriate. Better to talk of these things as H. A. Mason does of perceptions of value -- `tantalising visitations that whisk through the consciousness. We try to catch their tails before it is too late.'

It follows that there's no reason why happening to get it right, this once, should be to my lasting credit -- nor getting it wrong, this time, to your lasting discredit. (If nothing else, this goes a little way towards explaining how it is that one's opponents often turn out to be more likeable than many self-proclaimed allies.)

Issues are of two sorts: hot potatoes, and dead ducks. Syllabus-makers have the tricky job of crossing the two species -- of finding issues at once hot enough to excite the students and dead enough to pacify the parents. The resource-providing generation claims the right to wallow in nostalgia for the eternal verities, i. e. the innovations of its youth. The resource-receiving generation knows it will never get to wallow in its turn unless it can create nostalgia-material of its own, out of any innovations except the immediately preceding set.

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