Language is a bottomless resource, equally for the bold, the cautious, and the one masquerading as the other. It offers unending ways for further expression or repression, for stimulating or simulating insight, for setting ever-higher targets or rationalizing ever-lower ones.

Language as peau de chagrin. Talk has a price, in wear-and-tear of the lexicon. Maybe there should be a green tax on the reckless use of non-sustainable word-reserves ? Before publishing this I should ask myself whether it contributes more to the solution of a problem or to fatigue-failure in some Key Term.

Lady Welby: "We had better leave off talking of `gift' when speaking of language. Rather, we have painfully earned the possession of speech."

But the past tense, `we [i.e. our ancestors] have earned', (as if once for all) leaves language just as implausibly gift-like for their descendants.

John Holloway: "Language, that in the first place men made into an image and servant of their mind, may indeed have become the talking horse that sits beside the cabby, or kicks him off his perch."

Oliver Wendell Holmes sr: "This language is such a paltry tool! The handle of it cuts and the blade does n't.

Language, progress in

As language changes, propositions which were taken to be analytical, or synthetic, or logically necessary (etc.) may change category. The kind of understanding they call for could pass up or down the scale from stipulated/self-evident/simple to impenetrable or meaningless. Example: `Philosophy having introduced some change into the language, this passage [Revelations 4:11] became obscure.' (Michaelis)

Lapidary formulations

Lapidary formulations acquire meaning slowly, with much back-tracking, reconsideration, and increasing tolerance for inconsistency. Blind to this, Dr Soap labours to reconstruct the foundational statement on which some Great Book `logically' rests, and from which all its conclusions (purged of the notorious inconsistencies) could have been derived, if only the Great Author had been less prolix. He offers this quintessence to his students, expecting their gratitude, and (to judge by their eagerness to write it down) getting it. He even asks them to write an Essay, reporting that they confirm his insight: Homo homini lupus, Discuss; All power saponifies, Discuss.


To achieve their goals political leaders need the support of those who might not be able to work up the necessary motivation if the true complexities of the situation were laid out -- complexities like: ` The outcome is desirable but not so certain as the cost.' Or `I ask for unqualified support for these policies but do not expect the benefits from them to be equally unqualified.' Leadership entails encouraging in the led a level of confidence higher than the leader's own.

Politicians know, better than many of their constituents, that blessings don't come unmixed, that a less-than-free lunch may be better than no lunch at all. Also that `better than' hardly ever means `unquestionably better than'; yet the balance tips as far with a marginal difference as with a large one.

To encourage others in an exaggerated belief beneficial to oneself (or even to allow them to continue in such a belief) is indistinguishable from lying, for some ivory-tower moralists. The real world seems to regard such behaviour with an admiration not much diminished even when the policy carried through by such means turns out to be disastrous.

This much is fairly common ground; we differ only in contemplating it with distaste or admiration. The only point of rehearsing it is to suggest that in this respect the politician's efforts to persuade are no different from those of the preacher or pedagogue. All three are, in principle, smarter than their flock; all are equally constrained by what their audience can live with. In all three the situation arises, without anyone consciously intending it, in which the persuader seeks to maintain in the persuadees a degree of certainty untroubled by the subtleties which qualify his own credo; and moreover is convinced that this is for their own good.


It seems self-evident? -- learning must start with the perfectly straightforward, but has somehow to manage a transition, sooner or later, to the complex, the untidy, the no-longer-simplified. But the management of the transition is sure to be tricky, and might be traumatic: `A good basic education in the established principles is only half the training of a proper scientist. The longer this is drawn out, the more difficult it becomes to learn the other half -- how to do research.' (J. M. Ziman)

Soon this turns into a dilemma so intolerable that one or other of its equally reasonable halves has to be abandoned -- that is to say attacked with all the vigour of the recent convert, still trembling from his own narrow escape.

There are two ways out of the dilemma. We can play down the second half, replacing `complex and untidy' by the chutzpa-phrase `not fully understood' -- as if the residue needed for its solution were only a little more, and of the same. This would make the transition barely perceptible, wouldn't it?

Or we can assert that the perfectly-straightforward learning-target is an illusion, and that learning-targets should begin as they mean to continue -- smaller in scale but realistically complex from the outset. This too makes the dilemma go away -- to be replaced by the problem of finding something which combines the realistic with the simple.

Perhaps it is not the acquisition but the correction of learning which is fundamental? As with political constitutions, starting in the right place matters less than having a lively correction-process. If so, to follow the verb `learn' with an incorrigible predicate would be positively ungrammatical; and the only things which we could properly be said to learn are epistemologically self-conscious. This would entail changing the standard metaphor for learning: we see further through standing not on the shoulders of our predecessors but on the deep-piled husks of what we once counted as our own most meritorious achievements.

Or perhaps there is only one thing which we can properly be said to learn: the open-ended meaning of the verb To Learn.

What one learns by one's mistakes can't be learned any other way. What one learns by one's successes is only the confidence to make new mistakes to learn by.

It's only in a caricatural version that `scientists', seeing new evidence, change their mind as one might change one's socks. The reality is of course more painful. There's more resistance which is hard to explain in retrospect, because it involves learning something about ourselves, about our naïveté in expecting too much, about our weakness in needing too much, and ultimately about the fragility of beliefs which have to be buttressed by such exaggerated expectations and needs.

If a tradition understands itself the better for being challenged, shouldn't it be grateful for the challenge?

We learn a few things by timetable, from an appointed teacher; more by self-initiated enquiry, from someone we choose to ask; and most of all alone, and by accident.


Saussure tried his hardest not to assert prematurely, not to clog the libraries: "J'ai une horreur maladive de la plume. Quand il s'agit de linguistique, cela est augmenté pour moi du fait que toute théorie claire, plus elle est claire, est inexprimable en linguistique; parce que je mets en fait qu'il n'existe pas un seul terme quelconque dans cette science qui ait jamais reposé sur une idée claire, et qu'ainsi entre le commencement et la fin d'une phrase, on est cinq ou six fois tenté de refaire."

But he was outwitted by the helvetic determination of his students. Against the student who keeps his lecture-notes for fifty years there is no defence.

Alain: "Les cours magistraux sont temps perdu. Les notes prises ne servent jamais."

T. H. Huxley: "What, after all, were the original manuscripts of the "Historia Animalium" [of Aristotle] ? If they were notes of Aristotle's lectures taken by some of his students, any lecturer who has chanced to look through such notes would find the interspersion of a foundation of general and sometimes minute accuracy, with patches of transcendent blundering, perfectly intelligible."

Coleridge: "The day of the lecture, till the hour of commencement, I devote to the consideration, what of the mass before me is best fitted to answer the purposes of a lecture -- i. e. to keep the audience awake and interested during the delivery, and to leave a sting behind."

Kipling: "Lectures on the Chautauqua stamp I have heard before. People don't get educated that way. They must dig for it, and cry for it, and sit up o' nights for it; and when they have got it they must call it by another name or their struggle is of no avail."

Emerson: "Are not Lectures a kind of Peter Parley's story of Uncle Plato, and a puppetshow of Eleusinian Mysteries? In these Lectures I seem to vie with the brag of Puck `I can put a girdle round about the world in forty minutes.' I take fifty."

Kierkegaard: "The lecture will try as far as possible to make everything present, if possible, to convey the impression to you that at one and the same time you have the most contradictory thoughts. Therefore it will not have the simplicity of the more strictly academic lecture, which has a definite place for the discussion of each particular point, about which there is no discussion before or after.

No, the lecture will constantly, if I dare say so, be haunted by the memory of what was said on other points; the reflections will constantly traverse the points at issue in order to call to mind the past and the future, in order to maintain, if possible, the impression that everything is present at one and the same time. The intention, of course, is not that I shall incessantly persist in mishmashing all the individual terms together tumultuously or kaleidoscopically so that there is no logical place in the sequence where each concept finds its more exact and detailed development; the intention is only that every point will, if possible, carry the marks of what is said on other points. Nothing (even after its detailed presentation) is to be regarded as entirely finished to the extent that there should be no more discussion or recollection of it; on the contrary, the references to it will directly or by contradiction endeavour to call it to mind and in any case, the manner in which the next point is discussed will, if possible, be an indirect discussion of that which is completed."

Faraday: "Lectures which really teach will never be popular; lectures which are popular will never really teach."

Theodore Parker: "I remember with horror, that I used to sit, and see and hear the professor at Cambridge turn his mill. He was very conscientious; we also. He thought he was teaching; we that we were learning. It was neither one nor the other."

Thoreau: "That was a more pertinent question which I overheard one of my auditors put to another once, -- `What does he lecture for?' It made me quake in my shoes."

The usual answers to Thoreau's question are:

Henry Sidgwick: "I have only in view the élite of academic students: the intelligent and industrious youth, who have been trained from childhood in the habit of deriving ideas from books, and are able and willing to apply prolonged labour and concentrated attention to the methodical perusal of books under the direction of their teachers. My remarks have no reference the class of -- so-called -- academic students who require the discipline of schoolboys. It may be necessary to drive these latter into lecture-rooms in order to increase the chance of their obtaining the required instruction somehow. I say "increase the chance" because it is by no means certain that young people of this turn of mind will actually drink of the fountain of knowledge, even if they are led to it daily between 10 A. M. and 1 P. M. But the compulsion may, no doubt, increase the chance of their imbibing knowledge, since it is difficult to find amusement during a lecture which will distract one's attention completely from the lecturer; although I have known instances in which the difficulty has been successfully overcome by patient ingenuity."

Kierkegaard, again: "The fact of the matter is that there ought not to be teaching; what I have to say may not be taught; by being taught it turns into something entirely different. What I need is a man who does not gesticulate with his arms up in a pulpit or with his fingers upon a podium, but a person who gesticulates with his entire personal existence, with the willingness in every danger to will to express in action precisely what he teaches. An assistant professor, that is, someone with seventeen concerns, wants to have a paid occupation, wants to get married, wants to be well thought of, wants to satisfy the times, etc. What I have expressed, when delivered in a lecture by such a professor, becomes eo ipso something entirely different. Precisely this is the profound truth in all modern teaching, that there is no notion at all of how thought is influenced by the fact that the one presenting it does not dare to express it in action, that in this very way the flower of the thought or the heart of the thought vanishes and the power of the thought disappears. It is true that if I died at this moment, I certainly couldn't prevent it being taught. But if I keep the enterprise pure as long as I live, I give the tension which may possibly affect the awakening of someone or other."

Left & right

Between Progressives and Conservatives, outside their respective lunatic fringes, the issue, in many instances, is less one of ultimate objectives than is often supposed. Both are of course agreed on the necessity of a Leadership, smallish in comparison with the generality of those requiring to be led. They are also agreed on the undesirability of two extremes: of innovation under-managed or over-managed, indefinitely postponed or instant, -- of the body politic perishing either from starvation or gavage. `As fast as practical' is their common slogan. All that separates them is their respective estimates of the proper rate for the acceptance of innovation. It follows that their debates are often less a clash of principles than they are made to appear. The merits or demerits of the current proposal matter less than a shared interest in devices (such as opinion-polls) for monitoring the rate of digestion, and in not allowing the reading of those devices to be over-ruled by wishful thinking. Since both sides agree that `As fast as practical' is best, both are equally interested in the rhetorical devices by which the inertial mass is nudged in the right direction; and both are conscious that inertial masses are just as hard to brake as they are to start. And finally, on the subject of their own lunatic fringes, their sense of kinship is positively heartfelt.

Of course the measuring devices leave plenty of room for the exercise of principled wishful thinking of one kind or the other.

Most of us agree that we must learn to combine appeal-to-altruism and appeal-to-egotism (neither of them safe unadulterated, neither with a monopoly of extremely painful exaggerations), and disagree `only' in the direction we think the current mix should be adjusted.

Henry Crabbe Robinson: "Southey said that he and Coleridge were directly opposed in politics. He himself thought the last administration (Whigs) so impotent that he could conceive of none worse, except the present, while Coleridge maintained the present ministry to be so corrupt and dishonest that he thought it impossible there could be worse except the late."

E. M. Cioran: "Le désespoir de l'homme de gauche est de combattre au nom de principes qui lui interdisent le cynisme."

Letter & spirit

There was once an undergraduate who became depressed, threatened to commit suicide, but instead locked himself in his room with two barrels of beer and didn't come out until he'd finished them.

This story has obvious mythoepic elements. But this only improves the moral: What he did was let himself have both barrels. The commitment must be honoured, but the letter of it will do.

There are other ways. One of them is literal: putting it in writing reinforces the commitment in one style, and escapes it in another; for it can be in quotation marks. So Goethe writes Werther as a way of sweating out what would otherwise be a suicidal fever (and is not a little proud of having found that cure). But now the infecting agent is at large, dividing and redividing with every roll of the press. The author saves himself, but starts an epidemic: all over Europe, chairs are kicked away. Should it not have bothered him? He did his best to make the hero's silliness obvious -- pushing it as far as he could, for the benefit of less perceptive readers, even at the cost of losing readers as sophisticated as himself. But there was also another category of readers below the minimum necessary perceptiveness, who took it all at face value, acting Werther in their fantasies, and sometimes in reality. They say Goethe was `embarrassed' to hear of these,-- an understatment, one hopes. Did he feel guilty ? Did he at least learn a lesson ? If so, what was it?

Lexical subversion

The verb `believe' can only take static predicates. Thus does the wand of Grammar, in the right hands, make our dilemmas disappear, or prevent them from appearing in the first place. If, however, you are deeply attached to your well-loved insolubilities and don't want them hygienically disposed of by a benevolent State, how do you recapture the terminology and turn its guns around? Such lexical subversion needs a smokescreen, and fast footwork.

Example: Emerson talks of the Believer as one who will if necessary meet his need for more beliefs by jettisoning bits of old ones. Needing (in consequence) a name for the other party -- the one who needs there to be no increase or diminution in the list of his beliefs -- he insinuates the most subversive name he can think of:

"It is a question of temperament. The last class must needs have a reflex or parasitic faith; not a sight of realities, but an instinctive reliance on the seers and believers of realities. The manners and thoughts of believers astonish them and convince them that these must have something which is hid from themselves. But their sensual habit would fix the believer to his last position, whilst he as inevitably advances: and presently the unbeliever for love of belief burns the believer."


A M. le conseiller d'Etat, directeur-général de l'Imprimerie. Paris, le 15 juillet 1810

Monsieur et cher collègue,

Vous désirez savoir à quelle époque fut prohibé la vente d'une édition du Dictionnaire du sieur Boiste, homme de lettres et imprimeur à Paris, et quelles sortes de mesures furent prises relativement à cette édition.

Au mois de germinal an XIII, mon collègue, chargée du deuxième arrondissement de la police générale de l'empire, me prévint que dans le département de la Meurthe on vendait un ouvrage ayant pour titre: Dictionnaire universel de la langue française, et Manuel d'orthographe et de néologie, deuxième édition, où se trouvait l'article suivant:

`SPOLIATEUR, s.m., spoliator, qui dépouille, qui vole, SPOLIATRICE, s.f.... Buonaparte.'

Cette édition, avouée par le sieur Boiste qui en était l'éditeur, contenait effectivement cet article. Je la fis mettre sur-le-champ sous les scellés. Le sieur Boiste déclara qu'il n'avait ajouté le nom de Buonaparte à l'article en question, que parce que le mot spoliatrice était neuf, qu'il était de l'empereur, et que Sa Majesté l'avait employé en parlant de l'Angleterre. Il fit observer, au surplus, qu'il existait dans le même Dictionnaire six autres mots nouveaux qui étaient de Sa Majesté, et qu'à chaque article on avait également ajouté le nom Buonaparte.

Cette explication parut satisfaisante, et il fut constant que le sieur Boiste n'avait point eu de mauvaise intention. En conséquence, Son Excellence le ministre de la police générale décida, le 9 germinal an XIII, sur mon rapport du même jour, que les scellés seraient levés, qu'il serait fait un carton à l'endroit indiqué, à cause des étrangers et même des Français qui ne connaissaient pas ce que c'est que néologie. Le carton fut fait de suite, et l'ouvrage qui paraissait depuis l'an XI fut remis dans la circulation.

Recevez, monsieur le comte et cher collègue, la nouvelle assurance de ma haute considération et de mon inviolable attachement.

Le conseiller d'Etat, préfet de police, comte de l'empire,



How little like-mindedness is ensured by the most enthusiastic acceptance of common slogans !

William Hazlitt: "Does anyone suppose that the love of country in an Englishman implies any friendly feeling or disposition to serve another bearing the same name?"


Thinking can't help being untidy and pluralistic. Exposition has pretensions to tidiness and linearity, and is constantly scrubbing and polishing. But something remains, even with the obsessively neat. The choice is not whether to leave traces or not, but only between seeking to, being content to, and being resigned to leaving traces: between adding, not deleting, and incompletely deleting. Empathy detects these traces, and the attempts to eliminate them, and the failure of those attempts, and is drawn closer to the writer by all three.

Exposition is the art of tying one-dimensional knots.

Literary criticism

In a court of law or outside it, we may disbelieve the witness's claim to have seen Cock Robin, if he sounds untrustworthy. For some reason it's harder to concede that `I believe' may be said untrustworthily: the words are almost a performative. The paradigm case is Descartes: `I started by doubting everything'. Peirce replies: `I don't believe you -- on stylistic grounds: to start that way must be far harder than, to judge by your tone, you appreciate' [I paraphrase, very freely]. What makes this paradigmatic is that the tools used here are literary ones, in the most everyday sense of that word. It took no advanced expertise, but rather the courage to rely on the elementary -- even though Peirce himself didn't see it that way: `As for the phrase "studying in a literary spirit" it is impossible to express how nauseating it is to any scientific man, yes even to the scientific linguist.'

Renan: "Le malheur de M. Auguste Comte est d'avoir un système et de ne pas se poser assez largement dans le plein milieu de l'esprit humain, ouvert à toutes les aires de vents. Pour faire l'histoire de l'esprit humain il faut être fort lettré. Les lois étant ici d'une nature très délicate et ne se présentant point de face comme dans les sciences physiques, la faculté essentielle est celle du critique littéraire, la délicatesse du tour (c'est le tour d'ordinaire qui exprime le plus), la ténuité des aperçus, le contraire, en un mot, de l'esprit géométrique."

Little learning

John Wilson: "Mullion.I agree with Mr Tickler,

A little learning is a dangerous thing,

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

Shepherd. Oh, man, Mullion! but you're a great gowk! What the mair dangerous are ye wi' your little learning? There's no mair harmless creature than yoursel, man, amang a' the contributors. The Pierian spring! What ken ye about the Pierian spring? Ye never douked your lugs intill't, I'm sure. Yet, gin it were onything like a jug o' whisky, faith, ye wad ha'e drank deep aneuch -- and then, dangerous or no dangerous, ye might ha'e been lugged awa' to the Poleesh-office, wi' a watchman aneath ilka oxter, kickin' and spurrin' a' the way, like a pig in a string. Haud your tongue, Mullion, about drinkin' deep, and the Pierian spring. In like manner, you micht say a little licht's a dangerous thing, and therefore shut up the only bit wunnock in a poor man's house, because the room was ower sma' for a Venetian! Havers! havers! God's blessings are aye God's blessings, though they come in sma's and driblets."

T. H. Huxley : "If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?"

Back to Contents