Without a title

Machine language

George Eliot: "Suppose that the effort which has been again and again made to construct a universal language on a rational basis has at length succeeded, and that you have a language which has no uncertainty, no whims of idiom, no cumbrous forms, no fitful shimmer of many-hued significance, no hoary archaisms `familiar with the forgotten years' -- a patent de-odorized and non-resonant language, which effects the purpose of communication as perfectly and rapidly as algebraic signs. Your language may be a perfect medium for the expression of science, but will never express life, which is a great deal more than science. With the anomalies and inconveniences of historical language, you will have parted with its music and its passion, with its vital qualities as an expression of individual character, with its subtle capabilities of wit, with everything that gives it power over the imagination; and the next step in simplification will be the invention of a talking watch, which will achieve the utmost facility and dispatch in the communication of ideas by a graduated adjustment of ticks, to be represented in writing by a corresponding arrangement of dots. A melancholy `language of the future'! The sensory and motor nerves that run in the same sheath, are scarcely bound together by a more necessary and delicate union than that which binds men's affection, imagination, wit, and humour, with the subtle ramifications of historical language. Language must be left to grow in precision, completeness, and unity, as minds grow in clearness, comprehensiveness, and sympathy. And there is an analogous relation between the moral tendencies of men and the social conditions they have inherited. The nature of European men has its roots intertwined with the past, and can only be developed by allowing those roots to remain undisturbed while the process of development is going on, until that perfect ripeness of the seed which carries with it a life independent of the root."

Machine language

Sainte-Beuve: "Cette manière d'écrire pourrait presque s'apprendre à un automate perfectionné: on ferait une machine à rhétorique, comme Pascal a fait une machine arithmétique."


We all know examples of British inventions better exploited abroad. That they were invented here must be in large part to the credit of Higher Education. That they were not exploited here (or so would-be reformers imply) is somehow to the discredit, not of the high-grade managers / civil servants / politicians who between them were responsible for the management of innovation, but of Higher Education, which didn't turn enough reasonably competent managers / civil servants / politicians.

Did it even produce enough competent (or at least confident) reformers of Higher Education? Here at least there seems to be no shortage of experts: no reform could improve on that pass-rate. Except that the management of educational reform needs the same qualities as the management of technological innovation, and we are back where we started.

Who can teachers blame for all this but ourselves? It's not so much the incompetence as the combination of incompetence and armour-plated self-assurance which is lethal -- Coleridge's `unquiet & insolent Positiveness' which is `the infallible symptom, because the necessary effect, of inward Uncertainty.' Whose is the responsibility for that, if not ours? Somehow there just wasn't class-time for planting the suggestion that armour-plated self-assurance is only the most revealing of symptoms.

Mathematics, language of

James Clerk Maxwell: "There are men who, when any relation or law, however complex, is put before them in a symbolised form, can grasp its full meaning as a relation among abstract quantities. Such men sometimes treat with indifference the further statement that quantities actually exist in nature which fulfil this relation. The mental image of the concrete reality seems rather to distort than to assist their contemplations.

But the great majority of mankind are utterly unable, without long training, to retain in their minds the unembodied symbols of the pure mathematician. [Some indeed] are not content unless they can project their whole physical energies into the scene. They learn at what a rate the planets rush through space, and they experience a delightful feeling of exhilaration. They calculate the forces with which the heavenly bodies pull at each other, and they feel their own muscles straining with the effort.

To such men momentum, energy, mass are not here abstract expressions of the results of scientific enquiry. They are words of power, which stir their souls like the memories of childhood.

For the sake of persons of these different types, scientific truth should be presented in different forms and should be regarded as equally scientific, whether it appears in the robust form and the physical colouring of a physical illusion, or in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolical expression."

J. B. S. Haldane: "[partialdiff]x/[partialdiff]t = k. [partialdiff]x2/[partialdiff]y2 means `it oozes'."

`God geometrizes.'

The sequence seems to be, rather:

1. We cogitate for millenia and come up with logarithms and logarithmic curves.

2. Another 250 years, and it dawns on us that snails and dahlias knew them already.

3. Eventually we come to see e as practically tautological, with `spiralliform' or `helicoid' scarcely more than synonyms for one prominent kind of growing-form.

4. This `discovery' is as much lexico-therapeutic as anything else. But that would be disturbing. Who could resist the combined benefits of (a) not having to modify our dictionary, and (b) evidence of a Cosmic Planner personally guaranteed by a professor of physics ?


The effort to understand sends out probes from humdrum-land, seeking increasingly un-humdrum contexts and perspectives, until one of them makes sufficient sense of the utterance. At one end of the scale we reject interpretations too obvious to have been worth saying. At the other end, there must always be a limit on how far to search in the circumstances. Or we say we do not understand; meaning that we've invested as much context-imagining as we can spare and have decided to cut our losses. Sometimes we probe further; but only if there is something about the utterance, or the utterer, to suggest exceptional credit-worthiness.

Alf sees disambiguation as the representative difficulty. He can always be relied on to see more meanings than he can handle. For Beth, the representative difficulty is finding one worthwhile meaning. What they are both evading is the meta-difficulty:

What counts as worth-entertaining isn't given once-for-all, but fights a continuing duel with recalcitrant circumstance. Not contemplating the possibility that her standards are inflated, Beth sometimes gives up too soon; Alf, for the opposite reason, not soon enough.

In homing in as best we can on the meaning, the words & the circumstances & the expectations all contribute, i. e. get in each other's way in their eagerness to help. We constantly relearn what counts for us as worthwhile expectations -- neither too loose nor too tight -- and that the expectations of others are different, and how to live alongside such people. You and I are on mutual trial, to see if we have about the same standard of what it is to be too expectable, or not expectable enough. Which is it to be? -- One more chance? or Goodbye?

Imaginary worlds are not a special case. Even on the third planet, catching the meaning is guesswork, i. e. imagination-work. The failure-rate is high, like perinatal mortality in fish.

The heart of the matter is disbelief in the unitariness of word- or sentence-meanings, constant alertness for the ravages of Tot nomina quot res.


It might help a little if we could learn to disregard the misleading hint in the word `meaningfulness,' and talk instead of `meaningsomeness.' Not yes-or-no and fixed, but more-or-less and not fixed. How much a text can come to mean is, in privileged cases we call the classics, acknowledged to be inexhaustible; and in other cases also? How much, if any, of our subsequent understandings the originator must be held responsible for doesn't seem to be of over-riding importance, even if the question were answerable. To utter is to renounce control, to start a perpetual-motion machine.

Meaningfulness can be acquired, or lost. Deciding when, in a given case, it was acquired or lost is not a problem to be approached with big boots. Yet some (says Watts Cunningham) presumptuously posit that the starting point is the need to establish "some criterion whereby the meaningful is to be distinguished from the meaningless, the desiderated criterion being formulable, so to say, by resolution in convention assembled. Thus the meaningful is assumed to be determinable by initial definition and, apparently, only by such definition. Any definition thus achievable can be formulated only at the behest of some set of epistemological presuppositions. Thus there is formidable reason to fear that, so long as the word meaning and its correlates are treated in theoretical discussion as if they were parts of a dolls' house within which the theorist is free to emulate the performance of Humpty Dumpty, just so long will they continue to play their traditional Mephistophelian rôle in philosophical debate -- promising clarity and precision, but actually darkening counsel by wrapping important assumptions in the veil of invisibility."

J. N. Findlay: "The teaching of meaning may, with some pardonable exaggeration, be said to be the use of inadequate indications to achieve the more or less doubtful communication of a sense whose subsequent application is itself always doubtfully correct."

S. Lem: "`But these words have no meaning !' `At the moment, no, but they will.'"

Distinguish (if you can) between reading the meaning of my text and reading a meaning into it -- between what it `says', what it suggests legitimately, and what it suggests illegitimately. I for my part will try to distinguish, in what it suggests to you, which parts I ought to decline either credit or responsibility for. Of course readers/authors/genres aren't all equally open to this. Let us hope that texts which aspire to suggest nothing beyond what they say find the readers they deserve.

A. C.Lloyd: "An expression may have to be used as though it were sense until it becomes sense."

J. S. Mill: "It is not true that the meaning of a sentence, is made up of the separate meanings of the words composing the sentence... The sum total includes all that we otherwise know of the objects which we find it necessary to name in order to convey a notion of that one matter of fact."


I take it we would all be better off if messages were more often couched for given hearers. But how to allow the variety implied in `couched' without risking inconsistency? Even before the question of inconsistency arises, the mere fact of varied expression is disturbing for some. And doesn't `couch' mean that the hearers' priorities are replacing the message-bringer's? It is they who are in some sense dictating the message, at least in part. These problems can only be resolved by trickery (of the most laudable kind). All the more astonishing that some message-bringers can, in a sort of multi-chess, address many kinds of hearer simultaneously, with equal success and without compromise, and without arousing resentment; or think they can.

What the message-bringer took to be the hearers' main concerns is often the clearest indicator of his own -- i. e. the essence of the message.

Every Message conveys a What (one message long) and a How (implicitly recommended for all messages) : `If you want to get on my wave-length you should send all your messages as I send you this one -- approximating to this style of argument, this much apparent readiness to make concessions, this degree of duly ambiguous deference, this point on the solemnity scale'

Every message is also a small ad looking for soul-mates: `Young-looking book-lover seeks &c.' I hope the advertiser understands that the phrases most calculated to attract some are also those most likely to nauseate others.


Some new metaphor gives its first breath to the nascent Idea. A lifetime later, the faint ghost of that long-dead figure still serves a purpose, floating over just those articulations in the now-senescent Idea which are most likely to be sclerosed.

We're paid to advance knowledge -- that is, to send expeditions to neighbouring territories to see if they're worth annexing. Advance is the archetypal imperial metaphor, outliving the political arrangements which once made it seem natural. Sooner or later most of those territories turn out to be more trouble than they're worth; but the warm glow shed by the metaphor, as of an unqualified good, delays the re-embarkation of our forces for a generation or two. Of course there were pickings at first, for some; later, and for others, unexpected bills, and lessons not quite applicable to the next repetition.

Complementarity -- a single item masquerading as two -- is a concept too sophisticated for many. We jib at the logical fallacy in any claim to have created recto first and verso second. But Man first and Woman second? Belief first and Doubt second? `I' first and `Thou' second? `first' first and `Second' second?

Where would constitution-framers be without their key metaphor, Balance? What sells the product is a reassuring overtone: Nothing is moving (or, touch wood, ever will). But in headlinese, the words `poised to' remind us how little separates stasis and catastrophe (in the René Thom sense). [I wouldn't have achieved this metaphor-prophylaxis (such as it is) without the help of colleagues whose persistent advocacy of life as a horse-race spurred me to work out a better bet.]

`But how can we build unless on true foundations ?' Say rather, how can you build on so inert a metaphor as foundations and building ? While masquerading as a way of saying no more than the uncontroversial `We must start somewhere', the foundational metaphor smuggles in boatloads of contraband implications -- as, that a human endeavour can only start in one place and in one way, and must start with the most indestructible bits we can find, which must all be squared off before anything else can happen, and are then buried out of sight.

I ask myself if I am doing enough good, in a tone which serves to distract from any possibility that I may be doing positive harm. Yet down at the bottom of the linen-basket is the knowledge that any action I take for the good of some will harm others. If (speaking purely speculatively) this very paragraph stimulates or liberates a few, it can only be at the certain cost of discouraging others, or reinforcing their distaste for liberation. What to do? All I can be sure of is that I will be equally fertile in finding ways of protecting my preference, whichever it is: -- to publish and be damned, or to use an evaluation-language which makes the downside as invisible as possible.

That the mind was a package of faculties was, not long ago, too obvious to question, for the dictionary said so. (The word survives, appropriately enough, only in the jargon of university administration.) Today language-ability comes in slices called `skills' -- another insight we owe to the psychologists, or the lexicographers.


R. Ruyer: "La distinction du problème et du mystère est-elle un problème ou un mystère? On peut faire une psychanalyse du marxisme, ou une analyse marxiste de la psychanalyse, tout comme on peut écrire une grammaire française en anglais, ou une grammaire anglaise en français. Mais on ne prétend pas pour cela que la langue-objet soit une `fausse' langue, et la méta-langue, dans laquelle est écrite la grammaire, une `cure' pour la langue-objet. Tandis que la théorie des théories déclare fausse la théorie-objet. Si bien que chaque théorie, pour survivre, doit se déclarer méta-théorie. La situation se complique lorsqu'un psychiatre, ou psychanalyste, est en même temps marxiste. Un tel homme paraît cruellement condamné au silence. L'expérience montre pourtant qu'il produit alors ouvrage sur ouvrage."


More than most, the teacher is tempted to exaggerate the rational part of his behaviour; more than most, daily experience reproaches him for doing so. We invest structure, as it was invested in us; the mismatch between the methodicalness of the input and the aleatoriness of the output has its funny side, when detected in the education we received; and also in that we impart?

Goethe: "Descartes fait et refait plusieurs fois son Discours de la Méthode. Cependant, tel que nous le possédons aujourd'hui, il ne peut nous être d'aucun secours."

Gaston Bachelard: "Au cours d'une carrière déjà longue et diverse, je n'ai jamais vu un éducateur changer de méthode d'éducation. Un éducateur n'a pas le sens de l'échec précisément parce qu'il se croit un maître. Qui enseigne commande. La relation psychologique de maître à élève est une relation facilement pathogène."

Charles Bally: "Une seule méthode compte, celle que les maîtres appliquent à eux-mêmes."

David Miller: "No methodology is `better suited for approximating the truth [...]'; for the simple reason that, to get near the truth, we need a great deal of luck. Talent and expertise may suffice for bright ideas; fruitful ideas, however, need luck as well. And `truthlike' ideas need stupendous luck (and talent too, no doubt). Without `truthlike' ideas to work on, no methodology will begin to approach the truth about the world. But no methodology can budget for luck. Nor can it take credit for lucky guesses obtained quite outside its sphere of influence. The task of methodology, really, is to treat in a sensible manner the guesses that inspiration provides for it."


Nothing is commoner in controversy, at the highest levels, than for one party to claim that the other party has misunderstood him. As the competence of the disputants improves, each becomes better at explaining why the other is at fault. So much skill goes to reprehending the other's lack of perspicacity, so little to acknowledging one's own lack of perspicuity.

The talk is all of understanding, never of misunderstanding. The silence is illuminating. One would have thought that misunderstanding was familiar enough, particularly to teachers -- far too familiar to be dismissed as a kind of personality defect (of the learner, of course).

To concede that it is uncertain whether I have understood your new idea quite as you hoped is to concede too little. It is certain that I won't understand it straight off, but may in time:

`I have made it abundantly clear,' says the politician. Teachers are more cautious, but privately think the same. They understand with fine discrimination whether the feedback they get from students is a sign of understanding or misunderstanding. Is this the clear-sighted exchanging a glance of recognition across the crowded room? or the dim-sighted recognizing a kindred spirit who seems to be stumbling in all the same places -- those which others say they found smooth going?

To understand is to emerge unexpectedly from a tunnel of perplexity. To understand a proposition one passes, often at great speed, though a succession of misunderstandings. In its fullest form understanding has retrieved some of the misunderstandings which preceded it, and rehearses them often, looking for more, hoping to find a general lesson, or just getting its swing in the groove:

Yet for many teachers success in teaching is inversely proportional to the number of preliminary misunderstandings. Their students quickly learn to repress their misunderstandings -- i. e. no longer understand what it is to understand.

Misunderstanding is the norm. The achievement of understanding is harder than you thought, and is nothing without corroboration -- which is also harder than you thought, but itself worse than nothing unless constantly refreshed (which is hardest of all).

This brings us to something really worrying. It is too easy to give misunderstanding a bad name and hang it. Misunderstanding is not the same as incomprehension. From the misunderstander's end, what he has must count as a kind of understanding: for out of what you said he has constructed what he considers sufficient sense -- not what you intended, perhaps never exactly what you intended. That décalage, that succession of décalages alone keeps the use of language alive, and us with it. For one of those misunderstandings will replace what you thought you meant -- will be accepted (over your dead body) as clarifying your obscurities, setting your insight into better perspective, understanding your words better than you did yourself. It follows that no-one, not even you, can draw the line between understanding and misunderstanding your words. `Nous n'avons jamais fini de savoir ce que nous disons' (Alain).

Evidently this doesn't reduce the amount of understanding: quite the contrary. What we have is a sense mountain, like the butter mountain, growing higher by the minute while we try to decide which parts are not actually bad for you. High-tech is good at devising cheaper ways of storage, not quite so good at finding micro-needles in macro-haystacks.

Misunderstanding: to be sought. And if not found today, to be sought again tomorrow. I don't know whether what I say is `nothing but the truth' until I know what use you make of it; for that is sure to extend it to contexts in which I had not myself thought of placing it. Now that you draw my attention to that new context, I see that a little tailoring is called for -- taking in or letting out. But no-one can foresee every such context, and even now, between us, we have by no means exhausted them. Of course, all this fails if you do not play your part (perhaps through some misguided sense of courtesy), and falls short if you do not play it to the hilt.

The signs were clear enough, in retrospect, that the author did not share assumptions which I had supposed universal. Why then was I so slow to catch on? It took more than one push, against the inertia of not being able to imagine anyone's assumptions being really different from one's own, and then against the embarrassment at being caught that way yet again.

In a better language than English, the richly self-nutrient inseparability of the power-to-understand and the power-to-misunderstand would be tautological, not paradoxical.

Arnaldo Momigliano: "It remains difficult to separate what Vico misunderstood because he read from what he misunderstood because he did not read."

F.C.S. Schiller: "A transfer of meaning is always experimental, and generally problematic and inexact ."

Georges Gusdorf: "Une parole cache son auteur autant qu'elle l'exprime. A tout le moins, son sens n'est jamais donné; il faut le chercher, d'équivoque en équivoque, sans être sûr de réussir à le deviner."


To one proposing an educational innovation: You can't afford to give the impression, even for a moment, that you're getting your foot in the door, blinding with science, rattling on about magic ingredients like Curriculum-Design which naturally the taxpayer knows nothing of, but no modern home can afford to be without. For modernity is two-edged: the package you have to sell is a mixture of benefits and unknown side-effects, in untried proportions. Your spiel concentrates on the benefits, but there's a market out there for the opposite slogan -- `NEW! You'll wonder how you managed without our latest side-effects! Your old pain-in-the-butt taken in part exchange for our up-to-the-minute pain-somewhere-else.'

The last seduction is that of modernity: You and I are lucky enough to be moderns. History is about those not lucky enough to be moderns, and who got up to things we moderns are too nice to dream of doing, or too smart to suppose we could get away with (leaving foreigners out of consideration of course). In short, modern times are different, aren't they? We still have our disagreements, but the worst excesses of pre-modern times are simply not on -- not so much the malevolence and greed as the blinkered rigidity, which ise worse.

But to grow older is to have history come nearer. The monsters in question weren't, it turns out, all safely dead before we were born. Their paths crossed ours, when we were young, and then not so young. The modern begins to look less and less privileged, harder and harder to distinguish from the medieval.

But in that case, what institution, in pre-modern times, was more blinkered than Education? Whose defects, in retrospect, more monumental? Yet their modern equivalent (it is wise to conclude) is loose somewhere in this building. While we promote our pet reformlets, what Marianas rut are we still following?

However justifiable our pride at the breakthrough, we can't afford the name Modern Psychophantics: apart from looking silly on book-spines in twenty years, it stands self-condemned for smugness, on the edge of implying that past work is a dead letter and future work pre-empted. Superciliousness towards predecessors and successors is of a piece: the mark of the upstart.

George Meredith: "My objection to `Modern' is that in English, and to English minds, the slightest stress on the word, if it is not partly intended for ironical, has the effect of inviting irony."


Given that we are practising, and given the true scale of what we are practising for, other requirements follow, such as a becoming modesty of tone. This would be easier to acquire if more of it had been shown by the middlemen. Conversely you might think that in passing from A's classic text to B's interpretation to C's survey to D's lecture there would be a decline in assertiveness and an increase in humility, did not daily experience demonstrate the converse.

The appropriateness of modesty, in the 'prentice commentator's case, no-one knows better than he. Yet his teachers seem to be conspiring, together with certain manic urges within himself, to push him ever further towards immodesty. `Surely they can't have failed to notice how wide the credibility gap is already? Why are they trying to make me lose touch with the bench-mark of my self-assessment -- without which all the rest will feel manufactured?'

Diderot: "Il serait à souhaiter qu'on parlât moins affirmativement, surtout des points particuliers et des conséquences éloignées, et qu'on ne les attribuât qu'à ceux dans les écrits desquels on les trouve. [Mais] le commun des gens de lettres ne s'accommode pas des expressions suspendues, non plus que le peuple. Ils aiment les affirmations générales et universelles, et le ton hardi d'un docteur fait dans leur esprit le même effet que l'évidence."

Diderot, again: "Les bons esprits trembleront de décider, et les autres auront reçu, en dédommagement, le plaisir de l'affirmative."

Keats: "Dilke was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts."

Thomas Moore: "`Furiosa res est in tenebris impetus;' a little modesty, in unbelief as well as belief, best becomes us."

Stuart Hampshire: "The first virtue, in any enquiry, is respect for existence and for its variety. If this modesty is not taught in universities ... concern for truth will nowhere survive."

The words modestly omitted here are: `and by philosophers'.


Donne: "Why Puritans make long sermons? I think they do it out of a zealous imagination, that, It is their duty to Preach on till their Auditory wake."

Emerson: "[The concomitants of eloquence are] volubility, a loss of perception of the passage of time, a selfish enjoyment of the sensation, and loss of perception of the suffering of the audience."

Henry Crabb Robinson: "I heard Emerson's first lecture on the Laws of Thought. I could not keep awake."

Oliver Wendell Holmes sr: "It does seem as if perpetual somnolence was the price for listening to other people's wisdom."

J. R. Lowell: "There is something disheartening in being expected to fill up not less than a certain measure of time, as if the mind were an hour-glass, that need only be shaken and set on one end or the other, as the case may be, to run its allotted sixty minutes with decorous exactitude."

In the end the indecency of monologue exposition, in matters of serious reflection, is that it hogs the adrenalin.

Mot juste

Oliver Wendell Holmes sr: "If you have seen a cat picking her footsteps in wet weather, you have seen the picture of Emerson's exquisite intelligence, feeling for its phrase or epithet, -- sometimes I think of an ant-eater singling out his insects, as I see him looking about and at last seizing his noun or adjective, -- the best, the only one which would serve the need of his thought."

Multiple personality

Society pays, and for its money doesn't ask much -- only that you reconcile its incompatible demands on you: such as, that you should both conform and innovate. Or, that you should fill every minute with planned activity, and also steal moments of disinterested silence, to hearken to some of the many voices that make up that other society of your various selves. That population is quite heterogeneous enough to support its own psephology. Just as much as the outer one it must learn to accommodate its differences in some light-reined unity. No single voice can claim overriding privilege, or avoid corruption if given it. None can safely be unacknowledged.

The prosecutor [in a case of sexual assault] suggested that the woman had 21 personalities, not all of which consented to sexual relations. NYT 10 Aug. 1990

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