Talking to grown-ups

De Quincey: "[She] was a stern lady, and austere, not only in her manners, which made most people dislike her, but also in the character of her understanding and morals -- an advantage which made some people afraid of her. Me, however, she treated with unusual indulgence, chiefly, I believe, because I kept her intellectuals in a state of exercise, nearly amounting to persecution.

She was just five times my age when our warfare of disputation commenced, I being seven, she thirty-five; and she was not quite four times my age when our warfare terminated by sudden separation, I being then ten, and she thirty-eight. This change, by the way, used greatly to puzzle me; the natural inference seemed to be that, in a few years, I should not be younger at all, but might come to be the older of the two; in which case, I should certainly have `taken my change' out of the airs she continually gave herself on the score of closer logic, but especially of longer `experience.' That decisive word `experience' was, indeed, always a sure sign to me that I had the better of the argument, and that it had become necessary, therefore, suddenly to pull me up in the career of victory by a violent exertion of authority. It was, however, only when very hard pressed that my fair (or, rather, brown) antagonist took this not fair advantage in our daily tournaments. Generally, and if I showed any moderation in the assault, she was rather pleased with the sharp rattle of my rolling musketry. Objections she rather liked, and questions as many as one pleased upon the pourquoi, if one did not go on to le pourquoi du pourquoi. That, she said, was carrying things too far: excess in everything she disapproved. Now, there I differed from her: excess was the thing I doted on. The fun seemed to me only beginning when she asserted that it had already `overstepped the limits of propriety.' Ha! those limits, I thought, were soon reached."


`Target' is a real thought-stopper of a word, inseparable from associations of finality, whether in success as the arrow strikes or in failure as it falls short. What we need instead is a metaphor which welcomes the tension between the end-defined and the process-defined (each destructive without the other).

'Carrot' one can at least imagine on the end of a stick, with ever-postponed finality. This may even work, with donkeys.

The best I can suggest, so far, is encouragement; for courage is what it takes, to acknowledge that the next step will mean unlearning part of what has been so recently and so painfully learned, little enough though that was, in all conscience. That the curriculum (whatever the subject) is going to be strenuous in this way is its least explicit and most important 'component.'

This supposes that encouragement can increase the amount of original or disposable courage. But can courage be taught? If not, the controversies about the limits of intellectual potential in the population, and what to do about the unfavoured, can be expressed equivalently in terms of boldness-potential. What are our responsibilities towards the courage-deprived (ci-devant cowardly)? After all, it may be society's fault, etc.

Michael Oakeshott: "How does a pupil learn disinterested curiosity, patience, honesty, exactness, industry, concentration and doubt? How does he acquire a sensibility to small differences and the ability to recognize intellectual elegance? How does he come to inherit the disposition to submit to refutation? How does he not merely learn the love of truth and justice, but learn it in such a way as to escape the reproach of fanaticism? And beyond all this there is something more difficult to acquire: namely, the ability to detect the individual intelligence which is at work in every utterance."


OED: "Teacher's node (Path.), name given to a chronic inflammation of the vocal chords."

What we need is a taxonomy of pedagogical activities classified not according to varieties of objective or format but according to ploys of teacher-defensiveness, devices for defusing innovation, manoeuvres for bottling old practice under the latest label. Certainly the categories of this taxonomy would be comfortably few.

Edgar Quinet: "Une seule chose s'était maintenue dans les collèges délabrés de l'Empire, la rhétorique. Elle avait survécu à tous les régimes, à tous les changements d'opinion et de gouvernement, comme une plante vivace qui naît naturellement du vieux sol gaulois; nul orage ne put l'en extirper."

Emerson: "Socrates is never forgetful of the cardinal virtue of a teacher to protect the pupil from his own influence."

William James: "Experience has taught me that teachers have less freedom of intellect than any class of people I know. A teacher wrings his very soul out to understand you, and if he does ever understand anything you say, he lies down on it with his whole weight like a cow on a doorstep so that you can neither get out or in with him. He never forgets it or can reconcile anything else you say with it, and carries it to the grave like a scar."

L. S. Kubie: "Teaching makes it easy to appear scholarly and to sound profound, and gradually to believe that one really has these qualities. The young teacher usually has too great an edge on his young audience for his own good; students have no way of gauging the adequacy of the experience which lies behind the teacher's words. Anyone who lives in an atmosphere where nobody can answer back, soon begins to feel omniscient, with the result that effective self-criticism is almost as rare among young teachers as it is among dictators and generals. Teaching encourages his vanity by giving him premature opportunities to teach theories which have never been tested."

I. A. Richards: "The speculative interest is often far stronger in the pupil than in teacher, who cannot afford to be too patently out of his depth."

A. N. Whitehead: "The schoolmaster is in fact a missionary, the savages are the ideas in the child's mind; and the missionary shirks his main task if he refuse to risk his body among the cannibals."

E. Cope: "The brutal fact is, that in spite of over 2,000 studies, we have no objective criteria of what constitutes teacher competence."

Emerson: "What a luck in teaching! The tutor aims at fidelity, the pupils strives to learn, but there is never a coincidence, but always a diagonal line drawn partaking of the genius of the tutor & the genius of the pupil. This, when there is success, but that how capricious! Two precious madmen who cannot long conspire."

Edward Gibbon: "Nothing was neglected by the men of virtue and learning to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous."


What can those who set out to be teachers ask of one who sets up as their teacher? Do they wish to be treated otherwise than they hope to treat? Do they demand of their teacher no more than they think their future students justified in demanding of them? Will they try to avoid simultaneously blaming their students for not understanding and their own teacher for not being understandable ?

Conversely: What can I who set up as a teacher of teachers offer to my students? How dare I claim that my lessons will be strikingly persuasive when retailed, unless they are strikingly persuasive from my lips? How can I hope to be even semi-persuasive with a plea for a whole spectrum of techniques if that spectrum excludes the technique used to make the plea? Or should I draw attention to my own technique (and its limitations) while contra-indicating such openness lower down the line?

There is something odd here. I would not be saying this if I were not optimistic (`Something can be done.'), but would not deserve to hold your attention if I were not at the same time realistic (`Something doable isn't being done.') I can earn a hearing (if at all) only by my analysis of deafness -- the student's and the profession's.

This is addressed to those who already, with no more indication than these hints, know what I am talking about -- who remember uncomfortably that on this or that occasion they could not wait for their conviction to mature.

The first function of a teacher is to speak of a text in such a way as to make the hearer eager to read it. The trick can be done in a sentence, and as easily undone if the teacher doesn't resist the temptation -- or is it a legal requirement? -- to keep talking till rescued by the bell.


Reasons for being terrified:

How to maintain the courtesies of debate without buttoning the foils ?

The ingredients of Teaching are a mixed bag:

But I need a better metaphor than `bag', for the ingredients can't be separated. For example: to offer an explanation is also to invite imitation of one view of what counts as explanation; and a lecture-room is itself a more than passable imitation of a deep end.

An alternative metaphor, which suits a certain kind of teacher and student, is that of components, or stepping-stones. The model is Euclid, where no one step is specially difficult, and the teacher earns his keep by seeing to it that every stone is in place by the time you need to trust your weight to it. Of course not every curriculum can be completely Euclidized (not even Euclidean geometry); but it's one thing to know this and another to resist all temptations to overdo Euclidizability.

This approach often works; rather more often, it is remembered as what worked. But since no step is specially difficult, ultimate failure to arrive must be the fault not of the `course' but of the pupils, or the teachers, or the parents, or the Gummint. This can end up as a machine for converting system-criticism into group-blame.

There is another side-effect of this approach. It makes the notion of what constitutes a unit in the curriculum seem unarguable, as also the reasons for not dropping any of them. Once the details are worked out, there really isn't much need for change, except to lengthen the sequence every few years and accelerate the steps proportionately. The teacher's role is clear: to expound, and to ensure that practice gets done; the student's role (for there is always collusion) is to feel resentful if anything different is done. Nor is there much doubt about what counts as having been trained. It is pleasant to have one's merit clearly and unalterably defined in this way; and after all something must be done to keep out the cowboys. But the price is that someone is sure to say `Is that it?' The more clear-cut the job-description, the more all-and-only is the range of duties. This state of affairs isn't easily reconciled with higher esteem. `Couldn't the job be computerized ? Why should we pay you when Euclid did it all?'

There is also an antithetical approach which is wary of anything too clear-cut, and assumes that a large part of real-life understanding, even when simplified `for pedagogical purposes', is not Euclidizable. There is still, for all but followers of Carl Rogers, a place for exposition, but what really interests the good teacher is the multiplicity of devices he gets to provide -- a pluralism which in itself is one in the eye for Euclid.

The advantage of this approach is that it has a theory of error. Misunderstandings may be not evidence of inattention or thickness, but quite the opposite -- inevitable, legitimate, essential.

This approach too has a side-effect, oddly convergent with the earlier one. It relies less on rigorous, articulable, repeatable methods and more on improvisation reacting to the unforeseen, the chance-arisen, the unprecedented. But now the teacher appears not as One Who Understands or has `grasped the basic concepts', but in the rather different role of someone who isn't at all sure that `basic concept' is a useful let alone a basic concept, one who gets by without Understanding and would be embarrassed at the capital letter; one who isn't shackled to a lesson-plan. This teacher too might have trouble extracting money from tax-payers (`A teacher who doesn't Know! or only knows how towait!').

Of course the ability to home in on the cause of a misunderstanding, and to devise a cure, is rare, and deserves commensurate reward. Fortunately we don't have to rely on it being widespread. Cures happen, inexplicably for the most part; helped, it may well be, by a mysterious blend of intervention and non-intervention. Accepting that there is nothing sinful about that increases the chances of helping; anxiety and misplaced guilt can only lessen those chances.

Ernest Renan: "Les résultats positifs ne s'enseignent pas, ne s'imposent pas; ils n'ont aucune valeur s'ils sont transmis et acceptés de mémoire. Il faut y avoir été conduit, il faut les avoir découverts ou devinés d'avance sur les lèvres de celui qui les expose. Les propositions positives sont l'affaire de chacun; l'esprit seul est transmissible."

Seymour Papert: "We may have to develop quite new branches of mathematics with the special property that they allow beginners more space to romp creatively."

"Mr Southey [said his tutor], you won't learn anything by my lectures; so, if you have any studies of your own, you had better pursue them." DNB

Teaching style

Sigmund Koch: "We who are psychologists or humanists must become for a while not psychologists or humanists, but men. Let the teaching be a matter of men exploring the meanings of human experience, actions and artefacts at their most value-charged reaches, among men. Let the teacher be wiser, more able than the student to discriminate finely and value precisely within important segments of reality. Let him be admirable in that sense; if so, he can be articulate or bumbling, entertaining or ponderous, light-mannered or stiff, organized or disorganized, authoritarian or `hyper-palsy'; he can teach in the TV studio, the amphitheatre, the lecture hall, the seminar room, the atelier, or in bed: it will make no difference.

J. Tussman: "Differences in teaching style and practice are deep-seated, and they are usually supported, if questioned, by a theory of education. In a teacher of any experience to challenge them is to challenge him."

Technical terms

Walter Bagehot: "It will not do, if you are writing for the mass of men, even of educated men, to use words always in the same sense. Common words are so few, that if you tie them down to one meaning they are not enough for your purpose; they do their work in common life because they are in a state of incessant slight variation; meaning one thing in one discussion and another a little different in the next. If we were really to write an invariable nomenclature in a science where we have so much to say of so many things as we have in Political Economy, we must invent new terms, like the writers on other sciences. Mr. de Morgan said (in defence of some fresh-coined substantive): `Mathematics must not want words because Cicero did not know the differential calculus.' But a writer on Political Economy is bound -- not perhaps by Cicero -- but by his readers. He must not use words out of his own head, which they never heard of; they will not read him if he does. The best way, as we cannot do this, is to give up uniform uses -- to write more as we do in common life, where the context is a sort of unexpressed `interpretation clause,' showing in what sense words are used; only, as in Political Economy we have more difficult things to speak of than in common conversation, we must take more care, give more warning of any change, and at times write out the `interpretation clause' for that page or discussion, lest there should be any mistake. I know that this is difficult and delicate work; and all I have to say in defence of it is that in practice it is safer than the competing plan of inflexible definitions.

Any one who tries to express varied meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses, will find that his style grows cumbrous without being accurate, that he has to use long periphrases for common thoughts, and that after all he does not come out right, for he is half the time falling back into the senses which fit the case in hand best, and these are sometimes one, sometimes another, and almost always different from his `hard and fast' sense. In such discussions we should learn to vary our definitions as we want, just as we say, `let x, y, z mean' now this, and now that, in different problems; and this, though we do not always avow it, is really the practice of the clearest and most effective writers."

Locke: "Philosophy itself, though it likes not a gaudy dress, yet, when it appears in public, must have so much complacency as to be clothed in the ordinary fashion and language of the country, so far as it can consist with truth and perspicuity."

C. S. Peirce: "It is an indispensable requisite of science that it should have a recognized technical vocabulary, composed of words so unattractive that loose thinkers are not tempted to use them; and a recognized and legitimated way of making up new words freely when a new conception is introduced; and that it is vital for science that he who introduces a new conception should be held to have a duty imposed upon him to invent a sufficiently disagreeable series of words to express it.

It is good economy for philosophy to provide itself with a vocabulary so outlandish that loose thinkers shall not be tempted to borrow its words. Kant's adjectives `objective' and `subjective' proved not to be barbarous enough, by half, long to retain their usefulness in philosophy, even if there had been no other objection to them. The first rule of good taste in writing is to use words whose meanings will not be understood; and if a reader does not know the meaning of the words, it is infinitely better that he should know he does not know it."

Jonathan Swift: "I know not how it comes to pass, that Professors in most Arts and Sciences, are generally the worst qualified to explain their Meanings to those who are not of their Tribe: A common Farmer shall make you understand in three Words, that his Foot is out of Joint, or his Collar-bone broken, wherein a Surgeon, after a hundred terms of Art, if you are not a Scholar, shall leave you to seek. It is frequently the same case in Law, Physick, and even many of the meaner Arts. And upon this Account it is, that among hard Words I number likewise those which are peculiar to Divinity as it is a Science, because I observe several Clergymen otherwise little fond of obscure Terms, yet in their Sermons very liberal of all those which they find in Ecclesiastical Writers, as if it were our Duty to understand them; which I am sure it is not. And I defy the greatest Divine to produce any Law either of God or Man which obliges me to comprehend the meaning of Omniscience, Omnipresence, Ubiquity, Attribute, Beatifick Vision, with a thousand others so frequent in Pulpits, any more than that of Excentrick, Idiosyncracy, Entity, and the like. For a Divine has nothing to say to the wisest Congregation of any Parish in this Kingdom, which he may not express in a manner to be understood by the meanest among them. And this Assertion must be true, or else God requires from us more than we are able to perform. I will appeal to any man of Letters, whether at least nineteen in twenty of those perplexing Words might not be changed into easy ones, such as naturally first occur to ordinary Men, and probably did so at first to those very Gentlemen who are so fond of the former."


Yesterday the word `techniques' came up again, in a tone, and with sage nods, that implied self-evident Good-Thingness. There is great pressure not to challenge such ploys (and a corresponding temptation to exploit such suggestibility in others); but there is nothing self-evident here.

A variant of `techniques' on a larger scale is `disciplines'. But how, apart from defence of their patch, can disciplines justify the claim to real distinctiveness implicit in the use of the word? The grounds for such a claim cannot lie in any monopoly of modes of reasoning or representation. The magic words convey just the right combination of `I am important' and `I am mysterious' -- the former on pay-day, the latter on tax-day.

`Techniques' cover all too wide a spectrum. When we have taken away terminology at the modest end, and entirely mysterious problem-perception and handling at the immodest end, is there any residue? Confounding the two ends under one label positively invites delusions that teaching the latter isn't much less straightforward than teaching the former.

If there is any candidate for near-technicity in my armoury, it hasn't been acquired by observing an admired practitioner at his bench, and certainly not by being exposed to methodical exposition; but indirectly, from a few admired pieces of published work not (apparently) concerned with matters methodological. Can it be that method is taught only by those not setting out to teach it, and learnt only by those not setting out to learn it ?

A. D. Scaglion: "A medieval manual was a teacher's tool directed to the instruction of future teachers, who would assimilate it and memorize it as part of their professional training. Hence the presentation was technical and `hard' even though the subject-matter was, in a sense, `elementary.' A humanist manual was, instead, a student's aid, hence necessarily easier to read, and the student was treated as a future citizen rather than a future tutor, teacher, or professional scholar."


Despite our reading in Geology, Astronomy, Cosmology few of us feel the Earth as other than rock-like, stable, sitting quietly in some very-long-stay galactic parking-lot. As few, or fewer, feel their language as less than rock-like,-- though they `know' it is shaky at the best of times and, in some epicentres, quite dangerous. Deep down, we rely on finishing that space-ship before Sol goes nova; but what is the linguistic equivalent of that escape ?

It seems obvious that our vocabulary (or set of labels available for classifying) gets better -- in some areas at least, and of course painfully (and not excluding the possibility that in other areas it may get or have got worse). But in that case the meaning of a key proposition like "Nature is everywhere and at all times the same" is not itself everywhere and at all times the same. This leaves room for odd alliances and odder enmities. It would be bad enough if those who agreed with it turned out, after allowing for meaning-variation, not to agree with each other. Worse, if those who disagreed with it turned out to agree with some who agreed with it.

They'll say of us, at best: `They did the best they could with a quite inadequate terminology, reflecting (or colluding with) a naive conceptualization'. Knowing that this will happen, and quite soon too, why do we nevertheless continue to assert so plonkingly?


You are conscious of all that stands between the intention and the utterance, between the utterance and its perception, between perception and interpretation, interpretation and understanding, understanding and assimilation -- each step with its own losses and its own gains -- and still you think you taught that p?

Yet the difficulties in saying what has been taught are as nothing compared to those in confirming that it has. For in assessing we apply our (manipulatively complex but conceptually inarticulate) rules for interpreting the reply to our test of having understood our explanation of our choice of crux.

Moreover the problem set for test must differ (in ways we would not specify if we could) from the problem expounded. The invitation to understand must resemble the ordeal, justifying only as much pride as there was danger and pain. The locus of confirmation is the unexpected -- questions unexpected by the testee, answers unexpected by the teacher. Only this can meet the latter's deepest hopes, and bring home the realization of what they were.

None of the teacher's real targets can be defined for the purposes of the British Standards Institute. If we try, we may start with tricky matters like Autonomy or Literacy, but end up testing for Use-of-apostrophes or Frequency-of-semicolons, scarcely able to believe our luck that these should be such reliable indicators.

The word for an incredibly simple and foolproof test for what would otherwise be too hard to detect is Shibboleth. The beauty of a Shibboleth is twofold: the right people can't possibly fail, and the wrong people can't possibly pass. It doesn't even have to be secret. Even if the Philistines knew all about it there's no way they could pass. Still, isn't there a risk that we might be compelled, by the total reliance we place on these tests, to admit, now and again, a testee who really isn't One of Us? -- or reject One who is?


"The theory of X" (e. g. the heliocentric theory, or Darwinism) is a seriously misleading expression. What we have is at best the X family or spectrum of theories. This range is wide enough to allow label-sharing (contemporaneous or not) to be mistaken for agreement, and for disproportionate credit for precision to accrue to Œforerunners¹ who may themselves have been all too conscious of unresolved ambiguities. With 'progress' the definitions are sharpened and the fuzzier ends of the spectrum quietly dropped (though not in any automatic or tidy manner). Issues once deemed crucial may come to seem premature or meaningless or dead-end (but even then they may be given a sort of post-life by those who need a whipping-horse). Through all this, the total amount of disputanda somehow remains undiminished. But now we need a version of the spectrum-metaphor that isn't two-dimensional, or indeed of any fixed number of dimensions. Through any number of re-definitions and changes of dimensionality, the X-label survives, serving as a long and ever fainter audit-trail for those with a taste for history.

is the theory.

A good deal depends on our slowness at working out the consequences of our theories. It enables us to call `corroboration' some scraps which we had all the time at the back of the drawer, without realizing it. We wouldn't want to deprive ourselves of occasions for corroboration merely by retrieving them prematurely, at a stage when they would only count as extra reasons for suggesting the theory in the first place.

Theories are occasionally refuted, but more often die from being rescued too often.

Some current Meta-Theorists recognize only two states: being a Theory, and not being one. No Meta-Theory so primitive is worth pursuing.

Evidently any occasion to use the word `theory' carries kudos (especially among those who have never contemplated the necessarily elusive nature of the beast). A meta-theory, as is only right, carries meta-kudos; and there is no reason to stop there.

On keeping theory in its place

We learn by successive attempts to put certain privileged experiences into words -- privileged in the sense that there always seems to be more to be learnt from them. The lessons we learn by reflecting on the history of those attempts we call our Theory.

Sometimes a turn of phrase, a technical term used by some theory from a different domain seems to help, by making a hook to hang some of that learning on. But there are dangers that may outweigh the benefit of such borrowing, and always a price to pay. They include:

-- mistaking the borrowed fragment for the theory.

-- or, if not that, then trying to fit all our learning into the language of the other domain, which must now be mugged up to the minimum level which colleagues will find impressive.

-- most of all, allowing the supposed demands of a domain which one has by definition less feel for to blur a crucial detail of our own privileged experience.

On the credit side: a great thinker's terminology may immediately suggest new ideas, or goad us into constructing something that will make sense of its obscurities. And of course there is always the gratifying tinge of reflected glory from that impressive name in the bibliography. On the debit side we must include what that reveals about those who deal in such gratifications.

No-one can understand any theory who hasn't had one (and preferably several) killed under him, and sees the new candidate in its proper light -- the phosphorescent light given off by the corpses of its predecessors.

WilliamEmpson: "We could not use language as we do, and above all we could not learn it as babies, unless we were always floating in a general willingness to make sense of it; all the more, then, to try to make a printed page mean something good is only fair. I have put in this tiny bit of theorising for fear that a reader may suspect I am working on some much wilder theory."

Lacknowski: "Elements of well-developed theories (things like the concept `idea') have little meaning except in the way they are related to other elements in the same theory. Thus, unless two theories are extremely similar, their elements have little more in common than the words used to refer to them." or Harman


Grenier: "Réfléchir, c'est toujours réfléchir sur un scandale. Et le scandale, philosophiquement, se nomme le vraisemblable."

Thinking before you speak

Spinoza: "I submit that the world would be much happier, if men were as fully able to keep silence as they are to speak. Experience abundantly shows that men can govern anything more easily than their tongues, and restrain anything more easily than their appetites. Thus an infant believes that of its own free will it desires milk, an angry child believes that it freely desires vengeance, a timid child believes that it freely desires to run away; further, a drunken man believes that he utters from the free decision of his mind words which, when he is sober, he would willingly have withheld; thus, too, a delirious man, a garrulous woman, a child, and others of like complexion, believe that they speak from the free decision of their mind, when they are in reality unable to restrain their impulse to talk.

Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined; and further, it is plain that the dictates of the mind are but another name for the appetites, and therefore vary according to the state of the body."

Rémy de Gourmont: "Les hommes sont loquaces. Pourquoi parlent-ils, la plupart du temps? Pour parler. Ainsi chantent les oiseaux. Voyez un paon. C'est une bête calme, quoique vaniteuse. Elle exécute lentement son petit tour de l'éventail, replie ses plumes, paraît méditer, puis tout à coup s'élance en grinçant comme une barrière. Qui saura pourquoi ce paon soudain parle? Et cet homme, pourquoi?"

Alain: "L'enfant dit avant de savoir ce qu'il dit. Ici se montre la magie originelle, qui consiste dans cette opinion, tant de fois vérifiée, que le sens des mots va bien au delà de ce que l'on comprend soi-même. L'on ne commence pas par dire ce qu'on pense, mais toute la pensée d'un homme au contraire est occupée à savoir ce qu'il dit."


Oliver Wendell Holmes sr: "I observe that a deep layer of thought sometimes makes itself felt through the superincumbent strata, thus:- The usual single or double currents shall flow on, but there shall be an influence blending with them, disturbing them in an obscure way, until all at once I say,- Oh, there! I knew there was something troubling me; and the thought which had been working through comes up to the surface clear, definite, and articulates itself, a disagreeable duty, perhaps, or an unpleasant recollection.

The inner world of thought and the outer world of events are alike in this, that they are both brimful. There is no space between consecutive thoughts, or between the never-ending series of actions.

Every event that a man would master must be mounted on the run, and no man ever caught the reins of a thought except as it galloped by him.

We may consider the mind, as it moves among thoughts or events, like a circus-rider whirling around with a great troupe of horses. He can mount a fact or an idea, and guide it more or less completely, but he cannot stop it. So, as I said in another way at the beginning, he can stride two or three thoughts at once, but not break their steady walk, trot, or gallop. He can only take his foot from the saddle of one thought and put it on that of another.

- What is the saddle of a thought? Why, a word, of course. Twenty years after you have dismissed a thought, it suddenly wedges up to you through the press, as if it had been steadily galloping round and round all the time without a rider."


What we hear is as much the witness as the evidence. Taking account of the tone of voice is as universal as it is legitimate. We find an argument suspect because of some mismatch between the substance and the manner of its assertion, and do so with some confidence because we can expect to know (even if we are beginners) more about people's little weaknesses than about the other properties of the universe. We know from domestic experience what it's like to be got at, and can detect the sound of axes being ground. We can tell, by its style, the article of faith, and the article of cynicism.

Conversely, being taught, by precept or example,to deprive oneself of any help one might get from attending to the humanness of a human opinion is likely to provoke (successively) discouragement, resentment, sit-ins.

A Theory may be advanced in any of at least three tones of voice: Parsonical (I know what the interpretation is); Masochistic (I am more refutable than thou); Conversational (Help me to say something about the range of interpretation under which this would become True, or False). Is this the same theory, variously garbed ?

My ipsissima verba have been repeated (in a tone that makes all the difference, though not captured in writing) by an embarrassing ally, or even a secret enemy, from whom it was surely my inescapable duty to strive to distinguish myself. Nothing can protect my words from all misintonation, but if I haven't been on constant alert for the possibility I carry a heavy responsibility.

Coleridge: "Even after a tenth or twentieth Letter I should still be disquieted as knowing how poor a substitute must Letters be for a vivâ voce examination of a Work with its Author, Line by Line. It is not in written words, but by the hundred modifications that Looks make, and Tone, and denial of the FULL sense of the very words used, that one can reconcile the struggle between sincerity and diffidence, between the Persuasion, that I am in the Right, and that as deep tho' not so vivid conviction, that it may be the positiveness of Ignorance rather than the Certainty of Insight. Then come the Human Frailties -- the dread of giving pain, or exciting suspicions of alteration and Dyspathy -- in short, the almost inevitable Insincerities between imperfect Beings."

Leigh Hunt, on Coleridge: "His voice did not always sound very sincere; but perhaps the humble and deprecating tone of it was out of consideration for the infirmities of his hearers, rather than produced by his own."

De Quincey, on Coleridge: "Never did any man treat his audience with less respect, or his task with less careful attention."

Lamb on Coleridge: "Many who read the abstruser parts of his `Friend' would complain that his works did not answer to his spoken wisdom. They were identical. But he had a tone in oral delivery, which seemed to convey sense to those who were otherwise imperfect recipients."

Training for Life J. Fitzjames Stephen: "Many of the habits and most of the qualities which have most to do with the success and happiness of mature life, though they may exist in youth, lie beyond the reach of educators -- and ... are called out by the events of manhood far more than by the education received in youth. In short, a man's character has in it infinitely more than his schools and schoolmasters put there... These are, of course, unwelcome reflexions to the whole generation of what, to use their own phraseology, must be called educationists, for they impose limits upon education, the existence of which educationists habitually neglect or deny... It is not the business of education to give to those who receive it a chart by which the course to be steered in life is indicated... The world of school and college is, and must be, to a great extent, a make-believe world ‹ constructed, with more or less ingenuity, to imitate the real world, but affording an inadequate and even misleading test as to the capacity of its inhabitants for usefulness and success outside it. Educators of every degree are naturally inclined to forget this... They assume, for the most part with little foundation, that they know what life is and how to prepare their students for it; whereas their own views are generally narrow and technical, and their opportunities for impressing them on their pupils limited. If they could reconcile themselves to the reflection that they have a limited task to perform ‹ that their most important duties are negative, and that the young birds whom they have hatched properly belong to, and will pass their lives in, an element of which they know comparatively little ‹ the education which they would give would be less pretentious and more useful... Hardly anything is so fatal to continuous mental growth as constant contact with immature minds. It is the intellectual equivalent of keeping low company. A person whose life is passed amongst children or boys can hardly be expected to avoid the blunder of supposing that the superiority of which he is continually made conscious is absolute, and not relative. The feeling that he has to be constantly setting them an example is almost certain to delude him into the belief that he has an example to set; whereas, in fact, his knowledge of life is often little wider, whilst his conjectures about it are less lively than those of his pupils..."


A sentence in a Mill manuscript of 1829 was transcribed by Harold Laski as: `He treated of assigned duties; i. e. the pervading principle of the laws of any country.' The 1988 editor reads: `He treated of l'esprit des lois; i. e. ...'.

A Coleridge annotation of Beaumont and Fletcher's The Prophetess is printed by the latest editor as: `A vulgar curiosity about -- not what is to happen next -- but about what the Witch will do next, whether Thunder or a Brimstone She Devil, or an Earthquake.' For this last word the previous editor had: `Earwigmaker'.


All worthwhile assertion is dangerous, writing under a dictatorship of the status quo ante. Success in transmission is therefore as much in concealment from some as in conveyance to others. The penalties are as painful, in their different ways, whether by censorship or by adulation. How to hearten one's allies, but in such a way as to escape the attention of the unwelcome ones? How to wound one's enemies, but only the less venomous ones? The message must (always with trepidation) be broadcast, but can, we hope, be tagged for selective reception.

The old teach the young the certainties they themselves once had; less often, the uncertainties they now have; still less often, the autobiography of that evolution; and (least often of all) how the Transmission of Culture depends on certainties purveyed by the uncertain. Of course that transmission is self-referential; indeed its most important ingredient is the part that lays down -- or rather conveys without laying down -- the accepted levels of dubio-activity for those engaged in transmitting or receiving.


You and I can agree that only labile truths are worth having. Those (not few) who cannot cope with oxymoron may choose to underplay either the noun (leading to hypognosis or nihilism) or the adjective (leading to hypergnosis or bigotry). As escape-routes it ought not to matter which; but something is loading the dice. Allies-about-truth are much more in demand than allies-about-lability. Is there any good reason why the sceptics should be less proselytical? Why is it that, independently of content, the general inclination is to give the benefit of the non-doubt ? "It is easier to extend the belief of the multitude than to contract it; a circumstance which proceeds from the false but prevalent notion that too much belief is at least an error in the right direction." (R. F. Burton)

Truths too long unrefreshed lose their meaning; modernization of the text rescues some of what has been lost -- and destroys the evidence from which the rest might have been reconstructed.

The god of play looks pityingly on the one-punch KO, the `crucial' experiment, the definitive refutation, the triumphant proof..

All his life he fought to raise a few quarter-truths to the status of half-truths, and nail them there.

They come hoping for hallmarked units of truth -- capsule-sentences, catchy as a commandment. But worthwhile truths don't come individually shrink-wrapped. They come only from the interference patterns of many sentences, not all of them `grammatically complete'.

Revealed Truth: a contradiction in terms -- as shown by the gigabytes of clarification on every comma.

Burke: "Crude and unconnected truths are in practice what falsehoods are in theory."

J. N. Findlay: "One of the uses of the word `true' is to assent to formulae one perhaps cannot repeat and certainly cannot understand."

Rémy de Gourmont: "...ce féroce enseignement de la vérité auquel on soumet les enfants. On ne leur apprend pas à observer, on leur apprend à démontrer. Pas de dispute littéraire ou géométrique qui ne doive aboutir à une preuve. Et on leur cache soigneusement l'au-delà de la preuve, ce champ où la dispute recommence. On les borne à un affreux deux et deux font quatre, au moyen de quoi leur esprit s'habitue à l'affirmation perpétuelle. Il portera cette méthode dans tous les ordres, même dans ceux où on ne manipule que des doutes, des hypothèses ou des conjectures."

Leigh Hunt: "`Truth,' he said, `was precious, and not to be wasted on everybody.'"

J. R. Lowell: "No very large share of truth falls to the apprehension of any one man; let him keep it sacred, and beware of repeating it till it turns to falsehood on his lips by becoming ritual."

J. S. Mill: "The means which are good for rendering the truth impressive to those who know it, are not the same as, and are often absolutely incompatible with those which render it intelligible to those who know it not."

C. S. Peirce: "You only puzzle yourself by talking of this metaphysical `truth' and metaphysical `falsity', that you know nothing about. All you have any dealings with are your doubts and beliefs, with the course of life that forces new beliefs upon you and gives you the power to doubt old beliefs. Your problem would be greatly simplified, if, insead of saying that you want to know the `Truth', you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt."


The responsibility is yours for setting -- before the start, and as you go along -- the conventions of turn-taking, within the limits (looser than you thought) that humankind is ready for. What complicates these conventions is the necessity for everyone to keep one eye on the subject-matter and the other, reflexively, on the group's learning-situation. These need different kinds of Optrex. Monocular vision of either kind loses all perspective.

For example: B doesn't follow what A just said. Sometimes this is OK, if A doesn't expect B to follow, yet, and has only put it like that by way of variety, and has somehow conveyed (this is the hard part) that light will be cast by what is about to come. But if A falls short on any of these extenuations, B must quickly weigh up a bagful of pros and cons: How crucial is the point going to turn out to be? What are the chances of catching up later? Will A welcome interruption? Even if A does, will the group?

Oliver Wendell Holmes sr: "From two open windows on the opposite side of the court projected the heads, and a considerable portion of the persons, of two of the sex in question. They were engaged in argument, if that is argument in which each of the two parties develops his proposition without the least regard to what the other person is at the same time saying, pouring forth simultaneously a calm, steady, smooth-flowing stream of mutual under-valuation, never stopping for punctuation, and barely giving themselves time to get breath between its long-drawn clauses.

I confess that the recollection of the two women, drifting upon their vocabularies as on a shoreless ocean, filled me at first with apprehension as to the possible future of our legislative assemblies. But, in view of what our sex accomplishes in the line of mutual vituperation, perhaps the feminine arrangement, by which the two save time by speaking at once, and it is alike impossible for either to hear the other, and for the audience to hear them both, might be considered an improvement."

Georges Courteline: "J'ai vu un jour deux amies se croiser boulevard Magenta. Elles se reconnurent en même temps, se sautèrent mutuellement au cou, ouvrirent en même temps leurs deux bouches pour se demander de leurs nouvelles, s'en donnèrent simultanément, se jetèrent toutes les deux à la fois dans des histoires compliquées, enchevêtrées et inextricables comme les laines mêlées de deux pelotons, et se quittèrent au bout de cinq minutes avec de grands éclats de rire, sans que, matériellement, chacune de ces deux dames eût pu entendre un seul mot de ce que l'autre venait de lui dire."

Proust: "Members of the same profession find one another out, and so it is with a common vice. M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other's vice, which was in both cases that of soliloquising in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was `no help,' they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse."

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