`No matter what metarules are formulated, it seems intuitively obvious that the native speaker could break them too and count on the context to get his meaning across to another speaker' (H. Dreyfus). This is part of an argument that machines cannot, and humans just do, know how to get away with breaking rules usefully. I cite it only to pounce on the over-statement `count on'. Some message-senders do indeed `count on' success -- for example, the lecturer who `just knows' when his stuff is getting across, acknowledging no special responsibility for eliciting feedback. More commonly, he may underestimate this responsibility, and give up too soon; or he may persist long enough, but misinterpret what he eventually gets, taking politeness or echolalia or big blue eyes as proof of understanding.

In what I hope is the standard case, though, he just resigns himself to going on, hoping that clues to the interpretation of the incomprehensible feedback he's getting on the current `point' will be thrown up in the course of exchanges on some subsequent `point'.

This rests on two familiar but not generally welcome observations: any later `point' may fire the synapse of any earlier one; and understanding needs time as well as all the logical inputs. The penny may drop when nothing has changed except the clock. Analysably or not, mere confusion does, in its own unforeseeable time, sometimes precipitate into understanding, or into misunderstanding, or at least into awareness of a crux. `How much the years teach which the days never know!' (Emerson)

Grant that in the general tenor of his intercourse with his Pupil he is forbearing and circumspect, inasmuch as he is rich in that knowledge (above all other necessary for a teacher) which cannot exist without a liveliness of memory, preserving for him an unbroken image of the winding, excursive, and often retrograde course along which his own intellect has passed. Grant that he is not in haste to kill what he knows will in due time die of itself; or be transmuted, and put on a nobler form and higher faculties otherwise unattainable. In a word, that the Teacher is governed habitually by the wisdom of Patience waiting with pleasure.

Yet he may be betrayed into many unnecessary and pernicious mistakes where he deems his interference warranted by substantial experience. And in spite of all his caution, remarks may drop insensibly from him which shall wither in the mind of his pupil a generous sympathy, destroy a sentiment of approbation or dislike, not merely innocent but salutary; and for the inexperienced Disciple how many pleasures may be this cut off, what joy, what admiration, and what love! while in their stead are introduced into the ingenuous mind misgivings, a mistrust of its own evidence, dispositions to affect to feel where there can be no real feeling, indecisive judgements, a superstructure of opinions that has no base to support it, and words uttered by rote with the impertinence of a Parrot, or a Mocking-bird.

And by this process insensibly may steal in presumption and a habit of sitting in judgement in cases where no sentiment ought to have existed but diffidence or veneration."

Warrants for Belief

E. Gellner: "There is a principle of Ideological Meretriciousness at work in human societies, which ensures that at any given time there is a variety of (as it were) scriptural warrants available for quite diverse courses of conduct. We all behave, in matters of belief and adherence to convention, like governments who assign an ambassador to the official foreign ruler in his capital, while sending less overt but still accredited agents to keep in touch with the various rival revolutionary groups and governments-in-exile. You never can tell."

Kierkegaard: "It is absolutely certain, for my father told me."

Quine: "The real is the stuff that mother vouches for and calls by name."

Winners 1, Losers 2

Each term in the rule or hypothesis can be semi-methodically varied up and down in various dimensions. [Of course our imagination won't provide enough dimensions or steps-of-variation; hence the `semi-'.] Each term has survived competition with its nearest stronger and weaker variants (not only in one dimension; and variation one-word-at-a-time is not the only kind). But in a sense the defeated competitors also survive; for they define the narrow frontiers of the victor's universe, where each crux in the (provisionally) victorious rule has to try and maintain a position equidistant from every Scylla and every Charybdis.

There never is much sea-room; yet many potted expositions of the history of the problem give the opposite impression -- which requires that those who failed to see the gap be systematically presented as (inexplicably) naïve or (explicably) base, or both. You'd think the very infallibility of this tactic would give its users more pause.

It is customary to erase from the final wording all trace of the `defeated' competitors. But to be called the defeated is to be still remembered, still to survive. With the force-field removed, we are nevertheless supposed to sense what is keeping the `victor' in place, and are made to feel stupid for not seeing what has been taken away.

Where is the merit, if the competition were all pushovers?

Exposition, more humanely understood, must accept responsibility for running the gauntlet -- that is, for regular reminders of the dilemma-horns on either side, and for reassuring the reader who has momentarily lost a part of the complex that he may expect, as of right, frequent help of this kind. If he doesn't get all this (and mostly he doesn't), distressing disorientation sets in. What tricky bits is the chosen path so often and so silently detouring round? Why this unbearable discrepancy between the perspicuity implicitly claimed and the perspicuity achieved?

It's crucial that there should be a supply of the only-just-not-fit-enough. We non-winners demand a different name, one which welcomes the essential contribution we make. Adding to the supply of wrong guesses should after all be an honourable profession, with a charter, royal patronage, headed note-paper.

J. Levenson: "A thought includes what its thinker eliminates; an idea has its particular quality from the fact that other ideas, expressed in other quarters, are demonstrably alternatives... An idea..is a denial of alternatives and an answer to a question. What a man really means cannot be gathered solely from what he asserts; what he asks and what other men assert invest his ideas with meaning."

R. G. Collingwood: "If we cannot understand what the doctrines were which a Plato or a Parmenides meant to deny, it is certain that to just that extent we are unable to grasp what it was that he meant to affirm."


Hobbes: "Speciall uses of Speech are these; first is acquiring of Arts. Secondly, to Counsell, and Teach one another. Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes, that we may have the mutuall help of one another. Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, and others, by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, innocently."

Jean Tardieu: "Madame Chère, très chère peluche! Depuis combien de trous, depuis combien de galets n'avais-je pas eu la mitron de vous sucrer!

Mme de Perleminouze, très affectée. Hélas! Chère! j'étais moi-même très, très vitreuse! Mes trois plus jeunes tourteaux ont eu la citronnade, l'un après l'autre. Pendant tout le début du corsaire, je n'ai fait que nicher des moulins, courir chez le ludion ou chez le tabouret, j'ai passé des puits à surveiller leur carbure, à leur donner des pinces et des moussons. Bref, je n'ai pas eu une minette à moi.

Madame Pauvre chère! Et moi qui ne me grattais de rien!

Mme de Perleminouze Tant mieux! Je m'en recuis! Vous avez bien mérité de vous tartiner, après les gommes que vous avez brûlées! Poussez donc: depuis le mou de Crapaud jusqu'à la mi-Brioche, on ne vous a vue ni au `Water-proof', ni sous les alpagas du bois de Migraine! Il fallait que vous fussiez vraiment gargarisée!

Madame Il est vrai!... Ah! Quelle céruse! Je ne puis y mouiller sans gravir.

Mme de Perleminouze, confidentiellement. Alors, toujours pas de pralines?

Madame Aucune.

Mme de Perleminouze Pas même un grain de riflard?

Madame Pas un! Il n'a jamais daigné me repiquer, depuis le flot où il m'a zébrée!

Mme de Perleminouze Quel ronfleur! Mais il fallait lui racler les flammèches!"

J. N. Findlay: "[H. H. Price holds] that sign-cognition always involves a degree of belief. He has narrowed his view to cases where we prepare seriously for instances of a certain sort, and has ignored cases of a playful, make-believe readiness. Yet even the play of dogs involves a great deal of counterfeit counter-attacking directed to attacks which are themselves recognised as counterfeit. Such cases are important since they represent a primitive loosening of meaning from the bonds of verification and practice. Not only men, but also animals, sometimes play with notions."

Ernest Renan: "Il faut que l'esprit humain s'amuse d'abord quelque temps de ses découvertes et des résultats nouveaux qu'il introduit dans la science, il faut qu'il s'en fasse un plaisir, quelquefois même un jouet, avant d'y voir un objet de méditation purement philosophique."


Georges Bernanos: "C'est une des plus incompréhensibles disgrâces de l'homme, qu'il doive confier ce qu'il a de plus précieux à quelque chose d'aussi instable, d'aussi plastique, hélas, que le mot. Il faudrait beaucoup de courage pour vérifier chaque fois l'instrument, l'adapter à sa propre serrure. On aime mieux prendre le premier qui tombe sous la main, forcer un peu, et si le pêne joue, on n'en demande pas plus. J'admire les révolutionnaires qui se donnent tant de mal pour faire sauter des murailles à la dynamite, alors que le trousseau de clefs des gens bien pensants leur eût fourni de quoi entrer tranquillement sans réveiller personne."

Stephen Booth: "A word or phrase can be incomprehensible at the moment it is read and then be effectively glossed by the lines that follow it; a word or phrase can (and in the sonnets [of Shakespeare] regularly does) have one meaning as a reader comes on it, another as its sentence concludes, and a third when considered from the vantage point of a summary statement in the couplet."

Diderot: "La logique vraie peut se réduire à un très petit nombre de pages; mias plus cette étude sera courte, plus celle des mots sera longue."

words by rote, but not their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood."

Marcel Jouhandeau: "Grâce à Dieu, un mot n'a pas un sens que l'on puisse arrêter strictement, définir absolument et définitivement. On a toujours les moyens de solliciter de lui l'inédit, de lui faire exprimer grâce au contexte quelque chose de nouveau, d'inconnu, d'imprévu pour tout le monde, même pour soi."

Ian Hacking: "Words have profound memories that oil our shrill and squeaky rhetoric."

P. Valéry: "Je me méfie de tous les mots, car la moindre méditation rend absurde que l'on s'y fie. J'en suis venu, hélas, à comparer ces paroles par lesquelles on traverse si lestement l'espace d'une pensée, à des planches légères jetées sur un abîme, qui souffrent le passage et point la station."

A. N. Whitehead: "The notion that thought can be perfectly or even adequately expressed in verbal symbols is idiotic. [This notion has been the curse of philosophy, since] philosophers verbalize and then suppose the idea stated for all time. [But words are not] fixed things with specific meanings. Actually the meanings of language are in violent fluctuation and a large part of what they try to express in the world lies outside the range of language. [The truths expressed in language are, consequently, only] half-truths [; there are no] whole-truths [among them]."

Work ethic

G. Spencer Brown: "To arrive at the simplest truth requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are continually thrust upon them."

Hume: "Reading and sauntering and lownging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness, I mean my full Contentment."


It's not just that writing is hard work. It's also sacred (and correspondingly rewarding) work. Like the Gurkha's sword, the pen is not to be unsheathed lightly. It has equal potential for giving and for taking life, either of which could be for good or evil. However small your readership, one reader at least will be permanently marked by what you write, as a source of small pride, or a challenge skived: yourself.

It is also lonely work:

³The knowledge gained in communion, and ripened in solitude, must pour its life into the world through action... Into loneliness spirit by its nature swings; and, as it is only in communion and action that man learns, so it is only in loneliness that he discovers what he has learnt. Nevertheless, from his solitude -- yes, and from communion, -- man must always return.² (L. H. Myers)

Colette: "Ecrire ... C'est le regard accroché, hypnotisé par le reflet de la fenêtre dans l'encrier d'argent, -- la fièvre divine qui monte aux joues, au front, tandis qu'une bienheureuse mort glace sur le papier la main qui écrit. Cela veut dire aussi l'oubli de l'heure, la paresse au creux du divan, la débauche d'invention d'où l'on sort courbaturé, abêti, mais déjà récompensé et porteur de trésors qu'on décharge lentement sur la feuille vierge, dans le petit cirque de lumière qui s'abrite sous la lampe...

Ecrire! verser avec rage toute la sincérité de soi sur le papier tentateur, si vite, si vite que parfois la main lutte et renâcle, surmenée par le dieu impatient qui la guide... et retrouver, le lendemain, à la place du rameau d'or, miraculeusement éclos en une heure flamboyante, une ronce sèche, une fleur avortée...

Ecrire! plaisir et souffrance d'oisifs!... Je prends encore la plume, pour commencer le jeu périlleux et décevant, pour saisir et fixer, sous la pointe double et ployante, le chatoyant, le fugace, le passionnant adjectif..."

V. S. Pritchett: "In writing there is a preliminary process of unwriting."

William Paley: "One thing I always set my face against; and that is, exercises in English composition: this calling upon lads -- (lads, be it understood, is the old-fashioned University word for undergraduates) -- this calling upon lads for a style before they have got ideas, sets them upon fine writing, and is the main cause of the puffy, spungy, spewy, washy style that prevails at the present day."


The trouble is not only that they memorize answers -- rather, it is the answers they choose to memorize -- rarely something that started life as a personal piece, even of someone else's. What they pick for memorization is the flattest and most routinized summary that a bazaar crib can provide.

These potions were insipid enough when first mixed. Excretion and re-excretion does not improve the flavour. Their purpose is to bromidize the wells, to paralyse by dint of repetition the sense of discrimination -- to obscure, if possible, the difference between zombie understanding and the real thing. Of course this is not possible; the presumption must always be, in case of doubt, on the side of zero understanding.

This applies not only to the re-excreter.

Nevertheless it is easy to find oneself in a kind of trance, giving reluctant crumbs of credit for some dutiful repetition which visibly conveys no engagement with the issue, and whose tired uniformity and ludicrous encapsulation proclaim its falsity -- moral as well as substantive falsity, contaminating equally those who offer and those who receive.

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