Annoying Quotations by Writers and Intellectuals

A small collection of idiotic or dishonest quotations by writers and intellectuals, collected by Ernest Davis with fulminations by the editor in small font.
A much larger collection of quotations that I love is here.

This project is sponsored by the Institute for the Advanced Study of Automated Reasoning, Cognition, Science Music, and Lots of Other Stuff.

[S]ome cognitive scientists, like me, have started to turn their attention to meaning. (p. 5)

[T]he twentieth century was the century of form. ... But this is a new millenium, and the twenty-first century has ushered in renewed attention on not just form but what the form does ... In the study of language and the mind, this translates into not merely studying the forms of language ... but also its meaning. (p. 250)
--- Benjamin Bergen, Louder than Words: The New Science of how the Mind Makes Meaning

Bergen and his teacher George Lakoff (see below) completely distort previous intellectual history for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. See also the quote from Minsky below.

There are no new ideas.
-- G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to Hard Times,

Obviously untrue, and not in an interesting way.

If the barricades went up in our streets and the poor became masters, I think the priests would escape, I fear the gentlemen would; but I believe the gutters would be simply running with the blood of philanthropists.
--- G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study

Chesterton managed to idolize both the French Revolution and the Catholic Church without ever noticing that the revolution was as much anti-clerical as anti-aristocratic.

Of course there are much more offensive, indeed loathsome, quotes from Chesterton; but I am not going to foul my web site by reproducing those. This is a collection of annoying quotations, not vile quotations.

There is no reason to believe ... that the "essential purpose" of language is "communication". ... Language can be used to transmit information, but it also serves many other purposes: to establish relations among people, to express or clarify thought, for play, for creative mental activity, to gain understanding, and so on. In my opinion, there is no reason to accord privileged status to one or the other of these modes.
-- Noam Chomsky, Language and Responsibility

There is no reason to believe that the "essential purpose" of walking is "locomotion". Walking can be used to get from one place to another, but it also serves many other purposes: exercise, recreation, a pleasant social activity, chance encounters with attractive people, and so on. There is no reason to accord privileged status to one or the other of these modes.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will never in fact see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
--- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

I am told that many people find this moving. It seems to me meaningless and offensive. It is meaningless to say that we are "lucky" as compared a near infinitude of non-existent people. Potential DNA molecules are not "people who are not going to be born", let alone scientists or poets because they are not people at all. The passage is much weaker than the comparable passage in Gray's Elegy (which I imagine Dawkins had in mind.) It is actually sad that actual people grew up and died with no chance to realize their potential. It is not in the least sad that some combination of genes has never been actualized. One might as well feel bad for the infinitude of geometric shapes that have never been actualized as physical objects. And it is offensive, because it identifies people with their genetic code. This is not only problematic in the case of identical twins, but highly reductive, in all cases.

"Greater poets than Keats" particularly worries me, for two reasons. First, it is not clear that there could possibly exist a greater poet than Keats (so to speak --- Keats doesn't actually do much for me personally --- but fill in the name of your favorite poet) or a greater composer than Bach, a greater artist than Rembrandt etc. (again, fill in your favorites). There is, after all, nothing close to an external measure of the greatness of an artist. The measure of an artist is the response they evoke in us; in us, not in the archangels who have an absolute standard. And there is not mucn reason to think that there could exist a poem that would evoke a greater response in you than < fill in the name of your favorite poem >.

Second, though I don't doubt that there are some genetic characteristics (certain forms of verbal intelligence) that are necessary conditions to being a great poet, there is no reason at all that being a great poet is mostly determined by genetic characteristics. Poeta nascitur non fit, sure, but nascitur can include a lot of nurture in addition to nature. So there is no such thing as a DNA sequence for a greater poet than Keats.

I think of the post-modern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly". At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
--- Umberto Eco, Reflections on the Name of the Rose Encounter, 1985.

I don't care how bloody sophisticated or cultivated or postmodern you and your boyfriend think you are; if he doesn't have the gumption to say "I love you madly" without distancing himself from it, for Christ's sake, then it's time to dump the weasel. Fortunately, I am confident that all the women I know, would. You would do better with a guy that likes to read Barbara Cartland. Also, of course, every age is an age of lost innocence.

Besides, why would an unremarkable phrase like "I love you madly" be spoiled by the fact that Barbara Cartland used it? And did either Eco or his hypothetical sophisticates actually check that Barbara Cartland did use the phrase, or did it just strike them as the kind of thing a Barbara Cartland hero would say?

Relatively few mathematics teachers understand [Euler's formula] even today, and fewer students do. Yet generation after generation of mathematics teachers and students continue to go uncomprehendingly through one version or another of Euler's proof, understanding only the regularity in the manipulation of the symbols.

They are much like Mr. M., Laurent Cohen and Stanislas Dehaene's patient discussed in Chapter 1, who knows that 'three times nine is twenty-seven' but not what it means.

Mr. M., being brain-damaged, has no choice. Benjamin Peirce was born too soon. But in an age of cognitive science one can at least try to do better.

-- George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez, Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being.

This easy contempt for virtually all mathematicians, comparing them to brain-damaged patients, is astoundingly smug and arrogant. As it happens, any mathematician acquainted with the theory of functions of a complex variable understands Euler's formula in a much deeper sense --- as the analytic continuation of the exponential function into the complex plane --- than the proof that Lakoff and Nunez gives, which is just based on manipulation of the power series. See my review for further discussion.

For centuries, we in the West have thought of ourselves as rational animals whose mental capacities transcend our bodily nature. In this traditional view our minds are abstract, logical, unemotionally rational, consciously accessible, and, above all, able to directly fit and represent the world. Language has a special place in thie view of what a human is --- it is a privileged, logical symbol system internal to our minds that transparently expresses abstract concepts that are defined in terms of the external world itself.
-- George Lakoff, foreword to Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin Bergen.

What unadulterated crap. Lakoff is just setting up a straw man, so that he can congratulate himself on being a fearless iconoclast who knocks it down. You might be able to find one or two linguists and one or two philosophers who endorsed something close to this caricature, but it is not even close to being the "traditional view" or how "we in the West have thought of ourselves."

Years ago, when science still feared meaning ...
-- Marvin Minsky, Music, Mind, and Meaning

Minsky, like Lakoff, suffers from the delusion that he invented the idea of meaning. I suppose this is actually just a jab at Chomsky, but it's still offensive.

Near the end of the 1700s, philosophers began to declare that humans were rational individuals. People were flattered by being recognized as individuals, and by being called rational, and the idea soon wormed its way into the belief systems of nearly everyone in the upper class. Despite resistance from Church and State, the idea of rational individuality replaced the assumption that truth comes only from god and king.
--- Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread --- The Lessons from a New Science (p. 59)

It is disgraceful that a professor at MIT should put his name to such a reductive caricature of the Enlightenment. For that matter, it's equally disgraceful to imply that before the Enlightenment, people thought that "truth comes only from god and king."

At the climax of the true Amistad history, Spielberg missed, somehow, an astounding story that ought to have been a director's dream. Just as John Quincy Adams, a few days before he was to argue the case before the Supreme Court, alighted from his carriage in front of the Capitol (still, incidentally, without its dome), a violent burst of gunfire made his horses bolt. The first demonstration of the Colt repeating rifle was being performed in the Capitol yard. Adams's coachman was thrown to the ground, and the following day he died of his injuries. For the devoutly religious statesman, there could have been no more shocking witness that Providence was watching over the unfolding drama. Colts, carriage horses, and Calvinism --- the kind of historical collision undreamed of in scriptwriters' fiction.
--- Simon Schama, "Clio At the Multiplex: What Hollywood and Herodotus have in common", The New Yorker, January 19, 1998.

Schama is so pleased with himself for finding one of his trademark "telling anecdotes'' that he's getting carried away. I don't think it's unfair to gloss "Spielberg missed, somehow" as "I was clever enough to find". In any case, I don't find the anecdote all that telling, and I'm not at all convinced that the movie would have been better if it had included the event. Amistad was not one of Spielberg's great successes, but I'd bet on Spielberg's judgment about what makes an effective movie over Schama's any day. The idea that Adams viewed this as a "shocking witness that Providence was watching over the unfolding drama" seems to be pure speculation on Schama's part, and doesn't actually make much sense. I don't know why Schama thinks that Adams was a Calvinist, except for the alliteration; Adams was a Unitarian.

Incidentally, I read this essay when it came out in 1998, and I remembered it until Googling it and adding it here in 2017. I hold grudges about annoying quotations a long time.

In short, the Gaon was a one-sided, severe ascetic, and would never have deserved the title of a good father, a good husband, an amiable man ... [T]here is no occasion at all for pitying Mrs. Gaon. ... Saints are happy in their suffering, and noble souls find their happiness in sacrificing themselves for these sufferers.
--- Solomon Schechter, "Rabbi Elijah Wilna, Gaon", in Studies in Judaism

Easy for Schechter to say. One wonders how enthusiastically his wife Matilda would have assented.

I maintain, on the basis of empirical and theoretical work, that the standards by which different groups of practitioners assess knowledge-claims are relative to context and that the appropriate methods to use in studying science should take that relativity into account. ... Further, this work leads me to believe that the natural world is probably extremely complex and that different cultures can and do stably and coherently classify and construe it in very different ways, according to their purposes and in light of the cultural legacies they bring to their engagements with the natural world. This position has been identified as antiscientific --- motivated by ignorance and hostility --- and, it is said, peoplee having such small faith in science should follow its logical conclusions: they should jump in front of cars or consult witch-doctors rather than neurologists when their heads ache.

It is a silly and misguided argument, but nevertheless an interesting one to consider. I do not jump in front of cars and I do consult physicians when I feel a need to do so. What does this prove? Not that I am insincere in my methodological relativism, or that I have contradicted myself, but that my genuine confidence in a range of modern scientific and technical practices and claims proceeds from different sources than my belief in some set of methodological metascientific stories. My confidence in science is very great; that is just to say that I am a typical member of the overall overeducated culture, a culture in which confidence in science is a mark of normalcy and which produces that confidence as we become and continue to be normal members of it.
--- Steven Shapin, "How to be Antiscientific," Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.

First, the subtitle, with its sarcastic implication that us naive realists think that science was produced by disembodied spirits in a timeless Platonic universe, is deeply annoying, and presumably intended to be so. Second, I find this quotation cleverly dishonest, and Shapin strikes me as smart enough that I presume the dishonesty is conscious. Shapin is posing as the voice of sweet reason. Who could argue with the claim in the second sentence that the natural world is complex and that different cultures construe it in different ways? And he doesn't actually come out and say that his habit of not walking in front of cars is purely the result of his having been indoctrinated in 20th century Western customs like his readers. But the last sentence above certainly suggests that strongly.

Moreover, equating not walking in front of cars with consulting with doctors is a rhetorical trick. A person who does not consult with doctors may be foolish, depending on the circumstances; and the extent to which one consults, and with whom one consults, is certainly culturally dependent and a matter of personal judgement. A person who walks in front of cars is certifiable; and the general rule of not walking in front of extremely heavy, quickly moving objects is not culturally dependent.

The question is not whether Steven Shapin goes to doctors. (My grandmother, who was a Christian Scientist, rarely did and lived in generally excellent health to the age of 98.) The question is, does he think that his decision to go to doctors is purely an arbitrary cultural norm, like his not dressing in 18th century style? Or does he think that it's a belief that he holds without any actual rational justification, the way some people believe in God while granting that they can't actually justify the belief? Or does he think that it is, in an absolute sense, a wise thing to do because of something that doctors know about how diseases actually work; and that it's a wiser thing to do now than it was in 1850 or wiser than going to see a witch doctor, because current doctors know more about it? He very carefully avoids answering. The final sentence quoted above reads to me as if he views his confidence in science as a personal folly which he indulges because it's reasonably harmless. But I'm not entirely sure that that's what he intends.

I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Pygmalion

Dishonest. Of course Pygmalion is not didactic and its subject is not phonetics. You can't learn anything about phonetics from watching Pygmalion. It is about class and romance.

CUSINS: You have me in a horrible dilemma. I want Barbara.
UNDERSHAFT: Like all young men, you greatly exaggerate the difference between one young woman and another.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Cheap, false, and disgusting. Also phony, since earlier in the play Undershaft waxes on about how great his daughter is. Cusins should punch him in the nose.

Perhaps I had better inform my Protestant readers that the famous Dogma of Papal Infallibility is by far the most modest pretension of the kind in existence. Compared with our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, our infallible astronomers, our infallible judges, and our infallible parliaments, the Pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before the throne of God, asking only that as to certain historical matters on which he has clearly more sources of information open to him than anyone else his decision shall be taken as final.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Saint Joan

Dishonest. That is not a remotely accurate description of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, and Shaw knew it.

The medieval doctors of divinity who did not pretend to settle how many angels could dance on the point of a needle cut a very poor figure as far as romantic credulity is concerned beside the modern physicists who have settled to the billionth of a millimetre every movement and position in the dance of the electrons. Not for worlds would I question the precise accuracy of these calculations or the existence of electrons (whatever they may be). The fate of Joan is a warning to me against such heresy.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Saint Joan

Cheap. Shaw was honored, successful, and rich, and he lived happily to the age of 94. Whereas the early modern church did burn Joan, Bruno, Hus, etc. etc.

In an article on Bunyan lately published in the "Contemporary Review" --- the only article on the subject worth reading on the subject I ever saw (yes, thank you, I am familiar with Macaulay's patronizing prattle about "The Pilgrim's Progress") etc.
--- George Bernard Shaw, "Better than Shakespeare" in Dramatic Opinions and Essays.

This otherwise fine essay by Shaw on Bunyan is marred by the gratuitous swipe at Macaulay. Macaulay's essay John Bunyan is not at all "patronizing"; it ends with the claim that Milton and Bunyan were the two most imaginative English writers of the second half of the seventeenth century. Shaw simply couldn't stand the fact that Macaulay, whom he no doubt viewed (legitimately) as a wildly overrated, imperialist, retrograde, smug, Victorian stuffed shirt, scooped him here.

He who has read Kafka's Metamorphosis and can look into his mirror unflinching may technically be able to read print, but is illiterate in the only sense that matters.
--- George Steiner, "Humane Literacy" in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

Ridiculous. You might as well say, "He who has read Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth Bennet and can get through the day without laughing out loud may be technically able to read print, etc." But actually, looking at this essay again after many years, it is so full of absurd, pompous pronouncements that it is hard to know where to start.

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.
-- Oscar Wilde

When it comes to maudlin sentimentality, The Old Curiosity Shop doesn't come close to "The Happy Prince", "The Selfish Giant" etc.

Each man kills the thing he loves.
-- Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

I don't know why the feminists haven't denounced this (maybe they have). It seems to me that it would be hard to construct a more textbook example of excusing violence against women by depersonalizing the victim.