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)
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.
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.
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 much 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
— 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?
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion;
it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.
But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what
it means to want to escape from these things.
— T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent
This is practically a self-parody. Come on, Tom, tone down the whole modernist mandarin shtick a notch or two; and for Pete's sake, don't suggest that there are people who have no personality or emotions.
Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first
composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to
transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows
the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making
music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God - in human form.
— John Eliot Gardiner Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (quoted on goodreads web page. I have not checked the original.)
My beef about this is not particularly with John Eliot Gardiner; in fact, I found this quote Googling for some characteristic example of the sentiment. But this whole "music is divine" thing and especially the "Mozart/Bach were divine" thing has gotten to be a pet peeve of mine. Any time a talented instrumentalist uploads a capable performance of a Bach or Mozart piece to YouTube, some fool, or several, will chime in piously with "I think that Bach/Mozart was particularly close to God." (Well, there are plenty of worse things, such as the people who post racist, misogynist comments on YouTube videos of spectacularly gifted, attractive, stylishly dressed, Chinese women pianists.)
I find it really irritating. In one sense, we are all close to God; but I see absolutely zero reason to suppose that musical composers, or any particular composers, were closer to God than (at random) biologists, carpenters, cattle farmers, epidemiologists, journalists, ice hockey players, or waiters. The great musical composers were and are people with an extraordinary genius for writing music and lesser composers are people with a somewhat less extraordinary genius. And music itself is a system or systems of patterned sounds that most people find pleasant or emotionally stirring, for reasons that are not at all understood, and some animals do, for reasons that are even less understood. That's all.
And this music worship can get way out of hand. Recently (as of August 2019) there was an article discussing the moderately interesting fact that Donald Trump apparently has no taste whatever for any kind of music, and discussing the significance of that fact, which is actually probably nothing, since, as the article itself states 3-5% of people are musically anhedonic, and there doesn't seem to be any reason to think that this personality quirk is correlated with anything else. (The fact that Trump doesn't seem to enjoy anything except power, adulation, and sex is more unusual and probably is significant.) But then the writer goes completely off the deep end: "Only narcissists trapped within the solitary confinement of their own emotional dungeons are incapable of feeling anything while listening to the late Beethoven quartets, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” or “West Side Story.”" I'm sorry, that's just crazy. Not only can one be a perfectly decent human being, one even can be a huge fan of Beethoven himself, and not appreciate the late quartets; which I happen to know because that's my own state. Middle Beethoven — pretty much between the Pathetique Sonata and the Archduke Trio inclusive — is one of my favorite composers, but the late quartets don't do anything for me, except for Op. 131 and the Grosse Fuga, and they don't do very much for me. (Added later: This was true when written, two or three years ago, but now that I am 66, I am beginning to appreciate the late Quartets.)
The quotation attributed to Emil Cioran (I am not going to take the trouble to verify it) “Bach's music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure. Without Bach, God would be a completely second-rate figure.” is too silly to be seriously annoying. But one has to wonder what it is about 20th century Western culture that would make someone like Cioran write that. No one before 1800 would have dreamed of writing that about any kind of music, and not just because of the puerile blasphemy; and no one like Cioran would write that about any other creative artist (except, perhaps, Shakespeare).
Added later: I found out that this idea goes back to Beethoven, as regards himself.: "I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind ... I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves." (Quoted here.) Look, if thinking that helped Beethoven compose, then I'm hardly going to complain. But that's not a justification for people continuing to say it.
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 of this horrible book 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.
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." The best known intellectual of the 20th century was Freud; the most respected philosopher was Wittgenstein.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns — when the article or book appears —- his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
I find this famous quote absolutely infuriating. Malcolm is excusing her own ethical lapses by projecting them onto journalism as a whole and maligning a important, hard-working, and, at its best, noble profession. The Journalist and the Murderer was written in 1990, but this kind of attitude laid the groundwork for Trump-era attacks on journalism.
Years ago, when science still feared 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.
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 scene 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.
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.
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.
Remember ... that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and the
— George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Obviously both Higgins and Shaw knew that English is not the original language of the Bible, but I don't think that this is tongue-in-cheek on either of their parts. And obviously if they had been challenged, they would have said, "Of course, I/Higgins meant the King James translation", but one can't imagine anyone ever writing that English was the language of the Iliad or the Aeneid no matter how much they admire this or that translation. I don't tend to be hyper-vigilant about cultural appropriation, but this seems to me going too far.
CUSINS: You have me in a horrible dilemma. I want 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.
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
— 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.
In the absence of these fixed elements, I'd make up hard things to do, or
things to abstain from. Artificial limits and so on. Running is what
I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented strategies:
teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad,
small idea of a life.
— Zadie Smith, "Something to Do", Intimations
In general, I'm a great admirer of Zadie Smith, but that last sentence sets my teeth on edge. First, that is more or less the life that I and most of the people I know lead. And second, what kind of life does she have in mind that would be, by contrast, vital, admirable, (I'm not sure what are the opposites of "dry" and "sad" in this context) and large?
I feel quite insane countering Zadie Smith, one of the deepest and wisest writers of her generation, with an insufferable goody-goody out of Dickens, but I am reminded of this exchange between Richard Woodson and Esther Summerson in Bleak House:
"Then," pursued Richard, "it's monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day."
"But I am afraid," said I, "this is an objection to all kinds of application — to life itself, except under some very uncommon circumstances."
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.
And, in any case, who remembers prophets? Isaiah and Jeremiah, no doubt, have gained
a certain reputation; but then Isaiah and Jeremiah have had the extraordinary
good fortune to be translated into English by a committee of Elizabethan bishops.
— Lytton Strachey, Portraits in Miniature, "Thomas Carlyle".
My grandfather used sometimes to refer to this in annoyed tones. Certainly Strachey is deliberately teasing; still, it seems to me that he is in fact being more of a John Bull here than he realizes. It is certainly an extraordinary historical fact that Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other literary Hebrew prophets are still remembered and their words are still preserved, but the literary excellence of the King James translation is only a very small part of that.
I don't take issue with Strachey's other characterization of the Hebrew prophets, "grand masters of bizarrerie" ( Books and Characters, "Racine") — an unsympathetic view of an undeniable fact.
That the question has ever been not only asked but seriously debated,
whether History was an art, is certainly one of the curiosities of
human ineptitude. What else can it possibly be? It is obvious that
History is not a science: it is obvious that History is not the accumulation
of facts, but the relation of them.
— Lytton Strachey, Portraits in Miniature, "Gibbon".
This is so incompetent that I'm not even sure I should be annoyed. After all science is and art, generally speaking, is not concerned with the relation of facts. I would agree with Strachey that history is not a science, but the view that it is, or should be as far as possible, seems to me not inept but a legitimate aspiration. What is really annoying here is, first, Strachey's contempt for that point of view, and, second, his dismissal of science as being nothing more than the accumulation of facts. I don't know to what extent Strachey knew any science, or cared about it. You would think that someone who was a friend and admirer of Russell and a close friend of Keynes would have had a clearer idea of science.
Even the physical littleness of this grown woman [Amy Dorrit],
an attribute which is insisted on and which seems likely to repel us ...
— Lionel Trilling, "Little Dorrit"
I can't determine how tall Diana Trilling was. But really, chacun à son goût ; and, as the husband of a woman who is 4'11'' and has a slight build, I take umbrage at this.
It is true that if I were to address my wife as "Little Iano", it would not be well received; but Trilling's word 'repel' seems to refer to Amy Dorrit's physique, not the endearment (in any case, also a matter of taste, often idiosyncratic).
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without
— 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.