Monday, February 25, 2013

Carl Becker's Wild Thoughts

C. Wright Mills argued that every "intellectual cratsman" needs a "file." And he asks: But how is this file — which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of “literary” journal — used in intellectual production?" only to answer: "The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished." One person who is known to have kept such a file was Carl Becker (1873-1945. His file apparently now resides in a "twenty-drawer cabinet ... in the Cornell University Libray."[1] They contain maily his reading notes which show that "he attended closely; he stayed oriented by any arts he found necessary—often drawing rather clumsy little maps or diagrams; he questioned and reflected upon the author's inferences; he pursued striking ideas out into his own rrealms of being" (141f). It appears that he read all kinds of thing, not specializing just on his research.

The earliest notes date back to his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin. They are pocket notebooks, each called "Wild Thoughts Notebook." They form a kind of journal. In May 1895 he resolves: First, "abstain and buy books," second, experience through writing, and thirdand most importantly:
in order to learn to write well ... write. ... Whether what one writes is important or not is another matter. That depnds on native intelligense and knowledge. But one thing is certain: there is no better way of developing whatever knowledge one may have acquired, than by persistently trying to put it into written form what one has to say, whether it important or not (145). He followed this idea for the rest of his life, "making and filing away notes of his ideas and reflections pon books, people and events" (149).
In other words, he tought on paper, trying to make his thought ever more precise while at the same time maintaining a file "of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. Many of these notes ended up in publications. Whether this file is in the form of papers or electronic files is not as important as the effort to maintain it—or so it seems to me.

1. Charlotte Watkins Smith, Carl Becker: On History and the Climate of Opinion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956), p. 141.

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