Monday, April 25, 2016

Samuel Butler on the Fundamental Principles of Note-taking

I had read Butler's Note-Books before. But this weekend I read them again in a Kindle Edition.[1] Here are some characteristic passage:
That our ideas are baseless, or rotten at the roots, is what few who study them will deny; but they are rotten in the same way as property is robbery, and property is robbery in the same way as our ideas are rotten at the roots, that is to say it is a robbery and it is not. No title to property, no idea and no living form (which is the embodiment of idea) is indefeasible if search be made far enough. Granted that our thoughts are baseless, yet they are so in the same way as the earth itself is both baseless and most firmly based, or again most stable and yet most in motion (at location 4389).
Butler gives in this note colorful expression to his belief that there can be no ultimate foundation in taking notes on any and all subjects. In his view, "the error springs from supposing that there is any absolute right or absolute truth, and also from supposing that truth and right are any the less real for being not absolute but relative" (at location 4404).

The most important thins is to take care "not to accept ideas which though very agreeable at first disagree with us afterwards, and keep rising on our mental stomachs, as garlic does upon our bodily" (at location 4414). In other words, "we should aim not at a supposed absolute standard but at the greatest coming-together-ness or convenience of all our ideas and practices; that is to say, at their most harmonious working with one another" (at location 4405). In other words, he accepted what has been called the coherence theory of truth. It's the connections that count (in this view), not the correspondence to some (ultimately unknowable) reality.

And the moral of the story seems to be: "The only thing to do is to glance at the chaos on which our thoughts are founded, recognise that it is a chaos and that, in the nature of things, no theoretically firm ground is even conceivable, and then to turn aside with the disgust, fear and horror of one who has been looking into his own entrails" (at location 4713).

I believe that this Nietzschean dramaticism is uncalled for.[2] Nor is looking at one's own "entrails" necessarily inducing fear and horror. Perhaps we should remember that he wrote before x-ray radiation and other non-intrusive ways of looking at our "entrails" became widely available. Whether Butler is ultimately right is, of course, still another story.[3]



1. Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler. transcribed from the 1912 Fifield edition by David Price. Apparently Butler was a great influence on James Joyce.

2. Apparently, Butler never read Nietzsche, even though his thoughts resemble those of Nietzsche in many ways.

3. Butler incessantly worked on his notes. From 1891 he "made it a rule to spend an hour every morning re-editing his notes and keeping his index up to date. At his death, in 1902, he left five bound volumes, with the contents dated and indexed, about 225 pages of closely written sermon paper to each volume, and more than enough unbound and unindexed sheets to made a sixth volume of equal size" (at location 11).

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