Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Portable Documents in the Roman Empire

I am fascinated by the history of the history of writing implements. Here is one site that affords a glimpse at some of the materials Romans used for portable documents: Vindolanda Tablets.

From the Website:

"The Vindolanda writing tablets, written in ink on post-card sized sheets of wood, have been excavated at the fort of Vindolanda, immediately south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England ... They were written by and for soldiers, merchants, women and slaves."

"Until the discovery of the Vindolanda ink tablets" it had been assumed "that wooden tablets written with a stylus were the commonest type of portable document. The discovery of ink 'leaf tablets' at Vindolanda was an enormous surprise to scholars."

But wooden tablets were by no means the only medium: "Perhaps the most familiar writing material is papyrus. Far more papyri have survived than any other category of document: they have been found in their hundreds of thousands in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Another form of portable document was the ostrakon (plural ostraka), substantial fragments of pots which were re-used for writing in ink."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook

Thomas Erickson reports in an article on The Design and Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook: A Reflective Analysis about his experience with a HyperCard application he developed during the early nineties. It was called Proteus. The article provides "a useful data point for those interested in the issue of how to design highly customizable systems for managing personal information," even though it is by now twelve years old.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the one concerning Usage of Proteus versus Paper Notebooks. Erickson reports that "before Proteus I was a heavy user of paper notebooks. ... I used paper notebooks as a sort of work diary: I started each day on a new page, kept a To Do list, meeting notes, and used it as a repository for other information. However, there are couple of striking differences (besides the obvious one that I didn't use it for composing email). First, I find that I make many more notes in Proteus-in part this is because I find typing easier and faster than writing, and in part because of synergetic effects I describe in the next section. Second, I rarely looked back through my paper notebooks-and when I did, I only tended to look at recent entries. In contrast, I re-read entries in Proteus frequently. There are several reasons for this: it is easier to search and browse; the content is more legible; and when I find something useful it can be copied and re-used."

I use ConnectedText in the ways in which Erickson did not use Proteus. Actually, I use ConnectedText more in just the way he originally thought he would use Proteus, namely as a tool to facilitate thinking about quotations, notes, and reflections in an extensively interlinked way—something that would have been difficult in his application, I do find his account suggestive for organizing my own work even better.

Every Day, Computers Make People Easier to Use

Indeed! This phrase, which incisively formulates one of the real dangers of our time, appeals to my Kantian sensibilities.

Apparently it comes from David Tempkin, who used it as a motto for his journal In Formation.

Not just loosely related to note-taking.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


"Only collect life. Always collect. Impressions, knowledge, what I have read, what I have seen, everything. And don't ask what for and why. Whether it will become a book, or memoirs, or nothing, whether it will stick in my memory or spoil like a bad photographic plate. Don't ask, just collect." From Victor Klemperer, Leben sammeln. Nicht fragen wieso und warum. Tagebücher, 1918-1932. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1996.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Case for Paper

An interesting article from some time ago: The Social Life of Paper

Without further comment!

Husserl on Thinking or Writing

Edmund Husserl called the phenomenological explorations or philosophical reflections he undertook on an almost daily basis "monological meditations." He thought with pen in hand, writing down his thoughts as they cam to him, using a stenographic notation.

Some of these reflections were short notes. Others are quite long, covering a dozen pages. But most of them cover between "three and four pages of stenographic writing," which according to Iso Kern, one of the editors of these manuscripts, represent a "day's work." Often, different texts go over the same problems. Husserl seems to have circled again and again around the same or similar problems, attempting to find a solution from different points of view. Often he just repeated himself (XIII, p. xviii). [1]

It appears to have been one of his maxims that one should "always go over his old manuscripts, to improve and copy them" (XXIV, p. 47).

The reason for Husserl's insistence on thinking with a pen was his belief that "the permanent fixation of acquired truth and its justification in literary form do not just make it possible for the person who discovered them to repeat the discovery with insight and happily to enjoy it again, but [they] also provide a helpful starting point [Prämisse] for the justification of new truths" (XXVI, p. 84). This does not exhaust the usefulness of "the permanent fixation of one's thoughts is not just important for the inquirer himself. One of the "important function[s] of documenting written expression" is that it overcomes subjectivity and makes the discovery intersubjectively accessible. It makes possible "communication without an immediate or mediate personal addressee, and it thus becomes a virtual communication" (VI, p. 371). This, ultimately, is how all of human knowledge progresses.

But Husserl did not think that all meditations led to the truth—at least not directly. Kern claims that what he "wrote thus in meditation was less about what he knew than about what he did not know. He did not write to record insights and ideas, but he tried gain insights in writing and thinking. In doing so, he often tried out dialectically different conceptions or possibilities of thinking, without committing to any one of them. His 'research manuscripts' offer therefore less results than possible routes, often also mistaken ones" (XIII, p. xix).

Husserl provided some of his manuscripts with marginal comments when he re-read them, like "that does not work," "bad," or "nota bene" or "to be expanded." But he also thought that any kind of written thinking involves different levels of reflection. There is, he found, an "inevitable sedimentation of the products of the mind in form of lasting linguistic acquisitions" (VI, p. 371). What might surprise some is that even Husserl's ideal objectivities are bound to their material expressions in the form of ink on paper.

One might thus argue that, for Husserl, no intellectual progress is possible without writing. This would mean that he agreed with Luhmann, who learned a lot from Husserl and said: "One cannot think without writing." Or at least one cannot write "in a precise way that makes connections possible." I would agree at least to this much.

1. All quotations are from Husserl's Gesammelte Werke. The Roman numerals indicate the volume, the Arabic numerals the page number.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adorno on Computerized Thinking

Theodor W. Adorno atttacked in 1964 a kind of thinking that he thought had deteriorated into an "independent apparatus," a "booty of reification," and a "tyrannical method."[1] Not surprisingly, perhaps, he thought that it was roughly revealed in cybernetic machines," or in what we would call "computers" today. "They make apparent to humans the nothingness of formalized thought that has been emptied of any substantial content," just because they can do better some of the things of which of thinking subjects were proud in their methodical and subjective reasoning. Indeed, he claims, thinking subjects who "passionately" make themselves into the organs of this kind of formalism virtually cease to be subjects. "They become closer to the machines as their imperfect image" (11).

Philosophical thinking, if we are to believe Adorno, "begins only where one is no longer satisfied with results that can be expected and that do not show more than one has put in" (11f.).

It might seem that Adorno is not just attacking the artificial intelligence of a computer, but all logical thinking. For, the logical definition of a valid argument amounts to the claim that the conclusion of an argument cannot contain more information than the premises upon which it is based. If taken as attacking the idea of valid arguments, his claim about philosophical thinking, is just nonsense.

But perhaps he just meant to say that philosophical thinking is a kind of inductive thinking, or the kind of thinking in which we make generalizations on the basis of particular experiences that are strictly speaking insufficient to yield the conclusion. To be sure, this could not be for him simply the kind of inductive and statistical reasoning employed in empirical sociological research. It would have to do with generalizations from ideal types or a certain version of "the abstract" (Abstraktheit). He uses Hegel and a thoroughly misunderstood Kant to illustrate this kind of thinking. He also uses "American" expression of "armchair thinking" to clarify what he has in mind (15). It is for him an example of the "spiteful rancor against the one who sits and thinks" (15).

Adorno thought that even this entirely negative American attitude against pure thinking captures something important, namely the idea that thinking needs to be "about" something, that it cannot be empty meditation. While the "meditative aspect" is essential for him, because otherwise praxis would become "a conceptless business" (begriffsloser Betrieb), it needs material. "Thinking happens in working on a subject matter and in [the activity] of formulating; they provide the passive material of thinking. ... An adequate symbol for this would be the pencil or the fountain pen, who is held by someone who thinks, like it is reported of Simmel or Husserl, who apparently could only think by writing. This is similar to some writers who get their best thought by writing. Such instruments, which one actually does not even have to use, show that one cannot think without a plan, but must think of something. Texts that are to be interpreted or to be criticized therefore inestimably support the objectivity of thinking" (19).

Such texts include those that one has written before, be they notes of what one has read or drafts of what has written before or first formulations of thoughts based on them. The material means of thinking represented by the fountain pen imply paper on which these are written. There is no reason why keyboard, hard drive, and computer screen can fulfill the same function (if perhaps in a slightly different way.

Adorno can perhaps be excused for his wholesale rejection of what he thought was instrumentalized thinking because he did not actually see how a personal computer can be used in this context. But in the end his reflections on formalism and "cybernetic thinking" are just as inappropriate and inapposite as his unreflected dismissal of jazz, or so I would argue.

1. It is the introductory essay to his last book Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2 of 1969, called "Comments on Philosophical Thinking" (Anmerkungen zum philosophischen Denken), 11-19, 11. And this would hold, even if one were to agree that his view of "philosophical thinking" is defensible.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Derrida on the Word Processor

Derrida's paper "The Word Processor" is really a paper about the computer as a writing tool.[1] There is no indication in the paper that Derrida had any other use for the computer than as a replacement for the pen. He says: "I began writing with a pen, and I remained faithful to the pen for a long time (faith is the right word here), only transcribing 'final versions on the machine, at the point of separating from them ... The ... I wrote more and more 'straight onto the machine: first the mechanical typewriter, then the electric typewriter in 1979, then finally the computer, around 1986 or 1987" (20). He admits that he can't do without his "little Mac" any more. Like many of us, he "can't even remember or understand how [he] was able to get on before without it."

Protesting against Heidegger, he finds that having recourse to the computer, just as the use of the typewriter, "doesn't bypass the hand" (21). "It engages another another hand, another 'command,' so to speak another induction, another injunction from the body to hand and from hand to writing" (21). Therefore, it is not handless writing, as dictating into a tape recorder might be.

This, Derrida seems to think, is a good thing for Heideggerian reasons. He seems to believe with Heidegger that "the work of thinking is a handiwork, a Handlung, an 'action,' prior to any opposition between practice and theory. Thought, in this sense, would be a Handlung, a 'maneuver,' a 'manner,' a 'manner'" (21). Thinking is acting, and acting is thinking. And both of them are writing, just as writing is both thinking and acting. "The hand" is thus indispensable in thinking.

Perhaps it is possible to make some coherent sense out of these obfuscations. But I doubt it. Das Handwerk does not further thinking. Nor is thinking a matter of Handwerk. Perhaps both Heidegger and Derrida may be excused for thinking that there was a deep connection because it is just a fact neither of them learned one. And some people would argue that neither learned to think consistently either.

Derrida did, however, learn how to use a word processor on a Mac, and we may therefore trust his observations on word processing more. He obviously liked the cut and paste, the search and replace function, as well as "the mechanical spell-check" (26). But he does not think that these functions fundamentally change writing. "The word processor saves us an amazing amount of time; we acquire a freedom that we perhaps wouldn't have acquired without it. But the transformation is economic, not structural. There are all these time-saving devices in the finishing off or polishing stages: playing with italics; separating paragraphs; intervenon directly in lexical statistics ..." (26). He is also doubting that writing with a word processor has changed "what is written, even if it does modify the way of writing" (25). And he does not feel "the interposition of the machine as a sort of progress in transparency, univocity, or easiness" (21).

Perhaps Derrida is right in his evaluation of word processing. But the importance of whether or not he is right on this fades in comparison to the question of whether he ever came to realize that there are other aspects to thinking that have to do with the kind of note-taking, reflection, and writing that is best not done without the use of a word processor (and that is the subject of this blog).

But, be that as it may, these sober observations are embedded in some more fanciful speculation, some of which seem strangely at odds with them:
  • the electric typewriter and the computer may not "make the text 'too readable' and 'too clear' for us. the volume, the unfolding of the operation, obeys another organigram, another organology" (21). Whatever ...
  • "the computer maintains the hallucination of an interlocutor (anonymous or otherwise), of another 'subject' (spontaneous and autonomous, automatic) who can occupy more than one place and play plenty of roles: face to face for one, but also withdrawn: in front of us, for another, but also invisible and faceless behind its screen. Like a hidden god who's half-asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you" (22). Never had any of these experience, and find especially the last one downright weird.
  • He knows how to make the machine work, but has no idea how it works, or "how the internal demon the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys." This is for him a "secret without mystery" (23).
  • he computer "seems to restore a quasi immediacy of the text, a desubstantialized sbstance, more fluid, lighter, and so closer to speech, and even to so-called interior speech." You "have the feeling that you are dealing with a soul—will, desire, plan—of a Demiurge-Other," etc., etc., and of "the "Other-Unconscious" to boot (23).
  • "the written text becomes both closer and more distant. In this, there is another distancing and remoteness. re-mote here meaning a distancing of the removed, but also a distancing that abolishes the remote." Etc., etc. (25).
  • "The computer installs a new place: there one is more easily projected toward the exterior, toward the spectacle, and toward the aspect of writing that is thereby wrested away from the presumed intimacy of writing, via a trajectory of making it alien. Inversely, because of the plastic fluidity of the forms, their continual flux, and their quasi immateriality, one is also increasingly sheltered in a sort of protective haven" (27).
  • "I'm always wondering what would have happened to Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and even to Heidegger (who really knew without knowing the computer), if they had encountered this 'thing,' not only as an available tool but also as a subject for reflection" (30).

I don't understand any of this, but I have gotten clearer on why I don't understand Heidegger, "who really knew without knowing." If only I could manage to do this.

1. For the reference see previous post.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Derrida on Handwriting and Typewriters

Jacques Derrida, in an interview with La Quinzaine Littéraire in August 1996, was asked to comment on Heidegger's mystifaction of traditional trades, or what is called in German "das Handwerk." According to Heidegger, Handwerk is not concerned with public usefulness or making a profit.[1] In this way, it is similar to the work "of the thinker or the teacher who teaches thinking." He also thought that Handwerk qua work done by "the hand," is always in danger of being demeaned by the machine. And the danger for the thinker was in Heidegger's view the typewriter.[2]

Derrida is much more circumspect than Heidegger. He finds that "Heidegger's reaction was at once intelligible, traditional, and normative." It is understandable, but it is also too confidently dogmatic (19). Derrida correctly points out that "when we write 'by hand' we are not in the time before technology," as we are already using an instrument, a stylus, pen or pencil (20). He is also correct, when he points out that typing is "also 'manual.'" (20). "Having recourse to the typewriter or computer doesn't bypass the hand" (21). This is true of a manual just as much as it is of an electronic typewriter. And just as the use of an industrially manufactured plane does not make a carpenter less of a Handwerker, so the use of a typewriter does not diminish the thinker, or so one might argue.

So far so good, but Derrida cannot restrain himself in trying to out-Heidegger Heidegger. He actually goe on to argue that in typewriting our hand, or rather, our hands are even more engaged because "you do it more with the fingers—and with two hands rather than one" (21). Touch-typing engages our digits, and this leads him to make a terrible pun about all of this going down, "for some time to come, in a history of digitality" (21). Geez ...

More to come on Derrida on Word Processing.

1. See also Typewriters and Thinking and Adorno and Nietzsche on Thinking with a Typewriter.

2. I quote from Jacques Derrida, "The Word Processor," in Paper Machine, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 19-32

McLemee on Writing

Write on

"... juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks ..."

Without further comment.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Interesting Links

Interesting links concerning note-taking

Without further comment.

Exercising Control over how and what you Think

In the highly interesting 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace made some very important observations about the benefits of a college education: "As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

Yes, "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think" and to become "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to."

He goes on to claim that "if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master," finding that this cliché, like many others, "seems so lame and unexciting on the surface," but "actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger." I am not sure about the last point. But it does appear to me true that he is right in claiming that learning to exercise control over how and what we think is one of the (two or three) most important things a liberal education may provide one with.

Foster Wallace illustrates this point by describing a typical day of a typical adult with all the dreary and meaningless details of a daily commute home and the petty encounters during shopping for one's dinner. He explores several scenarios of usual thinking in such contests. First, our "natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way?" It's all about "number one."

Second, "if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers."

Third, "I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do." In other words, "if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer", etc.

While Foster Wallace does not want to moralize and tell us that we should or ought to think in the last way, he does suggest that a liberal education gives us a choice to think in this way—a way that ultimately leads to what he calls "worship." Because "in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly ... Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings."

The "real world" encourages you to run in the "default mode," but a liberal education frees you from this. In fact, the "really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

But do we need a liberal education for this? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Most religious instruction promises (and often provides) more or less the same "freedom," which in the end is a generalization of the "default mode." Let's not worry about me, let's worry about us. Let's not be self-centered, let's be centered on our neighbours just as much as on ourselves.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of thinking, but as the alternative way of the "default mode," and the way of choosing "how you construct meaning from experience," it seems to be rather more restrictive than necessary and, in spite of all assurances to the contrary, too moralistic. In the end, it's a loss of nerve ... or so it seems to me.

In any case, a liberal education should not just teach "how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think," it should also provide you with some other alternatives about what to think about, like the meaning of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Kant's system of the categories, or Aristotle's view of happiness. To be sure, that might be difficult on the commute home or in the super market. But is possible. The retreat into the "inner citadel" presupposes not just discipline but also knowledge. Nor is this knowledge restricted to the liberal arts. Thinking about how to improve a proof in mathematics or improving a program or script may have some of the same benefits.

And that's how it is related to note-taking in a fundamental way.