Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This appears to be no joke. There is a thing called WikiReader, that is, a standalone Wikipedia browser with a touch screen and the complete text of Wikipedia on a memory card. It only displays text, no images or files. It can't access the Internet either.

Apparently it costs $99.00. A one-year "subscription" for newer versions of Wikipedia costs another $29.00.

A Netbook would not be that much more expensive in the long run. What kind of useless device will they think of next?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Darnton on Commonplace Books

Robert Darnton claims in "Mysteries of Reading," Chapter 10 of The Case for Books that "when readers kept commonplace books," they read differently from today: "Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life ... It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality" (149f., see also 169).

This account is misleading in several ways:
  1. Commonplace books go back to antiquity, Erasmus's Copia is in some sense a faint echo of the practices of Seneca and Plinius. See Seneca on Gathering Ideas. There is nothing specifically "early modern" about them or the way of note-taking they favored. The only difference is that they were based on paper books, not on papyrus rolls.
  2. Modern readers—especially academic readers—tend to read in fits and starts as well. Just see Luhmann on Learning How to Read and Luhmann's Zettelkasten. Indeed, doing research with a slipbox largely depends on not following the narrative flow from beginning to end. It involves jumping from book to book and making entries "under an appropriate heading" on index cards and breaking the text into fragments to be re-assembled later. Such readers, of which I am one, later re-assemble the information into new patterns by shuffling the cards or re-arranging the notebooks. So, nothing would seem to have changed in this regard. However,
  3. It is a fundamental mistake to think that the commonplaces were arbitrary headings that could be re-arranged at will to "make" sense of the world. Commonplaces were "common places," i.e. places that everyone would recognize as places. They expressed the fixed nature of the closed universe in which the Renaissance thinkers were thinking and living. They did not make sense, they discovered pre-existing sense that they thought was independent from their subjective musings. In this context, the commonplace book would be your own book only in the sense that it contained your selection of the many (or copious) meanings that the world held independently of your subjective effort to understand it. In fact, notebooks "stamped with your personality" were later inventions, presupposing a universe not ordered by God or Nature. They clearly post-date Locke's suggestion to alphabetize one's commonplace book and are a much more recent phenomenon.
  4. Nor did commonplace books make their keepers into "authors" in any interesting sense, just because it did not force them "to write their own books" (170). They were copyists, no more no less.
  5. Commonplace books may have allowed their keepers to develop "a still sharper sense of themselves," but not "of themselves as autonomous individuals." They would more likely have become aware of being creatures, "driven and derided by vanity," largely dependent, if not on God's mercy, then on the forces of the universe.

The discovery of autonomy is, of course, an interesting story that has some interesting precedents in the Renaissance and Protestantism, but even Luther's "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders" is not so much an expression of autonomy as it is one of obedience to God. "So help me God" is the proper conclusion of this expression of defiance. Indeed, autonomy is not expressed in commonplace books. The ascend of the notion of autonomy rather wenht hand in hand with the decline of commonplacing, or so I would argue

Darnton on Books

I just bought Robert Darnton's The Case for Books. Past, Present and Future (New York: Public Affairs, 2009). It consists of a selection of essays on "the book" and "the Internet," written between 1982 and 2009. Most of them are form between 2000 and 2009, however.

The collection is presented as "an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present, and future," which does not deplore "electronic modes of communication" (vii). I have read most of the articles already, and I mainly bought it for the early ones, like "What is the History of Book" from 1982 and "Extraordinary Commonplaces" from 2000, which are not easily obtainable in other form.

Only the Introduction is strictly speaking new. What I liked most about it is a quote from a letter of Niccolo Perotti to Francesco Guarnerio written in 1471, (i.e. two decades after Gutenberg):

"My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently bbrought to us from Germany. In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year. ... It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we would have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be procured ... Yet—oh false and all too human thoughts—I see that things turned out quite differently [...] now that everyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, be erased from all books. and even when they write something worthwhile they twist and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books [...]"

The Internet did not change all that much.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heidegger on Language and Thought

Heidegger "spricht" German (with English subtitles).[1]

No further comment!

1. See also Typewriters and Thinking

Saturday, October 10, 2009


A nice and informative post on an old application.

No further comment!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rousseau on Writing

Rousseau lamented how long it took him to write, finding: "My scratched, written-over, muddled and illegible manuscripts bespeak the trouble they have cost me to write them. There is not one that I have not had to transcribe three two four times before sending it to the printer. I have never been able to do anything pen-in-hand, at a desk. It is on my walks among the rocks and trees, or at night, during my sleepless hours in bed, that I do my writing in my head and it may be guessed how slowly it all proceeds, especially for a man who has no verbal memory and has never been able to learn twenty verses by heart in his life. There are paragraphs which I have turned over and over in my mind for five or six nights in succession before they have been in fit shape to be put on paper."

Perhaps it would have been better, if he had committed the paragraphs to paper right away. See also Thinking on paper and the necessity of failure and Thinking on paper.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Greatness and the Absence of Footnotes

Let's call call "Searle's Principle" the belief that "philosophical quality varies inversely with the number of bibliographical references, and that no great work of philosophy ever contained a lot of footnotes."[1]

It appears that Searle came to hold this belief on the basis of "reading books by Wittgenstein, Austin, Strawson, Ryle, Hare, etc." Ryle's book, at least by this criterion, is the best just because it has none. It's just as easy as counting calories, and, as everyone knows, the fewer the calories, the better the quality of the food.

Never mind either that footnotes are a relatively recent phenomenon because it seems that nothing before Wittgenstein counts anyway. Kant, who, of course, does not show up in the Index, would be less than great, as there are several footnotes in most of his works.[2] Hume would not make the list of first-rate philosophical authors either.

Searle's principle seems to me just an expression of the kind of unthinking hubris philosophy can do without.

1. John R. Searle, (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1992), p. xiv.

2. But an Index is not important either, or so it may seem. On p. 17, we find, for instance, "... Kant's commonsense distinction between the appearances of things and things in themselves eventually led to the extremes of absolute idealism ..." Call me a stickler for details, but what may seem to us as a commonsense distinction was for Kant anything but ... and whether Kant's distinction straightforwardly "led to" the extremes of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel is at least an open question.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Which Are Better, Pens or Pencils?

An interesting discussion whose conclusion is: "What you choose to write with for your own personal use and pleasure is a decision that you and you alone must make and you and you alone can make. There's no right or wrong here, or best or worse, just you personal feeling for a device that suits your needs and satisfies your desires."

I would agree, though I mostly use mechanical pencils these days, since they are best for underlining and making marginal notes in books. What I used to do with pens, I now usually do with some sort of keyboard.

But don't just read the post for the conclusion.

No further comment!