Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Calvino on the Self

Italo Calvino wrote in one of the last paragraphs of Six Memos for the Next Millenium: "Who are we, who is each one of us if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things we have imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable." This is somehow to count as an important part of his apology of "the novel as a vast net" and the objection that the "multiplication of possibilities" in the novel moves it far away "from that unicum which is the self of the writer, his inner sincerity and the discovery of his own truth."

Somehow this rings false to me. He seems to confuse the self with the notes we take of ourselves and other things, or perhaps better, with what we construct out of these notes. We are, however, more than what we pay attention to whether we like it or not. Our body is not just our experience of the body. When it falls apart, we cease to be. Our relations to others put severe constraints on what can be "shuffled and reordered." Only in fiction is "every way conceivable" possibility—and perhaps not even there.

Calvino seems to have had a glimpse of this inconvenience, for he also says that the "answer that stands closest to [his] heart is something else: Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language ..." But this does not just identify the "self" with "work" in a rather simple-minded way but also asks for something that seems impossible to me. "Selves like ourselves" are just as limited in their perspective as we are and the thing in itself, even if it were to exist cannot be given speech.

We are not just "combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things we have imagined ... an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects" and we are not men or women "without qualities"—no matter how much we like to imagine ourselves to be such.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Coleridge is famous not just for his published writings, but also for his notebooks. He gave some of them highly ironic titles. Thus Notebook 56 was called: "Volatilia or Day-Book for bird-liming Small Thoughts, impounding Stray Thoughts, and holding for trial doubtful Thoughts."

Nice! He read a lot of Jean Paul.

No further comment!

Mary Gordon on Kant

Mary Gordon apparently quotes Immanuel Kant in her 2010 book on the Home. What it Means and Why It Matters (New York: Sterling) when she writes:
The house, the residence, is the only rampart against the dread of nothingness, darkness, and the obscurity of the past. Its walls contain all that mankind has patiently amassed over hundreds of centuries. It opposes escape, loss and absence by erecting an internal order, a civility, a passion of its own. Its liberty flourishes where there is stability and finitude, not openness and infinity. To be at home is to recognize life's slow pace and the pleasures of sedentary meditation ... Man's identity is thus residential, and that is why the revolutionary, who has neither hearth nor home, hence neither faith not law, epitomizes the anguish of errancy. The man without a home is a potential criminal.

The quotation cannot possibly be from Kant. He could not have written this. The language is all wrong. He himself did not have a house until late in his life. It would also be difficult to see how residential identity could displace the transcendental unity of apperception. Nor would Kant, who was decried as a Jacobin and vehement supporter of the French revolution in Königsberg, have been opposed to revolutionary activity in any way. He would never have identified himself and others by such externalities as a house. My first hunch was that the "quote" is from the nineteenth century, probably French, and illegitimately ascribed to Kant.

So, I was not surprised that she referred to to Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, ed. A History of Private Life. Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 342 as her source. Yet, this presumed quote cannot be found there either. In fact, Kant is not even mention on the page referred to. Again, no surprise, as vol. 3 of A History of Private Life is on the Renaissance, not on the eighteenth century. The passage can, however, be found in vol. 4 on p. 342 (i.e. it is at the page number Mary Gordon mentions). It is also identified as a quote from Kant there.

But the author of this part of A History of Private Life did not get the "quote" from a Kant himself either. Instead, she (Michelle Perrot) refers to Bernard Edelman, La Maison de Kant (Paris: Poyot, 1984), pp. 25-26. Looking at Edelman's The House that Kant Built. a Moral Tale (Toronto: Canadian Philosophical Monographs, 1987) 8-9, one can indeed find something very close to this passage, except it is not a quote from Kant, but represents Edelman's musings about what Kant must have meant.[1]

Kant, of course, meant nothing of the sort Edelman imputes to him! As a matter of fact, the "quote" is a twentieth-century French fabrication; and the main culprit in this deception seems to be Michelle Perrot.

Mary Gordon was deceived, but she should have checked. Furthermore, she heaps it on when she claims that "Kant never had guests" (35). On the contrary, he was, late in his life, famous for his dinner parties, as any reliable biography could have informed her. She obviously made no effort to find out the truth.

The rest of her book is just as shoddy as this passage.

If only Mary Gordon had taken proper notes!

1. Edelman speculates about Kant on the basis of scandalously sketchy and misleading research, though perhaps it would be better to say that he invents his evidence whole cloth.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Latour's Notebooks

In Reassembling the Social Bruno Latour claims that "tracing social connections" in effect amounts to "writing down accounts."[1] Furthermore, he finds that “good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it” (p. 124), and he goes on to claim that good sociologists should keep four different notebooks:
  1. “a log of the enquiry itself ... to document the transformation one undergoes by doing the travel” (p. 134).
  2. one for “gathering information”, structured both chronological divided into categories that can be further refined.
  3. one that is "always kept at hand" for “ad libitum writing”, i.e. for recording ideas during research.
  4. one “kept to register the effect of the written account on the actors whose world has been either deployed or unified (p. 135).
He says that he using the term "notebook ... rather metaphorically," as electronic files, films, and Web sites could also be substituted for paper notebooks (134n). The advice is meant for sociologists, but others might also benefit from thinking about the functions their notes should have. While I have no use for the fourth notebook, the other three are suggestive. I do far too little of the first.

1. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 122.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ziman on Information, Communication, and Knowledge

J. M. Ziman wrote in "Information, Communication, Knowledge" (Nature 224 (1969), 318-24:
the invention of a mechanism for systematic publication of fragments of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science." ... "a typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw -- not significant in itself but as an element in a grander scheme. This technique of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge, has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate collective power that is far greater than any one individual can exert. ... [Published] papers are not meant to be final statements of indisputable truths; each is merely a tiny tentative step forward, through the jungles of ignorance.

He also said: "Our present system of scientific communication depends almost entirely on [literature with] three basic characteristics: it is fragmentary, derivative, and edited. These characteristics are, however, quite essential."

It seems true to me that similar things can be said about individual efforts at note-taking: collect many small fragments, rather than begin with one big effort. The understanding is that the "editor" will make changes later and supervise the process. This, essentially, is the notebook method. I am not sure how important communication is, however, unless we include the notion of communication with a future self (which is, perhaps, not unimportant).

I came across Ziman in Lewis Thomas, (1978) The Lives of the Cell. Notes from a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), in the essay "On Societies as Organisms" (p. 15).

A Review of NoteSuite

WelcometoIsherwood has a nice review of NoteSuite.[1] Since I also have an iPad mini, I'll have to try it out.

No further comment!

1. See also this review. It also mentions Notebooks which seems like a promising application, if only because it can use text files.

John-Steiner on "Notebooks of the Mind"

During my holidays in Ohio and Indiana I bought at Karen Wykliff in Columbus a copy of Vera John-Steiner, Notebooks of the Mind. Explorations of Thinking (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985). I had read the second edition of 1997 before. I found it almost as disappointing this time around as I did the last time. Perhaps this disappointment is due to my interest in notebooks as instruments of thinking. The book is not literally about notebooks. John-Steiner describes the ways in which (she believes) creative thought emerges from the accumulation of fragments of ideas. It is more a psychological investigation of thinking than it is about notebooks. As she says herself: "To attempt to answer the question What is thinking?, I have turned to experienced and productive thinkers" (3). This is supposed to uncover "the largely hidden processes of the mind" (4). In observing "experienced thinkers" she hopes to show that one of the central challenges of creative work is the capture of images and other forms of "condensed thought," and the development of this private language into public, expressive language. Though she refers to Vygotsky only three times—the index lists only two occasions—it is clear that his conception of where and how the supposed lines between nonverbal thought and verbal expression meet is informing much of what she says.

While there are some interesting observations about the notebook method of taking notes and writing, she focuses on the supposed "invisible tools" of thinking. There are chapters on visual, verbal, and scientific thinking, as well as a chapter on "the languages of emotion" and a conclusion on the "creativity of thinking." Talk of physical notebooks enters mainly through quotations and descriptions of what the experienced thinkers took themselves to be doing. I'd wish there was more discussion of the visible tools than speculations about what remains invisible.

The visible tool is filtered out almost completely and comes in only by accident, as it were, as on p. 129 where she observes how Anthony Burgess's writing illustrates "the lively interplay between completed work and the next stages in writing." He says: "I chart a little at first ... list of names, rough synopses of chapters, and so on. But one doesn't over-plan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing."

John Steiner quotes Jerome Bruner on p. 2, who observed: "we know little about the use of the notebook, the sketch, the outline in reflective work." We know little more about this subject after reading "Notebooks of the Mind," if only because the mind is not a notebook in any literal sense. In fact, we need notebooks (card indexes, software and other affordances) just because the mind is not a notebook—except, perhaps, in a metaphorical sense.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Martin Gardner on Index Cards and Newspaper Files

From an interview with Martin Gardner of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener "fame": "Martin Gardner: Yes, my files are my number one trade secret. It began in college with 3 by 5 file cards that I kept in ladies shoe boxes. I had a habit then (this was before copy machines) of destroying books by slicing out paragraphs and pasting them on cards. A friend once looked through my cards on American literature and was horrified to discover I had destroyed several rare first editions of books by Scott Fitzgerald.

When I began to earn some money I moved the cards into metal file cabinets, and started to preserve complete articles and large clippings and correspondence in manila folders. These folders are now in some twenty cabinets of four or five drawers each. And I have a large library of reference books that save me trips to the library. I have not yet worked up enough courage to go on line for fear I would waste too much time surfing the Internet."

He kept up with his "interests by taking scores of periodicals that deal with topics I may write about, especially science and math journals. (See The Mind at Play in the Skeptical Inquirer for more.)

I must say that I never cared very much for him as a philosopher. He always reminded me of the "modest expert" Robertson Davies emulated.