A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Lost Tools of Learning

from "The Lost Tools of Learning," by Dorothy Sayers:
"Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase--reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti, or whatever tag comes first to hand--I will ask you to consider one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and occasionally pop out to worry us...
"Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

"Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?
"... Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? ...
"Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a 'subject' remains a 'subject,' divided by watertight bulkheads from all other 'subjects,' so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon--or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?
"Are you occasionally perturbed by the things written by adult men and women for adult men and women to read? We find a well-known biologist writing in a weekly paper to the effect that: 'It is an argument against the existence of a Creator' (I think he put it more strongly; but since I have, most unfortunately, mislaid the reference, I will put his claim at its lowest)--'an argument against the existence of a Creator that the same kind of variations which are produced by natural selection can be produced at will by stock breeders.' One might feel tempted to say that it is rather an argument for the existence of a Creator. Actually, of course, it is neither; all it proves is that the same material causes (recombination of the chromosomes, by crossbreeding, and so forth) are sufficient to account for all observed variations--just as the various combinations of the same dozen tones are materially sufficient to account for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and the noise the cat makes by walking on the keys. But the cat's performance neither proves nor disproves the existence of Beethoven; and all that is proved by the biologist's argument is that he was unable to distinguish between a material and a final cause.
A scholarly journal.  At least
as much so as the TLS.  Note
Green Lantern in TOC.
"Here is a sentence from no less academic a source than a front- page article in the Times Literary Supplement: 'The Frenchman, Alfred Epinas, pointed out that certain species (e.g., ants and wasps) can only face the horrors of life and death in association.' I do not know what the Frenchman actually did say; what the Englishman says he said is patently meaningless. We cannot know whether life holds any horror for the ant, nor in what sense the isolated wasp which you kill upon the window-pane can be said to 'face' or not to 'face' the horrors of death. The subject of the article is mass behavior in man; and the human motives have been unobtrusively transferred from the main proposition to the supporting instance. Thus the argument, in effect, assumes what it set out to prove--a fact which would become immediately apparent if it were presented in a formal syllogism. This is only a small and haphazard example of a vice which pervades whole books--particularly books written by men of science on metaphysical subjects.
"...  Yet there is elsewhere full recognition of the distressing fact that a man may be master in one field and show no better judgement than his neighbor anywhere else; he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it.
"I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, which offers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the 'distressing fact' that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them..."
(address delivered at Oxford, 1947)
 The Untergang des Abendlandes has been going on for a long time; as long as the trend away from education and toward training.  Ms. Sayers' example of the biologist expounding via logical fallacy on metaphysics can be multiplied today by actual scientists (i.e., physicists).  I am particularly struck by the fact that (in the first paragraph cited) she could drop in a Latin phrase either in the expectation that her auditors would understand on in deadpan to draw attention to the fact that they did not and such a tag would not actually "come first to hand."

"Modern" comes from the Latin modernis, meaning "today," and the Modern Ages are essentially the Age of Today, the Age of What's Happening Now, Baby!  The medievals, as Chesterton wrote, never worried about being medieval; but the moderns worry constantly about being modern.  Their greatest fear is being seen as "so last week."  Especially on minor points of popular culture. 

I was especially taken upon reading the speech that she could take the biologist for task for confusing material and final causation.  You go, girl!  Why is it important to distinguish them?  Because it helps you to avoid bad reasoning. 


  1. We find a well-known biologist writing in a weekly paper to the effect that: 'It is an argument against the existence of a Creator that the same kind of variations which are produced by natural selection can be produced at will by stock breeders.'

    Spooky. It's as if she was prescient. Either that or a certain segment of biologists hasn't gotten any brighter in the last 65 years.

  2. Arguments, especially bad ones, work best on folks who don't actually need to be persuaded.

  3. Yep. As you and I have both seen over on the esteemed John C Wright's blog, it's not so much making an argument that's hard, it's trying to talk with educated, credentialed people who haven't the vaguest idea what an argument even looks like, and yet have become convinced that they are perfectly reasonable. It's like they have somehow been perfectly inoculated against thought.

    It's an interesting to consider how, once education passed almost completely from the hands of the locals into the hands of the government, anything resembling reason - not just philosophy and logic, but things like math and science, too - have gradually become unteachable. Then, second-hand, history, literature, and all other branches of knowledge suffer, because once you can't reason, your mind is lying fallow just waiting for some Deconstructionist or Marxist or Hegelian to come along.

    A little Aristotle (and I have very little Aristotle) would sure be good.


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