Thursday, March 4, 2010

Contra originalis

An alert reader writes me to point out an essay Out There in the Blogosphere:
> I'd be interested to see your reaction to this:
> Summary: "[I]n all those disciplines where we have reliable quantatative [sic] measurements of progress (with the obvious exception of history) returning to the original works of past great thinkers is decidedly unhelpful. Therefore at the very least anyone who wishes to claim that reading past great thinkers in the original (be it Plato, Keynes, Aristotle or whomever) has a substantial argumentative burden to meet and until they do the assumption should be against spending time doing so."

Now, one's first reaction is to say, "I think I'll wait and read a commentator on this rather than the original essay.  That is, I will read what someone says he wrote, rather than what he actually did write. 


There are some obvious problems with this approach which might give even Mr. Gerdes pause. 
This becomes especially evident when one reads what someone has written about what someone has written about what someone has written about ... what someone has written.  Mr. Gerdes does not see this because he works in the field of computers, which is more art than science.  If one is troubled about how best to accomplish some task or even how to prove a mathematical theorem most efficiently [i.e., to improve the beauty of the proof], then the original thinker may not have provided the most efficient recursion or constructed the most elegant proof or even unpacked his own ideas most thoroughly.  He or she has only been totally original, because it is, after all, a very different thing to find one's way to the destination before one is sure the destination is there than it is to find a short cut to a destination to which one already knows one way.  If one of the goals of graduate mathematical training is to think originally, it might be useful to study original thinkers. 

It is also evident that Mr. Gerdes believes in scientism, since he places such great weight on those sciences with "reliable quantitative measurements" versus those sciences in which this is not so.  Somehow, the ability to measure material bodies with great precision has been equated with the wisdom of the ages, and any knowledge not attained by this means can be dismissed as "bullshit."  So much for art, literature, music, philosophy, history, and the like.  Curiously, he makes an exception of "history" and threatens us with another essay covering "literature."  [Presumably, we are to read commentators on Shakespeare rather than Shakespeare.] 

We are tempted to believe that by "history" he means a compilation of facts "scientifically" arrived at.  There is no need to read Mr. Gerdes original essay; this distillation, by his own argument, is sufficient. 

On the Nature of Knowledge and Understanding
I’d like to ... focus on subjects like philosophy and economics where (at least in theory) the aim is to genuinely progress towards a (more) accurate/useful understanding.

I think he means "knowledge" rather than "understanding," although the term he wants is "wisdom."  That term "wisdom" is out of fashion these days.  Who needs a word to describe what is so little found?  Basically, understanding is a grasp of first principles, knowledge (scientia) a grasp of proximate causes, and wisdom a grasp of final causes.  The Modern rejection of final causes, though purely pro forma [pun intended] also entails a rejection of wisdom. 

The term"useful" sticks out like a sore Baconian thumb: the now hoary notion that the purpose [final cause] of science is to be useful.  This has led at the end of the Modern Ages to science being led around by the useful ring in its nose toward desired conclusions rather than toward knowledge as its proper object.  It is use ("know how") that marks art apart from science ("know").  Nothing in what follows in his essay shows much acquaintance with philosophy - except his dismissal of Hegel, in which he displays much wisdom!  [LOL!] 

But he also shows much faith in the Cult of Progress.  The term progress took on its modern meaning at the beginning of the Modern Ages, the first ages in history when people began to worry about whether they were de mode and often displayed pathological fear of being out-of-date.  That is so yesterday.  Previously, of course, "progress" had meant only motion through space as toward a destination.  "The king made a progress of his country."  But people like Darwin and Gould fought bitterly against the modernist notion of "progress" as applied to evolution. In a way, they showed a touch of the postmodern. 

I find it genuienly [sic] perplexing why one would ever feel the need to read the originals rather than the digested and improved material found in modern expositions as one does in math of [sic] physics

Well one reason is that those other topics are not math or physics.  And notice the postmodern betrayal.  He assumes that people "feel" the need to read, not that they "think" they ought to read. 

But even in math and physics it is helpful to read original thinkers if for no other reason than to capture the original thought.  Now, for the technician, there is no need.  The technician only need learn the steps or algorithm to follow to get expeditious and useful results.  It is no more necessary to know the thinking than it is for an auto mechanic to know thermodynamics.

It often happens that the original conclusions were based upon a construction of facts according to certain assumptions.  In casting about for an "engine" to power evolution, Darwin seized upon Malthus' anti-socialist tract and concocted "the struggle for existence."  As evolutionary theory was unravelling in the 1920s, the rediscovery of genetics provided a new basis.  No one paused to wonder whether if X "made sense" under assumptions A, it still made sense under assumptions B.  This often happens when we rely on what someone said about what someone said about what someone said.  Somewhere along the way, crucial assumptions may be dropped out or glossed over and it is no longer clear whether the new conclusions are as firmly based as the old ones.  In developing his general relativity theory, Einstein declared that "space and time are deprived of the last trace of objective reality."  Yet many physicists today believe both that general relativity is true and that space and time are objectively real. 

When Descarted began his project of mathematizing physics, his belief was that since math was without error - a proof was a proof - a mathematical physics would be without error.  We now realize he was mistaken in his beliefs; but never stop to wonder what this implies about our obsession with mathematizing everything, relying on the outputs of computer models, etc. 

Reading the Original Compared to Direct Observation of the Raw Data

The not-so-hidden assumption in Mr. Gerdes' plaint is that the modern expositions really are "digested and improved material."  Sometimes it is so: Plotinus (left) on Plato (right), for example.  But how are we to know this?  In math and physics, it is simple; but the customs of math and physics might not be followed in other villages.  More importantly, the matter may differ.  That is precisely why one needs some familiarity with the original.  People who have never read Copernicus are apt to believe that he was a great scientist.  Those who have read his work know he was a very good computer and geometer, but no scientist at all.  On the other hand, in a philosophy textbook my granddaughter checked out from the library, Aquinas' cosmological proof was misrepresented and this misrepresentation was easily rebutted.  (Which perhaps it was meant to be.) 

So it is not always the case that modern expositions are "digested and improved material."  How are we to judge whether the modern distillation and summary on which we rely really is "digested and improved" unless we know what matter it is supposed to have digested or to have improved upon?  Are we dealing with a Plotinus improving on Plato or on a Dawkins totally misrepresenting Aquinas. 

Reading the original is the philosophical-historical equivalent of the scientist making actual observations of nature rather than relying on the literature.  Now, most conclusions in science are taken on faith, even by other scientists.  No one has the time or inclination to repeat the patient observations of a Darwin or the careful experiments of a Newton or a Harvey.  Instead, we take their data for granted and simply learn their conclusions as "given."  That is why they are clung to with such ferocity: things learned in school from revered and trusted teachers are always held with greater confidence.  Basically, Mr. Gerdes is repeating Origen's response to the criticism than not all Christians were philosophers.  Who has the time for all that airy-fairy stuff.  We have practical work to do.  And so the Christian, no less than the scientist, must rely on received wisdom. 

On the Nature of Total Bullshit

I would point out the fact that there are many different mutually contradictory disciplines of theology (every major world religion has one). Thus regardless of your religious views (and especially if you are an atheist) you must admit that there are academic disciplines which are totally bullshit. ... Hence, we must all admit there are situations where academic disciplines are convinced of the important of reading influential past thinkers in the original despite even though [sic] it provides no actual benefit.

Leave aside that Mr. Gerdes does not know theology.  (Not every religion has one.  The term is Western.  Muslim kalam comes close; but there was no such discipline in other traditions.)  That two schools of theology differ does not mean that one or the other (let alone both) are "totally bullshit."  Ibn Rushd famously disagreed with ibn Sinna (left) on the nature of being - a disagreement that is almost impossible for the modern mind to penetrate, since it regards matters now taken for granted in Western thought - but Aquinas managed to incorporate both by transcending both.  They may have been wrong and mutually contradictory, but that was because they were incomplete.  Nine blind men may describe an elephant in apparently contradictory terms, but a sighted man sees that they are all incorrect and yet also correct in part. 

Apparently, "totally bullshit" means "not math or physics."  But if there are five or so mutually contradictory disciplines of quantum theory, does that make quantum physics "totally bullshit"? 

Now, those who urge us to go back to the original data - i.e., to the original thinkers - do not by that disparage later thinkers.  Plotinus has much to say about Plato's philosophy, and was largely the originator of "neoPlatonism."  Of course, Mr. Gerdes might regard Plotinus as a bit too original for his taste.  Similarly, ibn Sinna and ibn Rushd (not to mention Philoponus) were commentators on Aristotle, and Aquinas drew on them for his own thinking; but again one suspects Mr. Gerdes would accuse "Avicenna," "Averroes," and "Aquinas" [the A-team] of being "original" and would much rather rely on what, perhaps, Dawkins claimed they said rather on what they really said.

And here is where the reading in the original becomes useful.  What exactly did Plato mean by contrasting τò ớν with τò γιγνόμενον?  [And no, I don't have the Greek to tell you.  I have to rely on Latin translations, and even those are slow going these days.]  Or what of Aquinas' contrast of ens with essentia?  Is that why Anselm's "ontological proof" is more sensible in Latin?  Sometimes, matters that are confused in English become clear in Latin.  The word anima means life and also means soul; so in Latin the question whether a man has life/soul is self-evident and the only matter in dispute is the form of life/soul he possesses.  This is not so clear in English, and one should at least be aware of such difficulties.  So certainly, one should read what Gilson says about Aquinas, or even Feser's "Beginner's Guide"; but one should also note that Gilson always cites original texts in the Latin, so that one may refer directly to them and Feser provides the footnotes to enable one to do the same. 


In The Atlantic magazine (Jul/Aug 08), Nicholas Carr famously asked Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Those who have been conditioned by the Internet may find original texts next to impossible to read.  They require a degree of concentrated attention span that is becoming progressively more difficult to muster.  Mr. Gerdes' complaint may be less that of someone desiring easy-to-read summaries over difficult-to-read originals than the last railing of a faithful and believing Modern who finds himself -- will he, nill he -- falling into postmodern ways.

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