Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The High Priori road

Let others creep by timid steps, and slow,

On plain experience lay foundations low,

By common sense to common knowledge bred,

And last, to Nature's Cause through Nature led.

All-seeing in thy mists, we want no guide,

Mother of Arrogance, and Source of Pride!

We nobly take the high Priori Road,*

And reason downward, till we doubt of God

Alexander Pope ("The Dunciad" 1742, IV, lines 465-72)

In a footnote, Pope refers to Hobbes, Spinoza, and Descartes.

"Allow me to congratulate you upon the felicity with which you have thus 'taken the high priori road,' and endeavoured to depreciate an anonymous letter, by declaring the correspondent to be drunk." John Cam Hobhouse (A defence of the people, in reply to Lord Erskine's "Two defences of the Whigs", 1819)

"The second, or physical part of science, embracing all those inductive studies respecting unliving or unorganized bodies, which proceed mainly through out ward observation or experiment, and can as yet make little progress in 'the high priori road'." Sir William Hamilton ("Inaugural Address," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1838)

"With the economists who take the 'high priori road,' and anticipate the results of science by assuming the facts from which their principles are deduced, I presume not to contend." Robert Torrens ("A letter to the Right Honourable Lord John Russell on the ministerial measure forestablishing poor laws in Ireland...,"1838)

"He promised to lead us up to the great truth of all religion by a new path, -- to 'nobly take the high priori road, and reason downwards'; but, after a little digression, he conducts us back again to the old travelled way, where alone we can obtain firm footing." (anon, Review of On Natural Theology by Thomas ChalmersThe North American Review, 1842)

"I am unable to see why we should be forbidden to take the shortest cut from these sufficient premises to the conclusion, and constrained to travel the 'high priori road,' by the arbitrary fiat of logicians." John Stuart Mill (A System of Logic, 1843)

"Those who have been led to regard the method of empirical psychology as the only method which preserves the reality of things, by preventing the thinker from overriding and destroying the facts of life, minister to their own self-satisfaction by taunting the speculative thinker with going along the 'high priori road' he has constructed for himself above and beyond the real world. The charge can only provoke a smile in those who know how wide of the mark it really is. Speculative philosophy makes no pretensions to the 'construction' of reality in the ordinary sense of the word, but only to such an explanation of reality as shall account for the facts in their completeness." John Watson (Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1878)

The "scientific claims [of Spencer's method] are plainly declared in chapter v., on 'Ways of judging Conduct'; from which we learn that Mr. [Herbert] Spencer's way of judging it is to be a high priori road." Henry Sidgwick (Mind, 1880) (Spencer's reply)

"A good many evolutionists have been floored by a serious interruption to the continuity of their 'high priori' road, and not a few of them do not yet know just what has hurt them. That such an evanescent and unsubstantial condition as consciousness should have the gravity necessary to throw a triumphant army of advance into confusion, could hardly be suspected." A. S. Packard, Jr. and E. D. Cope (The American Naturalist, 1882)

"If, now and again, frequenters of 'the high priori road' have been less vocal in [Mind's] pages, it is only because they have not chosen to make use of the opportunity of utterance here afforded." George Croom Robertson (Mind, 1891)

"In view of these facts it seems advisable to travel the 'high priori road' as far as it will take us, and for the rest, to rely on our best experience and judgment." Archibald Lamont Daniels ("The Measurement of Saw Logs and Round Timber," Journal of Forestry, 1905) (Daniels was a math professor at the University of Vermont, see pp. 43-44 of this pdf published by his dept.)

"Ryle's extraordinary confidence that he knows what is a 'howler' and what isn't contrasts very oddly with the delicacy of a philologist's discussion of synonyms. The 'high priori road' is not yet dead in Oxford, after all." John Passmore ("Professor Ryle's Use of 'Use' and 'Usage'," Philosophical Review, 1954)

"We cannot then take a 'high priori road' out of our dilemma, by defining 'free' in terms of paradigm cases." A. C. MacIntyre (Mind, 1957)

Also, in 1967, R. S. Crane titled a book chapter "Criticism as Inquiry; or, The Perils of the 'High Priori Road'" (in The idea of the humanities, and other essays critical and historical)

"In literature, as in other subjects, the best students are those who respond to intellectual honesty, who distrust the high priori road, and who sense that there may be some connection between limited claims and unlimited rewards." Northrop Frye (Contemporary Literature, 1968)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Ipsedixitism, Part 1

"Ipsedixitism: dogmatic assertion or assertiveness" (Merriam-Webster)

"Ipse dixit: an arbitrary and unsupported assertion" (Collins)

"Ipsedixitism: ... the practice of dogmatic assertion" (The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: The Century dictionary, 1889).  

The charge applies when one makes an assertion without giving supporting reasons. 

The word 'ipsedixitism' was introduced into English by Jeremy Bentham. He used the word and several of its cognates in his Deontology; or the Science of Morality, a manuscript that was edited by his literary executor, Sir John Bowring, and published posthumously in 1834. 

In an essay that he contributed to that edition, Bowring traced the expression to Cicero

The appellative of ipse-dixitism is not a new one; it comes down to us from an antique and high authority, —it is the principle recognised (so Cicero informs us) by the disciples of Pythagoras. Ipse (he, the master, Pythagoras), ipse dixit, —he has said it; the master has said that it is so; therefore, say the disciples of the illustrious sage, therefore so it is.(Bowring, "History of the Greatest-Happiness Principle," [pp. 287-331, at pp. 322-323], in Jeremy Bentham, Deontology; or, The Science of Morality: in which the Harmony and Co-Incidence of Duty and Self-Interest, Virtue and Felicity, Prudence and Benevolence, are explained and exemplified. Vol. I. 'Arranged and edited by John Bowring.' London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Browne, Green, and Longman, 1834)

Bowring's aetiology resembles the one given in Bentham's "Article on Utilitarianism: Long Version," according to which:

This appellative is not a new one invented for the present purpose, but an old one borrowed from an antique and consequently high authority. It is the principle pursued, so Cicero informs us, by the disciples of Pythagoras. 'Ipse' (referring to Pythagoras) 'ipsedixit': 'He has said the matter is so and so, therefore', said a disciple of the illustrious sage, 'so it is'. ("Article on Utilitarianism: Long Version," in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. 5, Deontology together with A Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, ed. Amnon Goldworth [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983], p. 305, n. 43) 

It is difficult to determine the author of this last remark. Is it Bentham or Bowring? The editor of the quoted volume, Amnon Goldworth, writes that Bowring wrote sections of Bentham's posthumous works (and did not note when he had done so), adding that since parts of the original manuscript no longer exist, it is impossible sometimes to determine whether a given passage was penned by Bentham or by Bowring. Even if it was written by Bowring, Goldworth says that Bowring had discussed these works with Bentham many times and took himself, when he added material, to be adding only what Bentham had said. 

Both of the above quotations mention Cicero's criticism of the Pythagoreans, which appears in paragraph 10, Book I, of Cicero's De Natura Deorum (The Nature of the Gods). Cicero wrote as follows: 

Those who seek my personal views on each issue are being unnecessarily inquisitive, for when we engage in argument we must look to the weight of reason rather than authority. Indeed, students who are keen to learn often find the authority of those who claim to be teachers to be an obstacle, for they cease to apply their own judgement and regard as definitive the solution offered by the mentor of whom they approve. I myself tend to disapprove of the alleged practice of the Pythagoreans: the story goes that if they were maintaining some position in argument, and were asked why, they would reply: 'The master said so', the master being Pythagoras. Prior judgement exercised such sway that authority prevailed even when unsupported by reason. (Cicero: The Nature of the Gods, ed. and trans. Peter G. Walsh, [Oxford University Press, 1997; electronic: 2016], Book I, paragraph 10; DOI: 10.1093/actrade/

Here is the same passage in H. Rackham's 1933 translation (in the Loeb series), with the original Latin on the facing page (and also available here). 

According to Cicero, a Pythagorean was prone to appeals to authority, resting his/her claims on their assertion by someone whose word provides insufficient support. This error of reasoning is not the same one as making assertions without giving supporting reasons. After all, the Pythagoreans did offer a reason for their claims ('Pythagoras said it!') even if not a very good one. So, the error of ipsedixitism, as defined at the beginning of this post, is not the error that Cicero charged the Pythagoreans with committing. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Afterwit: knowledge that comes too late

Afterwit, a handy word that seems to have faded from common use in the 17th century.

The OED offers these two definitions:
Recognition of a mistake made earlier, leading to a change in one's actions, views, etc.
Wisdom acquired after the event, typically too late to be of use. 
Most of the OED's examples of the word's use are drawn from the 1500s and 1600s.

Here are some other definitions:

Websters: "wisdom or perception that comes after it can be of use";
The American Encyclopaedic Dictionary: "wisdom, which comes after the event which it is designed to affect"; and
The Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference: "wisdom that comes too late."

The ever resourceful Samuel Johnson defined 'afterwit' as, "The contrivance of expedients after the occasion of using them is past."

I like the gloss given by T. J. B. Spencer in his 1980 edition of John Ford's play The Broken Heart (1633), where 'afterwit' is "knowledge that comes too late." (Manchester University Press, p. 160 n. 12)

The word made it to America, where it was used by Captain Edward Johnson (1599-1672) in his Wonder-working providence of Sions Saviour in New England. (1654). The word lingered long enough in American memory to make it into the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who took the pseudonym 'Anthony Afterwit.'

As a fictional character's name, 'Afterwit' appears to have been a popular satirical device. In his journal Champion (1739), Henry Fielding took the name Afterwit while penning a letter to Captain Hercules Vinegar (another of Fielding's pseudonyms). A 'Mrs. Afterwit' figures in Issue No. 652 of Addison and Steele's Spectator. (Feb. 28, 1715, pp. 76-77) More than fifty years earlier, John Wilson applied the name to a royalist character in The Cheats (1663). And William Burnaby had two characters discuss a Sir Humphrey Afterwit in Act IV (Scene I) of his 1700 play, The reform'd wife a comedy.

In 1600, Samuel Nicholson wrote a poem called 'Acolastus his after-wit'. We also find the word 'afterwit' in this passage from Ch. 12 of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy: "Trust me, dear Yorick, this unweary pleasantry of thine will sooner or later bring thee into scrapes and difficulties, which no afterwit can extricate thee out of." Finally, in the 9th episode of his Ulysses ('Scylla and Charybdis'), James Joyce writes, "Afterwit. Go back."

In the 20th century, the word survived in the dialect of Yorkshire, where it was said that "Durham folks are troubled with afterwit."

Such dialect uses preoccupied an anonymous author in the Guardian in 1943. On Sept. 20 and 22, 'afterwit' is the focus of the column headed 'Miscellany'. In the first entry, 'afterwit' is defined as realizing a witty retort too late to be of use and, so, is assimilated to Diderot's l'esprit de l'escalier. The author credits a correspondent from Lancashire with bringing 'afterwit' to his attention. In the second entry, the author reports that (according to some readers) the word occurs more often in Yorkshire than Lancashire. S/he adds that 'afterwit' is sometimes replaced by 'latter-wit', especially when preceded by the phrases 'troubled with ...' and 'plagued by ...'. The author then says, "In the OED version the 'wit' of afterwit has to do with knowledge rather than repartee; the word means after-knowledge as opposed to fore-knowledge." (p. 3)

On March 20, 1931 (p. 6), the Washington Post reprinted a piece from the London Times under the heading 'Afterwit'. The author uses the phrase "the pangs of afterwit" and "troubled by afterwit" and asks "whether afterwit is a blessing or a curse." S/he adds, "Is it preferable to go on in blithe unconsciousness that we might have done so much better, or to become painfully aware of opportunity gone by; to be permanently stupid, or to be wise too late? The choice is hard."

Friday, April 17, 2020

Misology - a hatred of argument, reasoning, or enlightenment

"Misology: a hatred of argument, reasoning, or enlightenment." That's Merriam-Webster's definition. Here's the definition in Dagobert Runes' Dictionary of Philosophy (1942): "Misology: (Gr. miseo: to hate; logia: proposition) A contempt for logic." In the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1902), James Mark Baldwin gives this definition:
Misology [Gr. ...] : Ger. Misologie ; Fr. misologie ; Ital.misologia. Hatred and despair of reason.Sometimes applied to intellectual PESSIMISM. (v. 2, The Macmillan Company, 1902)
Closely related is "misologia: an aversion to speaking or arguing" (APA Dictionary of Psychology).

The Wikipedia entry for misology provides an interesting history of the word. It notes the occurrence of the ancient Greek μισολογία in Plato's Phaedo (89d). Wikipedia also identifies Kant's use of the German "Misologie" in the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (395.32, 1785), where Kant defines it as a 'hatred of reason.' According to Henry Hitchings, Samuel Taylor Coleridge based his use of "misology" on Kant's misologie.

Webster's pegs the introduction of the English "misology" as being "circa 1834." The online version of Webster's does not identify the source. I believe the author of the Webster's entry had in mind the appearance of "misology" in an article in The Quarterly Review by Henry Nelson Coleridge, nephew and son-in-law of the great romantic poet. ("The Poetical works of S. T. Coleridge," The Quarterly Review, No. 103 [1834], p. 21) The article was published anonymously in 1834, but here is a cleaner copy of it with H. N. Coleridge identified as its author.

Henry Coleridge used "misology" while quoting his famous uncle's assessment of Goethe's epic poem: "The intended theme of the Faust is the consequences of a misology, or hatred and depreciation of knowledge, caused by an originally intense thirst for knowledge baffled." (Ibid.) Henry C. seems to have based the quotation on some written record of his uncle's 'table talk', since the same passage appears in the "Table Talk" entry for February 16, 1833. Apparently, S. T. Coleridge also applied "misology" to some religious sects in his book annotations.

In his 1992 article, James McKusick counts "misology" among Coleridge's "merely bizarre" coinages. (James C. McKusick, "'Living Words': Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Genesis of the 'OED' Modern Philology, Vol. 90 [1992]: 1-45, at 20) In fact, though, Coleridge was not the first author to use the word in English.

I found an earlier use of "misology" in John Richardson's 1819 translation of Kant's Logik (1800): Logic from the German of Emmanuel Kant. (London: Printed for W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1819) Here is an excerpt from Richardson's translation:
Who hates science, but does not love wisdom the less on that account, is named a misologist. Misology commonly arises from a want of scientific knowledge, and from a certain sort of vanity therewith conjoined. And sometimes those, who at first cultivated the sciences with great diligence and success, but in the end found no satisfaction in all their knowledge, fall into the fault of misology. (p. 32)
I have consulted Thomas Taylor's 1793 translation of Plato's Phaedo (esp. 89d2-3), and did not find any use there of "misology." Rather than using a single word for Plato's term, Taylor uses the phrase "hatred of reason." (Four Dialogues of Plato: The Cratylus, Phædo, Parmenides and Timæus, [1793], pp. 197-8) It may be, though, that some earlier translator of Plato's work into English used "misology."

Professor Mark Mercer has a pdf entitled "In Defence of Misology."

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Misosophy: hatred of wisdom. A label applied to Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Papists, Positivists, and Calvinists

Misosophy, n. Hatred of wisdom. So says the OED. The earliest use of the word cited by the OED is in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's posthumously published "Notes of Hooker" (in the 1830s).  Coleridge there writes,
There are, and can be, only two schools of philosophy, differing in kind and in source. Differences in degree and in accident, there may be many; but these constitute schools kept by different teachers with different degrees of genius, talent, and learning; — auditories of philosophizers, not different philosophies. Schools of psilology (the love of empty noise) and misosophy are here out of the question.
About forty years before Coleridge's coinage, Bertrand Capmartin de Chaupy wrote a book called  Philosophie des lettres, qui aurait pu tout sauver. Misosophie voltairienne, qui n'a pu que tout perdre, which translates roughly as Philosophy of letters, which could have saved everything. Voltairian misosophy, which could only lose everything. (Paris, chez Mme. Dufresne, au Palais royale, 1790, 2 volumes)

"Misosophy" pops up  in a philosophical dictionary in 1878:
MIS, MISO.-1. (Gr. [...], to hate;) in a number of compounds, as misagathy, hatred of the good; misandry and misanthropy, hatred of men; misarety, hatred of virtue; misogyny, misology, misosophy, misotheism. 2. From the Germanic languages, denoting wrong, failure, defect, as misdeed, mistrust, misuse. (Charles Porterfield Krauth, A Vocabulary of the Philosophical Sciences: [Including the Vocabulary of Philosophy, Mental, Moral and Metaphysical, by William Fleming, from the 2d Ed., 1860: and the 3d, 1876, Ed. by Henry Calderwood, LL. D.], Sheldon & Company, 1878, p. 770)
The word appeared in religious controversies. For instance, here's the barrister Henry Thomas Braithwaite in 1872: "That therefore is misosophy which discourages spoken petitions to the Throne of Grace on the plea that a Spirit cannot hear words." (Esse and Posse: A Comparison of Divine Eternal Laws and Powers [London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1872], p. 252)

In 1880, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne used the term in a dig at Carlyle. I can't resist quoting the whole intriguing passage:
Four principles of thought, we may say, are here impeached and impugned: a double enemy is assailed by the lover of faith and reason, love and hope, in the militant materialism of Papists and Positivists; by the lover of justice and mercy, humanity and freedom, in the Catholic philosophy of de Maistre and the Calvinistic misosophy of Carlyle. And if the sarcasms on theology seem to any reader more keen and violent than the satire on any other form of unbelief or infidelity to the truth as here conceived, he should remember that superstition with a lining of materialism is surely a worse thing than materialism stark naked; and that while it is palpably possible to be a materialist without being a Christian, it is implicitly impossible to be a Christian without being a materialist. ("Victor Hugo: Religions et Religion," Fortnightly Review no. 162 [June 1, 1880], p. 763)
WHEW! A few years later, Henry Hayman slaps the label on German pessimism, especially the thought of Schopenhauer and Hartmann("Pessimism," The Churchman No. 62 [November, 1884], pp. 113-125, at p. 124)

In these late 19th-Century cases, the authors take themselves not to be introducing a new word when they use "misosophy," unlike some later authors. For example, the word was re-invented (or reconstructed from the ancient Greek roots) by the Congregationalist theologian Peter Taylor Forsyth in 1915. He wrote, "Its Christianity has at heart always protested against its philosophy, or rather, if one may coin a word, its misosophy." (P. T. Forsyth, "Faith, Metaphysic, and Incarnation," The Methodist Review [September, 1915], p. 701

I cannot tell whether Gilbert Ryle thought he was coining a new term when he wrote the following: "A fraternity of persons of kindred credulities could only constitute a school of 'misosophy'." ('Taking Sides in Philosophy,' Philosophy 12 [Jul., 1937]: 317-332, at 318-319) His decision to flag the term with quotation marks suggests that he might have (thanks to Bernard Kobes for this observation).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr attributes the coinage of the word (or of its German equivalent) to Hermann Türck, a 19th-Century critic of Nietzsche. Here's Nasr:
The result has been the creation of philosophies which, from the traditional point of view, could only be called monstrous and which can only be characterized as what the German scholar H. Türck has called 'misosophy', that is, the hatred rather than love of wisdom and which others have considered as 'antiphilosophy'. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred: Revisioning Academic Accountability, State University of New York Press [19889], p. 43)
Türck did this in applying the term to his opponents (Nietzsche, Stirner, and Ibsen), contrasting these putative egoists with persons of true genius.

In The Way of Phenomenology(Pegasus [1970], p. 23, n. 4) Richard M. Zaner credits Gabriel Marcel with inventing the word. Zaner cites Marcel's book Man against Mass Society. (Regnery, [1952], trans. G. S. Fraser) Marcel's book (Les hommes contre l'humain) appeared first in French in 1951. (La Colombe) Since the libraries are closed, I cannot find hard copies of Marcel's book (in translation or in the original French), so it is difficult to determine what Marcel wrote. Based on some web searching, Marcel seems to have written (in G. S. Fraser's translation) of a
civilization in which technical progress is tending to emancipate itself more and more from speculative knowledge, and finally to question the traditional rights of speculative knowledge, a civilization which, one may say, finally denies the place of contemplation and shuts out the very possibility of contemplation, such a civilization, I say, sets us inevitably on the road towards a philosophy which is not so much a love of wisdom as a hatred of wisdom: we ought rather to call it a misosophy. (Man Against Mass Society, p. 48)
Finally, there is Gilles Deleuze's remark in his 1968 book Différence et répétition: "Everything begins with misosophy." (Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, [1994])

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Byron's quarantine poem, another de-motivational post

Yesterday, I posted about Leibniz's uninspiring time in quarantine.

Byron, too, seems to have derived little from the measure. Like many travelers in the Mediterranean of his day, Byron had to put in time at a quarantine station at Malta.

On leaving the station, he dashed off a terrible poem called "Farewell to Malta" (May 26, 1811). Here's an excerpt:
Adieu, thou damned’st quarantine,
That gave me fever, and the spleen!
Adieu, that stage which makes us yawn, Sirs,
Adieu, his Excellency’s dancers! ...
And now, O Malta! since thou’st got us,
Thou little military hothouse!
I’ll not offend with words uncivil,
And wish thee rudely at the Devil,
But only stare from out my casement,
And ask, for what is such a place meant?
Then, in my solitary nook,
Return to scribbling, or a book,
Or take my physic while I’m able
(Two spoonfuls hourly by the label),
Prefer my nightcap to my beaver,
And bless the gods I’ve got a fever.
Byron gave the poem to a ship's commander. According to the Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Byron (M. Garrett, 2010), this poem "caused offence 'to all, but particularly' Major-General Hildebrand Oakes, governor or commissioner of the island." (p. 104) Byron wrote of hearing that, "They are all, but particularly Oakes, in a pucker." (Letter to Hobhouse, Nov. 3, 1811)

Byron kept no copy of the poem.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Community in solitude

Catherine Malabou (2020):
We know that Karl Marx made fun of eighteenth-century robinsonades like Rousseau’s. Marx said that the origin of the social can by no means be a state of nature where isolated men finally come to meet and form a community. Solitude cannot be the origin of society. ... I think on the contrary that ... a suspension ... of sociality is sometimes the only access to alterity, a way to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth. ('To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”' [In the Moment blog, March 23, 2020])
Alone together. On a related note ...

Thomas Clark (1666):
But being thus constrain’d to house-abode,
And so withheld from following work abroad,
Also of all things else almost bereft,
This yet some solace was and comfort left,
That though debarr’d Society with me,
I still might have converse with Book and Pen: [...]
And such good Books I had (though read before)
I now found time enough to re-read o’re,
With profit too (I hope) for Information,
Which may conduce to practice[al] Conversation.
This studious course, to which I was inclin’d,
Diverted many sad thoughts from my mind
And thereby did that saying versify,
'When most alone, then least alone was I.'
("Meditations in my Confinement," The Plague Epic in Early Modern England: Heroic Measures, 1603–1721, ed. Rebecca Totaro)
Updated April 21, 2020: Shannon Pufahl at the NY Review Daily: "Much of the future will be forged by the strange irony of our present moment: alone in our homes or tents or hospital beds, restricted from physical contact with one another, we are strangely and profoundly together. We are bound by a common experience in new, unprecedented, global numbers."

Leibniz in quarantine, a de-motivational post

We've heard that Isaac Newton developed calculus while in quarantine. It turns out that another calculus pioneer, Leibniz, was also in quarantine, but much later.

In October, 1713, Leibniz was quarantined in Vienna "due to an incident of the plague in the apartment opposite to his" (Gango, 2015).

What did Leibniz do with his time? He wrote letters lobbying to become the Chancellor of Transylvania. He didn't know or care much about Transylvania, but the post would have provided him with a salary and allowed him to live in Vienna. His bid for this post failed and Leibniz had to return to Hanover, where he died in 1716.

Source: Gabor Gango, G. W. Leibniz's Candidature for the Chancellorship of Transylvania, Studia Leibnitiana, 47 (2015): 44-66.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


"Ultracrepidarian: someone who has no special knowledge of a subject but who expresses an opinion about it." (Cambridge Dictionary)

A neat word coined by William Hazlitt. I found these uses of it:

1. "Like a conceited mechanic in a village alehouse, you would set down everyone who differs from you as an ignorant blockhead, and very fairly infer that anyone who is beneath yourself must be nothing. You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic." William Hazlitt, "Letter to William Gifford" (1819)

2. "In England excess in alcohol is responsible for only a very small proportion of cases of mental disease at all, in spite of ultracrepidarian views to the contrary." James R. Whitwell, letter to The English Review (March, 1929). p. 249.

3. "The Oklahoma Senate does not like what Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson said about the National Guard but it refused yesterday to call him 'ultracrepidarian.' A resolution had been introduced accusing Wilson of 'gross and unwarranted insult' .... Senator J. R. Hall, a Democrat, introduced an amendment which would have inserted 'ultracrepidarian.'" St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan. 31, 1957): 1.

4. "Now if Sino-Indo-European lexical comparison was just yet another drowsy backwater of the inveterate craze for ultracrepidarian transcontinental etymologizing, it would probably not even be justified to mention Ulenbrook's book in print." Wolfgang Behr, Review of Zum Alteurasischen. Eine Sprachvergleichung by Jan Ulenbrook, Oriens 36 (2001): 356-361, at 360.

5. "Philosophers are good at answering broadly conceptual questions of the first sort. They are no better than anyone else at answering questions of the second sort, despite their ultracrepidarian tendencies." Dudley Knowles, "Good Samaritans and Good Government," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series 112 (2012): 161-178, at p. 161.

6. "The FBI Hair Comparison Review does not seek to provide a precise and scientifically defensible estimate of the prevalence of ultracrepidarian testimony." David H. Kaye, "Ultracrepidarianism in Forensic Science: The Hair Evidence Debacle," Washington and Lee Law Review 72, no. 2 (2015): 230-257, at p. 247.

The inspiration for Hazlitt's coinage seems to lie in Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder, in which a painter tells a shoemaker and wannabe art critic to stick to judging shoes. This episode in Pliny gave rise to the Latin saying, "Sutor, ne ultra crepidam."

This post is derived from my Facebook post of April 8. 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ronald Knox and Gestalt switches

Here's Mgr. Ronald Knox using (in 1927) a visual-perception analogy to point out a change in belief that involves no new data but, instead, seeing old data in a new way:
[S]uddenly, when I’m thinking of something quite different, a game of patience, for example, I see the whole thing in a new mental perspective. It’s like the optical illusion of the tumbling cubes – you know, the pattern of cubes which looks concave to the eye; and then, by a readjustment of your mental focus, you suddenly see them as convex instead. What produces that change? Why, you catch sight of one particular angle in a new light, and from that you get your new mental picture of the whole pattern. Just so, one can stumble upon a new mental perspective about a problem like this by suddenly seeing one single fact in a new light. And then the whole problem rearranges itself. (emphasis added)
The passage appears in the first of Knox's mystery novels to feature Miles BredonThe Three Taps (1927). At the beginning of Ch. 25, Bredon says that when he's really stumped by a crime and continually hitting dead ends, he likes to get lost in a card game called 'Patience'. Absorption in the game facilitates a change in how he interprets the facts of the crime. The result seems to be not the taking in of any new facts, or data, but, rather, a new discovery or realization that emerges from seeing the facts in a new way. He sees one "fact in a new light," and then the related facts show up in a newly noticed "pattern."

I believe the optical illusion to which Knox refers is the reversible "cubes illusion" (described in Howard Crosby Warren's textbook, Human Psychology [1919, p. 262] - though I don't claim that this book was Knox's source).

Post-war philosophers made similar use of another visual phenomenon, the gestalt switch (though they didn't all use that phrase).

Wittgenstein reflects on gestalt switches in his discussions of aspect-seeing, using the example of Jastrow's duck-rabbit image, in his Philosophical Investigations (Part 2, sect. 11) and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (v. I, sect. 70). (Cf. Robert Angelo's page on these Wittgensteinian passages.) Wittgenstein's reflections are focused on cases of visual perception, in which what one sees (a matrix of lines or dots) remains the same while what one sees (a duck or a rabbit) changes. In these cases, the visual input remains constant while its interpretation or categorization varies. (I don't attribute that characterization to Wittgenstein.)

In the above quotation of Knox, the input data remain constant while their interpretation varies, where the former are the 'facts' of a criminal case. So, while Knox relies on an analogy with visual perception, the diversely interpreted inputs in his example are not limited to visual phenomena.

There must be earlier examples of this idea (same facts - different interpretation).

The first chapter of N. R. Hanson's Patterns of Discovery (1958) builds on Wittgenstein's reflections to illustrate the theory-laden nature of perception. Also, Thomas Kuhn used the example of gestalt switches in his characterization of a paradigm shift. In philosophy of religion, John Wisdom riffed on a similar theme in his 'parable of the garden' in 'Gods' (1944), focusing on disagreements in which the parties agree on the facts but interpret them differently. Recently, Ray Monk has applied the idea of gestalt shifts to the writing of biography.

Did any of the gestalt psychologists or philosophers make something like Knox's point? Perhaps Max Wertheimer did in his book Productive Thinking (1945) -- I haven't read it yet.

This notion (same facts - different interpretation) must have earlier examples. I expect some 19th-century German made the point. I'd appreciate any help in finding such sources.