Archive for September, 2010

Ailments Endemic among Scholars

September 29, 2010

In his 1965 book On the Shoulders of Giants, Robert K. Merton supplied a “veritable nosography and materia medica of closely identified ailments endemic among scholars and scientists.” For instance: “Denigrating Adumbrationism (or the practice of finding seeming anticipations in times long past of ideas or findings newly discovered in the present); the Correlative Anatopic or Palimpsestic Syndrome (the covering over of earlier versions of an idea by ascribing it to a comparatively recent author in whose work the idea was first encountered); an Honest Cryptomnesia (‘submerged or subliminal memory of events forgotten by the supraliminal self’ as in forgetting the source of an idea one takes to be newly one’s own); and the Obscurantist Grimgribber (the art of gobbledegook).” Now, in part because he was writing in the sixties, he missed a condition that is particularly serious among sociologists: Acute Citation-itis, the irresistible urge to cite. The graph provides the evidence.


My Illustrious Friend and Joy of My Liver

September 23, 2010

From the chapter Necessary Truths and the Effects of Experience of James’s The Principles of Psychology.

The aspiration to be ‘scientific’ is such an idol of the tribe to the present generation, is so sucked in with his mother’s milk by every one of us, that we find it hard to conceive of a creature who should not feel it, and harder still to treat it freely as the altogether peculiar and one-sided subjective interest which it is. But as a matter of fact, few even of the cultivated members of the race have shared it; it was invented but a generation or two ago. In the middle ages it meant only impious magic; and the way in which it even now strikes orientals is charmingly shown in the letter of a Turkish cadi to an English traveller asking him for statistical information, which Sir A. Layard prints at the end of his ‘Nineveh and Babylon.’ The document is too full of edification not to be given in full.

It runs thus:

“My Illustrious Friend, and Joy of my Liver!

“The thing you ask of me is both difficult and useless. Although I have passed all my days in this place, I have neither counted the houses nor inquired into the number of the inhabitants; and as to what one person loads on his mules and the other stows away in the bottom of his ship, that is no business of mine. But, above all, as to the previous history of this city, God only knows the amount of dirt and confusion that the infidels may have eaten before the coming of the sword of Islam. It were unprofitable for us to inquire into it.

“O my soul! O my lamb! seek not after the things which concern thee not. Thou camest unto us and we welcomed thee: go in peace.

“Of a truth thou hast spoken many words and there is no harm done, for the speaker is one and the listener is another. After the fashion of thy people thou hast wandered from one place to another, until thou art happy and content in none. We (praise be to God) were born here, and never desire to quit it. Is it possible, then, that the idea of a general intercourse between mankind should make any impression on our understandings?

“God forbid!

“Listen, O my son! There is no wisdom equal unto the belief in God! He created the world, and shall we liken ourselves unto Him in seeking to penetrate into the mysteries of His creation? Shall we say, Behold this star spinneth round that star, and this other star with a tail goeth and cometh in so many years! Let it go! He from whose hand it came will guide and direct it.

“But thou wilt say unto me, Stand aside, O man, for I am more learned than thou art, and have seen more things. If thou thinkest that thou art in this respect better than I am, thou art welcome. I praise God that I seek not that which I require not. Thou art learned in the things I care not for; and as for that which thou has seen, I spit upon it. Will much knowledge create thee a double belly, or wilt thou seek Paradise with thine eyes?

“O my friend! if thou wilt be happy, say, There is no God but God! Do no evil, and thus wilt thou fear neither man nor death; for surely thine hour will come!

“The meek in spirit (El Fakir)


A Letter from Jacques Barzun to Hannah Arendt

September 6, 2010

Source: The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress (link)