Archive for May, 2011

The Historian Who Likes History

May 26, 2011

“The historian who likes history for what it is—once living men’s experiences—and not as raw material for a conclusion, takes the empiricist path. He deals with stubborn facts as every mind deals with the flux of experience—attending, comparing, making distinctions, finding likenesses, and perhaps arriving at modest unities, rather than starting and ending with one large one. That different historians give divergent accounts of the ‘same’ past also corresponds with the experience of life—it is taken differently. Only an All-Knower could see it whole and ‘right,’ and access to his mind is not easy. Fortunately, in actual knowers the several perspectives affect meaning more than brute facts, so that after reading several histories of the same events the scene becomes clear, the truth grows by repeated takings. At that point it is most unlikely that the childish, colorless idea of a single cause will convince. The business and pleasure of history is to recapture an intuition of bygone events by imaging their (plural) conditions.” (Jacques Barzun, A Stroll With William James, p. 127)

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Spurts of Instinctive Pragmatising

May 26, 2011

“Mankind moves by spurts of instinctive pragmatising; spoiled by rigid concept-work and weak imagination; usually it is fulfilling in haste a need too long felt and denied. True progress would consist in a change that did not leave behind as many advantages as it offers new ones. But that would call for a pragmatic calculus alien to our notions of principle and our habits of revolution. Why does disillusionment follow the revolutionary victory? Simply because of the prior illusion that the overthrow of the existing regime will not affect present benefits; it will add to them the new ones desired. But once the change has been fought and bled for, it turns out that no addition but only an exchange has taken place, at great cost.

“Law and history as the record of human action provide endless examples of the difficulty that pragmatic thought has to grapple with. While others cry ‘Be realistic!’ the pragmatist knows that reality is elusive. In the abstract, reality is a legitimate standard to appeal to; it is the general goal that all truths aim at; but concretely, the real is not there ready to shake hands with the adventurer. He must expect disappointment and bad surprises.” (Jacques Barzun, A Stroll With William James, p. 96)

Access to the Mind of God

May 17, 2011

I read the following description of a study on leadership today: “A study of 50 United Methodist ministers who had worked at 132 different churches over a 20-year period showed [that] simply changing ministers did not affect church performance, but bringing in a minister with history of boosting members and donations in his previous parishes produced the same positive effects when he was transfered to a new congregation.” Social scientists must have obtained access to the mind of God: Otherwise, how would they know whether the church was performing well or not?

This or That Set of Rules

May 12, 2011

“Clausewitz thought it was a mistake to believe that war could be mastered by observing this or that set of rules. The variety and constant change in war could never be fully caught by a system. Any dogmatic simplification—that victory depended on the control of key points, for instance, or on the disruption of the opponent’s lines of communication—only falsified reality. Possibly Clausewitz already distrusted the conviction, held by most military theorists of his day, that the scope of chance in war should and could be reduced to a minimum by the employment of the correct operational and tactical doctrine. For someone who passionately wanted to understand war in a systematic and objectively verifiable manner it was particularly hard to accept the power of chance; but by the time he was in his mid-twenties his realism and the logic of his view of historical change had brought him to the point of regarding chance not only as inevitable but even as a positive element in war.” (Peter Paret, The Genesis of On War)

Solitary Confinement by Christopher Burney

May 12, 2011

“A remarkable book and in some ways the most remarkable in this entire Catalogue. It records 18 months’ life in a French prison as a captive of the Gestapo during the Second World War. The observation and recall are not more amazing than the writing and compression of thought. Implications for criminology (especially discussions of capital punishment) and for sociology and education occur on every page. It is enough to mention that the prisoner’s transfer to Buchenwald toward the end of his ordeal struck him as disagreeable because of the threat of sociability.” (Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime)

Insinuation with Diminished Responsibility

May 10, 2011

Peter Wegner’s art installation Monument to Change as a Verb (in which 300 adverbs modify the verb “to change”) hangs on one of the walls of Stanford’s new Knight Management Center. The artist found, unwittingly I think, a fit representation for the main problem besetting business education (and writing) today: so many adverbs, so few verbs. Adverbs, as Jacques Barzun noted, “permit insinuation with diminished responsibility” (1974:45).