Archive for October, 2015

If Language is Incorrect

October 29, 2015

Passage from Serious Questions by Erwin Chargaff:

Twenty-five hundred years ago Master Kung recognized clearly that it is the disorder of the language that produces the disorder of the state. It is written in The Analects of Confucius (Waley translation):

If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what was meant; and if what is said does not concord with what was meant, what is to be done cannot be effected. If what is to be done cannot be effected, then rites and music will not flourish. If rites and music do not flourish, then punishments will go astray. And if punishments go astray, then the people have nowhere to put hand and foot. Therefore the gentleman uses only such language as is proper for speech, and only speaks of what it would be proper to carry into effect. The gentleman, in what he says, leaves nothing to mere chance.

I should be sorry if these words led to the conclusion that all that Master Kung’s gentleman lacked was a word processor.


They Sit and Serve

October 29, 2015

“If the world can still be saved, it will be saved by the amateurs. The experts are more than most other people responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. They know too much about too little, but each knows something special. They can barely understand each other; they do not talk with each other; they sit and serve. To the lay world, they are of very limited use. If you want to tap them, you must know exactly where: the barrels are studded all over with false faucets, releasing nothing but hot air. Only one spigot communicates with the fount of expert knowledge, ready to drench you with more than you wish to know.” Chargaff, Serious Questions

A Harmless Activity

October 29, 2015

“There are people who occasionally engage in thinking when they have nothing better to do. It is a harmless activity, much practiced in former times, but now unfortunately fallen into desuetude. There is so much else to do. Montaigne, the greatest master of latitudinal thinking, roamed widely, if not always profoundly: there was virtually nothing that could not serve him as a hook on which to hang his thought, his reminiscences and remarks. His Essays have been greatly admired for nearly four hundred years; whether they still are read widely I do not know. He wrote at a time when the languages of antiquity enjoyed a vigorous afterlife which now has surely come to a regrettable end; the many quotations from ancient authors with which his writings are adorned so richly, as with so many strings of pearls, can now hardly find a receptive ear.” Chargaff, Serious Questions

A Feeling of Tentativeness

October 28, 2015

“I am not really the helpless type, but I have never been very fond of the sort of aggressive scholarship that is now encountered everywhere, trying to sell to humanity brand-new laws of nature as if they were used cars. A feeling of tentativeness; an appreciation of the provisional and fragmentary character of human insight into nature; a consideration of how much arrogance and rashness must attend even the deepest understanding before generalizing statements can be made about life: all this will be part of the inheritance with which the many years have burdened the scientist as he grows older. If he is any good, he will become more modest.” Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire


October 28, 2015

“The narrow slit through which the scientist, if he wants to be successful, must view nature constricts, if this goes on for a long time, his entire character; and, more often than not, he ends by becoming what the German language so appositely calls Fachidiot (professional idiot).” Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

Computerized Humanists

October 28, 2015

“There are certain phenomena that gain comprehensibility by being weighed and measured and others that do not. I do not need statistical word analysis to show me that former President Ford cannot be the author of King Lear; the number of belly laughs per week the merry slave had on a plantation does not interest me; nor do I required a personality profile with ‘in depth analysis’ of Cleopatra ofR Jan Hus. The incredible twaddle let loose by all these computerized humanists is probably not worse than that of scientists; but since the former have only begun to develop a coterie jargon or an animal language of their own, they are still forced to use more or less intelligible words, and these give them away.” Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

When I Look Back

October 28, 2015

“When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published–and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print–I notice  freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconcievable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judge by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed.” Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

Liberate Mankind

October 28, 2015

“It was then that I became convinced that the greatest of all revolutions was still to come, one which would liberate mankind from the fetters of mechanistic thinking into which it had permitted itself to be lured by songs about progress, by hymns about science. I am equally convinced now that this ought to happen, but am much less confident that it will. Millenial dreams have faded, and the aged chiliast realizes that thousand-year empires sometimes last less long than a three-minute egg.” Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

Every Other Century

October 28, 2015

“Has every other century been like this one? Has man always confronted, as he does today, a world in which nothing makes sense? In which virtue is without genius and genius without honor? In which the love of order is indistinguishable from the lust of tyrants? In which the sacred cult of liberty is confounded with contempt for the law? In which conscience casts but an ambiguous light on the actions of men? In which nothing any longer seems forbidden or allowed, honer or shameful, true or false?” Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation, p. 13)

To Educate Democracy

October 25, 2015

“To educate democracy—if possible to revive its beliefs; to purify its mores; to regulate its impulses; to substitute, little by little, knowledge of affairs for inexperience and understanding of true interests for blind instinct; to adapt government to its time and place; to alter it to fit circumstances and individuals—this is the primary duty imposed on the leaders of society today.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation, p. 7)