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)

Tocqueville’s Assumptions

October 25, 2015

From Theodore Caplow’s “The Current Relevance of Democracy in America” (The Tocqueville Review 7, 1985/86).

Underlying all of Tocqueville’s predictions is a set of assumptions as remarkable as the predictions themselves. They are brought into play whenever he tries to imagine the future. There seem to me to be at least six of these:

1. The persistence of major social institutions is taken for granted. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tocqueville did not anticipate the disappearance or the radical transformation of the family, the church, or the state. He anticipated that they would be modified but he did not underestimate their resistance to change.

2. The stability of human nature is taken for granted. No one was more sensitive than Tocqueville to fluctuations in human happiness and to the effects of new ideas, but he did not expect men and women to become much better or worse or otherwise different than history had shown them to be.

3. Social change is conceived as long-term. Tocqueville was almost alone among his contemporaries in ascribing the visible transformations of nineteenth-century society to trends that had been running for many generations; for example, he traced the trend toward equality-democracy back more than six hundred years.

4. Material resources and constraints are always taken into account in reckoning future possibilities. Tocqueville was considerably more respectful of economic facts than, for example, Marx and Engels.

5. The future is not held to be fully determined by the past. For Tocqueville, the future, viewed from the present, was an amalgam of probabilities based on past events and of contingencies arising from the exercise of free will. “Providence has,” he wrote, “in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong and free, and so are peoples.”

6. The causes of a historical event are not extended beyond the simple antecedents of the event by invoking social forces or other abstractions to account for them. “I detest” said Tocqueville in his Souvenirs, “those absolute systems which represent all events of history as depending upon great causes linked by the chain of fatality, and which, as it were, suppress men from the history of the human race.”

The Elusiveness of Demonstrable Truth

October 25, 2015

Passage from Tocqueville’s letter to Eugène Stöffels, Oct. 18, 1831

There is yet another fantasy of early youth which one must guard against. When I first began to reflect upon the world, I believed that it was full of demonstrable truths; that one had only to look hard to see them. But when I applied myself to considering matters, all I perceived was a tangle of doubts. I don’t have words, my dear Charles, to express the horrible state into which this discovery cast me. I’ve never been more miserable; I can only compare myself to a man who, seized with vertigo, feels the floor quaking underfoot and sees the walls around him shifting. I’m still horrified when I think about that period. I daresay I wrestled mightily with doubt and in a spirit of rare desperation. And only yesterday (!) did I convince myself that the search for absolute, demonstrable truth, like the search for perfect happiness, is futile. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some truths worthy of our whole-hearted conviction, but you can be sure that they are very few. For the immense majority of questions to which we need answers, all we have are likelihoods, approximations. To despair over this is to despair over being human, for therein lies one of the most inflexible laws of our nature. Does it follow that man should never act because he can never be sure of anything? That is by no means my creed. When I must determine something important, I carefully weigh the pros and cons, and, instead of despairing over the lack of absolute certainty, I soldier on as if I had no doubts at all. Experience has taught me that it is better, all things considered, to strike out vigorously in the wrong direction than to stand paralyzed by indecision or to act feebly.

One must therefore resign oneself to the elusiveness of demonstrable truth. But, you say, the doubt to which one resigns oneself will always be a painful state. True, I consider doubt one of the great banes of existence; I place it right after sickness and death. But it is because I have this opinion of it that I don’t understand why so many men impose it upon themselves gratuitously. That is why I have always considered metaphysics and all the purely theoretical sciences, which serve no useful purpose in the reality of life, as a willful torment that man has consented to inflict upon himself.

Source: http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300181838