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2007-11-24: The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

In his preface, Pinker says: “There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has  a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can therefore give us insight into who we are.”

This is the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience, beginning with The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules. I’ve read the first, but skipped the second with the impression he was addressing a narrow linguistic topic; I’ve started it now.

Generally I think Pinker’s work and writings are very interesting, and well worth reading and thinking about. Just from the preface, I can imagine an interesting pair of works: one would explore the differences between the human model of reality and some other creatures, such as dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins; the second would similarly compare and contrast humans and post-humans, such as robots and aliens.

Early on he discusses a legal issue that arose from the events of 9/11: Were the attacks on and fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center one occurrence or two? The question arose from a clause in the insurance policy covering the WTC, which capped the payment for a single “event” at $3.5 billion.

p. 83: “The constituents of common sense we have encountered, like causation, force, time, and substance, are not just home editions of the concepts used in logic, science, or our best collective understanding of how to manage our affairs. They worked well enough in the world in which our minds evolved, but they can leave our common sense ill-equipped to deal with some of the conceptual challenges of the modern world.” He goes on to describe several ways our notions can lead us astray: having and benefiting; having and knowing; having and moving; time; things and locations; causality. Each is interesting, though too detailed to recap here.

p. 159: Pinker discusses the Kantian view of the conceptual scaffolding of thought, and then says: “… languages appear to be organized by Kantian abstract categories. We see them in the basic parts of speech: substance in nouns, space in prepositions, causality in verbs, time in verbs and in markers for tense. … in the way verbs enter constructions, which are selective about how something moves, whether it is a substance or an object, whether the event is instantaneous or protracted, and who or what caused it … and … in the everyday metaphors that pervade our language and reasoning, as when we say the price of gas can rise and fall like a balloon, and when we speak of Sonia forcing Adam to be nice or even forcing herself to be nice as if she were closing a jammed drawer.”

p. 189: He addresses the notion of the present. Various lines of evidence and reasoning lead to the notion of “the specious present”, an interval of about three seconds, “the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball; of the flips and flops of an ambiguous [visual] figure; of the span within which we can accurately reproduce an interval; of the delay of unrehearsed short-term memory; of the time to make a quick decision, such as when we’re channel-surfing; and of the duration of an utterance, a line of poetry, or a musical motif, like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

p. 195: Although many metaphors treat time similarly to space, Pinker mentions two differences. First, and most obvious, time is one-dimensional. There are fewer tenses than spatial terms, even when treating with relations between three “points in time”, such as the present moment of an utterance, a reference point-event, and an event being located. Second, the two directions of time from the present are very different. The past is frozen and can’t be changed, and the future is a range of possible events constrained by the present and the laws of causality. We can know the past, but must wait for future events to unfold.

p. 233t: <I need to look at the book to figure out what this refers to>

p. 235: Opening the chapter The Metaphor Metaphor, Pinker quotes the first (rather long) sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and then says:

The United States Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best-known passage of English prose expressing an abstract political idea. … At the heart of this abstract argument, though, is a string of concrete metaphors. The issue at hand was the bands that connected the colonies to England, which it was necessary to dissolve in order to effect a separation. … The four metaphors really allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds. We see the metaphor in other expressions like bonding, attachment, and family ties.

Also palpable is the metaphor in impel – force to move – whose literal sense is plain in the noun impeller, the rotating part that pushes the water or air in a pump, and its cousin propeller. The implicit metaphor is that causes of behavior are forces. It underlies the cognates repel and compel, and analogous words like impetus, drive, force, push, and pressure. A related metaphor may be found in powers of the earth (which calls to mind horsepower and electric power): a sovereign state is a source of physical force.

A bit less obvious is the metaphor for human history, course, which refers to a path of running or flowing, as in the course of a river, a racecourse, and a headlong course. The metaphor is that a sequence of events is motion along a pathway.

The very name of the document echoes two older metaphors, which we can glimpse in related words. To declare, like clarify, comes from the Latin for “make clear,” an instance of the understanding is seeing metaphor, as in I see what you mean, a murky writer, and shedding more heat than light. And independence means “not hanging from,” echoed in suspend, pendant, and pendulum. It alludes to a pair of metaphors, reliance is being supported (propped up, financial support, support group), and subordinate is down (control over him, under his control, decline and fall).

If we dig even deeper to the roots of words, we unearth physical metaphors for still more abstract concepts. Event, from Latin evenire, originally meant “to come out,” (compare venture). Necessary comes from “unyielding” (compare cede). Assume meant “to take up.” Station is a standing-place, an instance of a widespread metaphor that equates status with location. Nature comes from the Latin for “birth” or “inborn qualities,” as in prenatal, nativity, and innate. Law in the sense of “moral necessity” is based on law in the sense of man-made regulations, from Old Norse lag, “something set down.” The metaphor a moral obligation is a rule also underlies entitle, from the Latin word for “inscription.” Decent originally meant “to be fitting.” Respect meant “to look back at” (remember aspect), kind comes from the same Germanic root as kin, require from “seek in return”.

Even the little grammatical words have a physical provenance. Sometimes it is evident in modern English, as in the pronoun it (a situation is a thing) and the prepositions in (time is space), to (intention is motion toward a goal), and among (affiliation is proximity). Sometimes it is evident only in the word’s ancestor, such as of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Not much is left. Political comes from the Greek polites, meaning “citizen,” from polis, “city,” which is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but still has an association to something tangible. The and that come from an ancient Indo-European demonstrative term (also the source of then, there, they and this), standardly used in connection with pointing. That leaves God, man, and people, which mean what they mean and have for a long time, and the quasi-logical terms and, equal, and cause.

So if language is our guide, the lofty declaration of abstract principles is really a story with a strange and clunky plot. Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.

But should language be our guide? It seems unlikely that anyone reading the Declaration would entertain the bizarre images in the literal meanings of these words or their roots. At the same time it’s jarring to discover that even the airiest of our ideas are expressed (“pressed out”) in thumpingly concrete metaphors. The explorations of language and thought in the preceding chapters have turned up these metaphors under every stone: events as objects, states as locations, knowing as having, communicating as sending, helping as giving, time as space, causation as force. What should we make of the discovery that people can’t put two words together without using allusions and allegories? This chapter will try to steer a path between two extreme answers.

p. 245: Pinker credits George Lakoff with the idea that:

Metaphor is not an ornamental flourish of language, he says, but an essential part of thought: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Mental life begins with a few experiences that are not metaphorical, namely, the sensations, actions, and emotions that are built into our constitution and engage the physical world. From there, conceptual metaphors are acquired by a kind of associative conditioning. We learn that control is up because we experience fights in which the victor ends up on top, that goals are destinations because we walk toward something we want, and that time is a moving object because things that approach us get closer and closer as time elapses.

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.

Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge, ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors. Descarte’s philosophy is based on knowing is seeing, Locke’s on the mind is a container, Kant’s on morality is a strict father, and so on. Nor is mathematics about a Platonic reality of eternal truths. It is a creation of the human body and senses, growing out of activities of moving along a path and of collecting, constructing, and measuring objects. Political ideologies, too, cannot be defined in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor that society is a family. The political right likens society to a family commanded by a strict father, the political left to a family cared for by a nurturant parent. …

Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.

He then goes on to defend truth, objectivity, and reason. Amusingly, he uses Lakoff’s own words to show that Lakoff also believes in them.

p. 252: Pinker explains the effectiveness of metaphors based on physical experience. They aren’t just arbitrary symbols, for which any substitution would be as effective. Rather, they are linked to modes of inference that allow many related, but unstated, relations among objects and situations to be implicitly understood. This is similar to the notions he expressed in Words and Rules, that we have memory for facts (symbols, words) and memory for procedures (rules, inference).

p. 377: Pinker credits Paul Grice with developing the cooperative principle of communication, in four conversational maxims:

Quantity:

  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.

Quality:

  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.

Manner:

  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.

Relevance:

  • Be relevant.

In the chapter The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker explains a lot about swearing, including the reasons we do it, and the words we use.

In the chapter Games People Play, he discusses the ways we use language to be ambiguous and obscure our motives. He has extended examples regarding seduction and bribery. He has several examples of metaphors relevant to social situations, particularly relating biological notions of family to society.

A sense of communality via folk biology can also be reinforced by myths and ideologies. People are told that they are descended from a patriarch or a primeval couple, or that they are connected to a natal land, or came into being in the same act of creation, or are related to the same totemic animal. Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, its members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of community.

Conspicuous by its absence is the one social mechanism that social ad political theorists treat as the foundation of society: a social contract. Friends, families, couples, and clans don’t sit down and verbally articulate the rights and responsibilities that bind them together. If they use language at all, it’s to avow their solidarity in unison or close succession, as in I love you, I pledge allegiance, and I believe with a perfect faith. What they don’t like to do is negotiate the terms of their communality. The very act of delineating perquisites and obligations in words undermines the nature of the emotional (and in their minds physical) fusion that allows them to share instinctively, without concern for who takes what and who gets what.

When I read this, I thought that the marketing folks at CircleLending.com (now VirginMoneyUS.com) ought to make use of these ideas.

p. 428: In the chapter Escaping the Cave, Pinker contrasts the analog nature of the physical world with the discrete nature of our mental representations.

Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. They assemble these objects and events into propositions, which they take to be characterizations of real and possible worlds. The characterizations are highly schematic: they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways. People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they can agree on how matter has moved through space.

Human characterizations of reality are built out of recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.

Each of these ideas has a distinctive anatomy. Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories. They distinguish stable categories that capture an individual’s essence from transitory and superficial properties they may happen to possess. They have a mental zoom lens that can home in on the substance an entity is made of (plastic) or pan back to see its boundaries (a cup). A substance can be seen as a continuous medium (like applesauce) or as an aggregate of parts (like pebbles).

Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two, and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual, and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, recent past, and remote past).

When humans think about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes or moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts. The entire object is thought to be located in a spot, or to move as a whole, or to have a trait that suffuses it, or to change from one state to another in its entirety (as in a wagon loaded with hay, or a garden swarming with bees). But humans are also capable of articulating an object into its parts and registering how they are related to one another (as in the bottom of the wagon or the edge of the garden). When the object is a human body, another entity comes into play: the person, who is thought both to be his body parts, and to have his body parts. Among people’s possessions are not just their body parts and their chattels but also their ideas (which they can send to one another) and their good fortune.

p. 431t: I noticed only one typo in the book: “when it seen as just occurring” should be “when it is seen as just occurring”.

p. 439: After summarizing most of the ideas in the book, he says:

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in sensitive analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.

 

2007-11-23: Words and Rules

Words and Rules

The Ingredients of Language (1999)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

This book is about two fundamental types of mental machinery – perhaps the two fundamental types of mental machinery. Pinker uses the breadth of linguistic study into the irregular forms of nouns and verbs to illustrate the notion that we have two types of memory and associated processing: factual and procedural.

On page 23, he has a diagram like this:  <need to find and reproduce diagram>

In constructing utterances from a desire to express a thought, it is necessary to retrieve some words from the lexicon, and apply rules to put them into intelligible order. Pinker spends a great deal of the book elaborating on aspects of this idea, and shows how the patterns of regular words, the less-obvious patterns of irregular words, and the mistakes made by children and others shed light on the ways that this picture must be at least approximately right.

His case is persuasive, and consistent with many other ideas he has presented in his other books on cognitive science. I skipped this book when it first came out, as it seemed too much about linguistic minutiae, and not enough about the workings of the mind. But of course the most distinct aspect of human minds, compared with others, is the capacity for language.

I found parts of the book slow going, particularly when he dwells on the experiments that verify or disprove one or another theory. At this stage, I am ready to accept a lot on faith, when it is consistent with my ideas of how the mind works; and Pinker has contributed significantly to those ideas.

I read the book after finishing The Stuff of Thought, and that might be a good order for an impatient reader.

 

2007-11-03: Made to Stick

Made to Stick

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007)

by Chip Heath (19?-) & Dan Heath (19?-)

This is an interesting book, somewhat related to rhetoric. It isn’t about ideas, but about how to present ideas for the most impact.

The authors (brothers) provide an acronym-checklist: SUCCESs, Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, Stories. Then they elaborate on these six principles.

Simple = Core + Compact. It’s important to identify the core message, and make it compact enough for simple presentation.

Unexpectedness overcomes the guessing mechanism in listeners’ brains, that make them see ideas as obvious, and therefore not important.

Concrete expressions help make a message memorable; abstract ideas are hard to remember without repetition.

Credibility, whether from an authority or the listeners’ own experiences, helps remove doubt.

Emotions, when aroused, help make a message memorable.

Stories activate an innate part of the human brain, to fit a message into existing patterns or plots, and make people see how an idea can be put into action.

The book provides many examples, and some practical exercises to illustrate the principles, and I’m sure they would be effective. This is a book that should be read and reread by anyone who needs to be persuasive.

 

2007-09-15: The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory (1940)

by Graham Greene (1904-1991)

This book was recommended (somewhere) as perhaps Greene’s best work. I liked The Quiet American better.

It’s a slightly interesting study of a priest at a time when it was illegal. He is trying to avoid being captured and shot, while trying to do his duty to those who might need his services. The conflict has the potential to be interesting, but I’m not particularly interested enough in the subject.

 

2007-08-29: Lord Jim

Lord Jim (1900)

by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Conrad wrote in an era when people wanted more description and less action than today. For his time, this was no doubt a very popular book.

The distance between Jim and my conception of a literary hero is fairly large. Jim is measured by a very specific ideal, that of an English ship’s officer of the late nineteenth century. The population of men (only men) to whom this ideal was applied was certainly never very large; the population who actually understood its ramifications was probably not very large; the population that thought they knew what it was must have been large enough to form a market for Conrad’s book. The specific failing of Jim to live up to the ideal completely dominated the rest of his short life.

In my view, a hero should be closer to the ordinary person, or at least understandable by the ordinary person. Everyone has shortcomings, but few lives are completely determined by them. Most people (I hope) have an ideal that expresses many or most aspects of common human nature (whatever that is), and it ought to be possible to create a hero who lives closer or further to those ideals (plural). It might be an interesting project.

 

2007-05-20: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Why the Greeks Matter (2003)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is Volume 4 of Cahill’s Hinges of History series, with three to go. Chronologically it is mainly earlier than Volume 3, though Volumes 2 and 3 go naturally together. Cahill suggests that those who haven’t already read Volume 1 read that volume after Volume 4. I enjoyed this book, and probably marked more passages than in the earlier volumes of the series; I will certainly read the next volume, and look forward to the two that are supposed to follow that.

Cahill’s introduction explains his views on history. Here is the beginning of it:

History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past – shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust – which give us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview.

Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering.

Cahill quotes Hanson critiquing Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel): “The efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and so often turn desperate. . . . Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more – all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of Western civilization.” (Cahill’s emphasis)

Having described the Greek approach to warfare, and the related reliance on citizen participation, he goes on: “To inquire into the ways in which an unpredictable historical combination – in this case, the combination of dogged military practicality with unprecedented citizen responsibility – may generate a new cultural force that has tremendous impact on the world over many centuries brings us as close as we are likely to come to the deep mysteries of the historical process.”

Naturally starting with Homer, he quotes Oliver Taplin: “The poems [of Homer] seem to emerge … as a kind of opener of discussion, an invitation to think about and scrutinize the structures and allocations of power and of respect. Thus, while everyone in the poems agrees that honour … should be given where honour is due, they do not agree on the criteria for its allocation. So while Homer does not positively advocate any particular kind of political change, this is surely not the poetry of political conservatism or retrenchment either. It is part and parcel of an era of radically widening horizons; and it is a catalyst to change.” Cahill contends that this change continue from Homer’s day until Greece gave way to Rome, about 500 years. Early along the way (c. 550 BC), Solon established a code of laws. He is credited with the saying, “Men preserve the agreements that profit no one to violate.”

Cahill quotes Aristotle, showing what Greeks thought of themselves: “Europeans, as well as peoples who live in cold climates generally, are full of spirit but somewhat lacking in intelligence and skill; and because of these deficiencies, though they live in comparative freedom, they lack political organization and the ability to rule others. Asians, on the other hand, though intelligent and skilled by nature, lack spirit and so are always subject to defeat and slavery. The race of the Greeks, however, which occupies the center of the earth, shares the best attributes of West and East, being both spirited and intelligent. Thus does this race enjoy both freedom and stable political institutions and continue to be capable of ruling all humanity.” Cahill asserts that for the Greeks, everything was a competition.

Competition apparently ruled relations between the sexes as well, and men considered women distinctly inferior, and valued relations between men as superior to relations between a man and a woman. Cahill made a point of Homer’s extolling the long-term love between Hector and Andromache, and between Odysseus and Penelope, and now points out that such insights “are never spoken of again in Greek literature”.

In the chapter on philosophers, Cahill mentions Democritus’s On Cheerfulness. An online source says that Democritus traveled widely, might have been to India. The three paragraphs immediately available certainly indicate a common attitude between Democritus and Buddhist thought. One story of his death makes him sound very much like a Zen master. Another point of similarity between Greek and Indian thought is in the organization created by Pythagoras, which Cahill says has aspects of monastic life, as developed in India.

Understandably, Cahill admires Thucydides, saying he, “following the path blazed by Herodotus, had succeeded in creating an entirely new mode of knowledge, independent of philosophical inquiry. No longer would knowledge be the sole province of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, those who observed natural phenomena or tried to discover the essences of things or contemplated a world beyond the world. Close attention to human activity – society and politics, war and peace – could yield another kind of knowledge. And this knowledge, the result of meditation on the past and close consideration of human affairs, could yield new principles, quite unlike anything established by philosophy or the sciences to guide humanity in the future.”

In discussing art, and in particular the way that the serenity and confidence apparent in Athenian sculpture waned after a series of catastrophes at the hands of Sparta, Macedon and Rome, Cahill says, “It is a general rule of culture that new ideas appear first in literature, only later in the visual arts. This is probably because ideas are so intimately linked to words, which are their primary vehicles, and because the tools of literature are so negligible and transportable, compared to what an artist must use.

While writing these notes, and working through the passages I had marked, I discarded many of them, more than I usually do. Apparently I was in a somewhat enthralled state of mind while reading the book. That excitement has calmed somewhat, but it is a good quality of a book. I recommend the book.

 

2007-04-29: Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Desire of the Everlasting Hills

The World before and after Jesus (1999)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is volume 3 in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, a series devoted to “retell[ing] the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do.”

This volume is about the events that made the foundations of Christianity. It naturally draws on the conclusions from volume 2, The Gifts of the Jews.

Cahill’s approach is to describe the writers of the Gospels, their own viewpoints and the ways that those viewpoints affected their messages. He also describes Paul’s perspective and the ways it affected his views  as expressed in his letters.

He starts with a description of the conquest of the Asian side of the Mediterranean by Alexander, and the effects that had on the peoples who lived there, such as the Jews, and on subsequent regimes, such as Rome. He mentions the Sibylline Oracles, and repeats a theme from volume 2: “The message of the Sibyl …, haunting various shrines and caves throughout the Greco-Roman world, seems to have been that, though some times are better and some worse, there can be no permanent safety. Peace will be followed by war, prosperity by poverty, happiness by suffering, life by death. This was indeed the constant message of all ancient literature and its principal insight into human existence. … But whereas Greeks and Romans and all other ancient peoples tended to see history as an ultimately empty succession of triumphs and tragedies, the Jews believed that history had a beginning … and would have an end and that each human being … had an individual destiny to fulfill ….”

Cahill goes into significant detail on several differences among the Gospel writers, such as the fact that the story of the good Samaritan appears only in Luke, and explains how these differences are natural for the individual writers and their specific backgrounds and objectives. But after discussing these differences, he says

These books and letters of the New Testament are of varying quality and importance. Because they are the work of many hands, they exhibit some of the quirks and contradictions of the Old Testament, the story of of whose composition spans more than a millennium and a half. But because they were written over a fifty-year period by two generations of authors, many of whom had some contact with one another, they also exhibit a marked consistency and even unity.

In nothing is their unity so evident as in their portrayal of Jesus. Though he is presented in various lights and shadows, depending on the concerns, personality, and skill of each author, he exudes even under this treatment a remarkable consistency, so that we feel on finishing his story, whether it is told well or badly, simply or extravagantly, that we know the man – and that in each telling he is identifiably the same man. This phenomenon of consistency beneath the differences makes Jesus a unique figure in world literature: never have so many writers managed to convey the same impression of the same human being over and over again. More than this, Jesus – what he says, what he does – is almost always comprehensible to the reader, who needs no introduction, no scholarly background, to penetrate the meaning of Jesus’s words and actions. The Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Washing of the Feet, the Empty Tomb: all these and many more gestures, instructions, and symbols are immediately intelligible not only to the simplest reader but even to the unlettered and the immature.

Near the end of the book, when he is assessing the impact of Christian thought on subsequent history, and the effects of its institutions, Cahill considers the example of the leprosariums set up by Mother Teresa and the unlikelihood of such work being done by humanists without the impetus of Jesus’s instruction. He goes on:

But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.

The book opens with mention of the “Axial Age”, a term which is somewhat explained in the notes: a term invented in 1949 by German historian Karl Jaspers, to describe “an age of extraordinary worldwide creativity with the fifth century B.C. as its white-hot center.” The Axial Age was roughly three hundred years, from the late seventh century B.C. to the late fourth. “In Confucian China … burgeoning of reasonableness and courtly moderation, as well as the mystical depths uncovered by the Tao of Lao-Tsu. In India … the ineffable example of Gautama Buddha, reforming the chaos of more ancient systems and revealing the steps to personal peace. … Zarathustra …. the Hebrew prophets rose, giving to the bizarre monotheism of their singular people an ethical foundation so profound the Jews could never entirely forsake it. In the isles of Greece, the Axial Age saw the flowering of what would come to be called ‘philosophy’ … and of a noble ‘politics’ … that took the name of ‘democracy’. This same time and place saw the invention of drama and its division into ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ … as well as the first attempts to write … ‘history’.”

 

2007-04-26: Tales Before Tolkien

Tales Before Tolkien

The Roots of Modern Fantasy (2003)

ed. Douglas A. Anderson (1959-)

This is a somewhat interesting book related to Tolkien’s creative triumph. It collects 22 fantasy stories that were written “before Tolkien”. Shortly after collectors had published folk-fairy tales came the first German kunstmärchen or “literary” fairy tales artistically composed by a single author. Fairy tales for children were soon followed by fantasy for adults.

The earliest tale in this book is from 1812; the latest from the 1930s. The editor’s introductory notes tell which were definitely or likely known by Tolkien, and which were likely or definitely not.

Some of the tales are better than others, but the range illustrates what the fantasy literature landscape was like before Tolkien made his very big mark. I can recommend it to Tolkien fans for that reason alone.

 

2007-04-01: The Gifts of the Jews

The Gifts of the Jews

How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is the second volume in a series based on the success of Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization; the series is aptly called The Hinges of History. The notion appeals to me, as I’m much more interested in the history of ideas than in battles or personalities.

In this book, Cahill traces the evolution of the worldview that sets the Jews apart from all other people of their time and place. He opens with a description of the Sumerians, and accepts the hypothesis that they were typical of their time, with a cyclic view of time (“the wheel of time”), in which everything that happened had happened before and would happen again, and was an expression of the changeless natures of the gods and goddesses who ruled the various aspects of the world and people.

Out of this worldview (if not literally out of Sumer), came the semitic trader Avram (Cahill uses a translation by Fox, with names spelled as closely as possibly to the original), to become Avraham, following a voice that directed him to Canaan. The innovation here is the individual directed by the voice (of God) directed to him personally. The other innovation with this covenant is circumcision. The most peculiar aspect of Avraham’s story is his willingness to follow the voice to the extent of sacrificing his son, Yitzhak. Yitzhak’s son Yaakov/Israel is the last of the patriarchs to have the personal experience of God. Another innovation by this stage of the story is faith. Sumerian or Egyptian religion was founded on ritual, not faith. Avram, Yitzhak and Yaakov had faith in the voice they heard. Prior to this, there was no sense of history; after, there is the sense that God is a real personality, who intervenes in history, changing its course, making it unpredictable.

Yaakov’s son Joseph does not hear the voice, but has talents that stand him and his people in good stead. Then centuries pass until Moshe. By his time, the Israelites are numerous in Egypt but not free to go: their labor is needed. By some chance, this Egyptian-named Israelite has a position in and access to the Pharaoh’s court, but knows who his people are. He identifies with the underdog, and defending one, kills an Egyptian official, and becomes a fugitive. In the Sinai desert, he not only hears the voice, but sees the burning bush that is not consumed. Though obviously ill-suited for leadership, he is called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and successfully does so.

In the process, another innovation becomes apparent. Anyone who knows God, even a simple nomadic herdsman, can have wisdom greater than the earthly representative of a great god like Ra. God is on the side of little people with no worldly power.

Cahill addresses the reality of the Exodus story, and contrasts it with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic makes no attempt to convince the reader that it is historical; it is all once-upon-a-time, indeed timeless, archetypal. The story of the Israelites on the other hand is embedded in earthly time. And for us today, this is the sort of time that is Real, not the archetypal cycles of myth. The tales that were passed orally (in multiple forms) through generations before being written (in multiple forms), edited, and redacted have the sort of specificity that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that the events actually happened. Furthermore, the fact that they happened is the whole point; otherwise the stories have no point at all, no Avram, no Moshe, no God. For the others of the time, anything unique was typically monstrous (e.g., Oedipus); for the Israelites, everything was unique, as was each person’s relation to God. The importance of the past is that it brought us to the present. Hence the Israelites’ concern with genealogies, including wives. History doesn’t repeat; it isn’t a cycle. History is a process unfolding in time, whose end we don’t know, but whose ruling precepts can be discerned.

When Moshe hears the voice, he brings commandments. Cahill points out that other cultures had ethical guidelines, but they were always in a legal framework or worldly-wise advice. The Commandments are the first and last time such a code is given to humans without justification or elaboration (other than the later scribal commentary). At this point Cahill refers to the story “The Blue Cross” by G. K. Chesterton, which is a nice setting for a similar moral lesson. The Commandments are in two sets: those about God and those about man. Among those about God is the innovation of the weekend (Sabbath). This is not derived from any earlier society. The proper Sabbath behavior developed by the scribal commentators included study, or “the universal duty of continuous self-education.” This innovation leads to “a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just below the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free finds quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made.” The covenant is made more explicit: those who keep the Commandments are God’s people.

Cahill points out that the benefits of following the Commandments do not include rewards, such as eternal life. Instead, virtue is its own reward. The elaboration into the detailed laws retains something of the brutality of the ancient world, but also includes protection for widows, orphans and travelers. “The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Following the rebellion of the tribe while Moshe is on Sinai, there is a great slaughter at God’s inexplicable behest. In describing this, Cahill quotes Augustine of Hippo: “We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.” So Taoist. Cahill also contrasts the figures of Avraham and Moshe: the one “a wily character who seemed up to any challenge”, the other “the humblest man on earth”. The final lesson from Sinai concerns the fire as transforming from “a symbol of the storm god’s anger to the refining fire of God’s love”. “There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation, as he did Moshe. We need not fear God as we fear all other suffering, which burns and maims and kills. For God’s fire, though it will perfect us, will not destroy, for ‘the bush was not consumed.’” Cahill also quotes Allen Ginsberg: “The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.”

Cahill starts the description of Israel’s transformation from tribe to nation with the story of Moshe looking over the Promised Land, knowing he will never set foot there, and then quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” He then says, “That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.”

Cahill describes the establishment of the kingship, and finds David, as expressed in the Psalms, the first literary figure with a sense of self, a figure referred to as I. This is the beginning of the interior journey that occupies most of the rest of Cahill’s book. In the struggles of the kingdom, Israel and Judah split, and many defeats are inflicted. The prophet Elijah seeks refuge in Sinai, and experiences God’s hurricane, earthquake, and fire. But God is not in them . “And after the fire, a still, small voice.” This is the message that God is not in any of the elements of creation. He is in us, the personal conscience. As prophets like Amos said, to serve God is to act with justice. “One cannot pray and offer sacrifice while ignoring the poor, the beggars at the gates. But more radical still: if you have more than you need, you are a thief, for what you ‘own’ is stolen from those who do not have enough. You are a murderer, who lives on the abundance that has been taken from the mouths of the starving. You are an idolator, for what you worship is not the true God. You are a whore, for you have bedded down with other gods, the gods of your own comfort and self-delusion.” In these days, this was a radical innovation. For the surrounding peoples, and for many Jews, religion was about sacrifice. As the shattered nation sought to understand what was happening to them, they recalled the prophets’ words, and understood that God wanted not sacrifice, but justice. Cahill points out that there was no such word as spiritual in the ancient world. The Jews came to learn and teach that humans have an inside, where God dwells and teaches them how to behave, if they can only listen.

Cahill closes with:

The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.

This book is well worth reading, and I look forward to the next volume in his series.

 

2007-03-30: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)

by Arthur Golden (1956-)

This book was recommended by both Susan and Chrissy. It is a remarkable achievement, painting a very realistic-seeming portrait of the world of the geisha in the 1930s and 1940s.

I would recommend it as well.

 

2007-03-15: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001)

by Bill James (1949-)

After reading Moneyball, I wanted to know more about James and his views on baseball. This book is in three parts: The Game, Player Ratings and Comments, and Reference.

The Game describes the game of professional baseball as it was played in each decade from the 1870s through the 1990s, plus a section on the Negro Leagues. This was the part I enjoyed most. I knew baseball had changed, but James has detail – lots of detail. He also has opinions and an interesting way of putting them.

Over many years James has refined his statistical basis for rating players. His latest method, reaching a state he was satisfied with just as this book was supposed to go to press, is called Win Shares. Originally it applied only to hitters, but his refinements extended the method to pitching and fielding. His provides ratings for the 100 best players at every position, explains them in some depth, and compares them with those of other baseball writers and organizations.

I read all of Part I, and Player Ratings for those I had heard of. Anyone interested in baseball should find something to like here, even if only an argument.

To whet your appetite, here are some samples of his writing.

[The 1900s, p. 81] The Chicago Cubs in 1906 won 116 games. This remains the record for wins in one season. The cubs also won 223 games in two years (1906-1907), which is the record for wins in a two-season span, and 322 games over three years (1906-1908), which is the record for wins over a three-season span. They won 426 games over a four-season span (1906-1909), which is the record for wins over a four-year span, and they won 530 games over a five-season span (1906-1910), which is the record for wins over a period of five years.

The Cubs won 622 games over a six-year period (1905-1910), which is a record, by far. The only other team to win 600 games in a six-year span was the Cardinals of the 1940s, although many teams have lost 600 games in six years, proving that it is easier to stay in last place than it is to stay in first.

The Cubs won 715 games in seven years (1940-1910); this is also a record. They won 807 games in an eight-year period (1904-1911), which, again, is a record; the Yankees won 799 between 1936 and 1943. They won 898 games between 1904 and 1912, which is a record for wins over a nine-year period, and they won 986 between 1904 and 1913, which is a record for wins over a ten-year period.

He goes on to discuss the contributions of Tinker, Evers, and Chance to this record, an interesting discussion that illuminates how he thinks about baseball (i.e., deeply).

[The 1930s, p. 158] Pete Jablonowski was a graduate of the University of Michigan, 1927. He was a major league pitcher on and off for the next several seasons, but changed his name in 1934 to Pete Appleton. He did better as Pete Appleton, winning 23 games for Toronto in 1935, then having his best major league season with the Senators in 1936. He was able to stay in the majors until 1942, when he left to join the Navy.

In Bill Stern’s version of the Jablonowski/Appleton story, Jablonowski changed his name to change his luck, and sure enough, his luck did change as soon as he changed his name. But you know what? On November 9, 1933, Jablonowski got married. His wife’s maiden name – I am not making this up – was Aldora Leszcynski. He changed his name to Appleton a few months later – and don’t you just know what the real reason was? After all those years of being Aldora Leszcynski, the woman just couldn’t stomach the prospect of going through the rest of her life as Aldora Leszcynski Jablonowski.

The book is full of little stories like that.

[The 1990s, p. 316] History shows nothing more clearly than that one cannot anticipate history. This is true, I think, because many of the things that we all know turn out, when put to the test, to be untrue, or to be true only up to a point.

Having said that, four things about the future of baseball seem so obvious to me that I am willing to put them on record in a hard-cover book, so that the next generation of sportswriters can make fun of me twenty years from now.

The four things are interesting, but I don’t feel like retyping them. On page 320, he says

Baseball’s poetic and lyrical celebrants are fond of pointing out that baseball is the only major team sport without a clock. What these people don’t understand is that, until about 1945, baseball did have a clock. It was called the sun. Baseball games, until the advent of night ball, had to be crisply played because they often didn’t start until late afternoon, and they had to be finished by sundown, and sundown then was an hour sooner than it is now.

He discusses the notion of clutch performance, which he disbelieves in, and gives his opinion forcefully. He points out that there is no statistical basis for believing in it. Then he says

[Player Ratings and Comments, p. 349] But, since this elusive “clutch ability” has no particular statistical dimension, it has become popular within the discussion as a bullshit dump. All discussions have bullshit dumps; we need them. Our logic, whatever it is that we are talking about, can never be completely worked out; all subjects worthy of discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right or wrong, justice or injustice, accuracy or inaccuracy, reason or madness, moderation or extremity. “Psychology” is a common bullshit dump. I am not saying that psychology is not real or that psychologists do not know what they are talking about. What I am saying is that since human psychology affects almost everything within our sight in undocumented ways which are never fully understood, psychology inevitably becomes a bullshit dump which we can use to justify or explain what is otherwise unjustified or inexplicable.

“Karma” is a popular bullshit dump. In politics, “sensitivity” is a bullshit dump; so is the “influence of the media.” Witchcraft used to be a major bullshit dump, but has lost its audience.

He also has an interesting discussion of six rules he would like to see changed, or at least enforced differently, to improve the spectator’s experience of the game. This is a really good, but very long, baseball book.

 

2007-02-24: iWoz

iWoz

Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it (2006)

by Steve Wozniak (1950-) with Gina Smith (?-)

This is more interesting than I thought it would be. Though Gina Smith helped with the actual writing, the voice seems to be the authentic Woz, as I’ve heard him in interviews.

The best parts for me are the story of the stages by which he developed and learned the complex of ideas that went into the Apple II. The later parts are less interesting.

When he talks of his personal life, and his interest in cognitive development, I was interested in the “flying tours” he gave his infant kids (and other peoples’ kids), where he allowed them to determine the route through the house by looking and the muscle movements he learned to interpret.

 

2007-01-26: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

A Search for Who We Are (1992)

by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Ann Druyan (1949-)

I might have read this book before I started writing these reports; much of the content is familiar to me.

For someone just becoming curious, but with a bit of science background, it is a good introduction to the evolutionary background for human nature.

They invoke Niels Bohr’s aphorism: “Clarity through breadth.” However, once they get past cosmology, their breadth is primarily in the biological realm. They also have this good cautionary advice: “We urge the reader to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of Nature, but is never fully there.”

For those of a mystical bent, they provide: “Nanrei Kobori, late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto, said to us ‘God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.’”

Regarding the reaction to Darwin they provide two quotes:

I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, letter of 1775

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian [geological] system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. – Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, Chapter XV

Another quote:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land,; after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, On Impermanence

Regarding the animal sources of much of human nature:

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

In the notes to chapter ten, there is a fascinating story of using close observation of nature to get close to birds for watching. Anyone who reads the book should not miss it.

 

2007-01-14: Moneyball

Moneyball

The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)

by Michael Lewis (1960-)

This is a fascinating book about an aspect of baseball that had escaped my notice.

Sabremetrics is an approach to analyzing the statistics of the performance of baseball players, to determine the most important contributions to winning. Though the effort started in the 1970s (or earlier), it was not used successfully by baseball insiders until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A’s. With one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, the A’s have won more games than nearly all of the teams with much larger payrolls.

The book is based on a season’s inside view granted by the A’s to Lewis, apparently to ensure a more widespread appreciation for their success and the methods they’ve used. Since that success depends on the ignorance of others, it’s a little hard to understand why they cooperated with the book. I suppose the answer is pride. At the end of the book, Beane nearly accepts the GM position in Boston, but eventually stays at Oakland. It seems he was tempted to move as a way to prove to himself that his worth was recognized; once the offer was made, he seems to have been satisfied. Still, he might have wanted a little more widespread recognition, and perhaps to rub the noses of other managers in their lack of success using the old ways.

The term ‘sabremetrics’ comes from the Society for American Baseball Research, and follows the approach of Bill James. As a result of reading this book, I have started looking into James’s work. It gives another way of looking at baseball, and of analyzing the potential of minor leaguers. Maybe it can be applied at local games.

 

2007-01-11: The Cave Painters

The Cave Painters

Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists (2006)

by Gregory Curtis (1944-)

This book and another new book on the same subject were reviewed together, somewhere. The other seemed more interesting from the reviews, but this one was available at the library.

The book has a lot of history of the probing mentioned in the subtitle, but makes no new hypotheses and draws no conclusions.

There are a few interesting tidbits. At Lascaux, excavations found remains of habitation, including bones from meals and broken tools. The bones indicate a diet of nearly 100% reindeer; however the painting in Lascaux contain no reindeer. This would appear to argue against the paintings as hunting magic, at least of a routine sort. In some places, great compositions adorn galleries as if for the benefit of a community; at other places, paintings or engravings are tucked away in places only reachable by one person at a time, or only with great effort and special tools.

Curtis interviewed many paleontologists and other experts, and some of them knew the earliest discoverers of the caves. It is really a quite young field, and the material to work with is still being discovered. While reading, I wondered how many paintings might have been made outdoors, lost to 20,000 years of weathering.

The subject is interesting, and the sample pictures are nice to look at, but the book is unsatisfying.

 

2006-11-10: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics

The Invisible Art (1993)

by Scott McCloud (1960-)

This book was mentioned in an odd context: as containing insights into the presentation of ideas in graphical and textual form, applicable to the making of effective PowerPoint presentations. I am not much interested in either PowerPoint or comics, so the mere fact that I read the book is somewhat interesting.

McCloud (whose work I’m otherwise unfamiliar with) approaches comics as an art form, and so appropriate for serious criticism and understanding.

Using a face as an example, he shows a sequence of drawings from a near-photographic rendition to a circle-line-two-dots, and says: “When we abstract an image through cartooning we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

He describes several dimensions along which variations in style or approach can be applied to the creation of comics, such as complex-simple, realistic-iconic, objective-subjective, specific-universal, pictures-words. He illustrates the second with a series of faces, with the smiley-face exemplifying the iconic. Of the last he says: “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information.  It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” Thus he re-labels the dimension as received-perceived. He further says: “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures.

On page 52-53 McCloud constructs a triangle with edges labeled ‘The Representational Edge’ (bottom), ‘The Retinal Edge’ (left), and ‘The Conceptual Edge’ (right). He labels the lower left corner ‘Reality’ and the lower right ‘Meaning’. The far right side is mostly empty beyond a line labeled ‘The Language Border’. Within this triangle, he has drawn over a hundred faces from various comic artists’ works. It is an interesting exercise, though I don’t really know what to make of it.

Starting on page 169 is some relevance to presentations, introduced with the statement that “the creation of any work in any medium will always follow a certain path. A path consisting of six steps. [idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface] First: The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes, of the work … the work’s ‘content.’ Second: The form it will take … will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book? Third: The ‘school’ of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to …  maybe a genre of its own. Fourth: Putting it all together … what to include, what to leave out … how to arrange, how to compose the work. Fifth: Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the ‘job’ done. Sixth: Production values, finishing … the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work. In all the arts it’s the surface that people appreciate most easily, like an apple chosen for its shiny skin.” Later he says, “In practice, any aspect of comics may be the one which first draws an artist into its orbit. Still, the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning, from surface to core.”

As I read this, perhaps because of the way I was prompted to read it, I was tempted several times to copy pages and take them to work; however, it seems unlikely to appeal to, or even be comprehensible to, my coworkers. It might be more interesting to Chad, as a summary view of one artist’s view of art.

 

2006-11-12: What Is Thought?

What Is Thought? (2004)

by Eric B. Baum (1941-)

I probably learned of this book from a book review in Science or American Scientist. It is not easy to read, and could have used a little more editing. Nonetheless, it is interesting and thought-provoking. The title is a deliberate play on Shrödinger’s 1944 What Is Life?, which is credited with attracting ‘hard’ scientists such as Francis Crick to biological problems. Baum hopes to attract computational thinkers to the problems of mind.

He begins by stating a bold thesis: “Semantics is equivalent to capturing and exploiting the compact structure of the world, and thought is all about semantics.” A significant part of the book is devoted to describing in some detail this notion of the distinction between syntax (the superficial aspects of the world revealed by the senses, an enormous and enormously complex collection of information) and semantics (the infinitesimally smaller collection of information that allows explanations, predictions and actions in the world).

Baum discusses Church and Turing, and reminds me of the other equivalent formulation: Emil Post’s production system. These take a starting string (e.g., A B A B C B C) and a set of rewrite rules (e.g., x B A B y -> x C B y). Matching and rewriting yields new strings (e.g., A C B C B C). The declarative nature of the syntax, and the matching and variable binding operations, seem to me to offer a promising approach for a higher level of neural-circuit simulation than neural nets, an approach closer to symbol processing.

Baum has worked on neural nets, and addresses a reason they are not more widely used. (This follows an introduction to ideas of complexity and its quantification.)

The inability to understand how nets get to their conclusions is one reason they are not applied more often in exactly this kind of context. For example, a trained medical diagnosis net exists that is more accurate than the average emergency room physician at deciding whether to admit to the hospital people complaining of chest pain, and yet no one is quite willing to replace the judgment of doctors with this net.

This lack of explainability is a practical problem for applications involving people, but it is not an argument demonstrating that the net cannot understand. Indeed, lack of explainability is to be expected if the net does understand. The point is, understanding corresponds to a compact description. Compact description is not the whole story in understanding, but it is integral to it. The trained net already compresses a huge amount of data, which is the reason it understands the process well enough to classify examples it has never seen before. A further understanding of the workings of the net would then require a further compression. That should not exist, or the data are not as compressed as they could be.

In discussing the difference between reaction and reflection in thought, he invokes the impact of evolution on the innate capabilities of the brain, a recurring theme.

It should not be surprising that thought is mostly reactive. First, evolution created us to survive and reproduce, and survival and reproduction are mostly real-time processes. To reflect at the wrong time is to be eaten by a tiger while you are deciding what to do, or to miss saying something witty to a potential mate at an opportune moment. Second, it is seemingly much easier to evolve reactive systems than reflective ones. Simple neural net learning algorithms or simple hill-climbing algorithms can be seen in simulation to give reactive solutions to various toy problems. Evolving complex intermediate representations turns out to be a lot harder, and historically seems to have happened later.

Nevertheless, there is a place for reflection. The contrast between reflective humanlike thinking and reactive behavior is perhaps most deeply respected by ethologists.

Baum goes on to describe how ethologists were influenced by the “Clever Hans” episode to draw a firm line between human mental abilities and animal behaviors. He refers to The Animal Mind (Gould and Gould) for a more modern approach.

Among human abilities is cheating detection. All humans are more adept at detecting when someone is breaking a rule than in performing general logical inference. Baum infers the existence of a special module in human brains for this capability.

Another human capability is the way that metaphor pervades language, to an extent that indicates it is fundamental to our thought processes. He refers to Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson). For Baum, metaphor comes from code reuse. “When we understand a concept, it is because we have a module in our minds that corresponds to that concept. The module knows how to do certain computations and to take certain actions, including passing the results of computations on to other modules. Metaphor is when such a module calls another module from another domain or simply reuses code from another module. Then we understand whatever the first module computes in terms of what the second module computes.” After further discussion and examples of metaphoric influence on thought he has this amusing aside.

One cogent point that Lakoff makes repeatedly in his books and essays is that we are prisoners of our metaphors. We understand the world in terms of our metaphors, but our metaphors are not exact, and as a result, we can be mistaken about the world when we apply an inappropriate metaphor. Actually, the most compelling and (to my mind, amusing) example of this phenomenon is Lakoff himself. Lakoff, who is very politically concerned and describes himself as politically liberal, wrote another book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t (1996). The point of this book is that we are trapped in our metaphors, and that liberals regard the government as a nurturing mother whereas conservatives regard the government as a stern father. He tries to write about how these metaphors color the respective views, how the views can be seen as coherent from the point of these metaphors. But even as he is attempting to stand aside and analyze the thought processes, he is utterly unable to escape his own metaphors. As he debates the merit of the two positions, nowhere is he able to realize even for an instant that the government is not a parent at all, nor even a person, and that all kinds of things he believes implicitly are thus based on a hopelessly inappropriate metaphor. Since he can’t escape the metaphor, he doesn’t even appear to understand that he is confused.

He goes on:

Our political reasoning is a particularly good example of our illogicality. It can’t possibly be fully logical: half the people are on one side of any issue and half on the other, which implies that that they are not all logically correct, and in fact there is no particular reason to believe that any of them are logically correct. People are simply not evolved to reason logically about politics.

An interesting (if technical) aspect of his research has been to add the concept of property rights to collections of agents attempting to evolve solutions to problems. With that notion, long chains of agents don’t evolve, presumably because the early ones are too far from the reward associated with success. By enforcing a distribution of reward throughout a chain (by an auction-like mechanism), long chains can evolve. However, if money is created or leaks out of the system (by theft), the tendency of agents to maximize their own rewards prevents globally optimal solutions from evolving.

Contrasting toy research problems with the difficulties faced by real people and other  creatures, Baum ends chapter 11 with:

The problem of reasoning about the world is thus hard. But people have made enormous progress at it. As I discuss in chapter 13, this is largely because of language. Individuals engage in computationally intensive searches, trying different ways of extending their knowledge. When someone finds a new discovery, a new sequence of thought that goes on beyond what is fully constrained by old modules and yet that usefully exploits structure in the world, he builds a new module in his mind. And, crucially, because human beings have language, he is able to guide others to construct the new module. Thus people over tens of thousands of years built vast numbers of modules that exploit the structure of the world in new ways. These provide massive numbers of new constraints that continue to allow us to extend. We have thus greatly extended the program of thought. It is our access to this huge additional program that, in my view, separates human beings from other animals.

He is talking about memes and memic processes, and this is a fit example for memetics.

In section 12.4 Baum asks, “What inductive bias did evolution start with?”, referring to the predilection of a system to learn certain kinds of things, or in certain ways. As evolution is based on the manipulation of molecules in three-dimensional space, he suspects Euclidean topology is a strong bias. He contrasts this bias with the bias of programmers attempting to construct intelligent programs to play Go or chess. Rather than incorporating the human appreciation of the two-dimensional topology of the boards, they focus on strings of bits or other symbols; there is no sense that bits representing neighboring stones or threatening pieces are connected to others. Baum doesn’t have specific proposals based on this observation, but it occurred to me that perhaps a generalization of Post’s production systems to 2-, 3- or 4-dimensional objects, rather than 1-dimensional strings of symbols might be worth investigating. Similarly, a tree-like object might provide a connection to grammar-like computation. These ideas might fit with another inductive bias he identifies: real-time performance. The more levels of abstraction that must be spanned in a computation, the longer it will take to perform. Other biases he identifies are causality, and hill-climbing (in an abstract sense) to approach locally optimal solutions. Together, these biases lead to rapid, shallow computations, but with potentially great parallelism; though low-level computations might be shallow, a hierarchical arrangement of modules might organize a broad computational into a relatively small, serial computation at the level of awareness.

In the introduction to chapter 13, he says

Section 13.2 reviews the model of mind proposed in this book and discusses language in this context. Two features are particularly relevant. First, if thought is the execution of a complex program, built as the interaction of many semantically meaningful modules, then words can naturally be seen as labels for modules, and sentences can naturally be seen as desribing how modules are put together into a given computation. I discuss in this context the question of how language interacts with computation. I suggest that the semantics is contained in the actual code and that attaching to the code thus does relatively little directly to facilitate thought. Thus, I suggest that language is descriptive rather than integral to thought. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the advent of sophisticated grammar facilitated or was made possible by a new way of combining modules, such as a new standardization of interface.

Second, I reiterate that the construction of the mental program is a cumulative process, with new computational modules built during life on top of old ones, and that the search for such useful code is computationally hard, taking place on an extremely rough fitness landscape with many local maxima. Progress is thus made in increments, with some new module or change made to the code allowing advance to the next sticking point. These facts taken together suggest that the advance in thinking of humans over monkeys could in principle be explained purely by invoking language for communication rather than ascribing to it a role in the computation itself.

In discussing internal rewards (the mechanisms driving our drives), he says (after talking about orgasm and other rewards)

It seems clear that the universal desire of children for the praise of their parents is built in. This is built in with some distinctions as well, for example, the fictional literature, the psychological literature, and general experience all concur that human sons very much want the admiration of their fathers and are often bitter when they don’t get it. This built-in goal allows the passage of complex behaviors from parents to child. It allows culture to evolve and be passed on, with massive effects on evolutionary fitness, and on our lives.

This instinct for parental approval is not exclusively a human characteristic, for example, bears can’t forage for a particular food unless they are shown how by their parents. The built-in goal of emulating parents and seeking approval of parents, combined possibly with the built-in goal of instructing children, allows complex behaviors like salmon fishing to be passed from generation to generation of bears. Alaskan brown bears and grizzly bears are genetically indistinguishable and live only miles apart but look substantially different. The brown bears are bigger and heavier with huge shoulder muscles because they have been instructed by their parents how to harvest the rich food sources in their coastal environment and thus eat better and behave differently.

Baum tells this bear story in nearly identical words in two places.

In discussing awareness, he mentions “perhaps the most interesting suggestion about awareness is that it has been carefully engineered to be ignorant of facts known to deeper recesses of our minds, for the purpose of making us capable of lying more effectively.” He explains this, then goes on:

So what, then, is awareness? Why do we sense this computation the way we do, with a sensation of consciousness, of being aware and engaged in things? Why should we not sense the rest of what is undoubtedly going on in our minds?

The most straightforward theory is simply this. There is code at the top of this hierarchy, code that controls speech and action, that makes decisions and perhaps feeds back credit assignment. This code does not directly sense all the underlying computation; all it sees is summary bits fed to it by underlying processes. But this upper-level code is what outputs through speech and action. So, when we ask questions of ourselves, when we introspect, when we describe our thought processes to others, when we talk about what we are feeling – all of this is controlled by the upper-level code, the upper-level modules. These upper-level decisions and computations are what we report because the upper-level modules are doing the talking. Indeed, “upper-level” may be a slight misnomer. Speech and action are controlled by modules specifically evolved for controlling speech and action, which may be deliberately fed disinformation by other modules, specifically to control what we say and do in a manner advantageous to our genes. What we are verbally aware of, then, is the disinformation, not the true information only known to subconscious processes that direct the flow of information. So, it is not clear in what sense we can say that our verbal awareness is at the very top of some hierarchy. (Of course, the same could be said of the President of the United States, who although nominally at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of government may be fed disinformation by his subordinates.) … Awareness is simply our ability to talk about our summary of the world and direct our computational abilities against portions of it.

In the epilogue to his chapter on consciousness, Baum says

As I write these words on my laptop, I am sitting on the Kärntnerstrasse, a walking street in the heart of the old city of Vienna. I am sitting in one of a number of small pavilions in the center of the street that serve in the summer as cafés or bars. The sides of this pavilion are open, but there is a sail suspended horizontally overhead to keep off the sun. This particular bar has served me three Caiparinhas, on which they have a special at 40 shillings. They make an excellent Caiparinha, placing the right amount of appropriately coarse sugar in the bottom of the glass before carefully mashing in the limes, adding ground ice then strong dark rum and then more ground ice; as with much food preparation in Vienna, they pay proud attention to detail. The excellent thing about my location in the middle of the Kärntnerstrasse, aside of course from the fine weather and the antique beauty of the street itself, is that a flow of perhaps ten people per minute, many of them beautiful women, passes by the pavilion, and I am enjoying the floor show. Thankfully, the fact that I can intellectually understand that my mind is nothing but an evolved computation does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of life or from my desire to live a fruitful and moral life. That enjoyment and that desire are built in, and I feel them as keenly as I was designed to.

 

2006-10-25: In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory

The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006)

by Eric R. Kandel (1929-)

I might have learned of this book from a review in Science magazine. It was described as an interesting mix of remembrance of a career and the personal background to the career. It is this, and is very interesting. Kandel begins with Kristallnacht in Vienna, when his family began to suffer from the Nazis in Austria. A tragedy at the time, the events created the circumstances that later enabled his career. Decades later, after winning the Nobel prize, Kandel returned to Austria and forced at least some there to re-examine the Austrian experience of anti-semitism.

Ch 17, Long-term Memory, p 240:

In reflecting on his genetic studies of bacteria, François Jacob distinguished between two categories of scientific investigation: day science and night science. Day science is rational, logical, and pragmatic, carried forward by precisely designed experiments. “Day science employs reasoning that meshes like gears, and achieves results with the force of certainty,” Jacob wrote. Night science, on the other hand, “is a sort of workshop of the possible, where are elaborated what will become the building materials of science. Where hypotheses take the form of presentiments, of hazy sensations.”

Ch 23, Attention Must Be Paid!, p 311:

Selective attention [a key to the difference between explicit and implicit spatial memory] is widely recognized as a powerful factor in perception, action, and memory – in the unity of conscious experience. At any given moment, animals are inundated with a vast number of sensory stimuli, yet they pay attention to only one or a very small number of them, ignoring or suppressing the rest. The brain’s capacity for processing sensory information is more limited than its receptors’ capacity for measuring the environment. Attention therefore acts as a filter, selecting some objects for further processing. It is in large part because of selective attention that internal representations do not replicate every detail of the external world and sensory stimuli alone do not predict every motor action. In our moment-to-moment experience, we focus on specific sensory information and exclude the rest (more or less). If you raise your eyes from this book to look at a person entering the room, you are no longer paying attention to the words on the page. At the same time, you are not attending to the décor of the room or the other people in the room. If asked to report your experience later, you are more likely to remember that a person entered the room than that there was a small scratch on the wall.

Ch 27, Biology and the Renaissance of Psychoanalytic Thought. P 374:

Kandel describes how psychoanalysis languished as it drifted away from any biological basis, to be reinvigorated later.

… John Bowlby … formulated the idea that the defenseless infant maintains a closeness to its caretaker by means of a system of emotive and behavioral response patterns that he called the “attachment system.” Bowlby conceived of the attachment system as an inborn instinctual or motivational system, much like hunger or thirst, that organizes the memory processes of the infant and directs it to seek proximity to and communication with its mother. From an evolutionary point of view, the attachment system clearly enhances the infant’s chances of survival by allowing its immature brain to use the parent’s mature functions to organize its life processes. The infant’s attachment mechanism is mirrored in the parent’s emotionally sensitive responses to the infant’s signals. Parental responses serve both to amplify and reinforce an infant’s positive emotional states and to attenuate the infant’s negative emotional states. These repeated experiences become encoded in procedural memory as expectations that help the infant feel secure.

Ch 30, Learning from Memory: Prospects, p 425:

Speaking of his later career and the prospects for future research:

I like the idea of applying molecular biology to link my area, the molecular biology of mind, to [his wife] Denise’s area, sociology, and thus to develop a realistic molecular sociobiology. Several researchers have made a fine start here. Cori Bargmann … has studied two variants of C. elegans that differ in their feeding patterns. One variant is solitary and seeks its food alone. He other is social and forages in groups. The only difference between the two is one amino acid in an otherwise shared receptor protein. …

Giacomo Rizzolatti … has discovered that when a monkey carries out a specific action with its hand, such as putting a peanut in its mouth, certain neurons in the premotor cortex become active. Remarkably, the same neurons become active when a monkey watches another monkey (or even a person) put food in its mouth. Rizzolatti calls these “mirror neurons” and suggests that they provide the first insight into imitation, identification, empathy, and possibly the ability to mime vocalization – the mental processes intrinsic to human interaction. …

In looking at just these three research strands, one can see a whole new area of biology opening up, one that can give us a sense of what makes us social, communicating beings. An ambitious undertaking of this sort might not only discern the factors that enable members of a cohesive group to recognize one another but also teach us something about the factors that give rise to tribalism, which is so often associated with fear, hatred, and intolerance of outsiders.

There is a lot that is interesting in this book, and it is quite well written. It only lagged when Kandel describes his involvement with biotech companies and their impact on researchers and research. Though he recognizes the advantage for developing actual therapies from discoveries, it’s clearly not very interesting to him.

 

2006-08-06: Silent Spring

Silent Spring  (1962, 2002 40th anniversary edition)

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Reading this book is necessary to understand the blooming of environmental consciousness since the 1960s. For those who haven’t read it (me until now), but are interested in (or at least aware of) environmental issues, it is eye-opening to see how the chemical insecticide industry steamrolled governments into massive application of poisons to the land without considering the impact on life.

The afterword to the 40th anniversary edition by Edward O. Wilson says the following:

Forty years ago, Silent Spring delivered a galvanic jolt to public consciousness and, as a result, infused the environmental movement with new substance and meaning. The effects of pesticides and other toxic chemical pollutants on the environment and public health had been well documented before Silent Spring, but in bits and pieces scattered through the technical literature. Environmental scientists were aware of the problem, but by and large they focused only on the narrow sector of their personal expertise. It was Rachel Carson’s achievement to synthesize this knowledge into a single image that everyone, scientist and the general public alike, could easily understand.

 

2006-07-07: The Oxford History of the American People

The Oxford History of the American People (1965)

by Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976)

This book was recommended by Kevin Drum’s blog at www.washingtonmonthly.com. The appeal was in large part that the book ended with JFK, and so can provide a view of American society untainted by “The Sixties” and all that followed.

Although the book is interesting, and well enough written (though it emphasizes naval power for unexplained reasons), I was reading several other books at the same time, and exceeded the number of renewals allowed by the library. Following are brief notes, up to the election of Andrew Jackson, p. 422.

Page 182, regarding the attitudes of the colonists in 1776:

Thus the situation between England and her American colonies, while it had points of friction, was far from explosive. “The abilities of a Child might have governed this Country,” wrote Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut in 1776, “So strong had been their Attachment to Britain.” But the Americans were a high-spirited people who claimed all the rights for which Englishmen had fought since Magna Carta, and would settle for nothing less. They were not security-minded but liberty-minded. That is why they met the attempts of the government of George III to impair these liberties, first with loyal expostulation, next with indignant agitation, finally with armed resistance.

Make no mistake; the American Revolution was not fought to obtain freedom, but to preserve the liberties that American already had as colonials. Independence was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators, but a reluctant last resort, to preserve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Page 268, regarding the perceived import of the American Revolution to old Europe:

They were right. As the English historian Lord Acton stated, “It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of the State – ideas long locked in the hearts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios – burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man . . . and the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.” Many, alas, have done so, but their people have always suffered for it.

Page 307, regarding the reconciliation of rival interests, during the Constitutional Convention:

How were the rival interests of seaboard merchants and back-country farmers (expressing the age-old antagonism between town and country), creditors and debtors, produce-exporting Southerners and trading Yankees, to be reconciled? Madison observed that the larger the political unit, the less likelihood of class or sectional injustice; he pointed out that Rhode Island was the place where one class had been riding roughshod over every other. “All civilized societies,” he said, were “divided into different sects, fashions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district or that district. . . . Why was America so justly apprehensive of Parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that a majority will not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority.”

Enlarge the sphere, and balance the interests: has not American history proved Madison’s wisdom? And has not the completely contrary communist theory, of recognizing no interests except those of the “workers” and the state, brought an end to personal liberty wherever put into effect?

Page 338, regarding the formation of political parties in 1794:

That year, 1794, saw the crystallization of unstable political elements into national parties. European issues are apt to reach America without shadings, all black and white. Thus the French Revolution seemed to some a clean-cut contest between monarchy and republicanism, oppression and liberty; to others it was a fresh breaking-out of the eternal strife between anarchy and order, atheism and religion, poverty and prosperity. Americans of the first way of thinking joined the Republican party; others, the Federalists. Sectional and economic groups were polar to the completed parties; but in the reverse order to general expectation. Formerly democratic New England, especially the seaports, became the headquarters of the pro-British Federalists; whilst the landed interest, particularly in slaveholding communities, was swept by Gallomania.

The explanation is largely social and economic. In New England the clergy had been worrying over the younger generation: students preferred to read Voltaire and Gibbon rather than Jonathan Edwards. Tom Paine’s scurrilous Age of Reason caused the sincerely religious to repudiate the party that supported France. Paine himself, by a nasty attack on Washington, identified Jeffersonianism with Jacobinism in the mind of the average Northerner. But the planters of Virginia seem to have been immune to religious panic and so certain of the loyalty of their own slaves that the massacre of white people in Haiti when “”liberty, equality and fraternity” were applied in that French colony did not alarm them. Virginia’s opposition to British capital and sea power was part of her hatred for Northern capital and Hamiltonian finance schemes. The writings of the French philosophes and économistes enabled country gentlemen to rationalize their instincts that land was the unique source of wealth, that trade and finance were parasites. Chief local philosopher was Colonel John Taylor “of Caroline” a Virginia county. His pamphlets declared that every dollar made by merchants came out of the farmer’s pocket, that England through her disregard of “true economic principles” was a “sinking nation,” and that trade with her was draining America of her wealth. These absurd notions became doctrine in the South; and it took them long to die.

Page 375, regarding the legacy of Thomas Jefferson:

Of all the ironies in American history, the career and influence of Thomas Jefferson are the greatest. This Virginia aristocrat and slave-owner proclaimed the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” In so doing he undermined and overthrew both Tories and Federalists, who believed that man was created highly unequal and that the best, not the most, should govern. The Federalists, but for Jefferson – and their own folly – might have continued for another generation to direct the government along conservative and national lines; might even have settled the Negro question without war, which Jefferson’s disciples were unable to do. His Southern supporters accepted Jefferson’s principles with the reservation that they applied only to white men, and used them mainly as a stick to beat the Federalists and win power. But the Northerners whom Jefferson converted to his views took him seriously and literally. They came to believe that political equality meant all Americans, no matter what race or color; that democracy meant rule of the majority, not by a cultivated minority of merchants and landowners. Long did the art of politicians ignore or muffle this ambiguity; but when the issue became really acute in 1860-61, the society which Jefferson loved, and which still worshipped his name, repudiated both his basic principles; and in so doing was overthrown by the society which had taken those principles to heart.