Writing Rules

Executive summary: I have had enough of misrepresentation by experts of what other experts have to say about grammar. (Added July 16, 2018)

The current concern of this blog is still the subject taught in school called grammar. Every aspect of school would seem to cause anxiety in somebody. Decades after they have left school, how many persons have nightmares of missing an examination? My mother was such a person, and I think her brother too. I seem not to be such a person, though I once dreamt of missing a plane.

How much support of current US President Donald Trump is due to memories of belittlement by teachers at school? A similar question may be raised about UK government minister Michael Gove’s saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts…”; and about the rise in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has perceived a special threat from the Peace Academics.
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Writing and Inversion

Executive summary: The “voice” of a transitive verb may be active or passive. A piece of writing may be vigorous or torpid. There is not an exact correspondence between passive verbs and torpid writing. However, a passive verb is used to effect inversion of subject and object. One may also invert subject and auxiliary verb, subject and predicate, or two clauses, always adding new words. Each inversion may lead to torpid writing. This is what Strunk warned about in The Elements of Style, by issuing the command, “Use the active voice.” The command must be followed with discretion. Williams makes the same case, more elaborately, in Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is no foolproof executive summary of how to write well.


When E. B. White revised William Strunk’s original Elements of Style, he did not retain Strunk’s “Introductory,” whose first paragraph said of the book,

The experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

Perhaps many students today cannot receive individual instruction. They are just given textbooks that try to spell out everything. I have sensed this in mathematics, where new calculus books seem a lot bigger than those of 1950 and earlier. Continue reading

A New Kind of Science

Some sciences are not recognized for what they are. The sciences themselves are not new, but a proper understanding of them may be new to some of us, including myself.

Here I supplement, and thus update, my 2012 article, “Strunk and White.” There I took issue with a professional linguist’s attacks on William Strunk’s “little book” (53 pages), which was made slightly less little (71 pages) by E. B. White: The Elements of Style. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1842 pages), Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston claim to present their subject descriptively; in an essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Pullum thinks Strunk and White fail to understand the standard description of English grammar, even as they give a prescriptive account of its use. Continue reading

Samatya Tour, July 2018

This is about a solo walking tour on Sunday, July 1, 2018. I was mostly around the Seventh Hill of the old walled city of Constantinople, ultimately in the quarter called Ψαμάθεια in Greek, and in Turkish Samatya.

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Çarşamba Tour, April 2018

Ayşe and I toured the northern part of the old walled city of Istanbul—including the religiously conservative district of Çarşamba—with our student Abdullah and his brother Yusuf on Sunday, April 8, 2018. At another site I documented a similar tour in March, 2015. Now I do not try to be so thorough. I did not try to document the whole trip photographically, but here is a selection of pictures that I did take. We saw Byzantine and Ottoman structures. For the former, I have since found a comprehensive reference: The Byzantine Legacy.

Kalendarhane

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Re-enactment

A theme of my last two articles here is the value of metaphysics, as being concerned with such problems as

  • that physics has not been able to reconcile its theories of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large, and
  • that America has not been able, in the words of Martin Luther King, to live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men [sic] are created equal.

These problems may not belong to natural science or political science as such. Considered as diseases of the body politic or the “body scientific,” they may not be curable, either by the body’s own immune system, or by remedies from outside. What is needed may be psychoanalysis, so to speak, or what Collingwood actually calls metaphysical analysis: an examination of absolute presuppositions, or the fundamental assumptions that have heretofore been left unquestioned. The analyst—the metaphysician—may suspect what those assumptions are; but the patient must confirm this or discover them independently. The patient will not be cured without agreeing that there is a disease.

Cures do happen, because absolute presuppositions change. Continue reading

What It Takes

This essay ends up considering arguments that natural science—especially mathematical physics—is based on absolute presup­positions whose mythological expression is found in Christianity—especially the doctrine of Incarnation.

I take note along the way of continuing censorship of Wikipedia by the Turkish state.

The article falls into sections as follows.

  • Where to start. To the thesis that everybody can be a philosopher, an antithesis is that persons with the professional title of philosopher ought to know the history of their subject.
  • Ontology. Disdain for this history may lead to misunderstanding of Anselm’s supposed proof of the existence of God.
  • Presupposition. To prove anything, you need a pou sto, or what Collingwood calls an absolute presupposition.
  • Progression. Newton rejected antiquated presuppositions
  • Reaction. Coal-burners and racists reject new presuppositions.
  • Universality. From the 47th chapter of the Tao Te Ching (in the translation of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English):

    Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
    Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
    The farther you go, the less you know.

    Thus the wise know without traveling;
    See without looking;
    Work without doing.

  • Religion. To say that we can know the laws governing the entire universe is like saying a human can be God.
  • Censorship. Thus everybody who believes in mathematical physics is a Christian, if only in the way that, by the Sun Language Theory, everybody in the world already speaks Turkish.
  • Trinity. That the university has several departments, all studying the same world—this is supposed to correspond to the triune conception of divinity.

This article began as a parenthesis in another article, yet to be completed, about passion and reason. To anchor that article in an established text, I thought back to David Hume, according to whom,

Reason is, and ought only to be[,] the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

This might express something I said in my previous article: “Reason is the power of testing what we want.” However, I had not really read Hume since college. I thought more about things that had not ended up in the previous article—which was called “Effectiveness” and concerned the article of Eugene Wigner with that word in its title. As I thought and wrote, it seemed I was putting so much into a parenthesis that it could be another article. True, the same might be said of many things in this blog. In any case, the parenthesis in question became the present article.

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Effectiveness

Preface

First published May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are
    • that mathematics is possible at all, and
    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.
  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.
  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.
  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.
  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.
  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)


I am writing from the Math Village, and here I happen to have read that Abraham Lincoln kept no known diary as such, but noted his thoughts on loose slips of paper. Admired because he “could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters,”

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

Thus Ronald C. White, “Notes to Self,” Harper’s, February 2018. My own notes to self are normally in bound notebooks, and perhaps later in blog articles such as the present one, which is inspired by the 1960 article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Eugene Wigner.
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Boolean Arithmetic

Mathematics can be highly abstract, though remaining applicable to daily life. I want to show this with the mathematics behind logic puzzles, such as how to derive a conclusion using all of the following premisses:

  1. Babies are illogical.
  2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
  3. Illogical persons are despised.

The example, from Terence Tao’s blog, is attributed to Lewis Carroll. By the first and third premisses, babies are despised; by the second premiss then, babies cannot manage crocodiles.

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On Knowing Ourselves

In a 2012 post in this blog, I criticized a 2009 essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” The putative advice was that of Strunk and White; but their advice was not in fact grammatical. They wrote not the elements of grammar, but The Elements of Style. They gave style advice by precept and example. The advice is good, if well understood. The critic should recognize that, as I wrote, “Rules of style are supposed to induce thinking, not obedience.”

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