Category Archives: Prose

Return to Narnia

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My subject is the Chronicles of Narnia of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963). I consider this heptad of books (published 1950–6) as constituting (1) literature (2) for children (3) that I enjoyed in my first decade and continue to enjoy in my sixth.

  1. By literature, I mean a work of art whose medium is prose. Prose may also be a work of craft, intended to fulfil some purpose. This purpose could be to serve a market for fantasy or children’s books. Art as such has no purpose that can be specified in advance.

  2. Writing for children may take certain liberties that annoy adults.

  3. As with any post in this blog, I write out of my own personal interest. As a child, I read other fantasies, such as those of Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Ursula LeGuin, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Only the works of C. S. Lewis have stayed with me. This essay may be considered as an exploration of why, or least an example of how.

The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia, Collier edition
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Thoreau and Anacreon

Gray clouds over blue sky over white clouds over buildings

At the beginning of Walden, the author says he wrote its pages, “or rather the bulk of them,” in the isolated house he had built by the pond of that name. He lived there, 1845–7. He wrote there also A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He had spent the week of the title with his brother, who died of tetanus in January, 1842. Writes Laura Dassow Walls,

Into the narrative of his 1839 river trip with John, Henry had woven everything he ever felt, thought, and experienced …

This in Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Weaving is Thoreau’s metaphor, used in Walden in a consideration of what is worth doing in life.

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Reading shallow and deep

Executive summary (added July 28, 2020): I read an article praising so-called deep reading, one of whose exponents is Henry Kissinger. The world is apparently being corrupted by people who do not read deeply; and this includes ourselves, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by social media. I myself find the article corrupted by references to neuroscience, and I am sorry that the writer, Adam Garfinkle, does not tell us about his own experience of reading. His article comes recommended by George Will, whose tenure at the Washington Post can be blamed on my grandfather. I reminisce about him and about my own deep or at least long reading, in college and more recently. I take a hedonistic view of this reading.

Seeing a tweet condemning the superficiality of Twitter, I could not pass up the challenge. I read the linked essay, “What we lost when we stopped reading” (The Washington Post, April 17, 2020). That was by George Will, summarizing and recommending a longer essay, by Adam Garfinkle, “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” (National Affairs, number 43, spring 2020). I read that, yesterday evening and this morning (April 21, 2020).

My computer showing two pages of text in front of a window Continue reading

Donne’s Undertaking

I was recently called on to recommend a poem. I chose “The Undertaking” of John Donne. I want to say here why.

  • The poem (quoted below) has a sound that impressed me when first I read it, more than thirty years ago.

  • The poem alludes to ideals:

    • of recognizing what is good for its own sake;

    • of climbing a rung or two on Diotima’s ladder or stairway of love, recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (211c):

      And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά), is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps (οἳ ἐπαναβαθμοί) only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms (τὰ καλὰ σώματα), and from fair forms to fair practices (τὰ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα), and from fair practices to fair notions (τὰ καλὰ μαθήματα), until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (ὃ ἔστι καλόν).

  • The sound of Donne’s poem may seduce one into thinking the ideals worthy.

Analytic Geometry and Donne's complete poetry

Two books that were my mother’s

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On the Odyssey, Book II

Having been put to bed by Eurycleia at the end of Book I of the Odyssey, Telemachus gets up in the morning and has the people summoned to council, at the beginning of Book II.

Three books with beads

There is no mention of a breakfast. Perhaps none is eaten. On the other hand, Telemachus probably relieves his bladder at least, and there is no mention of that either.

Telemachus straps on a ξίφος, but arrives at the assembly with a χάλκεον ἔγχος in hand. Wilson calls it a sword in either case; for Fitzgerald and Lattimore, the first weapon is a sword, but the second a spear and a bronze spear, respectively. Cunliffe’s lexicon supports the men; however, for Liddell and Scott, an ἔγχος can also be a sword, at least in Sophocles. For Beekes, ξίφος is Pre-Greek, and ἔγχος may be so. Continue reading

Anthropology of Mathematics

This essay was long when originally published; now, on November 30, 2019, I have made it longer, in an attempt to clarify some points.

The essay begins with two brief quotations, from Collingwood and Pirsig respectively, about what it takes to know people.

  • The Pirsig quote is from Lila, which is somewhat interesting as a novel, but naive about metaphysics; it might have benefited from an understanding of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics.

  • A recent article by Ray Monk in Prospect seems to justify my interest in Collingwood; eventually I have a look at the article.

Ideas that come up along the way include the following.

  1. For C. S. Lewis, the reality of moral truth shows there is something beyond the scope of natural science.

  2. I say the same for mathematical truth.

  3. Truths we learn as children are open to question. In their educational childhoods, mathematicians have often learned wrongly the techniques of induction and recursion.

  4. The philosophical thesis of physicalism is of doubtful value.

  5. Mathematicians and philosophers who ape them (as in a particular definition of physicalism) use “iff” needlessly.

  6. A pair of mathematicians who use “iff” needlessly seem also to misunderstand induction and recursion.

  7. Their work is nonetheless admirable, like the famous expression of universal equality by the slave-driving Thomas Jefferson.

  8. Mathematical truth is discovered and confirmed by thought.

  9. Truth is a product of every kind of science; it is not an object of natural science.

  10. The distinction between thinking and feeling is a theme of Collingwood.

  11. In particular, thought is self-critical: it judges whether itself is going well.

  12. Students of mathematics must learn their right to judge what is correct, along with their responsibility to reach agreement with others about what is correct. I say this.

  13. Students of English must learn not only to judge their own work, but even that they can judge it. Pirsig says this.

  14. For Monk, Collingwood’s demise has meant Ryle’s rise: unfortunately so since, for one thing, Ryle has no interest in the past.

  15. In a metaphor developed by Matthew Arnold, Collingwood and Pirsig are two of my touchstones.

  16. Thoreau is another. He affects indifference to the past, but his real views are more subtle.

  17. According to Monk, Collingwood could have been a professional violinist; Ryle had “no ear for tunes.”

  18. For Collingwood, Victoria’s memorial to Albert was hideous; for Pirsig, Victorian America was the same.

  19. Again according to Monk, some persons might mistake Collingwood for Wittgenstein.

  20. My method of gathering together ideas, as outlined above, resembles Pirsig’s method, described in Lila, of collecting ideas on index cards.

  21. Our problems are not vague, but precise.


When Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, which opinion polls had said he would lose, I wrote a post here called “How To Learn about People.” I thought for example that just calling people up and asking whom they would vote for was not a great way to learn about them, even if all you wanted to know was whom they would vote for. Why should people tell you the truth?

Saturn eclipse mosaic from Cassini

With other questions about people, even just understanding what it means to be the truth is a challenge. If you wanted to understand people whose occupation (like mine) was mathematics, you would need to learn what it meant to prove a theorem, that is, prove it true. Mere observation would not be enough; and on this point I cite two authors whom I often take up in this blog.

  • In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy (1916, page 42), quoted in An Autobiography (1940, page 93) as well as in the earlier post here, “The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all.”

  • In the words of English teacher and anthropologist Verne Dusenberry, quoted by Robert Pirsig in Lila (1991, page 35), “The trouble with the objective approach is that you don’t learn much that way.”

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Math, Maugham, and Man

A human being was once a man. A female of the species was a wife; a male, a were. The latter appeared in werewolf, but also were-eld, which became our world. Our woman comes from wife-man.

That is roughly the history, which I shall review later in a bit more detail. It would be a fallacy to think the history told us how we must use the words “woman” and “man” today. The history does suggest what may happen again: in a world dominated by men, a word like “person,” intended for any human being, may come to have its own meaning dominated by men. Yet again, this is no reason not to try to make our language better.

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On Causation

Causation seems commonly to be understood as a physical concept, like being a fossil. The paleontologist seeks the one right answer to the question of when a particular dinosaur bone became part of the fossil record; likewise readers of international news seem to think there is one right answer to the question of whether Donald Trump or Ali Khamenei caused the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020.

There is not one right answer. If you are Trump, you caused 176 civilian deaths by attacking the Iranians and provoking their response. If you are Mitch McConnell, you caused the deaths by inhibiting the removal of Trump from office. If you are Khamenei, you did it by meeting Trump’s fire with fire.

Being a cause does not mean you deserve condemnation or praise: that is another matter.

Causation is relative. This is an observation by R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Continue reading

Logic of Elliptic Curves

In my 1997 doctoral dissertation, the main idea came as I was lying in bed one Sunday morning. Continue reading

On Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

This is an appreciation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem of 1931. I am provoked by a depreciation of the theorem.

I shall review the mathematics of the theorem, first in outline, later in more detail. The mathematics is difficult. I have trouble reproducing it at will and even just confirming what I have already written about it below (for I am adding these words a year after the original publication of this essay).

The difficulty of Gödel’s mathematics is part of the point of this essay. A person who thinks Gödel’s Theorem is unsurprising is probably a person who does not understand it.

In the “Gödel for Dummies” version of the Theorem, there are mathematical sentences that are both true and unprovable. This requires two points of clarification.

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