Category Archives: Maugham

Somerset Maugham

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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NL XLII: The First Barbarism: The Saracens

Index to this series

Executive summary: The barbarians who overran the Western Roman Empire were not barbarists in Collingwood’s technical sense. However, “in the seventh century a movement inspired by hostility towards everything Roman … and everything Christian, flared up on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman world” (42. 22). This movement was therefore barbarist. Failing to conquer Europe, either from the east at Constantinople, or from the west at Tours, the movement settled down and ceased being barbarist—by the account in Chapter XLII, “The First Barbarism: The Saracens,” and later, in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. I check this account against more recent sources; it is barbarist to think that the “movement” in question, or indeed any movement, must always be barbarist; I look at the “civilization” of the British Empire as portrayed in a story of Maugham, and I compare a character of the story to Collingwood.


Collingwood’s historical account of barbarisms is a minefield, if one wishes not to sound like a barbarist oneself. The four examples will be

  1. the Saracens,
  2. the “Albigensian Heresy” (or the Bogomils),
  3. the Turks, and
  4. the Germans.

The very formula “the X”—definite article followed by national or quasi-national adjective—this has a barbaric use in branding a people with indelible features. A retort then is “not all X,” as in “not all men.” Collingwood issues such a proviso himself:

45. 68. Please observe, Reader, that I am not talking about all Germans. I do not say that all Germans are liars. I know of some who are not; those heroes, for example, who continue in spite of everything the Nazis can do to run their secret wireless station and keep on printing Das Wahre Deutschland.

Das wahre Deutschland, from a Swiss antiquarian bookshop, Antiquariat Peter Petrej

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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

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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Romance

At the end of Shakespeare’s romance called The Tempest, Prospero plans to retire to Milan, where “Every third thought shall be my grave.” I remember these words from reading the play in school and college. I also have thoughts of my grave, and their frequency may increase as the years pass. However, for each of those thoughts, I seem to have more thoughts that are based on memories of youth and childhood.


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The Private, Unskilled One

I went into Istanbul’s Pandora Bookshop a month ago, looking for an English translation of War and Peace, since the Garnett translation I had read at college was falling apart. I was told the Oxford World’s Classics edition (with the Maude translation) was coming the next week, and it did come.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot, in Nesin Matematik Köyü, Kayser Dağı Mevkii, Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey, 2017.05.18

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NL XI: “Desire”

Index to this series

The four parts of Collingwood’s New Leviathan (1942) are Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism. From the first part, we are considering Chapter XI, “Desire.”

Pablo Picasso, The Lovers (1923; National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Pablo Picasso, “The Lovers,” 1923
National Gallery of Art, Washington Continue reading

NL X: “Passion”

Index to this series

Passion is literally the correlate of action, as suffering is the correlate of doing. In the ordinary, vulgar sense, passion is our response to what we suffer. This is how we shall understand it.

Sagrada Familia, west front, November, 2008

Sagrada Familia, Passion Façade, November, 2008

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Thinking & Feeling

This essay is written as a distraction from current events, though I make some reference to them. I am prompted by questions of analogy provoked by

  1. the similes of Homer, and
  2. a recent theater review in Harper’s that mentions the parables of Jesus.

DSC06654 (2)
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Thoreau by the Aegean

In a session of the 1986–7 senior laboratory at St John’s College in Santa Fe, for reasons that I do not recall, our tutor asked us students whether we had any heroes: for it was said that young people of the day no longer had heroes. None of the students at the table named a hero. I myself refrained from telling how I had once named a hero, when asked to do so in a high-school French class. This hero was the Buddha.

In recent times, I have listed my favorite writers as Somerset Maugham, Robert Pirsig, and R.G. Collingwood. I might add Charlotte Brontë and Mary Midgley to the list. I cannot add the Buddha, because he is not a writer. If my list were of writers and thinkers, I still could not add the Buddha: I cannot know him or any other thinker well enough, except through his own writing. But now I would add Henry David Thoreau. Continue reading