Category Archives: Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Anthropology of Mathematics

When Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, which opinion polls had said he would lose, I wrote a post called “How To Learn about People.” I was thinking of their politics, not their occupations.

Saturn eclipse mosaic from Cassini

If however you wanted to understand people whose occupation happened to be mathematics, you would need to learn what it meant to prove a theorem. Mere observation would not be enough:

  • In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy (1916, page 42), quoted in An Autobiography (1939, 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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On Causation

“Some theorists have equated causality with manipulability,” according to the Wikipedia article on the former subject. Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics (1940) is one of four cited sources; a fifth, by James Woodward, is cited later. Woodward himself cites the same five sources in his article “Causation and Manipulability” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Collingwood’s Essay is the earliest of these sources.

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NL XXV: The Three Laws of Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 11, 2018): The the three laws of politics are that (1) within the body politic, there is a ruling class, which is a society proper; (2) the ruling class can take in members from the ruled class; (3) the ruled and ruling classes will resemble one another, so that e.g. rulers of slaves will become slavish themselves. I compare such laws with physical laws, as discussed by Einstein; but on this subject, a look ahead to Chapter XXXI, “Classical Physics and Classical Politics,” would be in order. Meanwhile, by the Second Law, the body politic, or its ruling class, can be a permanent society; Nazi claims about the youth or senility of different states are bogus. There are further gradations within the ruling and ruled classes, according to strength of will; a weak will can be strengthened by another person’s stronger will through induction.


A pervading theme of the New Leviathan is freedom of will. Whether we actually have it is only a pseudo-problem (13. 17). Some persons have been fooled into thinking it a problem, perhaps by the misleading myth that free will is a divine gift, like life itself, breathed into our nostrils when, in Genesis 2:7, God forms us of the dust of the ground. As Collingwood observes at the end of Chapter XXIII, “The Family As a Society,” we are born neither free nor in chains. We have to grow up. Growing up is becoming free.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb (New York: Norton, 2009)

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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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Writing, Typography, and Nature

Note added February 10, 2019: I return to this rambling essay, two years later in the Math Village. The main points are as follows.

  • Writing is of value, even if you never again read what you write.
  • There is also value to reading again, as in the present case.
  • A referee rejected a submitted article of mine in the history of mathematics because its order did not make sense—to that referee, though a fellow mathematician thought well of the article. A revision was eventually published as “On Commensurability and Symmetry.”
  • In the preface to The Elements of Typographical Style, Robert Bringhurst wonders how he can write a rulebook when we are all free to be different. He thus sets up an antithesis, such as I would investigate later in “Antitheses.”
  • From being simply a means of copying, typography has become a means of expression.
  • Yet typography should not draw attention to itself, just as, according to Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, pronunciation (notably of foreign words) should not.
  • Through my own experience of typography with LaTeX [and HTML, as in this blog], I have developed some opinions differing from some others’.
  • Bringhurst samples Thoreau,
    • whose ridicule of letters sent by post applies today to electronic media, and
    • who rightly bemoans how enjoying the woods is thought idle; cutting them down, productive.
  • In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter wonders how a message can be recognized by any intelligence. Bringhurst restricts the question to concern intelligences on this earth.
  • In my youth, Hofstadter introduced me to Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, (edited by Reps and Senzaki), whose influence on me I consider.
  • The Zen story about whether “this very mind is Buddha” suggests a further development of Collingwood’s “logic of question and answer.”
  • Through looking at another translation, I consider how Reps and Senzaki turned Chinese into English.
  • Rereading this blog led me back to Hofstadter.

Here are some meditations on some books read during a stay in the Nesin Mathematics Village, January, 2017. I originally posted this article from the Village; now, back in Istanbul, a few days into February, recovering from the flu that I started coming down with in the Village, I am correcting some errors and trying to clarify some obscurities.

Nesin Mathematics Village from the east, Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Nesin Mathematics Village from the east
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Narnia

The following notes about C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, are from four emails that I wrote in the fall of 2015. The emails rebut various objections to the Narnia books. I have put my emails here, because I noticed that a friend on Facebook was wondering whether her daughter was ready to read the Chronicles, or perhaps to be read to from them. I do not wish to write much on Facebook, for reasons detailed elsewhere in this blog; so I asked interested persons to read me here.

Side of boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia from 1970s

I started reading the Chronicles in the summer before fourth grade. They had been on a list of suggested reading supplied by my school. I do not believe I was corrupted by those books, or by any other books; but anybody may read below for signs to the contrary! Continue reading

One & Many

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This essay—these notes for an essay, this draft of an essay—is inspired by Robert Pirsig’s first book. I have made sectional divisions where they seemed to occur naturally.

zen

While we who work at universities may be employed by the state, our true work is to serve not the state as such, but what may be called knowledge, or science, or reason. This is a theme of Pirsig, which I take up here. Continue reading

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

Books hung out with

The following are some books that I have read more times than I can remember. I list them in order of publication, though my first readings of them came in the opposite order:

  1. R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938);
  2. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944);
  3. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

I want to say some things about all of these books, and their writers. I intend especially to address the last book, which I shall call ZAMM. Continue reading