Category Archives: Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Return to Narnia

1

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
Continue reading

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.

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 use “iff” needlessly.

  6. One pair who do this 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.”

Continue reading

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

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)

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Narnia

The following notes about C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, are from four emails that I wrote in the fall of 2015 (with some noted additions in the spring of 2020). 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

0

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