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Laplace: no more to be desired than the perfection of analysis (1796)

August 14, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Pierre-Simon Laplace. Exposition du Système du Monde, Paris, 1796.
Translation of passage found in J. Lequeux. Le Verrier: Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer, 2013.

SETTING: Newtonian mechanics ruled the day and there were no experimental anomalies and confidence in its infallibility of a natural law was growing.


In the midst of the infinite variety of phenomena that evolve continually in the heavens and on the earth, we have arrived at unraveling the small number of general laws that matter follows in its movements. Everything in nature obeys them; everything follows from them with the same necessity as the return of the seasons; the curve followed by the light atom that the wind carries away by chance is regulated in the same definite manner as the orbits of the planets…. Geometers … have at last reduced all of mechanics to general formulas that leave nothing to be desired but the perfection of analysis.


If you think we have all the fundamental laws of nature down and the rest is just a matter of perfecting analysis, you are not alone. Laplace was sure of that too … in 1796, as we saw in the above extract.

In contrast to this Laplacian outlook of naive and supreme confidence in the theory were views of people like Leibniz who 80 years earlier, in correspondences with Clarke [3], outlined his philosophical objections of Newtonian mechanics. In Leibniz’s view, Newtonian theory assumed absolute spatial coordinates, whereas there can only be relational dynamics. The Leibnizian outlook, and criticism of Newtonian theory, was well grounded. It took about two hundred years for others to fully appreciate Leibniz’s objections.

Newton himself had philosophical issues with his own theory too, in particular the implicitly assumed action-at-a-distance nature of Newtonian mechanics. In his letter to Bentley in 1692 he said,

“It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact…That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a Vacuum, without the Mediation of anything else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an Agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this Agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the Consideration of my readers.” [4]

And yet, we still had statements, like the one above from Laplace over a hundred years later, maintaining that Newtonian mechanics is nature’s theory of mechanics, and you just have to get used to the fact that we are done. There is nothing else to do except perfect analysis. You can imagine the gallery of innocents saying, “Look, Newtonian mechanics is RIGHT. There is no experiment that shows it to be wrong, after more than a hundred years of observations. All your objections are just useless and sterile philosophical objections. You can drop more stuff from towers; you can smash more things together; you can watch more orbits; and you can say violations of the theory are ‘just around the corner’, but you’re just wasting your time and our money.”

We know that the first real experimental crack in the Newtonian standard model of mechanics came in 1859 [2], although it took much longer to be fully accepted as a problematic find within science. Newtonian mechanics held on. As we know, Einstein, who ultimately upended Newtonian mechanics, was devoted to investigating “philosophical soft spots” in the theory. He was not motivated by experimental anomalies, such as Le Verrier’s anomalous perihelion precession of Mercury, which had more mundane interpretations, such as an unseen new planet, that did not threaten the underlying theory.

The Laplacian outlook that has confidence in the completeness of current basic science knowledge has never been a good bet in history, and I am not aware of any compelling argument that we live in a very special time where such confidence is suddenly warranted.

Besides the Laplacian Outlook and the Leibniz/Einstein Outlook, there is also a third kind of outlook. I will call it the Hamlet Outlook, calling to mind Hamlet’s admonition to Horatio:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” [5]

Hamlet, the ever dithering, ever ineffectual being, has no outlook except cowering in the face of fate and the mysteries of what might happen next. If Hamlet were a theoretical physicist today he would mope around, staring only at experimental web pages, maybe chasing a few anomalies here and there, drinking himself into a stupor when they turn out to be statistical fluctuations, yapping that we can never know anything except the pings and bings of experimental apparatuses (which, don’t get me wrong, are extremely important), and having very weak opinions about what could be revealed by experiment in the future, which of course he takes no role in shaping or planning. Those with the Hamlet outlook are worse than those with the Laplacian outlook since they do little and create no new ideas. At least Laplacians do something, often doing impressive calculations within the standard theory of the day, even if they have the wrong overall outlook, and might accidentally contribute to progress.

Nevertheless, the Laplacian outlook will always lose, you can count on it. It might take ten years, it might take thirty years, or it might take more than two centuries, as was the case for Newtonian mechanics, but it will lose. And taking on the Hamlet outlook means you will never contribute, but you might have some fun fighting others with swords. Now, wouldn’t you rather be a Leibniz or an Einstein, even if it takes everybody else a decade or even a century to catch up, and even if you might fall short in the end?


[1] Pierre-Simon Laplace. Exposition du Système du Monde, Paris, 1796.
[2] Translation of passage found in J. Lequeux. Le Verrier: Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer, 2013.
[3] Clarke, Samuel. A Collection of Papers, which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibniz, and Dr. Clarke, In the Years 1715 and 1716. James Knapton Press, London, 1717.
[4] Cohen, I.B. Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy, 2nd ed. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1958.
[5] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. First Folio, 1623.

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Derrida: American students keep asking ‘could you elaborate?’ (2002)

August 11, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004).  “Jacques Derrida on American Attitude,” (accessed 2019/8/10)

SETTING: Derrida was a central figure in the Deconstructionist movement in philosophy. He was based mainly in France at École Normal Supérieure, but he also spent several years at UC Irvine, even teaching a few classes in Irvine. In the extract below he gives some thoughts on American university students.


During my office hours, [American students] just come and say, ‘Could you tell me more about this or that? Could you elaborate on this?’ This doesn’t happen in France. You don’t just say, “Could you elaborate?”


There is some truth to this, but in my experience European students ask a lot less of the professor in general. Weaker students in American ask “could you elaborate?” and weaker students in Europe say nothing. Not sure which is worse.

What is true, which Derrida surely also knows, is that the more dedicated students, both American and European, process a lot on their own and their questions arise from concerted self effort to break down conceptual or technical barriers that the material they have in hand plus their backgrounds enable them to recognize but may not enable them to resolve in a reasonable amount of time. That’s how students learn best, and that’s when the more experienced professor is of maximal help for a learning student.

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Lacan: I wouldn’t be displeased if someone understood something (1972)

August 8, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller). “On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973.” Editions du Seuil, 1975; W.W. Norton, 1998.

SETTING: Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a controversial philosopher/theorist who started his own psychoanalytic school of thought. For many years he gave a series of lectures to his followers who came from afar to Paris to hear him. In the extract below he is speaking to his classroom of students in 1972. His son-in-law J.-A. Miller transcribed (perhaps too meticulously) everything that was said in class.


I would really like it if, from time to time, I had a response, even a protest.

I left rather worried last time, to say the least. It [the lecture] seemed altogether bearable to me, nevertheless, when I reread what I had said — that’s my way of saying that it was very good. But I wouldn’t be displeased if someone could attest to having understood something. It would be enough for a hand to go up for me to give that hand the floor, so to speak.

I see that no one is putting a hand up, and thus I must go on.


Lacan was so famous and he had such a cult following that it is doubly alarming when everyone was trying hard but nobody could figure out what he was trying to say, or at least felt confident enough to expound on it in his presence. Every professor can sympathize from time to time. We often blame student apathy when something like this happens, but surely that was not the case here, and I think is rarely ever the case. However, I suspect blame is to be had by everyone involved in a perfect storm of non-learning, where students and professor alike did not take responsibility in constructing a deep learning environment.


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Valéry: a work is never completed, just abandoned (1933)

August 6, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Paul Valéry (1871-1945). “Au sujet du cimetière marin.“ La Nouvelle Revue Française (March 1933). Translation at Ralph Keyes. The Quote Verifier. St Martin’s Griffin, 2006 as cited by (accessed 8/6/19).

SETTING: Paul Valéry was a successful French poet and philosopher. In 1933 he wrote an essay for La Nouvelle Revue Française about his poem “Le Cimetière marin”, which includes the abstract below that gives one of his most famous insights into the working habits of writers.


Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné.


In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned.


Valéry was a great poet, and like all great he knew that no work is ever perfected. One just has to stop at some point to move on.

It is like that in physics research. Every paper is merely abandoned, not finished. Bad physicists think they have completed a work. Good physicists know that no research line is ever perfected. There is always more to do. There are always tentacles that reach into other subareas, which further reach into other subareas. There is always something that is not perfect.

What makes a physicist great is erring on the side of thoroughness, yet knowing when to stop. It is not an easy balance to find sometimes. Some good advice: when in doubt, keep going.

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