Hardy: the slow grind into dust of Jude’s scholarly dreams (1895)

August 21, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Jude the Obscure (novel), 1895.

SETTING: Jude, the title character of the novel, is trying to find a way to enter Christminstir University to become a scholar. The extract below details some of his failed efforts.


During the next week or two he [Jude] accordingly placed himself in such positions about the city as would afford him glimpses of several of the most distinguished among the provosts, wardens, and other heads of houses [of Christminster University]; and from those he ultimately selected five whose physiognomies seemed to say to him that they were appreciative and far-seeing men. To these five he addressed letters, briefly stating his difficulties, and asking their opinion on his stranded situation.

When the letters were posted Jude mentally began to criticize them; he wished they had not been sent. ‘It is just one of those intrusive, vulgar, pushing, applications which are so common in these days,’ he thought. ‘Why couldn’t I know better than address utter strangers in such a way? I may be an impostor, an idle scamp, a man with a bad character, for all that they know to the contrary… Perhaps that’s what I am!’

Nevertheless, he found himself clinging to the hope of some reply as to his one last chance of redemption. He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting. […]

Meanwhile the academic dignitaries to whom Jude had written vouchsafed no answer, and the young man was thus thrown back entirely on himself, as formerly, with the added gloom of a weakened hope. By indirect inquiries he soon perceived clearly what he had long uneasily suspected, that to qualify himself for certain open scholarships and exhibitions was the only brilliant course. But to do this a good deal of coaching would be necessary, and much natural ability. It was next to impossible that a man reading on his own system, however widely and thoroughly, even over the prolonged period of ten years, should be able to compete with those who had passed their lives under trained teachers and had worked to ordained lines.

The other course, that of buying himself in, so to speak, seemed the only one really open to men like him, the difficulty being simply of a material kind. With the help of his information he began to reckon the extent of this material obstacle, and ascertained, to his dismay, that, at the rate at which, with the best of fortune, he would be able to save money, fifteen years must elapse before he could be in a position to forward testimonials to the head of a college and advance to a matriculation examination. The undertaking was hopeless.

COMMENT: I read Jude the Obscure as a teenager and none of its (in)famous criticisms of religion or marriage or sexual repression or anything like that had much of an effect on me. It was all small potatoes compared to what I, a budding academic, felt was the over-arching horror of the novel: the pure helplessness, frustration and anger of Jude’s impossible dream to become a scholar. Jude tried to get into any college of Christminster (a fictionalized version of Oxford) but there was no path, despite infinite desire and infinite capacity to work for it. His station in life upon birth secured his fate to never have a chance.

It is very sad to think that there are still “Judes” out there now, even within our rich societies, with scholarly dreams having no little chance of realization. But universities in America and abroad are continuing to work hard on this problem.

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Lowell: be thoroughly grounded in the old and the new (1930)

August 18, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: Amy Lowell (1874-1925). “The Process of Making Poetry.” Poetry and Poets: Essays. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1930.

SETTING: Lowell was a famous American poet in the heyday of American poetry, and a leader of the imagist school of poetry. In her essay “The Process of Making Poetry” she gives advice to budding poets.


I believe [a poet] should be thoroughly grounded in both the old and the new poetic forms, but I am firmly convinced that he must never respect tradition above his intuitive self. Let him be sure of his own sincerity above all, let him bow to no public acclaim, however alluring, and then let him write with all the courage what his subconscious mind suggests to him.


This good advice applies to any intellectual endeavor. If you are not thoroughly grounded in both the old and the new you frequently will only reproduce what others have done before or will be mired forever in trying to solve problems that others have already solved. Nevertheless, once you do become well versed in your intellectual sphere of interest (physics, mathematics, poetry, chemistry, economics, etc.) have the courage to follow your own path that you believe in. If you have a nagging  feeling that you are just following a fad and you are not sure your views and approach are totally legitimate — well, you’re probably right and you will see your conformist work rot like dead fish over a short period of time. I think that’s what Amy Lowell is telling us.


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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,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2j578jTBCY (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 https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/03/01/abandon/#note-21874-2 (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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