Mar 5 2017

You Don’t Have to be a Mathematician (to be British)

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded. –Edmund Burke

Lewis Carroll, a.k.a. Charles Dodgson, (1832-1898) is perhaps England’s best known mathematician. But many British writers were not so inclined. Consider a passage about C. S. Lewis (1899-1963) in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015):

The Latin and Greek portions of Responsions presented no problem, but Lewis failed the section on mathematics. He had a terrible head for numbers and was unable to handle even the simplest arithmetical problems—counting change was a daily ordeal—much less algebra, a prominent part of the exam. Algebra is defined by the OED as “a calculus of symbols,” and Lewis’s failure to master it is worth bearing in mind, in light of his later controversial forays into the application of logic to metaphysics and theology. Nonetheless, he was accepted into University College and returned to Oxford on April 26, 1917, enrolling as an undergraduate on April 29.[1]

Compare philosopher and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930):

I wish I were a mathematician. There is in the history of the mathematical sciences, as in their substance, something that strangely stirs the imagination even of the most ignorant. Its younger sister, Logic, is as abstract, and its claims are yet wider. But it has never shaken itself free from a certain pretentious futility: it always seems to be telling us, in language quite unnecessarily technical, what we understood much better before it was explained. It never helps to discover, though it may guarantee discovery; it never persuades, though it may show that persuasion has been legitimate; it never aids the work of thought, it only acts as its auditor and accountant-general. I am not referring, of course, to what I see described in recent works as “modern scientific logic.” Of this I do not presume to speak. Still less am I refer ring to so-called Inductive Logic. Of this it is scarce worth while to speak.1 I refer to their more famous predecessor, the formal logic of the schools [i.e. of John Stuart Mill].[2]

Compare Balfour’s colleague Winston Churchill (1874-1965):

All my life from time to time I have had to get up disagreeable subjects at short notice, but I consider my triumph, moral and technical, was in learning Mathematics in six months. At the first of these three ordeals I got no more than 500 marks out of 2,500 for Mathematics. At the second I got nearly 2,000. I owe this achievement not only to my own back-to-the-wall resolution for which no credit is too great but to the very kindly interest taken in my case by a much respected Harrow master, Mr. C. H. P. Mayo. He convinced me that Mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics j and that I was not incapable of catching glimpses of some of these. Of course what I call Mathematics is only what the Civil Service Commissioners expected you to know to pass a very rudimentary examination.

I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all Depth beyond depth was revealed to me the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor’s Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and. I let it go![3]

Finally, there’s G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

A great deal is said in these days about the value or valuelessness of logic. In the main, indeed, logic is not a productive tool so much as a weapon of defence. A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians. [4]

NOTES

[1] Zaleski and Zaleski. The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings 75.

[2] Balfour, Theism and Humanism: Being the Gifford Lectures 176.

[3] Churchill, My Early Life: a Roving Commission. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1930. Ch. III.

[4] Chesterton, Twelve Types. 1906. “Thomas Carlyle” p. 125.


Feb 21 2010

The Limits of Logic within the Limits of Fiction

At D.G. Myers’ A Commonplace Blog, a post entitled “Fiction’s Job,” endorses American Fiction Notes‘ Mark Athitakis’ definition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction.”  For Myers, this proposition by Athitakis is not a true tautology.  Myers goes on to explain that the modified statement, “fiction’s job is to be fiction,” would be tautological.

Assuming, with Wittgenstein [01], that all words are either tautologies or contradictions, the question beckons: Cannot attentive readers, whenever trying to define literature, rely on contradictions to the same extent they do towards tautologies?

The question is proposed because Bookbread abides by Paul Valéry’s proverb that “even in the best head, contradiction is the rule, correct sequence the exception.” [02]

 

After endorsing Athitakis’ proposition, Myers writes: “The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects.” So Bookbread must also ask: How limiting is Athitakis’ proposition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction?”

Can literature/good writing/good fiction be redefined as a sequence of words (that is, a text) that alleviates the reader’s apathy towards that sequence and the author of it? Yes, but only by further conceding to a contradiction which underlies this new definition: the contradiction that not-reading might also alleviate individuals from textual and/or authorial apathy. After all, there are plenty of fiction authors whom folks may claim to “like” and think “are good” even though they’ve yet to read them. People have no qualms against living fictitious lives, and novelists have never hesitated to write about them.

Continuing with “Fiction’s Job,” Myers supports his position on the limits of fiction via Chesterton, whose views on fairies and fiction, particularly the necessity of the believability of a story, can be supplemented by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939):

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. [03]

Like the limits of fiction, we arrive at the limits of logic: And whether or not we book bloggers limit our logic by agreeing on either a tautological or contradictory definition for fiction, we should learn to never completely rely on logic for support of our literary judgments—because as Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) reminds us:

It is quite true that logical speech is tautologous and cannot add to the sum of meaning or of knowledge. But the historical function of logical method has not been, to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity—self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved, as in the West it has very largely been achieved, today, there is no more that logic can do. Self-consciousness is indeed a sine qua non of undreaming knowledge, but it is not knowledge, it is more like its opposite; and once it has been achieved, logic, as far as the business of knowing is concerned, is functus officio. Or rather its surviving function is, to prevent a relapse. [04]

Notes:

[01] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. 1921. See § 6.1, 6.11, 6.111, 6.12. See also: Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 16.

[02] Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” Translated by Jackson Matthews, from the Southern Review, Winter 1940, Vol. 5, No. 03. Extracted from The Creative Process. Ed. by Brewster Ghiselin. UC Press. Mentor Books Edition, Ninth Printing. 1952. pp. 92–106. pp. 100, ¶ 48.

[03] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. The Monsters and the Critics. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins. 2006. pp. 132.

[04] Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 30.