Knowledge and Experience

…I cannot pretend that I will have time to do the big work. If I don’t do it now what I really want to do, I will never do it… 1
–Slavoj Žižek

It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired…and maintained with…analysis, criticism and debate. 2
–Steven Pinker

Personally, I think “science” can be incredibly useful to research in the humanities. I have regular arguments about this with traditionalists in my discipline. But I don’t think this because I want to “infuse” the humanities with science, I think this because I consider all human knowledge to be a single vast and manifold field, and I pick and choose what’s useful to me and not what the disciplinary guilds of contemporary academia think I need. This [is] true when literary scholars frown at my diagrams, and it’s equally true when obnoxious, ill-informed assholes like Steven Pinker tell me that evolutionary psychology is useful for literary criticism. Don’t tell me how to do literary criticism, you self-important airbag. 3
–ft

From the concluding paragraph of an essay, In Which Steven Pinker Is A Total Ignoramus Who Should Go Read A Fucking Book And Get Himself Some Fucking Education (see, immediately) written in response to Steven Pinker’s surprisingly patronizing, if eventually interesting, article, Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians. Pinker was ostensibly reprimanding those who rely upon the sneer-worthy qualities of the descriptive epithet, “scientism”, while lumping the likes of “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith” under the universal label “scientist”. Meanwhile, he endorsed the worst qualities of “scientism” unwittingly with his own rhetoric.

And, FT is a ‘Spinoza man’, so….

This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing. On the other hand, I, equally ignorant, do not believe that I know anything at all. 4
–Maybe Socrates, maybe Plato.

There are no richer mental drug-highs than self-righteous indignation, resentment, and contempt for fools. 5
–David Brin

If I may throw out a word of counsel to beginners, it is: Treasure your exceptions! When there are none, the work gets so dull that no one cares to carry it further. Keep them always uncovered and in sight. Exceptions are like the rough brickwork of a growing building which tells that there is more to come and shows where the next construction is to be. 6
–William Bateson

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course… I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world. 7
–J.B.S. Haldane

Over and over again in the course of my travels I had a sense that, owing to my timid and pedestrian nature, I missed the most significant aspects of events. 8
–Olaf Stapledon

Words are inadequate to describe the hardships of the descent and the havoc caused to the baggage-animals and their burdens. After the Romans had advanced barely four miles they would have given anything to have been able to retrace their steps. The elephants produced almost as much confusion as an enemy attack, for on arriving at the trackless places they cast off their drivers and with their horrific trumpeting cause immense panic, especially among the horses, until a scheme was devised for lowering the elephants down the hill. 9
–Livy

There is something to be said for a revival of pagan peevishness and outspokenness. It’s not that I would presume to do something as foolish and insulting as try to convert a believer. Arguments over the question of whether God exists are ancient, recurring, sometimes stimulating but more often tedious. Arrogance and righteousness are nondenominational vices that entice the churched and unchurched alike. … Still, the current climate of religiosity can be stifling to nonbelievers, and it helps now and then to cry foul. 10
–Natalie Angier

Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve & abhor. 11
–Thomas Jefferson

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’. 12
–Kurt Vonnegut

It’s most important to shake it with your thumb over the top and, of course, the real secret of homeopathy depends on whether the practitioner washed his thumb or not. 13
–R. Chapman

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime; give a man religion and he will die praying for a fish. 14
unknown

The author is unknown, but you can probably see the origin of the expression as being a sarcastic abridgment to the well-known ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’; the last clause, “give a man religion and he will die praying”, doubling back onto the supposed source of folk wisdom that permeates religious communities unable to meet basic physical needs of people but offering prayer and devotional regiments in substitution.

However, the original expression ( “give a man a fish…” etc.) comes from a piece of fluffy prose from the 1890 novel, Mrs. Dymond, by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, in which Max says to Jo, “…[Caron] certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes…”. The expression has all of the marks of “folk wisdom”, yet it does not appear in print in any variation before her novel was published.

You can’t wake a man who is pretending to sleep. 15
unknown

Attributed variously to ‘native Americans’ (as a proverb), the Ethiopian ‘Oromo’ (as a proverb), and to Desmond Tutu (In a speech? How did he come by the saying?). The expression is often forced to do more work than is strictly contained within the words. Having been asked what this expression means (as though I would know) I’ve offered only the question: Under what circumstances would someone pretend to sleep?

Just think through that and you might see both the strengths and the weaknesses of such a kind of thinking, equal parts wisdom and paranoia.

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you. 16
–Christopher Hitchens

The charge has recently been laid at my door that my teaching about the assimilation of the unconscious would undermine civilization and deliver up our highest values to sheer primitivity. Such an opinion can only be based on the totally erroneous supposition that the unconscious is a monster. It is a view that springs from fear of nature and the realities of life. Freud invented the idea of sublimation to save us from the imaginary claws of the unconscious. But what is real, what actually exist, cannot be alchemically sublimated, and if anything is apparently sublimated it never was what a false interpretation took it to be. 17
–Carl Jung


  1. Slavoj Žižek, in a 14 August 2013 blog entry, “How I’m So Much Younger Now” for Big Think 
  2. Steven Pinker, in a New York Times opinion piece 
  3. ft. From the concluding paragraph of an essay, “In Which Steven Pinker Is A Total Ignoramus Who Should Go Read A Fucking Book And Get Himself Some Fucking Education” (see), written in response to Steven Pinker’s surprisingly patronizing, if eventually interesting, article, “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” . Pinker was ostensibly reprimanding those who rely upon the sneer-worthy qualities of the descriptive epithet, ‘scientism’, while lumping the likes of “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith” under the universal label “scientist”. Meanwhile, he endorsed the worst qualities of ‘scientism’ unwittingly with his own rhetoric. 
  4. Plato, Apology, attributed to Socrates 
  5. David Brin. An Epidemic of Paranoia 
  6. William Bateson, in The Method and Scope of Genetics, 1908 
  7. J.B.S. Haldane. Fact and Faith. London: London, Watts & Co., 1934; see also, N. W. Pirie, “John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. 1892-1964”. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 12 (0): 218–249. 1966 
  8. Olaf Stapledon, from his 1937, first-person narrated science fiction novel, Star Maker, a novel which, according to Nicholas O. Pagan in Theory of Mind and Science Fiction(1953), C.S.Lewis dismissed as ‘sheer devil-worship’ in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, in contrast, considered it to be of the finest works of science fiction ever written. 
  9. Livy, “Rome and the Mediterranean”, XLIV.5 – The Macedonian Campaign 
  10. Natalie Angier, 2001 
  11. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October 1776) 
  12. Kurt Vonnegut in “Knowing What’s Nice”, an essay from “In These Times” (2003) 
  13. Roger Chapman, upon the query ‘Can we all agree that homeopathy is rubbish?’ 
  14. Unknown 
  15. Unknown. 
  16. Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (Art of Mentoring). New York: Basic Books, 2001; closing remarks 
  17. Carl Jung, Dreams