Monthly Archives: April 2020


"A picture is laid against reality like a ruler."
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

There hasn’t been a lot of rain around here lately. Today is another beautiful April day in partially re-opened Copenhagen, cruelly “mixing memory and desire,” and I can’t recall when it last rained. But I can consult the weather archive of the Danish Meteorological Institute to learn that it has rained on three days in April so far, no doubt “stirring dull roots” each time it did. In fact, DMI reports that 1.2 mm, 1.6 mm, and 0.3 mm fell on April 1, 2 and 12, respectively. At the time, someone might have said, simply, “It’s raining.” But now they can say, rather confidently, “On April 1, it rained 1.2 mm.” What gives them this confidence? What does that statement mean?

The best way to understand a measurement is to understand the measuring instrument. In this case, I assume DMI uses some sort of rain gauge. It’s always useful to hear how scientists explain things to children, and it turns out that the measurement refers to the depth of the water at the bottom of a regularly shaped container (one that is the same size from the opening at the top all the way to bottom) that has been left out in the rain. An official rain gauge is a little more sophisticated in order to make the measurement more precise, but that doesn’t change what the measurement means. You can stick a ruler into the container, or pour the water into a properly calibrated graduated cylinder, or just collect the water in that graduated cylinder in the first place (by way of a funnel whose opening is as big as your original container). It amounts to the same thing.

Now, “it is raining,” may (on occasion, as Quine points out) be a true sentence, but it refers to a big and rather vague fact. How can I be sure that “it” rained 1.2 mm in Frederiksberg on April 1? And what does this even mean? This is where we get into even more detailed descriptions of our methods of data collection. But again, it can probably be explained to school children without much trouble.

If you want to measure how much rain fell on your neighborhood, you could, in principle, use a straight-sided, flat-bottomed container that covered every square meter. Then you just measure how deep the water is. On April 1 in Frederiksberg, they say, you would have found it was 1.2 mm. That’s not workable in practice of course, but it has the virtue of getting us to imagine collecting all the water that fell on a given day in the entire neighborhood. Maybe it rained a little more in my backyard than yours? If we had relied on my gauge and then, yes, generalized our results we may have overestimated the total rainfall. And that’s not to mention all the little accidents — wind, birds, leaves — that could have interfered with or abetted the water getting into my gauge or yours. If we collect all the water, we wouldn’t have to worry about this since it all ends up on the ground we’re interested in.

To simulate this — to collect a representative sample of the rain — we set up a number of rain gauges all over the neighborhood. We measure the depth in each of them, and then we average the results. We may even weight them according to how they are spaced around town. The more seriously we take this business, the more accurate our result, and the more confident we can be when we declare that 1.2 mm of rain fell on Frederiksberg on April 1, 2020.

Suppose I want to know whether the population approves of our prime minister’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. At one level, we could make a simple, qualitative observation based on the impression we get from watching the news and talking to friends and neighbors: “The prime minister is very popular at the moment.” This is like saying, “There hasn’t been a lot of rain around here lately,” and may or may not be true. But our question is actually more interesting and requires measurement. We can survey the population and compare the result to previous surveys. We have to make sure that our surveys ask enough people and sample from different segments of the population. We also have to ask whether the pollsters themselves have biases, and we have to average among the different surveys that have been done. It can be very complicated, but the procedure can be described, if not to school children, then certainly to university students. But underneath it all are the surveys themselves, the “instruments” that gathered the responses from each of the people that were polled.

Andrew Gelman is tireless in his insistence on the importance of good measurement in social science. “Purity of heart is no protection,” he tells us: “the math doesn’t care. If you conduct power = .06 research, or if you try to study ovulation and you get the dates of ovulation wrong, or if you study sex ratios without understanding scales of variation, or if you study himmicanes without getting control of your data, etc., then you will fail to learn about reality. You will be doing bad science. Science has its own logic.” You’re probably a good person. But that’s not enough.

I began this series with Ezra Pound’s idea that “the arts provide data for ethics.” I will return to this idea in greater detail in my next post, but I want to end by emphasizing, as Pound did, the connection between good science and serious art. It lies in the precision of the observation, the accuracy of our measurements. “The serious artist,” says Pound, “is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. The more precise his record the more lasting and unassailable his work of art” (Literary Essays, p. 46). As a social scientist you also maintain a record of “images”, mental pictures of social facts, and you do well to be just as precise. A great deal depends upon it.


"Sometimes it is raining, sometimes not."
(W.V.O. Quine)

One of the most famous images in modern American poetry is that of a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain. “So much depends upon” it, said William Carlos Williams, without saying exactly what or how. It’s reasonable to assume that he was alluding to imagination, which was the subject of the book in which the poem first appeared. “To whom then am I addressed?” he asks in Spring and All, and answers, “To the imagination.” Nothing much depends on the wheelbarrow or the chickens, but a great deal depends on our ability to imagine them. And the poem shows us that we can imagine them. The importance of this ability — what Kant called Einbildungskraft, which more literally means “the power to form pictures” — can be seen in our near inability to imagine not having it. Imagine not having an imagination at all! You might as well try to imagine what it’s like to be a wheelbarrow.

Or the rain. In my last post, I proposed to reflect on the “data of epistemology”. What is given to us to think about when we think about knowledge, what knowledge is, what it means to “know something”? Can anything be taken for given in philosophy in the first place? In a wonderful essay from 1993, W.V.O. Quine suggested that there are, indeed, “epistemological givens”. They’re not quite as bereft of meaning as the “sense data” of the British empiricists, and not as impossibly technical as the “protocol sentences” of the logical positivists. But they have the same kind of finality. He was thinking about reports of a particular kind of experience, sentences that we understand immediately, and which we can quickly and easily decide whether are true. “It’s cold.” “That’s milk.” “That’s a dog.” And, yes, “It’s raining.”

He called them “observation sentences” and he sang their praises. We might say he thought a great deal depended on them.

Each of us learned some of his observation sentences in early childhood, and each of us learned most of them later. We learn some of them from other ones by analogy, recombining their parts. We learn to form compounds of simple ones, using grammatical particles. As adults we learn many more through the mediation of sophisticated theory. Thus, take the sentence ‘There is some copper in the solution’. We understand it by construction from its separate words, but it becomes an observation sentence for a chemist who has learned to spot the presence of copper by a glance at a solution. What qualifies sentences of both sorts as observational, for a given individual, is just his readiness to assent outright on the strength of appropriate neural intake, irrespective of what he may have been engaged in at the time. (108)

Notice that Quine is here giving us a clear paradigm for epistemological analysis. There is a difference between my statement, “There is copper in the solution,” and the chemist’s observation, expressed in the very same sentence. Being a scientist means being able to make observations of a particular kind, which non-scientists are then consigned to “understand by construction”. Of course, even the scientist must “build us his world,” as Ezra Pound said of the poet. But the materials that scientists build their worlds out of when they are talking to each other are very different from the ones they use when they are talking to us.

All of us, Quine argues, at least whenever we actually know what we are talking about, are building our worlds out of observations. While I don’t find the language of “neural intake” very compelling, Quine insists that it offers a better starting point than, say, things and people, or situations (my preference, I think), because “nerve endings afford a clearly individuated, homogeneous domain” in the causal chain of perception. But that’s not something I’m going to quibble about here. The point is simply that we all know the conditions under which we would grant that it is raining, the conditions under which the sentence “It is raining” is true. Just as we know a white chicken and a red wheelbarrow when we see one. It’s what let you imagine them again just now.

Academic writers do well to bear this in mind. Some of your sentences can be traced back to your observations. You and your peers are qualified to make some observations and not others and some of your claims are grounded, or “bottom out”, or terminate, in these sentences. The essential thing is that they be utterly familiar to your intended readers, your peers. When you say “There is copper in the solution,” they know exactly what you have seen. They can picture it. They understand the sentence as readily as the rest of us understand “It is raining,” and that, at the end of the day, is what makes it an observation. You can imagine it.


"The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world."
(Ezra Pound)

"Discipline is implied."
(William Carlos Williams)

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously begins his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with a simple but sweeping proposition. “The world is everything that is the case,” he declares. The reader will later be told that this proposition is actually meaningless; it is not a statement “about” the world at all. It just shows us what the words mean. We might say it defines the word “world”, but surely it also defines “everything” and “being the case”. None of these words are especially technical — we all knew what they meant before we read the sentence — but he commits us to a certain relationship between them. They don’t represent a fact; they show us the logic of language. Interestingly, he will go on to claim (just as meaninglessly, he would argue) that the logic of language is the same thing as the logic of facts, the logic of the world.

His mentor, Bertrand Russell, has summarized this idea in a sentence that has never left me since I read it many years ago. “The essential business of language,” he said in his introduction to Wittgenstein’s treatise, “is to assert or deny facts.” On the face of it, this claim seems less certain than Wittgenstein’s opening statement, though he presents it with the same assured feeling of logical truth. We can push back against it a little by asking, What about the “business” of demanding and denouncing acts? I.e., surely the normative functions of language are as “essential” as its empirical functions? And Wittgenstein himself would indeed eventually abandon any reduction of language to any particular “essence”; language is used for so many different things that it seems odd to give statements of fact some sort of priority. What about asking questions, for example? What about expressing feelings?

In his notebooks, Wittgenstein once remarked that beginning the Tractuatus by invoking “the world” was a kind of conjuring act, a magic trick, an attempt to get us to imagine something that can’t actually (or in fact!) be imagined. He should perhaps have started, he went on, with “this tree” or “this table”, i.e., things that actually exist and can be seen and talked about meaningfully. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” Wittgenstein had said elsewhere in the Tractatus, and we can certainly imagine a tree, we can picture it, much more clearly than we can imagine “the world”. If we stuck to simple imagery — trees, rain, birds — perhaps philosophical problems would never arise? That is one way of putting Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

Will you allow a little poetry? Here’s a poem that Jonathan Mayhew recently drew to my attention.

The trees--being trees
thrash and scream
guffaw and curse--
wholly abandoned
damning the race of men--

Christ, the bastards
haven't even sense enough
to stay out in the rain--

That’s William Carlos Williams. He’s the one who also pointed out how “much depends upon” red wheelbarrows glazed with rainwater. His friend, Ezra Pound, believed that “the arts provide data for ethics,” the materials out of which to construct a worldview, a moral universe. Can they also provide data for epistemology? Can they help us to understand the logic of representation, the rules by which we make pictures of the facts? Can they help to imagine the structure of the world? These days, after all, we poor bastards hardly even go outside, let alone to stand in the rain. I’m going to devote a few posts to this subject, if you’ll bear with me.

Discipline Zero

"I'm in the here and now
and I'm meditating
and still I'm suffering
but that's my problem."
(Van Morrison)

Do you want hear a joke about Immanuel Kant’s lesser known treatise on ethics, The Metaphysics of Sitting? (You may have just missed it.) I’ve long wanted to write a book that compares writing to meditating so that I could earn the right to use that title. Many years ago, I used it as the title of a blog post. But, at the end of the day, I just don’t know enough about meditating to pull it off. Fortunately, Tim Parks knows enough about both subjects to have written a very compelling book called Teach Us to Sit Still. I have used that Eliot reference myself to encourage writers to sit there and just listen to someone try to make sense of their paragraphs. In any case, this post is about doing nothing.

If you’ve been practicing my seven little disciplines, you have spent 27 minutes writing a paragraph at this point. Hopefully, you started on the half-hour, so the time is now 27 or 57 minutes past the hour. Take three minutes, and don’t do anything.

If you feel inclined, you can just relax your body, close your eyes, and empty your mind. But since it’s of course impossible to literally do nothing, there are many little activities you can consider.

Get up from your chair and walk around your room or down the hall for three minutes. Or roll your shoulders or swing your arms or stretch your wrists. You have no doubt been advised to do such things regularly anyway. This is a good time.

Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D minor from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier takes three minutes and one second to listen to. Close enough. There are any number of pop songs that will pass the time as efficiently.

Examples aside, I can offer you a formal definition of “nothing”: don’t keep working on the paragraph you’ve been writing for the past 27 minutes and don’t go on to the next thing you have to do today. (The next thing may be another paragraph. Don’t start writing it.) Don’t “accomplish” anything for three minutes, we might say.

You are trying to put a barrier between the writing you just did and the next meaningful thing you will be doing. You want to tell the part of you that writes that it’s over, but not because something else just became more important. The paragraph is not going to get any better, but the deciding factor isn’t some external pressure. You no longer have time to improve the paragraph, but it’s not because your priorities have changed. It’s because you have used the time you had set aside for this priority. That’s all. The three minutes of nothing drive this point home.

You are trying to teach yourself that the problem is never that you don’t have enough time. It’s how you organize and use your time that matters. The absolute amount of time you have is always arbitrary and has more to do with the quality you can expect (and reasonably demand) of yourself than with whether something is altogether possible or impossible. Discipline Zero is the ability to do nothing deliberately; it’s discipline reduced to its absolute essence. Discipline as such. It is training yourself in writing as a “liberal” art; indeed, it is the art of freedom. It makes writing a choice.

PS. All this does suggest a kind of ethics, and since we started with Kant let’s end with Heidegger. Remember that “being good,” even just good at something (like writing), means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment”.

The Seventh Discipline: Perfection

I was going to call this discipline “vanity,” but I thought that might be a bit harsh. You’ve got three or four minutes left in your writing moment. You’ve worked on your key sentence; you’ve said what you know; you’ve achieved the simplest statement that ten minutes of editing affords; and you have read yourself out loud. Time to wrap things up.

Remember that “perfect” doesn’t mean anything other than “finished” (from per, “through”, and facere,“to do”). There is no absolute standard of completing, there’s just getting the thing “done”. For now. That’s why it’s so important to leave your perfectionism only a few minutes to assert itself. Appreciate what you have achieved in its finitude, don’t be disappointed by everything you didn’t accomplish because you were not given unlimited resources.

In these last few minutes, immediately after reading yourself out loud, simply react to what you learned from that experience. Fix your spelling if that’s what struck you, what stung your vanity. Insert or remove a comma as necessary. Break up a long sentence that had you gasping for air into two sentences that skip like a stone on the still surface of a lake. Unmix a metaphor. Distill a concept into its essence. Address the issues that strike you as most pressing. Do what you like, but be mindful of the clock.

When it runs out, stop. You’ve then spent 27 minutes writing a paragraph about something you know. You should feel pretty good, pretty smart, but a little tired. You should feel like you’ve been put through your paces in prose. You have probably learned something, but it’s just a feeling for now. I’ll emphasize the point: you’ve done what you can. It’s not perfect but it is finished. You’re done with this paragraph for today. Put it behind you.

Discipline Zero awaits.