Charles Jaigu, L’étonnement devant le monde

Comme on sait, la philosophie commence par l’étonnement devant le monde comme il est – Charles Jaigu, Figaro 26.11.16

It’s a nice thought but I’m not convinced. What astonishes me in the world are scientific things like those in the photograph – planes staying up in the sky, the double slot experiment in quantum physics. Philosophical questions seem, to me, more mechanical than these. Consciousness exists, evidently; where does it come from? Language relates to reality, evidently; but how?

public plane, rocket Tallinn 815.JPG(Tallinn, 2015)

Writers and readers (and Ann Patchett)

public art poetry reading london pub 1104.JPGThere was a joke (Shutka) in my Russian textbook this week. A man is being interviewed for a place on a literature course at university. Have you read any Tolstoy? No. Any Doestoevsky? No. Pushkin? No – listen, I want to be a writer, not a reader.

Nice echo of this in (the wonderful) Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth. Franny is working as a waitress in Chicago when her literary hero Leon Posen comes in. They get talking.

[H]e crushed what was left of his cigarette into the small glass ashtray, “Did you ever want to be a writer?” 

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. “I only wanted to be a reader.” 

He patted the top of her hand, which she had left close by on the bar in case he needed it. “I appreciate that. I’ve come a long way so that I could have a drink and not be anywhere near another writer.” 

“Can I get you another drink?” 

I wonder if would be a reasonable position to hold, that in order to be an (original) writer a person could choose not to be a reader. I think not. Karl Ove Knausgaard said, on the radio recently, that he loves to read peoples’ diaries, because they are un-thought-over. It’s clear that his aim is for My Struggle to read like that; but it is an effect, a creation. He has always been an intense reader. Artless writing by someone who has the art. T S Eliot said you can only write free verse if you first write metrically and in rhyme.

But what do I know? I’d like to be a writer, but I don’t know where to start.

It is more obvious to think that you can be a reader without being a writer. Maybe being a writer even robs some people of their joy in reading? But maybe, too, it makes us see new things. Thinking about music as a parallel, the latter is truer than the former. I don’t think I ever listened to basslines until I started learning the bass. And the act of merely transcribing those sentences from Ann Patchett made me notice something I hadn’t seen before, the subtle construction of

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. 

This sentence drags you from the third to the first person. I am glad I copied it out and saw that.


Edmund Bacon on the purpose of architecture

“The very year when Milton Keynes was designated [as a new town; 1967], Edmund N. Bacon, who saved Philadelphia from roughneck redevelopment, wrote… ‘One of the prime purposes of architecture is to heighten the drama of living’”.– Stephen Bayley writing about Milton Keynes in the Spectator, 21 January 2017

I like to think that architects are still out there, thinking about what they do in that way.

Barbican 115 3.JPG(Barbican, London)

Ronald Coase on the subject matter of economics

horse's head our house 1214.JPG

I’ll tell you a tale about an English economist, Ely Devons.  I was at a conference and he said, “Let’s consider what an economist would do if he wanted to study horses.”  He said, “What would he do?  He’d go to his study and think, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’ And he’d come up with the conclusion that he’d maximize his utility.” 

That wouldn’t take us very far if we were interested in horses, but we aren’t really interested in horses at all. 

What Devons said was, I think, part of the problem, but not the whole of it.  I think it’s not really the most important objection – the lack of realism.

What I think is important is that economists don’t study the working of the economic system.  That is to say, they don’t think they’re studying any system with all its interrelationships.  It is as if a biologist studied the circulation of the blood without the body.  It is a pretty gory thought, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere.  You wouldn’t be able to discuss the circulation of the blood in a sensible way.  And that’s what happens in economics. In fact the economic system is extremely complicated.  You have large firms and small firms, differentiated firms and narrowly specialized firms, vertically integrated firms and those single-stage firms; you have in addition non-profit organizations and government entities – and all bound together, all operating to form the total system.   But how one part impinges on the other, how they are interrelated, how it actually works – that is not what people study.  What is wrong is the failure to look at the system as the object of study. 

– Why economics will change, remarks at the University of Missouri, 2002


Marilynne Robinson on truth

I am aware that the notion that there is “only interpretation” has spread far and wide and has legitimised appeals to suspicion and resentment that feel no obligation to answer to reality. It is bizarre to confuse the profound difficulties that can arise in the attempt to determine truth for there being no truth. I encounter people who interpret the first amendment – the right to freedom of speech – as meaning they have the right to believe what they prefer to believe, which therefore has full standing as truth. This is not a basis for rational discussion. We have to resist the great temptation to embrace our own preferences over what we might learn from a disciplined objectivity. – Guardian, 21 January 2017

public writing WE HAVE A DREAM AND YOU'RE NOT IN IT Edinburgh 816.JPG(Edinburgh, August 2016)


Geoff Dyer; words and things

Cycling home they stopped by an oak tree. Luke lacked a vocabulary of landscape. He didn’t know the names of trees or birds, could identify only the most rudimentary crops: wheat, rape, vines. As a result he saw the landscape only in the vaguest terms: trees, fields and colours. Yellow, shades of green, slopes and gradients, the shadow-drift of clouds. Even as he noticed the landscape he was, simultaneously, oblivious to it. He looked but could not listen. It appealed only to his eye. There was nothing for him to learn from it, it had nothing to tell. (Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance, 1998)

I’m like Luke in this story. At the weekend I went walking in Hampshire with friends, thanks to whom I saw buzzards, herons, red kite, frogs, which I wouldn’t have seen otherwise; I learned the difference between rooks (with a whitish patch at the base of the beak) and crows; though I missed the first butterfly of the year. I noticed the solar panels, of course – but had to have the deer pointed out.




Carlo Rovelli on reality

round windows, park Bratislava 1016 3.JPG(Bratislava, 2016)


Ever since we discovered that the Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning-top we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us: every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven brief lessons on physics, 2014/tr. 2015)

– I’m not sure if there ever was a time when people thought the world was as it appears. Whether you go back into pre-classical Greece or pre-western Australia, civilisations invested places (groves, rocks) with attributes that were real and could not be seen. I love reading about physics and about cosmology, but this quote seems to claim too much for science.