Category Archives: Literature

Mark Twain’s ‘returns of conjecture’ from ‘investment of fact’

One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

This was Mark Twain on science in “Life on the Mississippi”, but he could well have been talking about any aspect of the modern world.

It’s a human folly to interpret new information in a way that confirms everything you already think. In danger of repeating this folly, though, the Twain quotation hits home with me for two current reasons.

First, I recently reflected on my relationship with news and decided to make a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. This was because:

I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

This clearly reflects Twain’s observation. In this case, ‘trifling fact’ was the latest policy idea or something political that had happened, and the torrent of interpretations, opinions and perspectives were the ‘wholesale returns of conjecture’.

The second is on the nature of evidence.

Instead of considering, questioning and reflecting on new evidence – what it might actually tell us, what limitations it has, what our interpretations of it might reveal of our own assumptions – our current policy and political approaches tend to use any new evidence as the jumping off point for any number of other directions. As I intimated before, this is because we don’t live in a rational, evidence-led vacuum that is protected from the whims of politicians and public opinion. This in itself is fine (well, it’s reality); Twain’s observation reinforces to me we should invest more in what is currently ‘trifling fact’ than where most effort is made – on ‘wholesale returns on conjecture’.

First World War historiography

The First World War is fascinating enough, but the historiography of the First World War – the history of its history – is also fascinating.

Here are two recent historiographical accounts of the First World War I found particularly interesting.

Simon Heffer, writing in the New Statesman:

The historiography of the war began when the war did.

William Philpott, writing in the TLS, on three recent histories of the First World War:

Describing it [WWI] is straightforward, but explaining it is difficult, understanding it, even more so. In the centenary free-for-all there will be rehashing alongside reinterpretation, and expertise or originality may not count for much.

Thoreau on progress

People familiar with John Gray’s writing will know Gray thinks human progress is less a fact than a myth.

He means specifically progress in human affairs, rather than in technology or medicine, for example, and it’s a view I suspect Henry David Thoreau would also subscribe to now.

Here is Thoreau writing on what I take to be the myth of progress in Walden:

While civilization has been improving our homes, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.


Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

To me it seems Thoreau is picking up on two separate things here: one is the quality of men who have risen to lead, and the second is the quality and type of institutions through which such men govern and to what end. In both points, Thoreau reaches a Gray-like conclusion on the myth of progress.

In Civil Disobedience, his famous ‘political’ essay, Thoreau takes things further: he advocates nonviolent means as the most effective way of creating social change, especially against the law and political institutions.

Though at the heart of Thoreau’s writings is the individual rather than the collective, there is something in what he has to say about ‘the machine’ which is relevant if we are to understand the myth of progress and to proceed anyway:

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough to counterbalance the evil. But when the friction comes to have its machine, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.

On Walden

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Image from the Thoreau Reader

Image from the Thoreau Reader

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau moved to live in solitude in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is his account not only of the rhythms and patterns of the time he spent there, but a series of reflections on wider themes, particularly the rhythms and patterns of mankind.

Reading Walden and other biographical details of Thoreau, I personally found it hard to like him. He feels too critical of fellow men and too impressed by his own actions and way of doing things.

Nevertheless there is a kernel in his thinking I found to be very attractive. This was the sense of focusing only on the things that matter in life to you, and not being distracted from them by “pretty toys”.

Thoreau has found that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that a “stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. As a result, he feels that “men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street… their shadows morning and evening reach further than their daily steps.”

Where I found Thoreau most appealing was in his encouragement that the ability to change away from this can come from ourselves. He notes we are all “sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” and that we must therefore:

Learn to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour… Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

Though it may not take as radical a solution as being alone in a secluded wood for two years, this essence of Thoreau’s thinking makes Walden a worthwhile, if not challenging, study.

(For readers who may not read it all, the sections on Economy, Where I Lived, Reading and the Conclusion contain Thoreau’s most pertinent arguments relevant to the themes I highlight above.)

“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it…”

How can she get away with it?” Lavender said to Matilda. “Surely the children go home and tell their mothers and fathers. I know my father would raise a terrific stink if I told him the Headmistress had grabbed me by the hair and slung me over the playground fence.”

“No he wouldn’t,” Matilda said, “and I’ll tell you why. He simply wouldn’t believe you.”

“Of course he would.”

“He wouldn’t,” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret… Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn’t. They’d call me a liar.”


“I don’t think she’s mad,” Martilda said. “But she’s very dangerous.”

- from Roal Dahl’s Matilda.

(For more information about #justiceforLB, the summary is here and all information and reaction on Twitter is channeled through @JusticeforLB.)

Banker, confectioner, tile maker

In [Gujerat], a banker who was having his house re-roofed had a quarrel with a confectioner. The confectioner came to an agreement with the tile makers who refused to provide the banker with tiles.

- E.A.H. Blunt, via Francis Fukuyama in Origins of Political Order.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

For anyone with more than a passing interest in how political institutions are created, maintained and changed (not Russell Brand, then), there is a great roll call of names and their works to be read: Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Maine, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Huntington and so on.

What I’ve always found fascinating is that, apart, essentially, from details, the fundamental components of what forms a successful political institution have been known for a (relatively) considerable period of time. It is seemingly more a case of implementation now.

Francis Fukuyama* notes this point as made by Alexandre Kojeve, who said that history had ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Fukuyama summarises Kojeve’s point as being:

Everything that had happened since 1806, including the sturm und drang of the twentieth century with its great wars and revolutions, was simply a matter of backfilling. That is the basic principles of modern government had been established by the time of the Battle of Jena; the task thereafter was not to find new principles and a higher political order but rather to implement them through larger and larger parts of the world.

What’s more, Fukuyama basically agrees with Kojeve’s assertion:

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the stat’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the endof the eighteenth century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.

The remarkable thing about Fukuyama’s book is that, by the time you reach this section (page 420 of 483), he has detailed exactly how these three components have developed and when, where, how. Furthermore, his starting point is the descent of man from primates and their exit out of Africa.

The disciplines that The Origins of Political Order brings together means it is a quite incredible book. The stuff you learn (or, at least, I learnt) about whole swathes of history and countries is remarkable. It’s a book I recommend without hesitation to anyone who has an interest in the foundations of how we’ve come to be where we currently are.

*If I may, I suggest you ignore any association between Fukuyama and the neo-cons that might linger in your mind.

“Tense present” – DFW

This marvellous (and long) essay by David Foster Wallace is, in essence, about uses of the English (or American) language.

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the “corruption” and “permissiveness” of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special “Distinguished Usage Panel … of outstanding professional speakers and writers” is an attempted compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham-populism? Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

In actual fact, though, and as the above passage demonstrates, it’s about any given topic or idea about which two groups hold their own interpretations and views.



“We can never do nothing… the status quo is action”

I knew the phrase “tragedy of the commons” but had never realised it was taken from an article published in December 1968 of that name. The article is by Garrett Hardin; though its basis is in population and demography, it is widely applicable in, well, everything.

A full, free copy of The Tragedy of the Commons is available from Science.

There are two passages from the article that particularly resonated with me.

The first is that there are some issues to which there are not “technical solutions”.

[T]here is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

This is, of course, right. As Hardin implies, some issues require change in humans themselves to take hold before any benefits from a possible solution follow.

The second is on the status quo and reform:

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. [Defenders] of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact… Automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience.

This feels to me to be an incredibly valuable insight. Even if we choose not to act, we are acting.

Do read the full article: it is well worth the investment of time.

Paulo Freire: “I am a curious being”

This is a tremendous interview with Paulo Freire:

There’s so much good stuff in there that I’m not going to highlight particular parts, but just encourage you to watch it all. (Thanks to CR for the link.)


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