Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Some observations after reading up on literary theory

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During some further renovations in my building, I have made two prolonged visits to the city library. Specifically, I have downed about a third of “Literaturtheorie”* by Oliver Jahraus. While some of the contents are very interesting, my overall impression is not that favorable and I (a) see my less than stellar impression of the non-natural sciences re-inforced and (b) have gained a somewhat better understanding of what is going wrong in the academic system.

*Unsurprisingly, “Literary Theory”. I do not know whether an English translation of the actual work exists, or whether any such translation kept a literal version of the title.

Because I do not have a copy at home (and because I read with an intent on learning something about literary theory—not to write a non-literary critique), I must be a bit on the vague side. However:

  1. The text is filled with a type of specious, “non sequitur”-y reasoning that I have repeatedly observed in softer fields (and in e.g. some types of political and religious propaganda): Premises are stated that are not necessarily convincing and/or obviously represent personal opinion and/or only cover a particular perspective; based on these premises, one or several (il)logical jumps are made to reach some type of conclusion; this conclusion is fed into another series of (il)logical jumps; and at the end a thesis is stated as if proved beyond reasonable doubt. To boot, this often involves disputable use of different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word.* As usual, I have the impression that the respective author has a particular opinion, be it well-founded or not, knows that he lacks strong arguments, and tries to create a chain of somewhat plausible sounding arguments that will give the impression that he has proved his opinion—while in reality the argumentation borders on the nonsensical. Indeed, this type of argumentation is often so weak that it becomes impossible to attack, because there are more holes than substance—launching a counter-argument would be like punching fog.

    *Similar to jokes in the manner of “zero is smaller than one; zero is nothing; ergo, nothing is smaller than one; ergo, minus one is not smaller than one”. (But intended to be taken at face value and more subtle.)

    I do have a suspicion that there is a strong element of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” involved—that many nod in agreement in order to not seem stupid, believing there to be considerable substance in such texts that they simply are unable to see. In reality, the emperor is as naked as he seems.

    My earlier text on “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” mentions some similar problems. I also point to the Sokal hoax.

  2. One of the core ideas of the book seems to be that literary theory is mainly an attempt to answer the question “What is literature?”, which would raise some serious concerns as to whether it is worth bothering with as an academic field. Certainly, the question is a worthy one, and an analogous question is often asked in other fields; however, this question is typically just the first step, something answered to e.g. limit research to a sufficiently well defined or sufficiently small topic, or to ensure that various parties speak of the same thing. If it is allowed to be the dominant question of the entire field, then the field amounts to navel-gazing and self-referential orgies.
  3. At the same time, paradoxically*, he appears to see literary theory (and/or literary science, in general) as the epitome of scientific development, and seems to want to raise it to a model for other fields, including the natural sciences… In this, he deals more with a philosophy of science than with literary science. Not only is this nonsensical and presumptuous—it also amounts to turning a flaw into a virtue…

    *Thinking back, quite a lot of his claims are paradoxical, e.g. on the pattern “X is strong because of X having a weakness”.

    Moreover, the reasoning used was largely based on characteristics of softer fields, which makes a generalization to harder fields inappropriate. This point can be quite important in the larger picture, e.g. with an eye on post-modernism and its often outright misological take on science: What if this is largely simply a matter of inappropriate generalization, possibly through a lack of an understanding of the harder sciences? Notably, the more specific references made to the harder sciences were usually faulty or misleading, including a misrepresentation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.*

    *I do not remember the details, unfortunately, but it might have been a claim about observation of X changing the value of Y, which is not what the uncertainty principle is usually taken to imply. (Which is rather that a more precise determination of the value of X makes the determination and/or value of Y less precise.)

  4. A specific point that annoyed me was a lengthy discussion of “Theorien” (“theories”), where various conclusions were drawn that fall apart on his failure to separate between the concepts of model, theory, and hypothesis, randomly mixing aspects of each under what he referred to as “Theorien”. (I admit that the borders between the three can be both hard to determine and a matter of dispute, but mixing them in a blanket manner is going too far.)
  5. The language pushes the border of the acceptable, leaving me with the impression of someone trying to “sound smart” (not at all unusual in the softer fields). This includes odd choices of words, e.g. the Latin or English loan “evozieren” to imply “evoke”, where standard German would normally call for the more Germanic “hervorrufen”. (As in, hypothetically, “the text evoked strong feelings” and “der Text hat starke Gefühle hervorgerufen” vs. “der Text hat starke Gefühle evoziert”.) It also includes those pointless and pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs that are so common in e.g. texts on art or Marxism (see excursion). While the overall sentences used are nowhere near as bad as Spengler’s (cf. link above), there is some similarity e.g. in undue jumps within a sentence and undue complexity (even by my standards); he also tends to throw in words in a manner that can make the one word correctly parsable only when the reader is five words past it (somewhat in the style of a “garden-path sentence”).

If* this type of understanding of the sciences, lines of reasoning, lack of stringency, whatnot, is typical for the softer sciences, we might as well give up on them…

*Chances are that the “if” holds—this is not the first time I have made a similar experience.

Excursion on pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs:

Remarks: (1) I am a little uncertain whether these are common in English, but I have often seen them in both Swedish and German. Should they be uncommon, consider combinations like “abstrakt-biomorphe*” (“abstract-biomorph[ic]”?) and “zynisch-satirisch” (“cynical-satirical”?). (Both are taken from a German art catalog.) Note, in contrast, more legitimate examples like “manic-depressive” and “Marxist-Leninist”, where the introduction of a single word is highly sensible, the word is accepted domain terminology, and the word has spread into the general vocabulary. (2) Here, I have used a plain hyphen (“-”), consistent with most of the examples that I have seen. However, an n-dash (“–”) does seem more natural to me in many or most cases. (3) Note that the issue is not one of hyphenation, per se, but of a particular way of merging two (usually) modifiers to form a new unity, despite not naturally belong together (or having connection better expressed in a more conventional manner). In contrast, e.g., my above “different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word” does not serve to introduce a new and “smart sounding” word but to make clear that these words are tightly bound together, in order to make parsing easier for the reader.

*The use of “biomorph” leaves me skeptical for other reasons, including the low understandability and the failure to use something more naturally German. Going by the components of the word, it likely means something shaped like something living, but that is very vague and almost necessitates the application to something which was not living to begin with (or the “biomorphy” would not be worth mentioning). However, it is possible that the meaning is detectable through context (I have not studied the catalog in detail) or that this is an established word within the art world.

These have puzzled me since my first encounter, almost certainly more than thirty years ago. At that time, I thought they were some type of domain specific terminology with precise technical meanings*—today, I lean towards expressions created to sound smart or a (typically highly misguided) stylistic means of expressing something. For instance, “cynical-satirical” is unlikely to have an established wider meaning, and likely expresses the same thing as “cynical and satirical” or**, on the outside, “satirical in a cynical manner”. With “abstract-biomorph”, I am even puzzled whether this would express something different than “abstract biomorph” (note space), because the most reasonable interpretation is something that is biomorph in an abstract manner (but possibly it is intended to signify something that is simultaneously abstract art and biomorph). In some cases, the construct appears to be just a means to contract two separate or semi-separate thoughts into one word, as with the hypothetical*** “I typed a text while drinking some water” vs. “I drinkingly-typingly produced a text”.

*Note that this is the case with e.g. “manic-depressive”.

**The introduction of an unnecessary ambiguity is a good reason to avoid such constructs. But for that, I might have given the specific special-case of “cynical-satirical” a pass for convenience, and I might very well have used a “cynical/satirical” myself (note the use of a slash, not a hyphen, which avoids the ambiguity).

***I did not find a specific real example on short notice.

Such manipulatively-confounding writings amusingly-annoyingly strike me as tauro-fecal.

Excursion on other visitors, group-study, etc.:
During my first visit, most other visitors (in the area where I read) appeared to be college age and actually appeared to study (and to do so individually). During the second, they seemed a few years younger and spent more time talking, giggling, and even (playfully) hitting each other. While some of the talking did revolve around some school topic (judging by the two sitting nearest to me), it is clear that these sessions were nowhere near as productive as they could have been. This matches my own experiences* well: Group-study is usually unproductive for good heads, nowhere near as helpful for poor heads as educators claim,** and tend to follow a tempo determined by the most bored and/or unfocused individual.*** To boot, these people disturb the more serious visitors.

*Which are limited through this very observation: I turned down requests for group-study as a matter of course, once beyond the age when they could be forced upon me by teachers.

**Because the poor heads would learn from the better heads, which is rarely the case: Having things explained brings less than understanding them on one’s own, and with group study the emphasis is shifted in the wrong direction.

***Similar claims often apply to group-work as well, often deteriorating into one or two persons doing most of both work and thinking, while the rest mostly free-load or even act to the detriment of the project.

Excursion on continued reading:
I have not yet made up my mind on whether to continue with this specific book, should I seek refuge in the library again. On the one hand, my overall impression is of a relatively poor return on the invested time; on the other, the parts that are likely to be most useful to me are still left. (With an eye on my attempts to be an author of fiction, my superficial formal knowledge of literary science, theories, criticism, …, is a potential weakness—albeit not one that is of critical importance.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2019 at 1:17 am

The problem of new trumping good

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There is an unfortunate tendency to focus too strongly on the new, notably within the Internet and regarding e.g. entertainment (even outside the Internet). Consider movies: If there is a benefit to watching a movie in a cinema (compared to e.g. on the own computer), then that benefit applies not only to the latest box-office hit but roughly equally to a comparable movie from the past.* Why then is the cinema landscape so dominated by newer releases? Why do even new releases usually see their best returns in the first week and then drop of rapidly? Why this obsession with the new?

*There might be some differences, e.g. in that a more modern movie might have more spectacular special effects that benefit more from a larger screen. For similar reasons, the larger differences between different genres limit what movies are reasonably compared to each other, irrespective of the time aspect.

To a part, these questions are rhetorical: I am well aware of the money-making interests of the movie industry (where the newness factor can be quite rational) and e.g. its influence on interest through marketing and how non-niche cinemas naturally show what the industry currently pushes—and the consequence that someone who wants to visit a cinema for the experience, not a specific movie, will have limited choices outside the new releases. However, there is an aspect of irrationality among the viewers, who could equally well be watching an older movie for the first time and/or wait for a better opportunity to watch a specific movie than in the week after its cinematic release—for instance, to watch it in a smaller crowd one or two weeks later or to wait for a cheap DVD. This even with the current box-office wonder, “Avengers: Endgame”: yes, it continues another movie that ended on a cliff-hanger, but would it really hurt to wait another one or two weeks, having already waited for up to a year for the release? Notably, the same applies to other areas where there is no equivalent to the difference made by the cinema, e.g. the purchase of DVDs shortly after release when the same DVDs can be had for a fraction of the price at a later time. Ditto CDs. Ditto the purchase of overly expensive hard-cover books, because the cheaper and better* pocket edition is only published at a later date. In effect, the customers pay a premium to enjoy what is new, as opposed to what is good. This is the odder, as there is no dearth of entertainment and no need to sit around rolling one’s thumbs while waiting for the better opportunity—if anything, we are flooded with entertainment to the point that perfectly good movies/books/whatnots have to be foregone through lack of time to enjoy more than a minority of them…**

*The lesser weight and size make the typical pocket book easier to read, easier to store, vastly superior during travel, and, indeed, possible to carry in a pocket. For most people in most circumstance, this makes it the better product.

**Which is a co-reason why the respective industry pushes the new: They want to avoid the competition with older works at lower prices. Incidentally, I suspect that this is one of the largest reasons for extensions of copyright terms—not to protect the owners of rights to older works but to reduce the competition for newer works.

Looking at this from the view of e.g. a musician or an author, he can often not just put out a few quality works, build his reputation, and see a steady or even increasing stream of long-term income. Usually, the income that does arise will disproportionately do so from the early days after publication/release/whatnot—and the failure to put out further works can make the old works be forgotten that much faster.

The same need to be current is present on the Internet—even to the point that SEO recommendations include* making sure to regularly publish new material and to update pages for a better rating. But: Unless a site actually deals with news**, a reasonable reader should be more interested in quality than newness. What is interesting is the benefit of reading a certain text. This benefit is usually*** only weakly dependent on when the text was written—let alone when the same author or the same website last published something else.

*At least they did when I looked into the matter, possibly ten years ago. I have not verified that this still holds.

**News is almost tautologically an exception to much of this discussion.

***Circumstances change with time, new information can be revealed, new events take place, whatnot, which can leave even the best older discussion outdated. Texts dealing with concrete laws and regulations are particularly noteworthy, due to the frequency and arbitrariness of change, as well as the potential consequences of a violation. Still, quality texts often retain great value for decades—or longer.

For instance, looking at statistics* for my WordPress blog, it took me a single month of 2010 to build up twice as many page visits as I have at the moment (Mai 2019)—with just a handful of posts and very little value to the world. The historical peak was in June 2011 at roughly five times the number of visits of June 2018. Soon after, I had a lengthy break, followed by only rare posts for another lengthy period. During this time, the count dwindled to the point that a few months had less than one hundred page visits. This despite my having accumulated more posts and, with the old posts still there, almost necessarily providing more value than at the peak—let alone the first few months.

*I deliberately do not give specific numbers, because they somehow (possibly, irrationally) feel like a private matter and were never “brag worthy”. To boot, my website proper always had considerably higher numbers during my days of comparison, which would make the implication about readership misleading. Also see an excursion on visitor statistics.

Since writing more extensively again, my counts have improved, but vary very strongly with publications. Notably, there is often* a short boost the day after a publication, but the lasting effects seem to be weak. As for the difference in visitors compared to the pre-break era, it likely goes back to the many comments that I used to leave on other peoples blog, e.g. in that readers or other commenters might have followed a link back to my blog to see who I was. Most** of these comments are probably still there, but since the posts they were made on are no longer new, they no longer have a major effect.

*This varies, especially based on the text and/or the tags that I use. For instance, a text with a tag like “blogging” tends to have a handful of visitors marked as “WordPress.com Reader” in the statistics, while most others do not.

**There is bound to be some loss over time, e.g. because a few blogs have been deleted or made private (as opposed to merely abandoned).

To take a different perspective: To “go viral” appears to be the popular perception of the Holy Grail of Internet success—to see a temporary explosion in readers/viewers/whatnot of a single item. (To “be trending” is similar, if typically on a lesser scale.) This simultaneously shows a negative attitude among content makers and the problems of the new. To the former: having enormously many temporary readers (or whatnot) of a single item is of less valuable than having a decent number of readers of many items sustained over a long period of time.* To the latter: Here we have people jumping on the latest new bandwagon, only to have forgotten it a few days later.

*In their defense: this attitude might partially arise from the knowledge that sustained success is rare and that “a one-hit wonder” might be a more realistic hope. To boot, that which goes viral does not always require a lot of skill. (For instance, a video of someone doing something weird might merely require being at the right place at the right time and having a lack of respect for the privacy of others.)

The problem is made the worse through mechanisms such as “likes”—something that I spoke out against as early as 2011 (and which I, possibly to my long-term detriment, have disabled on my WordPress blog): We can now see an item receive a few likes, be given a better listing due to the likes, find more readers due to the listing, get even more likes from the new visitors, etc. It is made the worse by the superficiality, non-comparability, whatnot of a like—an image of a cute kitten is pre-destined to receive more likes than an insightful scientific article on feline neuro-chemistry. At the same time, a single like of the scientific article by a leading scientist in the field might be more telling than all the kitten-likes from people like school-children, bored house-wives, truck-drivers, …—but this difference in value of opinion does not show if the two items are compared by e.g. a typical ranking mechanism.

Excursion on page-visit statistics:
The value of such statistics is limited in general, because it tells nothing about what amount of reading took place. For instance, a single visit to certain page could result in someone reading every last word—or to someone reading two sentences and then leaving. Without looking e.g. at comments left, other pages visited by the same someone, subscriptions started, whatnot, these numbers are fairly useless for other purposes than spotting trends and comparing authors of similar style and areas of writing. The situation is even more complicated on e.g. WordPress, due to both subscriptions (which imply that a text might be read by many who have not visited) and archive pages (which contain a number of texts from the same time frame, but will only register as one page visit, even if the visitor read them all).

Excursion on the “wrong” texts having staying power:
There are some texts on my blog that have had a considerable staying power (relative the others—the numbers are still nothing to brag about). However, these have often been the “wrong” texts from my point of view. For instance, the most successful text in the last few years has been my discussion of Clevvermail—a complaint by a disgruntled customer. These visitors are gratifying insofar as I have the hope of having diverted a few people away from Clevvermail, but I would have preferred to have more visitors on a text that is, in some sense, more important and/or dealing with one of my core topics. Similarly, one of my most successful texts in the early days was a discussion of the movie “Doubt”

Of course, this relative success is likely only weakly related to my own efforts, and might depend on factors like what the broad masses want to read, what the competition for certain search terms is, what texts are classified as what by a search engine, and how the “raw” search terms match up with my text. For instance, if Clevvermail pushes advertising, some potential customers are likely to look for experiences by others on the Internet, they might not find that much written by other sources (excepting Clevvermail, it self), the use of “Clevvermail” (as a distinctive and rare string of characters) makes it easy for a search-engine to see that my text deals with Clevvermail—and the user is likely to have included that very string. In contrast, the current text is not on a topic that many will go looking for, it would require a deeper analysis by a search-engine to find a proper classification, and an interested searcher might have to be lucky to stumble on the “right” search terms. (On the upside, the competition might still be low.)

Excursion on main-stream vs. niches:
There is a considerable overlap between the above and the problem that a sizable portion of the population consumes the same information, entertainment, whatnot, without looking into more diverse sources—and that many content producers focus solely on the main-stream. A good example of the latter is how sports have been “dumbed down” again and again over the last few decades, in order to entertain the casual spectator, but also leaving the knowledgeable fan with a reduced enjoyment and often infringing upon the ability to pick a worthy winner*. This type of main-streaming puts niches in trouble, makes it harder for small players, and generally leads to less diversity (in the non-PC sense). At the end of the day: We do not all have to pick what is new and popular just because it is new and popular—some of us might want to pick based on quality and value.

*Often by trying to shorten competitions or creating an unnecessary uncertainty. An outright tragic example is a recent experiment by the IAAF (an ever-recurring sinner), by which a throws competition should be determined by the best effort in the last round and the last round only—the previous rounds merely served to decide which two (?) athletes were allowed to participate in the last round. Throwing events, however, have a large element of chance, which makes the reduction to one throw a virtual coin-toss—except that the athlete who goes second actually has considerable advantage… Why? There is also a large element of risk management, where a thrower can get a bit further by taking a larger risk of fouling. If the first thrower goes high risk and fouls, the second can just make a security throw. If the first thrower goes low risk, he risks a too weak mark. Etc. Of course, the winning mark will often fail to be the best mark of the competition…

Written by michaeleriksson

May 19, 2019 at 9:38 am

A few notes on my language errors II

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Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm

A few notes on my language errors

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When proof- or re-reading my own texts, I am often annoyed by the number of language errors that I make, even discounting those relating to ignorance* and sloppy typing**. Below, I will discuss some issues that I have seen repeatedly recently.

*I am not a native speaker, and my understanding of the rules of English can have weird holes. For instance, it was only fairly recently that I realized that “one’s” (“someone’s”, etc.) takes an apostrophe (as opposed to “ones”, “someones”, etc.) in standard English. I also often rely on my spell-checker to find problems with words that I have only used actively on rare occasions. To boot, my own opinion on certain less regulated language questions develops over time, e.g. in that I earlier used “may” quite often to indicate a “might”, “could”, or similar—but now consider this poor style, because of the loss of precision.

**While I only very rarely pick the wrong character, I can get characters turned around (e.g. “on” instead of “no”) and occasionally pick the entirely wrong syllable (e.g. “-er” instead of “-ing”). And, yes, I would count the latter as sloppy typing in my case, because it is not a conscious choice but more of “crossed wires” at some point in the transfer from brain to computer—I pick the wrong set of keys where a less experienced typist might pick the wrong individual key. On occasion, my fingers type an entirely different word than I had in my mind.

The influence of pronunciation* is particularly frustrating, e.g. in that I might mix-up “two”, “too”, and “to”—despite having a firm grasp of when which should be used. It seems that the influence of the similarity in sound often tricks my fingers when typing and my eyes when proof-reading. This is likely an area where being a fast typist and reader is actually a disadvantage, because I spend less time on each word (compared to someone slower) and am less likely to notice such differences. Generally, proof-reading is hard for me**, because of the problems with keeping myself concentrated and suppressing the temptation to read faster.

*Beware that I might be more vulnerable to this as a non-native speaker, because different languages have different rules for pronunciation and phonetical “minimal pairs”.

**Here I found myself writing “more” instead of “me” in an example of the crossed-wire issue mentioned above—somehow, a spurious “or” was inserted.

Late stage changes and additions to a text are often stumbling blocks: The parts of the original draft that remain until publication have been proof-read at least twice (often more)—but the changes made during proof-reading, the new thoughts added after the first draft, the reformulations made because the original was too clunky,* etc., will have gone through fewer stages of checks. Factor in how boring proof-reading is, and a last-minute change might even end up with a single skimming in lieu of proper proof-reading. Sometimes these errors can distort the text, as with a recent use of “net”**: I originally wrote an example in terms of net income/profit, but decided that it made more sense to start with revenue, re-wrote the example correspondingly—and left a “net” in. This causes the numbers used in the example to seem incompatible with each other. In German, with its more complicated grammar, I often have problems like a change of words leading to a change of gender, which would require different suffixes on other words in the same sentence or the use of differently gendered pronouns (possibly, in other sentences)—but where I fail to make all of the secondary changes.***

*Yes, even I have a limit…

**The error is still present at the time of writing, but I might edit the text at a later date. I have refrained from doing so, so far, because I do not trust WordPress’ editing functionality. The same applies to other examples.

***Consider the differences between “Ich habe ein kleines Tier gesehen. Es war braun.” and “Ich habe einen kleinen Hund gesehen. Er war braun.”, and contrast this with the identical English surroundings: “I saw a small [animal/dog]. It was brown.” (However, something similar can happen with at least “a” vs. “an” in English too, e.g. “a dog” vs. “an animal”.)

The imitative character of language learning (see excursion) has often led me astray—to the point that I might find myself unconsciously making the same mistakes that I criticize in others. For instance, I have condemned linking on the word “here”* as naive (and stand by that text!), but found that I have myself made this mistake on a few occasions. (E.g. in blogroll** updates, where I have repeatedly used formulations like “That link was first described here.”, with a link on “here”.)

*Which I would see as a part of language use in the context of hyper-text.

**Originally, I wrote “role” instead of “roll”.

While I have repeatedly complained about how people screw up the “linguistic logic”* of their sentences, I am not infallible myself. For instance, I recently wrote “not entirely unsurprisingly” in a context where “not entirely surprisingly” was the actual intention. I should have stuck with a plain “unsurprisingly”, which had been less likely to cause confusion for writer and reader alike.

*E.g. through screwed up negations (as above), use of phrases like “fast speed” (a car is fast; its speed is great), or some examples from an earlier discussion.

A quite surprising problem area is line-breaks: If a line-break takes place after a (usually) one-syllable word, I often type this word again after the line-break. Likely, the end-of-the-line suffers some variation of “out of sight, out of mind”, with the result that I fail to recognize that I had already typed the word once. More rarely, the opposite happens and the word is left out entirely; however, this could be unrelated to the line-break, as it happens in other parts of the text too*.

*Just wrote “two”…

Excursion on imitation:
Human language is naturally learned by imitation, and humans seem to be strongly geared towards such imitation. This to the point that I have occasionally found myself correctly using words that I did not know (at least, on a conscious level). This imitative character can have many negative effects, including that people make incorrect assumptions about what a word means (e.g. “decimate”, “discriminate”, “petrified”), use words in a manner that causes a drift in meaning over time (e.g. “discriminate”; possibly, “decimate”); or pick up weird language errors that would have been obviously incorrect to someone who had stopped to think (e.g. “I could care less” or “literally” to imply the exact opposite of what is actually said). Correspondingly, those whose language reaches a greater number of people should see it as their duty to speak and write as correctly as possible, be they authors*, teachers, journalists, politicians, … Similarly, parents should take care when speaking to their children, lest they pick up poor habits from the beginning. In particular, they should avoid deliberate “baby words” like “doggy” and “bowwow”.

*A complication is the compromise between correct/standard/whatnot and realistic speech by fictional characters. Unless the author wishes to put heavy emphasis on some quality of a character (e.g. that he is unusually stupid or belong to a different dialectal/sociolectal/whatnot group than the main characters), I recommend erring on the side of the correct, e.g. through assuming that this particular member of a certain group is one of the more well-read and educated—the variation between e.g. construction workers on the same building site can be quite large.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm

A few thoughts on the proportion of complaints in my writings

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Looking back at some of my writings, especially in 2019, I see an awful lot of complaining. Do I have nothing better to do with my time? Is my view of the world really that bleak? Is my life really filled with that many annoyances?

To some degree the answer is “yes”—but to an even greater degree “no”. Notably, no matter how much I might seem to complain when writing, I see myself as of (possibly considerably) over-average happiness in life, in comparison with e.g. various family members and most of my past colleagues.* Why then the high proportion of complaints? The answers include:

*To the degree that I can judge their situation. Further, with the reservation that this was not necessarily always so.

  1. In all fairness—the “yes” aspect: We do live in a world plagued by incompetence, ignorance, irrationality, lack of respect for the rights and interests of others, …

    There objectively is much to complain about, and complaining has the benefit of allowing me to “process” these issues. It makes it easier for me to get things of my mind,* it makes it easier for me to find an upside on a negative situation (“at least I got material for a blog post”), and there is usually something to learn from the events (cf. below).

    *I do have a tendency to not let go of issues that bother me, before I have processed them: Write a text to complain and I can put the issue away; do not write a text and it can annoy me for days.

    However, a critical difference between me and many others is that I seem to be much better at spotting such issues—many are themselves too incompetent or naive to understand that they are the victims of one or more of these problems: They fail to see that things could be done better. They do not realize that someone is taking advantage of them. They miss causal connections. They fail to investigate the truth of claims made by others. They are tricked into ignoring the negative effects of a problem, because the causer of the problem smiled at them and said a few polite words. Whatnot. We all live in a highly flawed world; not all of us have noticed it.

    I can e.g recall how my mother once came home from the auto-mechanics, gushing with gratitude over the fact that he had found or “found” another problem than she originally came in for, which had yet to actually manifest in something negative, and which made the cost of service explode… Now, I am not saying that this was fraud—such problems do legitimately occur, and he might genuinely have found one. However, my mother did not even contemplate the possibility that it might have been a fake discovery. This despite such fake discoveries being a part of the auto-mechanic stereotype*. She shelled out her money, was happy, and might or might not have avoided a future issue. A more wise-to-the-world car-owner would at least have asked for a second opinion.

    *More generally the craftsman et al. stereotype—and for a good reason. My private experiences include, shortly after moving into a new apartment, having a plumber come by to fix something on behalf of the land-lady. He went under the sink, worked vigorously for a few moments, got back up, turned the tap on, pointed out the absence of a water flow, and insisted on changing the entire tap. This did not fly: The tap had worked perfectly until he came and it was obvious that he had just deliberately turned off the main-valve, which was also under the sink…

    While such naive behavior is bad when it comes to commercial transactions, it can be disastrous when politics is concerned—as can be seen both by the typical quality of politician elected and the often useless or even harmful policies that they push.

  2. Writing about the positive things in life usually feels pointless. Yes, it can be nice to recollect* them at some later time; yes, shared happiness is double happiness**. However, there is also less to learn and analyze, less of a need for change, less that might be achieved through writing a text, and less opportunity to provide “food for thought”. Indeed, when I (as a reader) encounter a “feel good” text by someone else, I rarely bother to read it to an end, because it seldom provides a push for me to think or an opportunity to widen my horizons.

    *And I have a few more positive posts in planning relating to my visits to Sweden and the many recollections of the past that they invoked. (That these topics are on my mind might be clear from this text.)

    **To quote a ceramic decoration that I re-encountered in Sweden: Delad glädje är dubbel glädje.

  3. One of my main goals with writing is self-development, and writing about things that are, in some sense, wrong provides me with a better opportunity (also see the previous item). For instance, if we look at my recent eCommerce and delivery issues (cf. a number of recent texts) and assume that everything had gone right—what would there be to learn from and write about? I could note that things went well and I could try to figure out why, but that is pretty much it. (And the “why” mostly makes sense with an eye on past eCommerce and delivery failures, bringing us back to failures…) When things go wrong, the situation is very different: What happened? What could the underlying problem be? How could things be done better? Who is to blame? Is this a wider problem or something that happened just to me? Etc. Not only is there more to write about, but there is also an incentive to read up on related issues. (Here, for instance, I have read a number of pages dealing with the delivery experiences of others, magazine articles dealing with the delivery chaos in Germany, and similar.)
  4. I strongly believe that learning from the failures of others is a great way to excellence—indeed, that merely avoiding the more common errors in a certain field will bring someone quite far towards the top in said field. (It is astonishing what proportion in more-or-less any field is actually quite incompetent and how many “beginner’s” errors prevail even among veterans.) By writing such texts, I do not only give myself an opportunity to learn, I also offer the same opportunity to others.*

    *To which I stress that the important part is not that my opinion be taken as an ipse dixit, although I am pleased when my opinions/reasoning/whatnot are convincing, but that the reader is stimulated to think for himself.

  5. I also strongly believe that many of the current problems remain unchanged because people do not complain enough.* If people were less naive, less complacent, whatnot, and actually stood up against e.g. incompetent service providers, things would change. My complaints might be nothing more than a lone candle in a vast darkness, but it is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness—and if more would join me, we might have enough candles to actually defeat the darkness.

    *Not counting the many complaints that are misguided effects of propaganda efforts by e.g. Feminists. Cf. any number of previous texts.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 12:10 am

German justice and prejudice against the written word

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On the good-news side, German law enforcement is actually looking into Koch Media (cf. [1], [2]), and I was called in to make a statement earlier this week.

On the bad-news side, this experience gave a second (cf. below) example of severe flaws in the testimonial process, pointing to the benefits of written statements.

Consider that:

  1. I was called to appear in person, despite having already given what I consider sufficient written information—which I would, obviously, have been easily able to amend in writing, had the need appeared.

    Going by what the interviewing police officer said, I suspect that he had problems comprehending the references to blog entries in English (in my German complaint) and/or was thrown off by the more general discussion of industry-wide issues in these blog entries. Had he asked me for a more concise German text, I would have provided one gladly.

    With a written statement sent by post, we would all have had less effort.

  2. This cost me: A fifteen minute train-ride + time waiting for the train + time getting from my apartment to the first station + time getting from the last station to the police + a security buffer, for a total of at least three quarters of an hour in one direction. Another twenty or twenty-five minutes waiting for my turn (past the time of the appointment, not including the planned buffer), because another interview took far longer than planned. Another half-hour to an hour* for the actual statement, including introductions, re-iteration of what I had already written, re-stating things that the police officer seemed to miss, and his hunt-and-peck typing. Another twenty-something minutes back to my apartment.**

    *I failed to look at my watch, but it was fairly lengthy.

    **I did not need a security buffer and also caught a speedier train (RE instead of S-Bahn, for the Germans).

    In my case, this is a chunk out of my day (if, admittedly, a lot of it could be used for reading); for many others, it requires taking time off from work—for a commuter, possibly the entire day.* In the latter case, questions like lost income appear. While lost income is allegedly re-imbursed, someone (i.e. the tax-payers) still has to pay for it. Then there is productivity loss for the employer (not re-imbursed), travel costs (re-imbursed), and whatnot.

    *The situation is very similar to my recent writings on deliveries and delivery times.

    To boot, the interview phase took time away from the police officer, which might have been spent with other tasks or (when factoring in similar cases Germany-wide) have led to less personnel and office costs for the police and, thereby, the tax payers.

    With a written statement sent by post, these costs and time loss would have been considerably smaller.*

    *Yes, there might be cases where a personal appearance is beneficial, e.g. because the police cannot predict the questions in advance or because the interviewed party is unable to produce a coherent text. No, this is not one of these cases: no new information appeared in the statement and any questions that might have been relevant could have easily been identified in advance. Further, the officer in question was himself a quite weak writer; and even in a case where questions were more likely to arise, a thought-through written statement would have allowed better preparations and a more productive interview at a later date.

  3. Not only did no new information appear in the statement, but I would also have been at a disadvantage if such had been needed: As is clear from the situation (cf. [1]) my memory cannot reasonably be relied on for early events, relevant information for describing the misleading information and the product at hand has been researched and put in writing (and my memory will be weaker than that writing), and if additional information was needed, I would be better of at home—with access to the Internet and the product (a DVD box, with plenty of writing on it).

    While my case is a little atypical in this regard, it will be quite usual for others to benefit from more time to think, the ability to check this-or-that in their records or on the Internet, the opportunity to order their thoughts in a more structured manner, whatnot.

    With a written statement sent by post, my input would have been more accurate and more helpful.

  4. The resulting statement, purporting to be my words, was written on the level of a high-school drop-out. This, then, is the text that will eventually be presented to (the German equivalent of) the DA’s office,* with a corresponding low credibility and lack of clarity/precision. To paraphrase an example from memory** into English: “I bought the DVDs in some store. I don’t remember where. This was a few years ago. I don’t remember when either.”***

    *In my understanding, the officer was not himself to be involved with any investigation, but merely taking a statement on behalf of the DA. He gave the verbal (possibly, incomplete) impression that taking statements in various cases was his job.

    **I was not given a copy, which is it self bad—a copy should have been handed out as a matter of course, to make sure that the signer knows what he has signed, that he has the ability to check for things accidentally left out, even at a later date, etc. (With several papers to sign, I also did not notice until too late that I had not received one.) Of course, with a written statement sent by post, I would automatically have had a copy.

    ***In contrast, something by me might have read: “Due to the length of time passed, my memory of the details is vague; however, the purchase took place in a physical store several years ago, likely 2015. If so, it was likely in [a certain store].”

    Now, my German is not perfect and a text by me might well have contained language errors. I would not have a problem with signing my name to them, however, because they are my errors. Here I have to put my name to words that absolutely would not have been written or stated by me, and that make me seem like a border-line retard—and with that I have a major problem. I was, in fact, one step away from simply refusing my signature (but decided to send in a written statement in parallel instead). To boot, there was at least one language error in the officer’s text too (an incorrect sentence break).

    With a written statement sent by post, the DA would have received a more intelligent text and would have been better able to judge me, my intentions, and my preparation.*

    *What should matter is the law and whether is has been violated, but, in real life, the persons involved will often matter too. Ditto, and with some right, whether someone just complains to the police, makes a vague statement about not remembering, and then slinks away—or whether someone makes informed and articulated statements, has a clear intent, and stands by his words.

  5. While this statement did not distort more than language, distortions of actual content, intentions, whatnot, do occur.

    In my case, it has been 50–50: The first (and so far only other) time that I gave a statement, some fifteen years ago,* non-trivial such distortions took place, both through “Chinese Whispers” and through a (natural) restriction to that which had actually been discussed. Here too, the discussion was led by the officer in a question/answer format, and he skipped over parts of what I had already submitted in writing**. (And here too, the well-short-of-Goethe formulations were the police officer’s—-not my own.) The situation was made worse by the officer insisting that he read the statement to me, and that I (the much stronger reader…) just sign it unread—I did not comply, seeing that this would have made my signature a complete travesty.

    *I am, unfortunately, a little vague on the details by now.

    **Note that this comes with a considerable risk that relevant input will never be given consideration, e.g. because someone makes a decision not to investigate further based just on the “official” statement, does not pay attention to the totality of the file during investigations, or similar.

    In the “Koch Media” case, I tried to steer against things being left out, drawing on my previous experience, but I strongly suspect that further distortions would have taken place without this effort. (Notably, I had to emphasize that I had given Koch Media an opportunity to react, and had received no such reaction, and that my previous texts explained why e.g. an accidental error on behalf of Koch Media was highly implausible.) To boot, I could only do this to the degree that I actually remembered things, which could have been a severe obstacle in a case with more events or details involved.

    With a written statement sent by post, the full events, my reasoning, whatnot, would not be in danger of distortion.

  6. The statement was also deficient in principle from another point of view: It was written as if it had simply taken down a spoken monologue, including use of quotation marks. In reality, it reflects what the officer found worth mentioning from a dialog driven by his questions. The DA is likely aware of such practices, but it is a potential source of confusion and simply unethical.

    A side-effect of this is that there is no excuse for using the language of a high-school drop-out: Because we do not have a monologue that is taken down verbatim, why should e.g. a sentence structure be used that emulates the spoken language? (But I stress that I would not have formulated myself in that manner even when speaking, as opposed to writing. People tend to speak differently than they write, but they do not automatically turn into high-school drop-outs. Indeed, if he had stated upfront what he wanted to know, I would have been able to dictate something better off the top of my head, be it stylistically or with an eye on e.g. structure).

    With a written statement sent by post, there could be no such confusion.

  7. The previous item at least points to the risk of leading questions providing an incorrect or technically-correct-but-misleading statement. While I do not claim that this happened here, such problems do occur, be it out of incompetence, prejudice, the wish to see a “politically” convenient result, or similar.

    With a written statement sent by post, this risk is reduced.

Unfortunately, the German justice system seems to have an obsession with oral statements and whatnots, even when the written word would have been superior, including for the increased ability to form a strong and thought-through argument. I can e.g. recall reading a blog post by a “Schöffe”*, who lamented that his judge had denied him access (!) to the files of a case that he was to co-judge—because the spoken word was all that mattered in court. Under such circumstances, it will be very hard for a Schöffe to do his job properly—and I have great fears as to the quality of the judge’s work too, with such an anti-intellectual attitude.

*A type of lay-judge, elected for five years, who has an equal vote with the (professional) judges in at least some trials. (Where e.g. the U.S. has a judge and a jury with different roles, Germany often has a small group of judges, some lay- some professional, simultaneously filling both roles.)

Excursion on historians and the like:
An unfortunate side-effect of this type of amateurish statement taking is that future historians who dig into the material can get an extremely wrong idea, with regard to what took place during such sessions, the education/language level of the population, and how people expressed themselves in general.* With people of individual historical interest, future biographers might be led severely astray.

*I am uncertain whether documents of this type are publicly available (now or after some time)—but a few hundred years from now, current rules are unlikely to matter in the first place.

Excursion on other problems this week:
I was originally invited* for an earlier date. Being ill, I sent an email to decline due to personal reasons, giving an indication of when I would be available. I received an automatic notification of receipt, and heard nothing more in the matter until the second invitation—accompanied by a note threatening me with a forced appearance, should I not appear voluntarily.**

*I am uncertain whether the English “subpoena” applies in this case. However, it does go beyond a regular, ignorable, invitation.

**Note that while I could see a cause for this in the case of a regular witness or the accused/suspect in a matter (when unexcused!), it seems absurd when applied to the complaining party. Here a better remedy would be to abstain from further proceedings due to non-cooperation.

As I arrived, almost the first thing out of the officer’s mouth, narrowly pre-empting my bringing the topic up, was to explain the need for this note with the claim that I had not appeared the previous time, and that I had presented no excuse for not appearing. As I pointed out my email and the notification of receipt, he claimed to have no knowledge of it.*

*I am far from certain that he was both telling the truth and innocent of own errors, e.g. of having accidentally deleted the email unread; however, it is possible that someone else is to blame, seeing that the only email address presented in the invitation was to a police-internal “mail center”, which might have failed in its promise to forward the email immediately.

Interestingly, in this email, I had made a point of mentioning my prior experiences and the drawbacks of answering questions without research time and whatnot (cf. above), and suggested a written statement based on any questions the police might have. If I had received a sensible answer to this email, all parties would have had less effort, the costs would have been smaller, and the DA would have received a more useful text…

Excursion on cross-examinations:
The above is not necessarily an argument against cross-examinations in court, notably through the difference that they allow the defense the opportunity to probe for weaknesses and contradictions in a testimony, while the above deals with an early input, at a time when the defense does not even yet exist. (However, even in court, I consider it wise for text to be the main form of input, because an oral testimony can easily and accidentally leave too much out, be too poorly reasoned, and similar.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2019 at 3:51 pm

A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

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Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?

Undoubtedly.

And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.

True.

Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am