Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Depth and Breadth

            Someone (and since I forget who, it is as if the words had passed into proverb) once said: “A brilliant person is one of whom I think: I could have done such work, if only I were ten times smarter.  But in the case of a genius [here the reference was, if memory serves, to Feynman, and the epithet might actually have been not “genius” but “magician”], I can’t even imagine how it was done.” 
            That is the depth dimension, often commented upon.

            Less obtrusively, because  by its nature  never to be noticed save over time,  is a baffling precellence of breadth.
            This thought arises as I finish Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance.  Hacking is unfailingly intelligent, but not deep beyond one’s reach.  He has a modest, easy style.  He’s not a bibliographic bully, forever quoting Kant or Toqueville or whoever you haven’t read, a propos of everything and not always with necessity (“Will the Red Sox prevail next season?  Only time, as Aquinas would have it, will tell.”).  He does not throw up a Potemkin village of supposed sources, a bibliography stuffed with Lukacs and Plato, longer and denser than the slender article it supports, topped off with epigraphs from Wallace Stevens and Valéry. Yet with everything of him I come across, he reveals a new side of him.  A polymath;  forsooth, a polytope.
            The first thing of his I read – and warmly recommend – was The Emergence of Probability. Here he seemed one of those philosophical mathematicians-manqués of the stripe of Putnam or Quine, who write with wit and erudition about technical subjects, but (one eventually finds) pretty much plow the same furrow in their various works.  Only, in later works he reveals himself as a closet Foucault fan (to this reader, as far from Kolmogorov as, I don’t know, a Red Sox fan).   And he’s written complete books on purely psychological subjects.  In The Taming of Chance, he returns to the subject of Emergence from a (crucially) slightly different angle, so that the book covers much of the same ground  but with a very different feel and specificity.   It doesn’t even have a bibliography, you have to dig it out of the footnotes.  Yet see what the spade unearths! Page after page of primary sources, like one William Turnbull’s Treatise on the Strength, Flexure, and Stiffness of Cast Iron Beams (London, 1831), or of secondary ones from obscure nooks, like the Tübinger Zeitschrift für Staatswissenschaft 4 (1863).  He cites Bernoulli, fair enough – but wait, not (or rather, not only) the Jakob of the Ars Conjectandi (which --though I haven’t read it and probably never will-- is a recognized landmark in the field),  but Johann – yet wait again, not that Johann, that familiar Johann “Jock” Bernouilli whose works you probably have on your night-table, but the later one; and not his mathematical publications neither, but rather his  no doubt in its day rightly celebrated  Reisen durch Brandenburg, Pommern, Preussen, Curland, Russland und Pohlen, published in four volumes over the course of that busy year of 1779-80 (in memory still green), and of which Hacking’s unobtrusive morsel is quarried from volume two.
            This is not what is meant by being merely, or even hugely, “well-read”.  Well-read means you’ve read all the classics throughout history in every major language in every field, and absolutely every scrap of anything at all in your own particular specialty (published or in preprint – or in papyrus --  ancient or modern), plus the odd condiment from among contemporary novels, Doonesbury,  or the folks at Port-Royal.  That’s hard enough-- I read all the time; always have; and am still just hitting the high points (and forgetting much).  Yet given 400 hours in a week instead of forty, and a couple of lifetimes tacked end to end, plus total recall, one can imagine doing it.  But the “Compte rendu des travaux de la Société phrénologique pendant le cours de l’année 1839”, which Hacking uses to such telling effect, is not on anybody’s reading list.  The ergodic reader ranging over all space  would perish in the heat death of the universe before striking upon this. 
            In fact, the whole situation puts me in mind of what Lszlew Brnzowlski so memorably said in his (partially encrypted) diary entry for 3 April 1648 (U. Tbilisi MS #9784-K) --…  No it doesn’t.  Haven’t read it.  Never heard of it.

            Hacking himself can strike a stance of amazement at (allegedly) recondite knowledge.  In a chapter on philology (in Historical Ontology, p. 141), citing Foucault’s discussion of Schegel, Bopp, and Grimm, he exclaims: “Who on earth was Bopp?”  (One of the most celebrated names in the history of philology, that’s who.)  This is no doubt a pose, to let the reader catch his breath. Hacking himself calmly goes on to dust off such truly obscure proto-philologists as, um, “Chladenius”...

One naturally does not notice, upon first or second acquaintance, any lack of breadth  in any favorite author of your own.  You go to him for some few things, whatever they might be, and are delighted to find them again.  We do not reproach the humble hamburger, for failing to be a quail;  nor the quarterback, for lacking the qualities of a third-baseman; nor Dickens, for his obstinate indifference to the more recent developments of the higher calculus; nor indeed the Gospels, for lacking tomorrow’s weather forecast. Yet if some author comes to be our guide, our lens upon the variety of life, we do  in time  notice any astigmatism, or narrowness of the field of view.
            For some time, Orwell was my cherished author, seemingly spanning great territories: as novelist, memoirist, and critic – nay, ever as a fighter at the front --: noted in particular for his splended essay attacking insularity, “Inside the Whale”.   It was only a chance remark of his, apologizing for not having read more than several dozen of the (delightful, but) trifling novels of P.G. Wodehouse, that it struck me, how much had escaped his noticed while he was so occupied:  scilicet, virtually every world-shaking intellectual development, be it in physics, mathematics, biology, philosophy,  from the mid-19th century   on.

            Tolkien created a world, Middle Earth,  commended (in Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature) as “one of the more detailed of all fantasy worlds”, yet which always struck me as narrow to the point of suffocation.  GKC  creates an  in some ways  similar world, but which has airholes into the infinite, which let us breathe. C.S. Lewis, in his childhood, together with his brother, created such a puppet-theatre world, reminiscences of which survive in his adult fiction; but he bursts its walls decisively  in all his essays.  His world is wider; retaining (in his own metaphor) the furniture of the nursery, side by side with the cold hard sunlight of the new world.

            It was in the course of reacquainting myself, with the course of Greek antiquity, and Roman valor, that I happened to notice  the absence of any echo thereof, in an of the aforementioned authors. (The mindworld of Lewis embraces Northern mythology, but nothing earlier.)

Other such instances.

Re Otto Rank, Ernest Jones speaks of

… his truly vast erudition;  it was quite mysterious  how he found the time to read all that he did.  One of the compliments I treasure in my life  was when he asked me wherever I had found all that material in one of my non-medical essays;  that the omniscient Rank should be impressed, signified much.
-- Ernest Jones, Freud: Years of Maturity (1955), p. 160

Richard Fortey, Earth (2004), p. 314:
            One of the chief proponents of the [Snowball Earth] theory is Paul Hoffman at Harvard, one of those American academics who seem to have twice their fair share of energy. If expertise is defined as knowing  more and more  about less and less,  I am at a loss to describe what it is to know more and more  about more and more – but that is the Hoffmann condition.


[Update Jan 2012]  Freeman Dyson on his depth stage and his breadth stage:

~            ~            ~

For depth itself, as deep as it gets (which is in mathematics), try this:

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