Saturday, September 10, 2011

Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (gai saber)

I wish to make a serious argument about the relation of the cosmos, God, and the human purpose.
But I wish to do so in a certain lightsome mood.
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 60

That could serve as a motto for this site.


David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd, 1961)  laments the impairment of the American spirit of playfulness   at the hands of post-Puritan sobersides:  “It may be a long time before the damage done to play during the era depending on inner-direction  can be repaired.”

Richard Rorty writes (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, II.iv.1):

The spirit of playfulness which seemed about to enter philosophy around 1900  was, however, nipped in the bud.  Just as mathematics had inspired Plato to invent ‘philosophical thinking’, so serious-minded philosophers turned to mathematical logic  for rescue from the exuberant satire of their critics.  The paradigmatic figures in this attempt to recapture the mathematical spirit  were Husserl and Russell.

Here the via mathematica and the via jocosa are counterposed.   Whereas for us, they intertwine  like the rose and the briar.

Thus Gerald Holton, in a review (reprinted in The scientific imagination) of the work of Lewis Mumford:
I was … delighted with Mumford’s … acknowledgement that there is a subjective and qualitative side to the doing of science  which scientists hardly ever talk about, the “intellectual playfulness and aesthetic delight” in scientific work, which can be an enormously important component of scientific motivation.

“Playfulness” was one of the favorite words of the Romance philologist (and my former teacher) Yakov Malkiel -- though you would not have known it to look at that hard-working, ever-professorial man, twice over an exile.   This was evident, not only in his writing style (which, for better or worse, has influenced by own), but in his actual etymological practice.  Certain cruxes of etymology, which had resisted the usual attacks of sound-law philology, he would attempt to explain as the free creation of the human spirit: and indeed, such bodacious onomastic hippogriffs abso-blumin'-lutely do exist.  This, in contrast to the sobersides scholar who would attempt to lautgesetz back to some obscure figment of hypothetical Vulgar Latin, or else claim Celtic or Klingon substrate -- thus missing the joke.

O mistress mine ....

It is key to the cognitive style of such thinkers as Richard Feynman;  and not accidentally, as retaining a streak of the child is helpful in leavening fact-impacted thinking.

Again Holton:

As Einstein himself once said, he succeeded  in good part  because he kept asking himself questions concerning space and time  which only children wonder about.


The original Provençal gai saber, which seems to lie at the center of a collection of near-equivalents (joyful wisdom, gai savoir), specifically  denoted the art of composing love-poetry in the then-contemporary style, that of the troubadours.  As that art has alas passed from the planet, felled by the effects of the Albigensian Crusade,  we use it (as did Nietzsche et alia) in a wider sense, denoting the desired confluence of homo sapiens and homo ludens.

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :



  1. Leo Spitzer said of Malkiel: "No one can fail to be impressed by this outstanding example of akribia".

  2. Pyesetz! For a pooch, you are a font of knowledge.
    It was indeed Malkiel -- or "YM" as we all fondly called him -- who introduced me to the quirky work of Leo Spitzer. Delightful, difficult characters, both of them.
    As for the quote -- it is confusing in the English version. "Akribia" is a very rare word in English, and has to do with Christian theology; definitely not YM. No doubt the original quip was in German: "Akribie", a much commoner word, which Wildhagen translates as "scrupulous exactitude". It bears in addition perhaps a connotation of just a touch of pedantry.