Saturday, April 12, 2014

Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (lo 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 certan lightsome mood.
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 60

Ein Universitätslehrer, der sein wenig anmutendes Spezialfach  reichlich mit Witzen zu würzen pflegt [to “sow it with jokes”].
-- Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zm Unbewussten (1905 ff)

These could serve as  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 my 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 :


We have a genuine philosophic eros.  Knowledge excites us.
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 22

Da nun  in meine Darstellung  mancherlei einfließen wird, was strengen Richtern  unwissenschaftlich erscheinen muß,  so möchte ich dieses  einigermaßen  durch das Zugeständnis entwaffnen, daß dem Ganzen  die Überschrift  Allotria gebühre …
-- Hugo Schuchardt, “Der Individualismus in der Sprachforschung”, in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 422


The fact that language is used for communication  is no more intrinsic to it  than its use to tell jokes …
-- Norbert Hornstein, Logic as Grammar (1984), p. 119

So far, however, from exalting the raconteur’s art, that passage stems from a practitioner of the singularly humorless Chomskyan Government-and-Binding school;  and means, not to enrich our notion of language with that of humor, but to squeeze it dry  even of semantics.

Cf. Karl Jaberg, Spiel und Scherz in der Sprache (1930).

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