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4612RE: [Synoptic-L] How steady are the shoulders of the giants on which we stand?

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    Nov 12, 2012
      To: Synoptic
      In Response To: David Inglis
      On: Greatness
      From: Bruce

      David raised several interesting questions of method. Herewith my first
      thoughts, if only to encourage the thoughts of others.

      David: Recent references to Michael Goulder have led me to crystallize some
      thoughts regarding scholars that have gone before us. In particular, how
      much weight should we give to the opinions of the 'greats?'

      Bruce: Words like "great" should never be used of persons, in general
      because it is overreaching (we all die sooner or later), and
      methodologically because the word begs the argument. It is the argument, not
      the person, that can carry conviction in a later age. Or in any age. The
      Chinese have the habit of referring to Da Lishrjya Szma Chyen ("The Great
      Historian Szma Chyen"). That adjective is virtually required in Chinese
      academic discourse; it is something of a fixed Homeric epithet. The problem
      is that it is in effect an argument from authority, not from evidence. Plus,
      as it happens, that same venerated Szma Chyen turns out to have merely
      messed up his father Szma Tan's history, dubious though that history already
      was (the two together are more or less the Herodotus of China). For a
      partial exposé, see our journal, Warring States Papers v1, p164-167:


      Oops, that piece is not available for free download. Gotta buy the issue.
      See the order page.

      David: . . . Going back in time a bit, how much weight can we give to people
      who never knew the papyri that are so important today (P46 and P75
      immediately spring to mind)?

      Bruce: I suppose it depends how relevant those papyri (or any other modern
      discoveries) are to the matter in hand. Maxwell's Equations probably survive
      P75 pretty well. But in general, all conclusions, even our own conclusions
      of yesterday, are forever subject to revision in the light of new evidence,
      or of continued examination of the old evidence. Moments ago, I resent to
      our small Mencius study group a revised version of a paper on the chronology
      of Mencius 2, written a few months back, but now with several changed dates,
      based on closer inspection (by my colleague Taeko, not by me, but she and I
      exchange working notes every couple of months) of the millennia-old
      evidence. The old can be new when viewed afresh. It is surely part of the
      job of scholarship to continually view the evidence afresh. Our former
      selves, our selves of yesterday, are not "great" either. In any operative

      David (quoting Newton): " . . . for whatever is not deduced from the
      phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical
      or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in
      experimental philosophy."

      Bruce: Newton is great if anybody is; he looms permanently large in the
      history of science. (The usual trinity, for those who move in these areas,
      is Archimedes, Newton, Gauss). But I think that a lesser being can still
      quarrel with Newton's rejection of what he calls "hypotheses." (His dictum,
      in Latin, was hypotheses non fingo; slightly contemptuous). Statistically
      speaking, most of our decisions, including decisions about textual matters,
      are made on the basis of incomplete evidence, or incomplete reflection. That
      does not mean that no such decision is better than any other such decision;
      it means that no decision is final. For that matter, last I heard, Newton's
      system of gravitation has since been modified, to the advantage of its
      practical and theoretical accuracy. Was it then only a hypothesis after all?
      if so, it was a very valiant and long-sufficing one, and argues well for the
      use of hypotheses, if framed in the light of evidence, and tested against
      the light of other evidence.

      The evidence is all we have, and our decisions of the moment are the best we
      can make - today, this hour - of the evidence. If others can improve on our
      insight, or our sense of what evidence is relevant, or for that matter on
      our statistical toolkit, our tools of interpretation, so much the better.
      No? Not better for us, maybe, but better for the subject, and the subject is
      what counts.


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst

      PS: For those interested in the concept of greatness, I might venture to
      recommend C P Snow's collection of profiles, called Variety of Men. Those
      considered (with technical as well as literary insight; Snow inhabited both
      of his Two Cultures) are mostly scientists, but also political and literary
      personages. Snow seems somewhat to agree with my thought, above, that
      greatness is not exactly a question of who was right, not even morally
      right, but who looms large on the subsequent human scene. Orwell on Gandhi
      is pretty good too, if one wants a followup.

      Poor pitiful human creatures anyway. But some of them have their moments.

      Chinggis Kaqan (Genghis Khan to many). There is a tune called The Marching
      Song of Chinggis Kaqan. I used to play it on the flute, at parties in my
      graduate days. There were those (not all of them Central Asians, either) who
      responded to it.

      Answers, schmansers. To me, the durably great are those with the rare gift
      for asking the right questions. Or even asking that the right questions be
      asked. Clemenceau: De quoi s'agit-il?
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