Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Before I forget ...

I have discussed Michel de Montaigne here a number of times lately. Well, 413 years ago today, the great man died. Mass was being said in his room and he died, reportedly, duting the elevation of the Host. One of the sayings he had carved into the roofbeams of his library will serve to honor his memory: "I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine."
More at Today in Literature, which could use your support.


  1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of _Fooled by Randomness: the Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets_, 2nd edition, New York: Texere, 2004) on the difficulty of being like Montaigne:

    "I believe that the principal asset I need to protect and cultivate is my deep-seated intellectual insecurity. My motto is 'my principal activity is to tease those who take themselves and the quality of their knowledge too seriously.' Cultivating such insecurity in place of intellectual confidence may be a strange aim – and one that is not easy to implement. To do so we need to purge our minds of the recent tradition of intellectual certainties. A reader turned pen pal[*] made me rediscover the 16th Century French essayist and professional introspector Montaigne. I got sucked into the implications of the difference between Montaigne and Descartes – and how we strayed by following the latter’s quest for certitudes. We surely closed our minds by following Descartes’ model of formal thinking rather than Montaigne’s brand of vague and informal (but critical) judgment. Half a millennium later the severely introspecting and insecure Montaigne stands tall as a role model for the modern thinker. In addition, the man had exceptional courage: It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations – scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves."
    (From _Fooled by Randomness_, page xxi; also found here: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/prefacefbr2.pdf)

    "Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He exhibits, on the surface, a lack of personal confidence yet has the rare courage to say 'I don’t know' and the greater one to write about the properties of what he doesn’t know. He does not mind looking like a fool, or, worse, an ignorant. He hesitates, will not commit, agonizes over the consequences of his being wrong. He introspects and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion. This person you will rarely find on the literary shelves after the works of the 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne -- for the very meaning of the word 'essay' conveys the tentative, the timid, and the nondefinitive. You will not see much of him in the university either: Even in Montaigne’s day he could not have reached doctoral authority; his form of expression contrasted with the scholastic tradition laboring intra muros within the confines of the University. I will call such a person an epistemocrat; a province where the laws are structured with such human fallibility in mind I will call Epistemocristan. One cannot claim authority by exhibiting acute fallibility. (Once in a while you encounter members of the human species with so much intellectual superiority that they can effortless manage to change their mind upon being supplied with evidence, without experiencing the smallest tinge of shame – but among the people of surviving reputation, these are so rare that only one example, Überphilosopher Bertrand Russell, comes to mind.)

    "Yet, although you may almost never run into such epistemocrat in scientific conferences (he would not be invited), he is the essence of science itself. Science is a fundamentally skeptical enterprise. How? By some fallacy of aggregation (i.e., the sum is not the parts), empirical-experimental science is not the sum of scientists but the upper bound of competing results; scientists are in a ruthless contest, frequently at each other’s throat. Each individual is disciplined by a few annoying peers going after the robustness of his results, not by his own intrinsic devotion to truths, a system quite similar to the assumed role of competition in a capitalist system. In the literary world and the humanities, however, the absence of hard evidence combined with the importance of reputation makes things far more dangerous: Each individual thinker needs to be a standalone embodiment of knowledge. Thinkers do not usually compete over empirically tested results but entire systems of arguments, with all or nothing acceptance or rejection. Skepticism and the exhibition of wavering beliefs can be costly. This makes one’s public display of introspection a deadly acceptance of one’s irrelevance. Perhaps the last and only essayist of note was Montaigne, before we got corrupted by the age of certainties. Try to write like Montaigne, without the tone of authority, and not only you will be denied tenure, but you will be thrown out of the university."

    *(". . . bringing to my attention the discussion in Toulmin (1990[: _Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity_]). On that I have to make the sad remark that Descartes was originally a skeptic (as attested to by his demon thought experiment) but the so-called 'Cartesian mind' corresponds to someone with an appetite for certainties. Descartes' idea in its original form is that there are very few certainties outside of narrowly defined deductive statements, not that everything we think about needs to be deductive." From _Fooled by Randomness_, page 233)

  2. Thanks, Dave, for taking the time to post that. It says perfectly what I've been trying to. But one good turn deserves another. So here is another comment on Montaigne, from one of my favorite books, J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man:
    "The chronicles of his time, the age seen as history, repel us; the very air seems stifling, murky with dark fanaticism, intrigue, murder and civil war. It is only in literature, around these little essays in self-knowledge, that the sun seems to shine and the air to have some sweetness. But then the essayist does not claim to know too much outside himself; God is a mystery and not a fellow-conspirator in the power-plot; the universe still escapes the limits of the human mind, and does not obligingly dwindle to suit a sect; there is so much that cannot be known, that exactitude, logic, consistency, must be sacrificed, with some loss of force and pride, to humility and good sense, which can at least enjoy what God appears to have provided. All this there is in Montaigne, and in all those who have travelled, then and since, that broad road with him. But there is something that can begin to be known, as he proved to his and our profit, something much closer and more comprehensible than the doctrine of the Trinity or the world plan of the Absolute, and that is -- the mind, the inner world, that shapes and colours both character and action. No wonder that Montaigne was free from the raging and murderous fanaticism of his time. He had taken a peep into the kitchen where that hell-broth was being stirred."