Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henri Bergson

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

[Henri] Bergson…emphasizes that in fulfilling ourselves we lose most of our potentialities. This is not at all the way I see myself. Certainly when I was twelve I was tempted by paleontology, astronomy, history, and every fresh branch of learning I chanced upon; but they all formed part of the larger project of discovering the world, a project that I followed steadily. Very early the idea of writing made my future clear and luminous. To begin with I was amorphous, but I was not manifold. On the contrary, what strikes me is the way the little girl of three lived on, grown calmer, in the child of ten, that child in the young woman of twenty, and so forward. Of course, circumstances have caused me to develop in many respects. But through all my changes I still see myself.

Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done

Written by nevalalee

January 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

The elements of negation

with 2 comments

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White provide the useful precept: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid timid, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” After offering a few illustrations for the sake of comparison, such as “He was not very often on time” as opposed to “He usually came late,” they conclude:

All [these] examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what it is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

Along with all the other benefits that come with preferring positives over negatives, there’s the subtle point, which Strunk and White don’t mention explicitly, that it forces the writer to think just a little harder at a time when he or she would probably prefer otherwise. The sentence “Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works” is both longer and less interesting than “Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca significant,” but it’s also easier to write. It’s in that one additional pass, as the writer has to figure out what something is, rather than what it isn’t, that insight tends to happen. All else being equal, the best writing rules are the ones that oblige us to move beyond the obvious answer.

The other problem with negation is that it carries its positive form along with it, like an unwanted ghost or a double exposure. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, with my emphasis: “The feeling is as if the negation of a proposition had to make it true in a certain sense, in order to negate it.” Wittgenstein continues, in an oddly beautiful passage:

“If I say I did not dream last night, still I must know where to look for a dream; that is, the proposition ‘I dreamt,’ applied to this actual situation, may be false, but mustn’t be senseless.”—Does that mean, then, that you did after all feel something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?

Again: if I say “I have no pain in my arm,” does that mean that I have a shadow of the sensation of pain, which as it were indicates where the pain might be? In what sense does my present painless state contain the possibility of pain?

Or as he puts it a few paragraphs earlier: “A red patch looks different from when it is there from when it isn’t there—but language abstracts from this difference, for it speaks of a red patch whether it is there or not.”

When it comes to conveying meaning, this fact has real practical consequences. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “Not only are negative statements (e.g., ‘Paris isn’t the capital of Spain’) generally less informative than affirmatives (‘Paris is the capital of France’), they are morphosyntactically more marked (all languages have negative markers while few have affirmative markers) and psychologically more complex and harder to process.” In a footnote, it adds:

One consequence of the formal markedness asymmetry is that a negative statement embeds its affirmative counterpart within it; when Nixon famously insisted “I am not a crook” or Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman,” the concealed affirmation was more significant than the surface denial. The same asymmetry is exploited in non-denial denials, such as Republican campaign operative Mary Matalin’s disingenuous protest “We’ve never said to the press that Clinton’s a philandering, pot-smoking draft-dodger.”

Politics is the arena where literary style, like sociology, is tested in the real world, which makes it all the more striking to see how often politicians turn to the negative form when forced to issue denials. Like the phrase “Mistakes were made,” the “I am not a crook” statement has become such a cliché that you’d think that they would avoid it, but it still appears regularly—which implies that it fulfills some deep psychological need.

So what kind of need is it? The philosopher Henri Bergson gets close to the heart of the matter, I think, in a very evocative passage in Creative Evolution, which I’ve highlighted in a few places for emphasis:

Negation is not the work of pure mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something: we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then, simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warms—the person warned and set straight being, possibly by a kind of doubling, the very person who speaks.

Politicians are an unusual species because so many of their private utterances become public, and their verbal slips, as on the analyst’s couch, are where they reveal the most. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve overheard them talking to themselves. When Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he was introducing a word into the conversation that hadn’t been there before, because it had already been rattling around in his brain. And when a politician speaks in the negative, it offers us a peek into the secret conversation that he has been having in his head all along: “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “I did not collude.”

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

To think intuitively is to think in duration. Intelligence starts ordinarily from the immobile, and reconstructs movement as best it can with immobilities in juxtaposition. Intuition starts from movement, posits it, or rather perceives it as reality itself…Intuition, bound up to a duration which is growth, perceives in it an uninterrupted continuity of unforeseeable novelty; it sees, it knows that the mind draws from itself more than it has.

Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

What is intuition?

leave a comment »

Robert Graves

One can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.

Robert Graves

Pure analysis puts at our disposal a multitude of procedures whose infallibility it guarantees; it opens to us a thousand different ways on which we can embark in all confidence; we are assured of meeting there no obstacles; but of all these ways, which will lead us most promptly to our goal? Who shall tell us which to choose? We need a faculty which makes us see the end from afar, and intuition is this faculty. It is necessary to the explorer for choosing his route; it is not less so to the one following his trail who wants to know why he chose it…Logic, which alone can give certainty, is the instrument of demonstration; intuition is the instrument of invention.

Henri Poincaré

Intuition is a mode of gathering.

John Sallis

Kurt Gödel

Mathematical intuition need not be conceived of as a facility giving an immediate knowledge of the objects concerned. Rather it seems that, as in the case of physical experience, we form our ideas also of those objects on the basis of something else which is immediately given.

Kurt Gödel

[Intuition] grasps a succession which is not juxtaposition, a growth from within, the uninterrupted prolongation of the past into a present which is already blending into the future. It is the direct vision of the mind by the mind.

Henri Bergson

Intuition is the ability not to construct solutions to problems in a rational manner, but rather to produce them spontaneously (holistically) according to situational demands…Intuition is, we could perhaps say, a fire that lights itself.

Wolfram Wilss

Albert Einstein

My intuition made me work…Intuition makes us look at unrelated facts and then think about them until they can all be brought under one law.

Albert Einstein

By intuition I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgment of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding…Intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason.

René Descartes

Intuition [in Nobel laureates] is closely associated with a sense of direction; it is more often about finding a path than arriving at an answer or reaching a goal. The ascent of intuition is rooted in extended, varied experience of the object of research: although it may feel as if it comes out of the blue, it does not come out of the blue.

Ference Marton

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2013 at 7:34 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: