Ventiak - an island somewhere in the brain

Rupert in Distress

1 April 2007

I was right. Trevor has got to Rupert with the remark he made yesterday. Poor Rupert is pacing up and down, kicking the verandah posts and drinking copious quantities of camomile tea to calm his nerves.

The problem, if you're interested, is this. According to traditional classifications derived from Kant (and Rupert is a traditionalist in more ways than he cares to admit), a logical statement falls into one of two categories. It may be analytic - its predicate concept is contained in its subject concept - or it may be synthetic - its predicate concept is not contained in its subject concept. Thus, 'All wives are married' and 'All lions are cats' are analytic statements. Whereas statements such as 'All wives are miserable' and 'All lions are brown' are not.

Kant combined this distinction with another one. A statement may be known a priori - without reference to experience - or a posteriori - only with reference to experience. Thus, we don't need to go and look in order to know that all wives are married (we know this a priori) but we do need to go and look to establish that all lions are brown (we can only know this a posteriori).

A long strand in traditional philosophy has been devoted to the question of whether or not synthetic a priori statements are possible. If they are, according to the standard view, then metaphysics is possible - i.e. we can have non-trivial knowledge of the world that is not based on observation and experience. Rupert, of course, is an empiricist. He has no truck with metaphysics whatsoever.

Enter Trevor. The statement 'All generalisations are false' is not analytic in that there is nothing about the concept of a generalisation that tells you whether it is true or false. On the other hand, the truth or falsehood of the statement is not known a posteriori either. We don't need to go looking through all the generalisations in the world to know that there is at least one that is true (see yesterday's blog for more on this point). Ergo, we have a genuine synthetic a posteriori statement - the seed from which a form of metaphysics might grow.

How on earth we could induce this seed to germinate, I have no idea, but the mere logical possibility worries Rupert deeply. In the meantime, Trevor sits in the rocking chair playing twelve tone chords on his guitar - an extremely irritating sound intended to increase Rupert's distress.

The scene is far too painful. I think I'll go and talk to Amanda.

A Logical Curiosity

31 March 2007

Strange as it may seem, Rupert has become an enthusiastic LeafSalon watcher and has taken me to task for comments I made to Amanda yesterday.

'In my view, there's quite a lot of robust debate on the forum. Mostly about climate change, it's true, but some of it quite interesting.'

'I suppose you're right,' I said.

'And there's a bit about politics in various guises. And a long discussion on creative writing courses. Isn't that literary?'

'Yes,' I had to confess.

'You should be careful with your generalisations.' He frowned at me to emphasise his disapproval.

Trevor chimed in then. 'All generalisations are false.'

'Ha, ha,' Rupert answered. 'I suppose that's what passes for a joke in your mind?'

'I'm utterly serious,' Trevor told him grinning from ear to ear.

Rupert, of course, has no sense of humour. Or, at least, what strikes him as funny is on the level of people slipping over on banana skins. His deficiency in this regard seems to reinforce his generally old-maidish air. Rupert is someone who was born middle-aged. He's been trying to grow into himself ever since.

Not that I think Trevor's remark was particularly side-splitting. It does, however, have ironic consequences that a logician such as Rupert ought to appreciate.

The point, if I might labour it, is, of course, that the statement 'All generalisations are false' is itself a generalisation. It cannot therefore be true. The curious thing about it, though, is that it seems to say something significant. It isn't like sentences such as 'All bachelors are married', which are self-evidently wrong and make no reference to anything beyond themselves. Quite the contrary, it suggests on the grounds of logic alone the existence of another statement. Somewhere among all the things we can say there is a true generalisation. What counts as a generalisation, in this regard, though, and what would it mean for it to be true? I've no idea, really. My powers of logic don't stretch much further than this.

I am sure, though, that the matter will exercise Rupert's unswervingly analytical brain considerably. He might even have to admit that Trevor has said something interesting. If so, it will make him grumpy.


30 March 2007

The interest grows apace. I can hardly contain my excitement. I've received a very fine review in the country's oldest daily newspaper by the highly perceptive Cushla McKinney. She thinks the book is 'lovely'. In addition, the inestimable Graham Beattie has referenced my piece on Mr Pip and his review of Black Earth White Bones on his very fine blog.

In the meantime, the rest of us have been discussing LeafSalon.

Felix's opinion was thoroughly predictable. He thinks it is full of sycophants who are only interested in praising books published by Victoria University Press. We may discount this view. Felix once sent a collection of his poems to VUP, with the expected result, and he exhibits as fine a line in literary envy as any person I know.

Amanda, for her part, surprised me by confessing that she had actually visited the site. She was not overly impressed, of course. It takes a lot to impress Amanda.

'Nothing's happening,' she said. 'I thought you said it was a hotbed of literary opinion.'


'Looks more like a tepid bowl of chit-chat to me. Don't these people have any ideas?'

'Maybe they don't want that sort of thing.'

'What sort of thing?' she demanded.

'Well, robust intellectual debate. Maybe they just want to link up and hang out together.'

'I think it's cool,' Janice said. 'And they seem really, really nice. And I bet some of them are actually famous. I wish they all used their real names so that you tell who was who.'

'Why don't you go and join them?' Amanda asked.

'I'd be scared. I'd be bound to say something really stupid.'

'You don't have any trouble doing that on this blog.'

Janice looked hurt and I think Amanda realised she had gone too far.

'Actually,' she said. 'you're smarter than most of them.'

Janice gave her a look that was both grateful and deeply suspicious.

By now I was feeling awkward. The conversation was not going the way I intended. If I put this sort of stuff in the blog then I might upset someone. And given our conversation of 4th February I knew I wasn't supposed to do that. I was supposed to be promoting my book.

Let me make it clear. I think LeafSalon is a very good innovation, which could develop into a fine institution. If I have a criticism, it's that the contributors do seem a little bit self-conscious about who might be reading what they write. I guess it's the nature of the society we live in. The flock is quite small and the rock even smaller. An unguarded remark or a critical comment might upset someone of influence and then we would find all the pelicans staring down their beaks at us and advancing line abreast in ferocious disapproval before they forced us into the sea.


29 March 2007

One of the LeafSaloners has pointed out an error in my Dandelion blog (see, this is what happens when you step out into the glare of public opinion). Dandelions are not parthenogenic - that term refers only to animals. The equivalent word for plants seems to be apomixis. Could I get out of this by pretending I was making a pun (animals - dandy lions)? No, I fear I just have to admit my ignorance on the point.

The difficulty now, though, is what to do about it. Should I correct the blog or let the error stand? The others (except for Amanda, who doesn't care) are all agreed on this but for different reasons. Felix says it is my creation and I can do what I like with it. Janice thinks it's kind of sneaky to alter it but who would notice? Trevor likes the idea of rewriting history. Rupert says that time is just another dimension and changing the past is therefore no more than moving a chair to the other side of the room.

I must say, it is Trevor's comment that worries me most. I fear I don't like the idea of rewriting history. It smacks far too much of overweening governments for my taste and, while it seems utterly presumptuous to compare a change to this blog with something such as Stalinism, I nonetheless believe that it is our attention to the small application of our principles that demonstrates our leanings on larger matters.

Could this blog be construed as history, though? In the sense that there is nothing in it that will ever achieve the status of a historical fact, no. On the other hand, each entry does have a date on it and the series, therefore, constitutes a record of a kind, even if it is no more than the log of a madman muttering in his corner.

If this were a diary, how would I feel about changing it? Oddly, it would seem fair enough to rip a page out or delete a word or two with dense and furious scribbling but it wouldn't seem right to erase a sentence and substitute another one for it. Destruction of the record is one thing. Alteration another. Why should this be? I suppose destruction merely leads to ignorance whereas alteration leads to deception. Of course if I made the alteration on the day I wrote the entry, that wouldn't matter. It's returning a week later to hide my error that seems sneaky.

Maybe I should just delete the Dandelion entry. Trouble is I quite like it.


28 March 2007

First Amanda and now LeafSalon. The ever-eager Maggie, tireless contributor to that hotbed of literary opinion has posted an item on their forum about my Mr Pip review. She writes:

A review of Mr Pip (and the hype) can be found on - just below a lovely blog about dandelions - A Review 21 March 2007. I think it is very interesting reading - not to detract from Lloyds success, but to query "why" out of the blue, this one book finds so much fame. So, to keep this thread alive, and because I found the review very interesting, I thought I would alert you all (and of course increase traffic on Mr Else's blog) - for why else do we blog, but to be read!

Does  this mean (inter)national fame? An end to my aim of maintaining a fan base like Snow White's (small but loyal)? How will I cope?

And there is a challenge, too, in Maggie's comment 'why else do we blog, but to be read', ameliorated though it is by one of her timeless puns. Is that why I'm doing this? To find as many readers as possible? I fondly imagined I was using this space as a kind of intellectual scratch pad, to crystalise my opinions and, along the way, to take my mild-mannered, milksop's revenge on one or two of my tormentors. It's deeply worrying. I shall have to go away and ponder on it.

In the meantime, I can take hope in the fact that the LeafSalon pelicans are a fickle lot. There is a good chance they will flock on to something new in a day or two. Indeed, given that the thread Maggie used has received no posts for three days, they may have already done so.

PS For the likes of Happy, Sneezy and Doc, the dandelions (and the review) were last week.

The Last Freedom

27 March 2007

I'm worried. Amanda approves. She called the review/essay I wrote on Mr Pip 'an interesting piece'.

It's not that I deliberately seek her disapprobation, you understand, but merely that her view of the world seems so heavy with obligation and a sense of purpose that I fear I shall inevitably fall short of its requirements. And what's the point in setting yourself up for failure?

In this I am seriously out of step with the modern world, which seems to thrive on the notion of challenge as a road to self-fulfillment. My instincts incline more naturally to the maxim that self-limitation is the road to contentment. All this striving and realising of potential. It doesn't seem permissible any more to live life for its own sake and simply enjoy it.

Amanda, of course, finds this sort of talk incomprehensible if not morally offensive. For her, purpose is all and to have no purpose is scarcely to be alive. She once said to me, 'If I were like you, I think I'd shoot myself,' - hardly the most friendly of remarks, I would have thought, but then from her perspective, friendship, like so many other things, ought to be a challenge. I should point out to her, perhaps, that I find the challenge of her friendship quite enough to cope with on most days.

I also think, by way of contributing to the modern fetish for authenticity, that not attempting something you might be capable of doing - whether it be swimming an ocean, proving some brain-cracking theorem, or making a lasting contribution to the nation's literature - could be one the last true freedoms we have left.

Previous page

Other pages


Songs of Sysiphus

Ventiak - A Guide


What's it all about?