Eroding to wisdom

The best quotes are the misattributed ones — overused maxims that become smoother as they tumble from paraphrase to paraphrase until they are worn smooth like river stones.

Whenever I track one of these retroactively adopted orphans back to their birthplace, I discover that almost always its character has been improved by the traumas of public life.

Take for instance the famous quote that Yogi Berra should have said, but actually never did say: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” The original quote appeared in flabbier form in a Usenet proto-meme: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is a great deal of difference.” Incidentally, one Berra quote Berra really did say is “I never said most of the things I said.”

Mark Twain is a popular misattributed source of collaboratively improved quotes, probably because Twain is the only writer of pithy sayings most people know, so if they hear a pithy saying they assume Twain must have said it. A great example of a Twain saying that Twain never said is “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Quote Investigator found the earliest example of this quote to be “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.”

Another fake Twain quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Quote Investigator explains the earliest English expression of this thought is a translation of a Pascal quote, “My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.” It took 300 years to shorten this quote to its current svelteness.

I even prefer the bastardized versions of properly attributed quotes. William James comes to mind:

When a thing is new, people say: “It is not true.”

Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: “It’s not important.”

Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say “Anyway, it’s not new.”

Who could possibly prefer the original?: “First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

This meditation on misattributed quotes hints at something important: The lessons of the “gossip game” might need some qualifications. It is undeniably true that factual information passed from person to person does degrade over the course of minutes, hours, days and months. But is this true of wisdom passed from generation to generation over the course of decades or centuries? Perhaps not. Maybe wisdom seeks its perfect form through wear.

The designer in me wants to include physical objects in the set of examples of “wisdom seeking form”. I have always loved the perfection of tradition-worn objects like houses, tables, chairs, knives, pens, teapots, clothes and bicycles. My love of erosive essentializing could make me look like some sort of conservative Platonist type, except for one subtle but crucial difference: the Platonist ideal lives above humanity in a heavenly realm of preexisting perfect archetypes; where my ideal lives among us in an eternal democratic project of iterative design, a trans-generational collaboration to makes things better and better, approaching but never quite reaching perfection.

*

A friend tells me I buried the lede on this piece, and that this gives the piece a frivolous effect. One thing I have learned reflecting on philosophical communication and my own characteristic miscommunications, is that philosophy tends to reverse normal patterns of explanation. Things don’t progress in the normal subject-to-predicate order. Instead, it goes predicate-predicate-predicate-subject. You don’t exactly know what the work is about until the about finishes abouting about and finally resolves into the “what”. A capacity to enjoy philosophy is tied to an ability to endure whatlessness for long anxious stretches, until the whole mess finally coalesces and crystallizes into clear conception that makes simple sense of what preceded it.

So there’s just no way am I going to put that lede out in front where it belongs. But, being a good Liberal, I do believe in compromise, so here is what I can do: I will exhume the lede, and append it to the end, so anyone who wants to can re-read the original with this explication in mind.

What I wanted to do was to demonstrate a progressive traditionalist attitude.

Progressive traditionalism might seem like a contradiction in terms, but this is a side-effect of unexamined views of tradition that produce two mutually reinforcing oppositions: 1) progressive anti-traditionalism that wants to ignore or trash an unacceptable past in order to clear the way for a better future, and 2) traditional traditionalism that sees the past as better and the present as unacceptable, and therefore wants a future that looks more like the past than the present.

Progressive traditionalism sees tradition as a long process of collaborative improvement. The past is a swirl of good and bad. Humanity, genius is mixed with ignorance and atrocities, and our ability to discern the good and bad is a direct result of the tradition’s progress. We wouldn’t know how appalling our past is if we hadn’t lived through it, learned from it and been changed by it. Further, this work is nowhere close to finished. We are making mistakes this very moment that will be obviously stupid and wicked within a decade. I believe one of those mistakes is thinking we must choose between wholesale condemnation or wholesale worship of the past instead of treating it with the critical respect it deserves.

I wanted to demonstrate this attitude simply, and I believed a good way to do this was to show that old famous sayings can actually improve over time through being worked on by innumerable unfamous people. And I wanted to make fun of our compulsion to project this simplicity back into the past by placing the perfected words into the mouths of acclaimed geniuses. Why would we want to do that? What is the source of this need? The hammer I carry is philosophy, and the nail I see here is the unconscious impulse to preserve the current popular philosophy (also known as “common sense”) at all costs. This current philosophy, by the way, is also producing our political crisis.

There is a lot to say on this subject and it connects with some of the things in my life I value most, including my adopted Jewish religion. But I’ll leave it here for now.

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