walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

tied up in nots

I'm a big believer in expressing things positively. I don't mean optimistically. I mean not using negatives. Not saying not. Saying, do this, rather than, don't do that. I have a couple practical reasons for this stance. One is that I believe positive statements can be understood more readily than negatives. The other is that positive statements (do this) narrow down the scope of action faster than negative statements (don't do that). I'm also fine with the do-this-or-that formulation (limiting choice to my selections) or even the do-anything-that-satisfies-these-criteria (which is about as close to neutral as you can get while representing your own interests in a negotiation).

My personal code phrase for horrifyingly convoluted language that is the result of multiple negatives is "tied up in nots". Pun intended. I mean both meanings.

Krugman recently posted something entertaining (he often does):


I'll quote the quotation he quotes, from JS Mill, reminding us all ahead of time that JS Mill was a logician. Seriously. It's important. And at the time, writers didn't necessarily produce equations -- they wrote it out as text instead.

From here:


"What was affirmed by Cicero of all things with which philosophy is conversant, may be asserted without scruple of the subject of currency – that there is no opinion so absurd as not to have been maintained by some person of reputation. There even appears to be on this subject a peculiar tenacity of error – a perpetual principle of resuscitation in slain absurdity."

What is Mill saying? For that matter, what was Cicero saying? They were both expressing something _logically_, that is, in the x or not x sense, in the you could write it as a formula sense. You could write the formula in a bunch of ways, and then apply operations to it and get equivalent versions out the other side of those operations. However, you could roughly summarize the simplest, most understandable version of it as follows:

Got a dumb idea? Someone, somewhere, thought it was true. And probably will again. No matter how many times you debunk it.

It is not surprising that Cicero would say something like this. He was a lawyer. He ought to know.

Krugman's point ("ruined by context") is depressingly amusing: JS Mill was arguing against the idea of expanding the money supply in concert with whatever was happening in the economy (I'm less surprised by this than I would have been prior to reading Okrent's lovely book about Prohibition. I'm really starting to get a feel for those reformers. I think). Brad deLong (mis)uses the quote very, very precisely! [ETA: deLong knew what he was doing, but was annoyed to be caught at it: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/delong-smackdown-watch-paul-krugman-outs-me.html] Which just goes to show that Foucault was really onto something. I mean Michel and the whole crazy-is-cultural idea. In our context, it's wacky that Mill uses that currency-in-concert-with-the-economy as an example of irredeemably nutty. It sort of doesn't matter whether that is said positively (as above) or negatively: thinking about it makes one feel uneasy, as if one's head were about to explode. After all, in our world, it is irredeemably nutty to argue against matching the money supply (somewhat) to the economy -- we spend our time arguing about the details.

I particularly enjoyed the final remark: that marxists.org is a great source for classic texts of economics. I assume that Krugman is being funny when he asks why this is so. My theory, of course, is a simple one. Once upon a time, there was the shared scientific discipline of political economy, sort of a science-y history -- less story, more rigor. Then Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and a few other odds and ends, and the discipline split into politics (conveniently free of having to worry about the economy) and economics (conveniently free of having to worry about the politics, or, really, even the past). Because regardless of what one might think of Marx's proposals, he pointed out some very troubling problems that admitted no easy solution.

In the ensuing century-plus, we invented engineering in its modern form (build stuff, watch how it breaks, understand how it breaks, prevent that from happening again, lather rinse repeat, preferably with formulae and eventually with computer simulations) and started to apply it all over the place. Perhaps we are finally ready to recombine politics and economics and recreate political economy and engage in a little engineering to fix the problems as they arise while preventing their recurrence: do-anything-that-satisfies-these-criteria.

Yeah. A perfect example of Cicero's contention (does anyone have the source on Cicero? That'd be a great slice of Latin to toss around.): a dumb-ass idea, held by a person of reputation. Sort of.

ETA: Answering my own question:


Enough people have had the same idea that you can buy it on mugs and t-shirts and so forth at cafe press. Yeah. I'm not even the lead sheep. *sigh*

"‘there is nothing so ridiculous that some philosopher won't say it’ (nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum)"

If that summary of the contents of On Divination is complete, there's a whole slew of counter-arguments in favor of divination that were unexplored. Not that I'm in favor of divination. I'm just saying.
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