Strategic misunderstanding

by CarlD

At Edge of the West commenter Michael complains that poster Dana has not read his remarks carefully before responding. At Perverse Egalitarianism, Frames/Sing, and Larval Subjects the battle over correlationism, ontology, naturalism and so on rage amid pervasive assertions of mutual incomprehension.

See a characteristic new installment at Now Times. Alexei, Mikhail and Shahar bond over the common hijackings of Kant and Husserl, who are so often criticized based on shortcut readings and caricatures of various kinds. Alexei hypothesizes an origin to this problem in the daunting scope of these thinkers:

But precisely because [Kant] covered all the bases he’s really — but really — hard to teach, and we always end up foreshortening lines of argument for our students, and then they get stuck with a really skewed understanding of him.

I’m inclined to agree with Alexei, but notice what happens when we take thinkers who have all the bases covered and require exhaustive, cross-referenced understanding of their entire projects as a condition of adequacy in claims about what they’re saying. In practice this is likely to produce little insular priesthoods attached to this or that master thinker, feverishly defending their prophets’ legacies against the heathen barbarian hordes, carrying their colors into each new battle with the glamour of righteousness upon them.

Another example that may resonate is Lenin’s claim that Marx’s Capital can’t be understood without reading Hegel’s Logic (which presumably itself requires prior reading to be understood). Again this is no doubt strictly true, but it would (and did) tend to cut most members of the working class out of any effective participation in the construction and adaptation of marxism as a theory of their liberation. I’m not saying that’s automatically a bad thing; it’s a dynamic to notice with consequences we may or may not like.

Thinkers who have all the bases covered are wonderful and terrible monsters. They require an enormous investment and don’t leave much space for you to think your own thoughts once you’ve made it. It may be strategically necessary to cut them down to size and stomp them out, by any means necessary, to get on with what you want to do. Of course for those of us who are not recognized master synthesists the stomping thresholds are going to come up that much more quickly with most readers.

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33 Comments to “Strategic misunderstanding”

  1. Kant is so widely misunderstood in so many different ways that you have to ask yourself whether maybe he just wasn’t a very good writer.

  2. I have a rule when it comes to misreadings (my own and other people’s), I’m not sure how it fits with the general tone of the post, but I’m in a narcissistic and sharing mood: “If a misreading produces a positive thought-provoking result, misread away!” Therefore, I only judge what I see as misreadings when they are done in the name of some sort of assward criticism and dismissal, in that case I feel absolutely justified in yelling something like: “Go read a book, will ya?” and feel good about it…

    P.S. Lately I’ve noticed I need to reread my comments several times to make sure I didn’t miss some words that I thought I typed but in fact I didn’t – am I in the early stages of Alzheimer’s?

  3. Mikhail, if you Alzheimer’s, me. And yes, I am including productive misreadings in my analysis here; I’ll even venture a hypothesis that philosophy is so crowded by its history that misreading, dismissing or outright ignoring the tradition is just about the only remaining route to productivity. I take this to be Rorty’s point.

    Asher, welcome! I’m cautiously on board with your point, and think you’re totally right in many cases, but I’d add two qualifications. First, there are reasons other than their writing skills that authors are misread, for example because what they have to say is inconvenient. Second, as a teacher I’ve seen even the most clear writing produce some spectacularly distorted readings. The light can be bright and the prism can be polished and the rainbows still get scattered around the room.

    Kant, I think, is burdened by being lengthy, systematic, comprehensive, unfamiliar and inconvenient all at once. He doesn’t write like an angel but he’d be clear enough if those other things weren’t true.

  4. To contradict a well-accepted opinion is a sure way of establishing yourself an asshole, but I think Kant writes just fine, he’s not as poetic as some of his contemporaries, but he writes in a very regular philosophical style of the time (maybe a bit more complicated because of the innovative ideas), period. It’s hardly fair to expect him to write in a way that makes it easy to read, which is often the only visible criterion. I know, I’m usually the first to whine about style and access, but I usually mean secondary lit where a lot of work and effort result in something banal and dull. Kant is not intentionally difficult, but he is also aware of the issue that his writing is going to be technical – one can hardly expect the phone manual to be a breath-taking adventure with awesome character development (although it would be helpful, I think), right?

  5. “one can hardly expect the phone manual to be a breath-taking adventure with awesome character development (although it would be helpful, I think), right?”

    No, but I’d expect that if two people read the phone manual, they would both agree that it was about a phone.

  6. If the goal of reading a phone manual is to find out that it is about a phone, then it’s a shitty manual – I know it’s about a phone, it came with the phone. If phone manual in this analogy is a book by Kant, then I am sure it’s not difficult to find two people who would agree that Kant is writing about philosophy.

  7. If phone manual in this analogy is a book by Kant, then I am sure it’s not difficult to find two people who would agree that Kant is writing about philosophy.

    Philosophy?! So *that’s* what he was writing about! No wonder I misunderstood him.

    (Sorry, Mikhail. I was engaging in a little humorous hyperbole. I assumed that your original analogy was only semi-serious.)

  8. I really doubt if Lenin is someone to be trusted on which philosophers one needed to read, given the crudity of his own philosophy (‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’, anyone? And his marginal notes on Hegel range between the tendentious and the dumb). On one level, yes, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ might illuminate some of the structure of Marx’s ‘Capital’, but it’s in no way necessary to understanding the book. Marx also wrote hundreds of pamphlets, newspaper/journal articles, and a Manifesto in order to help the self-education of workers. ‘Capital’ is aimed at refuting the political economists (on their own terms, often in their own language). Many good teachers (I’m thinking of David Harvey and Harry Cleaver for instance) have used Capital to enlighten workers and students; they’ve not found it impossible to explain the work, or translate it into an easier register.

  9. But precisely because [Kant] covered all the bases he’s really — but really — hard to teach, and we always end up foreshortening lines of argument for our students, and then they get stuck with a really skewed understanding of him.

    Or, for a radically different perspective,

    In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough.

    Victor Turner (1974) “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (p. 17).

  10. Kant, I think, is burdened by being lengthy, systematic, comprehensive, unfamiliar and inconvenient all at once.

    And did you mention “lengthy”? Oh, you did. But you must have forgotten something! Don’t tell me you didn’t. Who do you think you are? Kant?

    I’m now in amicable correspondence with Robert Frederking over his urination upon Grice’s maxims, over a decade ago, and one of the things I want to point out to him is that his misinterpretation of Grice’s “echoing” of Kant in that paper was so superficial that I could quickly spot the errors, even starting from a less-than-glancing acquaintance with Kant.

    If nothing else, at least Frederking’s “productive misreading” got me interested in Kant; at least I found a raisin in the dough. (Apologies here to Lorraine Hansberry, maybe to Victor Turner, maybe even to John McCreery.)

    Oh, hey, I just noticed, Carl: You’ve adopted “feverish misunderstanding propagation” as a blog tag.

    Jeez. Not to sound ungrateful or anything, but you obviously didn’t get what I meant by that. 😉

  11. So sorry, Michael, I’ll try to do better.

    Great stuff here – running to all-day classes, carry on and I’ll join in this afternoon. Quickly, to balance and complete John’s quote from Victor Turner, some advice from Durkheim to a student:

    If you wish to mature your thought, devote yourself to the scrupulous study of a great master; take a system apart until you reach its most secret workings.

    The sequence he proposes here is understanding => deconstructing, which would then presumably enable mining => reconfiguration as suggested by Turner.

  12. Mencius said to Wan Chang, ‘The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished in a village shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars in the village. The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished throughout a State shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars of that State. The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished throughout the kingdom shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars of the kingdom.

    ‘When a scholar feels that his friendship with all the virtuous scholars of the kingdom is not sufficient to satisfy him, he proceeds to ascend to consider the men of antiquity. He repeats their poems, and reads their books, and as he does not know what they were as men, to ascertain this, he considers their history. This is to ascend and make friends of the men of antiquity.’

  13. ‘When a scholar feels that his friendship with all the virtuous scholars of the kingdom is not sufficient to satisfy him, he proceeds to ascend to consider the men of antiquity. He repeats their poems, and reads their books, and as he does not know what they were as men, to ascertain this, he considers their history. This is to ascend and make friends of the men of antiquity.’

    When a scholar gets tired with the men of antiquity, he starts a blog and yaks about his scholarly things to anyone who would listen to him – that’s my motto (although I am barely a scholar)…

  14. Or you can just do it this way. (Not safe for work if your work minds swearing.)

  15. Utisz, you’re right – Lenin is not credible as a philosopher except in the sense of the 11th thesis. What he captures for me in this statement is one fundamentalist approach to sacred texts and holy missions.

    Of course some of the vulgarizations of Marx, including his own, also turned out to skew the theory toward dogmatism and extremism. But no matter how they’re targeted by authors texts are soon embedded, if not ensnared, in networks of history, situation, discourse, reception, etc. Every reading has to carve a path through all of that, and something is lost no matter what.

    So I guess what I’m saying here is that the ‘you must read more to understand fully’ move is always available and strictly speaking true; but reading everything is not possible in human lifetimes, and reading some approved fraction of everything is not possible for all but a small group of dedicated specialists. Some kind of more moderate standard of interpretive adequacy and an open interpretive posture is needed.

  16. . . . . no matter how they’re targeted by authors texts are soon embedded, if not ensnared, in networks of history, situation, discourse, reception, etc. Every reading has to carve a path through all of that, and something is lost no matter what.

    Tell me about it. Over at Edge of the West, we were trying to figure out what kind of racist (if any) Abraham Lincoln was, without much more to go on than his use of the word “intelligent”, first in a private letter to a Louisiana governor, later in a speech he gave later. I argued there that “intelligent” might have meant something subtly different (and not necessarily genetically heritable) in Lincoln’s time.

    Then somebody named only “Mike” weighed in with another complication: do we really know how Lincoln conceptualized “race”? If you take a Lamarckian view of evolving human intelligence (and it’s possible Lincoln did, it was popular science of the time and he followed popular science), you’re well within hailing distance of a very modern, liberal position on apparent racial differences in inherent intelligence: “it’s all very much a matter of education, and equal access to it.” If Lincoln did say anything distinctly Lamarckian about black people and intelligence, was it a matter of personal conviction, or of political convenience? What if there’s not enough evidence left to figure it out?

    It’s fascinating, but then, well, wouldn’t you know it, you can set your clock by these people: I start getting flack in that thread from somebody saying in effect that I’m a racist. As far as I can tell, he bases this accusation only on skimming and knee-jerk reactions to what his eye lights upon.

    “Multiplicative Vulgarizations”, anyone? Too many syllables for a blog name, but I think I’d go with it if I were starting a new blog. Then again, some punchy acronym like “GIDT” might cover the same concept well enough, for our networked era.

  17. That’s an interesting discussion, MT. JPool’s usually pretty smart, but not so much when he gets his ideological panties in a bunch. You’re making a subtle point about a chunky issue, and only the chunks are getting caught in the filters.

    At The Valve I was reading a moderately interesting post on where analysis of cartoons fits on the scale of academic respectability. Included was the question whether they are worth reading closely, or whether that level of attention is only deserved by canonical texts. Blog posts and commentary seem to me to prompt the same questions. What’s our threshold for close reading? Can/should we read everything carefully, taking things like subtext, context, intertextuality and countertextuality into account?

    On a big group blog like EotW I think there’s a real tension between a scholarly ethic of careful investigation and a group ethic of shared premises.

  18. This just needs repeating:

    “In practice this is likely to produce little insular priesthoods attached to this or that master thinker, feverishly defending their prophets’ legacies against the heathen barbarian hordes, carrying their colors into each new battle with the glamour of righteousness upon them.”

    Priesthoods are marked by their mediating roles. One should ask, who (what kind) is doing the mediating, who (what kind) is being mediated, and what are they being mediated to. And lastly, to what degree is the thing we are mediated to, invented for the sake of the priests.

  19. Kvond, I like this. One of the central issues of the Reformation, of course. Without mediation, can there be community? The Pope didn’t think so. Whether a mass democracy can work without expert representation (part of Michael’s debate with JPool) is the same kind of question.

  20. Serendipitously, I am reading a great book that reshapes the classical framework within which Carl’s question is framed. I refer to Yochai Benkler (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. I urge everyone to read it. For a taste of why I am excited about it, check out Benkler’s video talk on Edge .

  21. Don’t know why the link I provided to Benkler’s talk — http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/benkler09/benkler09_index.html— doesn’t seem to be working.

  22. Michael. I does, indeed, work. Thank you very much.

  23. That’s an interesting discussion, MT. JPool’s usually pretty smart, but not so much when he gets his ideological panties in a bunch.

    Ironically, it turns out I misunderstood JPool’s “proto-Buckleyite” jab at my argument, by not considering what he might have meant in context. It’s not that I didn’t read what he wrote; it’s what I read into part of what he wrote. Shame on me, I guess. But it leads into this:

    The question of how you evolve “leaderless” systems for social production, with mediative value-added but also with little potential for abuse of power by mediators (or direct contributors for that matter) — oh, what fun. I could talk about that for hours. As a Wikipedian who has appealed to Wikipedia’s (largely invisible, to the casual user) judicial apparatus, on a specialist issue, to little avail (because the judge said Wikipedia admins can’t take stands on who is or isn’t a reliable specialist), I’m not too optimistic. But I do have my hopes.

    If I’m interpeting John’s evocation of Benkler correctly, for this context (a context brought into sharper focus by Kvond’s remark I think), the big question might be: how might networked discourse be refined so as to reduce the downsides of any minimally necessary mediation, while also enhancing its benefits? Is there really something that ubiquitous digital networking gives you for free that you didn’t have before, something that makes a qualitative difference? Can you structure things so that the mediators are at least good pointers?

    I mean, take a question like how Marx stood on technological innovation and the degree to which its attenuation might result in vanishing investment opportunity under capitalism. A good mediator might not be utterly free of biases, but might still be able to point not only to specific and highly relevant passages in Marx’s enormous and bewildering body of work, and to clarifying interpretations of those passages where needed, but also to comments and critiques (e.g., “Btw, here’s how Schumpeter assessed what Marx said about that . . .”) I think we can at least all agree that a bad mediator would answer, “I can hardly answer your question until I’m sure you’ve read Hegel’s Logic, so that we’re on the same page terminologically.” (A good tape loop to play over Lenin’s casket, come to think of it. Especially if the tape was getting hissier and raspier over time.)

  24. Just found this at http://goodexperience.com

    Seven models of community
    Everyone seems to be building community these days, or at least saying they are. Look at the buzz around Facebook and Twitter. Or consider museums – I’ve seen multiple recent exhibits of photos by visitors. How about politics? The leader of the free world is a community organizer. Or retail and travel – especially online, full of community features. Journalism – newspapers declining, locally-oriented sites rising. And so on.

    How do we bring together different people, ideas, cultures, values, into a cohesive whole?

    Off the top of my mind I have seven answers, surely an incomplete list – but here are some ways to conceive of joining disparate parts.

    1. Solar System: A whirling ballet of major and minor parts, each with its own well-defined station and role. But everything is dependent on the one supreme central figure holding it all together. (See also, the atom – though electrons are less easily tracked 🙂

    2. Crack the Whip: A common children’s game in which players run or skate in a line, each player holding on to the one in front of them. The leader makes the decisions of when and where to turn, while everyone behind scrambles to keep up. Notably, the further back one is, the harder it is to keep up, eventually throwing the last in line out of the group entirely.

    3. Birds on a wire: I couldn’t resist this one – birds twittering on a phone line. They sit together “online” and each have their say, twittering their individual thoughts off into the ether. Sometimes there are interesting patterns as they fly off into a clump, a V, a flock – but mainly it’s each bird to itself.

    4. Melting pot: An American ideal – welcoming diversity, bringing in many different voices. But we often forget that the melting pot precedes the mold, which shapes everything into a uniform mass with a predetermined shape – much like an ice tray.

    5. LEGOs: Different parts fit in different places, and they’re interchangeable to some extent. Independence is the pro and con: each piece retains its shape but has no connection to any part it’s not immediately adjoining.

    6. Salad: Lots of pieces chopped up and tossed together, intended to create one delicious concoction. Not exactly a melting pot, as pieces retain their identities – but neither are the pieces exactly joined together in any way, except that they’re in the same bowl together. (Some people have said that America is more of a tossed salad than a melting pot.)

    7. Gel: My favorite. Can be hard to describe exactly what it is and what it does, but that’s its strength. Parts are added together without losing their identities, but the whole can take on different forms (think of a jello mold). Can be used to hold a shape (hair gel), not hold a shape (dissolving toothpaste gel), adapt to pressure (gel pen handles) or protect from pressure (gel shoe inserts). Gel is both formed and formless, both strong and weak, depending on the situation.

    Which model describes a group you’re in? Which models did I miss?

  25. Perhaps tangential to Michael’s concerns, but here is Benkler’s own summary of the heart of the argument that he develops in The Wealth of Networks

    The increasing salience of nonmarket production in general, and peer production in particular, raises three puzzles from an economics perspective. First, why do people participate? What is their motivation when they work for or contribute resources to a project for which they are not paid or directly rewarded? Second, why now, why here? What, if anything, is special about the digitally networked environment that would lead us to believe that peer production is a fad that will pass as the medium matures and patterns of behavior settle toward those more familiar to us from the economy of steel, coal, and temp agencies. Third, is it efficient to have all these people sharing their computers and donating their time and creative effort? Moving through the answers to these questions, it becomes clear that the diverse and complex patterns of behavior observed on the Internet, from Viking ship hobbyists to the developers of the GNU/Linux operating system, are perfectly consistent with much of our contemporary understanding of human economic behavior. We need to assume no fundamental change in the nature of humanity; we need not declare the end of economics as we know it. We merely need to see that the material conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange as a modality of economic production. That is, behaviors and motivation patterns familiar to us from social relations generally continue to cohere in their own patterns. What has changed is that now these patterns of behavior have become effective beyond the domains of building social relations of mutual interest and fulfilling our emotional and psychological needs of companionship and mutual recognition. They have come to play a substantial role as modes of motivating, informing, and organizing productive behavior at the very core of the information economy.

    Yochai Benkler (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, pp. 91-92

    My take on how Benkler might answer Michael’s question is that by turning to the Wikipedia admins in search of an authoritative opinion Michael has misconstrued the nature of how Wikipedia works. Not everything in Wikipedia is accurate or sufficient to every intellectual need; but the same is, of course, true of conventional Encyclopedias. The difference is that the conventional encyclopedia is a creature of what Benkler calls the industrial information economy. It assumes a select group of experts who write and edit with authority guaranteed by their selection by the publisher, the capitalist who pays for their services, who, in turn, makes of that authority the reason why people should pay substantial sums for their product. In an older world, where print publication of encyclopedias was, like production of other material goods, a matter requiring high capital investment, this model worked fairly well. Now, however, it is being challenged by Wikipedia-like projects. Any particular entry may begin as a sloppy or crackpot effort that reflects considerable ignorance; but, if the topic is an important one, i.e., one in which a lot of knowledgeable people are interested, that entry will rapidly be corrected and is also more likely to be updated in a timely manner as new information becomes available.

    But, then, I’m not Benkler. So this off-the-cuff response should be taken with large lashings of soy sauce.

  26. My take on how Benkler might answer Michael’s question is that by turning to the Wikipedia admins in search of an authoritative opinion Michael has misconstrued the nature of how Wikipedia works.

    I didn’t turn to Wikipedia admins for an authoritative opinion. We had authoritative opinion aplenty. What we needed was recognition of that fact, in a decision to delete a particular article and/or move it (in scaled back form) to some other article where it would be given due weight (which is to say, very little weight.)

    Unfortunately, with extreme inclusionists who didn’t really understand what the article was about voting to keep it, and the author of the pseudo-science himself voting likewise, we didn’t reach “consensus.” The admin to whom the decision was assigned noted only that the vote wasn’t unanimous, and decided the article would be kept. In other words, he made a decision on a basis that could be automated in perhaps about 4-5 lines of PHP scripting.

    It wasn’t that the admin was stupid. His own area of expertise was German legal doctrine. But the article was about a (supposed) formal model of computation, a subject about which he no knowledge. Among those favoring the deletion of the article was one the foremost computing theorists at Stanford. But you didn’t have to be that much of an expert. I favored deletion of it because, with only an computer science undergraduate’s grasp of the theory the author was attempting to promote, it was transparently obvious that the author was a crackpot. Unfortunately, he was a crackpot with publications, a book that had been noted by (mostly incompetent) reviewers, some papers that looked peer-reviewed (in fact not, he’d been guest editor of the journal in which they appeared, so not really), and so on. In this way, he was able to give his hobby-horse subject a deceptive veneer of respectability. Under the “due weight” provisions in Wikipedia policy, his work might have merited brief mention as something out of the mainstream. Instead, the author (contributing anonymously, but rather obviously — his broken English had the same flavor as the articles and books) had blown it up into a whole overarching treatment of all computing theory — a longish Wikipedia article, and overlong treatments of related concepts in other articles.

    I could of course, raise the issue again, and again, and again, and eventually the decision might be assigned to an admin with a basic computer science education, and a sensible decision would most likely be made. However, the way Wikipedia adjudication is currently structured, the next admin selected at random might be someone who’s particularly strong in the history of anime, or bicycle racing, or philately. Are these “important topics”? No. But a lot more people are interested in them, in part because they are far more accessible. So smart people who really understand the topic just get tired of fighting the crackpot, and leave this guy to abuse Wikipedia as his vanity press, and Wikipedia is the poorer for it.

    This seems like something they could fix, though of course not without adding restrictions and filters of some kind.

  27. This is very interesting to me. I find the same dynamics hold in all of the group work I take part in, from teaching to blogging. Total democratic inclusion is one extreme ideal, with inefficiency, incompetence and the occasional epic fail absorbed as costs of doing business; ultra-select expertise is the other, with in-group myopia, arrogance and the occasional tyranny absorbed as costs of doing business.

    How to get the best of both is a matter of constant dynamic balancing, in my experience. There’s no rule or procedure that will do the trick by itself. If they haven’t been built with the right communal virtues, the egos of the experts have to be fed just right so they don’t sulk or go stomping off in a swivet when they don’t immediately get their self-evidently correct way. The trick is to get them to actually listen and pick through the idiosyncratic output of the non-experts for the useful perspectives, observations and reframings. Non-experts have their own quirks of psyche to manage, including deference, resentment, reactive crackpottery, and strategic incompetence (aka playing limpy).

    It’s also interesting to read the literature comparing the analytical accuracy of experts and non-experts, which overwhelmingly finds that the former do no better than the latter and that group approaches are superior. Apparently knowledge and judgment have no essential relationship. For one pithy overview with good links see here.

    Re: Wikipedia, Michael I see your point and frustration, but as far as I know John’s reply is correct. Given how Wikipedia works I would think an effective strategy would be to overwhelm the bad source with qualifications, critical provisos, and alternative accounts from multiple sources until it is appropriately marginalized?

  28. . . . an effective strategy would be to overwhelm the bad source with qualifications, critical provisos, and alternative accounts from multiple sources until it is appropriately marginalized?

    Problem is, when you’ve got an overarching theory so fundamentally stupid that very few legitimate researchers even bother paying any attention to it, there’s no margin to push it to, and nothing in the way of Wikipedia-class “reliable sources” to push with.

    Let me give you an example of how this guy works.

    In one discussion over some edits, I pointed out that some of what this author sweeps into his all-embracing category seems to fall under an established concept mentioned nowhere in his published work: anytime algorithms, which in fact predate his work. It’s pretty clear to me that he’d never heard of this stuff before. Next thing I know, he’s edited the Wikipedia page for “anytime algorithm” so that he’s cited, so that some of his intellectual wares are on display. (Actually, they aren’t even his wares — he didn’t invent limit Turing machines, not nearly; he just abuses them for his own purposes.)

    I’ve just deleted these references of his, but I’ll bet they reappear soon.

    Now, I could go to a Wikipedia adjudication process where we might get this guy officially admonished for violating the so-called “No Original Research” policy, in this particular case. If the work he cites makes no mention of anytime algorithms, and he claims it actually does, just under another rubric like “limit Turing machines”, he has to cite some independent research showing the two concepts are formally equivalent. (And there won’t be any–legit researchers wouldn’t bother, for one thing.) But that adjudication process would be a lot of work, during which we have to put up with the guy’s constant carping about how we’re “suppressing information.” You know, the Galileo Gambit?

    And this is just one particular case — one little tendril of his general effort to insinuate his “theory” into all of computing theory on Wikipedia.

    “Alternative accounts from multiple sources” — well, as far as I know, nobody but Martin Davis has bothered to dismiss it. The light-touch sarcasm in his review of the one relevant book on this pseudo-science topic flew in so far below the author’s radar that the author actually cited it on Wikipedia as a positive review!

    If I were a computing theorist, encountering theories like these in the literature, my attitude would be: “Why waste my time debunking this trash? I have better things to do, in fact all of us do, so it’ll eventually recede into oblivion. The nature of peer review guarantees it.” But on Wikipedia, a sufficiently devoted crank, if he has even the slimmest portfolio of publications to point to, in a sufficiently difficult theoretical field, has to transgress Wikipedia policy repeatedly to get edited down to size (or, ultimately, IP-blocked). So crankery like this doesn’t go away. It just grows. Nobody’s paying anybody to filter it out, or beat it back. There’s no reviewer perennially shuffling the paper to the bottom of the heap. And that, I’m afraid, really does make a difference in cases like these.

    The best I can say about the whole experience is that I now read Wikipedia on abstruse technical or theoretical topics with a much more skeptical eye.

  29. I hear you. That is frustrating. Might be an instance of epic fail as a cost of doing democratic business.

    However, you’ve said that this is an abstruse technical field; likely to be read mostly by experts; who will know this for crap when they see it; and hence, ignore it. Isn’t this the opposite of the outcome this guy is looking for? He sounds borderline delusional; but if there’s a shred of machiavellian rationality there it might be possible to reason with him that he’d get more positive attention for his work if it was more appropriately (although still too much, in your view) embedded in the consensus state-of-the-art. Get it alongside the good stuff and let readers sort it out.

  30. Mikhail, I’m not sure if you read/speak German, but I’m guessing Kant is both harder to read and easier to understand in the original. It seems to be a general cultural predisposition–precision is favored even at the expense of intelligibility. To anyone who thinks Kant should have used simpler language, I would probably respond: just try asking a Teutonically-ethnic person to simplify their language for arguments sake! See where that gets you.

    I don’t personally agree with Kant (and neither does Meillassoux or those other SRs), but I’ve always loved the challenge of wading through 300-400 pages of his translated prose. Sort of the same way I love trying (and failing) to read untranslated Schopenhauer or Thomas Mann. And don’t let the SR types fool you, they mention Kant so much because he makes the best argument against their own claims, and they know he does.

  31. I got thrown off my one translation project after several testy exchanges with the editors because they wanted me to turn typically tortured Italian with paragraph-long sentences and multiple dependent clauses into clean Strunk and White. I argued that the way we say things can be just as important as what we say, and since the piece in question didn’t say much, leaving it stylistically as close as possible to the original was especially important.

    I was a punk, and the eventual re-translation was both clean and surprisingly substantive. Turns out once all the filigree got stripped off there was actually a solid structure of argument under there. I still think my point was valid and my translation was good, but I learned a lot about reading at different levels from the experience.

  32. Just wanted to tell you all know how much I appreciate your postings guys.
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