A Mere Philosopher?

The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena CanalesOn the 6th of April, 1922, two men met at the Société française de philosophie to discuss relativity and the nature of time. One was the winner of the previous year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein, renowned for a series of extraordinary innovations in scientific theory. The other was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales recounts the events of that meeting, and traces the public controversy that unfolded over the years that followed. Bergson was perceived to have lost the debate and, more generally, philosophy to have lost the authority to speak on matters of science.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of that loss is that it is hard to imagine an equivalent meeting today, the great physicist and the great philosopher debating as equals. While the physical sciences enjoy unprecedented prestige and funding on university campuses, many philosophy departments face cutbacks. Yet less than a century ago, Henri Bergson enjoyed enormous celebrity. His lecture at Columbia University in 1913 resulted in the first traffic jam ever seen on Broadway. His work was translated into multiple languages, influencing not only his fellow philosophers but also artists and writers (Willa Cather named one of her characters after Bergson). His writings on evolutionary theory earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Students were crowded out of his classes at the Collège de France by the curious public.

The young Bergson showed promise in mathematics, but chose instead to study humanities at the École Normale. His disappointed math teacher commented “you could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher” — a harbinger of later developments? Einstein and his supporters attacked Bergson’s understanding of relativity and asserted that philosophy had no part to play in grasping the nature of time. Bergson countered that, on the contrary, it was he who had been misunderstood, but to no avail: the Einstein/Bergson debate set the tone for a debate on the relationship between philosophy and the sciences that continues to this day. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Philosophy Now, biologist Lewis Wolpert dismissed philosophy as “irrelevant” to science. In this, do we hear an echo of Einstein’s claim that time can be understood either psychologically or physically, but not philosophically?

Win a copy of Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition by Albert Einstein through Corbis!

We are teaming with Corbis Entertainment to offer this terrific giveaway through their official Albert Einstein Facebook page. Contest details below, but please head over to the “official Facebook page of the world’s favorite genius” to enter!

Enter for a chance to win a FREE COPY of “Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition” by Albert Einstein!

Warblers Home for the Summer

Welcome back to the warblers! Warblers are currently returning from as far away as South America now that winter 2015 is well and truly behind us. Grab your binoculars, your camera, and our guides before heading out to try and spot these musical little birds.

The Warbler Guide by Thomas Stephenson and Scott Whittle is a beautifully illustrated book that makes identifying the many species of warblers a cinch. If you don’t want to bring a book out with you on your trek, you can always download the Warbler Guide App for iOS to bring the same information right to your smartphone or tablet. In addition to the information found in the print version, the app includes 3D models of different warblers that you can rotate and pinch-zoom, playback of all songs and vocalizations, and a finder sorted by color, alphabetically, song type, and taxonomic order.

In addition to these comprehensive guides, we also have free PDFs that you can download to get started on your warbler search. The Quick Finders sort warblers in a variety of ways to make identifying and categorizing them that much easier. The North American Warblers fold out is a convenient pamphlet with QR codes included to deliver the most information in a convenient package.

Finally, make a note to check back tomorrow to enter a new giveaway! And don’t forget to tweet your warbler pics to @PrincetonNature—we’d love to see them.

#WinnerWednesdays: Congratulations to our award-winning authors

In the past two weeks, our authors have received quite a few honors. Check out the complete list of awards.

Winner of the 2014 Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics, Industrial Relations Section of Princeton University

  • John D. Skrentny – After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace

“In recognition of Richard Lester’s contribution to the fields of Labor Economics and Industrial Relations and his many years of service to the Industrial Relations Section, the Section has established in his name an annual award for the outstanding book in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics. The award is presented to the book making the most original and important contribution toward understanding the problems of industrial relations, and the evolution of labor markets. Nominations from authors or publishers are not solicited nor accepted; this is an independent selection process.” More information about the award. Read the Princeton University announcement, here.

Winner of the 2015 David O. Sears Book Award, International Society of Political Psychology

  •  Christopher F. Karpowitz & Tali Mendelberg – The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions

“The David O. Sears book Award is given for the best book published in the field of the political psychology of mass politics, including political behavior, political values, political identities, and political movements, during the previous calendar year.  Befitting the far-reaching contributions to scholarship of David Sears, the award winning work is one that demonstrates the highest quality of thought and makes a major substantive contribution to the field of political psychology.”

Professors Mendelberg and Karpowitz will receive their award at this year’s ISPP Annual Meeting, which will be held in San Diego this July.  Read the Princeton University announcement.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Runciman Award, Anglo-Hellenic League

  •  Michael Scott – Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

“The Runciman Award, named in honour of the late Sir Steven Runciman…is awarded by the Anglo-Hellenic League to a book on Greece or some aspect of the Hellenic scene…The aim of the award is to stimulate interest in Greek history and culture…and to promote wider knowledge and understanding of Greece’s contribution to civilization and values.”
The winner of the £9,000 Award will be announced at a ceremony at the Hellenic Centre in London on June 18, 2015.

 

Congratulations to all our authors!

An interview with Josiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The period considered classical Greece (roughly the 4th through 5th century BC) had a profound effect on Western civilization, forming the foundations of politics and philosophy, as well as artistic and scientific thought. Why did Greece experience such economic and cultural growth—and why was it limited to this 200-year period? Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University and author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, took the time to explain the reasons behind Greece’s flourishing, and what its economic rise and political fall can tell us about our own world.

The Rise and Fall of Classical GreeceWhat was the rise of classical Greece and when and why did it happen?

JO: Basically, sustained economic growth lead to the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

At the Early Iron Age nadir, in ca. 1000 BCE, the Greek world was sparsely populated and consumption rates hovered near subsistence. Some 650 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased at least twenty-fold. During that same period, per capita consumption probably doubled.

That rate of growth is far short of modern rates, but it equals the growth rate of the two standout societies of early modern Europe: Holland and England in the 16th to 18th centuries. Historians had long thought that the Greek world was impoverished and its economy overall static – which of course made Greek culture (art, philosophy, drama, and so on) seem that much more “miraculous.” But, thanks to the recent availability and quantification of a huge mass of data, drawn from both documentary and archaeological sources, we can now trace the amazing growth of the Greek economy, both in its extent (how many people, how much urbanization, and so on), and in terms of per capita consumption (how well people lived).

So the rise of the Greek world was predicated on sustained economic growth, but why did the Greek economy grow so robustly for so long?

JO: In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful. As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange. The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states.

So what about the fall?

JO: There are two “falls” – one political and one economic. The economic fall is the decline of the Greek economy from its very high level in the age of Aristotle to a “premodern Greek normal” of low population and near-subsistence consumption levels with the disintegration of the Roman empire. That low normal had pertained before the rise of the city-state ecology. After the fall, it persisted until the 20th century. But we also need to explain an earlier political fall. Why, just when the ancient Greek economy was nearing its peak, were Philip II and Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon able to conquer the Greek world? And then there is another puzzle: Why were so many Greek city-states able to maintain independence and flourishing economies in the face of Macedonian hegemony? The city-states were overtaken by the Macedonians in part because human-capital investments created a class of skilled and mobile experts in state finance and military organization. Hired Greek experts provided Philip and Alexander with the technical skills they needed to build a world-class army. But meanwhile, deep investments by city-states in infrastructure and training made fortified cities expensive to besiege. As a result, after the Macedonian conquest, royal taxes on Greek cities were negotiated rather than simply imposed. That ensured enough independence for the Greek cities to sustain economic growth until the Roman conquest.

What does the economic rise and political fall of classical Greece have to tell us about our own world?

JO: The new data allows us to test the robustness of contemporary theories of political and economic development. In the classical Greek world, political development was a primary driver of economic growth; democracy appears to be a cause rather than simply an effect of prosperity. The steep rise and long duration of the city-state ecology offers a challenge to neo-Hobbesian centralization theories of state formation, which hold that advanced economic and political development requires the consolidation of centralized state power. The comparatively low rate of ancient Greek income inequality, along with the high rate of economic growth, suggests that the negative correlation of sustained growth with extreme inequality, observed in some recent societies, is not a unique product of modernity. Finally, the history of the ancient Greek world can be read as a cautionary tale about the unanticipated consequences of growth and human capital investment: It reveals how innovative institutions and technologies, originally developed in the open-access, fair-rules context of democratic states, can be borrowed by ambitious autocrats and redeployed to further their own, non-democratic purposes.

How did you get interested in the topic of rise and fall – was it just a matter of “Edward Gibbon envy”?

JO: Gibbon is amazing, as a prose stylist and historian. But the origin of my project actually goes back to a quip by a senior colleague at the very beginning of my career: “The puzzle is not why the Greek world fell, it is why it lasted more than 20 minutes.” Twenty-five years ago (and fifteen years after my colleague’s quip), the historical sociologist W.G. Runciman claimed that classical Greece was “doomed to extinction” because the Greek city-states were, “without exception, far too democratic.” True enough: the classical Greek world eventually went extinct. But then, so did all other ancient societies, democratic or otherwise. The Greek city-state culture lasted for the better part of a millennium; much longer than most ancient empires. I’ve long felt that I owed my colleague a solution to his puzzle. This book is an attempt to pay that debt.

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Democracy and Knowledge, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.

 

A Q&A with Cormac Ó Gráda, author of Eating People is Wrong

Cormac Ó Gráda’s new collection of essays on famine—which range in focus from from the economic history to the psychological toll—begins with a taboo topic. Ó Gráda argues that cannibalism, while by no means a universal feature of these calamities, has probably occurred more frequently than previously recognized. Recently he answered some questions on his book, Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, its somber title, and his early interest in The Great Irish Famine.

O'Grada jacketWhy did you write this book?

CÓG: When Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) came out, I wanted it to be my last book on the subject. So Eating People is Wrong was not a question of ‘what will I do next?’ I just realized a few years later that I had still had ideas to contribute on topics that would make for a new, different kind of book on famine. These topics ranged from famine cannibalism to the Great Leap Forward, and from market failure to famine in the 21st century; the challenge was to merge the different perspectives that they offered into what would become this new book.  The idyllic résidence I spent in the south of France courtesy of the Fondation des Treilles in the autumn of 2013 was when the different parts came together. By the end of that stay, I had a book draft ready.

What inspired you to get into your field?

CÓG: It is so long ago that I am bound to invent the answer… But I have always had an amateur interest in history—as lots of Irish people tend to have—whereas my academic training was in economics. Economic history seemed a good way of marrying the two, and that has been my chosen field since my time as a graduate student in the 1970s. I began as a kind of jack-of-all-trades economic historian of Ireland, focusing on topics as different as inheritance patterns and famine, or migration and banking. This work culminated in a big economic history of Ireland in 1994. My interest in the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s goes back to my teens, but that interest was sharpened after getting to know Joel Mokyr (also a PUP author) in the late 1970s. Economics taught me to think of the Irish in comparative terms, and that led eventually to the study of famines elsewhere. My books have all been solo efforts, but I have very lucky and privileged to write papers with some great co-authors, and some of these papers influenced the books.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

CÓG: The title is an ironic nod to Malcolm Bradbury’s eponymous novel (which most people seem ignorant of). A friend suggested it to me over a pint in a Dublin bar. One of the themes of the chapter on famine cannibalism, to which the title refers, is the need to realize that famines not only do terrible things to people, but that people do terrible things to one other in times of famine. Peter Dougherty and his team at PUP came up with jacket. The image is graphic and somber without being sensationalist, which is what I had hoped for.

What is your next project?

CÓG: There is no single all-consuming project. A lot of my research in recent years has been collaborative work on British economic history with UCD colleague Morgan Kelly. So far the results of that work have appeared—when we are lucky—in academic journals rather than in books. We have plans to continue on this basis, but we are also involved in an interesting piece of research with Joel Mokyr on the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and that may eventually yield a monograph by the three of us. I also want to revise several unpublished papers in Irish economic history and to get them published singly or, perhaps, as a monograph. Finally, Guido Alfani of Bocconi University in Milan and I are editing a book on the history of famine in Europe. This is coming along well. The end product will consist of nine specialist country chapters, a cross-country analysis of the famines of World War II, and an overview by Alfani and me.

What are you currently reading?

CÓG: I am at page 630 (so another hundred or so pages to go) of Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, vol. 1 (Penguin, 2014), which brings the story of Iosif Vissarionovich only as far as 1928. I have been interested in Soviet economic history since the late Alexander Erlich introduced me to the topic in Columbia in the 1970s, and this is what attracted me to Kotkin’s riveting tome—which, however, turns out to rather uninterested in the economic issues! I am also reading Maureen Murphy’s Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine (Syracuse, 2015), an account of an eccentric but appealing American evangelist who toured Ireland, mostly on foot, in the years leading up to and during the Great Hunger. I was familiar with Nicholson’s own published accounts of her travels, but knew very little about her otherwise, so Murphy’s book is a revelation.   My current bedtime reading is Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing (2010).

Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus of economics at University College Dublin. His books include Famine: A Short History and Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (both Princeton).

#MammothMonday: What’s Next?

04_shapiro_plate blog

In today’s #MammothMonday exclusive video, Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction, raises big questions about cloning technology and explains how she feels this controversial technology should be used.

You can also listen to Shapiro’s interview on NPR from this past weekend, where she discussed the motivations for bringing back an extinct species, along with some of the specific risks involved with releasing genetically engineered elephants into the wild.

Read Chapter 1, here.

Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

PUP authors to appear at philosophy and music festival, How the Light Gets In

The world’s largest philosophy and music festival, How The Light Gets In, is back at Hay-on-Wye in Wales on May 21. Over the course of 11 days and 650 events, this year’s theme, “Fantasy and Reality”, will be explored through a variety of creative expression, including poetry, debates, film, and music.  Total Politics calls this festival “Europe’s answer to TED”. This year promises to be extra special: their entire new Riverside site will be home to a special new music venue, The Hat, which will be hosting long-table banquets and parties. You can find the full program here, and be sure to check out the following presentations by Princeton University Press authors:

5/23/15: In Search of the Self, Simon Blackburn, Colin Blakemore, Mary Midgley. Robert Rowland-Smith hosts.

5/24/15: The Really Real, Simon Blackburn, Philip Blond, Myrian Francois-Cerrah. Hilary Lawson hosts.

5/25/15: Vanity Fair, Simon Blackburn, George Galloway, Margaret Heffernan, Suzannah Lipscomb. Ritula Shah hosts.

5/26/15: Your Life in Your Hands, Clare Carlisle, Ann Furedi, John Harris. Afua Hirsch hosts.

5/26/15: In Place of Prejudice, Clare Carlisle, Naomi Goulder, John Harris. Afua Hirsch hosts.

5/26/15: Mind Misreadings, John Harris.

5/27/15: The Future of Money, Nigel Dodd.

5/28/15:Being Free and Making Choices, Nigel Dodd, Elaine Glaser, Julian Le Grand. Jacques Peretti hosts.

5/28/15: How to Be Human, Julian Le Grand, Finn Mackay, Neel Mukherjee. Elaine Glaser hosts.

5/28/15: The Fantasy of Money, Sarah Bird, Nigel Dodd, Kieron O’Hara. Jacques Peretti hosts.

5/28/15: Democracy, Freedom and Choice, Julian Le Grand.

5/31/15: The Infinite Boom, Michael Howard, Ann Petitifor, Robert Shiller. Isabel Hilton hosts.