Fröhliche Wissenschaft

The following post is linked to from Tim Gowers’s blog, which I came across reading about his boycott of one of the big publishers of academic journals. That’s not the topic of this post, but I must say it is quite frustrating not to have access to such material, given that I have no academic affiliation, and I certainly can’t afford to pay twenty or thirty pounds a time just to skim something of potential interest. The way flesh and blood libraries work is by browsing, preferably the actual books not a catalogue. Access to the stacks saves time (the library staff’s too) when a riffle and a glance is enough to discard nineteen out of twenty volumes for immediate purposes. The title is not enough, usually nor is an abstract.


The anonymous author describes the flavour of a domain of knowledge more rarely scaled than the ability to perform publicly on a classical instrument. Richard Sennett writes movingly about certain stages on that path. He trained as a cellist, if I remember aright, and some physical accident undid his mastery of one of the steps, forcing him to pursue a career as a sociologist.

A number of things in that post seem applicable to the humanities too. The humanities are largely empirical and not pure, but the way one learns to find one’s feet on unfamiliar ground is not the result of acquiring an ever greater stock of data to refer to. Data is not even interesting. History (for instance) is not made up of facts, but well-founded interpretations. Lack of understanding makes me feel in my element, as atop a pathless Highland heath, because it means there is work to do. What is already understood is just groundwork — or else wrong, so even more work! Like what the compass says, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, and checked against the landscape and the lie of the land, whether they are familiar or not. As Heraclitus gnomically put it, the way up and the way down are one and the same. Rivers flow downstream — a terrain has a grammar. It goes without saying that the fun only begins off-piste.

I don’t think post titles can contain html tags, otherwise I’d have put in a link to an explanation that Die fröhliche Wissenschaft is the book by Nietzsche, the title of which is commonly translated as “The Gay Science”. These days, the ‘G’ word needs a footnote of its own, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Hint: Nietzsche was even wittier than his contemporary Wilde, an aspect too often elided in translation, but as far as anyone knows, no afficionado of the green carnation. I can’t come up with a better English title, and the ‘G’ word has become dated in its old sense; so I left it in German.


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