Staying at Home

Henri Poincare, The Value of Science,
Modern Library; 2001.

It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.

Thoreau, Walden, Ch. 18.

Without leaving your room, you can know the world.
Without looking outside, you can know heaven’s way.
The farther you travel, the less you know.

The wise man
goes nowhere, but understands;
is unseen, but famous;
does nothing, but succeeds.

Tao Te Ching, Ch. 47

Vous avez confirmé dans des lieux pleins d’ennui
Ce que Newton connut sans sortir de chez lui

[You have confirmed in the most boring of places
What Newton knew without leaving home.]

Voltaire , cited by Henri Poincaré in The Value of Science, p. 562.

The Tao Te Ching is more or less my favorite book, and up to a point I am also an admirer of Thoreau. These words of theirs favor quietness over rushing around and thoughtfulness over the endless accumulation of data points, and by and large my biases are the same as theirs. Nonetheless, the Voltaire citation, in context, shows what’s wrong with this point of view.

Voltaire’s dig at Maupertuis and the other French geodeticists, who traveled to Lapland and Ecuador to take measurements establishing the exact shape and size of the earth — data useful for the confirmation of Newton’s gravitational theory. Voltaire’s disdain for these trips was the result of an anti-empirical bias. This was the rationalist age, and Voltaire thought that measurements were unnecessary, since Newton’s theory showed what they should be. Voltaire was not a working scientist at all, but for him the results of Science provided a way to win arguments, and beyond that, could serve as a ground for authority — why why fuss about petty details? Voltaire may not have been the founder of scientism, but he was one of the most prominent of its early spokesman.

Since geodesics eventually was assigned to the French military, which played a considerable role in scientific research well into the twentieth century, it could be said without exaggeration to have had an imperialist aspect. The geodeticists’ work was politically sensitive and involved adventures and mountaineering feats surpassing those of Indiana Jones — one scientist was sentenced to death in Spain and had to escape via Algeria.

Poincaré also tells us that the Histoire du Docteur Akakia, Voltaire’s attack on the competing French Newtonian Maupertuis (once Voltaire’s mentor), was motivated primarily by petty jealousies and court intrigue rather than anything more serious. Voltaire’s feud with Maupertuis ultimately became entangled with a different feud between Maupertuis, Samuel König, and Leibniz,  the last of whom was also  simultaneously battling with Newton and Clarke over quite a different grievance. Early modern science tends to confirm Steve Shapin’s observation that modern science traces back more to the secular aristocracy’s ambition and code of honor than to an otherworldly devotion to Truth.

Even during my Lao Tzu / Thoreau days I was more an egalitarian mystic than a theoretician, but by now I’m as far from theory as you can get. To me studies of concrete particulars (history, geography, philology) are infinitely more interesting than their theoretical explanations, and some of the most fully-theorized studies — marginalist economics, analytic philosophy, and “theory” in literary studies — are abominations. And if in the end I prove incapable of making really significant contributions to the study of concrete reality by my methods, then I’ll just have to continue to gather bright shiny things and post them here.

The real Dr. Akakia

What is “akakia”?