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Otsogery, Adumbration, and the Intellectual Scavenger Hunt

Wednesday 19 September 2012

I am thoroughly enjoying a romp through On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, by Robert K. Merton. I was provoked to read this book by a series of posts on a blog called, which is one of the three blogs that I read on a regular basis. It is a forum for sociologists, in the main, and the threads often touch on economic sociology – a sub-field that I find informative as a practicing non-sociologist. The recent thread introduced a STUNNING NEW APPROACH to economic sociology called “relational work” that is meant to overtake such useless approaches as Granovetter’s embeddedness. (I’ll make a separate post on this later.) I have difficulty with the central arguments about the originality of relational work, as it looks (to a practicing non-sociologist) to be derivative of Georg Simmel’s work a century ago, as well as significant elements of cultural anthropology and social psychology. When I and others raised the question, one of the disciples waded in with a scold that we were committing the “fallacy of adumbration”, which he attributed to Robert K. Merton, but cited Alejandro Portes.

So I read the section of Merton’s classic, Social Theory and Social Structure, in the 1968 edition, wherein he spent the first three dozen pages discussing whether an erudite scientist (or sociologist) would correctly identify pre-discoveries, anticipations, or adumbrations of a new work that appeared in the past. There are two things that I learned from reading Merton (1968) that I could not from reading Portes or the poster. (1) Adumbration (foreshadowing) is not the same as adumbrationism, which is the mean-spirited search for anticipations and adumbrations and the subsequent claim that there is “nothing new here”. (2) It is more important that the scientist (or sociologist) be aware of the taxonomy or systematics of ideas – how they are related – than their priority (in the chronological sense). To declare relational work as a new approach without doing the necessary systematics is the real fallacy.

Anyhow… let’s leave the rant aside. The development of Merton’s writing on adumbrationism began with his presidential address to the American Sociological Society (1957), continued through the elaboration of this material in Social Theory and Social Structure to the publication of the delightful On the Shoulders of Giants – hereafter OTSOG – in which he brings to fruition a two-decade search for priority in the aphorism by Isaac Newton, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This particular search for priority is couched in a general discussion of the transmission of knowledge, plagiarism and misattribution, and the general nonlinearity of the accumulation of knowledge. He trades on the nonlinearity by adopting the convolved style of Tristram Shandy, which celebrates his erudition and focus on systematics in the guise of establishing priority, a design captured in the coined word otsogery.

I haven’t the mind or the relentless spirit of R.K. Merton, but I do enjoy chasing down quotes, aphorisms, and original sources. I like my students to use original sources, too. Wikipedia doesn’t count. There are two of these intellectual scavenger hunts that I enjoyed very much.

In his seminal book, The Mechanisms of Governance, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Oliver Williamson argues for pursuing his “interdisciplinary joinder of law, economics, and organization in a ‘modest, slow, molecular, definitive way’ ”. He footnotes this statement with a quote,

“The longer I live, citizen …” – This is the way the great passage in Peguy begins, words I once loved to say (I had them almost memorized) – “The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion, extraordinary, sudden, and serious, in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I live the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary, sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship – and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

I could not fathom how Charles Péguy could have denounced sudden, wondrous conversion and sudden, extraordinary social revolution when he was (1) a famously devout Catholic;  a mystic whose poetry includes an exceptional hommage to Joan of Arc, and (2) a famously ardent socialist who believed strongly in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In fact, after giving up on the Catholicism of his youth while at the École Normale Supérieure, he returned to his faith in the middle of the first decade of the century, when he was in his early 30s. He was slain in the first battle of the Marne in 1914 at the age of 41.

Thus, it was hard to understand a quote that twice alludes to advancing age and a personal and social apostasy that was written by a man who died in full flower as a religious mystic and as a champion for human rights and the left. So, I went to the library and found Charles Péguy’s Oeuvres en Prose Complètes and read them back to front looking for this passage. I discovered the true passage early in the volume (nowhere close to his death) and translated for Williamson. I sent him my translations and the following.

The quote in Williamson’s text contains two red herrings. The first is, “this is the way the great passage in Peguy begins”. In fact, the quoted passage begins with the second clause of the fourth sentence of the twentieth paragraph of an essay presented as a dialogue. The second confusion is that the quote appears to be a single argument against sudden personal illuminations and sudden social revolutions. In fact, the passage is two distinct arguments in counterpoint. One party to the dialogue denies the value of sudden personal revelation and the other denies the value of sudden social revolution.

The young socialist atheist revolutionary (Péguy) consults a “citizen doctor: socialist, revolutionary, moralist, internationalist” as he has come down with the grippe while preparing for the Socialist Congress.

— … “And genius demands patience to work, doctor, and the longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied by or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden, wondrous, extraordinary conversions, the effectiveness of sudden passions, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

– “ The longer I live, responded the doctor gravely, the less I believe in the effectiveness of a sudden, extraordinary social revolution, wondrously improvised, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive, work for society.”

The conversation continues around the doctor’s thesis that one cannot believe in the “big questions” when unable to believe in the personal-level issue of faith. This essay was, in fact, written when Péguy was 26 and before his return to the church. He had just launched a publishing venture in support of socialist causes in January 1900, called Cahiers de la quinzaine, (Fortnightly Journals). This was to be his pulpit as a polemicist until his death, as well as a place where like-minded individuals published before they became famous.

The citation should read:  Péguy, Charles. “Encore de la grippe”, Cahiers de la quinzaine, volume I, number 6, March 20, 1900.

Williamson thanked me by return e-mail within the hour but admitted that he liked his erroneous, purloined quote “as it better suited his argument”. Nonetheless, my e-mail became part of his graduate course syllabus until he quit teaching.

The second scavenger hunt was the search for the aphorism, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door”. A quick perusal of the WWW suggested that the aphorism was attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and was reported by two Unitarians (Sarah Yule and Mary Keene) for a compilation in 1889. Some folks suggest that this quote or a more elaborate one — “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” – was uttered by Emerson when he visited the Barbary Coast on a lecture tour in 1871. In any case, both quotes are a pale simulacrum of what Emerson would likely say.

So I repaired to the library again and started to read Emerson’s compiled writings. The citation that I have is Works, Volume VII, 1912 edition. In it the transcription of a journal entry that Emerson wrote while on a stagecoach tour of the Mohawk Valley in  New York during 1855, one finds his discourse on Fame.

“If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, tho it be in the woods. And if a man knows the law, people will find it out, tho he live in a pine shanty, and resort to him. And if a man can pipe or sing, so as to wrap the prisoned soul in an elysium; or can paint landscape, and convey into oils and ochers all the enchantments of spring or autumn; or can liberate or intoxicate all people who hear him with delicious songs and verses, ’tis certain that the secret can not be kept: the first witness tells it to a second, and men go by fives and tens and fifties to his door. “ (page 528)

Now THAT is Emerson.

I’m looking for the next scavenger hunt. Perhaps Merton will provoke something in particular.

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