Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

WORDS

Every so often I come upon a word, a phrase, or a usage that particularly delights me.  I then make every effort to weave it into my quotidian discourse, as a sort of garnish.  A good example is "meretricious," which a long time ago I learned originally meant "falsely alluring, like a prostitute" [meretrix is apparently Latin for prostitute.]  Isn't that just perfect?  When someone you don't like offers an argument that you consider a crock, describing his argument as meretricious is a high-brow way of calling him a whore.

As I was playing a game of on-line Sudoku this morning before it got light enough for me to take my daily walk, I thought of one of my very favorite such terminological gems.  [I am simply going to assume that you folks all know how to play Sudoku.]  I have developed the following technique for solving Soduko puzzles:  I carry on, deducing entries for as long as I am able, using every trick I have developed, including some pretty nifty ones.  Then, if I get totally stuck, I find a binary opportunity -- a square that I know is either one number or another -- and I form the hypothesis that it is the first, tracing out all the implications of that hypothesis until I either solve the puzzle or come to a contradiction.  If I hit a contradiction, I know that the original square should have been filled with the second number, not the first, so I go all the way back and insert the second number.  Usually that is sufficient to enable me to complete the puzzle.  I call this "hypthecating a number." 

I encountered the word "hypthecate" in a wonderful book called Branches Without Roots:  Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1888, by the Yale economist Gerald Jaynes.  Here is the passage in which, I believe, it first appears, from page 148:

"The 1866 Alabama lien law allowed a 'lien on the crop equal to the advances made by any person(s) to any person of the state.'  There were two important implications of this law.  First, any person with a legal claim of possession to a crop would be able to receive credit by hypothecating that crop.  Second, the wording of the law allowed merchants and agents other than the employer to extend credit on the basis of a crop lien to anyone with a claim to a prospective crop."

This law, in effect, allowed share-cropping former slaves to go into debt for their food and other necessaries before the crop they were growing was actually harvested and they got their share of the proceeds.  In effect, it exchanged slavery for debt peonage.

Even if you are not as enchanted by the word as I, I strongly recommend Jaynes' book for profound historical insights into the period known as Reconstruction.

6 comments:

Jim Westrich said...

I am only an occasional sudoku player but Sudopedia would call "Hypothecating" a "Bifurcation". I like your term and history better.

www.sudopedia.org/index.php/Solving_Technique

I had tried sudoku for a few years before I realized that a community of users had created names for all the techniques (who knew that my best move was called a "swordfish"). There are some colorful names to many of the techniques (like "Death Blossom" and "3D Medusa")

Jim Westrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am keeping my techniques secret. :)

Magpie said...

I am anxiously waiting for the opportunity of using these words...

More seriously, English is not my mother tongue. Thus, to find those words in English is something of a surprise to me: they are used in Spanish.

mesnenor said...

Do we really need another name for reductio ad absurdum?

Sudoku bores me, but I do solve the KenKen puzzles that the NY Times has been publishing for the past few years.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I do the KenKen puzzles too. The 7's are a real challenge, but the 4's. 5's, and 6's are ok. I hate ot whrn I make a mistake [which does happen, alas.]