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Saturday, May 26, 2018


Over a long life, I have accumulated debts to many persons.  To Willard Van Orman Quine, I owe an immutable grasp of the distinction between use and mention, which he hammered into my head in 1950 when I was a sixteen year old college freshman.  To Benoit Roland, the great Franco-American achetier, I owe the magnificent viola bow that now, alas, sits unused in its case in my study.  To Humphrey Bogart, I owe the immortal phrase, “We’ll always have Paris.”  But to none do I owe so great a debt as I do to Sergei Brin, the co-founder of Google.

Brin is the savior of persons my age, those of us who suffer from what we delicately call “senior moments” so as not to have to confront the possibility of incipient dementia.  Many times each day Brin guides me, whether it is to the actress whose name I have forgotten, to the capital of California, which has slipped my mind, or to the name of the man whose refusal to obey Richard Nixon led to the elevation of the egregious Robert Bork.

I was reminded yet again of this debt earlier today.  Having taught my last Plato class, I turned my attention to preparations for the lecture I shall give three weeks from now in Belgium in commemoration of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth.  My theme will be the deep explanation for the extraordinary language of the opening chapters of Capital, and this morning I began locating and marking the passages I wish to read out.  Quite the most striking of these are the passages in which Marx compares ordinary marketplace commodity exchange to the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation, the focus of the ritual of the mass.  I was quite sure Marx had drawn that comparison but I could not put my finger on the passage.  Increasingly frustrated, I turned to Google.  I entered “Karl Marx transubstantiation” and in less than twenty seconds I had the passages, right where I had left them, in Chapter Three, section 2.

Everyone knows a great many things that are not, at any given moment, being held in consciousness – one’s social security number, mailing address, cellphone number, the name of one’s last pet, the names of one’s children or parents.  We know these things and can access that knowledge as needed, but we do not walk about repeating them aloud endlessly, rather like the Laputians of Gulliver’s third voyage.  Since it takes me very little longer to find things on Google than to recall them to mind, I have often thought that I should consider everything on Google simply a part of my own mind.  Looked at that way, I am quite impressively learned.


Jordan said...

If you ask Brin's wonderful invention about the "extended mind" thesis, you'll find some similar thoughts.

LFC said...

Now if you really want to depress yourself, embark on a search, perhaps starting w Google Scholar (though there are other engines available), for those who might have commented on the significance of those transubstantiation passages before you did.

That would be roughly the same, I suppose, as reading Jon Roemer's comment on your Phil & Pub Aff article and discovering that that Spanish economist had already made the argument/proof re the defects in Marx's exposition/modeling of the labor theory of value.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Except that the first was just a jeu d'esprit and the second was my one shot at immortality. :) oh well.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm over 10 years younger than you are, but I use Google in exactly the same way.

What's worse is that sometimes I forget what I'm trying to remember before I get to my computer to google it.

Here are some wise words from George Burns about our memories: "first you forget names, then you forget faces, next you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down."

Dean C. Rowan said...

"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries." -- Samuel Johnson (according to Boswell)

Ed Barreras said...

Nevermind Sergei Brin. Pull from the shelf another volume from Plato (Phaedrus), and you’ll see that it’s actually the Egyptian god Theuth to whom we all owe a true debt.

Socrates: I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another;and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Matt said...

As mentioned above, the basic idea of things outside of us being parts of our minds (and so, people getting "smarter" in some sense when we invent writing, but also better things to write with, not just google and computers and the like) is a pretty hot topic in philosophy of mind now. It's not the "foundational" paper in any real sense (others had written on it before) but the paper that really sparked recent though is this fairly short one by Andy Clark and David Chalmers:

(Clark is the bigger proponent of the idea, and has written a lot on it.) Interestingly, they had a pretty hard time getting the paper published, and it now has a huge number of citations.

I use google in similar ways all the time, but most often, perhaps, for looking up words I don't know when I read. It used to be something I found difficult, in part because I'm often reading while moving around and so not near a dictionary. I really like being able to look up unfamiliar words, or people, or places, in readings very quickly. Sadly, my students, who have had smart phones most of their thinking lives, still almost never do this unless asked. Too bad.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ed Barreras, a great passage. Thank you!

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