Re-read for Great Books; I remember my dad reading it in the ’70s, and I first picked it up myself in college (maybe another re-read in my 20s or so? not sure). I do think it’s not aged particularly well, but I wasn’t vastly disappointed the way most of the others were.
The contrast between the narrator and his friend John, who doesn’t want to deal with technology, is still fascinating to me (see long quote below). As a hands-one person myself, I resonate so hard with the narrator. But he’s such a jerk to his poor son Chris, who is only ELEVEN! Other book group people were agitated about him taking Chris on the trip because of physical safety – that didn’t bother me, but the lack of emotional safety/support did. And the lack of understanding of a child, expecting him to act like an adult. “He’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes.” The contempt! Ugh.
I did enjoy the reveal of Phaedrus (the narrator’s former self), concluding with “Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phaedrus’ case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society.” It becomes like a detective story. I don’t always agree with Phaedrus, but his observations on science and teaching are fascinating. But I really trip over “Quality” as his primary value – pace Humpty Dumpty, I can’t make it mean what he wants it to mean.
- “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.”
- “Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”
- “Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
- “what old time radio men called a ‘short between the ear-phones,’ failures to use the head properly”
- “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know.”
- “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
- “I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tells you—that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.”
- “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”
- “One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers. They go forging ahead, seeing only their noble, distant goal, and never notice any of the crud and debris they leave behind them. Someone else gets to clean that up and it’s not a very glamorous or interesting job.”
- “That wall in Korea that Phaedrus saw was an act of technology. It was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to ‘stylize’ it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They didn’t separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong.”
- “I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.” (I did not get how “gumption” was connected to Quality – more Humpty Dumpty. But I loved coming across it because it’s a byword on the wonderful Ask a Manager site.)
- “There isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The main difference between you and the commercial mechanics is that when they do it you don’t hear about it—just pay for it, in additional costs prorated through all your bills. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
- “I have heard that there are two kinds of welders: production welders, who don’t like tricky setups and enjoy doing the same thing over and over again; and maintenance welders, who hate it when they have to do the same job twice. The advice was that if you hire a welder make sure which kind he is, because they’re not interchangeable.”
- “The conversation’s pace intrigues me. It isn’t intended to go anywhere, just fill the time of day. I haven’t heard steady slow-paced conversation like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles and great-uncles used to talk like that: on and on and on with no point or purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.”
- “the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good“
- “When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten.”
In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.
But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.
John is horrified at the idea of fixing his motor with a shim from a beer can – this is one of my favorite sections in the whole book:
He was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can! … I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.
In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.
For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it. …
I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?
I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.
The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us—these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road—aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.
The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles—sizes in different piles—grain shapes in different piles—subtypes of grain shapes in different piles—grades of opacity in different piles—and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.
Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.
What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phaedrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.
To understand what he was trying to do it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.
[Phaedrus pursued] a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.
An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don’t like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.
I don’t think the conclusion here is entirely correct, but it’s interesting:
The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
Mu as “no thing,” neither yes nor no:
The dualistic mind tends to think of mu occurrences in nature as a kind of contextual cheating, or irrelevance, but mu is found throughout all scientific investigation, and nature doesn’t cheat, and nature’s answers are never irrelevant. It’s a great mistake, a kind of dishonesty, to sweep nature’s mu answers under the carpet. Recognition and valuation of these answers would do a lot to bring logical theory closer to experimental practice. Every laboratory scientist knows that very often his experimental results provide mu answers to the yes-no questions the experiments were designed for. In these cases he considers the experiment poorly designed, chides himself for stupidity and at best considers the “wasted” experiment which has provided the mu answer to be a kind of wheel-spinning which might help prevent mistakes in the design of future yes-no experiments.
With nuts and bolts you’re in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there’s a point called “finger-tight” where there’s contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there’s “snug,” in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then there’s a range called “tight,” in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. But a person with mechanic’s feel knows when something’s tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly.
In this book I learned about:
- Feininger’s Church of the Minorities