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On the value of double negatives (series: notes to myself)

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I grew up as a classic logician. "Classic", not as in "typical", but as in "logic based on the classic assumptions of the principle of  bivalence  and the law of excluded middle ".  Everything used to be either true or false. If something was not true, then it had to be false, and of course vice-versa: p or not p , nothing else, with not-not p just being equal to p .  Disproving not p was equivalent to proving that p . If you think of it, it is quite a smart but  strange way of reasoning . Like proving that you are healthy by assuming that you are sick, then running a whole series of deductions, showing that they all lead, inevitably and necessarily, to impossible conclusions, and hence inferring that the premise must be false, thus finally concluding that, since you are not sick, you must be healthy after all. The trouble is that you still have no idea about how or in what sense you may be healthy. For related reasons, when I was young, I was not fond

On reading "In Search of Lost Time" (series: notes to myself)

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For a long time now, I’ve been going to sleep late, thinking about reading Proust.   A paraphrasis, of course. But the enterprise has begun. Thanks to a birthday, and a wonderful present from Kia. It takes courage to read In Search of Lost Time . Not for the length of the journey. Admittedly, it is long. The edition I choose is the Italian translation by Giovanni Raboni, probably the best available, with some occasional glimpses of the original French, when I am more curious than lazy. It consists of 1174k words, but no, this is not the problem. The audiobook says that it takes 97-107 hours to read. About 5 seasons of 20 episodes each on Netflix. Totally doable.  What is daunting is the diving into a world so distant in time and yet so intimately, so closely familiar. The relentless, merciless, tireless pursuit of the nuances of human experience, chased at ever more profound levels of scrutiny. Recollections unveiling more recollections, understanding the understanding, showing further

On thinking (series: notes to myself)

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The only drug I know. The most powerful of all. It’s thinking.  The rite begins with the search for silence. Not the absence of sounds. No. Mental silence. That powerful quietude that silences the world. On an airplane or at a meeting, it does not matter. If you know how to create that mental silence, the world may be screaming  at you, and you would still not hear it.  Once open, your mental silence is where ideas can overcome their shyness and begin to whisper, ever so gently. You left sweet readings to attract them, tempting conversations to make them feel at home, comfortable bits of learning so that they can rest. They may accept your invitation, if you are gentle. The sharp ear must be patient. Whitish lights appear in the grey area prepared to welcome them. You have to let the fragile points become luminous lines of significance and consequence. They may leave at the smallest sign of impatience. No abrupt movement of reason, no logical shouting.  You may invite ideas, but you ca

On the fatigue (not the treachery) of images (series: notes to myself)

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A pipe and its identity. A naked man, sitting on an uncomfortable rock. Another naked man, whose hand God seems desperate to reach. Another man, also naked, watching you, arms and legs spread like a gigantic X. Still another man, this time dressed, turned, watching a foggy landscape. And now many men, dressed like it’s a toga party, all together in an impossible meeting of fine minds. Just one more, of invisible people, probably men, probably dressed, on tiny boats, being crushed by a gigantic wave. The list goes on. Famous images, which even a few, clumsy words cannot fail to sketch, recalling them in anyone's mind. These images, and the countless others that have been cheaped by the digital revolution of high resolution and copyright-free downloads, are tired. Not tired of being themselves. Of course not. For they are proud of their lineage, of the depth of their meaningfulness, of the richness of their cultural references, of the thickness of their historical relations. No. They

On academic writing and its mannerisms (series: notes to myself)

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Academic writing is a linguistic genre. And each academic discipline has its own style of writing. Just browse any decent, peer-reviewed journal. You will notice that the structure, the syntax, the words, the phrases all belong to a canon. Graduate students pick it up as they write their essays, and chapters, and theses. By the time one is out of the last stage of education one thinks it is natural to write in that way, that it is the only way to write scientifically, that everybody in the scholarly or scientific business of producing some text writes that way. Of course, that is not true. Each discipline has its own sedimented ways of conveying its contents.  Sometimes, a genius realises this and starts alerting the world that scientific articles are just texts like any other. It is just language, and not even that, it is someone's hegemonic language, whose intentions need to be deconstructed, psychoanalysed, socio-politically challenged. It is tyring to explain to the genius that

On the crucial importance of "still" and its value (series: notes to myself)

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It is never clear when you change age. Not the birthday, silly. But the big transition from one block to the next. The stepping stones, that's what I'm talking about: child, teenager, young grown-up, adult, middle-aged, old... that sort of huge steps. All fuzzy and quite relative. Like crossing a border between two countries but realising it only hundreds of miles later, when the surroundings have finally, visibly changed. Not easy. And yet, there is a little word that I notice can help. Still . Not the adjective, as in "the night was still", but the adverb, as in "he still takes stairs two at a time" like Giovanni Drogo . How appropriate. An adverb that modifies a verb. A second-order reflection on a first-order event, or action, or behaviour. And it tells you what has happened to that modified referent, as you crossed the border. You are (if you ever were) still  this or that. You are still in love or still passionate about your job. You still like to t

On choosing a new book for the nights (series: notes to myself)

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The work of an academic: read, write, speak. By oneself. With others. Privately or in public.  Three kinds of actions, no different from any other job today. But as life progresses, some success leads one to read less and write more, and then speak more than one writes. The successful academic becomes a speaker, perhaps a keynote speaker. From being an academic to being a dubious guru of some sort, blathering about anything, opinionating on everything, the escalation is quick, the risk of repetitive emptiness becomes a reality.  So, you know that you have to withstand the current, resist the temptation, avoid the easy path. Speak less, write less, read more.   Read more, but not of what must be read: the report, the thesis, the article to review, the draft to correct, the data analysis needed for the next piece of work, the text of some regulation, the commentary of an expert, an excellent op-ed unmissable, the dailies and the weeklies, the peer-reviewed paper, the academic monograph,

On those on top of the Gaussian (series: notes to myself)

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This is a Gaussian curve . It is an elegant, bell-shaped curve that shows a normal distribution. The equation that generates it can be a bit off-putting. But when you look at it, you can immediately see that there are fewer things on the left, fewer things on the right, and many things in the middle. Take, for example, people and their moral lives. Very bad and very good people are rare, and that’s why the curve starts and ends so low: devils on the left and saints on the right. In the middle, you find most of us, just poor devils and decent sinners, who sometimes err and sometimes do the right thing. We are legions, and we are in the bulk of the Gaussian. Because virtue is in the middle – in medio stat virtus , as they say – only when left and right of the Gaussian are extreme excesses, not when it comes to how many people exercise virtues successfully. Shift from moral to intellectual achievements, and the story is not very different, but with a twist. Many so-called meritocratic sys

On Philosophy's envy of her four sisters (series: notes to myself)

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Philosophy has four sisters: Mathematics, Poetry, Religion, and Science. She envies all of them. She would like to be as powerfully abstract, and rigorously demonstrative, and practically useful, and timeless ... as she believes Mathematics to be. But failing, she ends up calculating the qualitative, formalising the undefinable, inferring the trivial, and missing the obvious: useless, empty, self-referential. She would like to be as delicately perceptive, and existentially fine-tuned, and meaningfully profound, and experientially rich ... as she believes Poetry to be. But failing, she ends up blathering obscure intuitions, prophesying in an esoteric language, playing with words while disrespecting facts and reasonings, obsessed with invented etymologies but oblivious of actual meanings: unhinged, nonsensical, unaccountable. She would like to be as methodologically driven, and systematically explanatory, and epistemically foundational, and progressively cumulative ... as she believes

On bad and wrong ideas as compost (series: notes to myself)

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Roses need compost, a mixture of ingredients used to fertilize and improve the soil. So do good ideas: they grow better with some semantic compost. Wrong hypotheses and failed experiments; fallacies and non-sequitur; cliche, imitations, commonplaces, and boilerplates; half-baked ideas, wrong ideas, and just silly ideas; nasty dogma and deeply-rooted superstitions; recurrent mistakes and plain errors; the trash and the kitsch; the inevitable confusions, delusions and illusions; untenable ideologies and falsified theories; unjustifiable beliefs, irrational convictions, false views... this is all semantic compost obtained by decomposing and recycling our mental waste, wherever it grows: in the arts and humanities, communications, cultures, laws, procedures and techniques, religions, sciences and STEM of all kinds... We constantly produce a boundless amount of semantic waste. It is not useless, but a resource that contains the beneficial elements that can help the next generation to unders

On those who fail, but criticise the problems, not their solutions (series: notes to myself)

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I have met many people unable to accept, let alone admit, that they were ever wrong or might have made a mistake. The fault is always something else's or someone else's. Others were wrong:  they failed to comply; they mismanaged something or misunderstood something else; they were late, or delayed them; they did not get it, or did not understand; they did not write or did not reply, did not receive it or did not send it. They , not themselves. I call them hetero-blamers, with an inverted reference to Kant's heteronomy of reason. For the hetero-blamers of the world, it is always circumstances or people that did not work. When their solution fails, it is the problem's fault. Some people are naturally born hetero-blamers. They use the same, simple, counterfactual mechanism we all deploy, at least occasionally, to protect our skins from our failures: "I could have, ... I would have ... if only...". But they apply it not just to what they fail to achieve - as

On the need to be exposed and the beginning of philosophy (series: notes to myself)

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To be exposed.  To perceive something in such a way as to be affected, painfully, by what is imposing itself on one’s own perception, because of its barely bearable presence or absence.  The boundless blue of space and time, beyond the dark trees, in a lately lightful evening.  The unlimited blackness of nothingness, harmless, beyond your exiled existence.  The endless green intricacies of malleable meanings, latching onto each other, beyond themselves.  The bottomless whiteness of hollow horrors we inflict upon ourselves, beyond understanding.  Being exposed to all this and more precedes wonder ( thaumazein ). And protecting oneself from this exposure prevents wonder.  The mind does not bear too much exposure.  There is a reason why we prefer to linger in the darkness.  The cave is refreshing .  We do not wish to be blinded by the light outside, skin burning under the sun.  Still, a life unexposed cannot be a life lived philosophically.  So, philosophy begins in maieutic pain . It all

On books that I shall not write (series: notes to myself) - version 2

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There are books I may write.  Others I should, because I want to finish those drafts, before I die.  But some will remain forever notes, no more than titles on empty folders. A book on inconsistencies and whether Dolet dies in two different ways in Yourcenar's  The Abyss ( L'Oeuvre au Noir , Paris: Gallimard, 1968): p. 151: Dolet ... mon libraire ... il n'ent pas l'occasion d'essayer de ma dragée, s'étant fait dépecher à Venise dans une ruelle obscure par le meme spadassin qui l'avait manqué en France. p. 185: Depuis qu' E'tienne Dolet, san premier libraire, avait été étranglé et geté au feu pour opinions subversives, Zénon n'avait plus publié en France. A book on invisible objects and Roland Barthes missing the third soldier in the picture from Nicaragua: "9 [...] a ruined street, two [but there are 3 in the picture reproduced above] helmeted soldiers on patrol; behind them two nuns." Camera Lucida - Reflections on photography , Vin

On the importance of being absent (series: notes to myself)

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There is a quiet space, inside your mind, where facts, and reasonings, and sensible ideas, are expected to prevail. There, they grow undisturbed, duly attended. There, details matter, meaning is essential, logic applies, noise is unwelcome.  It is an hortus conclusus , the walls of which have been built through decades of carefully honed distraction, deeply-acquired habits of hardened indifference, and willful rejection of pleasant whispers. That quiet space is not natural. But it was already a naturally protected corner of your solitude.  A promising spot in a gentle valley, where the winds of chatting voices always struggled to reach, hollow concerns never had strong roots, fashionable trends were usually a rare and short season.  It took efforts to build the protections. Distance from people. Some readings, chosen. Thoughts shaped and reshaped like pebbles in the river of doubt. Feelings, but only the robust ones, that could cement the unfelt. These and other heavy stones are now sh

On the expression "not necessarily" (series: notes to myself)

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I have a smart colleague who, when he disagrees about something, likes to premise his objection with a "Not necessarily".  He is not a logician, a mathematician, or a serious philosopher (the hilarious ones use the expression "not necessarily" as he does,  ad libitum ). He is a scholar of great learning and of subtle views. Yet he deploys the expression with an attitude so cavalier that, no matter whether he might actually have a point, it grates on my rational nerves. Painfully. Because the clause gives a whiff of credibility to anything that follows, when in fact it is almost inevitably mere rhetoric, and of the pretentious kind to boot. Say you argue that Brexit is a disaster, or that true AI of the Hollywood kind is not going to happen. "Non necessarily..." he may reply. And of course, he is right. Brexit is not necessarily a disaster, not in the same sense in which a triangle has necessarily three sides. But a disaster it is nonetheless. Patently, ob

On "yes, but..." (series: notes to myself)

“I have not read [insert here your choice of document: article, comment, book, blog, reply, etc.] but …”. THAT “but”, those 3 precious letters …  that is your last chance to keep quiet and not behave like a fool. Stop on the “but”. It's like a red light.   Hit the break. Think. Not twice, but for once. Use that little, last spark of awareness judiciously and …  read the damn document first, before blathering about nothing, for BUT sake! PS  Not stopping at the BUT is linked to the bad linguistic habit of " howevering ". 

On writing and the importance of knowing when the flowers bloom (series: notes to myself)

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Once upon a time, in Rome, during one of those pretentious, boring, self-aggrandising dinners (salotto) among “intellectuals” competing to show who had read, or watched, or listened, or met, or visited more and better this or that, I was quietly trying to keep inside my own mind when I was asked, rather abruptly, by a famous Italian writer, why I did not write myself.  He knew me as a philosopher.  I replied, trying to be nice but coming out as abrasive as I did not mean and yet wished, that it was because I had no idea about which flowers bloom when.  He looked at me a bit puzzled.  I realised we did not share the same readings, so I told him it was - in my view a very funny (philosophers’ jokes are a joke) - reference to Proust, and his famous description of the student who had failed to write a decent philosophical essay.  The room went quiet, but luckily the garrulous host, spiritually empty in her soul, as I still had to discover, yet sharply witty in her mind, by which I used to

On the importance of being pedantic (series: notes to myself)

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They say that to call someone pedantic is an insult. I'm not so sure. True, someone pedantic is obsessed with minor details, small errors, or tiny imperfections. And a pedantic is also someone who cares too much about all such things not to let you know about them, advising or correcting, disagreeing or disapproving. And yes, if you are a pedant, you are more than just occasionally pedantic. This can happen to anybody, the excessive emphasis on some narrow or boring detail being a tendency we all share when it comes to matters about which we care very much. But if you are a pedant, being pedantic is your daily stance, your intrinsic nature, your way of living. You are always, consistently, reliably, systematically pedantic, from the moment you wake up, about the exact place where the slippers should be next to your bed, all the way to the moment you go to sleep, and the exact place where the phone should be placed to recharge. If you are a true pedant, no detail is too trivial, no

On the pleasure of knowing that someone knows or In praise of Wikipedia for its 20th birthday (series: notes to myself)

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Too much has been said about the love for knowledge, a beautiful lie spread by our wonderful Greeks (Aristotle, Metaphysics , first line : "all men by nature desire to know". As if... ).   There is some truth in the pleasure to know, this much is safe to assume. Not only for its own sake, in the sense that the pleasure to know would be the same even if you were the only person left on earth, like the pleasure of eating chocolate, undiminished even by a third world war and our own self-annihilation. But also in terms of reassurance, as when you know why something has happened, or what is going to happen.  However, there is another pleasure, concerning knowledge, which I believe may have escaped the Epicurean's attention, the hedonist's sensitivity, or the libertine's desire. It is the pleasure to know that someone knows , even if you don't. Dates, facts, and formulae; equations, events, battles, and experiments; poems and their interpreters; the deeds of forgot

On not getting it (series: notes to myself)

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"You are not getting it!" you shout in our mind, thinking in CAPITALS.  And this is a fact. It's the reality. It's how the world is. You are right, and he... well, he is not getting it. End of the story. Nothing else to say. It has to happen sometimes. I mean, that you are right. And it does happen, sometimes, that you are right and he is not getting it.  And so, this is the message you should send, simple and honest: "look, you are not getting it, let me tell you how it is ...". And then you try to explain it again. Perhaps slowly, or with different words. Because the plank in front of you is thick. Maybe an analogy (too many analogies, I know, I know...), "look, it's like when ...", or a metaphor, "look, imagine ...".  But no.  Coward.  What you say instead is "sorry, I did not make myself clear".  What? Not true! You didn't didn't! You did (do I need to explain?). You were as clear as the glass which that fly of a

On the art of biting one's own tongue (series: notes to myself)

The art of biting one's own tongue consists in the ability not to engage when someone says something unpleasant, untrue, malicious, or abusive about you. Instead of answering a biased question, arguing against a ludicrous opinion, complaining about an abusive message, correcting a meaningless error, countering a fallacy, explaining a patent mistake, objecting to a groundless criticism, rectifying a willful misrepresentation, rejecting an insinuation, responding to a provocation, retorting to a nasty remark, replying to an offensive allegation, … in short, instead of engaging with your mindless interlocutors you simply ignore them and do absolutely nothing, not even acknowledging that you might have received their communication, not even sharing a “no comment”, just silence. As far as they know, you might have never got the email, read the tweet or the Facebook comment, seen the Instagram picture. If you bite your own tongue appropriately, for them their communication might have nev