There is a widespread but unfocused suspicion that something is wrong with universities, and with rigorous scholarship and research in general, but this suspicion has yet to go much beyond exasperated complaints about "political correctness", a sarcastic and unhelpful term, and a demand for more balance and freedom, which is, judging by the results, too nebulous to be useful. It seems obvious that more precision is required in diagnosing the problem before a remedy can be suggested. In this note I suggest that there is an inevitable and undesirable conflict between the processes of intellectual creation and the social institutions that are in most cases required to support them. No absolute solution is likely to be found, and it may be that we must content ourselves with mitigatory measures.

I begin with Quine's description of science as a network of provisional propositions extending from mathematics on the one side to history on the other. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this view is that being a network, and not a system, the propositions are not necessarily consistent one with another (their value is determined within their own domain of application), and that consequently when one or more of these propositions are found wanting, because of new data for example, they can be replaced or new propositions added without causing failure throughout the rest of the network, as would be the case were it a systematic philosophy. Quine's view is itself empirically strong; it corresponds with actual scientific practise at its best, in other words with the observed behaviour of scientists generating propositions (and here and below I use "science" in the maximally broad Quinean sense).

However, this raises the question whether such a network of propositions can ever be an entirely comfortable fit within an organisational structure, governmental and bureaucratic, which is essentially and necessarily systematic. That is to say that though the organisational structure of the university, and behind that the funding body of the state, in our own time, is and must be systematic, otherwise it could not function, this means that it will never be happy with and will actually be to a degree threatened by the rather different properties of the network of propositions that we, following Quine, call science.

Clearly it is not lethally incompatible – much good work is in fact done – but many of the problems around science in the universities, are, on this view, the cumulative outcome of the long-term residence of the scientific network within a systematic institutional, and governmental framework. As time goes on, the requirements of the system will tend to erode the quality of the network. It will erode it not only because it sometimes, though thankfully rarely, insists on the adoption of propositions that are inadequate though systematically convenient, such as those of Lysenko, but much more insidiously because it is subtly inimical to change in the network that will disrupt the systemic organisation of the institution. This opposition need not be strong to be harmful, for the quality of the network of propositions is, as is plain from Quine's description, derived from the rate of changes in the network, deletions, replacements and extensions, in other the words the rate at which it is revised in the light of new data. Even a small degradation in that rate could be, over time, cumulatively harmful.

What can be done about this? The difficulties are real, but one need not despair. For example, measures can be taken to ensure that the rate of propositional deletion and replacement remains high. I think myself that ensuring that the institutional framework is modular, and the modules as small as may be, is an important element. Even Departments may be too large. With that in mind I regret the increasing centrality of the University as opposed to the Colleges, in Cambridge, in Oxford, and elsewhere, and the dwindling number of non-university funded academics. To an extent institutional systems actually recognise this problem, but their response is, typically, to extend the system by creating new elements, new departments or "Centres", to use the administrative jargon, or Graduate Schools. Such attempts are intrinsically difficult – institutional creation by saltation is hazardous – and usually go quite unsupported by the existing system, which is content to let these ventures die a natural death. But in any case the effort doesn't actually address the main problem, which is the frictional effect of the existing systematic institutions. Splitting these institutions into smaller units might work, but it would be very difficult and unpopular, not least because it would disturb the status arrangements of the current staff, eroding differentials. I apologise for raising a topic that tact usually rules out of polite conversation, but in the real world rank and hierarchy matter a very great deal, as we all know.

An alternative, or perhaps a supplement to the departmental fragmentation, would be to encourage the existence of "associations" rather than formal departments. We know from the history of science and scholarship that these have been extremely productive of intellectual change, and many of us will have had positive experience from very lively phases in the existence of Societies composed of researchers interested in a particular area. However, these associations either tend not to last long, in their most valuable phases, or to become systematically institutionalised in order to survive, in which case the disruptive value of the association is diminished.

I wonder also whether much of the conflict between institutional system and intellectual network arises because the network and its operators are often required to contribute so heavily to an educational system. Educators are, quite understandably, reluctant to really engage with the provisionality and fluidity of the outer edge of thought. Whewell, for example, would not allow thermodynamics into the Cambridge tripos in the mid-nineteenth century because it was too advanced and uncertain. I am not saying that Whewell was wrong; not all; institutionally he was almost certainly right. But one cannot help wondering whether exclusion from the Tripos held back intellectual advance outside the lecture hall and supervision. An example might illustrate the point. As a consequence of Whewell's decision, Alfred Marshall's formal instruction in natural sciences was confined to the uncontroversial physics of his day. Doubtless he knew of thermodynamics, but the fact that it did not have the prestige of inclusion in the Tripos meant that it was not second nature to him. I have often wondered if economics might have taken a more productive line if his remarkable gifts had been forced to assimilate at an early age the admittedly provisional work of Clausius and Thomson.

Perhaps in addition to increased modularity within the system it would be worth considering more research positions free of teaching, and more institutions dedicated to research without any obligation to educate, even at the graduate level. This would have the benefit of minimising the degree to which the systematic educational institution feels threatened by fluid research network. I don't say it would be perfect, but it might help.

A further point needs to be guarded against, not because it is at present a problem, but because though safe from the hazard at present there is possibility that the United Kingdom might become exposed to this issue in the medium to longer term, say ten to fifty years. As I noted, even if systemic institutional braking causes only a small reduction in the rate of change in the propositional network this can over time be cumulatively undesirable. Small or medium-sized linguistic groups are at a particular risk of falling behind if they become insulated from the disruptive input of other propositional networks. Such a group would tend to become increasingly systematic in its orientation. Colloquially we would say it was 'inward looking'. Mathematics helps a great deal here – the lack of this common means of conceptual formation is one of the reasons that the humanities are much more vulnerable to institutional or systematic sclerosis – and happily, the United Kingdom is further protected against this problem by the fact that the international natural language of science is English. Indeed, I would cite this fact as one of the reasons why scientific research in the UK has held up so well in spite of many other countervailing difficulties. But this fortunate situation may not endure, and it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of the emergence of an alternative scientific language group, Chinese say, which is large enough to maintain a high rate of change within its network by absorbing corrections from outside but without the trouble of returning the favour. After all, we have witnessed this before; English replaced Latin as the scientific language, and in a somewhat similar circumstances to that obtaining today, with vast economic growth in Great Britain creating a viable new network that quickly surpassed that of Latin. It is incidentally worth noting that economic growth in Britain preceded scientific distinction: there is no crude linear connection between science and wealth, and Terence Kealey is surely on to something there. It is no accident, perhaps, that Bacon, whom Kealey blames for much of popular supposition that science leads to wealth, was a systematic philosopher, a lawyer, and a courtier in systematic status society. Bacon was pulled in two directions, rather as modern universities are, in fact.

With all that in mind, there is a clear need, I think, to keep the British propositional network and its contributors open to the networks of the rest of the world, as they are today. Consequently, I have some sympathy with those who worry that Brexit might reduce international intellectual connections. I think the fear is overstated, and relatively easily tackled, but there certainly is a perception in the rest of the world that Britain wishes to cut itself off. That is wrong, but it needs to be addressed, firstly by ensuring that British scientists travel, and that overseas scientists continue to come to Britain, but also that there is more emphasis placed on modern languages for scientists and indeed for engineers.

In summary, the recommendation is that if our institutions are to be as little inimical to a high rate of propositional change as is possible, there should be smaller and less stable departments, less teaching, more research institutions, particularly non-governmental institutions, more associations formal and informal, and more foreign languages. That is a tall order and it doesn't sound cheap. The question is whether the price is worth paying, and that is essentially a question of economy and political economy.

Finally, these are only mitigatory measures, and will not deliver entirely satisfactory results. In order that systems do not ultimately dominate propositional networks it will be necessary to accept that institutions, subjects, departments, even universities themselves, do not have infinite, valuable lives and do not deserve preservation for their own sakes. They are only a means to an end.

There are thermodynamic limits to knowledge, for in a condition of radiation equilibrium nothing can be known, and thus the thermodynamic state of a system, the universe itself, for example, determines what can in principle be known. This potential is dynamic. What could be known yesterday is not what can be known today. But these variations are of little practical significance to us, since only a tiny fraction of the instantaneous potential for knowledge is actually realised; hardly any of the changes in the universe have consequences elsewhere that amount to the creation of an image, or a reflection. The universe knows almost nothing of itself. Furthermore, the very little that it knows of itself is lost in short order. There is only the smallest chance that a reflection of any state will come into being, and even if it does, that reflection will be quickly disappear. Truth will not out, and it is certainly not eternal.

What is true at the universal level is, naturally enough, also true on earth. Most states of the world and its component pieces pass without notice, and even when noticed are only briefly observed and reflected upon. Who is to say that this is not paradise? To be observed, to be recorded, isn't that what an organism fears most? The bird that ignores you in the garden will quickly become alert and evasive if you fix it with a binocular stare.


There is no evidence whatsoever for a transcendent aspect to music; these are noises, more or less pleasant and more or less interesting, and found in all combinations of those continua. Admirers of music must either content themselves with these humble and entirely parochial values, abandoning any attempt to take credit beyond their own delight, or they must reject music altogether in their disappointment.

Some will feel that Stevenson's claims to the honor of poetic status are slight, that he is a minor poet at best and, in general, only an extremely competent versifier. It is certainly true that his writings, metrical and unmetred, have a low frequency of those passages causing the mind to perceive infinite meaning, the endless reverberations, the "visions" to which Ivor Gurney referred to as characteristic of a poem's "inexplicable significance" (see his letter to Marion Scott, 29th of September 1916). But Gurney, in the same breath, spoke also of the "vistas" of poetry. – "Visions and vistas" was in fact the sequence of his phrase, introducing a distinction that he presumably thought important. We all know about the Visions, the winged touchstones of poetry, but the vistas also serve, standing and waiting. I have myself been hitherto careless of that difference, but now think that it should be taken more seriously. Yes, one must concede, that the readerly experience of a poetic "vista" is closer to coherent and provisionally terminated prosaic reasoning than the experiences that we might term "visions", for vistas are still born of the sublunary landscape, and do not hover above the earth as supernatural annunciations of transcendence. Nevertheless, the focal point is left vague, and the vista peters out into mist and distance, and beyond that more distance still. Enchantment, of a kind, is lent on a very long lease, to the view. Vistas are not visions, but they are nonetheless varieties of mysterious meaning.

Of such effects, Stevenson has a respectable supply, "The Woodman" in Songs of Travel, a meditation on the implications of Darwinism, and consequently a favourite of W. D. Hamilton, being a good example.

The fact, as it seems to me, that they all ring hollow, in the last comparison, should not blind us to the difference.


Recalled inscription to the 1915 Oxford edition of Wordsworth's Tract on Convention of Cintra:

Go, Wordy's prose in Dicey's Ed.,
   Be boring to the last degree;
And when she reads and yawns in bed,
   Exasperated, she will long for me.

Love in the theological, abstract philosophical or moral sense is a synonym for virtue as understood by the rigorists. It is a denial of the self, though encumbered by the inevitable paradox that by supressing its own wishes in order to serve those of another, it reserves one selfish wish for satisfaction, that of being seen to be virtuous or loving, for it is never free of self-advertisement, however gently it protests its mystery.

My doctoral dissertation on Wyndham Lewis has recently been made freely available on the University of Cambridge website:

This thesis follows the public reception of the painting and writings of Wyndham Lewis from his first exhibitions in 1911 through to the publication of Hitler in 1931, and is based on a new checklist of criticism and reviews. The study shows that Lewis monitored his reputation with great care, and that many of his decisions with regard to the deployment and revision of his texts can be seen as conditioned by the short term needs of maintaining a satisfactory public standing. I also suggest that this hampered him in his highly original attempt to find a means to express hatred in a form which could be legitimated and hence guiltless. Chapter One discusses Lewis's early exhibitions and the reception of Blast and argues that the need to appear as a radical force in British painting pushed him towards a manner, abstraction, uncongenial to his aims, and induced him to bury his remarkable writings in a polemical journal. Chapter Two examines the reviews of Tarr and explains the book's commercial failure as one reason for Lewis's attempt to re-establish himself as a painter in 1919-21. The public reception of the Tyro drawings is used to illustrate his failure, and Lewis's sudden decision to turn wholeheartedly to writing is explained as a consequence of this. Chapter Three describes Lewis's twin projects of 1922-24, and their fragmentation in 1925-27. The rehandling of the material is shown to have been unfortunate in that it created a public impression that Lewis was solely a critic. This chapter also proposes that during 1926 Lewis abandoned several of the central planks of "The Man of the World" and began to take on a conservative cast. The publication of The Childermass is described as an abortive attempt to regain public standing as a creative writer. Chapter Four discusses the reception of Paleface in 1929, and reference is made to Lewis's growing interest in questions of race. The Apes of God is described as a final demand for the submissive homage of the reading public. Chapter Five analyses Hitler and shows that the book was widely and correctly understood as a cynical attempt to defend Nazism, and that its content provided alert contemporaries with a key to the Aryanism which had been a substantial component of Lewis's thought since 1926.

The sense of an absolute moral orientation is weakest at the extremes of wealth and income in any society, amongst the richest because they can deploy resources to evade the consequences of any transgression, and amongst the poor because they have little or nothing to lose and much to gain. The strongest sense of moral rectitude, the strongest belief in moral absolutes, is felt by those in the middle of the distribution, since those towards the centre are threatened not only by those at the amoral extremes but also by competition from those immediately above and below them. The middle of the distribution benefits most from moral regulation, and loses least.

But away with crude binning, and the class analysis that it implies. Take any three individuals and arrange them in order of wealth, and the chances are that the central individual will have the strongest sense of objective morality. Put a society's individuals in order of wealth, or arrange them in order of income, or some combination of both, and, in spite of numerous exceptions, it will be found that proximity to the centre of the range is an excellent predictor of the strength of absolute moral adhesions.

Hostility to astrology is disproportional to its historical merits. Yes, contemporary crass, micro-divination is to be despised, but ancient astrologers were simply proto-astronomers, proto-physicalists, aware that the universe at large and components of it must have a causal role in the behaviour of organisms on earth. Who, today, would dispute the role, historical and instantaneous, of the sun in the development of life; who would deny that the gravitational field of the planets is real, though faint. That it is conscious or intentionally directed, we for very good reasons doubt, and here we part from the predominantly animistic astrologers of antiquity whose determination to find personalities in the planets now seems comic (perhaps our tendency to see human behaviour in terms of intentions will look as quaint a thousand years hence).

The sneering modern scientist should actually honour ancient astrology as a worthy ancestor, rather than taking his tune from the Christian church, which was the natural enemy of this quasi-pagan proto-science, with its multiplicity of causal factors, its strange reluctance to find a single will behind all phenomena, more than a hint that it was all an elaborate symbolisation of arbitrary process beyond human understanding, and above all, because it seems to lack any sense of a transcendent morality.

Part of the confusion round "energy as just another input" is that the conception of energy is mistakenly materialised. It is not a substance in itself. Talk of "pure energy" confuses people. Energy is an abstract concept describing the state of the universe and its components, with the relevant state characteristic being the potential for spontaneous change. Low energy states have less potential for further spontaneous change than high energy states, which have considerable potential for such change; and so called "pure energy" is a theoretical concept describing an unlimited potential, never actually observed by us in the current universe, and in fact unobservable since knowledge is only possible where there are energy gradients; in a state of radiation equilibrium nothing can be known.

Thus, energy is not an input at all, since it is not a substance, but a state of all inputs, and the state of such inputs, and their potential for change, is the heart of economic system theory, or should be.