ARISTOTLE'S ERROR: Badly in need of a new gestalt!


Our own non-rational actors:
We well recall our own first exposure to the wonders of Aristotle, the western world's first great logician.

It was the fall of 1965. We were sitting in Lowell Lecture Hall, enrolled in Humanities 5, Harvard's "Introduction to Everyone" course.

Five hundred youngsters sat in 500 seats, scribbling 500 sets of notes. We wondered why they didn't just mimeograph the lecture and pass the darn thing out.

We also took the price of tuition and multiplied by 500. Decades later, the historian Michael Dolan described the rumination which took place even as the late Rogers Albritton lectured:
DOLAN (2/17/95): Scratching lecture notes in huge hall after huge hall, he counted the house and multiplied by the tuition to see how well Harvard was doing. Harvard was doing well.
Where was all that money going? Inquiring minds wanted to know!

We'll admit that, as it turned out, we never reviewed our lecture notes when that first semester ended. We'll further admit that, to this very day, we have no idea why you'd take a bunch of college freshmen and makes them listen to hour-long lectures about what Aristotle wrote.

Is is true that Aristotle's "philosophy," if we want to presume that there is such a critter, "continues to be central to the contemporary philosophical discussion?" (For background, see yesterday's report.)

That assertion can be true only if some such "contemporary discussion" exists! We'll continue exploring such ponderables, even returning to that lecture hall and its inhabitants and its environs, as this new year seems to move along.

The year will run beneath an award-winning banner: "Aristotle's error." Yesterday, additional evidence of the logician's famous error did in fact swim into view. We'll start with yesterday's post by Zak Cheney-Rice, a youngish writer at New York magazine whom we've never met.

Cheney-Rice was discussing the same New York Times report to which we ourselves linked in yesterday's report. We thought of Nestor's statement to Diomedes when Cheney-Rice discussed Mayor de Blasio's attempts to "integrate" New York City's eight high-powered high schools.
CHENEY-RICE (2/7/19): Bill de Blasio’s efforts to integrate New York City’s specialized public high schools are in limbo at the moment, pending legal challenges and resistance from parents of current students. The New York Times took the opportunity on Wednesday to publish a series of interviews with Asian-American alumni regarding the mayor’s hotly debated proposals.

One response in particular stands out: that of Soo Kim, who graduated Stuyvesant High School in 1993, attended Princeton University, and is now president of Stuyvesant’s alumni association. Kim opposes the mayor’s plan—which includes a more inclusive admissions process that I will describe in greater detail later—but his take on the conversation about race and segregation that surrounds it is also worth a closer look.

“How is this possible, that people are saying we’re segregated, we’re Jim Crow,” Kim told the Times. “These words are too harsh. It makes me feel like I’m a bad person.”

This is a striking and revelatory assessment of what’s happening.
Cheny-Rice proceeded to scold Soo Kim. We'll pose a couple of questions:

Are New York City's public schools actually "segregated" at the present time? Are New York City's eight high-powered, "specialized" high schools "segregated?"

Borrowing from a previous president, it all depends on what the meaning of "segregated" is! That said, new definitions of this heavily fraught historical term—new definitions which have been churned by a generation of our own tribe's propagandists—are deeply pleasing, at this time, within our own liberal tribe.

The new definitions provide lots of heat but offer much less light. Meanwhile, Cheney-Rice again slid past the obvious question about de Blasio's plan for those eight high-powered high schools:

If lots more kids would be able to benefit from high-powered high school instruction, why doesn't New York City create additional high-powered seats at an array of high-powered high schools, including the eight which exist?

Rather than ask this obvious question, our tribe likes to locate the racists. As we do, we never present the data shown below. These data define the modern version of "the problem we all live with:"
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2017 Naep
New York City Public Schools

White students: 290.71
Black students: 255.63
Hispanic students: 263.56
Asian-American students: 306.03
For all Naep data, start here.

Applying a standard, very rough rule of thumb, the achievement gaps defined by those data are horrendous, vast. That said, liberal intellectuals of the present day will also have standard ways to explain that state of affairs, built from the kinds of data our intellectuals can explore from the comfort of their Westwood offices or from their nearby homes.

We love the fighting and the name-calling; we rarely offer full ranges of facts. Can Aristotle's formulation about "rational animals," at least as it's widely understood, possibly explain this behavior by our own self-impressed, war-like tribe?

Our modern self-impressed liberal tribe loves to hunt the racists! For ourselves, we think of what noble Nestor so thoughtfully said, as caught on tape by Homer:

"...but you reach no useful end."

How might those gruesome achievement gaps get closed in New York? In New York magazine, simply put, that question doesn't arise.

Aristotle's error came to mind a second time when we read Catherine Rampell's new column in the Washington Post. Let's think about something Rampell explicitly says, and about something which gets omitted.

Rampell's column deals with the per capita cost of American health care. More specifically, she discusses the per capita cost of America health care "among Medicare beneficiaries," or perhaps among "the elderly" in general, though that term goes undefined.

On line, though not in print editions, the column contains a graphic which sets the cost of "per-capita health care spending for the elderly" at $18,555 in 2015.

(Full disclosure! That figure is said to have been "adjusted to 2010 dollars using the gross domestic product deflator." In this situation, we don't understand that statement. Then again, neither does anyone else reading the Washington Post.)

At any rate, we're given a figure for health care spending on "the elderly" here in the U.S. Here are the figures we didn't get—the figures we will never get in the Washington Post:
Per-capita health care spending for the elderly, 2015
United States: $18,555
France: —
Germany: —
United Kingdom: —
Canada: —
Australia: —
Japan: —
Simply put, you'll never see the comparable figures from those roughly comparable nations. Dearest darlings, use your heads! In this most rational of all possible worlds, it simply isn't done!

The amazingly high rate of health care spending in the U.S. affects a wide array of major policy matters. But major newspapers like the Post will never show you the amazing international data which define the "the problem we all live [and die] with" in this crucial area.

Simply put, it isn't done—and Rachel and Lawrence and all the hacks agree that they mustn't tell you. Would "rational animals" function this way? Or is Aristotle's famous statement, as understood, possibly an error?

The sheer stupidity of our public discourse has been astounding for decades now. We began planning this site in the fall of 1997 because we couldn't take it any more.

From that day to this, the rational animals within our upper-end "mainstream press corps" have focused on wardrobe, hair styles and body language, and of course on who BLEEPed whom back in 2006. Within our own pseudo-liberal tribe, we focus on chasing the racists all over town while ignoring the groaning problems low-income children, and their parents, are all required to live with.

Lounging in their quarters in Westwood, our academics redefine highly-charged terms, the better to posture with. For ourselves, we're glad that Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, isn't around to see this.

Since roughly forever, we humans, at least in the western world, have told ourselves that we were made in God's image and that we're rational animals. Darwin said this wasn't quite right. In his own way, the later Wittgenstein said goodbye to all this too.

Which part of no don't our journalists and our elite logicians understand? However you choose to answer that, it's time for a new paradigm.

Next week, we'll move from Aristotle's historic error to what Professor Harari has said. And no, you won't have to take any notes. You can push CTRL and P. You can just print it on out!

Next week: "Man [sic] is the rational animal?" Harari says no to all that!


  1. "Simply put, it isn't done—and Rachel and Lawrence and all the hacks agree that they mustn't tell you."

    Meh. The presenters, like Rachel and Lawrence, will say whatever establishment high-priests tell them to say.

    The overton window is not maintained by these clowns.

  2. "We wondered why they didn't just mimeograph the lecture and pass the darn thing out."

    "We'll further admit that, to this very day, we have no idea why you'd take a bunch of college freshmen and makes them listen to hour-long lectures about what Aristotle wrote."

    It astonishes me that a former educator would not understand the purpose of education.

    First, I'll explain why students take notes and don't just read mimeographed copies of the lecture.

    When you read or listen to something, it is a passive activity. Unless you think about what you are reading or hearing, it doesn't become part of your memory and no learning occurs. You cannot just tell students "think about what you are hearing" because they won't know how to do that or what you are asking them to do. Instead, you ask them to write down the most important parts of what they are hearing, the key points, the parts that will be needed later to pass an exam. That forces the student to evaluate what is important and what is not and to phrase it in their own words, more concisely than stated in the lecture itself (because there isn't time to trascribe the lecture word-for-word). That act of sifting the wheat from the chaff will cause some of what is heard to become part of the student's long term memory. Presumably, studying for an exam will take this a step further, as the student asks himself questions and tries to reorganize the material to understand it fully. (Somerby appears to have skipped this step.)

    Why are students asked to learn esoteric stuff, such as Aristotle's views? It is part of acquiring cultural literacy. Later, when you read something else that refers to Aristotle, you will be able to recognize the reference and know what is being talked about. If you go on in philosophy, Aristotle is foundational and will be encountered repeatedly, but in past centuries, references to Aristotle might turn up in political writing, biographies, histories and other places because everyone learned about him and his ideas were handy ways to communicate shared understanding, at least among upper class people with a classical liberal arts education (such as Harvard delivers). Aristotle would be a shared reference. The job of Harvard is to provide exposure to the shared reference that constitutes Western culture. So that a person can read and understand the wide variety of materials he or she will encounter in later life.

    When I was a child, I read Dickens and Jane Eyre and similar books. They frequently had sentences in French because educated people in the 1800s and 1900s routinely learned French and could read it. I had to look up those sentences if I wanted to know what was being referred to. I suspect most people just skip them, but I wanted to know. Similarly, when I was growing up, there were jokes in movies about reading War and Peace at the beach and never finishing it. I didn't understand these until I read War and Peace myself and encountered the repetitive descriptions of battles and Russian politics. Boring unless you want to understand historical Russian bureaucracy and how it predated Communism in the time of the Tsars. But War and Peace was a cultural reference, a shared joke and big books (before Harry Potter).

    Somerby's questions are shared by most college freshmen. But he was supposed to grow out of that attitude as he became more aware of the world of ideas and literature and was exposed to different people and cultures. It is not Harvard's fault if he was incurious and lazy.

  3. "From that day to this, the rational animals within our upper-end "mainstream press corps" have focused on wardrobe, hair styles and body language, and of course on who BLEEPed whom back in 2006."

    From this sentence, you'd think the NY Times were the National Enquirer!

  4. In classrooms today, the techniques have shifted from taking notes to active discussion, with participation part of the grade. That is because note-taking services provided such print-outs of lectures depriving students of the experience of actively digesting the lecture themselves. To force mental activity, discussions require students to talk about readings or "prompts" and to respond to each others' ideas. What is said by the students is rarely profound and often mistaken, but it gets the students thinking about the material. Without that thinking, there is no learning. That's why you can't just print out the lecture and hand it to the students.

    Somerby should know this. Why doesn't he? Was he really that bad a teacher? It is sounding like his only function was babysitting those beautiful black kids who surely deserved better.

    If you start with the premise that humans are not rational, maybe that leads to the conclusion that they cannot learn either. If so, that may be a massive rationalization for his classroom failures, projected onto the kids and the rest of humanity. But this is too easily refuted because we each know from our own experience that we reason and learn. So why is Somerby trying to tell us we do not?

    I have no answer to that, so I'll just conclude that he is a major asshole. Even in the New Year.

  5. I have never heard of these so-called “specialized high schools” in New York City. Perhaps the Howler will have a tiny bit to say on this fascinating subject going forward.

  6. Please tell us more about the self-impressed war-like liberals. I’m a Trump voter, but very open-minded. I don’t hate liberals, for example. But I’m intrigued by the insights of liberal Bob Somerby. I’m definitely all ears.

  7. Somerby loves to invent columns that op-Ed writers didn’t write, and criticize them for it.

    Rampell’s perfectly reasonable column is about the claim that healthcare spending on the elderly rose far less than predicted because “researchers calculated that more than half of the elderly spending slowdown was because of slower spending on cardiovascular diseases and conditions.”

    Apparently, preventive care was a driving factor here.

    At least, that was the result of a study by a team of researchers. Of course, the study was led by a Harvard economics professor. And we Howler readers know what that means!

    But, apparently, every op-Ed about health care spending is pointless if it doesn’t include Somerby’s pet statistics.

  8. “to this very day, we have no idea why you'd take a bunch of college freshmen and makes them listen to hour-long lectures about what Aristotle wrote.”

    Yes. “Western” canon and all that. Bah humbug. They should all go to trade school.

    And after that useless introduction to the Great Thinkers like Aristotle (LOL!), what idiot would decide to be a philosophy major??

  9. Lots of trolls with too much time on their hands. Including Somerby.

    1. Trolls get what they deserve.

  10. Soo Kim graduated in 1993. Today is 2018. You do the math. Why are they asking him about today's schools and their policies?

    Psychologically, it takes a % of about 35% before people stop feeling like a minority group in a neighborhood or workplace, or presumably a school. Soo Kim was a student and that is his only expertise. He is depending on memory. How is his statement worth being quoted? It represents his feelings about the situation and nothing else.

    1. Read the article maybe?

      “Mr. Kim, a mediocre middle school student who was often in trouble, Stuyvesant, from which he graduated in 1993, was a life raft. Now, as the president of Stuyvesant’s alumni organization, an advocacy group with deep ties to politicians, he has one of the most powerful voices in the debate about specialized school admissions.”

      Again: he is “president of Stuyvesant’s alumni organization.”

    2. And, to be clear, 1:11, Stuyvesant is one of the specialized high schools.

  11. ‘That figure is said to have been "adjusted to 2010 dollars using the gross domestic product deflator." In this situation, we don't understand that statement. Then again, neither does anyone else reading the Washington Post.’

    So, here are the results of my painful 5 second search of the internet to find the meaning of “gross domestic product deflator.”:

    Why can’t we just use statistics like Bob wants without all the carefully accurate “statistical” mumbo-jumbo that explains exactly how statisticians derived the numbers?

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  13. Bob's first principle is basically that racism doesn't exist in a meaningful form anymore, so he gets confused doing analysis of institutions and falls back on "people are stupid."