Witold Gombrowicz

An idea is and always will be a screen behind which are other and more important issues. An idea is a pretext, an auxiliary tool.  Thought torn away from human reality is something majestic and splendid, but diluted in a mass of passionate and insufficient beings becomes nothing more than commotion. I am bored by stupid discussions. By the quadrille of argumentation. The insolent carrying on of intellectuals. The empty formulas of philosophy. Our conversations would be great, ah, yes, full of logic, discipline, erudition, method, precision. They would be fundamental, momentous, profound, innovative, if they were not taking place twenty stories above us. ….

I practically do not listen at all anymore to the meaning of the words, I listen only to how they are said.  I demand only that man not allow himself to be duped by his own words of wisdom, that his worldview not take away his common sense, that his doctrine not deprive him of his humanity, that his system not stiffen and mechanize him, and that his philosophy not make him a dullard.  I live in a world that still feeds on systems, ideas, doctrines, but the symptoms of indigestibility are clearer and clearer, the patient has already gotten the hiccups.

from Diary: Volume One.  Northwestern University Press, 1988. Page 29.

John Dewey

We tend to judge others by ourselves, and because scientific and philosophic books are composed by men in whom the reasonable, logical and objective habit of mind predominates, a similar rationality has been attributed by them to the average and ordinary man.  It is then overlooked that both rationality and irrationality are largely irrelevant and episodical in undisciplined human nature; that men are governed by memory rather than by thought, and that memory is not a remembering of actual facts, but is association, suggestion, dramatic fancy. The standard used to measure the value of the suggestions that spring up in the mind is not congruity with fact but emotional congeniality.  Do they stimulate and reinforce feeling, and fit into the dramatic tale? Are they consonant with the prevailing mood, and can they be rendered into the traditional hopes and fears of the community:? If we are willing to take the word dreams with a certain liberality, it is hardly too much to say that man, save in his occasional times of actual work and struggle, lives in a world of dreams, rather than of fact, and a world of dreams that is organized about desires whose success and frustration form its stuff.

from Reconstruction in Philosophy (Beacon Press, 1948) page 7.

Charles MacKay

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”


in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, preface to the 1852 edition

Samuel Johnson

We set out on a tempestuous sea, in quest of some port, where we expect to find rest, but where we are not sure of admission; we are not only in danger of sinking in the way, but of being misled by meteors mistaken for stars, of being driven from our course by the changes of the wind, and of losing it by unskilful steerage; yet it sometimes happens, that cross winds blow us to a safer coast, that meteors draw us aside from whirlpools, and that negligence or error contributes to our escape from mischiefs to which a direct course would have exposed us.  Of those that by precipitate conclusions, involve themselves in calamities without guilt, very few, however they may reproach themselves, can be certain that other measures would have been more successful.


from The Rambler no. 188

John Keats

Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour and thus by every germ of spirit sucking the sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furze and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees!

in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated February 19th, 1818.

T.W. Adorno

An artist who still deserves the name should proclaim nothing, not even humanism.  He should not yield to any pressure of the ever more overwhelming social organizations of our time but should express, in full command of the meaning and potentialities of today’s processes of rationalization, that human existence led under its command is not a human one.  The humane survives today only where it is ready to challenge, by its very appearance and its determined irreconcilability, the dictate of the present man-made but merciless world.

M.L. King

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.  Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.  We must speak out with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Joseph Epstein

Most people today prefer to spend their lives gathering more and more information. This plethora, this plague of information, now available to all—to what, precisely, does it lead? The best I can see, it leads to two things: the illusion that one understands the world, and the formation of opinions, countless opinions, opinions on everything. Opinions are well enough, sometimes even required; but I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V.S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: “She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.


Joseph Epstein in the March 20 edition of the Weekly Standard

Paul Valery (2)

But I shall look into myself.  There I  shall seek my real difficulties and my actual observations of my real states; there I shall find my own sense of the rational and the irrational; I shall see whether the alleged antithesis exists and how it exists in a living condition.  I confess that it is my habit, when dealing with problems of the mind, to distinguish between those which I might have invented and which represent a need truly felt by my mind, and the rest, which are other people’s problems. Of the latter, more than one (say forty per cent) seem to me to be nonexistent, to be no more than apparent problems: I do not feel them. And as for the rest, more than one (say forty per cent) seem to me to be badly stated…. I do not say I am right. I say that I observe what occurs within myself when I attempt to replace the verbal formulas by values and meanings that are nonverbal, that are independent of the language used. I discover naive impulses and images, raw products of my needs and of my personal experiences.  It is my life itself that is surprised, and my life must, if it can, provide my answers, for it is only in the reactions of our life that the full force, and as it were the necessity, of our truth can reside.

From “Poetry and Abstract Thought” in Paul Valery: An Anthology.  James Lawler, editor. (Bollingen, 1977) pages 140-141.

Paul Valery

For my part I have the strange and dangerous habit, in every subject, of wanting to begin at the beginning (that is, at my own beginning), which entails beginning again, going back over the whole road, just as though many others had not already mapped and traveled it. . . .

This is the road offered to us, or imposed on us, by language.

With every question, before making any deep examination of the content, I take a look at the language; I generally proceed like a surgeon who sterilizes his hands and prepares the area to be operated on. This is what I call cleaning up the verbal situation. You must excuse this expression equating the words and forms of speech with the hands and instruments of a surgeon.

I maintain that we must be careful of a problem’s first contact with our minds. We should be careful of the first words a question utters in our mind. A new question arising in us is in a state of infancy; it stammers; it finds only strange terms, loaded with adventitious values and associations; it is forced to borrow these. But it thereby insensibly deflects our true need. Without realizing it we desert our original problem, and in the end we shall come to believe that we have chosen an opinion wholly our own, forgetting that our choice was exercised only on a mass of opinions that are the more or less blind work of other men and of chance.

from “Poetry and Abstract Thought