Letters - Spring 2009

Response to Our Winter Issue

By Our Readers | March 1, 2009

Casuality and Contingency

John Lukacs’s article in your Winter 2009 issue purports to enhance the readers’ knowl­edge of the method­ologies of history and science by demon­strating that both rely on subjectivity. The area allowed for subjectivity in science, however, is much more constricted than in history. The key to his confusion is that he has overlooked Kahn’s concept of the paradigm, which limits subjectivity to the choice of the paradigm within which one works. Thereafter the scientist must conform to the scientific method accepted by that paradigm as that method is laid out by his peers.

Scientists in a particular field recognize that they are adherents of a chosen paradigm by which they are evaluated professionally. The articles the scientist presents for publication will be judged by peers. The peer group examines among other things the “events” considered in tracing causality.

The various paradigms work with different laws of causality: chaos, deterministic chaos, multiple factors subject to parameters, multiple factors within universal parameters, time sequence, and single causes. Micro­economics uses only a single cause, the search for utility, while behavioral economics explains events with the help of psychology and neuro­science, which rely on the multiplicity of brain functions.

In contrast with the causal analysis of the natural and social sciences, the historian is permitted more latitude; for example, he or she often suffices with chronology, or reliance on contingency (i.e., for want of a nail, a shoe was lost). Thus, subjectivity is much looser in writing history.

Monroe Burk
Columbia, Maryland

Savage Legacy

John Tirman, citing Richard Slotkin, writes of a “morally cleansing series of ‘savage wars’ that conveyed upon the pioneers a ‘regeneration through violence.’” I fail to see moral cleansing in the triumphalism with which most Americans have viewed the realization of Manifest Destiny. My favorite forebears deplored the brutality of fellow citizens. Ben Franklin condemned the frontier Paxton Boys as “white savages” when they massacred peaceful Indians. U.S. Grant, in his deathbed memoir, called our Mexican War “one of conquest.” His friend Mark Twain condemned the brutal U.S. suppression of the “Philippine Insurrection.” I hope the Obama administration tries to make amends for what Western historian Patricia Limerick calls our “legacy of conquest.”

John M. Pickering
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Naming Names

Clay Risen’s “Spies Among Us” enlightened yet saddened me, particularly his warning that “as of late 2008, there are approximately a million names in the Terrorist Screening Database.” Government-paid employees also developed alleged “security” files on Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Parker, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Sandburg, Norman Mailer, and Paul Newman—to name a few of my favorite compatriots—which leads me to the reasonable conclusion that such a file can be a bastardized badge of American honor.

Ivan Smason
Los Angeles, California

Literary Encounters

Steven Isenberg’s essay in the Winter issue richly evokes his meetings with four august lovers of language. As a broadcaster of many years, during which I interviewed more than 1,600 authors, I was reminded of the joy I had in meeting them and of that curious sense of not ever being quite up to the task of making the meeting as interesting for my subjects as it was for their interlocutor.

Paul Blezard
London, United Kingdom

Steven Isenberg’s line, “Larkin connects so many,” reminded me of a time when the portrait painter Humphrey Ocean was staying with us while painting Philip Larkin’s portrait. Ocean had recently won a prestigious prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. An element of the prize was a commission for a new portrait. Ocean had more or less agreed to paint Paul McCartney, but he bargained with the authorities to paint Larkin as well.

Ocean spent a week completing the portrait, going back and forth from our house to Larkin’s. When it was finished he brought the portrait to our house, where it spent the night before traveling on to London. I have a copy of it on my wall, and whenever I visit the gallery I take care not to nod familiarly or greet the picture by name.

I sent Ocean a copy of the article and he replied in part: “The Larkin lunch is a lovely way to end a day, for me. Thank you. It is of all the accounts of him I have read the most recognizable.”

Clive Davies
Scunthorpe, United Kingdom

Thanks to Steven Isenberg for sharing his rich experiences with the public. He could easily have kept his memories in the top drawer. I am grateful that he didn’t.

Michael Bledsoe
Washington, D.C.

Censorship in France

My own experience with Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s heirs and literary executors is not the same as Hazel Rowley’s, as mentioned in her Point of Departure column in the Winter issue. In 1998, I was authorized by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre to publish in extenso a letter Sartre wrote in July 1942 that includes declarations about Sartre’s relationship with a girlfriend. As far as Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir is concerned, when I informed her that Sorbonne philosopher Maurice de Gandillac intended to publish a document on marriage and individuality Beauvoir had given him in 1929, she stopped the publication immediately. Gandillac was allowed to summarize and paraphrase the text in his autobiography.

Ingrid Galster
Paderborn, Germany


The caption for the photo on page 144 in the Winter issue should read: Sartre with his lover, Lena Zonina (center), and Beauvoir.

A cover line in the same issue alluded to questions posed by astronomer Jeffrey Bennett that begin on page 12. Many readers had trouble finding these questions. We apologize for the confusion.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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