Sunday, August 29, 2010

Verbal Stuff That I Like: Raymond L. Weiss Edition (and this one is serious); and, My Hypocrisy

So far, the items in the "Verbal Stuff That I Like Series" have made the cut by virtue of their quirkiness. This one is absolutely serious. It is from Maimonides' Ethics: The Encounter of Philosophic and Religious Morality (1991) by Raymond L. Weiss, pp. 4-5:
Maimonides himself uses the expression ["philosophic ethics"]. It is even possible that he was the first to do so; at any rate, to my knowledge, he has no predecessor in this matter.
"To my knowledge." It is rare to see a scholarly author acknowledge that a "there is no" statement reflects the extent of their knowledge. And as Weiss notes, a statement about "the first" is a negative statement--it means that there was none earlier. Similarly any statement about "the only," "the largest," "the whateverest"--these are equivalent to saying that there is no other, no larger, no whateverer.

I truly got pleasure from this statement of Weiss's. And after typing up the preceding paragraph, I realized what a hypocritical droplet of whiteout I am. On the occasion once every several blue moons when I come across a parenthetical "to the best of my knowledge," I query the author about it. "This statement about the best of your knowledge could be made about many negative statements in your manuscript," I write. "Why does this one in particular call for the disclaimer?" The question isn't sarcastic, although authors may take it that way. At any rate, they always delete the qualifier.

So why am I pleased by Weiss's statement even though I query it in my own work? I don't know. Maybe it seems more organic in Weiss's case and more thrown in in the others; Weiss's statement, after all, is tentative: "It is even possible that he was the first to do so." I think that's probably it. And what would I have done if I had worked on Weiss’s manuscript? I might have queried it. Maybe, maybe not. A trainload of such tentative statements, each of them carrying the disclaimer, it would make tedious even the most engaging work.

Anyhow, I admire Weiss’s honesty, and that of the other authors who make such a disclaimer, even though I attempt to wave a hatchet at it when it appears on my virtual desk. Go figure.

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