October 19, 2011

"His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge."

Who?
Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
Just something I ran into when I Googled the phrase "mental furniture," which came up during the conversation excerpted in the previous post. We'd been talking about how people have opinions and beliefs that are like rooms that they've got arranged some way that they like or they're used to, and if you want to come in and say maybe the sofa would be better on the other side of the room, and they're not up for moving it over there to check your theory, well... you can understand how they feel.

They're happy enough with the rooms they've got. They feel comfortable. They can't be spending all their time moving furniture about, thinking about whether some piece earns the space it takes up, always ready to drag something ugly or useless out to the curb, and going shopping for the perfect new tables and chairs. They want to live in those rooms they've already furnished. Why can't you be a more pleasant guest?

49 comments:

Oligonicella said...

A man with a bare mental room is a moron. This moron can vote. He most likely voted for Obama. That's conjecture, of course.

Bob said...

Sherlock Holmes, of course.

Michael K said...

Holmes had a quite impressive inventory of knowledge. Including the violin. I read that believing he was pulling Watson's leg.

AllenS said...

Feng shui = mental furniture.

Dan in Philly said...

The vice of the age is an over-reliance on intelligence and too much faith in rationality, which is why quoting Sir Arthur Doyle is so appropriate here. Holmes is the poster child for using extreme rationality to deduce what the muddled unclear thinkers cannot.

This is one of the reasons why those with little reverence for past thoughts (generally liberals) tend to diefy intelligence, which can be seen in how much of a big deal they made of Obama's supposed superior intellect, and how much they disparage GOP leaders supposed lack of the same.

Traditionally it was understood knowledge came in a few different guises: Apprehension, deduction, memory, and so on. The current age overaggrandizes deduction to the sacrifice of all else, which is why the current age can best be called sophomoric to my mind.

Pogo said...

Arthur Conan Doyle also believed in spiritualism and fairies.

Scott M said...

"Who"

Given this "What the deuce is it to me?"

I'm going with Stewie Gilligan Griffon.

Lucius said...

At first I thought Edmund Morris from "Dutch", but then I picked up on the Victoriana and recalled an essay in-- was it "Newsweek"?--I read on the schoolbus once, defending the author from the toil of reading Umberto Eco novels and other such "useless" information.

Well, Eco is not useless.

Morris' chutzpah in expecting Reagan to answer an impromptu quiz about Goethe and Schumann continues to astound. You think Obama knows the slightest thing about Schumann? Or did he even breeze through Kaufmann's "Faust" once on a bender?

EDH said...

"Come in and sit down. Can I get you a hot cup of shut the fuck up?"

edutcher said...

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.

Never forgot that exchange.

It speaks to how to discipline the mind. An important concept for an 11 year old.

m stone said...

Gives new meaning to "don't touch my junk!"

Anna said...

We have become an age of information mongers. Long on facts but short on reasoning.

Physics Geek said...

Being a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan, I knew the answer almost before I started reading.

Lem said...

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

William James

Lem said...

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."

Don Marquis

wv: slant

KLDAVIS said...

Homer: Oh, and how is "education" supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home wine-making course and I forgot how to drive?
Marge: That's because you were drunk!
Homer: And how.

J said...

Dr. Watson speaking of course. Anyone's who actually read a few Holmes' tales soon realizes that while Holmes does excel in deductive reasoning, he often relies upon Watson's common-sense empiricism for clues or hunches.

ricpic said...

The very best work in any field is done by obsessives who walk around all day thinking about a problem, be it artistic, scientific or business related. Why give a thought to what keeps the George Washington bridge from falling down? That problem was solved by engineers who thought obsessively about issues of weight, thrust and stress and couldn't for the life of them have juggled the problems of interior decoration, gardening and the organization and presentation of a successful dinner party which is the purview of the Martha Stewart obsessive. Specialization: that's where it's at!

J said...

Wait, lets see how many brainfarts Byro the LDS-stoner-troll puts up here today. Like pop-physics! One of its favorite hustles.

Maybe start with Hound of the Baskervilles, Einswine of the trailer park

RonF said...

Back when I was about 18 I was reading the most recent issue of that noted philosophy periodical, Spiderman. The opinionated and irascible editor of the newspaper J. Jonah Jameson was discussing Spiderman with Robbie, his head editor. When Robbie remonstrated about Jonah's opinion Jonah replied "I know all I need to know about Spiderman!" Jonah turned away and Robbie thought to himself "God save us from people who know all they need to know." I never forgot that.

traditionalguy said...

The Freakonomics guys are getting rich pointing out the obvious to the great brainwashed masses of college graduates.

As Herman Cain says, free enterprise business is solving problems. That requires using reality in place of the feel good myths that Baby Boomers feel entitled to.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Me, blissfully. ( Well, except for the knowledge part. )

J said...

AA--see "The Valley of Fear" for Conan-Doyle's view of American masons and Mormons aka "Danites". Not exactly flattering. ....The Bodymaster

Joe said...

(The Uncredentialed, Crypto Jew)
Dr. Watson speaking of course. Anyone's who actually read a few Holmes' tales soon realizes that while Holmes does excel in deductive reasoning, he often relies upon Watson's common-sense empiricism for clues or hunches


We’ll stick with this one and ignore the rest…did you like Rob’t Downey Jr. and Jude Law (??) as Holmes and Watson? It was nice, in the trailers, to see Holmes more action-oriented. I rather liked PBS’ Jeremy Brett’s Holmes and loved that Watson…I hate the fat Watson from the Basil Rathbone movies…Watson was NOT an idiot.

Lucien said...

Nonsense. Knowledge is not like furniture, but like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. Once you fit pieces of knowledge into a pattern, they take up less space and make it easier to fit other pieces into the pattern. The more puzzles you've completed, the better you get at it.

Viva Generalism!

mr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mr said...

Sherlock Holmes frequently criticizes John Watson for his shortcomings as a writer. Sherlock expresses his displeasure with the way he is portrayed in the stories.

Has there ever been any other literary character who was so meta that he complained about the writing?

Scott M said...

Has there ever been any other literary character who was so meta that he complained about the writing?

I don't remember them complaining, but I read something a few years back where the characters in the story stopped everything assuming the reader was taking a smoke break and they fell completely out of character for a couple of pages like a group of actors in between takes. Then one of them said, "he's coming back!" or something similar and the story commenced.

The first time I read it, it was actually a bit jarring.

Largo said...

Has there ever been any other literary character who was so meta that he complained about the writing?

For an interesting webcomic that is extremely meta, try the one thousand strip 1/0

Scott M said...

For an interesting webcomic that is extremely meta, try the one thousand strip 1/0

Berk Breathed was really big on doing the meta thing with his characters. They are finally reprinting all those collections and I'm snatching 'em up where I can find them. I tend to favor the pre-Trump era.

Lucius Cornelius said...

Sherlock Holmes

glenn said...

Much more important than Holmes musings about limited space in the mental file cabinet was his principle of deduction.

"Eliminate all the things that are clearly impossible and whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the correct solution."

Apply this principle to the current Administration and you will quickly see they are a bunch of dummies who think they are smart.

Joe said...

(The Uncredentialed, Crypto Jew)
"Eliminate all the things that are clearly impossible and whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the correct solution.”


Sadly, not as obvious as you’d think. I tried that approach, even that line, with Cooke in re: Fast & Furious. S/he simply could not grasp that F&F HAD to be a political ploy designed to create pressure, domestic political and international diplomatic pressure, for increased Gun Control in the US. Instead, I was informed that I was in tin-foil hat land….sometimes it’s just easier to believe the impossible, than accept the unlikely…especially if the unlikely remainder is goring an ox with whom you’ve become enamoured.

William R. Hamblen said...

Louis Agassiz is supposed to have said that every time he remembered the name of a student he fotgot the name of a fish.

ronalddewitt said...

The earliest meta-comment that I can think of was in Walt Kelly's Pogo, when one of the characters complained that Kelly hadn't used a straight-edge to draw the cartoon's frames.

yashu said...

Has there ever been any other literary character who was so meta that he complained about the writing?

Don Quixote (in the second part of the book he complains about the first part, which had been published).

Scott M said...

A-way back in college, I remember seeing a cartoon strip (can't remember the name) that was a three or four panel black and white. It had two character facing each other talking for the first two panels. In the third, the artwork was made to look like the newspaper page had ripped open and out of the blackness lept a cartoon Ninja. The caption said "RANDOM NINJA". In the fourth panel, the two characters were looking around asking what the hell had just happened.

That comic strip turned into the "random head slap" that my oldest son and I play to this very day. One of those, when-you-least-expect-it...expect-it sort of deals.

richard mcenroe said...

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."


Up Twinkles. *g*

Mary Beth said...

I like this version of Sherlock. It's on Netflix.

The bit about not knowing that the earth goes around the sun is in the third episode.

richard mcenroe said...

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."


A. Bertram Chandler used a similar device in one of his John Grimes SF stories.

Paul Zrimsek said...

"When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.

"The other students in the class interrupt me: 'We know all that!'

"'Oh,' I say, 'you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology.' They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes."

--Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! I think of it every time I hear some idiot reporter cackle about how this or that political candidate doesn't even know who the prime minister of Slovakia is.

Martin L. Shoemaker said...

But ha has some knowledge of baritsu!

Roger Sweeny said...

Now I remember where I got that metaphor from. I often compare learning in the sense of making something part of your mental furniture to learning as memorizing something for a few days or weeks.

In high school, we pretend that our students are doing the first when they are actually doing the second. Deep down we know which is which but the thought is too painful to allow it into consciousness much.

Martin L. Shoemaker said...

Physics Geek said...

Being a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan, I knew the answer almost before I started reading.

I'm a MUCH more casual fan. I read the whole canon 40 years ago, enjoyed it, and then gave up on mystery for SF.

But I too knew the answer from the first words. This one bit of the canon has stuck with me for those 40 years for some reason. I guess it's part of my mental furntiure.

Will Cate said...

Reminds me of a great song:

Lyrics

... singing:

2003 live clip

Carol_Herman said...

Mark Twain could have written this!

Beth said...

I love that passage; Watson and Holmes have just met, and are working through becoming roommates. We just read A Study in Scarlet in one of my classes and there's Watson, the injured vet home from the Afghan war, trying to find a place to live and something to do to get his life back on track.

Allan said...

It would not be hard
to come up with the plot of a detective story
where knowing that the earth travelled round the sun
was crucial to identifying the murderer
(an astronomer, perhaps).

Robert Burnham said...

There's a funny line in a Margaret Scherf mystery (The Diplomat and the Gold Piano, if I remember correctly):

"His mental furniture was sliding around on the polished floor of his intelligence."

I laughed when I read that in high school and it's still funny 45 years later.