22 December 2006


There was once a woman who said of me, with that sublime lack of analyticalness which characterises those who know they have social support: ‘If she is really exceptional it won't make any difference to her whether she takes exams very young or not.’

Let us consider some of the things that she might have meant by this.

The first possible meaning is tautologous. It is: ‘Provided she subsequently succeeds in gaining social recognition she will not be able to say that she was prevented from gaining social recognition by not taking exams very young.’

A family of other possible meanings depend implicitly on assertions of the type: ‘All true ability achieves social recognition.’ In the case of the past, it is clearly not the case that all those who are currently regarded as having possessed true ability achieved social recognition during their lifetime. So our implicit assumption must be somewhat of this form: ‘All those who, subsequent to the present century, will be socially recognised as having true ability, will achieve social recognition during their lifetime.’

Or again, she may have meant: ‘The human race as a whole is so indifferent to superficial tokens of success, so much in the habit of using its independent judgement to assess ability, and so generously inclined to the ability it notices, that no obstacles will be placed in the path of a person of very great ability, even if that person has spent the first 20 years of his life not using the great ability.’

If this was what she meant, she was a poor observer of human nature. Even if the argument were true, of course, it would still provide no positive reason for gratuitously writing off a considerable expanse of years as unusable.

Then again, she may have meant: ‘The human race is so aware of the characteristics which denote purposiveness that, no matter what social recognition anyone may have achieved by their ability to recapitulate the present knowledge of the human race, as soon as they set out to add to that knowledge they are certain to encounter every resistance and opprobrium.’ There is certainly something to be said for this view, though, again, it is difficult to see that it possesses great persuasive force if it be paraphrased in the form: ‘It will not make any difference whether you are well-fed when the siege begins, because once the siege has begun you certainly will not get any food.’

Or she may have meant: ‘No matter how many years you spend in an inspirational state, and no matter what your achievements in those years may be, they will still in retrospect be finite; and the difference between a number of years spent in an inspirational state and the same number of years spent in considerable misery will always, in retrospect, be finite.’ There is something in this position, although one should always view with caution attempts to quantify anything so incalculable as consciousness.

Or she may have meant: ‘The intellectual level of the human race is so low that even if someone is obliged to go through life without a knowledge of those things which they would have learnt if they had been educated, their intellectual life will not thereby be impoverished. E.g. Greek literature contains no ideas which any thinking person could not originate for themselves, so no one will be losing anything if they cannot read Greek.’ This is true, though it does nothing to demonstrate that the mental operations involved in learning Greek may not be desirable in themselves. Further, it does not allow for the refreshing effect of variations in syntax and alphabet upon the jaded mind.

Or she may have meant: ‘If this person is as exceptional as all that, I can try as hard as I like to smash him up, since I shall not be able to prevent him from achieving social recognition, and so I shall not have done him any harm. If, on the other hand, my attempts to smash him up result in his failing to achieve social recognition, this will prove that he was not exceptional and therefore I shall have done no harm in smashing him up.’ If stated in terms of physical rather than intellectual well-being, few people would find this argument acceptable. ‘If I hit this man on the head with a hammer and he dies, it will prove he was so feeble he is no great loss. If I hit him on the head with a hammer and he does not die, I shall not have done him any harm because he will still be alive.’

Or she may have meant: ‘True despair comes only to those who have no longer any hope of being accepted by society; and the sooner this happens to someone the better.’