Thoroughly Rehearsed Human Combustion
March 26, 2005 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Crispin Sartwell is a cryptic and sensational man. The Chair of Humanities and Sciences at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he has translated the Tao Te Ching, published philosophy papers and books, maintained pages on hip hop, founded the American Nihilist Party (and gave a speech to young Democrats urging them to reconsider their votes for John Kerry), taught courses on conjuring and illusion, etc. etc. See also his essay on the pagan cult of mathematics and his thought experiment on music.
posted by painquale (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

We believe that children are our future. This idea fills us with the most profound despair.

It's funny because it's true.
posted by malaprohibita at 6:22 PM on March 26, 2005

After reading that math essay, I railed against it on my blog and wrote Sartwell to tell him about it. He replied:

thanks graham! i'm sure you're right about the concept of number. you don't
really hate me as much as you think you do, i think. i like your web site.
rock on! crispin
I found it impossible to hate him, just because of that "rock on!" (The blog is gone, so I can't point you to my post, but it was, um, vitriolic.)
posted by gleuschk at 6:24 PM on March 26, 2005

Wow. This guy is a joke. The fact that he is considered an academic is laughable. Mathematics certainly has more basis in fact than his hokey beliefs. What a crackpot.
posted by aerify at 6:55 PM on March 26, 2005

I thought his math essay was pretty good, and I'm the mathematician he quoted in it! He's certainly right that the answer to the question "what is seven?" is not as obvious as one might initially think. And when he says math is dangerous gobbledygook that doesn't belong in school, he is (I think!) playing a joke on people who think that humanistic study, because it is not as "real" as physics, is dangerous gobbledygook that doesn't belong in school. gleuschk, I'm sorry I missed your blog post...
posted by escabeche at 7:10 PM on March 26, 2005

gotta love him. he's listening to ohio players. roller coaster! say what?!?! oo-oo-ooo-ooo-oo!
posted by quonsar at 7:43 PM on March 26, 2005

I'd also have been interested to read gleuschk's comments. Hard to tell what point Sartwell's making. It might be some subtle point about the philosophical basis for knowledge. At face value, it looks like satire to justifiy the humanities (ie "don't criticise them for having a woolly theoretical basis because mathematics is just the same").

The "definition of 7" problem looks to me like a debating trick: a cherry-picked problem misrepresented as simple, but actually only cropping up in high-level mathematical philosophy where there are multiple possible definitions. So answerers will either flounder, or give precise answers in terms incomprehensible to most others. "Hey!" he says, "so that proves people can't even agree on a simple fundamental of mathematics!"
posted by raygirvan at 8:56 PM on March 26, 2005

I've never seen anyone so good at appearing simultaneously cynical and callow.
posted by sfenders at 9:41 PM on March 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

"Seven" has an ostensive definition, obviously. The entirety of language is merely circular and self-referential, except for those few things defined ostensively. Everything else is metaphor and analogy. It's how we deal in abstracts. Note that Mr. Sartwell is at an Institute of Art and is probably focused on his performance rather than his intrinsic message. I'm just guessing
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:27 PM on March 26, 2005

for someone who has published philosophy papers he dosn't seem to know his Wittgenstein(sp?). Words don't get their meaning from defintion, meaning come from how they are used.
posted by afu at 3:07 AM on March 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Wow. This guy is a joke. The fact that he is considered an academic is laughable. Mathematics certainly has more basis in fact than his hokey beliefs. What a crackpot.

“Mathematics may be defined as the subject where we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.”

- Betrand Russel

Also I think Mr Sartwell is being sarcastic, or maybe making a subtle comparison to the evolution "debate".
posted by sandking at 6:28 AM on March 27, 2005

In mathematics, anyway, the philosophical question is well-trodden. One answer is that mathematical entities like number are agreed-on abstractions based on the physical world (Platonism, more or less). But you'll get far more informed analysis of the problem from mathematicians: see What kind of thing is a number? by Reuben Hersh (who takes a 'social construct' view of mathematics) and the ensuing critique by people like Lee Smolin and Ian Stewart. Stewart's conclusion is a pretty good riposte to Sartwell's comparison: that the abstractions of mathematics differ from those of the arts in having been tightly constrained for consistency.
posted by raygirvan at 6:34 AM on March 27, 2005

Some links:
Sartwell reading that math essay on NPR, 1 September 2001.
Sartwell's blog (quonsar, you'd like it: no capital letters to be found).
a followup to that math essay, in which he point out that math teachers have no sense of humor, and mostly missed the joke that escabeche observes above.
a repost of the blog entry I mentioned above, wherein I advertise my own lack of humor or subtlety. Come on, it was 2001, I was young and impetuous.
posted by gleuschk at 7:24 AM on March 27, 2005

Bottom line of the followup: "All I'm saying is we got no idea what it's about."

Seems to me that mathematics is about patterns.

It's about finding ways to describe patterns and manipulate those descriptions in precisely communicable, demonstrably reliable ways.

Certainly the more intuitive end of mathematics has its roots in empiricism; but the enormous intellectual structure built on top of that empiricism feeds back into the way we look at the world, allowing patterns to be discerned (and made use of!) that would otherwise escape notice entirely.

The distinctive feature of mathematics that sets it apart from other self-referential disciplines is that its methods actually do have a long history of success in predicting much of reality's behavior in objectively verifiable ways. The same cannot truthfully be said of religion (pagan or otherwise) or indeed of literary criticism.
posted by flabdablet at 9:47 AM on March 27, 2005

gleuschk: I don't buy Sartwell's answer. I think this cynical/callow style sfenders noted is an act: a kind of sophistical game. He makes an assertion. If you agree (either to the superficial claim or the more complex one) he wins. If you disagree at the superficial level, obviously you didn't get the joke: he wins. If you disagree and provide the necessarily complex answer, it proves math is arcane: he wins again.

His follow-up shows he's well aware that traditional counter-arguments lie in areas such Platonism, Empiricism and Formalism: that mathematical constructs - such as those in Euclid's Elements - come from precise abstractions of agreed-on physical reality, developed in an agreed-on manner (which puts them on a far more solid basis than artistic theories, which come out of someone's ass).

But the question was set in circumstances where few people were likely to answer in those terms. It'd be interesting to re-run the exercise now.
posted by raygirvan at 6:04 AM on March 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that mathematics is about patterns.

So is music. :)
posted by Foosnark at 7:10 AM on March 28, 2005

I took a class from Sartwell at one point (on aesthetics), and I will simply warn you that it's extremely difficult to tell when he's being serious, and he has very very strong tendencies toward sarcasm.
posted by aramaic at 8:36 PM on March 28, 2005

I also took an aesthetics class with Sartwell back in the late-80's and as aramaic notes, he does tend to shadowbox with sarcasm. He's not so much into comforting the afflicted as afflicting the comfortable, to bend the aphorism a bit.

But he was a fun fellow to spend an afternoon with. I still smile to remember a meandering discussion on the role of criticism in art that climaxed with the line "[...] and I wish Sting were here in the room right now so I could kick his ass."
posted by gee at 11:55 PM on March 28, 2005

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