Best openings of essays/academic works
February 23, 2007 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Best opening (or closing) paragraphs of academic works, a discussion at Crooked Timber. (This is of course different from first lines of novels, as discussed here, there, and elsewhere.
posted by LobsterMitten (39 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
An obvious choice maybe, but I've always been fond of the opening of Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy:
"Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last."
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:25 AM on February 23, 2007

Crick and Watson announce the discovery of how DNA works, 1953: It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. Splendidly understated.

It's the third-last paragraph, but the next two are just "More details are at..." and "Thanks to..." so I think it counts.
posted by alasdair at 12:30 AM on February 23, 2007

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

The last sentence of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
posted by scodger at 12:52 AM on February 23, 2007

It was the best of opening paragraghs, it was the worst of opening paragraphs.
posted by three blind mice at 2:07 AM on February 23, 2007

#36 in the first link is nice.
posted by furiousthought at 2:18 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

"IN your schooldays most of you who read this book made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid’s geometry, and you remember—perhaps with more respect than love—the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers. By reason of your past experience, you would certainly regard every one with disdain who should pronounce even the most out-of-the-way proposition of this science to be untrue. But perhaps this feeling of proud certainty would leave you immediately if some one were to ask you: 'What, then, do you mean by the assertion that these propositions are true?' Let us proceed to give this question a little consideration."
posted by sluglicker at 2:19 AM on February 23, 2007

Why I became a software engineer. Summary of Donald Knuth's Turing Award Lecture (emphasis his):
"To summarize: We have seen that computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better. Therefore we can be glad that people who lecture at computing conferences speak about the state of the Art.

posted by lygaret at 2:20 AM on February 23, 2007

In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.
— Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (1962).

Doesn't exactly shy away from controversy, does he.

(OK, it's 'popular economics' rather than academic economics, but academic economics is not exactly over-endowed with memorable literary passages.)
posted by matthewr at 2:29 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

alasdair has it right that the best openings are those which are "spendidly understated."

Einstein's 1905 paper on relativity: "Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhängig?" is also spendidly understated:

"Die Resultate einer jüngst in diesen Annalen von mir publizierten elektrodynamischen Untersuchung führen zu einer sehr interessanten Folgerung, die hier abgeleitet werden soll."

Loosely translated as:

"The results recently published in this annal of my electro-dynamic investigation lead to a very interesting consequence, which is to be derived here."

E=mc2. A very interesting consequence indeed.
posted by three blind mice at 2:34 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

#36 in the first link is nice.

So nice it bears transcribing here:
“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.”

David L. Goodstein, States of Matter
posted by Flashman at 3:31 AM on February 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

No, no, this post has it all wrong. The big thing now is the Page 69 Test.
posted by Brittanie at 3:34 AM on February 23, 2007

sluglicker, where's that from?
posted by Anything at 3:49 AM on February 23, 2007

anything, that's also einstein.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 4:35 AM on February 23, 2007

What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with children, with parental care that will make their offspring finer than themselves. There in the garden's twilight lovers pass, thinking themselves unseen; their quiet words mingle with the murmur of insects calling to their mates; the ancient hunger speaks through eager and through lowered eyes, and a noble madness courses through clasped hands and touching lips. Life wins.

- Will Durant, The Pleasures of Philosophy, closing paragraph
posted by inoculatedcities at 5:27 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ditto on the Crick and Watson paper, alasdair. I love that sentence.
posted by adrianhon at 5:39 AM on February 23, 2007

alasdair, we had the same idea - I liked the very, very first line and paragrap of the paper:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid
J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick
posted by Muddler at 5:55 AM on February 23, 2007

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1971:
Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoat of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.
posted by cobra libre at 6:28 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

The art of poetic composition in general and of its various species, the function and effect of each of them; how the plots should be constructed | if the composition is to be an artistic success; how many other component elements are involoved in the process, and of what kind; and similarly all the other questions that fall under this same branch of inquiry-- these are the problems we shall discuss; let us begin in the right and natural way, with basic principles.

Aristotle, Poetics, (trans. Gerald F. Else)
posted by exlotuseater at 6:55 AM on February 23, 2007

Certain amount of swellness in some of the post's listings. Call me low brow, but opacity puts me off- which is why I never got very far with the tractatus. Or Kant. Or Marx. Or a bunch of others. As a good teacher is part actor, so is a good writer (of any sort) part page turner. Hard cheese on the sciences, I know, but not insuperable as we have seen above.

Recently I came across the following, which has enough primary source material and foot notes I think to qualify as academic. (Alas, the writing flags from time to time once you get into it, but when she's on, she's very, very on.)

"There were good ways to dies and bad ways to die. The Ars Moriendi, a practical handbook on the art of dying, was a flourishing literary form in the Middle Ages. These procedural guides - which included advice on table manners and how to make polite conversation - instructed the reader in how to regulate his behaviour during his final hours. Impatience was frowned upon, as was avarice, in the form of undistributed wealth - both would deny him the possibility of a 'tame' death ( in bed, surrounded by family, peacefully reconciled). If well prepared, the person doing the dying could be "shriven," absolved, of his sins. To get 'short shrift' was to be deprived of this satisfaction."

The Devil's Broker by Frances Stoner Saunders
posted by IndigoJones at 7:07 AM on February 23, 2007

The end of the second chapter of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene always struck me as very dramatic:

"Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for their improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind;and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes,and we are their survival machines."
posted by sindark at 7:26 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well giddy-up for Hugh Kenner. I like him.
posted by taliaferro at 8:12 AM on February 23, 2007

I just added half a dozen paragraphs to the Crooked Timber thread, which involved an hour or two of rummaging through my shelves and transcribing. Not to mention that I almost wound up reading the entirety of Norman Hampson's Prelude to terror: the Constituent Assembly and the failure of consensus, 1789-1791, which probably would have led to weeks of immersion in the French Revolution, and I don't have time for that. Thanks a lot!

*shakes fist at LobsterMitten*

Oh, and [this is good].
posted by languagehat at 8:17 AM on February 23, 2007

Aaaaaaand... I just broke my comment on CT with a missing tag. I am banned from the internet playground for the rest of the day. (But you know if it spurred me to comment, it must be a good FPP.)
posted by steef at 8:25 AM on February 23, 2007

The French structuralist Roland Barthes opened his essay "S/Z"

"By the means of asceticism some Buddhist are said to succeed in reading out a complete landscape out of a horse bean." (free translation, I guess there is no official English translation of "S/Z")
posted by phuture-4000 at 8:27 AM on February 23, 2007

languagehat, I know! Dangerous to have a good bookshelf. That's why I limited myself to posting the Meditations. But I've been poking around and finding other favorites all morning.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:18 AM on February 23, 2007

er, that is, "I know" the temptation to go find all the good ones.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:19 AM on February 23, 2007

It may not be the finest opening paragraph of all times, but I knew when I read it that I'd enjoy the book. From Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland: "If God invented whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world, who invented Ireland?"

Also, God will strike me down if I don't include the first sentence/paragraph from Derrida's Dissemination: "This (therefore) will not have been a book." If memory serves, and my memory for quotes is poor, it goes like this in French: "Ceci (donc) n'aura pas été un livre."
posted by Kattullus at 10:33 AM on February 23, 2007

Nietzsche immediately leapt to mind, but it's Quine who really excites me. Here's the beginning to Word and Object:

"This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. Physical things generally, however remote, become known to us only through the effects which they help to induce at our sensory surfaces. Yet our common-sense talk of physical things goes forward without benefit of explanations in more intimately sensory terms. Entification begins at arm's length; the points of condensation in the primordial conceptual scheme are things glimpsed, not glimpses."

I love that last sentence. On a more entertaining note, here's the introduction to Jerry Fodor's Hume Variations:

"How this work came to be:

I happened, one day, to mention to a colleague who is a historian of philosophy my intention to teach a seminar on Hume's theory of mind. I'm sorry to say that he took it very hard; though whether it was laughter, tears, or merely scholarly rectitude that convulsed him was unclear to me. "But how can you?" he inquired when the spasms had abated. "You don't know anything about Hume."

I wasn't offended, exactly, though his italics struck me as perhaps not called for. But I was perplexed. And troubled. It's quite true that I don't know anything about Hume; my ignorance of the history of philosophy is nearly perfect. Much like my spelling, it is a legend to my friends and students. But the thought that one ought to know a lot about what one teaches hadn't occured to me, nor did my previous practice much conform to it."

The beginning to that statistical mechanics book is amazing. It reminds me of a hilarious dedication page I came across on the internet one time but can't find now. It was a screed against the author's students and colleagues, and ended with something like the line "No one helped me. I did it all by myself." Does anyone know what I'm talking about?
posted by painquale at 11:39 AM on February 23, 2007

"As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:24 PM on February 23, 2007

I hate to nitpick, but the whole point of this exercise is to find great openings to academic works. Orwell is a wonderful writer, but hardly an academic. I have the same problem in the Crooked Timber thread: people are quoting Nietzsche and The Communist Manifesto and George MacDonald Fraser (fer chrissake). If you don't have to blow the dust off the volume before quoting it, it doesn't count!
posted by languagehat at 2:50 PM on February 23, 2007

Painquale: that dedication is quoted in the crooked timber thread here.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 2:52 PM on February 23, 2007

1. It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer.

2. Men write history for many reasons; to try and understand the forces which impel mankind along its strange course; to justify a religion, a nation, or a class; to make money; to fulfil ambition; to assuage obsession; and a few, the true creators, to ease the ache within.

3. I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

1. G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica
2. J.H. Plumb, preface to Studies in Social History
3. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearian Negotiations
posted by verstegan at 2:55 PM on February 23, 2007

Now, here's a volume that definitely qualifies (and also happens to be my most recently acquired academic book—thanks, Joel!), Carl Brockelmann's Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen, vol. 1 (1908):
Der Name S e m i t e n ward von Schlözer... i. J. 1781 als gemeinsamer Bezeichnung für die Hebräer, Aramäer, Araber, und Abessinier, deren Sprachen unter einander verwandt sind, geprägt auf Grund der Völkertafel, Gen. 10, in der Hebräer, Aramäer und Araber von Sem abgeleitet werden. Dieser Name ist so kurz und zweckmäßig, wie ein künstlicher Name nur sein kann, und daß die moderne Wissenschaft mit ihm einen andern Sinn verbindet als der Verfasser von Gen. 10, spricht nicht gegen ihn.

[The name Semites was coined by Schlözer in 1781 as a common designation for the Hebrews, Arameans, Arabs, and Abyssinians, whose languages are related to one another, on the basis of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, in which the Hebrews, Arameans, and Arabs are descended from Shem. This name is as concise and appropriate as an artificial name can be, and that modern science gives it a different sense than the author of Genesis 10 is not a point against it.]
I like the fact that he casually refers to "the author of Genesis 10" a century ago, when we atheists were not the triumphant party we are today! On MetaFilter, anyway.
posted by languagehat at 3:10 PM on February 23, 2007

Somewhat off topic, but here's a picture of Olin Shivers holding a tiger cub. His homepage is nice to browse through. Stay away from his collection of vintage Nepalese porn, though, it might very well be illegal where you live.
posted by Kattullus at 3:38 PM on February 23, 2007

Oh, and I realize Olin Shivers hasn't been mentioned in the thread yet. He's the guy who wrote the famously intemperate acknowledgements page to the Scsh Manual. Here it is in full:

Who should I thank? My so-called “colleagues,’’ who laugh at me behind my back, all the while becoming famous on my work? My worthless graduate students, whose computer skills appear to be limited to downloading bitmaps off of netnews? My parents, who are still waiting for me to quit “fooling around with computers,’’ go to med school, and become a radiologist? My department chairman, a manager who gives one new insight into and sympathy for disgruntled postal workers?

My God, no one could blame me—no one!—if I went off the edge and just lost it completely one day. I couldn’t get through the day as it is without the Prozac and Jack Daniels I keep on the shelf, behind my Tops-20 JSYS manuals. I start getting the shakes real bad around 10am, right before my advisor meetings. A 10 oz. Jack ‘n Zac helps me get through the meetings without one of my students winding up with his severed head in a bowling-ball bag. They look at me funny; they think I twitch a lot. I’m not twitching. I’m controlling my impulse to snag my 9mm Sig-Sauer out from my day-pack and make a few strong points about the quality of undergraduate education in Amerika.

If I thought anyone cared, if I thought anyone would even be reading this, I’d probably make an effort to keep up appearances until the last possible moment. But no one does, and no one will. So I can pretty much say exactly what I think.

Oh, yes, the acknowledgements. I think not. I did it. I did it all, by myself.
posted by Kattullus at 3:41 PM on February 23, 2007

I understand that Orwell may not be erudite enough for some readers. For those who feel this way, I offer:

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montaigne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montaigne of 1793 to 1795, the Nephew for the Uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the same circumstances attending the second edition of the eighteenth Brumaire!"

K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Or, if languagehat prefers, a personal favorite:

"The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract 'formal' approach and an equally abstract 'ideological' approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon- social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning."

M. Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:12 PM on February 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

painquale: I remember reading that Fodor book a few years back, and being put of by the intro. The book did not disappoint: it was every bit as uninformed and worthless as that Hume scholar (and, indeed, anyone with a brain not spoiled with pomposity) would predict.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 11:08 PM on February 23, 2007

Every story is over before it begins. The novel lies bound in my hands, the actors know all their lines before the curtain rises, and the finished film has been threaded onto the projector once the houselights dim.

Stories appear to move into an open, uncertain future that the figures try to influence, but in fact report a completed past they cannot alter. Their journey into the future—to which we gladly lend ourselves—is an illusion.

We think we see differences between myth, in which fate and the gods determine the outcome, and the stories of today, in which people appear to be shaping their own lives. But all stories are over before they begin.

Michael Roemer, Telling Stories.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:33 AM on February 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I understand that Orwell may not be erudite enough for some readers.

It's not a matter of being erudite—Orwell was more erudite than a lot of academics. It's just that you expect writers to write well; it's their job. You don't expect academics to write well, and when they do, they deserve praise for it. It's like having a "dancing dog" competition; you don't want Nureyev entering, no matter how well he dances.

I've always loved that Eighteenth Brumaire quote, and I also love Alexander Cockburn's analysis:
In his 1973 NLR/Penguin edition, David Fernbach claimed that it is doubtful whether Hegel ever said any such thing. On the other hand, Engels had recently written Marx a letter in which he observed, ‘It really seems as if old Hegel in his grave were acting as World Spirit and directing history, ordaining most conscientiously that it should all be unrolled twice over, once as a great tragedy and once as a wretched farce.’ Marx obviously thought it was a bit more dignified to cite Hegel than to say ‘Fred Engels was saying to me only the other day…’
posted by languagehat at 5:52 AM on February 24, 2007

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