John Stuart Mill and scansion

There are lots of good reasons to read Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi’s network-theoretic defense of democracy against market fundamentalism on the one hand and hierarchic paternalism on the other.  But at the moment I just want to quote their quote of John Stuart Mill:

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact.

And I’m not even quoting the quote because the quote says something interesting, which it does — it’s just because scansion is on my mind, thanks to Paul Fussell, and I was struck by the grace of “Commerce is now what war once was.”  To write with authority you have to have good ideas, but you also have to pay attention to the sound of your words.  Writing is a formalization of sound, not a formalization of thought.


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2 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill and scansion

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    I’m not sure that I would say that writing is entirely a formalization of sound and not at all of thought, but agree that writing is mostly a formalization of sound. Do you extend this viewpoint to mathematical writing as well? Any thoughts on this? As I’ve gotten older I pay more attention to not only the flow of words and logic, but how it would sound if I read it aloud.

    Although it is not technically part of the practice of writing, there is a visual component of text that I am somewhat reactive to: choice of typeface. I think that visual presentation can enhance or degrade the aesthetics of the abstract text, and we don’t pay enough attention to that in mathematics.

  2. Richard Séguin says:

    I just took my dog out for a short walk and rethought what I said about typefaces. Although they are visual forms, in the context of text they do in fact act as sound modifiers, not unlike choice of musical instrument.

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