19.552 getting it right

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 8 Jan 2006 09:53:06 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 552.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 08 Jan 2006 09:47:14 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: getting it right

For those here with concerns about scholarly accuracy and online
habits, a tale to tell.

Somehow, in the course of looking for material on how to do research
(for a course I am designing), I came across the following quotation:

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

It was in MANY places (many of them "inspirational") attributed to
Aristotle, but without further detail. Dogged pursuit narrowed the
field first to the Nicomachean Ethics, then to book 2, section 1 of
that work. While from reading the short section I could see clearly
that such sense could be made approximately from Aristotle's text, as
a kind of paraphrase, that was not good enough (nor should be), so I
looked further. The attribution was given by Wikiquote,
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Main_Page, which listed the quotation as
confirmed, from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics -- but wikis are not
granite. Then, somewhere along the line I got a larger context, to wit:

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act
rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have
those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Still I could not square these words exactly enough to Aristotle's
text, so I started poking around in the books listed by a9.com. In
one and only one book, I found what I was looking for. But the words
turned out to be Will Durant's, from Story of Philosophy (rev edn,
1967, p. 61; reissue, 1991, p. 76), in which he is summarizing
Aristotle's argument. The exact quotation is as follows:

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act
rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have
these because we have acted rightly; 'these virtues are formed in man
by his doing the actions' [Ethics, ii, 4]; we are what we repeatedly
do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: 'the good of man is
a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life;...
for as it is not one swallow or fine day that makes a spring, so it
is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.'
[Ethics, i, 7]"

I should note as well that this morning I could not repeat the
experiences of last night exactly and so had to look for Durant's
text specifically. In other words, last night I was lucky. Had I not been....

I admit to having some sympathy with Daniel Dennett's confession, in
"Memes and the exploitation of the imagination", Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48.2 (1990), note 5, pp. 134f, that he
persists in using an oft-quoted passage falsely attributed to Mozart
"because it not only expresses but exemplifies the thesis that memes,
once they exist, are independent of authors and critics alike.
Historical accuracy is important (which is why I have written this
footnote), but the passage so well suits my purposes that I am
choosing to ignore its pedigree." On the one hand, there's pedantic
fussiness, on the other sloppiness.

Of course this is not a new problem. In the footnote Dennett also
informs us that he found the misattribution "in Jacques Hadamard's
classic study, The Psychology of Inventing in the Mathematical Field
(Princeton University Press, 1949). p. 16... and first quoted it
myself in 'Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away,' Journal of the
Theory of Social Behaviour 5 (1975): 169-87, reprinted in my book,
Brainstorms (MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 1978)."

An old problem, but what sort of a worry? And what sort of example is
this? What's the moral of the story?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sun Jan 08 2006 - 05:16:17 EST

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