‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013


There’s a nicely written scene early in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994) in which schoolchildren, learning science, taunt their teacher by replying to all his explanations about the physical universe with the question ‘why?’
He would start at the blackboard, and behind his back they would roll their eyes and make faces as he droned on about partial pressures or infrared rays. Then one of them would see an opening and begin the game. He was helpless before it. He would say something like, “In nonshivering thermogenesis the body produces heat using futile cycles,” and one of them would raise a hand and say, “But why, Sax?” and everyone would stare hard at their lectern and not look at each other, while Sax would frown as if this had never happened before, and say, “Well, it creates heat without using as much energy as shivering does. The muscle proteins contract, but instead of grabbing they just slide over each other, and that creates the heat.”

Jackie, so sincerely the whole class nearly lost it: “But how?”

He was blinking now, so fast they almost exploded watching him. “Well, the amino acids in the proteins have broken covalent bonds, and the breaks release what is called bond dissociation energy.”

“But why?”

Blinking ever harder: “Well, that’s just a matter of physics.” He diagrammed vigorously on the blackboard: “Covalent bonds are formed when two atomic orbitals merge to form a single bond orbital, occupied by electrons from both atoms. Breaking the bond releases thirty to a hundred kcals of stored energy.”

Several of them asked, in chorus, “But why?”

This got him into subatomic physics, where the chain of whys and becauses could go on for a half hour without him ever once saying something they could understand. Finally they would sense they were near the end game. “But why?”

“Well,” going cross-eyed as he tried to backtrack, “atoms want to get to their stable number of electrons, and they’ll share electrons when they have to.”

“But why?”

Now he was looking trapped. “That’s just the way atoms bond. One of the ways.”

“But WHY?”

A shrug. “That’s how the atomic force works. That’s how things came out—”

And they all would shout, “in the Big Bang.”

They would howl with glee, and Sax’s forehead would knot up as he realized that they had done it to him again.
Robinson gets at something important here about the way science explains the universe. What’s particularly powerful about this passage, I think, is the sense it conveys that this repeated stepping-back along the chain of causation, this re-iterated ‘why?’ is simultaneously something childish—kids love this kind of game—and at the same time profound, and profoundly unsettling.


  1. Dan Bloom25 July 2013 19:02
    Here is a review i got last year for my cli fi novel set in 2075:

    Dear Mr. Bloom

    I have read your cli fi novel and it is one of the worst books I've come
    across this year. As you typed in your email to me, "my book is
    IMPORTANT?" I guess wholeheartedly with that question mark.

    The characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is stilted and often
    unintentionally hilarious, the situations are merely a series of cliches
    derived from any number of other "end of the world" stories. There is
    little about the book that appears to be truly original, or is presented
    with any sort of literary skill beyond the most rudimentary -- the
    book's "Prologue" is so ham-fisted and clumsy that it's almost funny.

    I understand your personal stake in this book, as credits
    you with what passes for the "ideas" in it. But that is all that it is
    -- a single vague idea, and not a terribly original nor a very carefully
    considered at that, about a single eventuality that might be
    extrapolated from the science and speculation that surrounds the topic
    of global climate change, that has been churned into a slapdash series
    of anecdotes about uninteresting characters and there unimaginative

    Perhaps there is a decent work of fiction that could be crafted from
    this little idea of yours. And if you are pleased with
    the results of your efforts in making "the novel," then, really,
    that's all that matters.

    James D. Watts Jr.
    Tulsa World

  2. This topic interests me at the moment. The question "why?" doesn't seem to figure in the neo-scepticism of the philosophy of science since Kuhn. Maybe that's its whole problem. Maybe that's what all scepticism is about, not the questioning itself, but not asking why. "Why" always presupposes an ordering interrelationship of theories and their contexts, preempting relativism and scepticism, even while acknowledging its own limitations. Otherwise it's just a collection of fairly random alternatives, talking at cross purposes.

  3. That's very interesting, mathias. 'Collection of fairly random alternatives' puzzles me, though. Isn't it just two? Either its turtles-all-the-way-down, or it's turtles-all-the-way-down-to-the-prime-turtle-that-just-came-out-of-the-Big-Bang-that-way. Pays yer money, takes yer choice, etc.