Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Pathetic Fallacy

(circuitous hat tip to Slant Six Creative via Seth Godin)

Below is an excerpt from the second part of a three-part essay I am reading by Errol Morris. In it, he examines two wartime photographs taken from the same spot on the same day, and asks in which order were they taken. It's really long, but I think worth it. He goes into some history, namely the Crimean war, but most interesting to me is the discussion of certainty. How we know what we know, and why we think we know it. It's a great example of evidence-based reasoning and I admire his skeptical treatment of assumptions. The below passage jumped out at me; I like the combination of literary admiration, scientific caution, and psychological explanation of the pathetic fallacy. We must be careful in science not to confuse our poetic exaltations of nature with our clinical models of its mechanisms, and also (vis. the last paragraph, on photographs) not to confound the models themselves with the mechanisms they are meant to describe.

There is an extraordinary passage in A.W. Kinglake who wrote an eight-volume history of the Crimean War, “The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origins and an Account of its Progress down to the Death of Lord Raglan.” The passage concerns the April 1855 bombardment and makes liberal use of what is known as the pathetic fallacy. The term, coined by John Ruskin in 1856, refers to our propensity to endow inanimate nature with human-like characteristics. Ruskin disapproved — he called it a fallacy, didn’t he? But to navigate in the world – to read the world, so to speak – we need to see the world as having some sort of purpose, some sort of motivation. (It is too frightening otherwise.) Hence, we see intentionality everywhere. The hurricane wants to thwart our plans; the earthquake intends to teach us a lesson.

Here is the passage from Kinglake in its entirety. It is possibly the masterpiece of the pathetic fallacy.


Whether taking its flight through the air, or encountering more solid obstacles; a round-shot of course must be always obeying strict, natural laws, and must work out the intricate reckoning enjoined by conflict of power with absolute, servile exactness; but between the ‘composition’ of ‘forces’ maintained in our physical world and the fixed resolve of a mind made up under warring motives there is always analogy, with even sometimes strange resemblance; and to untutored hearers a formula set down in algebra would convey less idea of the path of a hindered, though not vanquished cannonball than would the simple speech of a savage who, after tracing its course (as only savages can), has called it a demon let loose. For not only does it seem to be armed with a mighty will, but somehow to govern its action with ever-ready intelligence, and even to have a ‘policy.’ The demon is cruel and firm; not blindly, not stupidly obstinate. He is not a straightforward enemy. Against things that are hard and directly confronting him he indeed frankly tries his strength, and does his utmost to shatter them, and send them in splinters and fragments to widen the havoc he brings; but with obstacles that are smooth and face him obliquely he always compounds, being ready on even slight challenge to come, as men say, to ‘fair terms’ by varying his line of advance, and even if need be, resorting to crooked, to sinuous paths. By dint of simple friction with metal, with earth, with even the soft, yielding air, he adds varied rotatory movements to those fell skill as he goes; he acquires a strange nimbleness, can do more than simply strike, can wrench, can lift, can toss, can almost grasp; can gather from each conquered hindrance a new and baneful power; can be rushing for instance straight on in a horizontal direction, and then – because of some contact – spring up all at once like a tiger intent on the throat of a camel.


“The demon is cruel and firm,” “he acquires a strange nimbleness…a new and baneful power,” “a tiger intent on the throat of a camel.” The soulless, inanimate world of the iron cannonball comes alive. Literally with a vengeance. Not only does the cannonball have intent – it plans, it connives… it is hopelessly devious, maybe even deviant.

Photographs are no different. We look at them. They are nothing more than silver halide crystals arranged on paper or with digital photography, nothing more than a concatenation of 1’s and 0’s resident on a hard-drive. Yet we believe they have captured something of our essence – something of the stuff that is in our heads.

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