Locke, commonplaces and methods of retrieving knowledge

(Damn, just lost a long post because Safari crashed… Here I go again).

I read John Locke’s A New Method of a Common-Place-Book a few days ago. (E-text here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/Book.php?recordID=0326). I was quite excited to find out it only deals with his method of indexing and retrieving previously ‘stored’ notes; his ways to deal with paper-techniques to extends one’s own memory.

Actually Locke’s method shows that his commonplace books were no commonplace books anymore, but notebooks. Commonplace books belong to the Rennaissance, and to a world in which rhetorics are predominant. Notebooks belong to the new world of modern science. One deals with constructing arguments the other with arriving at scientific truth. One still puts (human) memory in the centre; the other values reporting and writing down. (To put it bluntly). What I find exciting is to see the co-development of storage & publishing techniques (paper not really being scarce anymore in Locke’s time) and techniques of writing, noticing and researching.

Interesting in this respect are the theories of Richard Lanham about economies of attention and the return of rhetorics in the world of the electronic word (as his book, froom 1993 (!) is called): http://www.rhetoricainc.com/.

A long an thorough paper on Locke’s methods of commonplacing is Richard Yeo’s John Locke’s New Metod of Commonplacing, (2004): http://www.phil.mq.edu.au/staff/jsutton/Yeo.doc. Here’s my digest in quotes.

(All this I find interesting because of the (for me) implied reference to blogging: making notes, research, indexing, use of keywords, referencing, working/writing/publishing methods — and the relation to rhetorics & the use of commonplaces — read: samples).

“I argue that on his own account, Locke extends and complicates the previous functions of these notebooks, making them part of a system for managing information that could be adapted to suit individual purposes.”

“In his influential De Copia (1512), Erasmus offered a manual of examples, advising that themes, quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

“By 1704, the year of Locke’s death, Jonathan Swift (who kept his own commonplace book) regarded the worst applications of the method as part of a syndrome of techniques—including abridging, epitomizing, and indexing—all offering easy ways to skim a book. He dubbed this syndrome “Index learning.” Such abuse of commonplacing was disastrous: “By these Methods, in a few Weeks, there starts up many a Writer, capable of managing the profoundest and most universal Subjects. For, what tho’ his Head be empty, provided his Common-place-Book be full.” The reputation of this humanist legacy had further to fall: by the nineteenth century the term “commonplace” degenerated to refer to ordinary, unremarkable facts or observations—the very opposite of its early modern meaning.”

“yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill: “A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous … the whole of antiquity and a multitude of examples is to be kept in the memory.” This is why the natural powers of memory needed to be augmented, a demand inflated by the humanist passion for “copious” embellishment of material.”

“Bacon affirmed the role of a “good and learned Digest of Common Places”: “The great help to the memory is writing; and it must be taken as a rule that memory without this aid is unequal to matters of much length and accuracy.””

“Between 1500 and 1700 there was a subtle shift in the function of such notebooks: from being repositories of the material that individuals sought to memorize, they came to be seen as ways of retaining information that could never be memorized”

“Thus although material is placed under an appropriate category, or subject, its position in the notebook is determined by alphabetical combinations. Such compression and scattering of related material is tolerable because the index operates as a finding device⎯provided that the maker of the commonplace book remembers the Head under which particular material has been placed.” (Concerning Locke’s notebooks).

“This “topical man,” as Locke pointedly calls him, has a memory full of “borrowed and collected arguments” but usually mixes incompatible elements because he has not thought these ideas through. This stance anticipates several passages in Some Thoughts where Locke ridicules the collection and memorizing of quotations, “which when a Man’s Head is stuffed “with, he has got the Furniture of a Pedant.””

“Locke rarely made marginal notes in his books. Instead, on the inside back cover he noted the pages containing something that he entered in one of his commonplace books. When picking up this book on a subsequent occasion, he then knew that there was already a commonplace book entry.”

“In these ways, Locke’s adversaria and his library catalogue were linked, and so the commonplace method was now part of a sophisticated system for research and information management.”

” For Locke, however, commonplace books are not catalysts for related, yet memorized, material; instead, they are a means of reducing dependence on memory, retrieving references, and avoiding unnecessary duplication in note taking. His method allowed one to forget, thus relieving the memory, and yet also providing a means of finding required material at a later time.”

“Locke used commonplace books in new ways, expanding their scope and transforming them from a rhetorical storehouse into a research tool and a crucial component of his system for managing information.”

” Traditionally, commonplace books contained personal collections of publicly accepted knowledge. The material they stored, usually drawn from the classical corpus, comprised generally accepted tropes, maxims, and quotations that could be applied in oratory and written compositions. Such commonplace material was effective because its status was unchallenged and its authority could, with appropriate skill, be transferred to the particular case being argued.”

“Thus although such commonplaces were collected by individuals in unpublished notebooks, they were intended for public use and relied on widely endorsed values. Indeed, it was assumed that these notebooks could be shared and read with benefit by other educated individuals.” (This is an interesting relation with blogs I’d say…)

“Nevertheless, his [Locke’s] method of indexing does suit a world (described in Le Clerc’s introduction of 1706) in which the ambit of reading and study is expansive, and future topics not easily anticipated. Confessing his own habits, Locke acknowledged a tendency to “change often the subject I have been studying, read books by patches and as they have accidentally come in my way, and observe no obvious method or order in my studies.” Given such a pattern, we can see why he confronted the problem of allocating pages in a notebook.”

“I think that Locke’s account of memory shows why commonplace books are necessary for the proper ordering and retention of ideas; his concerns about disorderly and confused ideas entail the need for methodical collection; and his views on personal identity suggest a role for commonplace books in reinforcing a biographical sense of self.”

“Locke did not see the practice of making entries in commonplace books as a way of improving memory. ”

“In 1704 Locke’s French translator, Pierre Coste, reported that the great philosopher advised that “whenever we have meditated any thing new, we should throw it as soon as possible upon paper, in order to be the better able to judge of it by seeing it altogether; because the mind of man is not capable of retaining clearly a long chain of consequences, and of seeing, without confusion, the relation of a great number of different ideas.””

“The commonplace books gave Locke dedicated pathways to his library and saved time in finding passages previously read and noted. The emphasis was on retrieving, rather than recalling, information, but the indexing still required the user to remember the Heads that were chosen when particular entries were made.”

“The stress was not on quotations under generally shared Heads, but rather on referencing entries back to books, ideally those in a personal library.”

All quotes from Richard Yeo, ‘Locke’s New Method of Commonplacing: Managing Memory and Information’, in Eightteenth Century Thought, 2, (2004) 1-38.

en,quotations,ubiscribe,writing | July 27, 2006 | 15:08 | comments (0) |

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