Firsthand knowledge

From C. S. Lewis:

It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but it usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This quote comes from the essay On the Reading of Old Books, part of the collection God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Lewis says here that it is easier to read Plato or St. Paul, for example, than to read books about Plato or St. Paul.  Lewis says that the fear of reading great authors

… springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentators.

This does not only apply to literature. I see the same theme in math. Sometimes early math papers are easier to read because they are more concrete. When I was a postdoc at Vanderbilt I asked Richard Arenstorf about a theorem attributed to him in a book I was reading. He scoffed that he didn’t recognize it. He had done his work in a relatively concrete setting and did not approve of the fancy window dressing the author had placed around his theorem. I sat in on a few lectures by Arenstorf and found them amazingly clear.

The same theme appears in software development. Sometimes you can dive to the bottom of an abstraction hierarchy and find that things are simpler there than you would have supposed. The intervening layers obscure the substance of the program, making its core seem unduly mysterious. Like a mediocre mind commenting on the work of a great mind, developers who build layers of software around core functionality intend to make things easier but may do the opposite.

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8 thoughts on “Firsthand knowledge

  1. When studying philosophy, I have often found that the original works are more comprehensible than the commentaries for the reasons you list. The only exception I’ve found is when there is some specific point I am having trouble understanding that the commentary focuses on.

    Many times a commentator draws out on specific thing and elaborates on it, while the original work is the greater because it contains so many things in potency, while the commentary concretizes just one thing. If you need that one thing, it can be useful.

  2. I agree, at least in some cases. I found Fisher’s presentation of his Exact Test a lot clearer and more useful than the summaries in various textbooks. Moreover, he mentioned an extension to test for an effect of a certain size — via an odds ratio — which led me to his noncentral hypergeometric and, then, with a bit more scholarship, to the Wallenius noncentral hypergeometric, where sampling is no longer from independent distributions.

    I don’t think I’ve seen these followups to the Exact Test documented in any textbook.

    BTW, this was the oddly titled R.A.Fisher, “The logic of inductive inference (with discussion),” J. Royal Statistical Society, 98, 39-54 [1935].

  3. Oops: Correction! There is some discussion on pp 364-365 of Bishop, Fienberg, Holland, [i]Discrete Multivariate Analysis[/i], Springer, a 2007 reprint of an edition from 1975.

  4. I agree, with one caveat. Often two or more mathematicians do seminal work in the same area but with different terminology and different notation. Eventually the mathematics community synthesizes the work and adopts notational conventions. Going back to the original work can feel like reading it in Klingon.

  5. Adetunji Olawale

    Get the first hand knowledge is the best in this life because second hand can put someone in trouble. The first hand knowledge of God will make feel that there is God while the second hand knowledge will make that exist.

  6. The biggest lesson here is actually to keep things simple yourself. Don’t be that person that takes the simple and makes it complex for the sake of complexity or personal vanity.

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