Monday, 2 January 2012


Great conjurers and prestidigitators are worthy of the highest admiration, and those who work in prose most of all. But it is, actually, all the more disappointing when you get a sudden giveaway glimpse of how the trick is done. As a reader (or maybe: as a reader who is a writer) you simultaneously want that and don't want it. Here, for instance, in one of the greatest prestidigitators in prose, G K Chesterton:
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. [The Thing (1930)]
But you can see the card sliding up Chesterton's sleeve with the unobtrusive introduction slippage from 'establishes' to 'goal' in that passage. It is not self-evident that agnosticism is the goal of science in any sense. We might rather say that science maps out the territory of knowledge, and that where those areas in which it is not able to establish knowledge it says so, plainly, and does not pretend otherwise.

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