February 1, 2011

Thought for 2.1.11

It’s one thing not to be able to see the forest for the trees, and another not to be able to see the trees for the forest. 

The first is a metaphor for getting so caught up on details as to miss the big picture. The latter, a more pernicious illness, is getting so caught up in a Big Idea (or worse, a Big Lie) that you no longer can see the details that refute the idea. 

This is a prevailing fault of those who misunderstand the adage, “The exception proves the rule” to mean the opposite of what it means to those who understand that proves means “tests.” If there are exceptions, it’s not a rule.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

8 comments:

JCF said...

...but it might be a paradox. ;-/

I confess, I've used "the exception proves the rule" to mean "Look how crazy @ss this 'exception' is---OF COURSE, generally, the rule is true!"

My bad.

Erika Baker said...

Are you sure that proving is meant in the sense of testing here?
The German version is "the exception confirms the rule", which would indicate that proving should, indeed, be interpreted as providing evidence.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Erika, I'm sure about this. Webster's Unabridged (New Centyr second edition) even gives it as a citation under the verb "prove" with the explanation, "The exception puts the rule to the test." To prove means to test, and something can be proven true or false. Generally the shorthand is applied to things proven true, which leads to the misunderstanding. People say, "He proved his theory" is the shorthand for "He proved his theory was true." Hence the misunderstanding of the saying -- now so widely misunderstood as to merit disuse!

Erika Baker said...

That's really interesting, because the English meaning of the same saying is then quite different to the German one, although I would have been sure that the two have the same origin.
A most unexpected false friend!

Looking this up in German references it seems that the phrase goes back to the Latin "exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis", an expression used by Cicero in a legal defence where he argued that if an exception renders an action illegal, then this action is to be considered legal in all instances which are not subject to the exception.

A practical example of modern day usage given is the “late opening” of a shop, which indicates that the rule is an earlier closing time.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Yes, Erika, in a legal context that makes sense. It is, in effect, saying that if an exception is granted as such it shows that there is a law covering unexceptional cases. So a father who normally insists that his children be home by 10, by giving special permission for a single late night out, is actually, by the very exceptional quality of his permission, reinforcing the fact that there is a rule.

The problem I'm getting at is the popular use of the phrase, rather far from the legal context, which comes up in arguments consistently: that evidence to the contrary has no impact on the truth of a proposition. As in,

a. All lambs are white.
b. There's a black lamb.
c. There, that proves that all lambs are white!

This comes up in the sexuality discussions all the time when people assert that there is a "biblical model for marriage" -- and indeed my "thought" arises from writing a review of Jennifer Wright Knust's book, Unprotected Texts (to be posted in a few weeks) that addresses the falsity of the traditionalist proposition by showing that the exceptions outnumber the norms!

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, I understand what you are saying. That said, I, too, have commonly used it in the sense Erika does, and somewhat like Cicero: if we notice something as exceptional, it reveals that there is "a rule," a normal with which we are all experienced, but don't often think about. That is, "Dog bites man is not news; but man bites dog is."

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

And that, Marshall, as we know well, is an important rule for journalists!

Fred Schwartz said...

Tobias,
For me there is a corollary that goes somehting like this:

When in a fight the good guys always play by the rules while the bad guys figure there are no rules. That's why good guys usually lose in a fight.