Newton’s queries

Franklin had read Newton’s Opticks, for example, which contains a set of experimentally proven propositions and ends with a group of “queries,” unsolved questions for further studies.

This was a passing reference in Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air (p. 34), but it caught my attention.

In writing posts on this blog—especially longer posts—I’ve found myself compelled to come to some sort of a conclusion at the end of the post. While this may be what is expected of most non-fiction writing, this isn’t what I want to do on this blog. I want to capture and explore ideas that are new to me without necessarily coming to a conclusion. 

Sometimes in the course of writing about a new idea, I will draw a conclusion, but many times the conclusions at the end of these posts have been forced. Forced conclusions are not particularly compelling conclusions.

Newton’s queries are interesting because they provide a potential way to end a blog post while satisfying my deeply felt need for a resolution of some sort.  A set of questions—things I’m still uncertain about or need to research further—is also more in keeping with the purpose of this blog. It also invites commentary and conversation. Something I’ve not been very good at encouraging on this blog.


  • Is working toward a conclusion is a better way of exploring new ideas? For the moment, my hypothesis is that ending with unaswered questions, rather than a conclusion is a better way of doing this. By for the moment it’s only that: a hypothesis.
  • What I’m proposing here is different from what Newton did. He did come to a conclusion. What I’m doing on this blog isn’t science. These posts aren’t experimental outcomes, but in a way they are the experiment. Iss there a balance between coming to a conclusion and highlighting questions that I’d still like to find an answer for?

Autonomy is different from independence

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Wester Europe, but also in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Wester locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 90

I’ve written about the Dan Pink’s research into motivation twice before: once to highlight the idea of intrinsic motivation and once to discuss the importance of having a purpose.

A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Drive. The idea that stuck with this time was the importance of autonomy in ensuring people are motivated. Not surprisingly, people are not very motivated when they feel that they’re working on something they have no control over.

What really struck me, though, is the distinction between autonomy and independence: that having autonomy is not the same as working entirely on your own. I’ve certainly found that I work better with other people than on my own. It’s not just me, at Pixar managed collaboration is prized over genius design and Steven Johnson has written about how breakthroughs often come about through the collision of different ideas.

What has also occurred to me is that the distinction between interdependent autonomy and independence is very much at the heart of the distinction that Lewis Hyde makes between civic republicanism and commercial republicanism. The more I think about it, the more I’m firmly convinced that I am a civic republican. It’s a model that provides better exposure to other ideas and helps people learn the habit of compromise.

Civic Republicanism

In 2005, Lewis Hyde (author of Trickster Makes This World and The Gift) wrote Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property, an essay on the history of copyright, which appears to have been largely ignored (until the last few days).

In it, Hyde traces the history of the idea of copyright from the Reformation to the founding of the United States of America. Not surprisingly, the essay is an exhilarating read. As he is unpicking the ideas that inform the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution, he makes a distinction between commercial republicanism and civic republicanism:

We have at least two republican traditions in this country, the civic and the commercial. The commercial comes later in our history and is the one most of us are familiar with. It values above all on the private individual seeking his own self-interest. Commercial republicanism assumes that property exists to benefit its owners and that owners gain virtue or respect in one another’s eyes by increasing the market value of the goods that they command. The government in such a republic leaves each citizen alone to follow his or her own subjective sense of the good life. Liberty is negative liberty, a lack of all coercion. Where questions of social well being or the common good arise, government is given little role in answering them, the assumption being that if answers are to be had at all they will arise automatically if paradoxically from the summed activity of private actors seeking private ends.

All of these things–self-interest, property, virtue, liberty, the public good–are situated differently in civic republicanism. Here autonomous individuals and private property are also valued, but property is assumed to exist in order to free the individual for public service. Liberty in this instance is positive liberty, citizenship being directed toward acknowledged public ends, above all toward creating and maintaining the many things that must be in place before there can be true self-governance (a diverse free press, for example, literacy, situations for public deliberation, and so forth). Social well being in this view cannot arise simply by aggregating individual choices; private interest and public good are too often at odds. Citizens acquire virtue in the civic republic, therefore, not by productivity but by willingly allowing self-interest to bow to the public good. Civic virtue is not something anyone is born with; it is acquired through civic action.

I’ve often been accused (especially back the States) of being a socialist. I’ve known for quite some time that I’m not actually a socialist: I lack the requisite faith in a central government to right all wrongs. Nevertheless, I’ve struggled to find a term that actually describes the way I believe a society should work. Namely that the benefits conferred on us by the society we live in should be returned in some way. Hyde’s definition of “civic republicanism” comes closer than anything I’ve seen. More research is required, but I may well start describing myself as a “civic republican” (note the lowercase “r”).

I encourage you to read the entire essay. I promise you won’t regret it. Hyde is an extraordinary writer.

Full Disclosure: I’m biased, since I’m already a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s work. Last year, I finally read Trickster Makes This World. I was thouroughly impressed. The book was exquisite, eminently quotable, thoroughly researched and exceedingly well argued. I’ll just repeat here what I said in my review of the book: “This is about as perfect as a non-fiction book gets for me.” In other words, when I grow up and become a writer, I want to be Lewis Hyde.

The Gold Mountain

In China, those who dream of America as a promised land call it the Gold Mountain. For the rest of us, there is the family of our birth and there is some Gold Mountain, a more noble world to which we really belong, one whose citizens will recognize us for who we really are. The richness of this ideal world is often proportional to the poverty of the real, as personal grandiosity is proportional to shame.

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World pp. 162-163