Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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A thought about constructive criticism

When someone asks you to review something he wrote, here is a thought for you.

Do you see that sunset over there?

Constructive criticism is both of you trying to describe that sunset. The first response is the joy of the opportunity to see the view. The other person has made an attempt at describing it and has asked you to help in that description.

First, stop and enjoy his description; you were doing something else; you might have missed the view unless he drew your attention to it.

Now, what do you see that can perhaps add to what the other is seeing, so that the celebration might even be greater?

This is especially true if you know the other person. You know him or her, so when you read something that you think might mean this-or-that, but you know that person could not possibly mean such a thing, than your response ought to be a question, not a disagreement.

This is why I find papers written by my students at the end of a semester easier to grade, because by then I know them better than I knew them at first. Criticism then becomes a suggestion of how to word things better, rather than warning them that, hey, that sunset they think they see over there is really a hallucination.

That would be destructive criticism, not constructive criticism.

There always must be humility, because we do not make the sunsets, we only learn to describe them better.


Matthew 17.24-27 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

The first women's movement in the Church

In 1243 ... Matthew Paris -- surveying the European scene from his English monastery -- made an entry in his Chronicle to which he attached great importance:

"At this time and especially in Germany, certain people -- men and women, but especially women -- have adopted a religious profession, though it is a light one. They call themselves 'religious', and they take a private vow of continence and simplicity of life, though they do not follow the Rule of any saint, nor are they as yet confined to a cloister. They have so multiplied within a short time that two thousand have been reported in Cologne and neighboring cities ..."

We know that (Matthew Paris) was greatly impressed by the news of this new movement because in 1250, when he summarized the main events of the previous half century, he repeated his information ..."

"In Germany there has arisen an innumerable multitude of celibate women who call themselves beguines: a thousand or more of them live in Cologne alone..."

[Here is also Robert Grosseteste, the great bishop of Lincoln]: one day he preached a sermon to the Franciscans in which he extolled ... the highest kind of poverty: this was to live by one's own labor "like the beguines."

Between them, Grosseteste and Paris surveyed a very large slice of European life, and they were both impressed by the new and strange phenomenon. The beguine movement differed substantially from all earlier important movements within the western church. It was basically a women's movement, not simply a feminine appendix to a movement which owed its impetus, direction, and main support to men. It had no definite Rule of life; it claimed the authority of no saintly founder; it sought no authorization from the Holy See; it had no organization or constitution; it promised no benefits and sought no patrons; its vows were a statement of intention, not an irreversible commitment to a discipline enforced by authority; and its adherents could continue their ordinary work in the world ...


Quoted from: R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin Book, 1970) 319-321

Polanyi on art and mastery

Michael Polanyi is the thinker who gave us the term "tacit knowledge." He said so many insightful things, like this:

"An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice...

... It follows that an art which has fallen into disuse for the period of a generation is altogether lost. There are hundreds of examples of this to which the process of mechanization is continuously adding new ones. These losses are usually irretrievable.

It is pathetic to watch the endless efforts -- equipped with microscopy and chemistry, with mathematics and electronics -- to reproduce a single violin of the kind the half-literate Stradivarius turned out as a matter of routine more than 200 years ago ...

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art ...


Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, 1974, 51