Decimating Aristotle

Sent to the Opelika-Auburn News on 3 February 2013, but not published:

To the Editor:

Your AP story about the tornado that hit the Daiki steel plant in Adairsville (Feb. 1, 2013) says that the plant has been “reduced to a pile of rubble.” Yet in your headline you describe the plant as “decimated.”

To decimate something is to reduce it by one tenth, or ten percent – well short of turning it into a pile of rubble. The word has the same root as “decimal system.”

In recent years the term “decimate” has come to be widely misused to mean “devastate,” probably because the two words sound similar. But we have lots of words that mean “devastate.” We have only one word that means “decimate.” Why give it up?

On the facing page, your story about the Smiths Station crash says “While attempting to back up, the train struck the front passenger side of the vehicle.” I’m sure your writer meant to say that the driver of the car was trying to back up, but grammatically what the sentence says is that the train was trying to back up, which seems unlikely.

A similar improbability shows up the next day (Feb. 2) in the first-page story about the Lee Road rape attempt: the story says “After asking to use the home’s phone, the victim allowed the suspect” to enter. I know the writer meant to say that the perpetrator was asking to use the phone; but grammatically, what the writer has actually said is that the victim was asking permission to use her own phone.

Roderick T. Long

Sent to the New Yorker on 9 Feb 2013, but not published:

To the Editor:

Adam Gopnik’s (“Moon Man,” Feb. 11-18) list of doctrines that were purportedly taught on Aristotle’s authority in Galileo’s day includes many that Aristotle never held, and that no 16th-century professor would have been likely to attribute to him.

Impetus theory, for example, was intended as a correction of Aristotle; it was never a part of Aristotle’s own physics. Aristotle did not hold that we can know the causal powers of things prior to empirical investigation; he made it clear that all knowledge depends on experience. Space, and therefore motion, was relative for Aristotle, not absolute; Newtonian absolute space was an anti-Aristotelean innovation. Aristotle’s celestial spheres were held aloft by contemplating the Prime Mover, not themselves. (It’s the Prime Mover that contemplates itself; but, being non-physical, it doesn’t need to be held aloft.) Aristotle did not regard the earth as “unhappy,” either as a cause or as an effect of its location at the center if the universe (and in any case downward-tending elements could be transmuted into upward-tending elements simply by heating them).

Moreover, Aristotelean scientists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, while there were no doubt Simplicios among them, were in large part bold innovators, not the slavish followers of il mæstro that Gopnik’s description suggests. It’s also unclear how Gopnik can simultaneously attribute to them both the view that the center of the universe is the least noble place to be and the view that displacing the earth from the center is an affront to human nobility.

Gopnik is a bit unfair to Galileo as well. Galileo did not favour circular orbits over Kepler’s elliptical ones merely as a “crotchet,” because he “loved the perfection of circles”; he gave an (admittedly mistaken) argument for it, based on the circular character of inertial motion on the earth’s surface, following the curvature of the planet.

Roderick T. Long

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2 Responses to Decimating Aristotle

  1. Irfan Khawaja May 6, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    I guess these publications have an editorial policy of printing only one-tenth of the deserving letters they receive. Hmm, so you put “deci” together with “publication”….and you get “dessication.”

  2. Irfan Khawaja May 6, 2013 at 6:38 am #

    And I think The New Yorker should stop desecrating Aristotle.

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