Monday, December 06, 2010

Making an Impression

I finished reading Sam Harris's latest, The Moral Landscape, the other night, and I can safely say that if you only read one book this year about the canard that science can have nothing to say about matters of morality, this should be it.

I can't say I found a lot of blog-worthy nits to pick in the book--I was too busy trying to wrap my melon around some of the more abstruse material in the end notes--but here's something to chew on: In a passage describing some of the logical fallacies we humans are inclined toward embracing, Harris writes:
Invariance of reasoning, both logical and moral, is a norm to which we all aspire. And when we catch others departing from this norm, whatever the other merits of their thinking, the incoherency of their position suddenly becomes its most impressive characteristic.
Rather an odd use of the word impressive, don't you think? You don't usually think of yourself as being impressed by someone's incoherence. The usage is not wrong, of course--something that is impressive is something that makes a vivid impression, good or bad--but idiomatically speaking, I think we tend to reserve impressive for things that impress us favorably, and that makes the sentence incongruous on first reading.

To belabor the point, I refer to this passage from further on in the book:
It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you have ever been impressed by how often people can rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work.
Again, Harris is not describing behavior that one would be "impressed by" in the conventional sense of the term. But somehow I find the usage less jarring here--perhaps because it is the principle, not the behavior, that is actually impressing us with its profundity.

Finally, from further along on that page:
Rome will find you sitting in cafes, visiting museums and ancient ruins, and drinking an impressive amount of wine.
That's more like it. Speaking as someone who routinely drinks what he likes to think of as "impressive" amounts of wine, I have no doubt that the word is used here in its most apposite way: to denote awe and respect for a challenge well met.

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