Dijkstra and thinking out loud
In the piece on personal knowledge publishing I wrote last year, I pointed out that the late computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra gave us an early example of the art of knowledge-oriented blogging. Here's a nice article on him and his approach to thinking out loud.
Over a 40-year period that began in the early 1960s, Dijkstra wrote prolifically on timely and compelling topics: from his experience of the evolution of universities on both sides of the Atlantic from the post-WWII era to the beginning of the 21st century; to meditations on the science and art of teaching; to incredibly rich and detailed accounts of his own intellectual methods (don't miss EWD 666: "A problem solved in my head," which contains the endearing aperçu: "Goldbach's Conjecture -- I had never thought that I would ever use that!")
Like entries in a modern weblog, many of the informal pieces collected in the EWD archive were never published in any traditional sense. Instead they were copied (and later photocopied), numbered sequentially from EWD 0 (sadly lost to history) to EWD 1317 ("From van IJzeren's correspondence to my aunt & uncle," written a few months before his death in August 2002) and circulated from the greedy hands of one computer scientist to another like Eastern European samizdat or fourth-generation copies of the Lions books.
The end of the article offers a great quote from Dijkstra on the struggle to accurately observe and steer one's own thinking:
"The need to get some sort of verbal grip on your own pondering will by sheer necessity present your ponderings as something in which, as time progresses, patterns will become distinguishable. Once you have established a language in which to do your own pondering, in which to plan and to supervise your reasoning, you have presented a tool that your students could use as well, for the planning and supervision of their reasoning."
I completely agree with Chalmers who writes about that quote:
Geek that I am, I find this passage incredibly touching. It's the combination of Dijkstra's searing integrity and his humility and willingness to make a complete ass of himself, by actually standing up and pondering aloud in front of his students, for their sake, that gets me every time. I wonder if the success of the scientific method does not depend on exactly this combination of integrity and humility? Dijkstra doesn't just advocate it. He models it.