Interview: Hirsch & Van Haften, “Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason”

13 12 2010

Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason (Savas Beatie) is probably the most original thesis (or at this point, is it antithesis?) I’ve run across in a long while.  First-time authors and long-time friends David Hirsh (below first) and Dan Van Haften (below second) have been drawing a lot of attention with their study of Lincoln’s consistent use of principles of geometry in the construction of his speeches.  The two-headed Danvid answered a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Can you tell the readers about yourselves?

DH/DVH:  We met in the first grade.  David is a Des Moines attorney. For more than 10 years he co-authored the technology column for the ABA Journal.  Dan, who lives in suburban Chicago, retired from Alcatel-Lucent in 2007 after 37 years.  His work involved developing and testing telecommunications systems.

BR:   You have unusual backgrounds for Lincoln authors – particularly Dan.   Can you describe the winding road that led you to the wonderful world of Lincoln scholarship?

DH/DVH:  Dan first became interested in Abraham Lincoln in the 1990s when he attended three-day Lincoln seminars in Springfield. In 2006 David was thinking about researching a column for the ABA Journal on how Lincoln would have fared practicing law with today’s technology. Dan joined David and his wife in Springfield. Dan functioned as tour guide; David did research in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. After going through the old Lincoln and Herndon law office, David commented that Abraham Lincoln’s law practice, and small-town midwest law practice in the 1970s appeared to have many similarities. Then we visited the old Springfield train station from which Lincoln departed to Washington as President-elect never to return. David read the plaque outside the station containing Lincoln’s short farewell address. The combination of the touring and the research hooked David on Lincoln. He commented, “I used to think I knew something about Lincoln; I knew nothing.” There is nothing unusual about a lawyer being interested in Lincoln. It is true however that most Lincoln scholars are not lawyers. Added to that is the fact that not much substantive primary source material survives from Lincoln’s law practice. There was no official, court reported, stenographic record back then of opening and closing statements to juries, or of witness examinations. Nor was there recording of appellate oral arguments. Those are the things everyone would love to see. Plus briefs then were truly brief, not what they are today. Modern technology has made more of what survives generally available. That includes many arcane hand-drafted Lincoln legal documents. There are fine source books now like The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, and Herndon’s Informants, and others. Things fell into place. It turned out that Dan’s math background was an ideal match for David’s legal background. When the book started there was no thought about how useful the math background would be for the book. It was one of many surprises. A secret was ready to be revealed.

BR:  How would you describe your writing and research process?

DH/DVH:  The process of two people jointly writing a book could be a book in itself. It greatly helped that we have known each other since the first grade. Obviously email, Google Books, telephone, Skype, web access to major sources including Basler’s The Collected Works all made it easier. For instance, we each had a print version of major Lincoln resources like Basler. The ability to digitally search was an added and valued tool. We wanted to focus on primary sources.

The initial plan was to focus on Lincoln’s work as a lawyer. We consciously decided that we did not want to deal with Lincoln’s presidential years and his speeches. Countless books had already done that. We felt his Lincoln’s law practice had been under-treated, mainly because of a lack of data. We wanted to use Lincoln’s law practice as a tool to both illuminate it and, by comparison, examine modern legal issues. Little did we realize where this would lead.

Right around the time of the decision not to write about Lincoln’s presidential years and his speeches, Dan stated, “The first thing I want to do is read the complete Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Cooper Union Speech.” To put it mildly, David thought this was a peculiar place to start given the topic limitation that was agreed on. But, not wanting to limit Dan’s creativity, David made no comment. Dan came back with a seven-page handwritten summary of key items from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. One paragraph included a reference which mentioned Euclid. David immediately became excited. David had always believed there was a relationship between math and language, and in his youth had wasted many hours looking for that connection. He instantly felt that this would lead to the connection between math and speech. David asked Dan to find everything in Lincoln literature that discussed or referenced Euclid.

Dan reported that not much was there other than that Lincoln mastered the first six books of Euclid, and his purpose was to learn what it meant to demonstrate.

So David said to Dan , “Do what Lincoln did; study the first six books of Euclid and find out what it means to demonstrate. Then when you find out what demonstrate means, find the best Lincoln example showing it.”

Dan studied Euclid, and then looked at Proclus’ commentary on Euclid. Proclus was a fifth century neo-Platonist philosopher. Dan determined the six elements of a proposition, which Euclid uses to prove his propositions, were used by Lincoln for the structure of the Cooper Union speech. The rest, literally, is history. Suddenly we were propelled into examining Lincoln speeches and his presidential years, in addition to his law practice. It turns out all of this nicely blended into a unified theme. We continued to rely most on primary sources, letting Lincoln speak for himself as much as possible. Then we turned to what his contemporaries said. Once we knew what demonstrate meant, we knew what to look for. Everything fell into place.

BR:  OK, this is probably the most original premise I’ve seen for a Lincoln study in a long time.   Keeping in mind that I scored higher on verbal than math on my SAT, and that the only time I consciously use geometry is when I play pool, can you briefly explain the principles of Euclidean geometry, how we know that Lincoln studied and mastered them, and how you demonstrate that Lincoln consciously used them when composing his speeches?

DH/DVH:  We cover no math in the book more complicated than 2 + 2 = 4. What we do cover is the hidden verbal template that underlies Euclid’s form, which Lincoln uniquely transferred to political argument and speech. This verbal template is profound, but simple.

We know Lincoln studied and mastered Euclidean geometry because he tells us he did in his short 1860 autobiography for John L. Scripps. Furthermore many Lincoln contemporaries who travelled with him on the Circuit comment on Lincoln pulling out Euclid and studying by candlelight. What Lincoln’s colleagues don’t know, and what Lincoln does not say, is specifically what he learned from Euclid. The common assumption, until now, was Lincoln learned Euclid for recreation or to sharpen his mind, kind of like mental calisthenics.

The actual technique is simple, though it takes a little practice to feel comfortable with it.

Here are the names of the six elements of a Euclidean proposition:

  • enunciation
  • exposition
  • specification
  • construction
  • proof
  • conclusion

Now for the definitions. Bear with us. The definitions, when taken together are simple. The terms themselves can be confusing at first because they are unfamiliar in this context. If you want to use this system you should first memorize the names and order of the six elements, then gradually internalize what they are.

For the enunciation, think in terms of: Why are we here. It contains short, indisputable facts. They are part of the given. It also includes a sought. This is a high level statement of the general issue being discussed.

For the exposition, think in terms of: What do we need to know relating to what is given. These are additional facts, generally fairly simple, and indisputable. These facts take what was in the enunciation’s given, and prepare for use in the investigation (in the construction).

For the specification, think: What are we trying to prove. The specification is a more direct restatement of the enunciation’s sought. While the sought is frequently neutrally stated, the specification is a direct statement of the proposition to be proved.

For the construction, think: How do the facts lead to what is sought. The construction adds what is lacking in the given for finding what is sought.

For the proof, think in terms of: How does the admitted truth confirm the proposed inference. The proof draws the proposed inference by reasoning scientifically from the propositions that have been admitted.

For the conclusion, think: What has been proved. The conclusion reverts back to the enunciation confirming what has been proved. The conclusion should be straightforward, forceful, and generally short.

We go into many more aspects of the technique in the book, simplifying and explaining. We also demarcate about 30 Lincoln writings into the six elements of a proposition. Once a Lincoln writing is demarcated, one is literally able to get inside Lincoln’s head. One sees how and why Lincoln makes his word choices.

In between the demarcations are many Lincoln stories showing his character and his characteristics. These give further insight into the man himself which make it easier to feel like one is truly inside his brain. Harvard professor and author John Stauffer characterizes our book as a sophisticated detective story. It is also a how-to manual. Anyone can be an Abraham Lincoln.

To answer your question of how we show Lincoln used this system, the 30 demarcations are the best evidence. The stories and historical comments that surround the demarcations reinforce the conclusion that this was a secret hiding in plain sight. We even construct an “I say” table that further confirms our proposition. You will have to read the book to find out what that is.

BR:  That’s fascinating stuff!  Was Lincoln unique in his use of Euclid’s template?

DH/DVH:  Yes and no. We discovered (for the first time) that Thomas Jefferson used this format for the Declaration of Independence and for his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson even refers to the religious freedom statute as a proposition. The Declaration proves the proposition that it is our right and duty to throw off allegiance to the British Crown and become free and independent. We demarcate both Declaration and the Statute for Religious Freedom in Chapter 13 of  the book. Like other discoveries in the book, we could not believe we were able to make this discovery so many years after these documents were drafted, and so many years after so many books had been written about them.

Lincoln was an admirer of the Declaration of Independence, and one can speculate that he recognized Jefferson’s use of Euclidean structure in the Declaration. We will never know. Many long regarded the Declaration as Euclidean, for instance the phrase, “all men are created equal”.  We found no reference to the six elements of a proposition in connection with the Declaration. The six elements had essentially been lost in the dust bin of history.

BR:  Are there any speakers (political or otherwise) today who you’ve identified as using this method?

DH/DVH:  Both of the authors have used the technique. The last person prior to that that the authors know used the technique was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln brilliantly transferred the language of geometrical proof to the language of political speech. The technique is usable by anyone. But even if you do not want to learn to speak and write like Lincoln, the technique is invaluable for finding weak spots in others’ arguments. It squeezes out sophistries. And if all you want to do is understand Lincoln better, you can reach a level of Lincoln understanding never before possible.

BR:  Did your research turn up anything that either surprisingly supported or contradicted any notions you held prior to beginning the project?

DH/DVH:  We had no significant prior notions. We followed the evidence wherever it led. It led us to Euclid, which led us to the six elements of a proposition. Only at that point did we set out to prove what Lincoln accomplished. We did not initially intend to cover Lincoln’s presidential years or his speeches. But we needed his speeches to prove our proposition. That led us to Lincoln’s great deception in his Cooper Union Speech, explained in Chapter 3. That again was something we did not anticipate. We could not believe that had gone undiscovered for over 150 years. But it was the six elements that indirectly led us to discover Lincoln’s Cooper Union deception. And in the process of all this, we returned to our original theme. The legal system itself proved to be Euclidean. This is what completes the explanation of how Lincoln was Lincoln.

BR:  How has your book been received so far?   In particular, what has been the reaction of the Lincoln establishment?

DH/DVH:  So far we have received warm embrace. There are flattering adjectives like “groundbreaking”, “astounding”, and “wow moments”. From our standpoint the book was a joy to research and write.

BR:  What’s next for you?

DH/DVH:  The is an endless series of topics to carry forward with the discoveries in Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason. If we find time, we will not run out of topics.

I’m not sure how David and Dan, alone or together, are going to top this effort, but if Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason is any indication, whatever they come up with should be unique.  You can keep up with their doings at www.thestructureofreason.com.








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