Lilia Efimova picks up on something I too had read over at David Buchan‘s Thought?Horizon referring to a wonderful metafor Jim McGee used:

There’s an old story that I’ve heard described as a Russion proverb. It says that if each one of us takes care of sweeping the sidewalk in front of our own home, we won’t need streetsweepers. It’s worth thinking about how that might apply to the world of knowledge work, both on the level of being an individual knowledge worker yourself and on the level of helping make the other knowledge workers that surround you more effective.

As Lilia is Russian, and the mention of a Russian proverb triggers her curiousity, she starts a search for the story and comes up with Tolstoy as a source. (An act Jim McGee appreciates as a gift, which is a beautiful posting in itself)
In the comment section Jay Cross offers that he’s pretty sure it’s something Goethe wrote.
My first thought on reading the story was “that could be something written by Vondel“, one of the icons of Dutch literature. Sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house is a picture that reminds of the Golden Era which Simon Schama has written so eloquently and amusingly about in his “Embarassment of Riches“. It sounds so cliche-fittingly Dutch, you know, it just has to be by Vondel.

Now how come we try and attribute things that apparently have a familiar ring to it to icons of our cultural background or context? Is it to reinforce the importance of what we’re saying with names that carry authority? Or is it laziness, “let’s attribute it to someone who might have written anything, saves me the time to look it up”. Or even to get away with talking in clichés?

And do we bloggers do the same? If there is anything that pops up in your mind on the way we experience internet, do you think “ah, I probably read that over at David Weinberger‘s”? Are the A-listers our icons of blogospheric culture, whom we can attribute the stuff to we don’t want to fact-check too closely ourselves, but do want people to listen to? Are we building up the reputation of A-listers, to be able to off-load all that general stuff, so we can forget about it ourselves, as Gary L. Murphy suggested recently (and which is backed I think by how Daniel C. Dennett views the evolution of our minds)?

So who did write that story about sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house?
Tolstoy? Vondel? Goethe? Someone else?

Will the real author please stand up? I bet it is indeed Tolstoy, I trust Lilia on her word. Or is that just my way of escaping fact-checking it myself?

4 reactions on “Dropping Names, or, Who said that?

  1. It’s the old blonde and blue-eyed Jesus story: An aryan living among the black-skinned people of the Nazarenes? Yet the icon of the Herculean Jesus is ubiquitous because the intent of the story is that he’s “just like us, no one special because we are all special to God” and an Ethiopian-looking Jesus would have had adoption problems in zenophobic medieval Europe (and probably still today in many parts of the world).
    people take stories to heart, but they don’t remember the details, they only remember the intent and over time, they fill in details from their own experience. I will wager this principle, which is a pretty pithy sentiment, is common across many cultures and it’s not unreasonable that many authors said something similar enough.
    Similar enough. That’s apropos too: In looking at the total knowledge across blogs, don’t we look for patterns rather than facts, for principles and ideas rather than specific prose? We also, as you’ve noted before, repurpose one statement to another concept if it takes our fancy to do so, as the I Ching says, if we see good we imitate it.
    As for A-Listers, as I noted in my Blogs Know, they are only ‘special’ by accident of their birth coupled with a bit of impetus and skill; time and chance happeneth to them all. We as associative-computer users (humans with brains) distill central thoughts as nodes in our own neural frameworks and those nodes become the foci of things we later (operative word, ‘later’) decide to call abstractions. Jung’s archetypes are not off existing in space, they are off existing in the wiring of our neural networks and the perceptive among us recognize this aggregating and give them names.
    A-listers, like pop stars, are a cognitive scaffold on which we hang our own identities, we ‘identify’ with them and imbue them with our own thoughts as a convenient associative relation that helps us re-locate that web of associations when we later need them. They did not create their communities, their communities create them out of a necessity to have a common foci for these particular sets of ideas, and because we are networked and culturally very similar, we find we can share pop idols, and we reward them (lucratively) for their donating their persona to becoming ourselfs extended. A-listers are us.
    Returning to the issue of who’s idea it was, is it unreasonable to believe that we can draw a distinct line of books-read between those authors such that they each had opportunity to learn that meme from one or more of the others? Getting back to the roots of Christianity, and especially the odd details such as the almost exact parallels between the birth of Christ and the birth of Krishna, is it not possible that the story emerges out of Asia Minor because it was, at the time, a hotbed of trade and interaction that most certainly had opportunity to absorb the stories from many diverse religions and anneal them together into the Jesus story?

  2. Maybe worth noting that David Reynolds, a leading western supporter of the early 20th century Japanese psychiatry of Morita Shoma, recommends a path to community in the instruction to sweep our neighbour’s path … and to do so secretly and anonymously.

  3. I hate to contradict my new friend Lilia, but I have visited Goethe’s house in Weimar (highly recommended) and
    Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
    Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.
    Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.
    “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”
    Not that I am a Goethe scholar. I didn’t know he’d said these until I grabbed the references above:
    “In art the best is good enough.”
    “All our knowledge is symbolic.”
    “The deed is all, the glory nothing.”

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