Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Another faulty adage

Now widely current, the admonition, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made" (Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden) stems from Immanuel Kant's "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" (1784). It was popularized by the British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Today, "Crooked Timber" is a popular blog.

Like many current cliches, the term “crooked timber” reflects an obsolete technology. In Kant’s time, lumber was normally hewn ad hoc with an adze or other instrument.

Beginning in the 1840s, however, lumber mills became the standard source for wood. They produced regular planks, allowing for what is termed balloon-framing construction. This technique produces the wooden skeleton of uniform frames that we normally see as a house is going up.

Perhaps the metaphor is valid about crooked timber. Yet there is no need actually to make use of crooked timber, unless you think it looks picturesque. Instead, go to a lumber yard. Out of this timber, carefully hewn according to exacting standards, lots of straight things have been made.



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