The content of a declarative sentence employed in its typical use; a proposition.
A symbol (usually uppercase letters such as A, B, C, etc.) used to represent a specific simple statement in the propositional calculus.
In the propositional calculus, a string of symbols including only statement variables, and connectives (along with parenthetical punctuation) such that the substitution of a statement for each of its variables would result in a well-formed compound statement.
American philosopher. Stevenson’s «The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms» (1937), «Persuasive Definitions» (1938), and Ethics and Language (1944) developed emotivism as a meta-ethical theory in which moral judgments invariably express and encourage human feelings of characteristic sorts. His papers are collected in Facts and Values (1963).
Recommended Reading: Stephen Satris, Ethical Emotivism (Martinus Nijhoff, 1987).
Scottish philosopher whose Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1792) helped to perpetuate Reid’s philosophy of common sense realism. Stewart was an influential teacher whose students included Benjamin Constant, James Mill, and Walter Scott.
Recommended Reading: Collected Works of Dugald Stewart , ed. by William Hamilton (Thoemmes, 1997) and Dugald Stewart, Biographical Memoir of Adam Smith (Kelley, 1993).
The arbitrary assignment of meaning to a term not previously in use. Although it may be relatively inconvenient or useless, such a definition can never be mistaken or incorrect.
School of philosophy organized at Athens in the third century B. C.E. by Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus. The stoics provided a unified account of the world that comprised formal logic, materialistic physics, and naturalistic ethics. Later Roman stoics, including Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, emphasized more exclusively the development of recommendations for living in harmony with a natural world over which one has no direct control.
Recommended Reading: Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta , ed. by Johannes ab Arnim (Irvington, 1986); Handbook of Epictetus , tr. by Nicholas P. White (Hackett, 1983); A. A. Long, Stoic Studies (California, 2001); Brad Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford, 1987); Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: Stoicism in Classical Latin Literature (Brill, 1990); and Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism (Princeton, 1999).
British philosopher who applies the methods of analytic philosophy to traditional philosophical problems. Strawson criticized Russell‘s theory of descriptions in «On Referring» (1950) and developed the notion of descriptive (as opposed to revisionary) metaphysics in reference to problem of reidentification of particulars in Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). His The Bounds of Sense (1966) is an extended commentary on the critical philosophy of Kant.
Recommended Reading: P. F. Strawson, Entity and Identity: And Other Essays (Oxford, 2000); P. F. Strawson, Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford, 1992); and The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson , ed. by Lewis Edwin Hahn and Paul Arthur Schilpp (Open Court, 1998).
Method of interpreting social phenomena in the context of a system of signs whose significance lies solely in the interrelationships among them. Initiated in the linguistics of Saussure and Chomsky, structuralism was applied to other disciplines by Lévi-Strauss, Piaget, Althusser, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, and Eco. Most structuralists share a conviction that individual human beings function solely as elements of the (often hidden) social networks to which they belong.
Recommended Reading: Edith Kurzweil, The Age of Structuralism: From Levi-Strauss to Foucault (Transaction, 1996); Peter Caws, Structuralism: A Philosophy for the Human Sciences (Prometheus, 1997); Structuralism and Since: From Levi Strauss to Derrida , ed. by John Sturrock (Oxford, 1981); and Donald D. Palmer, Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners (Writers & Readers, 2001).
Spanish philosopher and theologian whose rejection of Aristotelian authority in the Disputationes Metaphysicae ( Metaphysical Disputations ) (1597) became a significant component of much Renaissance thinking. In De legibus ac Deo legislatore ( On Law ) (1612) Suárez qualified the natural law theory of Aquinas, defending instead a voluntaristic notion of the effect of legislative edicts.
Recommended Reading: Jorge J. Gracia, Suarez on Individuation (Marquette, 1982).
In the traditional square of opposition, the relationship between a universal propositioin and its corresponding particular proposition. Thus, an I is the subaltern of its A proposition, and an O is the subaltern of its E proposition. Thus, for example:
Some larks are birds is subaltern to All larks are birds, and
Some robins are not fish is subaltern to No robins are fish.
Subalternation is a reliable pattern of inference only on the assumption of existential import for universal propositions.
A pair of categorical propositions which (provided that we assume existential import) cannot both be false, although both could be true. In the traditional square of opposition, an I proposition and its corresponding O are subcontraries. Thus, for example:
Some business leaders are women and Some business leaders are not women
That which depends upon the personal or individual, especially wherein contrast with the objectiveit is supposed to be an arbitrary expression of private taste.
Recommended Reading: Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway (NYU, 2001); Roger Frie, Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity in Modern Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997); and Sonia Kruks, Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics (Cornell, 2001).
The aesthetic feeling aroused by experiences too overwhelming in scale to be appreciated as beautiful by the senses. The awe produced by standing on the brink of the Grand Canyon or the terror induced by witnessing a hurricane are properly said to be sublime.
Recommended Reading: Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime , ed. by John T. Goldthwait (California, 1991); Paul Crowther, The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art (Oxford, 1991); and The Sublime Reader: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory , ed. by Andrew Ashfield and Peter De Bolla (Cambridge, 1996).
Latin for «under the aspect of eternity;» hence, from Spinoza onwards, an honorific expression describing what is universally and eternally true, without any reference to or dependance upon the merely temporal portions of reality.
What a thing is made of; hence, the underlying being that supports, exists independently of, and persists through time despite changes in, its accidental features. Aristotle identified substanceboth primary and secondaryas the most fundamental of the ten categories of being. According to Spinoza, there can be no more than one truly independent being in the universe.
Recommended Reading: Mary Louise Gill, Aristotle on Substance (Princeton, 1991); Charlotte Witt, Substance and Essence in Aristotle (Cornell, 1994); R. S. Woolhouse, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz: The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics (Routledge, 1993); Jeffrey Edwards, Substance, Force, and the Possibility of Knowledge: On Kant’s Philosophy of Material Nature (California, 2000); Joshua Hoffman and Gary S. Rosenkranz, Substance: Its Nature and Existence (Routledge, 1996); Anthony Quinton, The Nature of Things (Routledge, 1993); and David Wiggins, Sameness and Substance Renewed (Cambridge, 2001).
What logically or causally secures the occurrence of something else; see necessary / sufficient. Thus, Leibniz supposed that there must always be a sufficient reason for the way things are.
Latin for «of its own kind;» hence, whatever is absolutely unique or distinctive about something.
Latin phrase meaning «highest good.» Hence, that which is intrinsically valuable, the ultimate goal or end of human life generally.
Above and beyond the call of duty. Although agents are not obliged by the dictates of ordinary morality to perform supererogatory actsextraordinary feats of heroism or extreme deeds of self-sacrifice, for examplethey may be commended for doing so. Normative theories that demand the performance of the best possible action in every circumstance render supererogation impossible by identifying the permissible with the obligatory.
Recommended Reading: Gregory Mellema, Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence (SUNY, 1991).
Belonging to or characteristic of something only in virtue of its having other features. Although a supervenient property cannot be defined in terms of, or reduced to, the properties on which it supervenes, nothing possess (or can possess) those properties without also having it. In this sense, Hare supposed that moral properties are supervenient with respect to straightforward descriptions of human conduct, and Davidson proposes that mental events supervene on physical events.
Recommended Reading: R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Clarendon, 1991); Supervenience , ed. by Jaegwon Kim (Ashgate, 2001); Gabriel M. A. Segal, A Slim Book About Narrow Content (MIT, 2000); Supervenience: New Essays , ed. by Elias E. Savellos and Umit D. Yalcin (Cambridge, 1995); Jaegwon Kim, Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, 1993); and Reality and Humean Supervenience: Essays on the Philosophy of David Lewis , ed. by Gerhard Preyer and Frank Siebelt (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).
An important variety of deductive argument in which a conclusion follows from two or more premises; especially the categorical syllogism.
Recommended Reading: Aristotle, Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics , tr. by Hugh Tredennick (Harvard, 1938); Jan Lukasiewicz, Aristotle’s Syllogistic from the Standpoint of Modern Formal Logic (Clarendon, 1957); The New Syllogistic , ed. by George Englebretsen (Peter Lang, 1987); and Bruce E. R. Thompson, An Introduction to the Syllogism and the Logic of Proportional Quantifiers (Peter Lang, 1993).
Recommended Reading: P. H. Nidditch, The Development of Mathematical Logic (St. Augustine, 1998); Graeme Forbes, Modern Logic: A Text in Elementary Symbolic Logic (Oxford, 1994); Irving M. Copi, Symbolic Logic (Prentice Hall, 1979); Willard V. O. Quine, Mathematical Logic (Harvard, 1981); and Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Arthur Russell, Principia Mathematica to *56 (Cambridge, 1997).
Throughout this site, references to connectives of the propositional calculus and the quantifiers of quantification theory employ the following logical symbols:
by Brian Charles Clark
What does a debutante mean when she says, «Simply sublime, dahling»? And what does that have to do with subliminal messages? Why does «sublime» mean «elevated,» while «subliminal» implies «beneath»? «Sub» means «under, below, beneath, down» [AHD]. To «sub lime» should mean «to sit beneath the shade of a citrus tree.» That, of course, would be wrongunless youre a punster.
It turns out that sublime and subliminal both have to do with the «lintel,» Latin limen. The lintel is the beam that forms the upper part of a window or door, and supports part of the structure above it [AHD]. This lintel is thus a threshold; we get the word «limen» to mean the «threshold of a physiological or psychological response» [AHD]. «Sub» + «limen» gives us, in various forms, words that mean passing under, through, and over a metaphorical threshold. 1.
In chemistry, to sublime a chemical is to cause it to sublimate, to pass from gas to solid (or vice versa) without passing through the intermediary, or threshold, state of a liquid [OED, AHD]. Of the words and ideas under consideration here, it is the chemical sense that is the oldest in English. Heres a line from Chaucers Canterbury Tales (1386): «Oure descensories, Violes, crosletz, and sublymatories, Cucurbites, and Alambikes eek.» [OED, sublimatory]. John Gower, in his Confessio amantis of 1390, wrote «He mot kepe in his entencion The point of sublimacion» [ibid., sublimation 1]. And Thomas Timme, in his 1605 Practise of chymicall and hermeticall physicke, wrote, «Then shall yee see the sublimated substances clinging to the sides of the glasses» [ibid., sublimated 1] 2.
In philosophy and poetics, something is sublime if it is raised (both by the speaker-poet and by the reader-thinker) «up to» [ibid., sublime] or above the lintel. Around the year 50 A. D., «Longinus» (a pseudopigraphal attribution) made «sublime» his subject in his Greek treatise Peri Hypsous (hypsos, «height, elevation») [PEP, 819]. Longinus took a rhetorical term that referred to the style of writing or oration, and made it refer to «the general phenomenon of greatness in literature, prose and poetry alike. Longinus regards sublimity above all as a thing of the spirit, a spark that leaps from the soul of the writer to the soul of his reader» [ibid.]. «Sublimity is the echo of greatness of spirit» «Longinus» wrote [ibid.].
John Hall first translated Peri Hypsous into English in 1652 [ibid.]. It took a few years, but by the late 17 th century sublime was picking up considerable steam in English letters. Sublime came to be used by the Augustans (such as Alexander Pope) as one of the underpinnings of their doctrine of that «Passion is the Principal thing in Poetry» (John Dennis, 1701) [ibid.]. Pope was also one of the last to use the word in the sense that has long since disappeared: «Build the rising ship, Sublime to bear thee oer the gloomy deep», with sublime here meaning «raised aloft» [OED, sublime 1]. Soon, «this development [of] the sublime left its beginnings in Longinus far behind; it became an independent concept with an intellectual history of its own» [op. cit.].
Burkes treatise Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and Kants Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790) [ibid.] ensured sublimes future as a technical term in aesthetics, poetics, and psychology. The simple sublime spark between author and reader became, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others, the bonfire of the Sublime. In 1785, Henry Cowper wrote in a letter, «The sublime of Homer in the hands of Pope becomes bloated and tumid » [OED, sublime B1].
In the autobiographical Prelude (1805), Wordsworth uses one or another form of «sublime» twenty times, all referring to an «elevated» ontological condition that, even in the over 8,000 lines of the poem, he can never quite articulate. Here are a couple of samples:
Nature by extrinsic passion first
Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair [The Prelude, Book First: 544-5]
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire [ibid., Book Second: 315-320]
I think Wordworths problem with the Sublime is that hes trying to apply reason (certainly a sublime goal) to gain the threshold of that which is chthonic, 3 or, as we might say now, subliminal. The word «subliminal» was «coined [around 1824] to represent Herbarts unter der Schwelle sc. des Brewusstseins under the threshold of consciousness» [OED]. For Wordsworth, the Sublime was Natures subliminal message. Although the word had arrived in English in time to make Wordsworths final draft of The Prelude (he worked on it all his life, and didnt publish it until 1850), the subliminal doesnt figure in the work at all. Indeed, Im left with the impression that Wordsworth must have been a very airy fellow, constantly looking to higher planes when what he sought was just beneath his feet.
The idea of «looking in the wrong place» belongs to the psychoanalytical term sublimation. Originally one of the chemical words used for the process of making something sublime, the hermetic idea of transformation to a higher plane in the early 17 th century. In his Creed of 1615, Jackson writes: «By assistance of that grace whose infusion alone must worke the sublimation» [OED, sublimation 5]. It was Freud (or his English translators) 4 who gave sublimation the sense I mean in regards to Wordsworth.
In his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud wrote «Among the instinctual forces which are put to this [civilizing] use the sexual impulses play an important part; in this process they are sublimated » [Lectures, 27]. This «process» «consists in the sexual trend abandoning its aim of obtaining a sexual component or a reproductive pleasure and taking on another which is related genetically 5 to the abandoned one but is itself no longer sexual and must be described as social. We call this process sublimation, in accordance with the general estimate that places social aims higher than the sexual ones, which are at bottom self-interested» [ibid., 429]. And to zero in on poor Wordsworth: «Professional activity is a source of special satisfaction if it is a freely chosen oneif, that is to say, by means of sublimation, it makes possible the use of existing inclinations, of persisting or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses» [Civilization, 27].
My purpose here is not to psychoanalyze Wordsworth, but to illustrate a sceneThe Preludein which the sublime, the subliminal, and the process of sublimation can be seen interacting. Wordsworth confuses a sublime feelingexaltation, ecstasy evenwith a source, Nature, which is chthonic and subliminal and not «sublime» (placed loftily, of the higher mind) at all. The reason for that confusion, as I argue elsewhere, is that Wordsworth (only in part subliminally) sublimated his experience of the chthonic in order to «civilize» himself. 6
Civilize? No. The Prelude, as autobiography, is really a reinvention of The Poet, a self-redeeming act that sublimated a tragic and possibly traitorous youth. Wordsworth was selling himself. If he knew the word «subliminal,» Wordsworth may well have chosen not to use it. Ad man Vance Packard can have the final word on this Wordsworthian subtext of sublimation, as Packard knew all about such «hidden persuaders.» «Subthreshold effects» Packard wrote in 1957, can be used «to insinuate sales messages to people past their conscious guard» [Packard, 42].
AHD = American Heritage Dictionary.
Civilization = Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: 1961.
Code = Hillman, James. The Souls Code: IN Search of Character and Calling. New York: 1996.
Dreams = Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: 1979.
Kerenyi = Kerenyi, Karl. Hermes: Guide of Souls. Dallas, Texas: 1976. (Translation of Hermes der Seelenfubrer. Zurich: 1944.)
Lectures = Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Translated by James Strachey. New York: 1966.
OED = Oxford English Dictionary
Packard = Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: 1957.
PEP = Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Alex Preminger. Princeton: 1974.
1. The threshold metaphor is, clearly, I think, part of a much more encompassing metaphor that views «knowledge as a structure,» which lends support to the idea that human «ways of knowing» can be described as an architectonics of epistemology. Architecture and architectonic both stem from the Proto Indo-European root *tek [AHD], from which we also get «text» and «textile.» As Ive begun to show elsewhere, there is a metaphorical relationship between writing and weaving at the level of «to do work.» Ive also been investigating the role of mimesis in the formation of these Lakof-Johnsonian metaphors. In the wake of reading Ruhlen, Im beginning to wonder if there might not be some proto-metaphor «to make like» or «to do as» that early humans employed to mark off their activities as somehow «above the threshold» of the non-human world. Back
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From the Sublime to the Ridiculous There Is But One Step
Napoleon Bonaparte? Thomas Paine? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Thomas Warton? Pierre-Jacques Changeux? James Joyce? Mark Twain?
Dear Quote Investigator: Aesthetic evaluations are sometimes complex and contradictory. A well-known saying reflects this unstable nature. Here are two versions:
1) The sublime is only a step removed from the ridiculous.
2) From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step.
This expression has been linked to the military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, activist and revolutionist Thomas Paine, literary modernist James Joyce, and humorist Mark Twain. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest close match for this saying located by QI appeared in French in a 1777 collection of philosophical thoughts titled “Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques”. The words were attributed to the prominent author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.
Here is one possible translation into English:
From the sublime to the ridiculous, said Fontenelle, it is only one step: from raillery to insult there is even less.
Fontenelle died in 1757, two decades before the book’s publication. Hence, this citation did not provide strong evidence of a linkage, but it did show that the expression was in circulation in French by 1777.
Each of the writers mentioned by the questioner has employed this saying and precise citations are presented further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1767 “Traité Des Extremes ou Éléments De La Science De la Réalité” by the proto-sceptic Pierre-Jacques Changeux was published, and the book included a sentence describing a close connection between the sublime and the ridiculous. This connection provided an interesting precursor to the saying under examination. When the book by Changeux was reviewed in the periodical “Mercure de France” the sentence was reprinted and further disseminated: 2 3
Below are two possible renderings of the boldface statement into English:
. . . the sublime must not be forced, lest it brush against the ridiculous and, consequently, be destroyed.
. . . the sublime must not be forced, lest it brush against the ridiculous and, as a consequence, destroy itself.
In 1775 Thomas Warton who was a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford published “The History of English Poetry from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century” which included a statement referencing the adjacency of the sublime and ridiculous: 4
The last circumstance recalls a fiend-like appearance drawn by Shakespeare; in which, exclusive of the application, he has converted ideas of deformity into the true sublime, and rendered an image terrible, which in other hands would have probably been ridiculous.
In 1777 an instance was ascribed to Fontenelle as noted previously in this article: 5
Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.
In 1782 Joseph Warton touched again on the theme of this article in a statement printed in the second volume of “An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope”: 6
On the revival of literature, the first writers seemed not to have observed any selection in their thoughts and images. Dante, Petrarch, Boccacio, Ariosto, make very sudden transitions from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In 1787 “Eléments de Littérature” by Jean-François Marmontel discussed the relationship between the sublime and ridiculous: 7
Voilà ce qui s’appelle de l’ampoulé: l’exagération en est risible, à force d’être extravagante. En général, le ridicule touche au sublime, & pour marcher sur la limite qui les sépare, sans la passer jamais, il faut bien prendre garde à soi.
In 1795 the important political theorist and activist Thomas Paine published the second part of “The Age of Reason”; he remarked on the intertwining nature of the sublime and ridiculous: 8
The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.
Paine felt strongly enough that he included another statement on the topic in “The Age of Reason”: 9
When authors and critics talk of the sublime, they see not how nearly it borders on the ridiculous.
In 1815 Dominique-Georges-Frédéric Dufour de Pradt published a memoir that included remarks spoken by Napoleon Bonaparte in the author’s presence. De Pradt held several important positions over the years including secretary to Bonaparte, Archbishop of Mechlin, and Ambassador to Warsaw. One possible translation of Bonaparte’s comment in the following passage would be: “From the sublime to the ridiculous it is only one step”. The remark was spoken after Bonaparte’s pivotal defeat in Russia: 10
Enfin, après avoir répété de nouveau deux ou trois fois du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas; avoir demandé s’il était reconnu, et dit que cela lui était égal.
Also, in 1815 an article in “The Monthly Review” presented an English translation of sections of De Pradt’s memoir. However, the key phrase remained untranslated: 11
To a proposal of returning by the way of Silesia, he replied, “Ah, ah, la Prusse.” In short, after having repeated again and again, “du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas;” after having asked whether he was recognized by the people, and said it was of little consequence; after having re-assured the ministers of his protection, and persuaded them to take courage; he terminated the audience.
In 1872 Mark Twain gave a dinner speech at the Savage Club in London, and he presented a humorous twist on the expression: 12 13
I find myself down town somewhere, and I want to get some sort of idea of where I am—being usually lost when alone—and I stop a citizen and say: “How far is it to Charing Cross?” “Shilling fare in a cab,” and off he goes. I suppose if I were to ask a Londoner how far it is from the sublime to the ridiculous, he would try to express it in coin.
In 1922 the landmark work “Ulysses” by James Joyce was released in Paris, and Joyce included an instance of the saying: 14
You intended to devote an entire year to the study of the religious problem and the summer months of 1882 to square the circle and win that million. Pomegranate! From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step. Pyjamas, let us say?
In conclusion, this saying was employed and popularized by several prominent individuals. The earliest use in 1777 was linked to Fontenelle, but the evidence was weak because Fontenelle died in 1757. Current uncertainty suggests that an anonymous attribution is appropriate; however, future research may bring greater clarity.
Image Notes: Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme of “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx” via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Thomas Paine based on an engraving by William Sharp via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Philip Cherny whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Wilson Gray and Laurence Horn for help in translating the 1767 citation. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. Thanks to Ralph Keyes for his analysis of this saying in “The Quote Verifier” and to Fred Shapiro for his citations in “The Yale Book of Quotations”. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in the April 2015 issue of “The Quote Unquote Newsletter” and presented some of the key citations listed above.)