3 March 2014

Cochrane's Paradox

A recent entry from the Scottish Dictionary of National Philosophistry (2004) (OUP). 

First identified by the onyxo-unio-cardiolist Alan Cochrane in or around Auchtermuchty in 2007, Cochrane's Paradox remains one of the thorniest politico-logical puzzles of contemporary Scottish philosophy. 

Extending Erwin Schrödinger's famous thought experiment in quantum theory from the feline to the functionary, Cochrane sought to find a basis in reason for the claim that civil servants working for their democratically-elected governments could be both a scandal and a disgrace, and celebrated and proper, at the same time. Although Cochrane's primary focus was always theoretical, contributing to humanity's understandings of higher order concepts, this uncharacteristically political theorist of physics chose to express this paradox in terms of the constitutional controversies of his own day.  

 Just as a fluffy kitten in the fuzzy bloom of youth cannot be both lively and dead simultaneously, the richly face-furnitured philosophist struggled to reconcile the claim that the UK government's use of its bureaucrats' time, talents and authority to promote its constitutional preferences was simply splendid, while the perfidious Scottish Nationalist insurgency's use of the self-same civil service resources to make the case for independence amounted to a disgraceful abuse of power and a subversion of a key pillar of the state hinting at dark designs on the liberty of the subject. 

But how could both propositions be true simultaneously, the same practices being both right and proper when undertaken by civil servants under the superintendence of UK ministers and a scandal and an outrage when simultaneously engaged in by their Holyrood counterparts? Cochrane's paradox was formed.  Only fully worked out in his late writings, Cochrane's early work in the field anticipated the thought experiment which would make his name. 

In an early pamphlet, he considered the perils of a senior Scottish civil servant "going native" in service of his Nationalist masters.  A subsequent scholarly review, Cochrane poses the question more starkly: "have Scotland’s civil servants become an arm of the SNP?" Cochrane, whose prose style was strongly influenced by his early readings of Professor Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (1927) concluded in a celebrated passage that: 

"Civil servants are paid by you but in Scotland they work for a separatist government even though they’re members of the British Civil Service."

To date, no subsequent theorist has been able to resolve the basic logical tensions in Cochrane's position. Emotionally and intellectually exhausted by his many failed attempts to resolve these issues, Cochrane abandoned advanced political quantum thinking in 2014. Selling his Perthshire home, the onyxo-unio-cardiolist is understood to have invested in a supply of gunpowder, a veteran crew of rum-soaked ex-lobby correspondents and a small brigantine

Flying under the traditional Cochrane Maggie-Thatcher-spearing-a-heart-while-quaffing-champagne flag, the ship has been implicated in a recent series of raids on fishing villages and towns along the Banff and Buchan coast. Locals have returned to find their homes despoiled of copies of the Spectator and Royal Jubilee branded tea sets, large numbers of which now flood the London black market.

See also: Dr John Charity Spring pp. 138 - 9.


  1. As John Charity Spring was wont to say, quidquid praecipites esto brevis, but shurely the cat in the Scottish version of Schrodinger's Boax is no 'fluffy kitten' but Felis silvestris silvestris, or to give it its subspecies name, Felis silvestris silvestris McAlpinus, a rare survival indeed.

  2. "Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur, and no mistake.

  3. It worked on Flashman though, These days of course we are all skolars with translation engines.

  4. Musing on Scottish divisions, Alan Cochrane, and JCS' creator George Fraser - I was at George's Memorial in London, and talking with a friend back in Glasgow afterwards, we noted the lack of response from Holyrood (then Labour run of course). George was born in England but of Scottish origin, and closely connected to Scotland all his life - and in his books.

    Yet for the Scottish establishment George was Not One of Us.

    How do we divide as Scots? We divide in lots of ways, but also share. I share with Salmond a reverence for James Robertson's novels. I vote Labour and not SNP, yet culturally, I found it embarrassing that Jack McConnell chose to enthuse over Michelle McManus winning a TV talent show rather than Nicola Benedetti winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

    Nae harm to Michelle, but Nicola was clearly a major talent.

    Culturally - in some ways - I seem to be more at home with both the Tory Alan Cochrane and with Eck than with some of the people I align with politically. There is a fabric there which makes us what we are, and will continue to make us what we are, come what may in September.

    1. Edwin,

      I think there's something to that. A few historical figures come to mind in the same connection. Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotsman? Or is an Edinburgh lawyer who writes primarily in standard English not on in the same way? There is at least an articulation of Scottishness which would see some forms of "Anglicisation" meaning you are "less" Scottish. The idea of Edinburgh as "not really" a Scottish city always seemed to me to echo that logic. The same goes for some of its denizens, including some of its most famous, include David Hume and Stevenson, who don't fit in well to the (arguably dominant?) lens of seeing alpha Scottishness in terms of working class men from the urban west central Scotland.

  5. What a Bonny woodcut of oor Alan as he writes his latest, complete with smoke coming out of his ears.

    I Kidd you not, Every time I come on here, you Teach me something...

    I'll get me doublet and be shovin' off Andy lad.

    1. *Cries of rum and shame*

      I hope that's a calico doublet, Jack...

  6. Kidd seems to have been a Dundee man - of course the best novel on Pyrates is by George MacDonald Fraser!

    1. "Wi' a wanion, an' tha'!" As a child, I always loved the cover of the version of The Pyrates we had in the house.

    2. Ah the Harvill edition - fab cover!Our eldest has the Collins first inscribed to her as 'fellow Thistle fan' by George.