Illustration by Charles Burns

Marjorie Grene

[PROFESSOR EMERITA OF PHILOSOPHY, VIRGINIA TECH]

“PHILOSOPHERS DON’T ALL BELIEVE THAT ETHICS IS JUST BASED ON INTUITION. THAT’S JUST STUPID! IT’S IGNORAMUS!”
Things that make Marjorie Grene cranky:
Wretched self-reflection
Misinterpreting Michael Polanyi’s theories
George W. Bush
Stupid questions about Darwin
Being accused of killing Imre Lakatos

Marjorie Grene, the ninety-four-year-old professor emerita of philosophy at Virginia Tech, is difficult to categorize. She is at once an intellectual giant, the personification of hostile irascibility, and a kind and gentle great-grandmother. She verbally berates cocky students and fellow professors who make slipshod arguments, slamming her fists on the table and yelling “no no no no no” in the seminar room, but then strolls the hall, distributing cookies and candy to all who want them.

Sort of a philosopher’s philosopher, her legacy is not widely known outside academic circles. Nonetheless, as the author of about twenty books, a hundred or so articles, and five translations (with one more on the way), and as the recipient of a host of accolades, her influence is unquestionably significant.

Professor Grene studied Plato with Heidegger, Kant and Hegel with Karl Jaspers, and Descartes with a bunch of professors she’d rather not talk about. Between tours of duty with logical positivists, existentialists, and phenomenologists, she took a fifteen-year hiatus from philosophy to farm and raise a family in Ireland and Illinois. Depending on whom you talk to, she may have been involved in the death of a fellow philosopher. Perhaps most prominently, she is considered a founder of the philosophy of biology, though she refrains from taking credit.

After convincing her that the Believer was not religiously affiliated—which required three verbal assurances, two hyperlinks, and finally a hard copy of the Ice Cube issue—we met in her office where our conversation turned on matters historical, personal, and otherwise. In the course of the discussion, it turned out Professor Grene cut through a pretty decent swath of twentieth-century thought.

—Benjamin R. Cohen

I. MARJORIE GRENE IS NOT, NOR
DOES SHE WANT TO BE, A HERMIT.

THE BELIEVER: You were recently featured as the subject of the twenty-ninth volume of the Library of Living Philosophers. Previous editions have been devoted to Alfred North Whitehead, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Dewey, and even Albert Einstein. What did you think when they approached you about doing this?

MARJORIE GRENE: I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman.

BLVR: What do you think about people who see you as a role model, as a pioneering professional female philosopher?

MG: I think they’re pretty silly. They have no idea how different things used to be.

BLVR: In that LLP volume, you include a brief intellectual bio where you talk about your education. It all sounds very straightforward, as though it all was pursued with ease and confidence. You graduated from Wellesley with a degree in zoology, studied philosophy at Radcliffe, and from there took courses at Harvard. It’s a pretty astonishing record. Did you always have the confidence that you have now?

MG: I don’t understand what you mean.

BLVR: Well, for example, you say you studied some at the Harvard program but it wasn’t very “rigorous.”

MG: When I took my PhD at Radcliffe, yes. Women were not admitted at Harvard then. But no, I don’t know what you mean, this “rigorous” question.

BLVR: For me, it’s hard to understand how that could be easy, or unrigorous. You make it sound like such smooth sailing. People like Alfred North Whitehead, and—

MG: Oh, Whitehead gave lovely, out-of-this-world lectures. But I was scared to go to his seminar, so I hadn’t anything to do with him personally. Wolfson was sort of off on his own somewhere. Ralph Barton Perry wasn’t any use to anybody, and Hocking was a joke.[1] So who was there?

BLVR: You’ve said your start in philosophy was rocky, with your instructors at Wellesley insisting that you begin with Descartes’ cogito. You refused to accept the cogito as a starting point. I’m not sure I know what that means, to reject that as a premise.

MG: Descartes goes through hyperbolical doubt and comes to this moment when he says: I think, and I am every moment I am thinking, because I have this inner awareness of myself. And I always thought there was something fishy about that. I don’t think there’s any privileged self-knowledge. Most of our attention is to things outside us.

BLVR: What about the value of self-reflection or seeking self-awareness? Like solitary soul-searching, or a hermit, or something?

MG: I don’t know. I would never think of it.

BLVR: Because that’s not how people actually live?

MG: I don’t know. It wouldn’t occur to me. Why would anyone want to be a hermit? That has nothing to do with the cogito.

BLVR: I was thinking about in terms of self-reflection. And I guess I was right, I don’t know what this means.

MG: That’s wretched. I don’t want to think about who I am!

BLVR: I’m not sure if this follows, but you’ve also written about existentialism as the contrast of the inauthentic with the authentic. Something about expressions of who we are, or what we are. Can you explain that?

MG: I don’t see what’s hard to understand about it.

BLVR: Is that contrast the basis of existentialism?

MG: No, no, I hope I didn’t say that. It was one of the concepts that was put forward by the people who said they were existentialists. But it’s a concept you can get, for instance, in Jane Austen’s Emma. You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand it. The existentialists certainly are not necessary for that. The difference between somebody who really acts as a person and a person who is sort of putting on a front and pretending, this is everywhere.

BLVR: In the early 1930s, you studied in Germany with some big names. How was it with Karl Jaspers, the German existentialist?

MG: That was in Heidelberg in 1932, 1933. I heard lectures of his on Kant, which I thought were quite good. We started on the Hegel seminar, I think it was, but then Hitler came to power and everything was a mess and there wasn’t anything anymore.

BLVR: This was the year after you studied with Heidegger in Freiburg?

MG: Yes. Heidegger was on leave that year so I went to Heidelberg.

BLVR: Was it easy to get over there to study, funding-wise?

MG: Well, the first year I was a German-American exchange student. I was an only child and so I had support from my family, too. Didn’t cost much. I mean, things were so much cheaper over there. When I went to Denmark in 1935, I had a scholarship that was a hundred dollars a month and they wouldn’t believe that I had that much money. Nobody could have a whole hundred dollars a month! [Laughs]

BLVR: Was there any connection between your studying with Jaspers and then studying Kierkegaard in Denmark? Was Kierkegaard a popular subject at the time?

MG: Not that I know of. But I had written an awful dissertation on Existenzphilosophie and it seemed reasonable to look at the person who was supposed to have started it all. I knew my dissertation wasn’t any good. And I didn’t think Kierkegaard any good at the time either.

BLVR: Now, about your work with logical positivism. Back in the United States, you went to the University of Chicago, where you worked with Carnap and Hempel, who themselves had fled Europe. But you didn’t take much to the logical positivists.

MG: Well, I got over it.

BLVR: It must’ve been after that when you encountered Sartre’s work. A lot of people credit you with introducing him to the U.S. as a legitimate philosopher, and not just an eccentric playwright. Do you think that’s fair?

MG: I don’t know. I guess. I think my Sartre book’s pretty good. And I think he very brilliantly puts forward an impossible point of view. But it’s not something we can actually do, or a way we can actually live.

BLVR: It was another philosophy you could get over quickly?

MG: Oh, I don’t think I ever fell for it.

II. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT
COMPARING MICHAEL POLANYI TO
THE COGITO. SERIOUSLY. DON’T.

BLVR: From what I’ve read, you started doing serious philosophy of science when helping Michael Polanyi in the 1950s. [He wrote about tacit knowledge in science—the noncodifiable parts, the “you can’t logically teach someone how to ride a bike, you just have to know it” thing.] This must have come after your work on existentialism—after your 1948 book, Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism. So with Polanyi, here was a guy who was an accomplished working scientist, but then shifted and pursued philosophical issues in science. And you, apparently, were his co-author and research assistant. But I don’t understand how this happened.

MG: You don’t?

BLVR: Did he just decide to switch, to give up lab work and do philosophy of science?

MG: No, it wasn’t just like that. He left Germany because of the Nazis and he came to Britain and he got interested in the difference between the two cultures, German and British. He was worried about the way science was organized in Russia, with the state doing it all. There were a lot of people in Britain at the time who thought this should be done—that the state should be responsible for structuring how science gets done. But Polanyi thought you needed a certain kind of spontaneity to have science. So that was where he started, and he wrote a bunch of essays. I think they came out under the title The Logic of Liberty [1951], or something like that. And he was asked to give the Gifford Lectures [in Aberdeen] and that’s what developed into Personal Knowledge [1958].

BLVR: Did he seek you out for help? Or was it just happenstance?

MG: While I was living near Chicago he came to lecture there. And I went to hear him and then talked to him, and he asked me if I would help him with his lectures.

BLVR: What was particularly new about what he said?

MG: I don’t know if there was anything new. It seems to me I was reading something the other day that said the same thing. Maybe it was in [early American pragmatist philosopher C.S.] Peirce, I don’t know. But, in the first, there was this business about the relation of freedom to science. Then there was the question of the method of science, and I think these probably aren’t altogether unrelated. That is, when you have a central organization, you tell people what to do and it’s supposed to be all explicit. On the other hand, when people are actually working in a good lab or a theoretical situation, there’s a lot that goes on that isn’t explicit. When you get into the discipline, you learn to recognize things that you then don’t focus on, because they are just, so to speak, part of you. And he was interested in emphasizing what he called… well, he later called it the tacit dimension. But he first said, oh, I don’t remember, but it was the things that you don’t express and can’t express. He didn’t say the inexpressible.

BLVR: At the time, was there any connection between that idea—things that you can’t express—and what other people might think of as the cogito?

MG: No!! Absolutely not!! There couldn’t be anything more different in the world! The cogito is just you, thinking of yourself, existing now and nothing else! Polanyi’s work is a denial of the cogito!! That’s probably why I took to it. God, no.

BLVR: OK. I want to back out of this and move on. “All knowledge is orientation.” This is your slogan that I’ve seen written repeatedly. Could you elaborate on that?

MG: Well, that’s just what we’ve been talking about in Polanyi! In recent years, the last twenty-five or so, I’ve been very influenced by J. J. Gibson’s psychology of perception [in his Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979] and the notion of affordance. That is, we’re always trying to locate ourselves in our environment. There’s information given us by the environment that we can pick up, so as to perceive what things afford us, what we can do with them. That’s not Polanyi, that’s Gibson. But I think that’s it, the same as “knowledge is orientation” and what Polanyi was after too.

BLVR: You’ve spoken highly of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which I’m guessing is important—perception, that is—since it fits with the other biological, maybe holistic views about orienting yourself in the world, and living always in some environment. Maybe holistic isn’t the right word.

MG: Oh, but Merleau-Ponty’s not phenomenology. Strictly speaking, historically, phenomenology is a school founded by Edmund Husserl, which is very formal and I think very phony. You’re supposed to start by bracketing what you’re thinking about—that is, suppose it isn’t real—and then you try to think of essence and stuff like that. And I think Merleau-Ponty’s book is really groundbreaking and important and it’s not phenomenology. He was told to call it that, and he had to try to explain what he meant by it and he does it very badly. Because it isn’t phenomenology. It’s just a philosophy of perception.

BLVR: These issues seem relevant to a philosophy of biology, about people and animals living in the world. You’ve talked a lot about how the philosophy of science, as a subject of academic study, would be much different if it were based on biology instead of physics. Can you summarize why that is so? What would be different about how we talk about and understand science?

MG: That’s interesting. Somewhere I’ve got a paper on that which is pretty good. One point is that what you want to study in history and philosophy of biology is the life of science, and not some abstract formula. You want to understand the claims scientists make in the context of their work. And if you’re looking at biota and you’re thinking of the environment, you’re more likely to do that maybe. The more important point is that the philosophy of science, in its classical form, was based on a rather abstract conception of science. The notion of unified science was always supposed to take it all down to some basic physics. But this view is not tenable.

III. THE ACADÉMIE ON THE HILL

BLVR: Many people consider you the “founding mother” or “founding grandmother” of the philosophy of biology. Your work from the sixties and seventies would certainly lend support to that claim. Did you see yourself as setting out a new field at the time? Was it a conscious effort to develop this new field, to address the shortcomings of a philosophy of science based only on physics?

MG: I have no thoughts on the subject; that’s up to others to say. I certainly had no sense of myself as an initiator. Actually, in a sense, one of the earliest things that was called philosophy of biology was J. H. Woodger’s text.[2] I think it was kind of hopeless, but he was one of the first to put forward something that was supposed to address philosophical issues of biology.

BLVR: Your 1968 collection of essays, Approaches to a Philosophical Biology, comes to mind. When you started becoming interested in philosophy of biology, what were the issues you were concerned with?

MG: I was publishing on it fairly early, yes. I think 1957. Gosh, though, it was so long ago. I think I first was asking what the basic concepts needed for an adequate theory of evolution are. And, since then, I’ve also written a lot about taxonomy and the species problem.

BLVR: Was there any relation between your project with Polanyi and the later philosophy-of-biology work?

MG: Not directly. But OK, yes, continually, in the sense that he had asked me to look up heresy in evolutionary theory, because he hadn’t a clue about evolutionary theory. He didn’t think that neo-Darwinism could be right at all. He was very silly about it, evolutionary theory in general. He said natural selection was like catching two tigers and letting one go! He just had no understanding of evolutionary theory. What he wrote about it was just terrible. He had a friend, a clergyman, who tried to get him to change it. He was just as shocked as I was, this clerical guy. But it was really bad. I think that’s when I started looking through the literature, to help him out. Even before that, my work on Aristotle started because I was asked to teach Greek philosophy at Belfast, and I didn’t know anything about it so I had to start studying him.

BLVR: You hadn’t had any in college, or—?

MG: Well, of course. But not to speak of. I knew much more about Plato than Aristotle.

BLVR: Considering that your A Portrait of Aristotle [1963, 1998] is so widely read and well regarded, I guess that’s surprising. But what legacy does Aristotle have for your study of the philosophy of biology?

MG: Well, I think that’s how I got into it, through Aristotle.

BLVR: Your work is always embedded in historical context. And your philosophical interests have been based along the lines of the history of philosophy.

MG: That’s true. I’ve got one book just out that I translated, a book by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who had a wonderful debate with Georges Cuvier about comparative anatomy in the early 1800s.

BLVR: What interest does that Cuvier-Geoffroy debate hold for you, or for the philosophy of biology? Is the historical importance that it brings out issues later revisited on a more molecular level?

MG: Well, it’s interesting in itself. In the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, the Musée in Paris was really the center of biological work. Everybody went there, so this is a lively debate to think about and to look at.

BLVR: What were they debating about comparative anatomy?

MG: Cuvier thought we must look very carefully at each kind of organism and understand how it was adapted to its place in nature. And Geoffroy wanted to look for what we would call homologies—he called them analogies—similarities across different species. The one everyone knows about is the limb structure—you know, the horse walks on its middle fingernails, but it has the same structure of a pentadactyl limb that we do or that a bat does, and so on. It gets changed for different purposes, but it has the same fundamental structure. And he was interested in those parallels of structure across different forms. Cuvier was much more interested in how you worked out what something worked for in its own setting.

BLVR: Its purpose.

MG: “Purpose” is maybe not quite right.

BLVR: Did they ever resolve their differences?

MG: No. Cuvier died and Geoffroy went blind. One thing I always liked was that all of the professors at the Académie had houses in the same place, up on the hill all together. Imagine if you had to live with your colleagues! Apart from having a rouse with them intellectually, then you have them as neighbors. [Laughs]

IV. SOME PHILOSOPHERS
ARE STUPID, CRUDE, AWFUL,
SIMPLE-MINDED AND
TOTALLY UNINTERESTING.

BLVR: Since some of the earliest work in the philosophy of biology came in the later 1960s and into the 1970s, I wonder if that was part of a reaction to the growing prominence of molecular biology, and the developments after Watson and Crick in the 1950s.

MG: Not that I know of; I don’t think so. I wasn’t aware of a relation then.

BLVR: Have you ever studied the philosophical validity of developments coming from the Watson and Crick double-helix stuff? Their arguments for the structure and—

MG: There aren’t any arguments against it. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s the philosophical problem?

BLVR: What about ideas about replication and transmission? Could they tend towards the reductionism that I’ve seen you argue against in your work, sort of like Dawkins’s selfish gene? That we can explain everything with just a look towards what happens in DNA, without the context in which it happens, or the environment in which it is situated?

MG: That depends on your general attitude. It doesn’t depend on the double helix, though. Well, of course, Crick was a very extreme reductionist, yes. He gave a talk in Washington, I don’t remember when, and he was nothing but reductionist about genes. It was awful. But you can discover the structure of anything, and it doesn’t take it out of its context.

BLVR: It seems to fit with the “knowledge is orientation” slogan in the sense that you are always situating yourself, trying to find your way from some place. Maybe I should ask about those popular ideas, like Richard Dawkins’s and The Selfish Gene.

MG: Oh [laughing], that’s just a gimmick. I don’t take it seriously, though.

BLVR: Seems to be widely known, though. What is the gimmick?

MG: Well, it’s not important with anybody who’s serious. The gimmick is just that everything is genes, and genes are trying to perpetuate themselves and we’re just sort of by-products of that. It’s total reductionism, like we’ve been saying.

BLVR: I should probably ask too about a few other popular figures. Before we started, you said something about Michael Ruse. What’s wrong with him?

MG: What’s wrong with him? He’s totally uninteresting. His earlier book on the Darwinian revolution wasn’t too bad. But ever since he declared—I mean, he’s a follower of that awful E. O. Wilson—ever since he declared “morality is an illusion foisted upon us by our genes,” I haven’t taken him seriously.

BLVR: That reminds me, I forgot to ask about Richard Rorty. You’re friends with him, though you don’t agree with his philosophy?

MG: We are friends, but you can’t agree with his philosophy. It doesn’t exist! He’s a wit! He should’ve lived in the eighteenth century. He just makes clever remarks that don’t mean anything. The thing about Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is based on a total misinterpretation of Kant. It’s totally wrong about Kant, and I’m sort of a Kant person.

BLVR: OK, sorry, I didn’t mean to lead us astray. So you’re apparently against the later E. O. Wilson—Michael Ruse neo-Darwinism.

MG: That isn’t Darwinian. Well, maybe E. O. Wilson thinks he gets it from Darwin. That sociobiology[3] thing is very one-sided and simple-minded, a sort of derivation of everything from I don’t know what, the brain or something. But there’s none of that in Darwin. I mean, The Descent of Man, maybe you’ll find something. And Ruse, he just tries to copy the master [Wilson]. Oh, but Wilson’s terribly crude. He’s just the farthest thing from a philosopher. He says, [paraphrasing] “Philosophers believe that ethics is based on intuition, but it isn’t, it’s based on some part of the brain,” I don’t know, I’ve forgotten what exactly. But philosophers don’t all believe that ethics is just based on intuition. That’s just stupid! It’s ignoramus! I mean, he’s very good apparently, I guess, at ants as social insects, but he’s not very good at anything to do with people.

BLVR: Do you like Darwin?

MG: Like him? What a stupid question. How can anybody say that? How can anybody not like him? What do you mean?

BLVR: Is he interesting to read? Have you read all his work?

MG: Oh, no, certainly not. I haven’t read his orchids book. I must get some more of the Darwin-correspondence-project books too. I’ve only got about the first dozen.

BLVR: How many are there?

MG: Oh, I don’t know, but it won’t be done in my life.

V. PHILOSOPHY ISN’T FOR ANYTHING!

BLVR: Let’s get back to more standard philosophy-of-biology issues, like the so-called modern synthesis—taking evolutionary theory and genetics together. This was proposed earlier in the century. Dobzhanksy is a name that usually gets tied to that.

MG: There were others before him. Oh, in particular I can’t recall, but it wouldn’t be any one person first. Well, genetics starts back with Mendel, when you just breed things and see how they come out, but you haven’t analyzed DNA and you can’t do an analysis at the molecular level of what the hereditary units are or how they are working. And of course there was forty years there, between The Origin of Species and the rediscovery of Mendel.

BLVR: So the thought of using them together was new in the early twentieth century. Was the philosophical validity of the modern synthesis of interest, and maybe not just for you, but as a subject to be studied for the philosophy of biology?

MG: I don’t remember specifically addressing it. In the new book that I’m publishing with David Depew, he did the synthesis chapter, and I did other problems in philosophy of biology in the twentieth century. When I started in philosophy of biology, I was worrying about what we call neo-Darwinism and what its limitations are, but I don’t remember the synthesis bothering me.

BLVR: What subjects did you cover in this new book?

MG: Well, we had to call it Philosophy of Biology, but its subtitle is An Episodic History. Depew did Aristotle, and then I did Descartes, Harvey, and the beginnings of modern mechanism. And then, let’s see, eighteenth and nineteenth century, he did Kant and Darwin, and I did Buffon, the Geoffroy-Cuvier debate, and Darwin and the transition to Mendelism. Then I did questions in philosophy of biology and the relation of philosophy of science to philosophy of biology.

BLVR: On the transition between Darwin and Mendelism—

MG: Well, there were those forty years between them. There was [Dutch botanist] Hugo de Vries in between, and a few others. But nobody knew what to do about heredity. It was a mess.

BLVR: One big thing today is developmental systems theory in biology, which seems to be trying to follow up with these questions.

MG: Oh, I don’t know how much it amounts to.

BLVR: Can you, can anyone, even offer a definition of it?

MG: No, I don’t think so. I think when they call it a theory, they’re exaggerating it. Evo-devo, that’s what they call it. It’s the attempt to put evolution and development together. The point is that classical modern evolutionary theory was inclined to emphasize just differential gene frequencies and not consider development. A person named Scott Gilbert was the guy. But I think when they call it development systems theory, it’s supposed to make it more important.

BLVR: What is the thing supposed to be?

MG: Supposed to be a theory about how systems develop. [Laughs] It’s pretty complicated, and not very advanced yet. I don’t know if it’ll go, but I can’t say much more about it here.

BLVR: I wanted to ask you about philosophy and politics, especially as it concerns modern genetics and biotechnology. This isn’t totally unrelated to your comments on Polanyi’s concern with the politics of science—except that was about the governance of scientists as they work, and not the governance of the society within which they work. For example, Bertrand Russell was known for being a very politically engaged philosopher. He wanted to contribute to political life. Do you think there’s a role for philosophy in politics? Should it be used for political ends?

MG: No. And no.

BLVR: What is philosophy for?

MG: It isn’t for anything! What is knowledge for? It’s no use trying to talk philosophy to our politicians. And I’m not a moral or political philosopher. I’m not interested in that.

BLVR: I was thinking more micropolitically, not only with actual politicians. But, anyway, how about that Bush Doctrine? It’s a strange bird.

MG: There can’t be any such thing! The man hasn’t got a mind. So how can there be a doctrine? This would be an embarrassment if it weren’t so scary. But this isn’t a philosophical problem.

BLVR: You know, I forgot to ask about philosopher of science Imre Lakatos—

MG: I didn’t kill him!!

BLVR: Why does everyone say you had a part in it?

MG: Because once he helped me out of a taxi in London and he hit his head on the door. And I didn’t kill him! He died soon, and I don’t know if it was the head bump. But it wasn’t because of me! [Laughing heartily]

BLVR: OK, we won’t get into that. By way of the twentieth century in review, then, let me see if I have this right: you studied with Heidegger, but then rejected his philosophy; studied and worked with existentialists, like Jaspers, but then rejected their work; same for logical positivists, with Carnap and Hempel; Sartre is a brilliant writer but untenable in reality; the critical theorists, Frankfurt Marxists—we didn’t get to them actually, but you’ve said they were unintelligible; I forgot to ask about pragmatism, but from the LLP bio you don’t sound too keen on pragmatism, William James and John Dewey.

MG: That just never interested me.

BLVR: So there’s Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty, and J. J. Gibson. Those are the few positives.

MG: I think that’s right. Most of it is just unintelligible.

  1. Harry Wolfson was a renowned philosopher of religion—Jewish tradition and medieval philosophy in particular—and a Hebrew scholar. Ralph Barton Perry was a Pulitzer Prize–winning realist philosopher who wrote about William James and Immanuel Kant. William Ernest Hocking was a well-known idealist philosopher who emphasized religious aspects of philosophy.
  2. This is J. H. Woodger, The Axiomatic Method in Biology (Cambridge University Press, 1937).
  3. The theory that human nature is totally controlled by our biology.

Benjamin Cohen lives and works in Blacksburg, VA. He is a former film critic for the Granville Sentinel, a current visiting assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech, and a future editor of something, maybe.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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