We’ve taken a somewhat rambling route in our discussion of how each of us can haul ourselves up out of the swamp of abstractions in which modern industrial society is sinking fast, and find our way to the solid ground of things that actually matter. I know some of my readers have been baffled or irritated by the vagaries of that route, but that can’t be helped. Our sense of where to look for straightforward solutions is exactly what’s led us into this swamp; raised in an era of abstraction, we instinctively try to solve problems caused by too much abstraction by piling on more abstraction, or swapping out one set of abstractions for their opposites.
As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve a problem by using more of the thinking that created it. What’s more, the solutions to really intransigent problems usually have to be found by asking questions about the most basic assumptions that undergird the thinking that created them. One of Einstein’s odder contemporaries, the irrepressible Charles Fort, put it this way: “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.”
For most of two thousand years, to cite a useful example, astronomers across the western half of Eurasia had tried to make sense of the motions of the planets under the assumption that the sun, moon, and planets moved in circles. The result, as observations piled up, was a vast creaking mechanism of epicycles, eccentrics, and equants—geometrical gimmicks intended to force circles into copying the simple and elegant motions of the heavens. It took a mystical astrologer named Johannes Kepler, who’d brooded over Renaissance sacred geometry for decades, to see through the clutter, realize that the planets moved in ellipses rather than circles, and send the whole lumbering mass of fudge factors into history’s compost heap. Everyone else in his time thought that the problem could be solved by piling on even more epicycles; it was Kepler’s great insight that the best solution to the problem was one that did away with epicycles altogether.
A similar shift is what’s needed now—or, more precisely, a series of similar shifts, because the swamp of abstractions left behind by the departing age of reason can’t be drained by one channel alone. We’ve talked already about how reality is always anecdotal, how overinflated claims to authority need to be subjected to the sharp pin of personal experience, and how attention to the the old traditions of topics and commonplaces serves to anchor thinking and conversation in shared realities. That’s one channel, and it’s an important one, but it won’t do the job all by itself. To start opening a second channel and get the muck draining back to the sea in a different direction, we can start with the simple act of reading.
I wonder sometimes how many people realize just how spooky the act of sitting in a comfortable chair and reading an interesting book actually is. When you do that, and especially when you’re so caught up in what you’re reading that you lose track of your surroundings, you’re quite literally seeing into somebody else’s mind. The author uses the toolkit of written language to set out a sequence of thoughts in a form that other people can experience, and the reader then uses his or her own mastery of that same toolkit to experience those same thoughts. For once, when you’re caught up in the experience of reading, you’re not stuck inside your own head; someone else’s thoughts, shaped by experiences and reflections that aren’t yours, unfold themselves before your mind’s eye, and you get to taste their structure and flavor, the unique way of looking at the world another mind has developed. That’s an extraordinary thing to be able to do.
Interestingly, it’s not something that happened as soon as writing systems were invented. In every known society that’s figured out the trick of writing, literacy was restricted at first to a small professional class of scribes or priests, and written documents functioned as scripts for oral performance. If you were a scribe in one of the city-states of ancient Sumer, let’s say, sitting there cross-legged in your woolen kilt with a nice fresh clay tablet in front of you and a neatly trimmed reed in your hand, most of the work that paid your bills consisted of taking dictation from illiterate people, on the one hand, and reading documents to illiterate people on the other.
Letters in those days—and we’ve got tens of thousands of them, since a clay tablet properly baked in the kiln stays readable for millennia—started with a little heading like “Say to Gul-Zaba of Ur,” and the text of the letter came afterwards. That’s exactly what the scribe did. Some other scribe over in Lagash, say, copied down the words of Nin-Murru in clay, and once Gul-Zaba got the letter and took it to a scribe in Ur, the scribe who got handed the letter was responsible for reenacting Nin-Murru’s speech for Gul-Zaba to hear, just as though Nin-Murru had walked the long dusty road from Lagash to Ur himself.
Language in the age of scribal literacy was a matter of oral performance, and of course that’s what it had been before writing was invented, all the way back to the forgotten era when a bunch of social primates who’d been forced by climate change into unfamiliar environments gradually worked out the trick of making their familiar grunts and hoots take on meanings that weren’t assigned by hardwired patterns or childhood imprinting. At first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between a story or a speech experienced as an oral performance, and the same story or speech experienced as a text read silently by oneself, but the shift from one to the other has profound implications.
Take a few moments to think about your own experiences of oral performance—speeches by capable orators, storytellers weaving tales for children, actors in live theater, or what have you. You’re not just getting the words. Every linguistic act in an oral performance is surrounded and bracketed by a galaxy of other, nonverbal communicative cues: body movements, gestures, facial expressions, vocal tones, as well as culturally specific framing devices such as the raised podium and the formal introduction of a speech, which tell the audience how to interpret the verbal side of the performance. An oral performance is always an interpersonal event, and the words are only a small part of the total communicative act.
None of that went away when reading changed from the professional activity of a small cadre of scribes to an ordinary attainment of educated people. Oral performance remained the standard way of using and encountering language, as it is today—but there was another option. People began reading by themselves, silently, without any interpersonal dimension at all outside of the words themselves. For a long time that was a minority habit; in his own time, for example, Julius Caesar was considered a little creepy because, when he read something, he stayed totally silent and didn’t even move his lips. In Roman society in the first century BCE, that had about the same unnerving quality that telepathy has today.
Long before Caesar’s time, though, the habit of solitary reading had begun to drive astonishing changes in the way people related to their own thinking. It’s an interesting fact that in any society where literacy spreads outside a scribal elite, philosophy—the habit of thinking about thinking, of exploring human thought as far as it will go—pops up promptly. Any number of theories, by turns grandiose and grittily materialistic, have been proposed to explain why philosophy sprang up at nearly the same time in Greece, India, and China, but in all three societies, not long before the birth of philosophy, literacy either broke free of a caste of professional scribes or (in the case of Greece) never got assigned to such a caste in the first place. What’s more, in every society where literacy dropped out of common use—think Europe after the fall of Rome—philosophy promptly ground to a halt, and had to be relaunched later once literacy spread again.
Think about what happens when you read in silence and solitude, and it’s easy to understand why this should be the case. As you sit there with a book in your hands, another person’s thoughts are scrolling through your mind. None of the nonverbal dimensions of an oral performance are there to distract you from those thoughts, or keep you from noticing where the thoughts of the writer differ from your own habitual thinking patterns.
If you’re paying attention at all, you’ll likely begin to wonder why the writer thought the things he or she did, and why those thoughts differ from yours; you may even begin to wonder why you think the thoughts you do, and whether you need to adapt your habitual thoughts, either to embrace some of the ways the writer thinks or to ward off some of the mistakes he or she has made. Words stop being an element in a social performance and turn into carriers of meaning that can be analyzed, criticized, taken apart, and understood on their own terms—and that’s the spark from which philosophy catches fire.
Of course that kind of thinking can be taken in unproductive directions. In point of fact, it was inevitably taken in unproductive directions. Back in the sixth century BCE, as literacy became widespread in ancient China and kindled the usual intellectual explosion, Lao Tsu started his brilliant and cryptic handbook of practical philosophy Tao Te Ching—The Book of Process and Value is as good as translation as any—with the following necessary warning: “The description of a process is not the process it describes. The names assigned to things are not the things that they name.” Despite his efforts, half the history of philosophy consists of various attempts to insist that words are more real than the things they describe, and the other half consists of the long struggle to get back out of the blind alleys that resulted from ignoring Lao Tsu’s warning.
This has implications we’ll be getting to in other posts. For the moment, I want to circle back around to the experience of silent reading, the confrontation in the quiet of your own mind between someone else’s thoughts and your own. That confrontation embodies an enormous range of possibilities, but there’s one in particular I want to discuss here: it makes it possible, and indeed rather easy, for you to change your mind.
That’s a controversial issue to bring up these days. A great many people in American society just now, and in a great many other modern industrial societies as well, have embraced the odd notions that nobody ever changes their mind about anything and that it’s something between an insult and an absurdity to ask them to try. To some extent, of course, this is one of the ways that people wiggle out from under the tyranny of mandatory niceness in contemporary society. If minds can’t change, after all, then people who have wrong ideas can be assigned the permanent status of Bad People, and it’s therefore okay to hate them. Since hate plays exactly the same role in polite society today that sex had in comparable circles in Victorian times, excuses to wallow in hate are highly popular these days, and this one gets a lot of use.
There’s another side to the same insistence, though, and it goes a good deal deeper. It’s standard across a very wide swathe of American society just now for people to equate their opinions with their identity, and to treat even the most polite challenge to their opinions as an existential threat. Partly that’s a reflection of the way that opinions have been turned into stalking horses for class interests in American society—find out what someone thinks about anthropogenic climate change, for example, and you can almost always predict on that basis where they’ll stand on the whole range of issues that trace out the competing economic interests of the middle-class and working class blocs whose conflict defines most of US politics just now—but there’s another side to the issue as well.
Over the last few decades, through government mandates backed enthusiastically by both parties, education in the United States has been transformed into a sustained exercise in passing standardized tests, with the careers of teachers and school administrators as well as the futures of their students held hostage to a rising tide of arbitrary abstractions in multiple-choice form. As a result, getting the right answer has become the be-all and end-all of US education. Independent thinking and creativity are not merely discouraged but punished, often very harshly—after all, a child who thinks for himself or herself might not get the right answer.
Thus the ordinary stresses of schooling have been cranked up to the snapping point as, year after year, children and teachers alike have to go through the motions of learning with the gun of failing test scores pressed perpetually to their heads. Under te circumstances, it’s no wonder that so many people come out of the US education industry scared to death of changing their minds—after all, if they change their minds, they might not get the right answer. The fact that most questions in the real world have no right answers just adds a mordant irony to the picture.
It’s going to take a long time, a lot of hard work, and (probably) the collapse of the education system in the US and its replacement by new, more localized systems to undo the damage that’s been done by federal education policy over the last forty years or so. In the meantime, though, there’s a simple and remarkably effective tool available for those who want to get past the barriers to learning imposed by the bad policies just discussed, and it unfolds from the process of solitary reading we’ve been talking about.
Two further barriers have to be evaded in order to get to the goal. One of them is the very widely cultivated habit of skimming written materials, rather than reading them closely. Skimming is fine as a way to decide what you want to read, because not every sequence of thoughts deserves space in your mind; the problem creeps in when all you do is skim across the surface of one thing after another, without ever sitting down and reading anything thoroughly. Confusing skimming with reading is like thinking that you can eat a steak by licking its surface. Sure, you get a little of the flavor, but you’re missing a lot more—and there’s also the little issue of nourishment. A great many minds these days are starving to death intellectually because they never take the time to chew, swallow, and digest what they read.
That’s the first barrier. The second is the habit of reading through a thick screen of moral judgment. The political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right both mandate this habit, which is one of the ways you can tell that both movements are hostile to freedom of thought (as well as clones of each other, but that’s a topic for another time.) The reader who approaches a book this way sits in judgment over it, looking for something that can be twisted around into a confession of guilt; once this is forthcoming, the prisoner is dragged from the courtroom by a howling mob and ceremoniously burned at the stake. This is a great way to wallow in your own sense of moral superiority, and also a great way to avoid ever changing your mind, but it gets in the way of the spooky miracle of silent reading, the communion between your thoughts and someone else’s—and that’s exactly what it’s meant to do.
Is there a place for moral judgment in reading? Of course, but it comes afterwards, as you reflect on what you’ve read—and it may come after you’ve read the book two or three times to be sure you understand the unfamiliar sequence of thoughts you’ve encountered. The difficulty here is that your moral judgment may not be the one that your peers, or the authority figures you’re supposed to follow, want you to make.
As you compare the thoughts of the writer to your own habitual thoughts, you may decide that the writer’s ideas make more sense than yours did; you may discover that there’s some broader way to look at the world, in which there’s room for your thoughts and the writer’s thoughts to coexist; you may even find yourself veering off in pursuit of some half-glimpsed insight that contradicts both the book you’re reading and the ideas you’ve been taught, and following it may take you into intellectual territory no one’s ever explored before. None of these outcomes are acceptable either to the politically correct or to the patriotically correct, which is why both these dogmatic movements try so hard to slap moral blinders in place so that no one anywhere will take the liberty of thinking an unapproved thought.
We need unapproved thoughts just now. The approved thoughts, the right answers, the canned responses and parroted arguments are the things that have landed us in our present predicament. The insistence that there is no alternative, that the only acceptable choice is to keep on doing the same things and hope we get different results, isn’t going to lead us anywhere more useful than the parallel insistence on piling up epicycles led the astronomers of Kepler’s time. The taste of another’s thoughts, the stretching of mental perspectives that results from silent and solitary reading, is one of the tools we can use to move in a different direction. Next week we’ll talk about the practical side of putting that to work.