Nature itself will always dwell out of reach. The scientific logos cannot catch what in Nature cannot be turned into logic or mathematics. Nature is like a living body covered with a coat – the scientific logos might one day catch each of the coat’s fibers that form a beautiful and harmonious whole, and find each fiber interwoven with all the others, but nevertheless, the coat is not the body of the person.
The paradox of all this, of science’s unrelenting, progressing, but also infinite journey towards “understanding” Nature is this: Nature is constantly revealing itself to us “naked,” without a coat. It does so in the guise of the sensitive, richly diverse world that all men, of all times and places, can witness. It is as if modern science, heavily influenced by Plato, would in fact blind us in its frantic pursuit from the presence of the infinite Nature.
Marcel Conche, Philosophizing ad Infinitum: Infinite Nature, Infinite Philosophy.
We are living through bewildering times where the conduct of education is concerned. There are deep problems that stem from many origins – principally from a changing society whose future shape we cannot foresee and for which it is difficult to prepare a new generation. My topic, the language of education, may seem remote from the bewildering problems that rapid and turbulent change in our society have produced. But I shall try to show before I am done that it is not really so, that it is not so much scholarly fiddling while Rome burns to try to find a key to this crisis in the language of education. For at the heart of any social change one often finds fundamental changes in regard to our conceptions of knowledge and thought and learning, changes whose fulfillment is impeded and distorted by the way in which we talk about the world and think about it in the coin of that talk. My hope is that we may uncover some vexing issues of immediate and practical concern.
I shall begin with a premise that is already familiar: that the medium of exchange in which education is conducted – language – can never be neutral, that it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind in respect of this world. Language necessarily imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view. It is not just, in the shopworn phrase, that the medium is the message. The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. If I had to choose a motto for what I have to say, it would be that one from Francis Bacon, used by Vygotsky, proclaiming that neither mind alone nor hand alone can accomplish much without the aids and tools that perfect them. And principal among those aids and tools are language and the canons of its use.
Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe.
If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how milch truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern.
So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.
I have recently been reading a most enjoyable novel called The Dream Illuminati by Wayne Saalman (Falcon Press, Santa Monica, 1988). Mr. Saalman has found an epic theme – dreams of flight, and the achievement of flight.
Historically, dreams of flying appeared in the collective unconscious before the reality of flight existed in technology, and it seems plausible that if we understood our dreams better we would use our technology more wisely. Our machines manifest our dreams in matter crafted to coherence, and a psychoanalysis of our culture could easily derive from an examination of how we use science to materialize our fantasies and nightmares.
Mr. Saalman’s science-fantasy made me wonder: Why have we always dreamed of flying, and why have we built flying machines? This question seems “eminently” worth pondering in a world where 200,000,000 people pass through Kennedy International Airport every year, flying the Atlantic in one direction or the other.
To understand the profound, it often appears helpful to begin with clues that seem trivial. I suggest that we contemplate what our children look at every Saturday morning on TV. One of the most popular jokes in animated cartoons shows the protagonist walking off a cliff, without noticing what he has done. Sublimely ignorant, he continues to walk-on air-until he notices that he has been doing the “impossible,” and then he falls. I doubt very much that there will be any reader of Magical Blend who has not seen that routine at least onec; most of us have seen it a few hundred times.
It might seem pretentious to see a Jungian archetype adumbrated in crude form in this Hollywood cliché, but follow me for a moment.
When Hollywood wishes to offer us the overtly mythic, it presents Superman, who can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound,” and a more recent hero named Luke Skywalker. Continue reading
Reality is not a fixed entity. It is a contingent interlocking of moving events. And events do not just happen to us. We are an integral part of every event. We enter into the shape of events, even as we long for an absolute in which to rest. It may be just this longing for an absolute in which our concepts might not have to be responsible for our percepts, and so indirectly our reality, that explains the hostility of our ordinary intellect to these shadowy modes of mind.
Our inherited representation, our world view, is a language-made affair. It varies from culture to culture. Edward Sapir, the linguist, called this idea of ours that we adjust to reality without the use of language an illusion. He claimed that the “real world” is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group.
None of us exercises our logical, social thinking as a blank slate, or as a photographic plate, seeing what is “actually there.” We focus on the world through an esthetic prism from which we can never be free except by exchanging prisms. There is no pure looking with a naked, innocent eye. Even our most critical, analytical, scientific, or “detached” looking is a verification search, sifting through possibilities for a synthesis that will strengthen the hypotheses that generate the search.
Our world view is a cultural pattern that shapes our mind from birth. It happens to us as fate. We speak of a child becoming “reality-adjusted” as he responds and becomes a cooperating strand in the social web. We are shaped by this web; it determines the way we think, the way we see what we see. It is our pattern of representation and our response sustains the pattern.
Yet any world view is arbitrary to an indeterminable extent. This arbitrariness is difficult to recognize since our world to view is determined by our world view. To consider our world view arbitrary and flexible automatically places our world of reality in the same questionable position. And yet we are always changing this world view. We represent such changes as discoveries of absolutes in order to protect outselves from our arbitrary status, and to avoid the implication that human thinking is a creative process. We deny that disciplines of mind synthetically create; we insist we are but discovering “nature’s truths.” We possess an open-ended potential at considerable variance with contemporary nihilisms, but we must recognize and accept the dynamic interplay of representation-response if we are not to be acted on rather than fully acting.
It has been claimed that our minds screen out far more than we accept, else we would live in a world of chaos. Our screening process may be essential, but it is also arbitrary and changeable. We pick and choose, ignore or magnify, illuminate or dampen, expand upon or obscure, affirm or deny, as our inheritance, adopted discipline, or passionate pursuit dictate. At root is an esthetic response, and we invest our esthetic responses with sacred overtones.
Most people respond automatically to their given circle of representation, and strengthen it by their unconscious allegiance. Since their cultural circle is made of many conflicting drives for their allegiance, their lives are fragmented and ambiguous.
This centering of mind fills a person with power and conviction. It creates mathematicians, saints, or Nazis with equal and impartial ease.
We look on archetypal world views, those held by “primitive” tribes, and consider them archaic “survival” mechanisms. We have been taught that the real “out there” has been seen only dimly before, but with a progressively more realistic, aware, civilized eye, culminating in our viewpoint. (Alien world views can thus be exploited or even removed as threats to our true one, lending a religious sanctification to our culture destructions.)
Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, challenges our smug chauvinisms. He claims that archaic thought patterns were highly disciplined, intellectual structures, designed to give the world coherence, shape, and meaning. This is, in fact, just what all world views do. Primitive man “sacralized” his intellectual structure no more than we do ours. Neither system is any more true than the other. Ours is more esthetic-ally desirable to us, but is bought at the same price all selective systems are, the price of those possibilities sacrificed to keep a limited structure intact. The difference between Einstein’s relative universe and the Dream-Time cosmology of the Australian aborigine is not a matter of truth or falsehood, realism or illusion, progression or regression, intelligence or stupidity, as the naive realists have claimed. It is a matter of esthetic choice. Each system produces results unobtainable to the other; each is closed and exclusive.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.
We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.
Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It’s not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences, and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures’ reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself. So it wouldn’t be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.
Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.
[But] all of us have been wrong on various occasions, engaged in cruelty and hypocrisy, and we’ve forgotten most of those occasions. And that means we don’t really know ourselves. How much personal insight can I claim if I can’t trust my memory? How much can you?
Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that—I hope—acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.
Ted Chiang, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.