Words are the Footprints Of Thought

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…further reflections on book summaries, Socrates, knowledge, and wisdom

It strikes me that words are the footprints of thought. Words aren’t thoughts themselves; words aren’t the things themselves; words aren’t knowledge or wisdom. Words are dead. But if the footprints follow a helpful path, and you follow the path, you may walk the path into wisdom or knowledge as well.

Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing, for much the same reasons I’m somewhat skeptical of book summaries. Indeed, I’d planned, but forgot, to mention his dislike of books in my prior post. Later, when I searched online, I found this excellent article (you should read it; it’s short), with a quote of Socrates from Plato’s The Phaedrus:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

The map is not the territory; the words in a book are not the author’s thoughts. If well-chosen, the words may be helpful guides along a path of thoughts similar to that which the author followed, but knowledge and wisdom are attributes of people, not of words.

In travel, guidebooks and tour guides can be helpful orientations to places, can even in themselves be enjoyable and educational experiences. And yet, a “guided tour” of a place is an entirely different experience than to inhabit that place. Perhaps it’s so with books and authors. The mere act of writing and reading (or speaking and listening) mediates the flow of wisdom and knowledge between two people, perhaps constricting it, certainly re-shaping it.

I’ve visited Darjeeling. It’s a lovely place, with mountain air, wonderful food, old hotels. I could recommend several restaurants, a lovely little hotel, and several experiences to you. Perhaps you could say I know a bit about Darjeeling.

But several years ago, tourism to Darjeeling stopped for a time. A community center was burned; there were burning tires in the streets. I could give you only a laughably sparse sketch of the reasons for this. I don’t know, in any meaningful way, the experience of those who live there, of the tensions within the community in Darjeeling and beyond.

I know a bit about Darjeeling. I’ve been there. But really, I don’t know Darjeeling. Those who live there know the place more than I–but even they know portions of it, from limited perspectives.

If you want to know Darjeeling, go there. Enjoy the experiences. Then seek out the people who live there, across the various ethnicities. Listen deeply to them; learn the joys and frustrations. Live there yourself. And then, you’ll actually know a portion of Darjeeling.

We read books seeking wisdom and knowledge. They’re often amazingly effective as guides of thought, for being only blots of ink on a sheet of plant fiber–but they are guides only, flawed mediators of thought, valuable only insofar as they lead us to “re-think”, or to think anew, things that are valuable.

Seek to think, to learn wisdom for yourself, to discover for yourself–and you’ll find the words on the page to be powerful allies. Seek a shallow knowledge, and you’ll receive it, a gilding for the lead of your being. Your guides will lead you to what you seek.

(Oh, curse self-awareness. The above felt really meaningful while I was writing it, but it faded to glurge. I’m publishing anyway. The core idea is at the start: words are “footprints”, they won’t do the work for you, and if you expect them to do so, you’ll end up with nothing worthwhile. Friends who write: constructive criticism welcome (here or via e-mail). I don’t mind rambling a bit, but how does one ramble well? Perhaps the biggest problem is that I started pontificating somewhere along the way. Generally a bad idea, probably especially when one’s tired.)

Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

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Are book-summary services valuable innovation, or valueless semblance of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer. I do, though, have several thoughts.

Against: they’re abominations!

  • My instinct: they’re extreme abridgements, and can’t help but do violence to an author’s message. Shane Parrish, a gent I highly respect, describes book summaries as being put together by 22-year-olds who don’t have your life experience, insight, or context–and as really not useful.
  • They build an appetite for “snacking” rather than for thoughtful engagement. Even if they accurately represent the content, the work of reading is part of actual absorbing what you read in a meaningful way.
  • They kill the aesthetic in favor of the utilitarian.
  • They make you, and others, think you know more than you actually know, offering a shallow appearance of knowledge or wisdom rather than the real thing.
  • More than that, they let others seem more knowledgeable and wiser than they are! Grr!

For: they’re really useful!

  • All reading is skimming. I think that’s actually another insight I gained from Parrish. You’ll never read all the books out there. You might not even finish most books you start. Is it better to not encounter an idea at all, or to encounter it in possibly-distorted, possibly-oversimplified form?
  • Books are often way too wordy. Carol Dweck’s Mindset has a powerful idea, but struck me as stuffed full of fluff. Some other books bearing brilliant ideas have nonetheless been tortuous reads. Summaries get to the point!
  • A summary can be useful as a “preview” of a book, as a roadmap of the author’s ideas and the book’s structure.
  • A summary can be useful for a book you know you’ll never read.

And…

My gut reaction to summary services is abhorrence. And I just now downloaded a number of summaries, and also recently subscribed to a “summary-ish” service. I have getAbstract access through my membership in a professional association, and think I will find value in the summaries. I think there is value in them, in “tasting” books and ideas. But the idea of them is deeply prosaic, deeply “grey”, deeply…well, the medicine one must swallow, not the delightful confection one dreams of. And it’s really sad to have knowledge or insight as “medicine”, not the stuff of delight but the stuff of necessity.

I’m not going to gush over summary services, but I think they have a place, a useful role. And they feel like a desecration of the art of writing. Bah, humbug, and all that.

What are your thoughts?

Three-Minute Thought: On Facts and Understanding

It strikes me that to “know” something without a rich set of context is, at best, a weak and impoverished knowledge. It’s not a binary thing; all of us are imperfect “knowers”. But the more we rely on what we “know that we know” to order the world, the higher the barriers we erect to our own learning, and the further behind our potential we will fall. Books that come to mind:

  • Changing On the Job, by Jennifer Garvey Berger, on “forms of mind”.
  • The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, a speculation on life and afterlife as fulfillment of one’s desires. Offers a rich analogy with the “mundane” domain of knowledge.
  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregersen, a book I highly recommend that argues for the importance of seeking out “unknown unknowns” and that offers some tools to do so.

Three-Minute Thought: The Skills of Miners and Mongols

One pattern of learning is to delve deep into a subject, going far beneath the surface to find the treasures that no one else sees. These mines hold treasures, and they’re unassailable–but it’s easy to block the entrance to the “surface” world.

Another pattern is that of the Mongol hordes. Their pattern was to move fast, spend a bit of time securing the territory, and then sweep onward, taking with them a harvest of intellectuals and craftsmen from the conquered cities. They were formidable…and as they went, their culture changed to something new.

The Mandelbrot set, a fractal, is infinite in detail, yet it fits in a constrained space. Yeast also grows in fractal fashion, yet in expansionary mode.

The empire of the mind needs to produce its own treasure. The empire needs intellectual raiders.

Three-Minute Thought: 100:1 ideas

A great roadmap I stumbled across for generating and exploring ideas for action, and actually moving to implementation (rather than just having a cloud of circulating ideas):

  • Generate 100 ideas.
  • Choose the top ten and dig deeper into them.
  • Drive one of the ten to full implementation.

More info via Charles Chu and Nick Bentley, though I encountered the idea somewhere else (but can’t remember where).

All Intellectuals Are Wannabes

I’m a wannabe intellectual. I always have been. I love the life of the mind, admire those who’ve done the work and come up with original insights–but I haven’t put in the hard work, and have no Revelation From The Deep Well of Reality to share.

But it occurs to me: maybe all intellectuals are wannabes. Not one knows everything there is to know, even in his particular field. And despite the occasional originality, most intellectual advancement comes from remixing the thoughts of others. Remixes happen under the influence of a particular person’s experience and cultural context; even if they aren’t “original”, they may bring new insight. And ideas don’t flow instantaneously and freely throughout humanity. So, if the group of which I’m a part would otherwise never encounter the ideas of a “great intellectual”, to translate and bridge her ideas into my context is not arrogance, is not redundant effort, but is service to those around me and to the world.

All true intellectuals “wanna be” better, and want the world to be better, and invest mental and (probably?) communicative energy in that. “Better” is a moving target, individually and corporately, and we won’t ever declare complete success–but perhaps even one who isn’t a “real”, qualified, worthy intellectual of the highest caliber can add value in this effort.

I am anything but an accomplished intellectual. But maybe it’s OK to be a wannabe.

Related:

  • The Loving Intellect”, a worth-reading article (focused on a “Christian intellectual”) in First Things, a publication I often regard with some skepticism. I found to be helpful the idea of deconstruction as a tool for use in a larger effort.

A few of the many sources I love for “remixing”:

  • Farnam Street: impressively wide and deep consideration of how to live, learn, and think well; introductions to many other thinkers.
  • Brain Pickings: wide-ranging reflection; introductions to many others. 
  • New Scientist: somewhat “popular” science magazine 
  • Aeon Magazine: just check it out. 
  • Oh. And the book Worldchanging, by Alex Steffen, was lovely when I read its first edition. It’s probably somewhat dated by now, but inspiring.
  • Related to that: check out the Ashoka Foundation, with its focus on social entrepreneurship around the world.

Deep Knowledge: The Chamber of Sticky Notes (Part 3 of 4)

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I’ve been looking for the solid truths of the world, things I can know without a doubt. And yet, I’ve discovered that–though I don’t doubt the existence of the truly real–to say that the real exists is a very different thing than to say I understand the real.

You may have seen the movie version of a command center: panels of screens, some with scrolling data, others with plots of missile trajectories or disease outbreaks, and yet others awaiting instructions (authenticated by iris scan or voice-print, of course) from the Very Important People. They know what they need to know. They have eyes in the sky, NSA taps into Internet chokepoints, radar, real-time data feeds. They know how to respond, and they do so decisively. It’s a very satisfying story.

The command center of my psyche is a bit different. Behind a sliding bookcase, at the end of a tunnel that glows with candlelight and smells of incense, is a windowless room. It’s anything but gloomy, with warm wood walls and abundant cushions for reclining. There’s a desk and a comfortable chair…and on every wall, a chaos of sticky notes.

“I should eat more protein; p=0.6.”. “Cycling even in horrible air is still a net positive for health; p=.55”. “John is generally trustworthy; p=.95”. “Killing a person without provocation is morally wrong; p=.999”. “I should not give to beggars by default; p=.5”.

You might know the story of Erwin Schrödinger’s hypothesized cat, who lived (or died) in a box with a flask of poison and a switch to open the flask (or not) based on the randomness of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened, says Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum theory, the cat is both dead and alive. Aside from the flask-of-poison thing, the cat has a wonderful life. It will not, it cannot, commit to so simple a thing as being either alive or dead!

Unlike the cat, I’m often forced to decide. I’m often forced to act. And those decisions are never perfect ones, based on a perfectly clear view of reality. I’m forced to make a provisional decision, a guess, and then move forward from it. But the guess might be wrong!

Some guesses “feel” more confidently right than others. I really don’t think I’ll conclude anytime soon that, well, execution by flaying is after all an appropriate action in some cases; my opinion on the subject is really rather firm. But my sense that “it will probably take about an hour to go across town” has much less confidence attached–neither half an hour nor an hour and a half would be completely shocking. Both of these have subjective probabilities of being right; the “no gruesome killings rule” with near certainty, the travel-time expectation with about 50% confidence. And yet, I sometimes have to act on an assumption that’s as likely to be wrong as right–or even, sometimes, on a “best out there, but probably wrong” one.

The problem is, the inability to see perfectly inheres in being human. In other words, flawed perception and flawed reasoning is guaranteed. (If you haven’t had your fill of umlauts, go check out Kurt Gödel for one lens on this.) In such a situation, the question is not whether you’re wrong, it’s a question of how wrong you are. And then, to act in the way that seems least wrong, with no guarantees that it is indeed the least-wrong way. And so, my sticky-noted beliefs have probabilities attached. They might be wrong. Even the probabilities might be wrong. But life often demands answers, and the sticky notes provide them–acknowledging that they’re imperfect, that I’m imperfect, and that I can truly, indubitably, know almost nothing at all. To claim otherwise is to assert my perfection, which I’m far from ready to do.

“Sticky notes” aren’t just for insignificant issues. Often, the “wishy-washiness” of a sticky-note isn’t because its subject doesn’t matter; it’s because it does, and the issues are far too important and too complex to risk “locking into” a wrong position. And yet, since many situations demand “answers”, the sticky notes are there: acknowledgments that my understanding is certainly incorrect and incomplete to some degree, and that each of my “answers” is provisional, and subject to change if I find a better one.

Among the sticky notes, there is one small cluster of metal etchings. That’s a cluster of things I simply choose, completely indefensibly, to hold as true. (I don’t pretend to have moved beyond the smallest foothills of understanding it, but Michael Polanyi’s work on “personal knowledge”, as filtered through the first part of Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, was nevertheless a game-changer for me on this, an argument that a set of some such indefensible commitments is essential to communicating about any kind of knowledge.)

Each of my sticky notes helps me engage the world without collapsing into indecision. Each one reflects the reality of my cognition: three pounds of soft tissue trying to grasp something far vaster than itself, with the guarantee that its perceptions will be incomplete and incorrect, and that their processing will be influenced greatly by the “noise” within and without.

Sometimes, in the windowless comfort of the Chamber, there’s an inexplicable whisper of wind. The notes on the wall rustle; occasionally, one falls to the floor and I can’t quite figure out where to reattach it. And I rest, and I read, and I sort, and I update my scribbled portals to the world.

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include: