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: 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.

Musings on Leadership

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I subscribed, a couple of weeks ago, to a product marketed to “leaders”, or those who hope to be leaders. The content looked interesting, and it has indeed been well worth the investment of time and treasure–but I’m also reminded of my deep ambivalence about “leadership”.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in the 15th and 16th century, had some powerful insights about how to exercise a kind of leadership. My memory of The Prince is vague, but one bit of advice surfaces (likely imperfectly) from memory as particularly wise counsel. A prince, he said, should not harm potential opponents in ways from which they can recover. Either leave them in peace, or destroy them; don’t leave them hurt, insulted, and able to avenge themselves. It’s wise advice, effective for the prince who wishes to retain power, and quite possibly good for his kingdom, in the stability it provides. It’s also quite “cold”, and the negative associations of Machiavelli’s name today are not entirely without reason.

Jim Jones was a highly successful leader, if one looks at the depths of his followers’ commitment. Demagogues, from the ancient world to the present, have often been successful, building broad, passionate support and stamping the world deeply with their imprints. Preachers wealthy from “shearing” their flocks are, by some standards, successful influencers. The captain and the chaplain behind the massacre at Mystic were quite effective in leading others to fulfill their objectives.

The thing is, leadership isn’t inherently positive. Influence, vision, motivation, strategy, changemaking, persuasion, and efficacy can all be horrible things.

A lot of leaders shouldn’t be leading. Many are leading toward harmful goals. Many are “leading” for the side benefits: the prestige, the identity validation, the economic gain. And some lead with positive goals, but lead poorly, negating the value they might offer to humanity.

Could it be that leadership would benefit from being a profession, with gated admission, a code of ethics, and competency requirements? “Mr. Smith, after reviewing your objectives and actions and surveying your colleagues, the review board has imposed a mandatory suspension of your leadership responsibilities and influence. An application for resumption will be considered if submitted within three months. The application should include both a demonstration of the social good of your objectives and a specific plan for remediation of the issues addressed in the attachment.”

A “leadership profession” is hardly likely, to be sure, and probably a bad idea. But how might things change if each of us established a “review board” inside their head? This “board” would enforce a basic set of leadership standards on ourselves, and coach us through improvement when we fail. When others “betray the leadership profession”, we’d help them redirect, or work to de-legitimize them as leaders if they reject such standards? How would we keep that ethos from turning into a circular firing squad?

What would a foundational set of leadership standards look like? Is a shared set of standards even possible?

I don’t know. I do think, though, that a story about Jesus sheds light for me. The story goes that his apprentices were with him, and jockeying among themselves for status. And Jesus sees this happening (they were all together), and he gets up, grabs a towel, and starts washing the besandaled, road-dirty feet of every one of his apprentices who were with him. The teacher, stooping in front of each apprentice and scrubbing his polluted feet! They were, of course, appalled, even shamed, that he was doing this to them. And then he told them: “You know that those who lead ‘out there’ can do whatever they want, and other people call them great and good. But among you–someone who is ‘great’ will be a servant to others.”

What does a foundational set of leadership standards look like? What distinguishes a good leader from one who shouldn’t lead? How might we, collectively, increase the prevalence of beneficial, competent leadership?

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.

Deep Knowledge: A Pure White Stone (Part 4 of 4, unfinished)

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This series reaches its climax with a resounding…lack of resolution. We’ve covered the dream of a firm “place to stand”, something that can be known and proved. We’ve looked at the idea that we see “through a glass, darkly”. We’ve visited my chamber of “sticky notes”, a place filled with provisional models of the world and my subjective assessment of their quality–along with a few un-provable things I’ve chosen simply to hold as true. (Visit that post for an interesting interchange in the comments. It reveals my status as a near-complete layperson in the realm of philosophy, but includes some helpful insight from my conversation partner.)

I initially intended this post to be the end of a four-part series, shading substantially into the “religious”–as, I think, do most attempts to explore the nature of knowledge and of the world. As I tried to write it, though, I discovered that, at the moment, I can’t really write the intended post. The ideas, I think, were sound–but just aren’t coming together in useful, fleshed-out form. As a sketch, though, consider with the previous three posts that:

  • One’s model of reality is ultimately based on at least one, and probably many, unprovable assumptions.
  • One therefore must act without the comfort of provably “knowing” that one is acting correctly.
  • I make the huge jump of assuming that a supreme god, who is powerful, good, and loving, and who created physical reality, exists and actively builds channels of relationship with humanity–and that that God self-revealed as YHWH and as the first-century Jewish man Jesus. At this point, Dawkins thinks my “flying teapot” assumption is foolish and Marx thinks I’m turning toward numbness rather than addressing the real problem–and I can’t prove the validity of my assumptions, though they’re no more poorly warranted than strict materialist assumptions.
  • If such an assumption is actually true, then “loopholes” to the impenetrable veil of uncertainty may be possible, by the action of the One who transcends physical reality. It would be possible to “know”, not by sheer deduction but by revelation. And yet–even pure, divine revelation comes to finite, biased, flawed, humans in biased and flawed societies, and the Venn diagrams of mystical revelations, mental illness, and chemical journeys aren’t simple. I cannot know, with provable certainty, that my faith is in something “real”.
  • The early writers of my faith tradition beat me to this realization: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). In another letter, the Apostle Paul wrote that “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Rom 8:24).
  • Faith is trust. Faith is not “knowing” or even deeply understanding; what is known is no longer a subject of faith. Faith is lack of knowing, but acting in reliance on a truth or a person despite being unable to make certain that you’re “right” in your trust.
  • Even “knowing” is a complex term. I “know” my wife and I love her, despite being unable to prove that she actually exists! And yet, while I think I know her well, there’s much of her essence that I know I don’t know, and much that I don’t yet know I don’t know. I “know” the language I use to develop software: not in terms of what it “truly is”, but in terms of how I interact with it.
  • …and somewhere in all of that is where the “pure white stone” comes in. In the strange, glorious and beautiful, horrifying and bloody, confusing apocalyptic vision of John (according to church tradition, the John who was Jesus’ companion), a transcendent Jesus promises that “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). And somewhere, deep in my psyche, I “know” that John, and other prophets and mystics, encountered something real, something that my materialist reflexes can’t deal well with, something that needs to be woven with the rationalist threads of my being to make a rich, paradoxical, whole. The “what is it” and the “secret name”, that powerful, effectual symbol of my essence, are gifts from one who embodies power, gentleness, and paradox.

To use my mind is essential for perceiving truth. To use my mind leads to the conclusion that the mind cannot, with certainty, perceive truth. We sapiens are built for knowledge, and to find it fatal. We “level up” our understandings of the physical world and the world beside or behind it–and we do violence to both as we vivisect them.

I’m a skeptic. I’m a mystic. I’m a stoic, and a believer that real men do cry. I’m a superstitious materialist, and a doubting believer. Pick a category, and I’ll disappoint your expectations. But, if my faith is indeed in something real, I’m loved. And one could do a lot worse as a philosophical north star.

(Note: you should really visit the comments to the previous post. Those comments make very clear my status as a philosophical naïf; it’s been a long time since Philosophy 101, and, it was Philosophy 101. But it’s clear that I’m addressing myself to subjects that minds far sharper and more experienced than mine have also addressed over the centuries, and would do well to orient myself again to the topics and prior work–and I’m intrigued by the prospect!)

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:

Deep Knowledge: A Foggy Window (Part 2 of 4)

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This post follows “A Place to Stand“, in which I described my search for deep knowledge that could let me understand and control my world.

Reality exists. Descartes demonstrated at least that, as he realized that a non-existent entity is unlikely to be considering the question of its existence. And even a simulated consciousness points to the “reality” of the simulator. I think it’s fair to assume that a reality of some sort exists, and (as long as I ignore the faint meowing of Mr. Schrodinger’s cat) that it exists largely indifferent to my understanding, or even awareness, of it.

Reality exists. I understand reality to exist in a certain way. I experience gravity pulling me down as I write. But is that attraction the mass of my body being pulled toward the larger mass of Earth? Is it simply a manifestation of the way my body and the planet mutually warp space-time? Or are the things I think of as “I”, the planet, the universe, and the relations among them just ways of interpreting the vibrations of 26-dimensional strings? (By the way, to anyone reading this who actually knows what they’re talking about in physics, my apologies.) Reality exists. That doesn’t meant that I understand reality.

I know that, at one point, the Americas contained societies very different from those of Europe. I know that Europeans came to the Americas and became the dominant culture in what is now the USA, that fighting broke out, and ended with England ceasing to govern “the American colonies” and a new, federal government being formed. Although I think these are fairly universally accepted facts, a Native American, an “American Patriot” of that era, a Loyalist American of that era, or a Briton would all have different understandings of what “really” happened–even, I suspect, if miraculously given all the necessary ability and time to observe every event and every person’s thoughts at the time.

My perspective is finite, is biased by my history and environment, and is therefore incomplete and inaccurate. So is that of every other human who has ever lived. It isn’t that we have not yet learned the correct perspective; it is that there is no possibility, given three pounds (or three megatons) of brain matter, of ever achieving a perspective that is complete and fully accurate.

The thing is, I know there’s a reality that’s worth digging for. Or, at least, I’m acting in faith that that’s so. But my confidence that I, or anyone else, is able to clearly perceive it has been on a steady downward trend for most of my adult life. The Apostle Paul, a couple of millennia ago, spoke of the situation (as translated to the English of the 1600s) as “seeing through a glass darkly”–gaining hints of reality, through distorted filters. In a strange paradox, the more you learn about your own filter, the more you can correct for it–but the more you learn about the distortions of the filter you know about, the more likely it seems that there are other filters to which you’re still oblivious.

The anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposes “triangulation” as a helpful tool for reducing distortions in our perception, using diverse viewpoints to help correct each other to estimate what’s behind the veil. I think he’s right–but it’s an issue of reduction rather than elimination, and a process subject to its own biases, and a collaboration among finite beings. It’s worthwhile–but, two thousand years after the apostle wrote, we still find ourselves gazing at reality through clouded panes of glass, and unable to completely pierce the clouds.

When reality matters, and when one can’t clearly see it, what is one to do?

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

-Stephen Crane

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:

Deep Knowledge: A Place To Stand (Part 1 of 4)

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Archimedes reportedly claimed that, given a lever long enough and a place to use as a fulcrum, he could move the earth. For much of my life, I’ve been in search of that fulcrum: the hidden knowledge of the universe, whereby I can understand reality, maybe even control it. Or, failing to find that fulcrum, perhaps I might find at least a mite of solid ground on which to build.

I’m hardly alone in this search for deep reality. The ancient Gnostics claimed to know the origins and structure of the world, and the means of escaping this cursed plane. The sciences are all about digging at least a little deeper into understanding reality. The humanities, through different paths, pursue the same. In the fictional world of The Matrix, our reality is a simulation, controlled by code and the machines we once created–a fictional notion, with serious real-world theory paralleling it. Religions and anti-religions proffer their models of “deep reality” and its implications for life now. The alchemists, for millennia, sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the hypothesized original material of the universe, with its power over matter and life. Shamans, diviners, and sorcerers have long reached for knowledge and powers beyond our plane, in an effort to understand and control the physical world we inhabit. Overall…no, I’m not alone in this search.

I’ve sought a philosophy of life built on deep metaphysical bedrock, formed of carbon nanotubes and genius: one rationally constructed, well-patterned, soaring, resilient and strong. One that I can rely on and offer to others: a True philosophy, a Valid one, a reliable guide for life. Preferably, tablets of granite or gold, indubitably inscribed with the words of True Insight.

The world seems a chaotic place, and I’ve wished for knowledge to tame it. After all, the sage wrote that at the beginning of time, it was through wisdom and knowledge that YHWH laid the earth’s foundations and constrained the sea. Surely, if I understood reality well enough, I could tame just a small part of the chaos of the universe, could plant a seed of something glorious?

If I merely had a place to stand, then surely I would be secure, ready to meet all comers, ready to stand boldly before the world! If only a piece of the deep knowledge of the world were mine…

At the start of history, the Hebrew scriptures say, were humans. And the humans sought knowledge, and they gained it, and their innocence was shattered, and they were sent forth from the paradise they inhabited, lest they live forever in their new state. And their descendants came together in a city, and they built a glorious structure, a totem of their dominion on earth and a path of ascent to the heavens, and YHWH again scattered them. And yet again, the prophet spoke of the one who claimed the right to ascend beyond the stars and become like the Most High…of the one whose hubris carried him to a death with no tomb.

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: