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: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

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.

A Basket of Books

As a kid, I brought home library books by the laundry-basket-full. My books-per-week rate has gone down substantially as other responsibilities have grown, but I still love reading.

My current “basket” is relatively small, though it holds more than the books below. A few of the books I’m currently excited about/intrigued by:

  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregerson. I’m several chapters in. Interesting discussion of the power, uses, and abuses of questions.
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. This was a magical book when I first read it 20(ish) years ago; it still is, partway through my current re-read. Drucker was a prophet of business, lucidly describing the effective “knowledge worker” long before most others. Actually, his whole corpus is wonderful. Also pick up The Daily Drucker for a daily, one-page nugget of (frequently) transformative thought.
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein,  is a book I haven’t yet read, hadn’t even heard of till recently, but am very excited about starting soon. It sounds like he interacts with a lot of other interesting ideas: Gladwell/Coyle/Syed/Dweck on the development of talent and growth mindset, the tension between “deep dive” and “broad survey” approaches to knowledge (and the magic that happens at the intersections of fields), and in general, something approaching the “latticework of mental models” that Charlie Munger uses for evaluation of ideas through diverse frameworks. (See Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, or a simple Google search for more on Munger and models.)
  • The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality I’m barely past the introduction. My initial sense is that it will be an interesting, and non-simplistic, examination of how economic growth moves the “average” upward, how it causes inequality…and how inequality can, in turn, contribute to economic growth. The author starts with a story of his father’s “great escape” from mining…and a reflection on the many in similar circumstances whom his father’s “escape” left behind, then uses this as an example of the many “escapes” that happen. I’m looking forward to seeing how the author interacts with the ethics of the issues.

Other books will wait for another day.

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.