I've just been reading the excellent article in the Opinionator section of The New York Times, also posted today, July 25, on the 3quarksdaily site. It can be found also at
I have posted a comment on this at 3quarksdaily, but there is more to be said . . .
When I had finished the first draft of Making Sense of Us, I received two rather different responses from two of the earlier readers. One was critical of the way I wrote, specifically because he found it hard to create in his mind any "pictures" that would enable him to grasp the content more easily. The other remarked that the writing was "as clear as a bell."
I tried to pay attention to both comments in my subsequent drafts, but as I did so, became painfully aware of how I myself felt that my thinking was stodgy. At times, in fact, I felt that it was as if I were wading through mud. (Not an encouraging thought just prior to publication!)
Subsequently, and shortly after beginning my postings on this blog, I was alerted to the relevance of a great deal of theoretical writing from sociologists, political scientists and philosophers in Europe, and spent quite a few hours attempting to decipher the turgid translations of much of their work. It seemed to be almost a given, in fact, that the translations from German, Polish, and French were almost impossible to understand adequately, even after two or three readings.
I'm not sure that it was completely reassuring, then, to find, from several of the excellent entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the internet, that confusion as to the "real" meaning of a given author's output was controversial, and that even those authors themselves were inconsistent in their understanding of the apparent content of what they were saying. It was not simply a problem of translating from one language to another, then, but the problem of representing in any kind of verbal language at all one's own understanding and even intent.
This should, I suppose, have meant that I could relax about my difficult trudge through my own thoughts, but that seemed to me, and still does, a far too easy "cop out." Those of you who have read MSOU in its entirety may remember my reference (on pages 36-37) to the comments made by Einstein and by Whitehead on their own thinking processes, and the role that language did or didn't play in them. Some of you may even be familiar with Von Humboldt's (I think!) comment, that any language statement at all is itself a translation from the reality of what it attempts to represent. Elsewhere in MSOU I tried to take that observation into account when exploring the possibilities of other symbolic forms, but I feel now that that content has more the quality of an alert than an adequate summary of an absolutely critical aspect of our sensibility.
In sum, then, it's not surprising that we, as a work in progress, could be characterized as having thinking sensibilities that are themselves in process of development. I suppose what I am now saying, then, is that we must not assume that our thinking possibilities are curtailed by their currently existing symbolic avatars.
Relax! I'm not at all sure that I understand that yet myself . . . I'll keep trying. However, it is clear to me that none of us should feel absolutely secure in the meaning assumptions unwittingly incorporated into the very structures of our different languages, especially, perhaps, those commonly assumed about the meanings of those of others. There is a most interesting discussion by Peter Singer in his "Very Short Introduction to Hegel" (Oxford University Press) about the interpreted meanings of Hegel's use of the word "geist," and how it might be best translated. I have a special interest in the significance of Peter Singer's own choice in that regard, because it has powerful implications for my assertions about the meaning of human existence in the last chapter of my own book. Singer opted for "mind", as do I.
More to come!
write a comment