Essay: Some general principles, part II

[I’ve written this post to stand on its own, but readers curious about why the numbers start with “3” will want to take a look at the first post in this series. ]

Make things explicit

Make your commitments explicit – at least to the greatest extent possible. That’s where I start these considerations. Most of us, most of the time, run on a kind of autopilot, not really thinking about what we are doing or why, and letting habituation run things for us. This phenomenon should not come as a surprise to anyone, really, and I don’t intend to argue that one should work to remain fully aware of everything all the time. I would guess that just about everyone (at least everyone who lives in the modern world of jobs and commutes) has gotten in the car or on the bus and found themselves halfway to work before remembering that they meant to go to the drug store.

Injuries throw this phenomenon into sharp relief. My knee has improved substantially since I injured it in March, but I still have to be careful how I move. I was shelving books in the archives on Monday and needed to get up to the top shelf. I stepped onto the little rolling stool (you know, the vaguely cylindrical one all libraries have), and stepped up. In so doing I put just a bit more pressure on my injured knee than was wise, while also twisting a bit. Nothing popped, and the pain went away as soon as I straightened my leg out, but the experience told me that I still need to exercise caution. I can’t let my knee go on autopilot. Yet. Injuries, then, also show that the ability to do things without having to actively concentrate on them is also crucial to normal functioning.

Another reason for making one’s commitments explicit has to do with the therapeutic effects of writing these thoughts out. I don’t intend to suggest that writing about your problems will solve them (not least because I have no medical training), but at least in my own experience, getting these things out does often help one identify places where one might have some agency, an opening for something new or different. It also helps one find the knots and holes in their world, the places that still need elaboration – or even to exhumed.

On that note, I’ll continue with my general principles. Again, I take these as kind of “rules of thumb” that tend to structure my life, but that don’t go “all the way down.” Hopefully they make some kind of sense.


3. You don’t just see the world – the Earth worlds

I don’t think it constitutes going out on a limb to suggest that a real, mind-independent world exists outside of us. However, the suggestion that any individual could have complete, “objective” access to this world – to “see the world as it is” – strikes me as totally bananas. And also harmful.

For Heidegger, the “earth worlds” (where “worlds” is a verb). This means that the Earth, or parts of it, coheres into a particular “world” for a particular person based on that person’s existential projects. That is, how the world appears has to do with who a person is and what that person, therefore, does. Once you start actively trying to notice birds, you will see them everywhere, all the time. Try it. Once you learn how to surf, the ocean looks different than it did before. Now you see that the calm waves that appealed to you for swimming or floating aren’t any good for surfing. What appears and how it appears to you as the Earth worlds will differ for everyone. This is not to say that each person sees a different and mutually incompatible world – I think it’s pretty safe to say that the point here is rather that the valence or trajectory, or flavor of each person’s world differs from that of anyone else’s.

Timothy Leary (I think) called this a “reality tunnel,” making use of the emic/etic distinction from anthropology to make this point. For those unfamiliar, an “emic” perspective is “within” the object of study. A historian studying the social effects of Sufi lodges in Late-Ottoman Turkey who is also herself a Muslim, approaches the topic, at least partially, from an emic perspective. Another historian studying the same topic and period who is not a Muslim, on the other hand, would be approaching his research from an “etic” position, “outside” the object of study. Now, problems exist with this distinction, not least because any observer affects their object of study somehow, and often in ways unpredictable ahead of time. So, really, no one ever has a “pure” etic perspective because one must have some connection to the object/topic/person/etc. at hand in order to make any sense at all of it. But though “purely” etic perspectives remain beyond reach, one can, crucially, remember that one has a particular perspective.

Making one’s principles and beliefs explicit serves a useful purpose here, as well. Like most of these principles, I question (when not flatly denying) the possibility of transparency rather than translucence. I can know that I have a particular position, and bear this in mind when talking with other people – especially people I disagree with – but I can’t once and for all, thoroughly and systematically lay it all out. Why not?

For one, where is the “I” that would do this? Are these not “my” opinions and commitments? If “I” can see through myself, I have to see myself seeing myself, then myself seeing myself seeing myself, ad nauseam. Whatever “I” sees through me has to already be behind me, but by then I have to “I”s! So no. On pain of infinite regress, I cannot know my own mind transparently. But I can, by making my thoughts explicit, gain some translucence. How?

Let’s say I spend an hour or so writing out some thoughts. Then I get up from the table, make some tea, eat dinner, watch TV, whatever it is people do. During most of these activities I return to autopilot mode. [Just to clarify, this is not bad. It is necessary for life and not (completely) avoidable.] The next day, still in autopilot mode, I get up, go to work, do whatever it is I do for a job, come home, and find my notebook still sitting on the table. I idly flip through it while waiting for some water to boil and turn to the page where I made my thoughts explicit. Suddenly, I find myself face to face with myself but outside of myself. I see the words I wrote and find myself “snapped out” of the autopilot, if only temporarily. I have more thoughts on the imporatnce of what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions” or “epiphylogenetic retentions,” which lead to the next principle.

4. Cognitive structures don’t stop at the inside of your skull.

I consider it a significant limitation that people seem to think that their brains are where they do all their thinking. Even more limiting is the notion that one’s “self” is something external, transcendent, and unconditioned – a Cogito from…somewhere driving one’s body around like a car. Maybe the most limiting idea, actually, is the accompanying notion that thoughts are not “things” that motive action or that one has some degree of control over. Thoughts aren’t “real,” since they happen “inside.” My principles on this require careful elucidating, and I’m not even sure I’m getting what I want across. I’ve given preliminary and clumsy presentation of some of these ideas in my most recent Report from the Workshop, so hopefully readers won’t lack all familiarity. Consider principle #4 the most “work in progress” of the principles so far.

Consider: When you say what you think, you use words that are publicly available. Wittgenstein’s “beetle in a box” thought experiment has convinced me, at least, that we don’t have access to a “private” language – to use language, we must be integrated into a previously existing symbolic structure and adopt its use and conventions. When one speaks their native language, it feels “natural.” One might occasionally struggle to find the mot juste or to push a phrase off the tip of one’s tongue, but in general one’s native language doesn’t feel like speaking a language at all – it just feels like speaking. Contrast this with learning a foreign language (especially as an adult) – even speakers with a high degree of proficiency might still struggle sometimes and make mistakes. It takes a long time of dedicated practice and use for a language other than the language one grew up speaking to just feel like speaking.

Further, consider the ways that we use language. Speech comes first chronologically, although one listens long before one can speak with ease. After speech come reading and writing, complicated skills that sometimes present distinct challenges, but that, in most cases most of the time, any child can learn. The means by which we read and write – clay tablets, papyrus, bamboo slips, palm-leaf manuscripts, rag paper, digital screens – all exist outside of us (in the sense of not being part of our bodies). But today, at least in “developed” countries, it is nearly unthinkable for an adult to have never learned any reading and writing. “Functional” illiteracy, or not having read a book ever again after high school, we can understand, but not not knowing what a book it as all.

Reading, then, stands as a kind of language use that requires things “external” to us – objects that do not have vocal chords, mouths, and lungs. And these objects, once we adopt them, cannot subsequently be separated. No matter how hard I try, I cannot “un-learn” how to read the languages that I read. I might be able to train myself to focus on the letters I read rather than their significance as words, but even if I study type-faces for their aesthetics, I read the words the type spells out.

A “reading” mind is, then, different than a “non-reading” mind. And the differences don’t stop there. Consider reading a physical codex versus reading a digital version of the same text. While both count as “reading,” in the sense that one visually decodes arrangements of symbols, these readings nonetheless differ substantially in a variety of ways that are too detailed to go into here. Suffice it to say, that writing a to-do list on a piece of paper, or in an application on a smartphone, is a good example of the extent to which one’s mind does not stop at the inside of one’s skull, or even at the inside of one’s body generally.


I hope the reader will forgive my clumsy writing in this post (and the previous one in the series). Part of working to make one’s principles explicit involves making false starts and persisting at the edge of one’s conscious experience. I’ve insisted that one doesn’t have fully transparent access to the contents of one’s mind, but one can gain a certain degree of translucence. I’m making these posts public because it strikes me that writing so that others might read and understand what I’m talking about forces me to take an even further step outside my own head. I can’t rely on shorthands and assumptions, since I remain aware that others might not share them.

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