Okay, I’m not trying to be off-putting on my earliest posts, but the concepts of language and narrative that I explain here are central to so many of the posts that follow. So, please ignore or skim this brief detour through philosophy if you choose.
I think there’s a peculiar discovery that underlies much of what I can put into words when recording these thoughts. I believe it’s fundamental to the way I think about the world and the way this blog approaches our lives, culture and politics.
So, to my mind there were two amazing, genius discoveries in the early 20th century that completely changed the terms of how we approach and know the world. The first genius discovery has rightfully become a modern legend. “The Theory of Relativity“ by Albert Einstein published in 1905 stood everything we thought we knew about the physical world on its head. A hundred years later, we are still proving him right by measurements and mechanisms he could not have dreamed of!
The lesser-known big discovery that stood everything we knew on its head was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discovery of the power of language over our ability to know the world at all. His short book “Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus“ (1921) blew up the world of philosophy with 7 enumerated propositions and began the explosion; his “Philosophical Investigations” published in 1953 after his death, completed it. This was genius insight that turned religion, philosophy, and logic inside out. In Wittgenstein’s new world, the way we know the world is not through our senses at all… but through the words we use to categorize and describe our sensory experiences and ideas. These categories defined by language are what allow us to think about the world at all — but they also limit what we can think.
When I first learned about Wittgenstein, this theory seemed like so much “angels dancing on the head of a pin,” and “linguistic philosophy” which emerged from it seemed far off the track of what I thought philosophy even meant. (I wanted it to be about LIFE writ large! Existentialism, Descartian logic, Plato.) But gradually, in exploding waves over time, this arcane insight about how we know what we know began to seep into “everyday life” and remade my (and many philosophers’) understanding of the world, of truth, of reality.
As with Einstein’s discovery, evidence has piled up everywhere since Wittgenstein’s publications, of the fundamental importance of this view of the world — especially in recent linguistics and brain research.
So, to come back down to Earth, much of my thinking today about the topics I address and will address in this blog are informed by skepticism — not of the objective world, but whether we humans, transfixed by the “narrative,” may be completely misled about our own sensory perceptions or the actual logic of our chain of thoughts. Also, think of how woefully unprepared we may be to recognize the extent of what we CAN know. When this notion of our own fallibility is fully absorbed, it seems to make all opinion, policy, and law subject to a virtual mountain of salt! It is my hope that we can be humbled by this insight, and begin to understand the importance of multiple points of view to approach the reality of the world. This overall has always been the joy — and the frustration — of politics, democracy.
And this brings me to the concept of narrative: the stories we tell ourselves to describe our lives and ideas. The selection of words to tell our stories is tantamount to the selection of facts from the chaos of metadata around us. Narratives that form around the words we select guide us to what we even can think or perceive as the future unfolds. (Think of how the students in the well-known psychology experiment perceived what in reality were bananas as guns when they believed they were in a “story” of a violent robbery!)
We could liken (and perhaps recognize) dreaming as constructing narratives from isolated factoids. Modern science confirms that dreams do not seem to be about remembering, but rather are a form forgetting. With neurons firing constantly from every sector and within their own brains, humans are a stunning information gathering and processing machine. Conscious (and unconscious) thought discards 90% of every knowable fact because it has to strip away a substantial portion every thing the mind takes in, just in order to act in the real world. If this is true, is it any wonder then, that humans are by nature conspiracy theorists — stringing together narratives from isolated facts? Likewise, it is so understandable that propaganda that directly access the internal narratives (storyline) that shape our thinking are extremely effective in altering our perceptions.
George Orwell understood how important our words, our definitions, the stories tell ourselves can be in leading us to behaviors that just a little while before we might have found abhorrent. Orwell understood tyrants and political systems and propaganda and their danger of destabilizing our basic perceptions of the the world. Orwell’s version had an intentionality to the manipulation of our perceptions, but I don’t think it’s necessary — we do such a good job of deceiving ourselves.
Language! Yes, its a powerful tool, it’s the basis of our mastery of the world, of our “progress,” our ability to think at all! Yet, as we chain words together into sentences, and sentences into thoughts, and thoughts into narratives that define who we are, we need to remind ourselves that, in those interstices, we, as individuals, are at our most vulnerable. And for those vulnerabilities there are only limited cures.
But it is also important to recognize that we often can easily see the flaws in a Trump supporter’s line of thought, or a liberal’s, if we are not those. It is almost impossible to find the same flaws in the stories we tell ourselves.