Reflection 323: Deep Structure

September 24, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I have long been concerned with where words come from within myself. And beyond that, within my culture. In Consciousness: The Book, I have written:

Where do words come from, that they can be so affecting from afar? I don’t even know where my own words come from when I open my mouth to speak, or sit at a computer as I am doing now, writing this very sentence. They flow from my mind, that I know, and within it from the dynamic forces making up the situation I believe myself to be in at the time (page xiii).

One clue is that when I talk or mutter to myself, I am often aware of a kernel or nugget of thought-all-in-a-clump that bears the meaning of my words before I speak, so for self-understanding I don’t need the carefully sequenced words-in-an-utterance at all to communicate within my own mind. Grammar and syntax based on usage in my language group are for others’ benefit, not my own.

When, in 1957, Noam Chomsky first offered his notion of a transformational grammar to the world, he visualized two levels of linguistic representation in the mind, a deep, universal, structural level which, to produce a particular utterance, had to go through a process of transformation which mapped it onto a surface structure of words expressed in the locally accepted idiom. He later abandoned that notion, but I still find evidence of a process within myself that transforms clusters of felt meaning into words.

That process, I now believe, is what I call the loop of engagement I use to interact with a material and energetic world I can know only through personal interpretation but have no means of knowing as it might exist in itself beyond reach of my conjecturing mind.

I base my view of that world on constructions I derive from patterned impressions conveyed by my senses. I think of such impressions as corresponding more-or-less well to ambient patterns of energy impinging on my receptive sensory organs. There is no blue in the world, only radiations of a certain energetic or vibratory nature which are absorbed into pigments in my eyes and I “see” or interpret as blue. There is no music in the world, only blasts of pressure in the air following one another at such a rate that I seize upon them as tones making up musical melodies and harmonies.

When I engage with the world of matter and energy, I direct my attention to patterns that remind me of more-or-less similar (harmonious or discordant) patterns I have experienced before, patterns I have named and sorted into groups of similar patterns, allowing me to “recognize” (categorize or interpret) them in ways I am already familiar with. I “understand” those various groupings of conceptualized sensory patterns by thinking of them as forming fields or arrays of related groupings I use to construct a situation as it happens in my experience. When I place a current impression into a context provided by ones I remember and am familiar with, I discover meaning (or a sense of felt relevance) in the relationships thereby created.

Situations made up of recognizable patterns of energetic stimulation as construed in my mind are the world I live in because they are based on my current awareness of patterns I fit in with memories of similar or related patterns developed through prior experience, providing me a meaningful sense of myself within what I believe to be happening in the world around me. In evaluating that situation by judgment earned through hard-won experience allowing me to predict what will happen next, I decide what, if anything, I should do in response to my current life situation.

I then formulate an appropriate course of action, which I perform in a succession of personal projects and relationships, eventually going public by extending my engagement into the world through particular bodily movements and actions I believe suit the situation I am in.

Such a looping engagement with a world I cannot know in itself provides the deep structure for my making myself happen as I do, including how I use words and other tools and accessories to further my success in that world. My “loop of engagement” is the particular brand of wildness I discover through study of my personal stream of consciousness.

If this sounds crazy to you, that may be because I am asking you to open a new chapter in your personal field of self-understanding, a chapter expressed in familiar terms used in an unfamiliar setting. I’ve been developing this approach to personal consciousness for years, so it makes sense to me (otherwise I wouldn’t post it to my blog). So I suggest you read this post over from the beginning (while keeping your mind elastic) to see if matters don’t form a pattern that is actually plausible and not strange at all. As I put it in Consciousness: The Book,

What I do know (or think I know) is that comparison between sensory figures [patterns or impressions] and what I feel I ought to do about them leads to spurts of awareness, which may be inaccurate, but at least prompt me into a state of vigilant arousal and alertness. Disparity, that is, creates a need to pay attention, so novelty draws awareness to itself, sparking consciousness.

I haven’t used the words “comparator” up till now in this post, but I’ve been thinking of adjacent cortical columns in my brain as prompting consciousness through discrepancies revealed by a process of mental comparison, much as visual cortex generates a sense of depth perception from discrepancies between signals from left and right eyes located in adjacent cortical columns. To continue:

I view my brain as a comparator, an organ for placing signals from different areas side-by-side in adjacent cortical columns of nerve cells to see how they measure up against one another. The lateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex, for example, so-called association areas of the brain, both direct outputs (motor-linked and sensory-linked, respectively) to multiple sites throughout the brain aptly suited to serve as staging areas for action. Converging on the same sites, these [paired] outputs would allow comparison, and the degree of sameness or novelty to be fed forward to motor areas.

Which leads to my concluding simile:

My thought is that, given the degree of consonance or dissonance compared to what I expect (am familiar with or used to), I experience a valenced signal that drives the adjustment needed to put me on the heading I desire. I steer my way by that signal much as a helmsman steers through fog by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course. His mindfulness of that error allows him to turn the wheel to port or starboard to counter the error at each moment as he goes. In that simple image I discover the rise of William James’ stream of consciousness, what others see as successive instants of working memory, and I see as my ongoing loop of conscious engagement (pages 128-129).

Sensory impressions, understandings, situations, judgments, actions—I visualize my conscious mind being largely devoted to navigating my way in the world by deliberately paying attention to the situations I construct for myself through paying attention to current patterns as compared to patterns I have experienced before. Moment to moment, I revise those patterns and actions to bring my physical self into agreement with the circumstances of my being (alive) as best I can address them.

My parting word is: Pay attention to the deep structure of your loop of engagement in making up the world you live in and you’ll be better off than most people because you’ll be in charge of understanding yourself—why it is you do the things you do. Nobody offers degrees in self-understanding, so you’ll have to earn yours on your own.

As always, y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Speech is an efficient form of action taken in response to a felt situation. The situation—in part or whole—is the message intended by a particular utterance. When an engagement is unintentionally terminated or interrupted, for instance, the resulting frustration may well erupt in a spurt of breath bearing an emphatically voiced consonant sound, such as an oath. Or when the prospect of a pleasing engagement appears, it may elicit an open vowel sound such as “ooh” or “aah.” Displeasure, shock, or fright may be expressed by air emitted through tensed jaw and vocal cords.

Situations are the intimate worlds in which we live and of which we speak (or draw, sing, dance, or make films). They are the center of our mental activity because they form the pivot between sensory impressions on one side and intentional actions on the other. Even if we do not act or perceive, we are situated in our sense of self, which I associate with dreams and memory, and imaginatively locate in my brain’s limbic system (including the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and cingulate cortex) where incoming and outgoing nerve signals meet in states of arousal.

When aroused, we tend to make sounds—clapping, groaning, sighing, singing, swearing, greeting—spontaneously broadcasting our felt situations to those within earshot. I have listened to the gurgling barks of harbor seal pups, shrieks of bald eagles back and forth, howls of coyotes, wavering calls of loons, warning cries and treetop arias of countless birds, and imitative burbles of babies in the crib. In each case, the sound is situated in the experience of an aroused living being.

The exchange of excited honks between two groups of Canada geese—those on their feeding waters and those flying in—are a case in point. No sound moves me more than the glad greetings shouted between those two groups. The most wondrous exchange I ever heard was a duet between a loon on the bay at midnight and an answering coyote on land, both equally passionate and melodious to my ears while lying in bed, transfixed for the three or four minutes it lasted, which I took to be no coincidence but a mutual exchange of auditory appreciation between species.

We are in this life together, and make sounds in observance of that fact when our situations overlap.

During my two-and-a-half-year stay on Burying Island (1986-1988), I often muttered words out loud, or caught myself on the verge of “talking to myself,” but I wasn’t really talking, more accurately acknowledging a state of arousal while gripped by one situation or another. Which, I think, is why painters paint, singers sing, dancers dance—to celebrate the situations they get themselves into, and recreate in performance again and again.

When people get together, what do we talk about but the situations uppermost in our minds? Baby passed another milestone, dear one got a job, doggie dug up neighbor’s garden, puss left half a sparrow on the pillow again, the car needs a new muffler, the house a new roof. Sentence-by-sentence, we describe in increasing detail the situations we are coming from because that’s where we live out our days. Which is equally true of conversations at the kitchen table, PTA meetings, or the general assembly of the local branch of the occupy movement.

Speech is an economical form of action by which we can try out our ideas before we irreversibly commit a particular deed. Once the deed is done, it has our name on it and we either have to own it and do our best to live with it, or try to find a way to undo what we have done. With speech, we can apologize for any hurt feelings we may have caused, but with deeds, like George Zimmerman, we cannot make amends by bringing Trayvon Martin back to life.

We, along with our generation, are born to a particular era of coexistence with one another. Each of us lives an individual life, yet we live that life in concert with those around us, and our respective situations may share similar features so that we feel connected in various ways by events taking place in our awareness as we each may personally construe it. In that sense, we may come to feel somewhat like brothers and sisters facing similar challenges, which helps us use speech to become real to one another in grappling with the cast of notable characters and salient events of our time. We may even converse among ourselves with a sense of common understanding, and come to agreement about what needs to be done to improve the situation we live in.

Acting separately, we may be weak, but together we are a powerful force that needs to be reckoned with. Whether that reckoning comes to pass or not remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: it won’t happen without our making a personal commitment to action.

In other words, I am with you as you are with me in this, our time to speak and to act. As ever, I remain y’r brother, —Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I think of haiku as the ultimate distillations of consciousness. Grappling with the instant in which we become aware of something, haiku capture what it is about a scene that attracts our attention and draws us out of our everyday selves, heightening our sense of engagement with life. Our sensory impressions, everyday conceptions, understandings, feelings, and personal values are all involved in reading and writing haiku. They address the exact moment we become alive to ourselves in rousing from our habitual stupor to discover we are participating in a situation of particular note. It is a haiku’s challenge to capture that situation in the most precise language possible as a gesture acknowledging how moved we are at the onset of one specific engagement.

In my last post I dealt with six haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, the man who used his pithy jottings to preserve and recapture the high points of his travels about Japan in the second half of the seventeenth century. Here I will consider six more.

Again, I am indebted to Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday Anchor, 1958). I present four versions of each poem: a) a Roman-alphabet version of the haiku in Japanese, b) Henderson’s word-for-word literal translation into English, c) Henderson’s polished English rendition, and d) my rendition as drawn from the literal translation (side-stepping Henderson’s urge to rhyme his translations, and add titles).

7. A haiku written in 1684.

a) Michinobe-no | mukuge | wa | uma | ni | kuware-keri

b) Roadside | mallow | as-for| horse | by | was-eaten-keri

c) Near the road it flowered, / the mallow—and by my horse / has been devoured!

d) roadside flower / fated to be eaten / by my horse

The wild flower by the side of the road attracted both Basho and his horse’s attention, leading to, first, the horse eating the flower, and then Basho capturing the incident in this haiku. The attractiveness of the flower was a set-up for its demise, producing the surprise and irony that made the incident stand out in Basho’s mind. This is precisely the kind of moment that wakes us up because of the disparity between appreciating one of nature’s beauties and then witnessing its inglorious fate. Compressed into a single episode of consciousness, we immediately grasp the familiarity of the grand plot by which we all bloom and succumb.

8. Here’s one from 1686 about wild boars.

a) Inoshishi | mo | tomo-ni | fukaruru | nowake | kana

b) Wild-boars | even | together-with | get-blown | autumn-storm | kana 

c) Wild boars and all / are blown along with it— / storm-wind of fall!

d) even wild boars / get blown about / autumn storm

As is traditional, this haiku is anchored by the seasonal reference in the last line, which confirms the force of a particular incident. Since Basho’s day, Japanese poets have witnessed events in the world as they are situated according to the natural order the seasons represent. Wild boars in autumn face different challenges than wild boars in winter, spring, summer. And if boars cannot find refuge, what about the poet who summons them? I picture Basho as blasted and drenched, using wild animals to speak to his plight, which is almost beyond words. For me, the key word here is “even.” The storm was even that bad. If the poet’s experience was truly ineffable, he manages to convey his helplessness and mental confusion through sympathy with wild boars.

9. Here’s one in which one sensory impression opens way to another.

a) Hototogisu | kie-yuka | kata | ya | shima | hitotsu

b) Cuckoo | vanish-go | direction | : | island | one

c) Where the cuckoo flies / till it is lost to sight—out there / a lone island lies.

d) where the cuckoo disappears / an island rises / from the sea

Here the cuckoo flying into the distance leads the poet’s eye to an island he had not noticed before—which must be where the bird was headed in the first place. We talk about what William James called the stream of consciousness—as if awareness flowed by itself. But in truth, we are responsible for the sequence in which we become aware of events because that sequence depends on how we direct our attention from one salient event to the next. Events don’t flow; we flow. Consciousness streams within us as we are moved to track the changes we notice. We are made to discover motion in our surroundings—such as the fly we spot out of the corner of our eye. Such as birds winging into the distance, and islands emerging from the sea in that direction. Replacing a bird with an island in our attention is no mean trick, yet we perform similar feats a thousand times a day. One thing points to another, and that to yet another. Think of movies, television, videos, aurora borealis. We are hooked on motion and tracking change, which we interpret as plots and narratives—and sometimes haiku.

10. And now what a particular island leads Basho to behold.

a) Ara | umi | ya | Sado-ni | yokotau | Ama-no | -gawa

b) Rough | sea | : | Sado [above] | stretch-across | Heaven’s | -river

c) So wild a sea—/ and, stretching over Sado Isle, / the Galaxy…

d) night surf / over Sado Island / the Milky Way

Here Sado, off the northwest coast of Japan, provides an earthly reference point for Basho’s otherworldly apparition. It is night. Wind is blowing. Seas are heaving, crashing. Over Sado, stars are gleaming in a swath across the sky. A night to remember. So Basho jots down a few words to spark his memory later on when he feels moved to recount his adventures. His life is one momentous journey made up of experiences such as this. Imagine what it was like in those days long before the advent of radio, film, TV, and computer games—the endless stream of distractions via new media meant to capture our attention for the benefit of those who profit from how we spend our time and money. Basho represents a world different from our world of today. But his jottings are still with us, and we can recover some of the world he experienced directly through his bodily senses if we will apply ourselves to that task.

11. Basho noticed many flowers on his travels, always in the context of his innermost sensibility. Here’s a haiku about hollyhocks.

a) Hi-no | michi | ya | aoi | katabuku | satsuki-ame

b) Sun’s | road | : | hollyhocks | lean-toward | fifth-month-rain

c) The sun’s way: / hollyhocks turn toward it / through all the rain of May.

d) where the sun should be / hollyhocks follow / showers in May

Basho here draws attention to the sun’s location in the sky and the direction hollyhocks face in tracking it—even though it may not be evident to those who do not depend on photosynthesis to make their own food. In this case, rainclouds hide the sun, but the hollyhocks spy it out and turn toward it nonetheless. As hollyhocks turn to face the sun, Basho turns toward the hollyhocks. We all have our tropisms, deliberately turning to face that which appeals to us. Our loops of engagement echo that natural force, ensuring we seek out those attractions which sustain us—food, air, water, companions, shelter, children, health, safety, and other drives and values that direct us toward what we need to survive. Hollyhocks need sunlight, Basho needs hollyhocks, we all seek engagement with what keeps us going.

12. One last haiku, based on auditory stimulation—or rather its lack.

a) Kane | tsukanu | mura | wa | nani | wo | ka | haru-no-kure

b) Bell | ring-not | village | as-for | what | [acc.] | ? | spring-evening

c) A village where they ring / no bells!—Oh, what do they do / at dusk in spring?

d) without bells / what do villagers do / on spring evenings?

Japanese syntax allows “bell | ring-not | village,” which I find more pungent than Henderson’s prosaic “a village where they ring no bells.” I long for the biting directness Japanese would allow me—if I spoke that language. Our own Anglo-Saxon heritage has been much softened and diluted by the Latin touch we inherited through Norman French. The native tongue of haiku is nearly untranslatable into modern English. We have much to learn from the study of haiku—about language and its relation to consciousness. I have tried to show in these examples that behind a particular haiku lies one human mind steeped in its own workings, its language reflecting that mind and its engagements better than our own language lets us speak our own minds as what they are rather than to make a certain impression on others.

That’s it for this round of haiku. As ever, y’rs, –Steve 

Reflection 232: Zero IQ

February 16, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

My brain doesn’t know the capital of Maine is Augusta or that 7×8=56. My brain doesn’t know it’s a brain, or anything at all about the English language. My brain knows zip, niente, nichts, nothing.

Why is that? Because if it knew anything it would have to have a knower module analogous to the screening room where perception is alleged to occur.

No, understanding and perception are kinetic events, not vaults where data is stored. Making experience and consciousness kinetic events, which can be stored in a distributive fashion in neural networks made up of pathways and synapses, true, but the experience and consciousness have to be recreated each time they appear by the neurochemical signals that animate them. Consciousness exists solely in the patterns and relations of such signals within the particular contexts and situations in which they arise.

This is the view I have come to after wrestling with this blog on consciousness, writing CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, and realizing my efforts have taken me to a new place. The book, by the way, has appeared in nine versions under three titles (Know Thyself, At My Peril, and now C the B.) As I wrote yesterday, memory is the key to consciousness, as it is to knowledge and understanding. As is language, as is our number line, as is our calibration by the culture we grow up in. We are a team effort, each unique one of us, and exist in the electrochemical processes we host in our heads within the contexts around us and the energies impinging on our sensory apparatus.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Which is why orderly minds will never understand it. The only answer is to give yourself to your own consciousness and see what it tells you. If you look for it a certain way, it will be lost in the mists as soon as you set out. You have to let it come to you. You can’t get there from where you are.

No, I’m not on drugs. Or if I am, consciousness is my only drug. This is written by my consciousness, not by any physical me.

Stay tuned to this blog for further bulletins. Better yet, tune in to your own mind and see what it tells you. As ever, –Steve

Copyright © 2011

Synopsis of Chapters 4-6 in my upcoming book, KNOW THYSELF: Adventures in Getting to Know My Own Mind.

Chapter 4, Understanding. When the various sensory elements of a given situation come together in my mind so that every phenomenon is coupled to a corresponding concept or interpretation in an aesthetic or coherent relationship, then my consciousness congratulates itself with a feeling of satisfaction that I have done my job and can claim to understand my experiential situation as I construe it in my mind. That situation as I understand it, then, is made up of an array of multiple concepts and multiple phenomena in coherent relationship at various levels of discernment as a basis for undertaking projects through action in the world. Understanding has different structural dimensions according to the phenomena, interpretations, feelings, emotions, levels of discernment, and organizing schemes which it encompasses.

Chapter 5, Being and Meaning. It is no accident that much of philosophy is given to considerations of ontology (study of that which exists or has being), epistemology (that which is known or has meaning), ethics (distinguishing right from wrong behavior), and aesthetics (distinguishing harmony from discord). These are intuitive aspects of everyday awareness, no matter how highly schooled a person may be, because their interplay largely determines the feel of mental events from a personal point of view. Sensory patterns in my mind provide evidence of existence. Abstract concepts are the currency of my knowing. The ethical feel (or valence) of a judgment tells me its merit in relation to my personal survival. And beauty is my mind’s gauge of coherence, unity, or perfection. I offer the example of a young girl learning the spelling word for tomorrow as an example of what happens when meaning and being become disconnected, causing some confusion until they are reunited.

Chapter 6, Feeling and Emotion. I use feeling to refer to the positive or negative attitude (or valence) that colors a great deal of awareness either good or bad from my given perspective, and emotion to refer to the effect specialized neurotransmitters and hormones have in interacting with my personal conscious-ness. To me, feelings accentuate the difference between go and no go, good and bad, right and wrong, do it and don’t even think of doing it. Visceral emotions such as fear anger, awe, yearning, joy, or attachment reveal the influence of hormones on mental activities during highly charged situations I am personally invested in.

In my next post, I give a synopsis of the next three chapters: 7, Loop of Engagement; 8, Situations; 9, Speech.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2010)

The upshot of consciousness is a course of action appropriate to various life situations as characterized by one individual or another. Put more briefly, the point of consciousness is effective interaction with the world. Which makes it possible to track the workings of consciousness by following the trace it leaves in the works we strew across the landscape of our lives. Dante’s Divine Comedy presents one such landscape. The plays of Shakespeare portray another. The consciousness of Pablo Picasso is clearly evident in his collected paintings, drawings, sculptures, and studies. In the musical idioms of their times, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have annotated their respective streams of consciousness in forms we can still respond to today. Frank Lloyd Wright lives on in his buildings: to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York is to enter his mind.

I am not speaking in fanciful metaphors here. Just as deer can be tracked by following their prints in the snow, the pellets and stains they deposit, the branches they chew off, the hollows they leave when they sleep—so can the structure and workings of the human mind be pursued by paying close attention to the spoor it leaves in interacting with its world. There for all to see are the doings of consciousness. Whatever form they take, here are traces generated by the human brain as both enabler  and substrate of extended, conscious behavior.

Personal libraries speak volumes of the minds that have collected—and actually read—them. My thirteen bookcases hold a record of my engagement with Hancock County, Maine, since 1986. Photographs, maps, notes, books, magazines—collectively, they tell what I have concerned myself with for the past twenty-four years. If they were put in chronological order (rather than the hodgepodge they are now), there would be a diary of my consciousness. Somewhere in my travels I picked up a copy of Thesaurus of Book Digests: Digests of the World’s Permanent Writings from the Ancient Classics to Current Literature, edited by Hiram Haydn & Edmund Fuller (Crown Publishers, 1949). I have dipped into it only once or twice, but this will be the first time I have put it to use by quoting the following paragraph excerpted from the entry under “WALDEN (1854), by Henry David Thoreau”:

This is the spiritual autobiography of a rebel wearied by the machine age, but too much of a practical Yankee to escape into the fog of mysticism. Thoreau gave up his trade of pencil maker and set up house at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He hoped to prove to the world that the tyranny of many things is necessary, that man can live with very little and find contentment. At Walden the author lived in elegant simplicity. He was wonderfully able with his hands—an excellent carpenter, mason, surveyor and mechanic. For two years he stayed at his hermitage. His book is a record (in the form of eighteen essays) of his life, his painstaking observations of nature, and his reflections about the world’s troubles.

What strikes me about that capsule description is how little it captures the style of Thoreau’s mind as it makes its rounds through the days he actually lived on the shore of Walden Pond. That is, how little it invites me to engage such a mind by reading this particular text. I don’t generally seek out “painstaking observations of nature” and “reflections about the world’s troubles.” I want personal challenge and adventure told in readable English, and I certainly find them in Walden, but not even hinted at in this categorization of the book. The best parts—the meat of Thoreau—are left out. A direct quote of Thoreau’s own words—say, the paragraph depicting his digging his cellar hole—would make a better advertisement.

I have another book, though, that is a perfect digest of a man’s living consciousness in being a nineteenth-century site map of his mind at work on a particular project. Peter Mark Roget could be characterized many ways, such as living in England from 1779 to 1869, being a scholar and perennial student, physician, lecturer, founding member of many institutions, and so on. But the work I call a site map of his mind is his masterwork,

Thesaurus of English Words & Phrases

classified and arranged so as to

facilitate the expression of Ideas and

assist in Literary Composition

issued in 1852 when he was 73 years old, and, updated, is still in print 158 years later in 2010. In his twenties, Roget had worked out a system of verbal classification to aid his own speaking and writing. Well into his retirement, he expanded that system for broader use by the public.

The system is based on the classification of ideas divided into or embedded within four distinct levels of analysis. The broadest level is that of six classes somewhat similar to Aristotle’s categories (in two cases split into divisions):

I—ABSTRACT RELATIONS

II—SPACE

III—MATTER

IV—INTELLECT, including Division (I) Formation of Ideas, and Division (II) Communication of Ideas

V—VOLITION, including Division (I) Individual Volition, and Division (II) Intersocial Volition, and

VI—AFFECTIONS.

Each class is further divided into sections, and each section into headings which include the individual words and phrases Roget intends us to distinguish between and choose among to suit our individual projects.

To take one example, Class III MATTER is broken into three sections: 1) Matter in General, 2) Inorganic Matter, and 3) Organic Matter. Section 3) Organic Matter is further subdivided into 1—Vitality, and 2—Sensation. Subsection 1—Vitality contains 16 headings:

358 Organization

359 Mineral

360 Life

361 Death

362 Killing

363 Corpse

364 Interment

365 Animality

366 Vegetability

367 Zoology

368 Botany

369 Animal Husbandry

370 Agriculture

371 Mankind

372 Male

373 Female

Here we begin to see Roget’s genius in distinguishing polar, intermediate, and related aspects of meaning (life-death-killing-corpse-interment-animality) as reflected in his systematized associations between concepts and words. Heading 371 Mankind includes, among 155 other terms under six other subheadings:

person, individual, human being, everyman, everywoman; creature, fellow creature, mortal, body; a being, soul, living soul; God’s image; one, somebody, someone, so and so, such a one; party, customer, character, type, element; chap, guy, bloke, fellow, cove, johnny 372n. male; personage, figure, person of note, VIP 638n. bigwig; star  890n. favorite; dramatis personae, all those concerned  686n. personnel; unit, head, hand, nose.

And that is only a small part of one heading out of the 990 in my edition. In keeping with the then current rage for reason, Roget’s original scheme contained an even 1000 headings. Clearly, Peter Mark Roget was a systematic thinker, a quality of mind credited to his mother (his father died when he was a child). At over 770 pages, the index of words and phrases in my 1966 Dell edition takes up over half the entire book (I can’t tell the exact length of the index because the back cover came off years ago, and with it an unknown number of pages).

In his introduction to the original 1852 edition, Roget wrote:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, . . . a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express. The purpose of an ordinary dictionary is simply to explain the meaning of the words; and the problem of which it professes to furnish the solution may be stated thus:—The word being given, to find its signification, or the idea it is intended to convey. The object aimed at in the present undertaking is exactly the converse of this: namely,—The idea being given, to find the word, or words, by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed. For this purpose, the words and phrases of the language are here classed, not according to their sound or their orthography [spelling], but strictly according to their signification.

Imagine having the mind and discipline to create such a work. Roget’s Thesaurus is aimed at improving expressive language, not language as received by eye or ear. It facilitates converting concepts and feelings into meaningful sounds—one of the basic requirements of speaking or writing in English. When the right word for a particular audience does not spring readily to mind, the word search becomes conscious, and one word or phrase from a number of options must be chosen as the most appropriate. The Thesaurus, then, is a tool for converting conscious intentions into overt speech acts suitable to the writer-speaker’s specific situation at the time.

The challenge of such situations is to achieve order among the many elements that bear on a speaker in a given situation so that her vocabulary, categorizations, meanings, and intended emphases are fulfilled by an utterance whose word choice, syntax, and intonation are all of a piece in keeping with the situation she is engaged with insofar as she can anticipate the role she is about to play in the lives of her audience. Which is a tall order because the only way to learn to do that is through trial and error, alternating with self-correction, study, and further rehearsal.

After taking a writing workshop in 2001, I was consumed by the question, Where do words come from? They seem to be just there on the tip of our tongues when we need them, but how do they get there? It is now clear to me that meanings and categorizations are primary, and the words used to express them arise from a sense of the situation and the urge to make a fitting verbal response. I see that now as being essentially an aesthetic (rather than a strictly rational) problem. In getting our speech acts together, we have to be clear which valence we mean to express—positive, negative, or neutral—and where on the gradients of emphasis, clarity, and detail we wish to position ourselves. Will easy, broad, general terms suffice, or do we have to exert ourselves to become more discriminating than that? How specific must we be? How experientially detailed or conceptually inclusive? These complex decisions are rooted in the sense we have of our own experience in relation to the situation we are engaged with—that is, with what we are asking of ourselves on that occasion under those particular circumstances as we construe them.

This is essentially the problem Peter Roget faced when he compiled his original system for putting meanings into words. And that compels us today to take his Thesaurus off the shelf when we’re not sure what to say because the words aren’t there on our tongues where we need them to be. I would hazard that Roget’s drive to systematic thinking originated from just such uncertainty during his formative years as a speaker of English (his father was born in Geneva and was not a native speaker). Fortunately for us, young Roget faced into the problem and produced a masterly system for turning incipient categorizations into speech acts through word choices appropriate to various situations as he understood them. He was exceptionally well-schooled by his mother and early teachers.

Having a site map of Roget’s mind at our elbows, we are direct beneficiaries of his nineteenth-century consciousness. Bloggers and twitterers probably don’t devote that much time to diagnosing their situations or choices of words—which is why they are bloggers and twitterers. They prefer to speak from the hip, as it were. But spontaneity isn’t everything, particularly in touchy situations or when dealing with complex issues. Which is when having wide ranges of both meanings and terms to select from is a definite advantage in achieving an appropriate subtlety of expression. If the world is seen in black and white, then perhaps bold or brazen speech might be deemed appropriate—as in war or clashes between street gangs. But there’s usually more to a situation than is readily apparent, and a simplistic approach is apt to stir up more trouble than it can deal with. I truly believe that suiting our behavior to the various situations we find or place ourselves in calls for aesthetic judgments unimagined in the OK Corral. Aesthetics is a matter of putting every aspect of consciousness into play, attending to the subtleties as well as the overall landscape, acknowledging the role of every part in creating the whole, the integrity and dignity of the whole in relation to every part—and acting only when the full dynamic richness and complexity of the experience have been savored. Then the appropriate words appear on the tongue as called up by the fullness of the experience, and the speaker effectively matches outward words to the inner occasion.

Roget's Thesaurus

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.

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* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed