To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.


414. Gravity

January 24, 2015

Our every thought and action takes place in a field of gravity. In the womb we may not have noticed it so much, but we are born to that field, and are comforted by being held, fed, and warmed at the breast to ease the shock of abruptly having to accommodate to that relentless force on our own.

In time, we learn to lift our heads, press down with our arms, crawl, sit up, toddle, walk, hop, skip, run, dance, and climb, always strengthening ourselves against the pull of gravity, learning to move despite that constant tug that draws us down. We learn to trade new skills for hard knocks, but the threat of falling never goes away.

In time we learn to play games against gravity, our constant opponent. We like being tossed into the air and lovingly caught. We like swinging back and forth, up and down. We learn to use gravity for fun and play, not merely tolerate or work against it. Chasing after balls, kicking, throwing, catching, running, always on the go, we prove our mastery of moving within a gravitational field. Many become famous for their skills at playing against gravity, the same force that weighs the rest of us down.

High-wire balancing, ballet dancing, window washing, pole vaulting, steeple chasing, hurdling, even cheating death by leaping from planes with a parachute or off a bridge on a bungee cord, the adventurous among us thrive by taunting gravity to deter them.

In the process, some achieve a certain lightness of being despite the Earthbound certainty of their lives. Many fly in airplanes high in the sky, another few become astronauts and dare to escape gravity altogether by being thrust into space aboard rockets at the cost of having to bear even sterner forces we call Gs.

With every thought, urge, and emotion existing in a gravitational field, we must account for that fact in advance to avoid falling on our faces when we act. Gravity is a fact of life, of planning and action in living in a gravitational field.

Yet we take that profound fact for granted, and seldom give it a thought. Yes, we smile when baby lifts her head the first time, then crawls, stands, and tries a few steps. But that is what she is supposed to do as a matter of course, so we don’t dwell on it overmuch. Another milestone passed on schedule, oh hum.

Gravity is a fact of nature. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t cope with it. In fact, evolution has equipped us with bones, muscles, and tendons that work around gravity’s constant pull, fitting us to defy gravity every second of our lives. Or even to gracefully succumb by sitting or lying down to get some temporary relief.

Gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, are two of the most obvious poles of our being. Rising and falling, smiling and frowning, feeling good and feeling bad—these are a few of the polarities that generate our minds in the first place. I believe that without gravity, we wouldn’t have evolved as conscious beings. We may have gotten our start in the warm seas of early Earth, but when we clambered onto land we took on gravity full-force, and had to match that challenge rather than float on the surface of life as our watery environment once allowed.

Birds and butterflies go us one better by shedding every spare ounce and leaping off into the air. No wonder we admire monarchs and chickadees so much, and all the others who make defying gravity look so easy. I have spent many a dream laboriously flapping my arms, only to rise into a tangle of power lines without a landing field in sight. I can do it in my dreams, but there’s no joy in doing it, only worry about getting tangled.

Astronauts bounding about on the moon are as close as we can come to the ideal of a life free of gravity. Sailing and hang-gliding are runners-up. Golf offers us the surrogate of a dimpled white ball flying down the fairway, all credit to the driver standing staunchly in his cleated shoes. Basketball, too, offers the swish of a ball downward through the net. And baseball through the trajectory of a well-hit ball of leather.

Too, I would add consciousness itself, which is capable of light thoughts and flights of fantasy. Gravity and levity, I suggest, offer prototypes of the polarities such as heaviness and lightness, sadness and happiness, that kindle consciousness by offering the mind something to chew on, and the life force a challenge worthy of its seating in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.

After all, it requires huge amounts of energy to work or play games in a stern gravitational field. Levity has been one of our goals from the start. Think of it: that is precisely what we have gained bit-by-bit over the three-and-a-half-billion-year course of evolution.

It was no accident we got where we are today, with gravity-defying minds such as we have. Drawing up our lips and cheeks into a smile, that is how we receive the news that gravity has made us the miracles we are.