Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review Of Intellectual Devotional

This book was great fun, and I went through it in a very particular way that I would highly suggest for anyone looking for a good time. I read it through with a friend of mine, and we made a pact to each try and comment via email on each day’s reading. That means we had 730+ emails exchanged by the time we were finished. Some topics of discussion grew into debates which lasted for a week or two (my friend and I are somewhat opinionated…but VERY brilliant). Throughout the year of this, we learned a lot about the world, about each other, about ourselves, about our threshold of tolerance for people who disagree with us, and about the depth of our compulsive “get-the-last-word” syndrome. Okay…maybe it was just me. Maybe not. But probably. I resent that.

It was a very probing experience which led to new and surprising avenues of growth. At one point, as a result of my interaction with my friend, I was compelled to read a book with articles about the nature of language and communication (see my review of “Exploring Language” at; and at another point, as a result of the sheer delight I found in learning so many new things, I decided to further repair and refill my brain-leak of world history by taking on the slightly outdated, but thoroughly illuminating “Outline Of History” by H.G. Wells. Sometimes I ache to think about how my time in school could have been better and more happily spent, from elementary to graduate, in the ecstasy of enlightenment; but unfortunately academia is so career driven that most kids are too focused on grades and performance, and not enough on the enjoyment and thrill of discovery. Plus, I was too lazy and hormonally distracted. There’s that too. But it’s never too late!

The book broke the information into different subjects for each day of the week: Monday is history, Tuesday is literature, Wednesday is visual arts, Thursday is science, Friday is music, Saturday is philosophy, and Sunday is religion. Each day’s entry is written by authors who specialize in that field, and everything was checked and edited by “scholars with advanced degrees.”  Which tacitly amounts to the professor closing his book with an, “…and if there are no questions…!” As for the areas I felt most familiar with, I think it was generally a fair treatment of most topics, with some exceptions of over-generalization, personal bias, and seemingly arbitrary or needless selections here and there which possibly nudged out more pertinent content (in my humble, un-advanced-degree opinion). But as a whole I felt it was very informative and did very well to fill in gaps in my education. And it was excellent as a starting point for conversation in each area. To be sure, there will be readings that will seem completely irrelevant or laborious to cover if it is not in your area of interest—like the bore that reading about classical music became for my friend and I, even though we are relatively interested in some classical music—but we have to remember that the authors and editors are trying to get us caught up to date, even if some ideas or subjects do not seem to be as significant to people now as they used to be. Some of the art and philosophical ideas may be deemed by the reader to be absolutely detestable and useless in his repertoire for getting at the meaning of life, the universe, and everything; but as a tool to better understand one’s culture and one’s world, and to have a better foundation for conversation with people who are different from you, it is all invaluable.  

If you are one of those people who has newly experienced an awakening to learning and reading, and are thirsty for more information about the wonder and beauty in the world, then pick this up immediately and take it piecemeal. And take a friend with you on the journey—you’re going to want to talk about it.

“Intellectual Devotional: Modern Culture”, here I come! After a little break of course.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review Of Exploring Language

My good friend and I have been reading the Intellectual Devotional for a year together now, committed to communicating on each and every of the 365 entries, discussing and debating topics ranging from the history of the alphabet to Zoroastrianism. I would say the subject we have returned to most, and which has dominated and born down on so many ever-lengthening email exchanges, would be hands-down the subject of language and communication. We’ve learned many things about communication, and some things the hard way, which might be the best way. My fascination with the nature of language and communication was very fresh on my mind one night while trying to salvage good books from a local thrift store shelf (it’s a rare form of biblio-tarianism), when I came upon this beauty of some post-college kid’s academic purging. I skimmed its contents and discovered it tackled many of the points of language and communication that resisted my processing like thickening syrup in my mind.

This book contains chapters contributed by different authors from different backgrounds expanding on language in so many of its ramifications. It begins with essays on the origins and purposes of language, moves into specific expressions of communication like sign-language and multi-lingualism, circles back to methods in conversation and anomalies in personal/public communication, explores perspectives from well-known authors and speakers like Hellen Keller and Malcom X, and even dives into censorship, humor, and advertising. There are probably a few articles that could interest just about anybody, and none are too long to bore or lose a reader entirely. There is just enough of what you like to whet your appetite for more, but it is substantial nonetheless.

Reading this book helps to emphasize the devastatingly beautiful and intricate thing that human language is. I am reminded of a train-analogy Wittgenstein utilized when expressed the multivalent nature of words and their varying uses:

“[Language is] like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike.  (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro” (Philosophical Investigations, 1162). Language is as complex and recalcitrant as thought itself, as it is an attempted externalization and crystallization of thought, which is denatured in its new environment. There is frustration in this unwieldy tool, but there is great power in it too, for which reason it is one of the elemental forces and growing momentum behind all of civilization.

My favorite articles in the book include:

  • Language And Thought
  • Homemade Education (Malcom X)
  • A Word For Evertything (Hellen Keller)
  • Women Talk Too Much (not what it sounds like)
  • The Social Basis Of Talk

Because I, personally, found the article “The Social Basis Of Talk” by linguistics professor and author, Ronald Wardhaugh, I will also review this excerpt particularly. It is an awesome treatment of the kinds of assumptions and values everyone is bringing into a conversation, and discusses how to navigate 'talk'. It was amazing, and revolutionary for a person like me. He says something I've never been open to really. He alleges that there is so much assumption, referral and inferences to/from personal experience, and such a high amount of commonality and "trust" that is required to get through communication, that it would be impossible to communicate at all if we weren't willing to "assume the other person thinks and feels like we do on most issues", or act as if that were the case even when we can't honestly believe that. He says that if two communicators don't at the very least pretend that they think like each other for the most part, then communication will break down almost immediately as conversation is purely a cooperative undertaking and the need to not be offended is paramount. “Public life is possible only when the opportunities for being seriously offended are reduced to near zero. If the risks in an activity are great, you may be wise to refrain from that activity unless the potential gains are correspondingly great or you have no alternative.” He bases this primarily on the human need for consistency in the world and other people, and our threshold of tolerance for only small bits of new information to assimilate at a time. “Life would quickly become unbearable if it were not so ordered and predictable and consequently so unworthy of close and continuing attention.” And this is why James Bond has no friends.

He offers the caveat that some conversations are specifically designated to allow for more experiential nuance, value contrasts, and novel information; and that some personalities can operate on difference levels of commonality; but he stated that we often underestimate how much assumption, trust, and compromise is necessary for nearly all of our communication to work. Talking is not simply a matter of  information being transmitted successfully, but a social interaction that may be deemed successful regardless of what the ideological differences are. For this reason Wardhaugh states, “We are prepared to tolerate a remarkable amount of unclarity in what we are told” and even are willing to go to great lengths to be “parties to an [unspoken] agreement each to accept the other as the other wishes to appear” to maintain that trust and underlying sense of safety and connection.

At first I was skeptical that 'faking it' (as I call it) can really be all that beneficial in conversation. What about the pursuit of truth, about sharing our changes and discoveries with each other, about challenging each other to be diligent, honest, and careful about assumptions? But the more I read, the more I was convinced that I DO IT ALL THE TIME!!! His point about WHY we do that is truly riveting and actually quite cogent. Although I hope I am the type of person that will only compromise to a certain degree, I also realize now that I might not be conscious of all my aims in conversation that may be more apparent to others, even, than to my own self.

Sure, it is set up as a college course-book, but it is as interesting and illuminating, as it is broad and cursory. I don’t know when I decided I don’t like reading textbooks—even the word itself has a ‘thud’ to it—but this is one I don’t mind keeping on my shelf. It’s a great reference, and fun reading for anyone pondering on why they don’t seem to see eye-to-eye with some people, or for those travailing to express themselves so that they will be accepted, or for someone disillusioned with the use of language as a social-manipulation, or for someone  merely thirsty for increasing their understanding of how language triggers cognitive growth and power of adaptation in our accelerating networking culture.