Considering Sources of Knowledge as We Near the End of Another Semester

Before we began the current semester just a few months ago, we may have heard or felt a subtle voice that called us by name, saying,

Where are your books?–that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you! (William Wordsworth, “Expostulation and Reply”)

Had we not heard this voice, at least in some form and to some degree, we probably would not have began our studies this semester.

And yet, now that we’re nearing the end of it, some of us may hear yet another voice, one that is now telling us the exact opposite:

Up! up! my Friend and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

We hear this voice as finals week approaches and, especially when we look outside and see the beginnings of a warm and bright spring day, are almost compelled to agree: “An ‘endless strife’ indeed!”

But the purpose of the above poem, as I understand it at least, is not to denounce books or to say that there is no value in learning. It is, on the other hand, to say that there are more and perhaps better sources of knowledge and learning than that which comes out of books alone. The poet continues:

And Hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

. . .

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

Enough–that’s what’s on our minds as we contrast sitting in a room and taking a test or writing a paper with what happens on the other side of the window: white clouds, blue sky, and warm sun. When we consider this contrast, perhaps our thoughts flow to this question that was implicitly asked in the first poem: Why do I do the things I do? Why do we read and study so much?

Here’s another related poem by Walt Whitman on the same subject. He writes about charts and diagrams the same way Wordsworth discusses books in the above poem. Here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the stronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Knowledge can come from books and lectures and charts. But these are not the only sources of knowledge.

In the above poem, we don’t get to the stars until the very end–the last word, even. In other words, we don’t symbolically ascend until we’ve physically left the lecture hall and actually turned our gaze upward. A focus on one thing involves to some degree a neglect of something else (cf. Burke Permanence and Change 49), and if a gaze is looking at “charts and diagrams”–or words on a page or a computer screen–it is conversely not seeing stars in “perfect silence” and “mystical moist night-air.”

That isn’t to say that something might not be learned by seeing these “charts and diagrams” or words on a page or a screen. Quite the contrary. But when we sit in a lecture hall and look at charts and diagrams, we’re only seeing a symbolic representation of the stars. The stars are not actually seen with the eye. They are only “seen” symbolically with the mind (Cf. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By).

Charts and diagrams–books–should ultimately lead people to study things as they really are–dare I use the word truth here? Yes, I think so. I believe that truth is things as they really are. There may, of course be some value in studying books and charts for their own sake–it it is important to look at a lens from time to time in order to make sure that the lens is a pure instrument for letting us see through it.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way:

Men of the world who value the Way all turn to books. But books are nothing more than words. Words have value; what is of value in words is meaning. Meaning has something it is pursuing, but the thing that it is pursuing cannot be put into words and handed down. (Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Watson 1968, 152)

In more religious discourse, Joseph Smith expresses the same idea as Wordsworth, Whitman, and Zhuang:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relationship to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.

Yes, books are certainly valuable. But there’s more to learning than just seeing words on a page.

Crossing a Crosswalk in the Rain

Ben had been running, and it was time to turn around and go home. He knew it was time for two reasons: first, he was tired, and second, he was drenched. He wasn’t drenched with sweat, however (at least, hopefully he didn’t sweat that much); he was drenched because it had been pouring down rain ever since he left his house. Ben wasn’t very cold though–his own movements had kept him warm, but he knew he didn’t want to stay out in the rain much longer, as exhilarating and liberating as running in the rain might be.

So he turned around and ran the other direction.

There were no other faces in the rain that day. Ben was the only person on the sidewalk, probably thanks to the downpour, and the only other traces of human beings were the cars, trucks, vans, and suburbans that came constantly up and down the 4-lane road. There was a variety of them, just like there would be in any other city. Their headlights illuminated the drops of water that fell from the sky, drops that were otherwise invisible unless you looked at the ground and saw their points of impact on the wet surfaces. But there were no faces. Ben tried to look through the windows of the passing cars. He wanted to catch a glimpse of another human being, another face. But he couldn’t see anything, or anyone, inside.

Ben knew he would need to cross the street in order to return home, but there were too many vehicles and no room or place for him to cross. Like a wall. He couldn’t just run across the road. If he did, his actions would cause some of these vehicles to slam on their brakes which would then get them rear-ended by the vehicles that drove behind them. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight, even if he didn’t get hit. No, he wouldn’t–couldn’t–just run across the road, even though that’s what he had done on his way down. It didn’t make sense; it wasn’t logical. Besides, there was a crosswalk up ahead. It wasn’t far, and he would get there soon enough. He would cross at the crosswalk.

Ben kept running. Rain landed on his cheeks and in his eyes when the wind blew, so sometimes he had to squint to see where he was stepping. Earlier, the rain would mix with his sweat and with the gel that he hadn’t washed out of his hair before he went running. Then the rain-gel-sweat would drip into his eyes and sting. But now there wasn’t really any gel left. Just water and sweat.

Ben was getting closer to the crosswalk.

There sure were a lot of cars. Endless, they seemed. Ben wondered why there were so many and where they were headed. He also wondered about the people, those faces that he couldn’t see but that he knew were still inside these vehicles, somewhere. He thought about how each face, each person was headed in a specific direction and towards a specific destination. Each also had a reason for being in his or her car at that particular time, and each had some idea of where he or she was going. Where exactly were they all going? What was on their agenda? How long would these cars stay on the same road together, and when would they part company without ever actually meeting, without ever actually seeing the face behind those other windshields?

Ben approached the crosswalk and slowed, letting his shoes slap against the sidewalk in a small puddle. It was one of those crosswalks that is not at an intersection, but that still has a button for pedestrians to push so they can safely cross. Unless the system is malfunctioning, the traffic light above the crosswalk is always green unless a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button. Then it would turn red and stop traffic.

Ben was the only one around and wanted to cross the street. He pushed the button. It was one of those buttons that isn’t really a button but a slab of metal that you don’t really push–when your finger touches the metal, a little red light blinks and you hear a two short tones, a higher one followed by one that is less high. As is typical with these kind of crosswalks when they haven’t had a pedestrian in a while, the stoplights turn yellow and then red almost immediately. Those lights had to turn red in order for the pedestrian light to turn green. The masses had to stop so that the individual could cross.

Ben watched the stoplight change color. And as it turned to red, Ben saw the consequences of his act. It was a chain reaction. At first, a car in one lane kept driving, even though the light was red. But the other vehicles stopped at the red light. Then the vehicles behind them stopped, and so on, down as far as Ben could see in the rain. He looked through the windshield of the car in front and thought he saw the outline of a face that was distorted by the wet windshield. The wipers passed in front of the outline, yet the image didn’t get any clearer to Ben.

But the cars on both sides of the road had stopped–all of them. Or rather, he had stopped themIt didn’t matter what their destination was, why they were on the road, or even how late they were. They were not moving. It was almost as if Ben had stopped time and parted a sea of rubber, fiberglass, plastic, aluminum, and steel. But he wasn’t crossing on dry ground.

One small act of raising an arm and touching a metal pole to some degree changed this corner of the world–not just for Ben, but for every face in every vehicles, those faces that sat there waiting for a lone, soaking pedestrian to cross the street so he could go home.

Only then could they continue their journey to their respective destinations.

The Rent Collector and Zizek

I recently finished a book called The Rent Collector. It’s about a woman, Sang Ly, who lives in a garbage dump in Cambodia. She and her husband collect bottles and metal they find so they can sell them in order to make enough money to eat dinner. They also have a baby boy who is perpetually sick thanks to the neverending trash, stench, and lack of nourishment. Their house is 3 tin walls with a tarp for a roof, and they sleep on cardboard. The dump is constantly on fire because methane builds up under the trash and spontaneously ignites, so they have to be careful where they walk. And if that isn’t bad enough, there’s a drunk old woman who goes around collecting “rent” from the inhabitants of the dump. As if the people who live in Stung Meanchy (the dump) aren’t poor enough.

Well, Sang Ly makes a deal with someone who can read, and the book is about her learning to read even though she lives in constant poverty. It’s worth reading.

It’s interesting because I look around me and see all of the things that I think I really need to live that I may not be absolutely essential–things like my computer, phone, food, shower, running water, carpeted floor, matress, to sleep on, and the internet. I’ve been living in this way for so long that I don’t often think about what life might be like without these things. And yet, life isn’t like that for everybody on earth. Some people work all day just to make enough money to eat dinner. And then they go to work the next day just to do it all over again. There’s not much time for entertainment. Just survival.

And yet, we’re constantly told otherwise. We’re told to consume, to spend money, and, in short, to Enjoy! On that note of enjoyment, well, we certainly do live in a society saturated with entertainment (to what degree is or is not this a result of capitalism, an ideology of which money is a, if not the, god-term?). While entertainment is necessary and good to some degree, when it becomes a primary focus of an individual or a society, it can be dangerous. I’ve never read it, but perhaps Neil Postman was on to something when he titled one of his books Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Distinguishing Nature from Custom: On Journeys and Adventures–Perhaps Especially the Unexpected Kind

Life is good, but do you ever get that feeling that it’s sometimes not as good as it could be? To be honest, I get it all the time. It’s like there’s something missing, but in order to obtain that missing thing I have to do something I’ve never done before. And it’s not exactly easy to get outside of a comfort zone.

Well, now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been in theaters for almost two months, I think it would be useful (and interesting) to consider those feelings discussed above and some of their possible solutions as they appear in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The Original 1937 Cover. Doesn’t it look adventurous?

But why? Well, even though Bilbo’s adventure certainly is an unexpected journey as the movie’s subtitle suggests, the story is a lot more than that. It is not just a physical journey from Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain and back again, but more importantly, The Hobbit is also a symbolic journey during which Bilbo becomes something better than he once was. The story describes Bilbo’s change from a somewhat typical hobbit to an extraordinary one, from a being that was once content with who he was to one that, when he left his comfortable home to go on an epic quest, ended up helping those who needed help and was actually true to a part of himself that he wasn’t sure existed, a part of himself that he found only when he left his comfort zone.

Let’s talk about Bilbo’s comfort zone, which was comfortable in several ways. At the beginning of The Hobbit, we’re told that hobbits live in comfort and relaxation. Hobbit-holes, the places where Hobbits live, are by definition comfortable:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (3)

Bilbo’s own hobbit-hole is perhaps even more so, by hobbit standards. Besides being one of the biggest and best hobbit-holes that included a garden, Bilbo’s has things like “a perfectly round door like a porthole . . . a very comfortable tunnel without smoke . . . polished chairs, . . .” etc. (3). It was a nice home, and for a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins had the life.

But, like the rest of us, to some degree Bilbo can be defined by the places in which he spends his time, and more especially so by those places in which he spends the majority of his time. Since Bilbo’s hobbit-hole is described as comfortable, perfect, and polished, we can also assume that his life was similar: it was certainly comfortable, was about as polished as it could get, and it was, in a word, perfect–as far as typical hobbits go, of course. Bilbo’s neighbors expected him to do certain things, to say certain words, and to be a certain kind of hobbit, and Bilbo accurately and consistently fulfilled those expectations. He was a “very respectable” hobbit because the Bagginses “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected” (3).

This is the version I read when I was younger.
It almost looks like Bilbo lives in a sort of Eden-before-
the-Fall, or maybe even a pre-mortal-life-before-his-

That is, until along came Gandalf to tell Bilbo, “I am looking for someone to share an adventure I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone” (6).

At the word difficult, it’s no wonder that Bilbo gives what we might call a typical hobbit-response: “I should think so–in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” (6, emphasis added). I have italicized the word uncomfortable to make obvious what seems to be an inconsistent relationship between the life of a hobbit and the having, going on, and perhaps even the very existence of adventures. Real hobbits like Bilbo don’t go on adventures or quests. They only do what is expected of them, and Bilbo would have none of Gandalf’s talk. Or so he thought.

After Bilbo hopped inside to get away from Gandalf’s talk of adventures, he shut his perfectly round door, leaving Gandalf outside. In response, Gandalf lowers the tip of his staff to the door and leaves his mark on it, a mark that we’re told “made quite a dent on the beautiful door” (11). We’re obviously getting some foreshadowing here–Gandalf’s act of leaving his mark on a “perfect” door does create a dent, but the door is still functional. The door has something that it did not have before. It has the mark of someone older and wiser than the actual owner, and the mark of someone who knew the owner better than the owner knew himself (7). Bilbo’s perfect life is about to get a dent in it. But that dent is coming from someone who knows best.

Bilbo does acknowledge that Gandalf knows at least as much about Bilbo as Bilbo knows about himself: when the dwarves see the mark the next day and enter Bilbo’s house for tea while Gandalf returns, steps inside, and tells the dwarves where Bilbo’s food is located, Bilbo says that Gandalf “Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!” (12). The location (Bilbo’s hobbit-hole at Bag End) and the character (Bilbo himself) can be interchangeable to some degree, and when we talk about one, we are also to some degree talking about the other.

Alright. So, all the dwarves are sitting around in Bilbo’s house and Gandalf is there, too. And at first, Bilbo doesn’t want anyone there. He doesn’t even want to think about adventures or anything of the kind. He just wants to have dinner by himself. But something happens to Bilbo that wakes up a part of himself that he didn’t even know existed. Something makes him want to go on this adventure and leave his comfortable home.

It looks a bit like the first edition’s cover.

Suddenly, after dinner is finished, the dwarves pull out instruments. Clarinets, flutes, viols, a drum, and a harp–“It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin [the leader of the dwarf company] struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill” (14), the author tells us. Then the dwarves sing. They sing about their past and their ancestors. They sing about adventure, their once-powerful race, and its fall from greatness. They sing of the current, sorrowful state of their people. And they sing of their desire to restore that which was lost.

Note that music, poetry and stories do something to Bilbo. They influence him, and the songs that were sung in his hobbit-hole that evening gave Bilbo a “love of beautiful things” (16), and a desire to act, a desire to change: “Then something . . . woke up inside of [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick” (16).

You’ll notice that I omitted a word in the previous sentence with an ellipsis (. . .). That word is Tookish: the sentence actually reads, ” Then something Tookish woke up inside of him.” The Tooks were some of Bilbo’s ancestors who went on many adventures, and hence, as their descendant, Bilbo had a part of them in him. We could almost say that to some degree Bilbo had an innate desire for adventure. There’s evidence for this innate desire when Bilbo, as soon as he recognizes Gandalf for the first time, says,

Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves–or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter–I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time. (7)

This statement gives us evidence that, to some degree, Bilbo wasn’t completely true to himself. He was living a life in which he was content, but there was, however, something inside of him that desired adventure, something that he had stifled and choked until it had fallen asleep, and something that had woken up when Bilbo was moved by the song of the dwarves. And when that something woke up inside of him, Bilbo began to distinguish who he thought he was with who he really was. He began to realize that there was a part of himself that was hungry and needed nourishment. Was he merely a hobbit that would just sit around and be comfortable? No, that was only part of it. His adventurous, Tookish part desired more. It desired to do something in the world.

Of course, this desire of Bilbo’s doesn’t always stay with him. It keeps coming and going, and it does so because he hasn’t been nurturing it. For so long, Bilbo had kept the desire for adventure underground, and it will take him some practice to finally keep that desire constantly. Even good desires come and go. They do so because they haven’t yet been cultivated, and it will take a long time for Bilbo to become comfortable with the adventurous and Tookish part of himself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the hobbit-hole, the dwarves aren’t yet convinced. They don’t know who this guy is or how he will be useful for their adventure. They’re worried that he’ll just take up space, make things inconvenient, and eat all the food. They’re reluctant to let him come along with them, at least until Gandalf makes this profound statement: “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you . . . There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself” (19).

That seems to satisfy the dwarves for now, but Bilbo is still a bit hesitant to leave his comfort zone on a quest that no one even thinks about describing as safe. Even having a desire to leave doesn’t exactly make it any easier, for it’s hard for all of us to leave the known and step into the unknown. At this point, the movie adds an insightful line: Bilbo naturally asks Gandalf, “Can you guarantee that I’ll return?”

And Gandalf responds, “No. And you won’t be the same if you do.”

No, Bilbo certainly isn’t the same when he returns. But since I realize that some people haven’t read the book, perhaps I’ll save what I have to say about the story’s ending until the third movie comes out. Let me at least say the obvious, that Bilbo ends up better than he was when he left. And it is always interesting to me to note that, before he left, he thought that he didn’t need a adventure. After all, adventures are just “Nasty, uncomfortable things” that “Make you late for dinner!” and for a hobbit, dinner is everything (it’s an ultimate term)–and no rational hobbit would ever want to be late for dinner, let alone go without it, as Bilbo often does during his quest with the dwarves. But when Bilbo gained a love for more beautiful things, his vision and perspective were expanded, and he was motivated to forget about things like being late for dinner.

I’m reminded of a statement by Samuel Johnson (he was a famous writer in England about 300 years ago), that might just summarize this post and the transformation that Bilbo goes through. In the following quote, Johnson is talking about writing, but we can apply the same principle to Bilbo Baggins’ symbolic journey, as well as to human beings and human interactions in general:

It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established. (The Rambler 152)

I think this is what happens to Bilbo during his unexpected journey. He comes to realize that the comfortable customs around him, while nice, weren’t always the best, and there was something more to who he was than what he had become.

I found this image on

Identity, Amnesia, and Some Brief Thoughts on The Bourne Identity

Have you ever had amnesia? I have, and I don’t recommend it.

I woke up one night, my head pounding with pain that I don’t have words to describe, and couldn’t understand why I had such a bad headache. All I seemed to understand was that it was the worst headache I ever had. Why did my head hurt? And what time was it? The clock said 4:41, but was it the morning or in the evening? It had to be in the evening because it was still dark outside, but why didn’t I know? Then, feeling an itching sensation around my right wrist I noticed one of those plastic emergency wristband around it, and I had no idea why it was there. That in turn motivated me to try to remember what I did the day before, but doing that only made my head hurt worse. What day was yesterday, anyway? I didn’t know. I didn’t know what day of the week it was. I got up and looked at my calendar, but I couldn’t figure out what day it was. I knew what month it was, but when I tried to remember what year it was, I didn’t know. I looked at the back of the calendar to remind myself.

I recognized that I was at home in my own room, but I had no idea how I got there or why I was there. It was kind of scary, to say the least. And I’ve already mentioned how bad my head hurt. It was one of those hurts that you only understand if you’ve had a headache so bad that you don’t know how your skull is staying intact. And no, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I was reminded about what it was like to not remember anything when I first saw The Bourne Identity. You remember it. Jason Bourne, the protagonist, wakes up on a shipping boat at the beginning, and he has no idea who he is, where he is, or why he is there. Those questions permeate the entire series: as Jason searches for who he is, where he has come from, and what his purpose is in life, viewers are motivated to ask themselves the same questions. Who are we? Why am I here?

Jason gets his first clue from his body. You’ll remember that the fisherman that removed the bullets from his back also removed a device from his hip that projected a bank number and the location of a bank on the wall. The things that were in his body gave him clues as to who he was and where he should go to find out more about himself. Who he was is written in his body. And his previous actions affected his body. The body is a clue–its condition, its skills, and its fitness hint at who he is and has been.

At the bank, Jason opens a deposit safe box and finds money, a handgun, and a passport. Actually, he finds multiple passports. The first one he sees is for Jason Bourne, so he assumes that name. But as he puts this one aside, he notices that it is just one of many. There are many passports in the case, all with his picture on them, but all with a different name, birth date, and country of origin.

But all of these identities, while somewhat various, are all joined together in a single persona–him. He is the composite of the various identities, his different selves.

I say different, but they really aren’t so different. Depending on our perspective, we could say that he is a person with many different identities, or we could say that those many different identities can all be reduced to something in common–him.

Numbers, Motives, and Rainbows: Let’s Try to Relate these Three Seemingly Unrelated Things, Shall We?

The original name of this post was “Lying with Numbers,” but for some reason that didn’t sound cool (or long?) enough. Anyway, while I was typing this post, the lines to Kermit’s Rainbow Connection kept playing through my mind. Here’s a link to the original from 1979.

Actually, that link might not work. And even if it does, it’s 3-and-a-half minutes long. So here are the lyrics:

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

“Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us star gazing
and what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

“All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic.

“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

But I didn’t begin this post to talk explicitly (thought on retrospect, if we wanted to, I suppose we could still say that the ideas are implicit–but let’s not go there right now) about rainbows. Sure, some have chosen to believe that “Rainbows are . . . only illusions, and . . . have nothing to hide.” But I want to write about something else that “Somebody thought of . . . / and someone [else] believed.”

One of the things we’ve been told, often enough that we sometimes believe it, is the idea that “The numbers don’t lie,” or, it’s near equivalent, that “Numbers speak for themselves,” as if numbers were things that necessarily were honest all the time. Almost as if they were, well, pagan gods or something. But really? Gods? Numbers?

This is sort of what Plato believed. No, Plato didn’t think that numbers were the same thing as gods, but he does say in his Republic that numbers and mathematics at least lead us towards Truth, with a capital T, because numbers are abstract concepts, and we can’t see, hear, taste, or touch what the true “essence” of a number is. But I’m not here to either refute or support Plato. Whether or not numbers really do lead us towards Truth because they are purely symbolic and do not refer to anything that is specifically “here” is beyond the scope of this post (cf. Plotinus. Or not.). Whether or not Plato was right, numbers as we now have them certainly do not speak for themselves. Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.

No. They’re not gods, either. But god-terms, on the other hand? Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to say no to something that seems infallible.

But numbers, whatever they are, are used by human beings, and we know that human beings have motives, desires, passions, emotions, and attitudes. Human beings think and feel. Human beings are not computers, machines, or dictionaries, and when we see numbers, we would do well to remember that, as long as we’re mortal, there is always a person behind those numbers. Numbers do not speak (cf. Hoffman). Human beings speak, and human beings use numbers when they speak because numbers have a strong persuasive value behind them.

We see this a lot in advertising. We’re given numbers so that we’ll be persuaded to choose product A over product B.

Let’s look at an example, Gmail’s homepage. Here’s what it looks like:

This isn’t anything new; you’ve seen this before. But check out the left side of the screen:

There it is. The “Lots of space” thing is really interesting to me. But my picture doesn’t do it justice. Not only does it have a number that tells me how much space I get if I have a Gmail account, but on the actual website that number constantly counts up (while the picture says “Over 10329.002272 megabytes (and counting) of free storage,” when I look at the website right now it says 10329.007630–it’s counted up since I’ve taken that picture).

Of course, one might say that the number is just telling us things as they are–Google is simply just telling possible users how much free storage they get if they have a Gmail account, and that’s just the way things are. But if we look a bit deeper, we can see a motive behind behind the numbers–as long as there are mortals, there will always be a motive behind the numbers. Google wants people to use their services, so they put a number on their homepage as an attempt to persuade users. Google is certainly using numbers as a means of persuasion. Numbers are a powerful persuasive tool because they’re hard to disagree with.

Of course, it’s not just the number that is being used, but the fact that the number is constantly increasing. Sure, the number is probably accurate–why would Google want to lie to us? But by using a number that is constantly increasing, it’s as if Google wants to argue that by using their services, we’ll be using a service that is constantly improving, never stale, stagnant, or static. Dynamic. Since more is better, the service is always getting better all the time. By themselves, the numbers don’t (or wouldn’t) say this, but the human beings behind the numbers are using the numbers to say it.

I have nothing against Google, by the way. I’m using Blogger (which is owned by Google), and I also use Gmail. I just think their homepage is interesting.

I want to repeat what I said earlier, that numbers do not speak for themselves because there are human beings behind the use of numbers. Of course, if we could gather all the data in the universe then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves. (After typing that sentence, I suddenly think it may have been more “correct” to write it in passive voice: “Of course, if all the data in the universe could be gathered, then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves.”) But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway. Unless we could become immortal. I believe there’s a way, but now I’m hinting on something that I didn’t intend to write about, so we’ll save that one for another day.

[Originally, I wanted to end this post on, “But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway,” but I felt that it seemed a bit pessimistic, so I added the last two sentences. I don’t believe that humanity is doomed, nor do I think that death is the end. And I don’t know why I’m telling you that at the end of this post.]

Risk: A Once-a-year Tradition

My friend Kyle has an annual (for me it’s annual, for him it’s semi-annual) New Year’s Day Axis and Allies game.

Image couresy of

Basically, Axis and Allies, a strategy board game based on World War II (hence the name), is a game that is notorious for taking forever to play. In the version we played, Kyle was Germany, I was Japan, and we fought against the United States, U.K., and Soviet Union. We started the game at about 10 or 10:15 and finished at about 4:00. Yeah. It took forever.

Not only that, but believe it or not, we didn’t actually finish the game. We got tired of it. And it helped that Kyle and I had already captured 9 out of the 10 required capital cities, had completely obliterated the Soviets (I had half of Russia, he had the other half), and had a considerable economic advantage, thanks to the countries we had taken control of. By the end of the game, I found myself just glad that the game was over. Good thing it’s only once a year.

But as I climbed into my car and turned the ignition, I couldn’t help but think, “Why do I play this game?” Sure, it was kind of fun, especially for me as Japan to take over Canada and invade Alaska and capture Los Angeles. It makes me wonder about the state of the world and consider the degree to which things could be different from what they now are. What would have happened? Thinking about the game this way, it was kind of interesting. But it was also a huge time commitment. “Why do I play this game, if even for once a year?”

I don’t have an answer to that question just yet, and I probably won’t find the answer before I finish typing this post. But I do wonder if, during this conflict that ended approximately 70 years ago, either side asked themselves some of the following similar questions: Why are we doing this? What are we really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Strange as it is to play a game that takes several hours to play, after the first few hours, the game doesn’t really feel like a game anymore. It becomes a form of work. It’s no longer fun to think, to plan, to strategize. It’s not easy to keep going, and I can’t help but think that this feeling of fatigue is a microcosm of what was actually felt when the war dragged on for weeks, months, years.

Why do I do the things I do? What am I really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Removement Redux

When my sister Cait and I thought about what we wanted to get Mom for Christmas, we decided to make her a calendar with pictures of our family on it. I asked Cait to email me some pictures of the family, and this is one of the pictures that I received attached to an email a few hours later:

No, this isn’t something you’d see on the cover of National Geographic, but I like this picture. Those two beautiful girls are my sisters, Marissa on the left and Anna on the right. On the left side of the image you can see Cait’s thumb. You can see it because she’s holding the photograph in her hand while she takes a picture of it. In a few moments, she’ll send that image to me via email, an image that is, we could say, a picture of a picture.

Yes, I like this picture. I like it because it reminds me of my sisters, and when I think of my sisters, I think about the fun times we’ve had. And as my thoughts go to my sisters, they tend to think of the rest of my family. My other sister, my brother, and my parents. When I see this picture, I also think about the situation in which this particular image was sent to me, which was for a Christmas gift to my mother (by the way, when I made one copy of the calendar, I thought it would be fun for everyone in the family to have a copy, so I made several more calendars).

But I also like this picture for another reason. I like it for the ideas that it conveys and the questions that it asks: if you look closely, you can see a partial outline of Cait reflecting in the background as she takes a picture of the photograph she is holding–this image is not just a picture of a picture, but it is also a picture of a picture of a picture. When I look at this picture, I do not see my real sisters, but images of two of them, and a shadow of the third. But these images and shadows are still evidence that they exist. And they also help to remind me of what my sisters look like and are, even when I’m not in their immediate presence. If we wanted to, we could say that the images are symbolic of the real thing.

Now we can’t really see Cait in the photograph. I mean, we can see an obvious thumb and a vague outline of something in the background, but we cannot see Cait’s face. So the question is, how do I know it is Cait? The answer is I trust her. She told me that she took the picture of the photograph, and I believe her. To some degree, knowledge comes by trusting.

Now could someone else have taken the picture of the photograph with Cait’s phone and sent it to me? Or as a more extreme case, could someone have broken into Cait’s house, stolen the photograph, scanned it into a computer, photo shopped in an outline of a person in the background and a thumb on the left side, then hack into Cait’s email account and attach the picture to an email? I think the answers to this question are both yes and no, depending on the perspective.

Were the answer to the questions in the above paragraph yes, then I may have gotten the a similar result, an image with my sisters in it that I would then use to make a calendar for my family. But even if the answer were yes, Cait still told me that she took the picture of the photograph, and I trust that my sister has told me the truth. This trust outweighs possible doubts; my belief in the truthfulness of Cait’s words is stronger than other “counterarguments” that my mind, if I let it, could and would come up with.

For more on a related subject, see this post.

From Terministic Screens to God-terms

A terministic screen is just Kenneth Burke’s fancy way of talking about verbal perspectives. Think of turning your head one way and seeing something different than if you had turned your head in the opposite direction. Now apply that idea to language. That’s a terministic screen. From Burke himself, “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing,” he writes, and “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (49, emphasis in original). This statement about seeing and focusing is crucial, and we have to keep it in mind when we read Burke’s later-published essay “Terministic Screens,” where Burke asks the reader to consider several photographs of the same objects, photographs in which the objects appear different because of the different lenses on the camera:

When I speak of “terministic screens,” I have particularly in mind some photographs I once saw. They were different photographs of the same objects, the difference being that they were made with different color filters. Here something so “factual” as a photograph revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded. (Language 45, emphasis in original)

Elsewhere, I have commented,

In this passage, Burke is using camera lenses as a metaphor to explain his notion of terministic screens: things change depending on the lenses we use to see them, and language and words are necessary lenses that human beings always use, lenses that affect and determine the way we see the world. From this passage and others (Language 46, 51), Burke uses sight as a meta-terministic screen—a terministic screen that is intended to help his audience see and understand what he means when he talks about terministic screens. In other words, “A way of seeing involves a way of not seeing” (Permanence 49); “A textbook on physics . . . turns the attention in a different direction from a textbook on law or psychology” (Language 45, emphasis in original). (Slater 6-7)

In other words, the words we use are lenses through which we see the world. Not only that, but we’re always seeing the world through some kind of lens or terministic screen. Burke (pictured) writes,

We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another. (Language 50, Burke’s emphasis)

Because all words or screens direct the attention “to one field rather than another,” what we “see” because of our terms is necessarily “a reflection of reality, . . . a selection of reality[,] and . . . a deflection of reality” (Language 45, Burke’s emphasis).

In other words, each set of lenses, terminologies, or “fields” (an important word when considering Burke’s use of the meta-terministic screen of seeing and sight) makes implicit observations and implicit judgments: “A focus on object A involves a neglect of object B,” and whether A is a word, an emotion, or even something else (but now I’m getting too broad for this post), by choosing A instead of B, we also choose A over B and thus imply that A is better than B. We have hereby assumed a hierarchy, which where we can begin to note the existence of ultimate terms—or what Burke also calls god-terms and devil-terms—within a particular terministic screen.

God-terms and Devil-terms

Wayne Booth writes that Burke “was obsessed” with the following knowledge, that

  • once we speak, we express value
  • once we express value, a distinction between the good and the not good, we imply a hierarchy of values according to which that judgment makes sense
  • any hierarchy of values necessarily entails a supreme value term at the top, a god-term validating the steps in the hierarchy. (“Many Voices” 195)

Elsewhere, Burke has written that “Each brand of imagery contains in germ its own logic” (Philosophy of Literary 148). I take the phrases “brand of imagery” and “terministic screens” or “fields” to be synonymous. In other words, we can take a certain “brand of imagery” and, by paying attention to what is focused on and what is left out of focus, follow its own implicit logic to wherever it leads us (referring to Aristotle, Burke calls this the entelechial principle). And when we thus “compute” a particular lens’ “logic,” we end up with the ultimate terms—god-terms at the top and devil-terms at the bottom. Richard Weaver explains that a god-term is

that expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers. Its force imparts to the [other terms] their lesser degree of force, and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood. (212)

God-terms transcend the terms from which they are derived (Rhetoric of Religion 3, 10). They are the ultimate reduction, and contain “in germ” all other terms within their own lens or field. God-terms are the ultimate good within a given lens, while devil-terms are the ultimate evil.

Some examples of god-terms, according to Burke, are progress, money, and democracy (see his Grammar of Motives, for example). Another one is equality. God-terms are powerful words because to say “No” to a god-term is to imply that there is something “devilish” about the one who says “No.” A person can’t say “No” to a god-term and still remain, in the eyes of others, “without guile.” Remember, Burke isn’t necessarily talking about religion, but he is using the language of religion as a terministic screen and applying it to the way human beings communicate. A knowledge of god-terms is important because finding out what they are and how they are used in a given rhetorical situation (or a situation in which influence happens among human beings) enables us to recognize ulterior and perhaps ultimate motives. In other words, as soon as we can see what Aristotle called the available means of persuasion in any given situation (Rhetoric 1355b), we enable ourselves to me careful about the means that are used to persuade us to certain ideologies.

Both god-terms and devil-terms are used strategically in war, in politics, in friendships, in gossip, in debate, in journalism, etc. (I could go on, but this list will suffice). The strategy, then, is to use god-terms to deify one’s friends, while using devil-terms to demonize one’s enemies. That’s the strategy. When two countries or two ideologies are at war with one another, they will use god-terms to define their allies and friends, and they will also use devil-terms to define the enemy.

God-terms and devil-terms are also used in acts of communication, influence, persuasion. In short, “If people believe something, the poet can use this belief to get an effect” (Burke, Counter-Statement 146).
Works Cited
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Plato Gorgias and Aristotle Rhetoric. Trans. and ed. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2009. 121-284. Print.
Booth, Wayne C. “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me.” Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 2001. 179-201. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
—. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 2nd ed. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.
—. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P. 1973. Print.
—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
Perelman, Chaïm. The Realm of Rhetoric. Trans. William Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1982. Print.
Slater, Jarron B. “Seeing (the Other) Through a Terministic Screen of Spirituality: Emotional Integrity as a Strategy for Identification.” MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 2012. Print.
Images courtesy of WikiCommons.
This post is an excerpt of a previous post.

Ruminations on Desire and Knowledge

Aristotle wrote at the beginning of his Metaphysics (the first line, actually), that all human beings, by nature, desire to know.

The word desire is significant. I think–at least I want to say–that to have a desire is somehow related to having an emotion, a belief that stems from something that philosopher Robert Solomon once wrote, that a large part of having an emotion includes a desire to act, to engage in the world in some way (True to our Feelings 238). Daniel Gross and Brian Jackson have made a comparable argument (The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science 2, 44, 80-1; “Neuroscience and the New Urgency of Emotional Appeals” 491).

All human beings, by nature, desire to know. Here, we have a universal statement, a statement that will become useful as soon as we existentially instantiate. Whatever that means. What I think it means has to do with Kenneth Burke’s definition of form: “Form . . . is an arousing and fulfillment of desires” (Counter-Statement 124). Elsewhere, he also says that it is the creating and fulfilling of expectations and appetites.

This statement is where rhetoric gets its power. When we human beings have desires, we will work to fulfill those desires. For example, the hungrier I am, the more I will work to fulfill my appetite.

If all human beings, to some degree, already have a desire to know, then that desire can be used against (or for or with) them. This is why it’s so appealing to us to be in on a secret. We like to know things, especially things that were heretofore hidden (or seemingly hidden).

Suddenly, I’m wondering if this has something to do with the supply/demand thing in economics. If supply is low, demand is high because people sometimes want things that they don’t think they can have, things that are (or seem) unavailable. Whereas, on the other hand, we human beings sometimes take for granted the things that we have or that are easily attainable.