Yesterday I was reading along in my current brain candy book (Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King if you must know) and came upon a felicitous phrase. I stopped and savoured the phrase. “There are only six results, a very small catch in the vast fishy sea of the Internet…” I sat in the coffee shop, sipped my double cappuccino and smiled at the image of “the vast fishy sea of the Internet.” Nice work Mr. King. Well put. Words are fun, and words well connected can be beautiful. I wish more academics tried to find felicitous phrases for their work.
In my (becoming) infamous Epistemology post I talked about Language and how words help us figure out what we know. In that post there is a long quotation from Rowan Williams’s book, The Edge of Words, about the interplay between words and knowledge. That book is one of the best I’ve read on the importance of Language. It is not the easiest book to read – there’s lots to think about. As I read it I had to keep stopping to think. If I was with someone, I’d read out the paragraph that made me stop to think. Not everyone found the ideas as fascinating as I did, but if you like Language, find a copy of the book. Read it.
Recently I’ve read some different books that deal with Language. In the one I’ve not yet finished, one language, an alien tongue spoken by exotics from another world, is always called Language. It has a capital L. Native speakers of Language cannot lie. Humans who learn to speak Language (and only a few humans can actually do so) can lie in Language. Native Language speakers find this ability fascinating, and try to do it themselves. Because Language does not allow for lies, Metaphor is impossible. Metaphors are lies. Similes are possible in Language if the point of comparison actually exists. The point-of-view character in the book has been enshrined in Language as a Simile because she performed an action at one time. One Simile in the book has to repeat his action every week so the verb-tense in his simile is correct. I’m only half-way through, so I’m not sure where this book is going, but lets just say that there is a Language-centred Crisis on the planet in question. If you want more of this, read Embassytown by China Miéville.
In two other books, both by Salmon Rushdie, language games and stories told play a large part in the narratives. Haroun and the Sea of Stories has more language games. The sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life refers to more cultural stories and traditions. Both of these books exemplify the beauties of language in many ways. You should go read them.
Language is an enormous part of who we are and how we think. We forget that sometimes because it is so close to us and obvious. Sometimes books that tell us stories about Language, or play with language, or take us to the edge of words help us remember how vital language is to us, and how beautiful it can be.
Epistemology starts with E.
You know that is a good thing. But how do you know? That is the really big question isn’t it. How do you know? Epistemology. That’s how you know.
Now, if you google “How do you know” you find a movie, and apparently “That’s How you Know” is some kind of movie song. Knowing if someone really loves you is all anyone actually wants to know, at least on the internet. Epistemology doesn’t help with that. I bet you could do well if you wrote a song on Epistemology – there aren’t enough philosophy songs in the world. Oh wait! There’s a song called Epistemology!! Humph, never mind, it is mostly about love again.
OK, Epistemology, how you know. Words are part of figuring out what we know. Language is how we express what we know, but also how we find it out in the first place. Here is a long and interesting quote from Rowan Williams that plays around with language being part of how we know:
“Yet language is unmistakeably a material process, something that bodies do; so thinking harder about the oddities of language may help us see new things about bodies, indeed about ‘matter’ in general; it may open up for us some thoughts about how the material world carries or embodies messages, how matter and meaning do not necessarily belong in different universes. And the sheer diversity of the ways in which meaning is embodied and communicated should leave us with some puzzles over the way in which speech generates such a huge amount of apparently superfluous untidiness and eccentricity. Instead of moving calmly towards a maximally clear and economical depiction of the environment, our language produces wild and strange symbolisms, formal and ritual ways of talking (not just in religion), a passion for exploring new perspectives through metaphor and so on. Unsurprisingly, it also learns how to use gaps in its flow, moments either of frustration or of overwhelmingly full significance, moments when we are brought to silence, as part of its continuing search for an adequate response to what is ‘given’, the search for ways of ‘making sense’.” [From the introduction to The Edge of Words, Bloomsbury, 2014.]
E is for Epistemology, a word that stands for all the ways we explore what we know and how we know it. Words help us make sense of the world. Part of the way we know what we know is by talking about it. Epistemology: more than just another love song.
(Sing the title to the Five line of the 12 Days of Christmas. Ok, it doesn’t quite fit perfectly, but that’s what’s in my head.)
I mentioned in my 4 reasons for not posting for a while that I went on a road trip last month. I listened to two non-fiction audio-books on the road, one for the way there, and one for the way back. Let me tell you about those two books and three other non-fiction books that I read after that road trip.
- Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill. I’ve read Cahill before. I quite enjoyed his How the Irish Saved Civilization in the “Hinges of History” series. This book also fits into that series. I’m afraid I didn’t find Mysteries as well argued as How the Irish. I read the Irish book and came away convinced of the importance of the Irish monks in preserving historical documents in the early Middle Ages. Mysteries I found over-ambitious in its reach and without a clear-cut argument. I think Cahill was trying to show that good things came out of the Medieval Catholic Church, but I didn’t need convincing of that. He also elevated the expression “vox populi, vox deus” to scriptural status, which I find unwarranted. I am pretty sure that the vox populi can be misguided. Witness Rob Ford. The book contains interesting stories about interesting people, but its overall argument is not strong.
- The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. I rather enjoyed this tale of murder and death in New York City, despite the general sense that it is in essence a tract on the evils of prohibition. Besides railing on the US Government and its misguided prohibition amendment, the book tells the story of NY City’s first medical examiner and his colleague, who developed the field of forensic toxicology. It is pretty interesting stuff. You should read it. Or listen to it.
- The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams. This is Rowan Williams’s reflection on Narnia. Reading this short book made me want to read all the Narnia books again. I am still not convinced that one should read the Narnian books in chronological order as Williams suggests (and yes, I know Lewis suggested it too) but Williams did give me different ways of looking at some parts of the books that I’ve never really liked, including seeing the value of The Last Battle, my least favourite book in the series.
- Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination by Richard Morris. This is a fascinating book. I read it over a very long time, more than six months, and it talks about understanding the data of archaeology in different ways, so that the past can be accurately heard in the data. I thought about finding Richard III a lot when I read the chapter on digging up battles and seeing that the story told by the remains doesn’t match the written historical record. The aerial survey photos and the writing about new techniques in archaeology are extremely interesting.
- Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. I’d not read this particular Lewis book before. I found his reflection on Praise the best part of the book. It is a nice short book, and easy to access.
What non-fiction books are you reading?