19 February 2008

Chief Seattle's scripture

A bit of 20th-Century scripture:

Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

These words have been widely quoted since the 1970s, and encapsulate much of the ecological awareness developing since then. They are usually attributed to ‘Chief Seattle,’ and thus taken to speak for authentic Native American culture. The real story (like the web of life) is a little more complex.

On October 29, 1887, Henry A. Smith published a column in the Seattle Sunday Star entitled ‘Scraps from a Diary—Chief Seattle.’ This column included what Smith said was a reconstruction, based on his notes taken at the time, of a speech given in 1854 by Chief Seattle, or Seath'tl, of the Duwamish people. There is no other record of this speech. Blaisdell (2000, 117-120) reprints the Smith text as given in Frederic James Grant's History of Seattle (1891).

The Smith text was rediscovered, touched up and rendered into a more contemporary idiom by later writers, notably the poet William Arrowsmith in 1969. His version was used by screenwriter Ted Perry in producing the script for a documentary aired on television in 1971; and this is the source of the famous ‘web of life’ statement. But the producers of the film failed to credit Perry with the script, thus leaving the impression that the words were Chief Seattle's. Perry's text (given in Seed et al. 1988, 67-73) though doubtless very different from whatever the Chief originally said, is now the most widely quoted version of it, and deservedly so: its power and beauty leave the Smith text in the dust. Many cite it as an authentic expression of Native American culture; Joseph Campbell, who recited it in his PBS TV series with Bill Moyers, attributed it to ‘one of the last spokesmen of the Paleolithic moral order’ (Campbell 1988, 41). Fritjof Capra helped to set the record straight by using it for the title and epigraph of his 1996 book The Web of Life, crediting ‘Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle.’ There is no question that Perry's stirring words have inspired many others in their turn.

The Perry text is related to Chief Seattle's original speech in much the same way as the Gospels are related to the original words of Jesus. However much editing, translation and revision took place along the way, the resulting texts have undoubtedly served some readers as a revelation. The history of that revision process may not matter to those readers, but it's an interesting case study for those of us trying to understand the genesis of scriptures.

10 February 2008

Nobody in here but us

To be a consciousness or rather to be an experience is to hold inner communication with the world, the body and other people, to be with them instead of being beside them.
Merleau-Ponty (1945, 111)

What are we here for? We are here to bear withness.

06 February 2008

Meaning and the logic of vagueness

My work in progress, Turning Words, documents an inquiry guided by the question How do you mean?. The question is not What do you mean?—although that is sometimes a good question for clarification purposes. The root question is how meaning happens, or how semiosis works.

Writers, thinkers and scholars have been asking this kind of question for a long time, but their work tends to be ignored because most of us are either too busy committing our acts of meaning to reflect on how we do it, or don't see the point of thus reflecting. A century ago, C. S. Peirce and Victoria Welby were both looking into the nature of meaning, but they didn't learn of each other's work until near the end of their lives. The correspondence between them began in 1903, and parts of it are among the clearest explanations of Peirce's mature semiotics. Most of it was published in 1977 under the title Semiotic and Significs (which i cite as PW), but copies of this are hard to find, and i only got hold of one recently.

In one of his earliest letters to Welby, Peirce explained why the study of what we mean, important as it is, should not be taken too far:

I fully and heartily agree that the study of what we mean ought to be the … general purpose of a liberal education, as distinguished from special education,—of that education which should be required of everybody with whose society and conversation we are expected to be content. But, then, perfect accuracy of thought is unattainable,—theoretically unattainable. And undue striving for it is worse than time wasted. It positively renders thought unclear.
— Peirce to Welby (PW 11, 1903)

When a theorist like Peirce says that something is theoretically unattainable, he is not implying that it might be attained in practice (because theory is unreliable); he is saying just the opposite, that ‘perfect accuracy’ is unattainable because of the way meaning works. The very logic of meaning guarantees that all language is necessarily vague to some degree. Here's a fuller explanation of the point, written a year or two later (CP 5.506):
No communication of one person to another can be entirely definite, i.e., non-vague. We may reasonably hope that physiologists will some day find some means of comparing the qualities of one person's feelings with those of another, so that it would not be fair to insist upon their present incomparability as an inevitable source of misunderstanding. Besides, it does not affect the intellectual purport of communications. But wherever degree or any other possibility of continuous variation subsists, absolute precision is impossible. Much else must be vague, because no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's. Even in our most intellectual conceptions, the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems. It should never be forgotten that our own thinking is carried on as a dialogue, and though mostly in a lesser degree, is subject to almost every imperfection of language. I have worked out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness, but need not inflict more of it upon you, at present.

That last sentence has inspired scholars to look for a text among Peirce's papers that ‘works out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness’, but as far as i know, nobody has claimed to find it. And considering how well that final sentence works as a pragmatic ‘punchline’ to Peirce's argument, it would be at least a little ironic if anyone did find such a text.

When Peirce says that ‘no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's’, he is talking about what i call polyversity (see TW Chapter 2). In the earlier stages of writing this book, i collected quite a few examples of what i took to be statements of the same idea expressed in diverse ways. But there's a limit to the usefulness of that, just as there's a limit to how exactly you can say what you mean. Indeed, as Peirce said, ‘the multiplication of equivalent modes of expression is itself a burden’ (PW 20). I hope that my final draft will not burden the reader too much in this way.

The ‘trust’ in dialog includes a willingness to let most of the meaning process work implicitly—trusting that it can become explicit, can bear the spotlight beam of attention, if that becomes necessary. Genuine dialogue requires an exquisite sense of what needs to be explicated and what needs to work implicitly.

01 February 2008

Poet, prophet, reader, scientist

Here's a bit of deep dialogue from William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answer'd, I saw no God nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm'd, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.
Then I asked: does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?
He replied, All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of any thing.

The poet and the prophet speak with utter conviction: if they didn't, they simply wouldn't be poets or prophets. They don't care about consequences or complications. Their task is to make their infinite visions clearly visible to others.

But what about the philosopher and the scientist? Do they believe that a ‘firm persuasion’ of anything makes it true? And how about you, dear reader?

Science, being a way of inquiry, can only begin where the poet leaves off, with a hypothesis to be tested. But a fresh hypothesis can only come in a flash of insight, like the poet's or prophet's vision. The source of this creative insight is what Blake calls the ‘poetic Genius’, and what the prophets call ‘God’. The flash is so bright for the poet, the need to write it down so compelling, that it blinds her to everything else, including the possible consequences of her utterance.

The honest reader's need, though, is to carry those consequences forward. First the flash of insight must illuminate his own experience, and then its truth becomes testable. The very possibility that the poet has expressed a deep truth or wisdom compels the reader to try it out by thinking and living it through. Will it really move mountains? He can only find out by interpreting it in some way that will make a difference to the conduct of life.

In the case of a scripture such as the Bible, the honest reader is well aware of the possibility (nay, the history!) of misinterpretation—which entails a need for reinterpretation. And that is exactly what Blake is doing here, as both poet and reader, in his dialogue with the prophets who went before. He knows very well that their writings, or some readings of them, have indeed been ‘the cause of imposition’. His own ‘honest indignation’ lies behind this inquiry, and leads to his own reinterpretation, not only of those writings, but of prophecy itself.

Poetry and philosophy, prophecy and science, writing and reading, each has its role to play in the semiotic cycle. And now it is your turn to test the wisdom at which Blake's inquiry arrives. What difference will it make to the way you read, think, write and live?