03 December 2008

The old urge for the new

Grant (me) what no angel has seen nor archon heard, and what has not entered the human heart.

I came across this line from an ancient Valentinian prayer on April DeConick's Forbidden Gospels Blog. It expresses an aspiration as old and as new as humanity itself: to see or feel what's never been seen or felt before. This represents the opposite pole from the desire to be totally secure in a stable, no-surprises world. Most of us inhabit a ‘comfort zone’ somewhere along the spectrum between those two extremes.

William James commented on that spectrum in the chapter on perception in his 1890 Principles of Psychology:
There is an everlasting struggle in every mind between the tendency to keep unchanged, and the tendency to renovate, its ideas. Our education is a cease-less compromise between the conservative and the progressive factors. Every new experience must be disposed of under some old head. The great point is to find the head which has to be least altered to take it in. Certain Polynesian natives, seeing horses for the first time, called them pigs, that being the nearest head. My child of two played for a week with the first orange that was given him, calling it a ‘ball.’ He called the first whole eggs he saw ‘potatoes’ having been accustomed to see his ‘eggs’ broken into a glass, and his potatoes without the skin. A folding pocket-corkscrew he unhesitatingly called ‘bad-scissors.’ Hardly any one of us can make new heads easily when fresh experiences come. Most of us grow more and more enslaved to the stock conceptions with which we have once become familiar, and less and less capable of assimilating impressions in any but the old ways. Old-fogyism, in short, is the inevitable terminus to which life sweeps us on. … Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.
— James (1890, v.2, 109-10)

You might think that psychology has changed a lot since James, with all the new tools and techniques we have devised to study the biological basis of thinking, feeling and so on. But when it comes to the patterns of everyday experience – old patterns constantly renewed – the descriptions of James are still hard to beat for elegance and clarity.

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