Tag Archives: knowledge

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)


The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129


IMG_1002In the center of it all
Oh, apple of my fall
The parts that I have bitten
Even those that once were hidden
Caught useless in your thrall-
recall! recall! recall!
This is the taste of knowing
Your sweetness reckoning
a delicious peck our greatest haul-
that’s all! that’s all! that’s all!

Horripilating Certainty

What would she have done? How did people bear it, who had no place to go, when something dreadful had to be done and they weren’t ready yet to do it?
– John Crowley, AEgypt (115)


What makes people love each other? Why do they bother?…She must have known once. Because love had made her do a lot of things, and go to a lot of trouble…A cold loss of knowledge and dark ignorance were where her heart had been, and were all that these commonplace things, innocent tools and toys, called to; her dog Nothing, the name of the stone in her breast. (335-336)

Here’s one version: Reading Herodotus (Book Two) on Egypt, I came upon a mention of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Apuleius led me to AEgypt. AEgypt, which is the first of a quadrilogy, wraps around these histories and stories several times and takes me back where I started. What is that? That this was exactly the next logical book to read. Some knowing wind that carries me forward? Coincidence?  I can not tell, but I do know that as soon as I opened this book I had a feeling. Like a good first kiss: a lovely feeling of- I’m going to like this. Unlike a kiss, books do not have to enrapture you from the start -but gee, it’s nice.

Although I love a good tangent, Crowley doesn’t go off on random explorations of earthly or heavenly oddities, the depth(s) of his story are seamlessly woven into the tale. The weft and warp make cloth, and yet the questions is, how many cloths?

“There’s more than one History of the World, you know,” he said. “Isn’t there? More than one. One for each of us, maybe. Wouldn’t you say so?” (73)

A wefting mythology slipping under a latent man and woman, a hippie party in a field, a broken down bus, religions and sheep – naturally. The warp of an academic and literary journey, angels whose names begin with A, Shakespeare, divorce, Roses, and lots of books. The fabric shimmers and shakes off loose threads of ancient lore, repeating symbols, and modern angst.

This is fundamentally a book about discovery. The filling in of the vast background of history is a pleasure to read, relieving the pressure of solitude: thoughts I’ve had, words I’ve said, connections I’ve felt, searching meanings I’ve hope for.

There is a sweetness and earnest perplexity in the protagonist Pierce that is enormously appealing. Trying to order the details of his life along the shelves of his history,  if not to make sense then at least an organized catalog of what has shaped him, what he knows, knew, or forgot…I see, I get it.  I suppose we all have our own systems- a personalized Dewey Decimal of the heart.

-he would receive, like a wave that reaches far up a dry shingle and then recedes, a dash of that day’s understanding: and for a moment taste its certainty like salt. (95)

The breadth of knowledge has no circumference and that  I see, I get it moment is a gift that readers like me covet and search for. In AEgypt Crowley has somehow perfected the ordinary voice of Everyman, with the extra-ordinary voice of our potential. If I knew ten thousand more things than I do, I might be on more equal footing:

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. Sick sick sick. (232)

The fact that Crowley does not announce that the above quote comes from the Song of Solomon makes me at once happy that it happens to be my favorite line from the poem, and also depresses me because there are probably one hundred other allusions that have swam free above my head. But, as one of the women I work for loves to say- we must take what we can get.

Infinite. He felt its infinity tugging at his heart and eyes, and felt an answering infinity within himself: for if it was infinite outside, then it must be infinite inside as well. (366)

Infinite inside as well. That must be it – the ember that refuses to extinguish.

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there. (389)

Why is no longer a question, but a statement. Perhaps the truth is that one history is not enough. The infinite world is too vast, too mysterious to be contained in one. Our own history too large as well. The exertion of stuffing it into one clean narrative is what takes its toll on our souls. As Crowley writes, man is bound in love and sleep (343), but his point is that we are not interpolated on a single line. There is more. We are more. More than our histories told.

With a sudden awful certainty, Pierce knew that he would sob. (389)

All we like sheep
All we like sheep
Have gone astray; have gone astray
Every one to his own way. (32)

Wrong Again

I know, I alone
How much it hurts, this heart
With no faith nor law
Nor melody nor thought.

Only I, only I
And none of this can I say
Because feeling is like the sky –
Seen, nothing in it to see.
Fernando Pessoa

DSCI0012I hope if there is ever a cocktail party in the afterlife I will find myself seated next to Herodotus. I just finished Book Two of The Landmark Herodotus The Histories which is edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis.

The enthusiasm with which he collected as much information in the form of fact, “fact,” anecdote, eye-witness report or opinion is highly engaging. Book Two focuses on Egypt and all things and matters Egyptian. It’s all very interesting and entertaining.

I have to say that I am enjoying the interplay between Herodotus’s text and the footnotes most especially. In a description of Lake Moeris, Herodotus is, as usual, very thorough in his account:

Its circumference measures 397 miles, equaling the length of the coast of Egypt itself, but in this case extending from north to south. Its depth is 50 fathoms at its deepest point. This is clearly a man-made lake… (section 2.149 page 187)

What I haven’t put in are the numerous footnote annotations. Along with converting, for instance, a fathom into feet, (1=about 6 feet) and that sort of thing,  is very helpful information such as – Herodotus is wrong about the origins of the lake. It is clearly a natural lake. That one made me burst out laughing because there is a “Herodotus is mistaken” on nearly every page. In fact he is wrong about the circumference as well, it’s actually 170 miles. But the subtle cheek of the retort “It is clearly a natural lake.” Well, I found it very funny.

Okay, so I might need Mr. Strassler seated on my left to keep the information on the up and up, but that’s okay, it’s a party! Champagne cocktails for all! What fun it would be to listen to all the fantastic stories Herodotus gleaned.

He is the father of history just figuring it out the best he can as he goes. It is his passion for it that is so attractive to the reader.

Today I was thinking all day about a discussion (maybe too strong – an exchange of comments more like) I had on an excellent literary blog in which my question was whether or not it really mattered if one possessed all, or at least a lot of the knowledge that was referred to in any given book. I had read the book in question  The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis almost 2/3 through before I found out (by happenstance) that Reis was a heteronym*  of the poet Fernando Pessoa (who was a character in the book, along with Reis – it’s a really good novel by the way).

I was put out at the time- it seemed pretty relevant information. How the hell was I suppose to know?- I had swiped the book from one of my kid’s bookshelf after all, I didn’t know anything about it! But then I calmed down, after all, I had been enjoying the book all along, so it didn’t really matter. Did it?

I used my embarrassing ignorance to illustrate the larger point that the story is that good. Good enough to stand on its own, unhinged by prerequisite knowledge.  But, as the other blogger commented,  (and pointed to another excellent literary blog as example) the knowledge adds layers. And that is absolutely true, hence my irritation.

The interesting thing to me however, is that knowledge, on its own, is merely pedantic (and sadly, often is, in the hands or words of the “educated”). It is the joined force of knowledge and passion in both the  writer and the reader that raises the meaning to the correct level. Like many people I am intimidated by really smart people, and yet knowledge is no mystery: it can always, and fairly equally be acquired. Passion is different.

Letting yourself really love something almost demands that you don’t think yourself away from the feeling. They are opposites in a way: knowledge is full, facts you can see and point to, but there is nothing to point to when it comes to feeling. It’s a funny sort of balance, but trying to get it right is half the fun I suppose. Maintain the boundless wonder while accumulating the facts, that’s the trick.

Herodotus may get some of the knowledge parts wrong, okay, more than some, but his passion and love of collecting and sharing as much information as he can is wonderfully inspiring. His opinions and insights are very enjoyable to read. I suppose there is the possibility that he might turn out to be a complete bore of a blow hard after a few drinks, but I doubt it.

*Heteronym is a concept of Pessoa’s invention, it is a term he used to name the characters that he sometimes wrote as. He wrote many poems, for instance, as Ricardo Reis, and there were others as well that even “knew” each other and had exchanges. As Wiki explains, these are not pseudonyms, merely false names, they are fully realized characters with individual writing styles.  See? Knowledge – it’s all good.

**Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Three