Tag Archives: Thinking

Courting our Thoughts

This post is about words

More specifically, a word: court.

So if you don’t give a fuck about words and/or the word court, don’t read. But then again, even if you do give a fuck, go ahead and read but please don’t give your fuck to me. I’m not sure I even know exactly what you would be giving me, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want it. I’m also fairly certain that I already have a sufficient supply of fucks of my own to give or not give.

Ah, beautiful language. Beautiful fucking language.

I attended a cool mixed-media performance last night at Buch Spieler, a record store with records. Owner Fred Wilber — of the band Madman 3 — laid down some nifty electronic sequences to accompany the ever provocative spoken word of VT Poetry Slam Champ Geoff Hewitt.

One thing good art does is lubricate the brain and heaven knows that my rusty brain perpetually needs a squirt now and again to remind its more creative neurons to stay on their axons; not something easy to do when your paying-bills job reminds you of the machine room in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

As I watched, listened, and zoned in to the show, I thought I need to write more poetry.

I also thought I’m hungry, as I had worked all day at the aforementioned job and had yet so far only had a couple of muffins several hours ago. But I mostly thought about poetry, as I can go longer without food than without creativity.

Fast forward to the next day, this morning actually, to after I fed our cats and was out walking our dog, both those things needing done before I’m off to my own version of Lang’s world.

WORD ALERT — the word COURT ahead —- WORD ALERT.

The above is for readers who might either be skimming or bored or both, wondering when the hell is he going to talk about the word court. So now you to know the hell is soon forthcoming.

I walked us up State St to the Vermont Statehouse, then through the parking lot, spilling onto a street I thought I’d never been on before. It turned out to be Court St, which I had previously traveled — though I hadn’t walked that part of it — when walking to Hubbard Park.

To get to the Park, I went up School St and turned on Hillside Ave; that intersection where Court St angles off to go its own northwest way. I absently registered the name and idly thought about the word Court in the context of names like Fowler Courts at Purdue University, where I lived for a couple of years. I tangentially thought of how roads are called streets, avenues, lanes, boulevards, courts, and so on, and wondered about the distinctions.

I also thought holy mackerel, Hillside Ave and especially the Cliff St that it becomes is friggin’ steep; this is tiring. But that’s unrelated to the promised Court discussion, so we will say no more about it here.

Walking southeast from the State House down the unfamiliar street I came upon the Hillside Ave signage which also informed me I had been walking on Court St.

This time I thought, “Oh, duh, that makes sense.” The name of the street, that is. Before the Statehouse, is the Vermont Supreme Court. So a road leading to Court being called thus isn’t exactly head-scratching. But it is fascinating from a philosophy of mind viewpoint.

The duh, that makes sense came about because I automatically, and effortlessly, drew the “logical” connection of their being a judicial court and the road to it being called Court. Previously not realizing the presence of such a building, my Court thoughts were different.

To me this illustrates two important mental points.

The first should be obvious: that thoughts are always about something; that is, attached to something. I mention it here because sometimes in philosophy you’ll hear goofy ideas about Pure Thought, as if we can strip away the mental from the physical and thus better understand it. But that would be like cutting down all the trees so you can have a better look at the forest.

The more sublime — and amazing — point is how its aboutness and its attachment changes along with our experience. We never think in a vacuum; in a space devoid of content. Our interactions with the world — and what we are doing at any given moment in time — influence it.

What is altogether neat — or spooky — is that most — practically all — of this type of processing occurs at the unconscious level; our brain continuously processes — and reprocesses — the inputs we feed it via our senses and our ongoing mental activity. Its “conscious” output is thus heavily — primarily, really — influenced by the Un, even though it feels otherwise.

I have a lot more to say on this, but unfortunately I have to go to my non-thinking-about-thinking job. But I want to end with this illustrative thought:

When you read the first two words here in this little blog — “This post…” — what did you think “post” referenced? You likely didn’t think of fence posts or flag posts or bulletin board notices or daily mail or any other usage of post except for an entry like this.

But the two words — This post — give no clue on their own as to which meaning of “post” is intended. Yet you did not need to have anymore than those two words to have an expectation of a blog entry.

You consciously read the words, but it was your unconscious that gave the otherwise vacuous words meaning.

Ninth Place

I ended up in ninth place at the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee on Saturday.

I know this because my husband diligently kept track. I must admit such knowledge made me feel pretty darn good about my performance. Maybe not as good as winning would have, but with my bar set on the floor at “please don’t let me be the first one out,” the losing felt like a win.

Still, I lost on a stupid word.

Pomegranate.

Well, to be fair, I reckon the word itself isn’t stupid. I love language far too much to slander any contribution to it, even rather bizarre new entries like twerk or old ones from my generation like tubular.

But still, from a thinking about thinking viewpoint, the misspelling possessed a couple of levels of most curious mental freezing.

The first was with the word itself. Although I occasionally get paid for writing, it’s not yet been the kind of paid that extinguishes the necessity of having to eke out a living by doing all sorts of non-writing things. One of my current such eke’s is stocking groceries, which includes handling a yogurt with the aforementioned fruit on the bottom.

I must have seen that word hundreds upon hundreds of times, yet I couldn’t spell it when called upon to do so.

The second was with what I actually did spell.

I spelled the last part g-r-a-n-i-t-e. Which may have been influenced by us now living in Vermont, but still…  even as I spelled it that way I knew it was wrong; I just couldn’t think of the right way. Yet, where did this feeling of wrong come from, if I ostensibly did not know the right way of spelling for such a comparison to be made?

A reasonable answer would be that it was not a case of merely not knowing, but more a case of not being able to bring that knowing up to the conscious level. It might seem here that the shorter sentence of I couldn’t recall would suffice and mean roughly the same thing as my more verbose sentence with all its nots.

But it doesn’t and doesn’t.

For recall makes it sound like the conscious part is the only part involved in thinking; like we reach into our bag of memories and mental whatnots, and once we do, once we make the retrieval, that is where thought happens.

But thinking is what our brain — our entire brain — does, 24/7. We are thinking whether or not we think we are thinking. Sometimes, though, all those thinking parts aren’t always the best at communicating with one another.

So the part that thought about granite, compared it to its no doubt knowledge of the correct spelling of pomegranate, and finally advised, nope, that’s not right, failed to take that extra step and provide the correct spelling to what we typically refer to as consciousness.

Although frustrating at times, subconscious thinking is one of the things that makes writing so fun for me. Even when I plan, I never know for sure what will come out; what the unconscious parts of me will think is important enough to nudge me in that creative direction.

For instance, when I started this blog entry, I thought I intended to write about the weirdness of how things are spelled and pronounced in English, hoping to have an excuse to use The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough by Dr. Seuss in such a discussion.

Or at least use the word gallimaufry, which is a neat word that I had never heard before and the person sitting next to me spelled correctly. She knew it as the title of a book on obscure words she had recently received. It means a confused jumble or medley of things.

But all’s well that thinks well and I included both anyway, appearances of gallimaufry notwithstanding.

The Cure, Concepts, and Functional Sameness

I turned to look at you
To read my thoughts upon your face
And gazed so deep into your eyes
So beautiful and strange
Until you spoke
And showed me understanding is a dream
“I hate these people staring
Make them go away from me!”
—- the Cure, How Beautiful You Are

I am (slowly) reading this wholly engaging and insightful book on thought by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander called Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In it, they argue that analogy is not only a primary component of what we call thinking, but it is essential; it is foundational to thought occurring at all.

I think they’re on to something and hope to write much on that something, but right now I want to focus on their deconstruction of concepts, which I think glosses over a crucial something that I further think is pretty much universally glossed over. It is not the kind of crucial that would destroy their overall thesis (like I said, I think they’re onto something). But it is the kind or crucial that keeps me up at night and frames, or at least adds to, my perspective on things.

We are so used to living our lives conceptually, that we take concepts for granted, not spending much time thinking about how there really is not anything spoken or written or thought that is not coming from our ongoing conceptual construction, which not only encompasses the obvious ones understood as concepts like dogs and cats and chairs, but also ones not so obvious like and and the and a.

Hofstadter and Sander systematically disabuse us of the notion that concepts are somehow out there like planets waiting to be discovered; rather, it is the opposite. They are slippery and somewhat arbitrary beasts coming from inside us, subject to change and very much to our collective whim.

One important way they show this is through comparing languages, focusing on what every translator knows well: there are major differences in how languages divide things conceptually, making one-to-one word translation often impossible. For example:

We know what time it is right now… how much time it will take to drive to the airport, and how many times we’ve done so before. These three ideas strike us as being… about just one concept: the concept known as “time”

In France, however, our conceptually monolithic time is regarded as involving three separate concepts, therefore requiring a distinct word to be used to convey the meaning of each particular situation clearly.

The authors give many other thought-provoking examples, but another one I found most fascinating was from Indonesia. Where we describe siblings in terms of sister and brother, meaning female sibling and male sibling respectively, Indonesians break out siblings in term of comparative age. So instead of brother and sister, they use kakak and adik, which mean “elder sibling” and “younger sibling”.

The overall point is that how things get broken up conceptually is not universal, and can differ significantly from culture to culture; collectively created out of what that society deems important, efficient, or just plain sensible.

However, the authors go on to say, for a large number of concepts there is good agreement across languages. This would be expected, as we are all human and do things like walk and talk and eat and sleep and so on.

But — and the but here is now me interjecting my own tangential thoughts into the matter — agreement is not the same as identical. We may, at times, be able to translate one word directly for another, and it may serve the function we intended, but I’m not convinced the ‘meaning’ content is the same. Indeed, I take this strand of thought further, wanting to contend that concepts break down differently at the individual level not just at the cultural one.

Oh, we have agreement, sure, and linguistic workarounds. And it is true enough that someone’s not going to say dog to me and I’m going to picture, say, a horse. But at the core level, at the necessarily individualized experiential level, I think the agreement is of functional sameness masquerading as an identically shared concept.

For even though we each employ the use of ostensibly mutually understood concepts in our dialogues with one another, we can’t help but fill in those thought containers with our personalized specifics and shade the understanding with our own life experiences. This might be one of the reasons why it is so difficult to find common ground; we can never absolutely know someone else’s ground let alone completely share it.

By our very nature, at the most basic biologically confining level, everyone already IS an island and never will be — never can be — anything else.

And this is why I hate you
And how I understand
That no-one ever knows or loves another