Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wake Diary: Tangents of Philosophical Wisdom

When I would tell my friends and concerned loved ones that I was reading Finnegans Wake, they worried for my general sanity. After they realized that I had gone long enough without general sanity that I never really needed it in the first place, they were still concerned that I would waste months of my life reading a book that made no sense. This post isn’t about following the plot or symbolism of Finnegans Wake: there’s too little of one, and too much of the other for that. This is about a phrase I found a couple of weeks ago, but am only getting around to writing about now, that actually sums up rather well what I think about problems of individual knowledge in philosophy.

"What can't be coded can be decorded if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for."

You might think that strange. And it is. But this actually made quite a lot of sense to me as an expression of my attitude towards how knowledge problems are manufactured and solved. Go through the phrase bit by bit.

“What can’t be coded”
We fail to have knowledge of something in two general ways. We may have no way to access it because it might be too far away, too large, or too small, and we haven’t figured out the right technology to observe it yet. We had no knowledge of Jupiter’s moons until we developed telescopes to see them. They were always there, but couldn’t be seen. But this phrase responds to the second, more problematic kind of unknown: that which might be part of our everyday world, but which we don’t know how to understand. It’s the problem of the unknown unknown, an object or a situation which we don’t even know we’re oblivious to, because we can’t even conceive of it existing. We can’t search for it, because we wouldn’t even know how to search for such a thing.

“can be decorded”
I like the wordplay, combining the senses of the terms ‘decoded’ and ‘untangled,’ as if we were trapped in a mesh of ropes that we had to figure out how to disentangle ourselves. And the ropes in which we’re stuck are metaphors for our perceptual habits, the ways of thinking that we’ve become used to and don’t bother to question. But all ways of thinking are limited, leaving parts of the world unknown to us, and that we don’t even understand how to search for or conceive of. But we can discover unknown unknowns by decoding the patterns in language that we don’t understand, taking that pattern apart and reverse-engineering it.

How do we do that?

“if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for.”
I wish I could remember where I heard this joke, but someone once told a joke about being stuck on an airplane where a blind man was laughing at a video of Mr Bean. The joke is funny because someone with no visual perceptual ability can understand comedy that’s entirely visual performance. His ears should “grieve for” visual humour because they’re incapable of perceiving it. Our ability to think abstractly lets us experiment with concepts so we can develop new powers of thinking, which allow us to figure out the patterns by which some unknown unknown exists in the world, and we can learn to search for it. Once you learn how to search for something, you’re able to find it, and systematize your discovery about the world into the framework by which you understand the world. Conceptually speaking, we can grow an ear where before we may only have had eyes. That’s how you solve the most interesting problems of knowledge, by figuring out how to perceive the world differently than you ever had before.

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