DOCTOR: You're improving, Harry.
HARRY: Am I really?
DOCTOR: Yes, your mind is beginning to work. It's entirely due to my influence, of course. You mustn't take any credit.— The Ark in Space, Doctor Who, 1975.
Here I mean to further develop my theories on the evolution of human culture, which has been a theme on this blog since way back. Most recently, I stretched my thinking on the subject through an exploration of the notoriously unorthodox ideas of Julian Jaynes, emerging with a greatly sharpened focus on storytelling. This time I mean to take what I can, similarly, from Bruno Snell's The Discovery of Mind (Die Entdeckung des Geistes, 1946; English translation with some added material, 1953) and Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato (1963).
My theories (to recap) started with Havelock's core notion of a cultural phase shift from orality to literacy in Greece just before the time of Plato, circa 2500 years ago (Plato was circa 2400 years ago; note, btw, I mostly rough out these ancient numbers-of-years-ago from the convenient figure 2000 CE, so my numbers are a shade low). From there, I extrapolated a still earlier phase of culture preceding orality, giving it working name verbality and drawing inspiration for its character from Daniel Everett's recent study of the Pirahã (Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, 2009). My seemingly-separate pursuits of memetics and sapience converged with this and thoroughly blended into it (leading me —not for the first time— to wonder if (a) I've been attracted to these things because my intuition, which I've always figured is a lot smarter than I am anyway, sensed they were connected; (b) my interests are all similar in character and therefore especially likely to have natural connections between them; (c) I've found connections between them because they were the things I was looking at; or (d) all of the above). And then I read Jaynes, because as readers of this blog might notice I favor using unorthodoxy as a mental limbering-up/perspective exercise, and, after reading him once, found him worth a second, in-depth reading to squeeze all the perspective out of it that I could; and Jaynes mentioned Snell.
My favored mode for these intermediate exploratory posts is to pull the appropriate materials down from my (metaphorical) top shelf; spread it all out on my work bench; contemplate it, tinker with it, and develop some new ideas; and gather it up with perhaps some re-sorting and put it back up on the shelf till next time. In this case, I actually have quite a lot of previously developed material to pull down from the shelf, which I'm eager to write out in a clean copy following its extensive advancement provoked by Jaynes. It's always clearer what you've got, from one of these major explorations, after it's had time to settle out, leaving behind what would only become distracting artifacts of the exploration through which it formed.
Also as usual, I mean to leave a record of my explorations, including the tangents (here's a shout-out for tangents!), which in this case means showing how I've incrementally assembled understanding of the material as I've worked my way through the texts. Initial sections of this post are the state of my understanding before starting the studies of Snell and Havelock, and my accounts of those studies themselves are broadly time-ordered, as possible, recording which insights were derived at which parts of the source material; though in some cases I tweak the phrasing of these intermediate thoughts to avoid confusion from where things end up later.
I do feel I've come out of this with far greater understanding of the non-self-conscious Homeric mindset, and of the Havelockian conceptions of oral poetry and the literate mind; with some new insight possibly to be had, from the Havelockian conceptions, into the role of tense in the emergence of modern consciousness. The really unexpected outcome here has been a radical reevaluation of Socrates and Plato, whom tbh I'd tended to think of as dry academics, as instead —maybe— front-line fighters in a social revolution of immediate relevance to the internet age.Mind and language
There seems to be a consensus of modern authors I've read on the subject —though I could be stuck in a clique of authors who refer me to each other— that language is the unique feature of human evolution that sets us apart from other animals. This consensus view takes to its unreasonably literal extreme, so it seems to me, the insight that individual people are "nothing" without the culture they learn from their community and without the language through which that culture is communicated and embodied; so that we-as-individuals become unimportant except for our somehow having this ability to use language and thus allowing the collective to extend itself through us. Homo linguist, as it were. Having thus dismissed individual sapience as merely a consequence of our language use, one must then ask where on Earth our ability to use language comes from. A particularly popular answer in this context is the Chomskyist universal grammar hypothesis, which says we've got a specialized language-processing unit hardwired into our brains; a natural conclusion, perhaps, —that we'd need help from a peripheral language-processing device— once one dismisses the possibility we might actually be smart on our own.
I don't buy it.
Not that language isn't great and all that. (I'm a big fan.) But I don't think it's the driving force. It seems to me much simpler to suppose —though it may be dreadfully old-fashioned— that we are actually smart, that there is something extraordinary that goes on in our brains that doesn't happen (readily nor often) in the brains of other animals. And that that is where language comes from. There's no mystery in how we can understand language because its form is already a consequence of the character of our minds; our languages are the sorts of languages we would create if we'd been the ones who created them, because, well, we are the ones who created them. No need for some special encoding/decoding system, between sapients; the unadorned wetware already does exactly what's needed because what's needed is to pass the uncoded message directly from one mind to the next. I figure language is a natural consequence of having a high-enough density of similar-enough sapiences communicating with each other to make the development of language worthwhile; then just give it lots of time to evolve.
Honestly, it seems rather awkward otherwise to account for anyone ever having a clever idea that nobody else has had before. I don't find it credible that such things are all just a matter of certain ideas meeting up with each other and recombining; however they got together, they'd just sit there inertly if there weren't something to the individual host mind in which they met. And, given that there has to be some sort of thought engine there at all, suppose it's a powerful engine and I see no call for anything more than that; don't bother with a fancy interface unit to code and decode, just hook up a transmitter and receiver and let the things resonate with each other directly.
This view, that the uniqueness of the human mind is something about how it processes information, is perhaps not surprising from a traditional computer scientist, brought up on algorithms (i.e., rules for how to process information). Acknowledging the role of individual information processing is, afaics, rather atypical of recent memeticists, as memetics emphasizes evolution of ideas from the ideas' perspective, traditionally downplaying the role of the individual host minds in favor of the contagion from one mind to another — which, on the face of it, ought to spread from mind to mind through the vehicle of language. I'm finding, though, that having taken an algorithmic position and worked out a few simple theories about the algorithms involved, this modest catalyst to the memetic theory has a gratifying stabilizing and simplifying influence on my treatment of memetic evolution.
As a case in point, subordination of language to sapience takes the sting out of that gadfly of modern linguistics called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis: the theory that (in strong form) how your language works determines how you think. If the underlying sapient mind gives rise to language, which is then the medium by which ideas get from mind to mind, one expects a particular language to carry bias toward the kind of thought structure that was put into it —because, after all, the thoughts it induces should be approximately those put into it— and then the individual receiving mind, having been influenced by that bias, may (as we strive to do, when "keeping an open mind") shake somewhat loose from its conditioned assumptions, and project whatever new thoughts it may pull from the wellspring of its individual sapience, into its outgoing language; not only expressing new meaning, but bending the language in the process, as, say, nudging word nuances and grammatical structures, or in the extreme coining new words or innovating grammar.
My model of mind isn't elaborate; really, having a model of mind beneath the level of language seems half the battle. I'll introduce the main features of my model at the start of my timeline of events (just below).
Btw, when I suggest we're actually smart, how smart do I mean? Generally, that is; not getting hung up on individual variation (and setting aside individual fallibility, which is not to the point of what I mean by smart; cf. Thoreau's "hobgoblin of little minds"). I've proposed in a past post that sapience is qualitatively more powerful than formal reasoning — that is, more powerful in practice, as asking for it to be more powerful "in theory" would be surrendering the field to formal reasoning from the start. My recommendation on how much more powerful (offered in a post on conlanging) has been that, similarly to the way formal computational power has an apparent "most powerful" class of Turing-powerful models able to simulate each other, there may be a most-powerful class to which general sapiences —such as humans— belong, that in-principle would be able to understand each other; notwithstanding the extraordinary practical difficulties of understanding each other in particular instances. (As I remarked in the conlanging post, we still aren't even sure whether or not rongorongo is writing, let alone what it means.)Timeline
The basic elements of my model of mind, I believe we share more-or-less in common with a very wide range of animals who are clearly nowhere near sapient. Including the very affectionate house cat who has kept me company throughout this and a great many preceding blog posts.
To start, I approximate the human mind as a whole as a vast population of agents, each representing a thought; with a central register designating about seven-plus-or-minus-two of these as current foci of attention. The central register, which I'm supposing is our short-term memory (hence the size, seven plus or minus two), I may also refer to as the "non-Cartesian theater" (or simply the stage), in contrast to a favorite debunking target of Daniel Dennett, the Cartesian theater (a major target of his 1991 book Consciousness Explained); the point being that the key objections directed at the Cartesian theater are really objections to the monolithic Cartesian audience of the theater, which is not a problem when the audience is a massively distributed sea of agents.
The size of the theater is an obvious parameter of variation; one would think the house cat would have a very much smaller theater, and one might guess that most animals would.
The second component of my model of mind, which I reckon logically dependent on the first, I call the self-loom, which constructs a memory of the individual's history, based primarily I suppose on the pattern of occupants of the stage. I'm mentioning it separately as it seems logically possible to have the stage without using it as a frame for a loom (the smaller the stage, the more plausible this seems, to me — fewer threads means less for a loom to weave, after all), but the loom figures prominently in my theories as responsible for the curious phenomenon of dreaming — and like so many pet owners, I perceive from twitches and vocalizations while it's asleep that our house cat dreams. So all this mental machinery I'm describing, which is as much of the mind as I can sketch internal structure for atm, we share with probably most advanced mammals at the very least.
This shared level of mentality changes at the first point on my proposed timeline, the onset of the Paleolithic, about three million years ago (Wikipedia last I checked claimed 3.3 million). I figure this is when humans became sapient. I've blogged before on the evolutionary intricacies involved, which appear to make it an extremely unlikely evolutionary development, but I blogged about it in the abstract, deliberately keeping that discussion independent of just what the development was that took place then. I'm now identifying it as the facile ability to construct symbolic thoughts (cf. Terrance Deacon's 1997 book The Symbolic Species); thus identifying it, in my model, as a variation in agent formation, an activity implied by but undescribed in my sketch of the mind.
Language, as a product of sapience, would also have emerged at that time. I'm aware this event may be placed a bit later. Two million years out, say, rather than three; or even later, as there's still plenty of room in this part of the timeline. The rest of my theories wouldn't be perturbed even if the onset of sapience/language were as recent as, say, a hundred thousand years ago (although in my second post on Jaynes, I offered reason to suspect sapience would precede the divergence between H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens, circa four hundred thousand years ago).
Most of the following three million years, through the entire Lower Paleolithic and Middle Paleolithic, I suppose occupied by verbality, that stage of human culture and language that precedes orality. Although the Pirahã presumably cannot be typical of such a period, because after all they are extraordinary in even existing long after the age of verbality has passed, there are several characteristics of the Pirahã I feel should apply to all verbality: their culture has no art and no storytelling; and their language has, on one hand, no time vocabulary nor tense, and on the other hand, lacks —tremendously controversially— a technical property called recursion.
Recursion might be a thoroughly obscure technical property of languages, if not that its reputation was built up particularly by no less than Noam Chomsky — I think I may fairly describe him as, reputationally, the greatest linguist alive today. Recursion is the property that a phrase, of some general sentence-like class, can contain embedded within it a subphrase of that same class. Chomsky had this pegged as a distinctive universal characteristic of human language, thus tightly linked with the supposed universal grammar instinct; and then Daniel Everett reported that the Pirahã language isn't recursive. With the result that professor Everett has now had the unusual, if dubious, honor of being called a "pure charlatan" by, reputationally, the greatest linguist alive today.
From my perspective, since language is a projection of sapient thought, the question becomes, what sort of thinking projects in the form of recursion. The answer, I submit, is meta-level use of thought, which projects as meta-level use of language. In other words, and more pointedly, recursion is the property your language has if you're a storyteller. (In the earlier post on my second reading of Jaynes, I called this "thinking about thinking", a seductively symmetric phrase that gets increasingly awkward the more closely one considers its semantics; during the explorations below, especially Havelock, it will become quite untenable.)
I therefore reckon that the introduction of recursion into language marks the beginning of storytelling and thus the transition from verbality to orality. I expect this to produce dramatic effects, in the emergence of art and an explosive acceleration in the development of new technologies. Both of which we observe at the onset of the Upper Paleolithic, which is variously dated anywhere from forty to seventy thousand years ago (Wikipedia, last I saw, claimed fifty); I've been using the admittedly nominal figure forty. So I place the introduction of recursion then; likewise art and storytelling. Not tense, though; that comes later.
Interestingly enough, Pirahã, though lacking time vocabulary and verb tense, does have verb aspect (the property dealing with state-of-completion, repetitivity, and such). The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, generally believed atm to have been extant roughly 6500 to 4500 years ago, in its earliest phase appears also to have had aspect without tense. I'm unsure where to put the onset of aspect, on my timeline; even whether to place it before or after the onset of orality, since the presence of aspect in a modern anomalous non-recursive language doesn't necessarily imply aspect must originally have developed before recursion.
The next steps on my timeline are the introduction of past tense, which seems to have been toward the early side of the PIE range, and future tense, which apparently post-dates PIE. I suspect the introduction of tense, and the sort of thinking about time that underlies it, is a major part of the shift of mentality Julian Jaynes was picking up on in his perception of the breakdown of the bicameral mind during roughly this period.
After tense, the final anchor point of my timeline —other than, of course, the present day— is the transition from orality to literacy, which I inherit from Havelock. I understand this to be (amongst, perhaps, other things) a profound change of attitude toward fact, resulting, at least in part, from a shift in the perceived basis of fact from oral traditions to written records which are inherently more stable (and we're now shifting partway back, as electronic records are, in some important ways, no more stable than oral traditions). Evidently Jaynes, Havelock, everyone sees that something extraordinary happened to the Greek mindset in the centuries leading up to Plato, with differences of interpretation as to what it was.Hallucination
Under the theories I've got going here, a human mind trained in a different stage of development of storytelling doesn't "work" fundamentally differently —it's all based on the stage, and the loom, and the idea-synthesizer— but they do think different thoughts. When trying to study such people, notably when studying their language (be it written or reconstructed), this raises a formidable challenge in trying to think like them, which is after all the function of language: to induce thoughts in someone else or, in this case, to reproduce someone else's thoughts in oneself. It's not just that the meanings of words have changed, or that idioms and metaphors and the divisions between concepts have changed; with a different phase of storytelling, the nature of the conceptualizing process has changed.
It's also possible something else has changed, at least a bit, which may relate to the —objectively, rather bizarre— main thesis of Julian Jaynes; and this I would like to take a moment to consider, as at this late date any possible insight into what the world looked like to someone three, or six, or nine thousand years ago is not to be lightly dismissed. I'll suggest how to mitigate Jaynes's rather hard-edged theory.
Okay, if you haven't heard about Julian Jaynes, I hope my efforts at an even-handed presentation of his ideas don't leach all the mischievous fun out of them. Julian Jaynes's proposal was that during what I'd call the early part of the PIE era, the human mind functioned along radically different lines than it does now. Naturally I'm not all-in on that, because I maintain the basic structure of the mind has been substantially stable for millions, perhaps tens or hundreds of millions, of years. What gives his proposal a certain edge in notoriety is the form of the envisioned bicameral mind. He says that in the bicameral mind, the "left" (i.e., dominant) brain hemisphere handled the details of following directions generated by the "right" hemisphere. And these directions manifested themselves in the form of hallucinated gods. So that when human characters in the Iliad —Achilles and Agamemnon and such— were told what to do by various gods, that's not a metaphor, or poetic license; it's an accurate description of the sort of thing people in that era experienced, which was hallucinatory in nature.
I do think Jaynes miscalculated on the extremity of this effect, probably because he was basing his guess at the bicameral mind on modern clinical studies of extreme schizophrenia — a psychiatric disorder in which the patient is debilitated by hallucinations. Studying extreme cases can sometimes carry this liability, of perspective framed in terms of extremes. I'm particularly interested in whether the bicameral effect has to be as extreme as Jaynes depicts because Jaynes was led, apparently by his expectation of an extreme effect, to propose a correspondingly radical rearrangement of the underlying architecture of the mind during the breakdown of bicamerality, whereas I am proposing a substantially stable underlying architecture.
We were, however, asking what these earlier phases of storytelling looked like from the inside, and Jaynes notes some fairly straightforward descriptions of gods directing people in those times. The gods in the Iliad being a prime example. Another classic instance is the stone monumental depiction of ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi, of law-giving fame, in which he stands diligently listening before his enthroned god, receiving (so Jaynes interprets the scene) dictation of the laws. That was about 3750 years ago. Jaynes contrasts it with the monumental depiction, from about 500 years later, of Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I, kneeling rather than standing before the throne of his god (so, again, Jaynes reads it) — and the throne is empty. Which Jaynes proposes as a very straightforward depiction that the gods have ceased to appear.
My particular suggestion to mitigate Jaynes's scenario is, simply, that hallucinations don't have to be debilitating. Think of it this way. Schizophrenia patients describe having their whole awareness disrupted and overwhelmed by hallucinations, so that they're effectively prevented from completing thoughts for themselves. The accounts are harrowing. But an unwelcome actual, unhallucinated voice speaking to you can disrupt and prevent you from thinking, too. Whereas we can and do juggle multiple conversations with different people at once when we're in the groove of the situation. (I remember once hearing someone claim this as a peculiarity of home life in a certain subculture, and thinking, that's not just one subculture; that's normal for humans, but we underestimate how much alike we are, as well as how different, because each of us only gets to be one person.) So, with the right conceptual framework, it should be possible for personified gods to be at once both hallucinations and just aspects of the world. They don't have to be the harrowing experience described by modern schizophrenics, whose condition is both pathological and not well supported by the current phase of storytelling. Jaynes does discuss, extensively, the importance of teaching people what to expect of these sorts of phenomena, noting for instance that what happens to people when hypnotized has changed over the decades with social expectations of what will happen.
We have non-pathological hallucinations even now; religious visions are a notable type. The idea that these are, in fact, overwhelming, all-consuming experiences seems to be part of our collective unconscious (while the idea that an overwhelming, all-consuming hallucination isn't pathological if it's religious, is part of our social conditioning — but that's a whole different can of worms). However, being taught to expect overwhelming experiences may, indeed, cause them to overwhelm. We also, on consideration, have a paradigm of spirits, or imaginary friends, who keep us company and converse with us on a more equal basis.Snell
Snell's book uses philology to support an account of the development of the modern European conception of the human mind over the interval from Homer, circa 2700 years ago, through roughly the time of Aristophanes (and Plato), circa 2400 years ago, with some mention of authors as late as Ovid (circa 2000 years ago) and cameos from substantially modern authors (within the past two or three centuries).
All Jaynes says about Snell's analysis is that "our conclusions [...] are quite different."
Snell's treatment is a series of studies, always meant, he says in his introduction, to be a coherent collection. Working my way through the book, what most struck me about his writing style —I say this non-judgmentally— was that he mostly doesn't explain what, if anything, is his point. In each study, he starts saying things about his subject, goes on saying things about it for a while, then stops. This is not how I write, on this blog; I strongly favor a style one might call "least surprise", in which I strive to make it always clear where I'm going, and where I end up. On closer examination, though, there's more to it than saying what you're doing; there's a difference in what we're doing. In my explorations, I always am somewhere. There's a sort of singular focus to my ramblings that is never quite there in Snell. Of course each of Snell's sentences is saying one specific thing, and as one scales up there is still a broad flow, but it's more like narrating the flow of many objects down a river, describing objects that catch his eye as they pass, rather than following one object at a time as it weaves amongst the others. His writing style diffuses outward, while mine converges inward. It took me once through the book to begin to get a feel for what he was doing. My notes on that once-through reading were spotty. So when I finished, I read the whole thing a second time, from the top. Some of my first impressions seem significant —you only get to see something for the first time once— and I've tried to preserve those here; but I've filled in gaps and revised, leaving these notes considerably longer than their first draft.
He does, in fact, give a highly compressed accounting of the themes of the various essays, toward the end of his introduction (though not quite one-to-one, and excepting Chapter 7 which was added after the introduction was written). On my second reading, this accounting was important guidance for understanding the individual essays. On the first reading it failed to register on me, likely because I expected the theme of each individual essay would be more fully stated in that essay. This was, I confess, not the first time I've botched my reading of a book because I had clear, and mistaken, expectations of what sort of book I was getting into; saving readers of my blog from this sort of frustration is part of the motive for my least-surprise blog style. Turning this meta-lesson back to the content, there's an echo in it of Jaynes's remarks on the importance of preparatory conditioning in how one experiences things. When a story begins, say, "Once upon a time," if we expect a happily-ever-after sort of fairy tale to follow, it may be disorienting to find ourselves instead in a tale of the much darker Brothers Grimm variety. This should provide some sort of insight into the evolution of storytelling.
The introduction painstakingly analyzes the problem of describing the development of a way of describing something whose shape is determined by its description. This seems to me to make it all more difficult than it needs to be. The tangle, which Snell struggles to sort out, is created by supposing that words actively participate in thought. It's all very well to warn (as Snell does) against applying a modern conception of mind to the study of ancient people who likely did not share that conception, but the warning is rather blunted when the alternative is a circular definition. My approach has no circularity problem. The modernly conceived mind, for me, is a fiction to which we ascribe the acts of the sapience engine; like a character in a historical drama, it is invented after the past events in which it pretends to participate. It doesn't actually think; that's an illusion. It is only thought about, and thereby affects our thinking in the same way that anything we think about affects our thinking. It's just another idea, a memetic structure that has evolved over time, as did whatever ancient notion preceded it.
As Snell works his way cautiously, in his introduction, through a discussion of the perplexing difficulties of translation caused by differing conceptions of mind, I find that much of what he says remains true under my different approach to the subject. Though I'm struck by the irony that what Snell describes with reference to our attempts to understand Homer, also applies —if on a smaller scale— to my attempts to understand Snell. On the positive side, it should follow that my study of Snell can serve to some degree as practice for studying more remote mindsets.
In Chapter 1, Homer's View of Man, Snell observes that Homer had many words for fragments of things that later Greeks would have a word for as a whole. He details Homer's various words for different ways of looking (wistfully, inquisitively, etc.), despite lack of a word for the general act of looking that they all share in common. Then he explicates in detail that Homer has no word for a living body but instead uses words for various parts of the body, and notes one could equally well say that Homer's Greeks obviously had bodies but did not know them as bodies, or that they "did not have a body in the modern sense of the word" [p. 8]; by which Snell evidently prepares for a similar discussion of words related to mind.
The fragmentation effect may relate to my interest in verb tense, which is about an individual reference point in time. (It will also relate, later in this post, to an observation of Havelock about plurality versus unity.)
Snell describes the situation in language-driven terms. These abstract concepts absent from Homer become obvious once there is a word for them, he says; whereas I would say of the same phenomenon, that once the concept is there a word appears for it and becomes the means by which it propagates easily and becomes ensconced in the culture. He even quite naturally presents language as an autonomous actor (supposing the translation from German preserves this nuance): "[...] as if language aims progressively to express the essence of an act, but is at first unable to comprehend it because it is a function, and as such neither tangibly apparent nor associated with certain unambiguous emotions." [p. 7]
Snell's discussion of words related to mind, in which he finds Homer's view of people fragmented mentally as well as physically, takes up more than half the chapter. Along the way, he notes particularly that he doesn't find it useful to analyze the situation in terms of concrete-versus-abstract, but rather in terms of organ-versus-function. Earlier words, he says, are essentially organs rather than functions. An interesting point since Jaynes repeatedly stressed the more traditional concrete-rather-than-abstract character of early writings. (With an eye to how Snell's organ-versus-function will play with Havelock's treatment, below, it seems worth emphasizing that organ-versus-function does not conflict with concrete-versus-abstract; functions are abstract; but organ-versus-function says more about the content than does concrete-versus-abstract.)
In the last paragraph of Chapter 1, Snell abruptly makes bold statements about wizardry and magic, which he says are obvious predecessors of the view of humans presented by Homer. The Olympian gods are a replacement for this, an alternative to people being subject to the whims of wizardry and magic. He'd been proceeding so cautiously up till then, I was taken quite by surprise. This supposition about what comes before Homer seems just as arbitrary as Jaynes's — or mine, for that matter. Everybody wants to figure what preceded Homer, and gets there (initially, at least) by guesswork; alas, here Snell doesn't acknowledge when he's guessing. At any rate, in this light, Jaynes's remark that "our conclusions [...] are quite different" —taking "conclusions" to mean theories— makes a lot more sense.
Chapter 2 is about the Olympian gods, which Snell says were an achievement by Homer (in, perhaps, an extended sense); or, more precisely, he cites Herodotus (circa 2450 years ago; rough contemporary of Socrates, circa 250 years after Homer — and, btw, after Homer's contemporary Hesiod): "Herodotus, himself born in the land of these poems, testifies that Homer and Hesiod presented the Greeks with their gods." [p. 37]
What preceded the Olympian gods in Greece? Snell hovers near to this question throughout the chapter, but does not seem imho to seriously consider anything other than superstition and magic. His ending to the previous chapter was evidently meant to lead in to this. It feels, to me, rather presumptuous of him (though possibly he would consider himself less committed than I interpret); the closest I see to evidence is some remarks [p. 35] on the Titanic gods overthrown by the Olympians. I'm struck, btw, that Snell, remarking on the absence of the supposed pre-Olympian religion in Homer, says the omission must be deliberate — contrasting with his remark in his introduction [p. ix] that if Homer doesn't mention something we can deduce he didn't know about it. I remarked this about Jaynes, too, that he interpreted absence from Homer as either evidence of absence or as deliberate omission depending on what fit his thesis.
The Homeric mindset, as Snell describes it, does not have a notion of the individual person as a source of motivation, but has instead the pantheon of Olympian gods who provide motivations. (Snell quotes Goethe: "The god to whom a man proves devout, that is his own soul turned inside out." [p. 31]) The Olympian gods do not, Snell notes, generally command (as the Christian god is wont to do [p. 29 endnote]), but rather offer advice to be followed or not at the person's choice. This strikes me as a significant contrast with Jaynes, who emphasizes the obedience rather than the choice; recall my remarks (above) on the difference between overwhelming hallucinated gods, and conversing hallucinated companions. I have a particular interest in the difference this implies between paths conceptual evolution has followed in different cultures, rather than exclusively the particular path it did follow in ancient Greece; which of course one can't judge Snell too harshly for not addressing more, since his particular interest is, indeed, the particular path followed in ancient Greece.
Chapter 3 is about lyric poetry, which, Snell says, in Greece rather than in Europe as a whole, chronologically followed epics and preceded drama. A key change from epics to lyric poetry, and other arts at the same time, is the introduction of an author. Snell includes in the form, on stylistic grounds, poetry accompanied by flute rather than lyre which he calls "personal lyric"; taking as his focus three authors: Archilocus, circa 2700 years ago; Sappho, circa 2600; and Anacreon, circa 2500. Personal experience of conflicting motivations is, Snell says, a new idea since the epic; bitter-sweet (in relation to love) is, he says, a new coinage when Sappho uses it. Snell's explanation —if I quite followed him— is that Homer describes people in terms too strictly operational for motivational conflicts to appear explicitly. While the lyric poets do not yet portray individuals as sources of motivation, they introduce a broad rhythm/ebb-and-flow of life as a force besides gods. Snell notes that during this time political parties were formed for the first time. And then again, reminiscent of Chapter 2, in the last paragraph of Chapter 3 he brings in something new, this time saying he has "shown" Homer couldn't understand the soul as being opposed to the body, and I said, wait, shown what?
In Chapter 4 he presents Pindar —rough contemporary of Anacreon— as a transitional figure, depicting the simplicity of the gods manifest on Earth. Snell figures Pindar could only have occurred at that moment, on the cusp of transition of mindset, when humans were about to be seen as individuals; Pindar sees the world as magnificently and manifestly ordered, overt rather than spiritual as the human spirit is not yet recognized as such, with gods and humans viewing each other rather symmetrically. Pindar also, Snell notes, does not subordinate the parts to the whole, a tendency not yet lost from the Homeric mindset.
Chapter 5 is quite dense. Its underlying theme is the emergence of a distinction between external and internal reality; its primary vehicle is discussion of the work of Aeschylus, especially in contrast to his predecessor Homer. In Homer, there are two levels, gods and men, but both are external, immediately present. In early ritual performances, the performance connects the represented myth with the occasion of the performance. A degree of dissociation occurs with performers describing the myth in words rather than acting it out. The story becomes disassociated from the occasion. Somewhere in all this, Snell notes a change of statue inscriptions from saying "I am so-and-so" to "I am a representation of so-and-so". Individual experience comes in with lyric poetry, but not individual decision. Aeschylus is concerned with individuals making decisions within their own minds; our modern image of Achilles struggling internally over his decision to get back into the fighting, Snell says, is due to Aeschylus. Action for Aeschylus, he says, is in the mind, involving both the past and future.
The immediate theme of Chapter 6 is the step from Aeschylus to Euripides (though on my first reading I had a lot of trouble figuring that out). The discussion turns about Aristophanes's criticism of Euripides in favor of Aeschylus, which gained no traction until revived by a series of thinkers starting in the 1700s — Snell mentions Lessing, Herder, then in more depth Schlegel and Nietzsche, and eventually also Goethe. It seems that, in essence, Aristophanes objected that Euripides leached the morality out of tragedy by over-rationalizing it; a criticism Snell ultimately rejects. Snell acknowledges that Euripides marked the end of Attic tragedy, but maintains it was a natural evolution, Euripides carrying further the rational shift of Aeschylus, in which decisions are made by individuals rather than gods (not dragging morality down to nature, for Snell maintains the Homeric gods are natural, but perhaps recognizing a spark of divinity in the human mind). Along the way Snell touches, briefly [p. 116], on Plato and the role of poetry in teaching, following apparently the traditional view later rejected by Havelock.
Chapter 7 discusses the changing Greek view of the distinction between divine knowledge and human knowledge, which Snell says existed in Homer but changed in character. This is the chapter that Snell added for the 1957 translation. On first reading I didn't follow what the difference was supposed to have started as, or changed to; Snell doesn't explain where he's going at the start, of course, and though in this case the title accurately reflects the main point ("Human Knowledge and Divine Knowledge Among the Early Greeks"), I only figured that out after reading it, having no longer taken the title seriously as an indicator of what mattered after my experiences with some of the earlier chapter titles. (Verily, the first reading did not go well.) At any rate, on second reading, the Homeric view was that knowledge is proportional to experience and therefore the gods alone have complete awareness hence perfect knowledge. The influence of gods on humans is natural; humans learn by experience and consider it a gift from the gods. As this view changes, humans depend less on connection to the gods. Snell describes several variants due to particular authors, e.g. the gods may "know" some things that resemble truth by aren't truth. One place this can go is a scientific outlook toward empirical data, but Snell says ultimately the influence of Parmenides led toward rejecting sensory evidence in favor of divine inspiration.
Reading the descriptions of these various views of knowledge, I got a strong sense that these people had different cognitive types — profoundly different kinds of information-processing going on in their heads. I'd love to get a handle on how cognitive types interact with the history of all this; but, constructing any sort of post about them is extraordinarily fraught. Not something to tangle with here, anyway.
Chapter 8 is about the changing Greek view of right behavior. On first reading: The Homeric-era goals, according to Snell, were profit, happiness, and honor/repute/glory. Honor, if I follow him rightly, is where support for the social order comes in, has a strong early association with religion, and leads later to the notion of the state. On second reading, my interpretation of the content stands; noting that this time around, the overall flow of Snell's reasoning came across tolerably well (contrary the first reading); the addition of Chapter 7 made some sense. The destination of Chapter 8 is the moral attitude of Socrates, for whom virtue is founded on the decision-making ability of the individual, the emergence of which by separation from the gods has by this time been explored in two different aspects, in chapters 5 on tragedy and 7 on knowledge.
Chapter 9 traces the use of comparisons, from Homer forward, with reference to myth on the early end and logic on the late end. My sense, as I scrutinized this chapter on second reading, was that this chapter conveys an especially important element in Snell's thinking. His use of terms such as metaphor and paradigm appears to be precise, though what precisely they mean to him was less clear to me — despite his having apparently turned parts of his discussion particularly toward explicating those terms.
The contrast between his apparently preferred mode of thought and mine is striking; even when he sets out to explain what he is doing, his exposition is essentially unfocused, whereas even if I were to set out to wander aimlessly about an area of study, I would start out by saying plainly that that was what I was going to do, and each point I made in my wandering would have a gathering-inward coherence to it in contrast to the distributing-outward character of Snell's observations. I do wonder how much of his style is cultural versus how much is cognitive; I don't ask the same question too closely about my own style lest I tie my thinking in a knot, but note that after many weeks of deeply studying Snell, I had to reinforce my own style against a slight diffusion of focus.
The problematic language-as-thought that I noted in Snell's introduction and Chapter 1 is not noticeable out here, in the deep water midstream of his investigation. Here it appears that for Snell, language is the medium through which thought is expressed, thus language helps to guide thought, an attitude akin to my own. His use of the term mythology also (like metaphor and paradigm) appears to be specific and important to his overall vision, though I was unable to get a solid hold on it either. Mythical thinking presents images meant to be apprehended directly whereas logic searches. Comparisons are a form of expression, while reasoning is implicit behind expression in Homer and, over the following centuries, gradually shifts under the surface of expression until it finds a position where the form of expression rearranges itself so as to support logic explicitly.
(Reviewing these notes on Snell after my subsequent deep-study of Havelock, I find the remark about mythical thinking —"Mythical thinking presents images meant to be apprehended directly whereas logic searches"— absolutely stunningly Havelockian. There was no glimmer of such a recognition in my mind when I wrote the remark; yet the connection shines out so brightly now that I'm seriously contemplating whether to revisit this part of Snell. A thoroughly unanticipated thought as, laboring through my second reading of Snell, I tried to wring all the insight I could out of it in the sincere belief that I would surely never pass that way again.)
Chapter 10 appears, then, to be about the process by which language gradually rearranges itself to support logic; where the preceding chapter focused on comparison, this chapter focuses on the emergence of abstract nouns in the Greek language. As seems typical of Snell's style (at its best), the chapter touches a variety of variously intriguing themes. He repeatedly considers three primary kinds of words —nouns, adjectives, and verbs— and three kinds of nouns —proper, concrete, and abstract— with the definite article enabling transformation of adjectives and verbs into abstract nouns. The emergence of abstract nouns, he says, essential to science, is enabled by the language having a definite article, which becomes able to transform an adjective or verb into an abstract noun. The emphasis on abstractions, I immediately recognized as reminiscent of Havelock. Snell also notes mythical names as a precursor of abstractions; at one point [p. 237] he contrasts Homer's mythical identification of Ocean as the origin of the gods with Thales's concrete identification of water as the origin of all things. Snell also spends some attention on motion, which he says (if I quite followed him) underlies all verbs in a scientific view; that bit, I admit, powerfully reminded me of the vector language concept behind my conlang Lamlosuo (leading me to really wonder about the deep connections between my interests). This miscellany of fascinating themes flies somewhat out of control when, near the end of the chapter, he begins an apparently summing-up paragraph with "What we have seen to be true for the substantive and the adjective, has now been shown to hold for the verb as well." This was, sad to say, a complete non sequitur for me; I've no idea what we're supposed to understand to have been shown for all three kinds of words at this point. Later in that paragraph (which is almost a page long, as many of his paragraphs are), he also refers to there being three parts of all Indo-European grammar, by which again I'm unsure what is meant; maybe nouns adjectives and verbs, but nothing in the context confirms this: he suggests a connection to the three genres of poetry, epic lyric and drama, and I honestly have no idea how those are supposed to relate to grammar of any stripe.
At one point in the chapter [pp. 241–2], Snell addresses the matter of tense, which figures prominently in my own recent conjectures. Snell says science is particularly concerned only with past tense since all observations are necessarily in that tense (I'm aware this property of observation also figures prominently in journalism), and notes that the Greek language (in the age he's concerned with, I presume) uses aspect rather than tense. As I recall it's been noted somewhere-or-other in the Conlangery podcast that grammatical terminology tends to get murky when shifting between languages, so I'm wary of exactly what doesn't have tenses actually means, but the point is clearly highly important for how Greek fits into the evolutionary picture I'm assembling.
Chapter 11 is about evolving ideals of human behavior; truth and justice and such. While previous essays in the collection mostly focused on the ancient world, this one relates it all to the present, with rather stunning effect for me as I'd somehow lost track of the reality that this stuff was written in Germany in the middle of a century when really awful things had been happening in and around Germany. Snell writes, rather matter-of-factly, of considering a few years after the first World War "what values were worth saving in Europe". I've got other views lately of the bone-deep psychological impact of WWI, e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien's work is thoroughly shot through with it (once one relegates the Catholic influence to the background). And this particular chapter was first published, according to the translator's note, in 1947, before appearing in the collection in 1948.
Chapter 12 is about how the poetry of Callimachus fits into the evolution of thought after the classical period. Callimachus was (I see from Wikipedia) born a decade or so after Aristotle died. Snell describes him as post-philosophical, not pursuing philosophical goals but rather making light of previous intellectual thought in an erudite manner that, Snell says, sets the tone for thousands of years of erudite poetry. He describes [p. 266] the pre-philosophical poets as "[staking] out new areas of the mind", from which the discovery of mind and philosophy arose, while Callimachus also explored new territory but not in a profound moral or conceptual sense but rather art for art's sake.
Finally, in Chapter 13 Snell fits Virgil into the picture. Virgil was a Roman poet writing several centuries later; chronologically he is at the end of the period studied by Snell's book, as Homer in Chapter 1 is chronologically at the beginning. (Despite the hand-waving in Chapter 2, I only recall one solid reference in Snell's book to anything before Homer, through the evidence of a scene on someone's shield in the Iliad [p. 285].) According to Snell, Virgil was influenced by the somewhat ironic writings of Theocritus – afaict a contemporary of Callimachus — but took the erudite shepherds portrayed by Theocritus seriously, and created poetry with the seriousness of Homer, not grounded in the concrete world as Homer was but instead set in an idealistic landscape unhinged from reality. This, in the political context for Virgil of a Rome whose people were sick of chaos and wanted the peaceful stability furnished by Augustus. Snell presents this as Virgil's discovery of poetry as an exercise in imagination, and of poetic symbolism, also reprising Snell's point from his Introduction to the book that the entire intellectual progress throughout the book is discovery rather than invention. Along the way he explores differences between conceptual frameworks of, notably, Virgil, Theocritus, Homer and Hesiod, and Plato.
After completing my second, intensive study of the book, my overall —positive— assessment is that Snell understands the shifting mindsets at a deep level that he doesn't articulate directly (cf. profundity index). I'm on the brink of seeing what he's getting at.Havelock
Going into a second reading of Havelock, I was particularly interested in his view of the conceptual structure of orality, which I didn't feel I'd understood from my first reading. After my experience with Snell I was also wondering how I would perceive Havelock's style.
Havelock's Forward, contrasting Snell, is written in a convergent rather than diffusive style. It also doesn't fall into the trap of treating words as self-defining, but rather describes the difficulty of understanding pre-Socratic texts as one of working out what concepts words signified in-context to those who used them, and how they came to do so; as in my own framework, a non-circular process, in which words express ideas but do not cause them. He describes his main thesis, that the pre-Socratics were not practicing philosophy in a modern sense but rather were developing literate concepts starting from an oral mentality.
Reference to Milman Parry provided a fascinating detour through Wikipedia. Parry was born in 1902, eleven months and change before Havelock, and died at age thirty three (just under thirty three and a half). Havelock in his forward credits Parry with a crucial clue to what an oral mentality looks like, but doesn't digress to explain what the clue was — hence Wikipedia. From the Wikipedia write-ups, Parry studied traditional oral poetry, and concluded it uses formulas that allow bards to rapidly assemble verse from modular parts. Havelock's contribution was to work out the conceptual changes involved in shifting from the construction of prose through oral formulae to the construction of prose through abstract categories. This information about Parry could be immensely valuable for understanding Havelock... if it's right, as opposed to, say, a deep misunderstanding of one or both of them by whoever imposed their perceptions on that part of Wikipedia. The latter concern connects directly to what made this detour immediately fascinating for me. Evidently, the Wikipedia articles about Parry and the people and ideas surrounding him were written by one set of contributors, the articles about Havelock and the people and ideas surrounding him by a different set of contributors, and quite blatantly the communities surrounding these two scholars have profoundly different frames for the overall situation. The articles in the Parry neighborhood portray Parry as the primary author of the orality/literacy distinction, and oh-by-the-way the distinction is associated with Havelock. Those in the Havelock neighborhood present Havelock as author of the distinction, with an important debt acknowledged by Havelock to the related work of Parry on the structure of oral poetry.
(Interestingly, a much more pronounced example of reverberating hearsay surrounds Parry's death, and likely feeds back into the way the Parry-neighborhood treats him. In addition to studying Homer, Parry also traveled twice in the 1930s to Yugoslavia where he recorded oral bards in that narrow window of time when modern recording equipment was available while the oral tradition was still practiced; and then Parry, having developed the habit of carrying a loaded pistol in those dangerous regions, accidentally fatally shot himself while unpacking his luggage in a Los Angeles hotel room. According to the recent source article cited by Wikipedia, this rather pointless death was transmogrified in the telling, Parry ennobled with comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia (who had died similarly pointlessly about half a year before), Charles Darwin, Don Quixote, Alexander the Great, John Keats, Paul Gauguin, Igor Stravinsky; and ultimately the story was rewritten as a tale of tragic suicide after being denied well-deserved honors — reminiscent, the recent author noted, of ancient Greek hero Ajax.)
Havelock reasons carefully from evidence in Plato's Republic. His first chapter is largely debunking of numerous conventional views on how to interpret the Republic. Despite the title traditionally attached to it, the Republic is not about politics, by Havelock's reasoning, but rather its main theme is education; Havelock credits it with introducing the Western university system. Plato's Book Ten denounces poetry as intellectual poison, and Havelock systematically debunks numerous traditional ways of denying that Plato really means this; Havelock argues that the attack on poetry in Book Ten doesn't occur out of the blue, but fits into the larger scheme of the preceding Books. Although Plato is traditionally supposed to treat the sophists as his opponents, in Book Ten, Plato sees the sophists as his allies against the threat of poetry. Havelock also particularly notes that Plato is pointedly not interested in distinguishing epic from tragedy.
Alongside the debunking, Havelock also begins to assemble evidence of what Plato actually is talking about, noting that while we perceive poetry as an aesthetic experience, to Plato it must be something else. In Havelock's Chapter Two, he considers what Plato means by the word mimesis (accent on the second syllable, btw; rhymes with thesis), which is generally translated as something to do with imitation/mimicry. While Plato uses mimesis for dramatic rather than descriptive communication, at various points he uses it for what is done by composer, presenter, young student, or adult audience; the point Havelock is driving at seems to be that Plato was talking about something that defies distinctions we are accustomed to because his referent does not exist in our modern culture. Havelock's Chapter Three then articulates what he believes the oral mindset to be: a communicated oral tradition on a massive scale, requiring a whole way of life devoted to its constant reinforcement, which is identified with rather than considered (hence the term mimesis), and which places constraints on the poet as well as the audience. He describes a gradual migration from orality to literacy, passing through two intermediate phases: from more-or-less pure orality with Homer and Hesiod, through craft literacy with the tragedians, and semi-literacy with the sophists, to literacy with Plato.
In reading Havelock's description of plays in Athens, I was reminded of Jaynes's account of the first tragic play in Athens, The Fall of Miletus. In Jaynes's account —which, as I noted in my earlier post, doesn't really seem to match Wikipedia's mainstream account despite both versions invoking the same authority (Herodotus)— the Athenian audience was completely freaked out by the play's single performance, shutting down the city for days, upon which the play was burned and its author banned. Jaynes explains this extreme reaction as a population no longer bicameral but not yet knowing how to handle conscious emotions, which the conscious mind can dwell upon thus creating positive feedback that does not occur in the bicameral mind. As an alternative interpretation under Havelock's premise, of the effect alleged by Jaynes, it occurs to me that tragedies seem rather meant to make the audience think, which is a literate impulse, whereas, for such an early tragedy, an audience used to absorbing oral tradition mimetically might be unable to filter the tragic aspect of the story and might therefore drastically overreact to it. Note that Havelock's orality and Jaynes's bicamerality both omit reflecting on the emotion, with the interesting difference that in Jaynes's version the problem is the presence of reflection, whereas in my extrapolation of Havelock the problem is the absence of reflection.
Taking all these authors together at this stage, I found Havelock most credible on the points he addresses; but Jaynes seems on to something too, if more tenuously, and I've continued to look for ways Havelockian phenomena could project something suggestive of the shapes Jaynes perceives in the evidence. It's entirely possible, when sensing some elusive missing element in a substantially sound theory, to fumble about a bit looking for the missing element, so that higher-risk theories such as Jaynes can play a vital role in assembling a complete picture — as, for that matter, Snell with his less focused style may also serve an important role in accumulating fragmentary patterns in a domain not yet ripe for a wholly coherent new theory.
Havelock's Chapter Four proposes that Homer is mainly instructional material with a plot added to hold it together, rather than, in its usual modern interpretation, an "epic" plot with some tedious bits added on. (Btw, I was caught off-guard when Havelock explained this in the first paragraph of the chapter; apparently habituated by reading Snell, I'd braced myself to try to puzzle out what the point of the chapter was.) Havelock identifies, citing Hesiod, two types of information primarily conveyed: nomoi (singular nomos), rules of social behavior; and ethea (singular ethos), rules of personal behavior. He then engages in a detailed discussion of Homer's content. Which drags on, as he looks at a long series of examples, each of which is individually unimpressive but whose point is, apparently, the cumulative weight of persistent repetition of formulae. Havelock seems to be turning inside-out not only the traditional interpretation of the Iliad as a plot with details added (thus, details with a plot added), but also Parry's interpretation of oral storytelling as modular parts used to construct a story (thus, instructive parts arranged as a story).
Studying Havelock's reasoning, I was struck by his, afaict, rather conventional view of the consciousness of Homeric-era people, whereas the other authors I've been immersed in lately —Jaynes and Snell— each in their own way envision the self evolving during the following centuries. Havelock, of course, proposes a transformation of the mind during this period that I've found quite compelling — but at the same time, I'm finding Havelock's account oddly incomplete. It's somewhat-belatedly occurred to me that I'm grasping for more than an assemblage of parts borrowed from these different authors: I want an evolution of mind starting with a Homeric state that is oral (in Havelock's sense) and selfless with natural gods (in Snell's sense), with possibly some Jaynes-like element, morphing continuously to a literate conscious mind. Key to making this work, it seems, is to work out not only how the Homeric conception of the gods and individual people works, but how it works in, relates to, and perhaps depends on, an oral mindset. Neither the selflessness nor the orality ought to be fully understandable without the other, and likewise for the dual processes of emergence of self and of literacy.
I've been trying to wrap my head around a Homeric manner, based on Snell, of analyzing the whole of society and the people in it, involving Olympian gods, alternatively to the modern analysis into individual conscious selves and interactions between them. Now I'm trying to work out how orality bears on this, and on the transformation.
Toward the end of the chapter, Havelock notes that Plato objects to Homer claiming to give technical instruction without being an expert — that is, claiming to impart techne as well as nomos. "The boundary between moral behaviour and skilled behaviour in an oral culture", Havelock observes, "is rather thin."
Chapter Five is a discussion of the instructional view of Homer, after spending Chapter Four examining the detailed text of the start of the Iliad for instructional nature. His preferred simile for the oral epic is of a walk through a house crowded with furniture, describing each item as he passes it and trying to arrange to pass by and describe nearly everything, with quite limited flexibility for the bard, and considerable skill required to integrate the story with the instruction. He does discuss Parry's view, particularly observing that Parry was observing oral tradition in a culture where the organs of government had literacy at their disposal so that the oral tradition was merely entertainment.
In seeking to better grasp Havelock's notion of oral poetry, I'm struck by remarks of Umberto Eco on the classic 1942 movie Casablanca. The movie is, we're given to understand, a dense mass of cliches thrown together rather desperately during production, producing something "if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. [...] [T]here unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. [...] Something has spoken in place of the director." Eco also notes that while middle-aged audiences watch the movie nostalgically, college-age audiences "greet each scene and canonical line of dialogue ('Round up the usual suspects,' 'Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?' — or even every time that Bogey says 'kid') with ovations usually reserved for football games." (Umberto Eco, Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball, 1994.) If Havelock's oral-poetic mode is a real phenomenon, and people are basically the same today as we were three thousand years ago, the mode should still be there to tap into, and it surely sounds from Eco's description as if Casablanca is tapping into it.
Chapter Six discusses Hesiod's hymn to the Muses. Havelock maintains this is an account of what bards in an oral society do, expressed in the form such an account must take in their oral medium; and, he says, it agrees with what Plato says about what bards did in the society, from a philosopher's perspective. According to Havelock, Hesiod makes the Muses daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne — this being the means available to Hesiod to express relations between abstract categories without actually having abstract categories (which are literate), Zeus representative of social order, Mnemosyne of memory/recall/record. The ninth Muse described is Calliope, the consort of princes, whose name Havelock translates as "fair-utterance": representative of the oral-poetic use of words, which are either wielded directly by a prince with the gift, or provided by the prince's bard, as poetry is needed both to persuade people to follow orders and to put the orders in a form that will be remembered accurately. This aspect of princes is not dwelled upon by Homer, Havelock suggests, because it's so obvious no-one would think to notice it, and it's invisible in Homer's text since any words put in characters' mouths are part of Homer's text which is all poetic; and even so, Havelock notes a Homeric depiction of Achilles as a "speaker of tales", "chanting the glories of heroes".
Chapter Seven is about how the culture in which Homer and Hesiod lived would have been shaped by the ancient Greek Dark Age of several centuries leading up to it, from the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. This was, by Havelock's account, a profoundly "dark" age in the sense that we have no direct knowledge of it, as it was especially purely non-literate — forcing Greek culture into a purely oral form, at the same time a diaspora was forcing strong measures to preserve their cultural identity. (Havelock is, btw, disinclined to view the age as "dark" in the sense of the Greeks being uncivilized.) Given the instructive nature of oral poetry, the culture depicted in Homer would be necessarily that of Homer's time, with the seeming of a story about ancient heroes merely a framework to convey the contemporary nomoi and ethe. Memory and a gift for the poetic form would be a real advantage for leaders, resulting in a culture led by the poetically talented (I'm picturing a word "poetocracy" here), which leads me to wonder whether certain cognitive types that we would hold in high esteem —such as Albert Einstein's— might have done poorly in that society. (It also occasionally crosses my mind, when studying this stuff, to wonder whether Plato was tone-deaf.)
Chapter Eight, a relatively short chapter, is about what the oral mindset looks like. Havelock's main point here is that in either type of culture, oral or literate, a main repository of preserved cultural knowledge defines the highest form of expression, and the form of ordinary language devolves therefrom — turning "upside-down" a widespread literate perception of metrical language as a ceremonial/artistic variant from ordinary language. People in an oral culture do in fact, he says, speak ordinarily in a metrical fashion; a difficult thing to observe, but he mentions several glimpses of it; a few observations from encounters with oral cultures in WWI, and samples of pre-alphabetic writing. From WWI, T.E. Lawrence describes metrical speech in the mustering of non-literate Arab troops; while an account of Gallipoli describes Australian soldiers making short logical remarks while Turkish soldiers use metrical idiom (I freely admit to loving the proverb quoted: "Smiling may you go and smiling may you come again"). In early syllabary writing systems, according to Havelock, the written form is too clumsy to become culturally dominant, and so instead imitates the usual form of speech; so Havelock suggests the metrical form of these writings is evidence that people actually spoke that way, rather than (as he notes has been suggested) evidence that the material was ceremonial and thus atypical. He also briefly notes that the non-metricality of literate speech is due to the speaker's perception that the main repository of knowledge is stable without meter.
Chapter Nine describes the psychology of oral poetic performance. The process, constraining performer as well as audience, is hypnotic, we're told, using rhythmic structure at multiple levels —meter, instrumental accompaniment, and sometimes also dance— to support memory by limiting the range of expressions possible and (if I'm following this point rightly) thereby minimizing the work involved, and also providing positive reinforcement through sensual pleasure. An altogether complex process. All of which sounds abstractly plausible but, for me, failed to come across as immediately persuasive; which on reflection I ascribe to a lack of concrete illustration or example. Contrast the preceding chapter which, though only about half as long, offered several interesting evidences to support its point. The lack of illustrative examples may be inherent in the technically intricate subject, which might require a more massive treatment to get into concrete evidence; but while that might explain the shortfall, it doesn't make it any less unfortunate for me since I want illustrations to help me grok the concept and transform it for my altered theoretical framework.
Chapter Ten is about the character of what oral poetry says: "The Content and Quality of the Poetised Statement". This chapter is about as long as the preceding two chapters combined. The oral poetic form uses doings rather than abstractions; Havelock is very clear, in this chapter, that abstractions are strictly a literate phenomenon, repeatedly emphasizing that wherever Homer appears to be framing an abstraction, it's an illusion — though evidently I'm more able to assimilate this point now, after my studies of Jaynes and Snell, than I was on my first reading since somehow I managed (as visible in my post on second-reading of Jaynes) to come away from that first reading unclear on whether orality would have its own form of abstraction.
It also deeply impresses me (thanks, presumably, to my recent revisiting of the subject on this blog) that the concept underlying my conlang prototype Lamlosuo now seems, if not more peculiar, then more deeply peculiar than I'd recognized when devising it. In my recent post I was already concerned that the conlang, by starting with an entirely clean slate, would lack the vestiges of an oral past; having a clinical atmosphere, as I described it; but since the early days of that project (better part of twenty years ago) I'd also characterized its alternative language model as going rather than being-doing, and it seems I was saying more than I realized. Havelock makes perfectly clear [p. 182] that the two halves of "being-doing" are, in fact, literacy and orality (he contrasts the words "being" and "doing" explicitly), so that by rejecting both, the Lamlosuo model evidently steps rather sideways from the whole Havelockian scheme. That is, vectors, the content words of the language, reject both being and doing; as noted in the recent post, my attempt to add a vector for the copular verb failed not because the language couldn't support the copular function, but because that function was performed by the role particles so that it would make no sense for a vector to take on that function. Suggesting this facet of literacy has been kept out of the vocabulary yet built into the core grammatical structure, for whatever that implies.
Havelock also emphasizes in this chapter that the oral poetic form requires actions, each with a doer, an actor, for which he suggests polytheism is ideal since it provides suitable actors for a wide range of processes that a literate mind would perceive as abstract. Havelock notes particularly the extensive use of the metaphor of birth and death [pp. 172–3] (though he's only talking about Homeric metaphor here, not the sweeping force-alternative-to-gods that Snell ascribes to later "lyric" poetry). Somewhere around this part of the chapter, Havelock begins again to pull in example oral passages, mainly from the Iliad, which soon get quite thick, though I found it often required close study to appreciate the subtle points he was making about the examples. It seems to me he would have studied tremendous amounts of material and found these subtle patterns he describes permeating it all, which isn't something one can readily put into a book (not at this level of readability, anyway), so the best one can likely do is to explain in detail what to look for and then give a relatively few specific examples from which the attentive reader may be able to discern the subtleties.
The chapter explores in depth three key features of oral poetry, which Havelock repeatedly emphasizes are specifically criticized by Plato. (1) Everything must happen embedded in time, so, no timeless truths. (2) It must happen in a series of episodes, presented in sequence, between which the audience must construe any connection. (3) It must evoke vivid imagery.
The first point, embedding in time, would seem to contrast with Pirahã on the early side —a language without tense— and also contrast with the timeless "being" of "being-doing" languages on the late side. For the second point, series of episodes, Havelock's technical term is parataxis (though I gather some scholars may use the term somewhat differently). Snell had also remarked on how this sort of juxtaposition could be used to imply causation for which there were not yet suitable connectives. Havelock, on the other hand, gives [p. 184] an unusually sophisticated example where Homer does explicitly express causation, "Y because X" rather than "X, and Y"; but suggests that this doesn't work easily in the oral medium because it disrupts the implicitly temporal sequence of images. Contemplating this, I begin to suspect that the modern movie medium of storytelling may be more alien, in its relation to all this, than Lamlosuo's going language model.
Thus ends Part One (of two) of Havelock, about orality, to be followed by the somewhat shorter Part Two about the transition to literacy. Marshaling my understanding of the oral and literate mindsets at this point, before launching into Part Two, as noted earlier I see the two mindsets as different analyses of society as a whole into concepts. I think of the literate analysis as horizontal, or at least flat, the oral analysis as more vertical. The literate view has individual autonomous people, and then abstract connections between them; using the term abstract per Havelock to highlight that this analysis simply would not work in the oral-poetic medium. The oral view decomposes society by, more or less, motivations, allowing a maximally useful set of actors for oral-poetic doings in the absence of literate abstractions. (The "vertical" structure of this oral view puts me in mind of the sorts of non-local decompositions of basic physics I speculated on in a blog post some time back.)
Initially I found the titles of the two Parts of the book both rather hard to grasp. Part One is "The Image-Thinkers", which really meant nothing to me going in to my second reading (other than presumably referring to orality); only coming out of my deep study of that Part could I look back and see it as a comment on the importance of the vivid-imagery aspect of orality. Part Two is "The Necessity of Platonism", which I eventually decided —after two in-depth passes on its first chapter, Eleven— refers to the necessity, in order to implement his plan for societal reform, of eradicating orality. This is a major theme of Chapter Eleven: historians, says Havelock, have come to accept that the self-conscious mind emerged in Greece at about that time (he's talking about Snell, apparently); but what's new in his conception is that this means the overthrow of a preceding oral mindset.The essential point here is that intellectual thinking requires a separation between thinker and thought-about (or knower and known), thus the concept of the thinker as an autonomous person — a concept that cannot coexist with mimesis in which the participants immerse themselves in each successive oral-poetic vivid episode (psychological identification, becoming many rather than one). Havelock describes "a whole group of intellectuals in the last half of the fifth century" wielding the weapon of the primal dialectic technique of asking someone to explain what they just said, destroying the rhythm of the mimetic process, "arousing the consciousness from its dream language and stimulating it to think abstractly." The first step in Plato's proposed curriculum is arithmetic, because it requires problem solving rather than memorization.
From grade school, I acquired an (admittedly rather vague) impression of Socrates and Plato as "ancient philosophers" in a very dry, bookish sense (though that's not really pejorative, coming from me). From Havelock I get a picture of social radicals on the front lines of an active war against a highly addictive non-conscious mindset, whose issues may well be as relevant in the internet age as they were in the Hellenic age. Havelock did say early on, his thesis required a reinterpretation of Plato's Republic, but it seems I didn't grok at that time the scope of reinterpretation entailed. Looking back from the end of Chapter Eleven, the trial of Socrates makes a lot more sense than the way it was taught to me in school; and the "philosopher king" notion takes on a whole different character if one understands it not so much to mean "philosophers" —in the modern sense— should be in charge as people who think literately rather than orally should be in charge. Granting that particulars of Plato's vision may have been missing some practical insights provided by another two and a half millennia of experience, one suspects he might not be particularly surprised by the currently observable consequences of a prominent class of world leaders failing to apply intellection.
The underlying dynamic of literate learning is that, because the written record preserves itself and can be studied repeatedly, its audience can save themselves the substantial investment of energy in the oral-hypnotic process, freeing up all that energy for thinking. What I'm doing with Havelock, poring over his book for a highly intensive re-reading, is evidently a profoundly literate activity.
Havelock, btw, apparently prefers to use the verb think, if at all, to refer to literate intellection, a usage he seems aware could be confusing so doesn't rely on, but nonetheless avoids the term with reference to orality. Whereas I, for whom sapience is the baseline of interest, use think for any information-processing that has the sapience thing, quite indifferent to the differences of use that distinguish literacy from orality, or even from verbality. Though I don't mean to change my usage to accommodate his, as such, I'm likely to be extra-wary of situations where the usage may be ambiguous, hence generally using the term with a modifier: sapient thought/thinking, literate thought/thinking, etc.
The words abstract and concrete are also worth some attention. In the second-Jaynes post, I used at least once the term oral abstraction. This was partly my confusion over Havelock's view of orality; as noted above, he's very clear that by abstraction he means a purely literate phenomenon. Snell uses abstract for the class of abstract nouns, as opposed to concrete nouns and proper nouns, which is rather akin to Havelock's usage since Snell's point is that abstract nouns are a late development. My own use of "oral abstraction" was in the context of Jaynes's emphasis on the ostensibly concrete nature of early writings. Snell maintained (also above) that he found concrete-versus-abstract less useful in studying Homer than organ-versus-function. My own point, referencing "oral abstraction", was that a mindset not decomposed into literate concepts might nonetheless be decomposed into concepts that aren't exactly "concrete" either. At the time I wrote that, I was deferring judgment on what an alternative decomposition would be; since studying Snell and tempering it with some Havelock, I'd tend to identify this as the "vertical" decomposition of society into motivation-oriented actors —notably including gods— rather than autonomous individual people. (Though whether that qualifies as "concrete" in Jaynes's sense is, on reflection, rather difficult to say; Snell's point about organ-versus-function seems to me to have some merit, while the horizontal-versus-vertical description needs work but may also be on to something.)
Contemplating the possible relationship between the internet-age consequences of world leaders who don't practice intellection, and Plato's motives for advocating "philosopher kings", a stray, curious, and rather circuitous thought occurs to me. In literate society, there seem to be some kinds of deep, latent folk-knowledge that don't get written down; at least, not explicitly, though one might be able to recover some of it by "reading between the lines". Suppose something similar were to occur in oral society, where some deep latent folk-knowledge isn't directly committed to the primary recording medium of oral sagas. Now, Havelock paints a picture of a cadre of intellectuals in the late fifth century BCE (basically Socrates's generation) waging guerrilla war on orality. I've been thinking of all these evolution-of-mind developments as inevitable natural developments, each occurring in its own time, and in the larger scheme of things presumably so they are; but in the specific event, what if these people were acting because of something they perceived about their past, that we're missing because it wasn't explicitly stated in the "official" record? This intellectual guerrilla war would have been about two or three centuries after Homer and Hesiod, and six or seven centuries after some cataclysmic we-don't-know-what wiped out civilization over a massive area (Mycenaean Greece, including Troy, was just part of it). So, if they were fighting tooth and nail to encourage intellectuals —especially, in the case of Socrates's star pupil Plato, intellectuals in charge of society— what does that suggest they thought about the cause of the Late Bronze Age collapse?
Not to put too fine a point on it, my core speculation here is that, just perhaps, these Late Bronze Age civilizations collapsed en masse partly because they were run by irrational idiots. Or, at least, that this made a bad situation worse. The Wikipedia article on the collapse mentions, amongst suggested possible causes, "general systems collapse", which afaics is a fancy way of saying the dynamics of the civilization were out of whack so it broke. If idiotic leaders were really widespread enough to contribute significantly to that big and sudden a disaster, it would have to be something out of whack in the dynamics of the system that tended to put idiots in charge. Of course, I thought to myself at this point, we can't really know; it's not like the ancient Greeks left us an epic account of the Mycenaean military commanders making decisions based on emotions unbridled by reason and getting people killed left and right as a result — but they did, didn't they. Which in an odd way would turn some of Havelock's iconoclasm inside-out: the plot of Homer's Iliad, which Havelock dismisses as a vehicle for the encyclopedic detail within, would also carry a larger message about the society, hidden in plain sight; and Plato's Republic, which Havelock says despite its traditional title is not primarily about politics, would look a lot more political.
Chapter Twelve is about the nature of literate knowledge as Plato characterizes it. The object of non-oral knowledge cannot be the content of the oral poem both because, Havelock notes, general knowledge is only implicit in the poem —which must deal exclusively with concrete instances, episodes embedded in time— and because to touch the poem is to fall under its spell. Plato does, Havelock says, believe that non-oral knowledge has definite characteristics, just as oral knowledge had its character — vivid, episodic, timeful. Plato's three essential features of non-oral knowledge —says Havelock if I've understood him rightly— are substantially opposite to those three features of oral knowledge: non-visualness (an abstraction is unseen), "integrity" (an abstraction is "one", rather than the "many" of episodic oral poetry), and timelessness.
Note, btw, this characterization of the oral/literate contrast matches fairly well with Snell's characterization of Homeric style: fragments of things rather than wholes; organs rather than functions; described in operational terms.
Havelock, following his pattern of rejecting traditional interpretations of Plato in favor of his thesis that Plato is talking about the shift from orality to literacy, emphatically maintains Plato is talking about a "syntactical situation" rather than a "metaphysical super-reality". I think Havelock is about half right on this. I'm inclined to agree that Plato is talking about structural differences between oral knowledge and literate knowledge, and the traditional interpretation of Platonism is exaggerated by failing to take this structural element into account. I'm also mindful that Havelock uses the term syntax somewhat differently than I'm accustomed to (he's a classicist, I'm a computer scientist), and I don't quite have a handle on his usage. But I also think there's an element of cognitive type involved here, in which Plato is perceiving a kind of structure that is perceptible to some cognitive types and not to others. So in this case Havelock's attempt to turn the traditional interpretation upside down may only achieve a 90-degree angle (or, in a physics-nerd-ish metaphor, if he's turned it a full 180 degrees it has spin ½).
In Chapter Thirteen, with the rather difficult title "Poetry as Opinion", Havelock uses an analysis of the meanings of particular words to defend his claim that Plato's attack on poetry is not a digression, but rather is the same thing Plato had been addressing all along. I struggled to pull together the mass of information Havelock has provided; he seems afaics to be attempting to re-derive in this chapter some points that he had presented as established in earlier chapters, leaving me unable to confidently apply here any of my hard-won, tenuous grasp of preceding chapters. To my understanding, here Havelock discusses especially Plato's Book Five, where isolated abstractions are introduced; to some degree Book Seven where arithmetic is proposed as a way of teaching literate thought; and Book Ten with its attack on poetry; but Plato uses different words in different places. Especially, Book Ten uses the term mimesis, which Havelock had already spent an entire chapter discussing near the beginning of Part One; whereas Book Five uses the word doxa (δόξα), which is usually translated as... "opinion". Hence, of course, the chapter title: "Poetry as Opinion", Havelock's central claim being that what Plato attacks under the name "opinion" is also the subject of his attack on poetry, with modern misunderstanding arising because for us, opinion is common while poetry is esoteric, whereas for Plato doxa doesn't mean "opinion" in quite our sense, while poetry in Plato's world was ubiquitous. Plato distinguishes between philodoxoi (fans of opinion) and philosophoi (fans of intellectual thought) — which I found stunningly close to my own ideas on the modern struggle between fact-based and opinion-based mindsets; but rather than completely depart from Havelock at this point, I'll revisit that in a separate section, below.
The problem with "opinion", Havelock emphasizes, is that it leads to "contradiction", where a thing can be both big and small, beautiful and ugly, a person may be both just and unjust, noble and ignoble, etc. This initially perplexed me, and I took a while to catch on. Evidently, a thing takes on these "contradictory" properties at different times, which one has to be able to talk about in order to make sense of the real world (shades of monadic programming); so that the objection to "contradiction" really did come across to me sounding as if Plato was presenting the time-dependent world as less real than the realm of literate abstractions. That is the traditional interpretation of Plato that I was taught; that has always struck me as a bit silly; and that Havelock explicitly denied was Plato's intent ("metaphysical super-reality"). The point, I eventually grokked, is that because any thing can take on these contradictory properties in different episodes of the oral narrative sequence, all such properties in the oral mindset are transitory, so that the oral thinker —the philodoxos— is unable to formulate timeless abstract thoughts. In hindsight, I've been conditioned by my familiarity with the late crisis in the foundations of mathematics, to take the word "contradiction" as a very strong word of denial, pushing me to interpret this criticism of orality as a wholesale denial of the transitory material world; though it's also possible Havelock intended some degree of this misunderstanding, as he claims, on the final pages of the chapter, that philosophy itself later lost track of its original purpose of defeating the oral mindset, thus of merely enabling abstract thoughts, and "substituted the attempt to throw off the spell of material things" [p. 250].
Also at the very end of the chapter, Havelock remarks that doxa means "impression" both in the sense of the impressions I get, and impressions others get of me; thus, impressions by me as subject and impressions of me as object, defying the subject/object distinction that Havelock chose as his foremost point for Part Two (Chapter Eleven, on separation of knower from known).
Chapter Fourteen is about Plato's view of the structure of abstractions. Havelock names the chapter after Plato's "theory of forms", but notes that Plato didn't present such a theory explicitly, rather it appears to have been terminology familiar to the circle of intellectuals around him; and Havelock further limits his attention to the Republic since he reckons Plato's later works are no longer so concerned with defeating orality and so lose track of the contrast. Havelock after noting pairs of opposite abstractions —beautiful/ugly, good/evil, etc.— cites a progression of increasingly complex abstractions about the real world: position in two dimensions, then in three; motion in space; sound moving in space. Which does seem an interesting progression, but Havelock's discussion seems incautious when he tries to ascribe to Plato an overly modern view of empirical science — Havelock as a classicist is well-positioned to recognize when scholars project modern attitudes on poetry, but not so able to recognize when he himself projects modern attitudes on science. The point Havelock drives at here is that the transitory world should be described in terms of timeless abstractions. Having developed this point carefully, Havelock then turns the point to a criticism of Plato: he discusses the different words Plato might have used and the words he did use, which translate into English as visualizable ones, shape and form (hence the "theory of forms"), which he says are because Plato wants morality to be absolute, having himself been predisposed by his upbringing to authoritarianism. Havelock accuses Plato, though, of falling back into the spell of visualizability, and associates this with departure from science into mysticism.
Chapter Fifteen, Havelock's final chapter, goes back to look at the time between Homer and Plato, during which others gradually developed the movement that Plato articulated. Much of what he has to say is presented as hypothesis to be tested; he clearly wants someone to investigate further since, one gets the impression, he simply has not had time to do so himself as he's focused on Plato. Plato's word philosophos, he emphasizes, has to be interpreted much more broadly than its modern sense; it's anyone intellectual, anyone who thinks abstractly; and Havelock says it was quite a new word when Plato was using it. All the pre-Socratics, including the sophists, are meant to be included. Havelock suggests that Plato was basically inventing the idea of a class of intellectual people. He ascribes to Aristotle the analysis of that collection of thinkers according to their positions on specific issues, which is the way they've been perceived ever since; but, he maintains, from Plato's point of view it's more important that they have in common their use of the poetic idiom to form abstract thoughts.
I was struck by Havelock's remark [p. 291] that in order to have a society you must have an educational discipline; one wonders what that should be understood to imply about large-scale home schooling.
The first stage of cultural change, Havelock figures, caused by a popularly usable alphabet, is non-didactic poetry that hangs around because it can be written down. He describes the gradual exploration of what alphabetization enables, noting that authors at first may give up either rhythm or episodic sequence, but not both at once; one therefore gets either non-rhythmic episodic narrative, or rhythmic abstract thinking. Hesiod, he says, takes the first step, in the Theogony, by arranging the gods into families; and notes the shift from sound to vision, ear to eye, echo-and-response to architecture, requiring the support of a written form. I'm put in mind of visual programming languages (though quite what to think about them is unclear; after half a century they seem no closer to competing with textual programming languages, but it doesn't seem like we know how to do them, so the situation isn't like 3D movies that were waiting for a precipitating event; best guess, either text really is better, or we're going about visual languages in entirely the wrong way). At any rate, Hesiod's Works and Days goes further, or tries to, partway into non-visible abstracts. Havelock then describes the pre-Socratics seeking to improve on Hesiod's account of the structure of the world, and gradually realizing in doing so that what they are doing is something new.Evolution
Merging Snell's and Havelock's views of the Homeric mind, it seems that oral poetry requires everything to be framed in terms of ("in the syntax of", Havelock might say) actors doing things visualizably, and that to encompass within this framework as much as possible of the grand scheme of things, one decomposes the world into 'personified' motivations; more-or-less, gods. It's not practical, in such an oral framework, to analyze the world into individual people with relationships between them, because the relationships can't be explicitly described within the oral framework, being essentially abstract, which is a literate intellectual phenomenon. Thus, the dividing lines between these elements of reality —that is, the dividing lines between gods-or-the-like— are orthogonal to the dividing lines between individual people, which I've tended to describe as "vertical" rather than "horizontal" analysis of society. (The "horizontal" half of this metaphor clashes with pre-existing metaphors such as social strata; though the "vertical" half may have suggested itself exactly because it's orthogonal to those alternative "horizontal" senses.)
A crucial missing part of this picture, to my thinking, is how it generalizes to other oral cultures besides the ancient Greek. Snell and Havelock are, after all, specifically focused on ancient Greece exactly because of the properties that make it atypical (especially, its relatively extensive record and particular influence on later European culture), making generalization from it to other oral cultures problematic. This seems a significant area for future investigation; there's maybe a blog post there, or at least a significant chunk of one.
Havelock's requirement (which he ascribes to Plato) that each vivid episode in oral poetry be embedded in time —either past, present, or future— adds an interesting new dynamic to my timeline for the advancement of orality. I'd placed the development of tense relatively late in the overall span of time assigned to orality; from the start of the Upper Paleolithic, a span just shy of forty to seventy thousand years. So, even in Greece it seems that for most of the oral period there would have been no tense. This raises the question of what oral storytelling would tend to look like without tense, since this would fall outside the scope of Havelock's portrait; most simply, one could lean further on juxtaposition of episodes to imply indirectly what tense would convey directly. The introduction of tense ought to make oral storytelling more potent, and future tense might be a natural technological advancement once one has past/present. It then seems plausible that Plato's timeless abstractions might be a naturally following technological development, but this reasoning hits a stumbling block in that Havelock firmly ties abstraction to literacy, and Greek literacy to alphabetic writing. One is then left with the rather peculiar question of what causal connection there could be between convenient writing and future tense, a puzzle that might-or-might-not benefit from some broader information on the chronological relations between future tense and different forms of writing in a broad sample of cultures. (Which would presumably require a closer examination of just what, in this context, one should understand tense to be — keeping in mind the slipperiness of the term, as noted above re Snell's Chapter 10.)
Thinking back to Jaynes's notion of hallucinated gods, with all the rest of this to draw on, a stray thought occurs. Given Parry's basic insight that oral epics are formulaic, and Havelock's that this corresponds to a certain kind of thought structure, should we expect the Jaynesian gods to have spoken to people formulaically? For that matter, could it be that the trouble with the modern hallucinations is that they're non-formulaic, that somehow this arrangement doesn't function smoothly without the oral thought-patterns?Opinion
While evolution of the mind is what I'd mainly expected to get out of studying these books, what I got all-unexpectedly, from my deep-study of Havelock, was a strong suspicion that Plato may have been confronting a dire social problem remarkably similar to what we're facing a couple of decades into the twenty-first century.
I'd already been aware the shift from orality to literacy was understood to be, at least in part, caused by a perceived shift in the nature of the underlying stable representation of knowledge, from a "writ in water" oral tradition to something rather more like "writ in stone"; and it had occurred to me that the internet age has partly destabilized this, as records in electronic form are far more vulnerable to revision or outright erasure. The social volatility of the internet has been a pretty common observation for some years now. While some of this is perhaps due to the fact that information even in long-term-storage is less stable than it was, the instability becomes drastically greater in the short-term; the obviously massively increased accessibility of electronic records, for which we had such high hopes a couple of decades ago, turns out to be a double-edged sword, as empowering large segments of the population to make claims instantly accessible to large segments of the population subverts many of the traditional means by which rumors were kept from getting out of hand. It has seemed to me for some time that this change in the dynamics of meme transmission has so changed the environment of the ideosphere that we're in the midst of a memetic mass-extinction event.
And then there is the all-out war taking place now between fact-based and opinion-based mentalities. This has been a major theme in my recent thinking (though not, hitherto, on this blog), first in relation to news neutrality and then to the compatibility, or incompatibility, of civilization with the internet. In the fact-based mentality, one's basic impulse is to do one's best to acquire knowledge of objective reality, and one may then use that objective understanding as a foundation on which to build opinions. In the opinion-based mentality, one starts by choosing what opinions to hold, and may then select claims-of-fact to promote one's chosen opinions; or even invent claims of fact to promote one's opinions.
These bare-bones definitions don't give a sense of what the current conflict is like. So, with no previous blog post to refer to, I'll take a moment here for a ground-level view of the thing.
In the 2012 US presidential election, when Obama beat Romney in a landslide, Fox News had predicted a landslide for Romney based on what, to most of us, appeared to be laughably invalid techniques (iirc, they basically polled their own viewers and treated that as representative of the electorate). On election night Karl Rove refused to believe that Romney had lost, and eventually Fox News's own Megyn Kelly asked him, on air, "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better? Or is this real?" (Megyn Kelly remained an advocate of journalism —a.k.a. "fact-based journalism"— at Fox for several more years, taking flak in 2016 for applying a fact-based approach to candidate Donald Trump, before quitting Fox that summer after publicly acknowledging having been sexually harassed by Roger Ailes. Trump, btw, will come up rather often in this discussion, for the rather banal reason that he's high-profile in the US — where I am.)I'd had my own first major encounter with the opinion-based mindset back in 2010, in a discussion of Wikinews with a Wikipedian who, if I'd quite understood the situation, had recently decided to adopt an anti-Wikinews... opinion. My own assessment of Wikipedia is, as a whole, a mix of positive and negative. (This isn't a situation where the positive and negative cancel each other.) In the late 1990s, after a hopeful start to the World Wide Web, we were sliding toward a dystopia in which knowledge would be strictly a privilege of the rich while freely available resources would be, pretty-much exclusively, propaganda. That dystopia didn't happen then, and continues to not happen, in significant part because of Wikipedia; not because of the quality of its information, which is intrinsically debatable and for this purpose largely irrelevant, but because the existence of Wikipedia makes it difficult for any one special interest to dominate the flow of information. The other side of it is that Wikipedia appears to have been designed, from the start, on the naive expectation that in a radically open editing environment, opinions will balance each other in the long run and therefore should not be a systemic concern. I don't believe, btw, that balance is a viable way to achieve neutrality (various counterexamples come to mind); but even if it were, I think Wikipedia is tragically mistaken in supposing it can safely ignore the fact-based/opinion-based conflict. To disregard the conflict is to favor the opinion-based side; Wikipedia fails on this front both by encouraging people to gamble on the reliability of claims (footnotes, Wikipedia's primary means to connect claims with their sources, are too low-profile to encourage mindfulness by readers, having been designed for unobtrusiveness in an age when information-providing was much more tightly controlled); and, more subtly, by teaching contributors to the project that neutrality is only achievable through a negotiation of many points of view, with the corollary that individuals are inherently non-neutral and therefore ultimately cannot aspire to individual neutrality (whereas Wikinews actively promotes individual neutrality, seeking to frame neutrality in a way that can for the most part be successfully applied by each individual contributor — and thereby playing into the dynamics of Wikinews's two-tier review-for-publication system, which however seems too technical a topic to belong in this blog post).
In the 2010 encounter, I was slow to catch on to what was happening, perhaps partly because the person I was attempting to discuss the matter with was someone I'd had, up to that time, a great deal of respect for (besides which, I had in those days not yet fully shaken free of the spell of Wikipedia's "assume good faith" principle — another topic that seems too involved to tangle with here). They presented me with a block quote from a rabidly anti-Wikinews screed by someone who was clearly basing their attack on a fictionalized version of Wikinews. The Wikipedian presenting this to me finished with —and this too should have been a warning to me— the remark, "Hard to disagree with that." If I'd been quicker on the uptake, it might have occurred to me in the moment that it's only hard to disagree with this sort of attack if the attacker really doesn't care about facts. However, not being quite that quick, I remarked that the argument was based on lack of knowledge of Wikinews. In retrospect, my remark was chosen on an expectation that if someone became aware their argument was based on a foundation of unsound claims, their basic impulse would be to seek a better understanding of the facts of the situation. That was not what happened. Instead, they looked for a way to shape whatever revised information might come there way into a different argument for the position they'd staked out for themselves.
Lest there be any question that this is a hot war, one might cite the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (here's a Wikinews article), and reports from John Bolton on what Donald Trump says about journalists behind the scenes (here's a recent article, though not from Wikinews: J. Edward Moreno, "Bolton claims Trump called journalists 'scumbags' who should be 'executed' ", The Hill, 06/17/20).
Okay, that's the modern conflict. How similar is it to the orality/literacy conflict of Plato's era? There's that suggestive speculation about the Late Bronze Age collapse. There's a suggestive irrationality about the opinion-based mentality. But then we're left to try to compare, more specifically, the oral mentality to the opinion-based mentality. Oral poetry is supposed to be rhythmic, vivid, episodic, and timeful. While it might be interesting to analyze Donald Trump's output against all these, that would clearly be an undertaking well beyond the scope of this (already quite long) blog post. However, as food for thought, here's a Language Log entry about Trump's rhetorical style from early this year: Oral vs. written rhetoric (filed by Mark Liberman, February 9).
But then, there's also something curious in that elusive translation of the ancient Greek word doxa, by which Havelock steadfastly maintains Plato is referring to oral thought, as opposed to sophia, intellectual thought. Havelock sticks, rather unenthusiastically, to the "conventional" translation of doxa as "opinion", with a chapter endnote that the word may be more properly "thought in general", "an unqualified 'state of mind' ". I'm thinking, though, the conventional translation —"opinion"— may capture something primal about the subject matter.
The suggestion I take from all this is that what we are facing today is about as close as can be to —literally, as well as in the spirit of the clichéd plot device— an ancient evil. Close enough to really wonder if we should be sending a scholar into the library to study ancient tomes and work out how the evil was defeated last time (speaking of clichés). Alas it's never quite that easy; circumstances have changed, the enemy has invented new defenses against common tactics. Amongst the most obvious is to preemptively accuse others of whatever one has been doing oneself (which is why I was especially worried when, toward the end of the 2016 election, Donald Trump started to accuse the Democrats of rigging the election). Nevertheless, a closer study of the tactics used in the ancient Greek conflict really does seem worthwhile.
I have in mind, for future posts, to explore how sapience interacts with technology, since that's another key factor in the current mess; as well as the dynamics of the structure of society (economics, politics, and whatnot); and —if at all possible without completely tying everyone's thinking in knots, including my own— how different cognitive types work and interact with each other and all the rest of it.