Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

~

After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

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Difficult books, iterum

After some readings on metaphor and language, I tackled A Grammar of Metaphor (1958) by Christine Brooke-Rose. Admittedly, I was hampered in my reading by my lack of facility in the jargon and structure of what used to be, but is no longer, “basic” English grammar. It did help that I have read The Trivium and could refer to it now and again; and of course it helps to have a background in poetry and literature, though not one nearly as thorough as Brooke-Rose’s. I definitely can add this one to the “difficult books” I have enjoyed, and benefited from, reading.

The grammar part of metaphor was not something I took into much account when I studied poetry. Certainly, when I read for pleasure, I do not analyze for grammar. Poets often experiment with grammar–altering syntax purposefully, creating sentence fragments, run-on sentences, new compound words, jarring phrases, all in an effort to make something happen in the poem. That “something” may be sound, dream, argument, exhortation, emotion, surprise, pattern, recognition, or a matter of perspective on outlooks, worldviews, culture, tasks, the personal. I do not read for such insights until I want to return to the poem and find out how the poet managed to make the amazing process of language work upon me.

If I were to try parsing a contemporary poem using the Reed-Kellogg system I learned in elementary school, some poems would buck and kick and refuse to reveal their structures. It would depend upon the poem and upon how one interprets such things as line breaks and stanza breaks. I am not convinced the process would really assist most readers in developing an understanding of the poem.

diagram

NPR.org Juana Summers [read here]

Then again, it might. Analytical scholars have taught me many things I would never have thought to investigate on my own.

~

Here’s a post from the 2018 blogroll journey: Marilyn McCabe on mindset–in writing and other things. Also a matter of perspective.

Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

~

What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

~~

I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.

 

Difficult books & the death of reading

books1

Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.

~

My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).

dadcotton

My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.

~

Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.

 

 

 

Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.

fiber-topography-300x225

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

~

As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”

~

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!

 

 

 

*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.

Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

~

But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

~

~

Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

~

One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

quanyin

There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

~

I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

~

May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.