Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wordless Summary Glimpses

I enjoy two different writers named William James. One goes by Bill James and writes on baseball. Inspired by his statistical methods, I've invented a superstat for position players that takes both hitting and fielding into account. I call it simply "value," and according to my calculations, the Stephenson Value Awards for 2011 go to Matt Kemp in the NL and Jacoby Ellsbury in the AL. I invented another stat for pitchers: upon the year's highest in each league, I bestow the Grover Cleveland Alexander Award. The AL winner this year was Justin Verlander, the NL winner, Roy Halladay. None of this has anything to do with the books I've been reading, but I wanted to take advantage of the coincidence in names to mention it.

More pertinent to this blog is American philosopher and psychologist William James. In the previous post, I talked about James's theory of the "fringe" of our consciousness. Just as we can't identify one specific gallon of fluid in a rushing stream of water, most of our stream of consciousness flows in such a way that the parts can't be distinguished from the whole. James's best example of this fringe in operation involves the nagging sense we have of a word or name we can't remember. We seem to feel its shape, but can't describe it. We know whether suggested names are right or wrong; so clearly we have an idea of that illusive word. We can even tell if a wrong suggestion is close or on the right track. This ineffable sense comes, James says, from all the context with which we surround a concept. He sometimes calls this contextual fringe by other names as well: halo, suffusion, wordless summary glimpses, psychic overtone. It seems that the idea of the fringe was itself somewhere in the fringe since James couldn't decide on a name.

James contends that the most important thing about a train of thought – both the undifferentiated stream and the identifiable, concrete objects flowing in the stream – is its end. When trying to remember that name, for instance, obviously only the conclusion satisfies. But all trains of thought work this way, he says. We have an idea and then work to put it in words, satisfied only when the whole compound has been expressed. (Parenthetical aside no. 1: I need to look over my notes on Wittgenstein again; he maintains that only the external expression means anything, not any vague internal intention to speak. Aside no. 2: Writing a blog has exercised my patience in dealing with the innumerable times I've published a post unconvinced that I have expressed my idea.) James provides another couple of everyday examples to test his claim. First, he says, we normally cannot repeat verbatim a sentence of any appreciable length once we have spoken it; we speak with the conclusion in mind, not the means of reaching that end. Second, he says that sometimes after reading a book, we retain only the gist without being able to quote a single sentence. I experience both of these situations routinely. How about you?

Since the topic involves verbal expression of ideas, James refers several times in the chapter to language. The clear objects in our consciousness, the things we have images of and definite names for, we express with concrete nouns and verbs and adjectives. The undifferentiated stream, i.e. all the relationships between these concrete things and actions, we represent by means of prepositions and other such words as well as by grammar and word order and the use of words that conventionally go together. At one point, almost in an aside, James shifts his focus for just one paragraph off of the psychology and onto the implications of his theory for language and provides a handy recipe for good writing. (1) Express the concrete by using the right words. (2) Express the fringe by fulfilling grammatical expectations. (3) Make sure each word has "the psychic 'overtone' of feeling that it brings us nearer to a forefelt conclusion." And (4) "let the conclusion seem worth arriving at." It all seems so simple! Use the right words and the right grammar, lead to a point, and say something worth saying. Students, take note! Bloggers, take note! Self, take note!

Hegel, take note! In the most surprising and delightful passage of the chapter, James explains what's wrong with the philosopher that tried my patience this last spring. He begins his explanation by pointing out that the grammar and the order of a sentence can flow according to expectations without actually saying anything. Some speakers and writers, he says, rave on like "lunatics" with strings of sentences that sound plausible but ultimately communicate nothing. The danger becomes especially likely the more a writer stays on a subjective, abstract level. At this point in the explanation, James lifts my burden and lights my darkened heart by using Hegel as an example. In many passages, he says, the only sense to be found lies solely in their form: the words come from a related vocabulary and the grammar follows familiar patterns. "Yet there seems no reason to doubt that the subjective feeling of the rationality of these sentences was strong in the writer as he penned them, or even that some readers by straining may have reproduced it in themselves." My straining last spring often proved unfruitful.

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