Monday, June 30, 2008

Construction of Meaning (2)

In the previous post I was considering the construction of meaning as a conscious effort. And there is no question that we need to dedicate our efforts to constructing good meaning that is useful to our work. But it is worth recognizing that this construction of meaning is something that will occur: it is how we think.

The following quotation is taken from the Preface to Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language:
"The literary mind is the fundamental mind. Although cognitive science is associated with mechanical technologies like robots and computer instruments that seem unliterary, the central issues for cognitive science are in fact the issues of the literary mind.
"Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection--one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere,...
"Parable is the root of the human mind--of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking."
The italics are Turner's; the boldface is my emphasis. I happen to find the book convincing, but then it fits well within the rubric of philosophy that I adopted studying with George Lakoff and Eve Sweetser at Berkeley. Lakoff and Turner co-wrote a book (More Than Cool Reason), so it is not surprising that the views fit together.
Whether you accept the premise or not is a matter of your research and study. But if we do accept this premise, what does it mean in terms of creating meaning? On one level it means that when faced with a phenomenon, we will create a story to explain it. Whether that story relies on God, or some group of gods, or simple random mechanical fate, or some highly detailed chemical process, it is still a story. How do we explain wine? We could explain it as the hand of a god touching the juice, or we could explain it in terms of fermentation processes that can be explained in great detail in chemical terms. How do we explain human creativity? Is that being touched by a god, or muse, or is it having a certain set of genes and a certain history? Or is it the effect of some unnatural stimulant?

That's really what our knowledge is: a bunch of stories about how things used to work, and how we expect them to work in the future. What is quantum physics but an attempt to make stories that explain incredibly detailed phenomena? When Newton proposed his mechanics, we had a detailed story of how the world worked. Einstein's relativity changed that story, but matched it fairly well in many respects. Einstein's relativity and the development of atomic theory began to tell us stories about atoms. I still remember some of those stories from high school science: when the salt (NaCl) is put into the water, the Na and Cl separate into ions. That's high school chemistry. But it's nothing more than a story.

We will construct meaning automatically and unconsciously. But we should also seek to construct meaning consciously. It is a place for the imagination. One wants to consider even those things that seem unlikely, and then test them. Once upon a time it seemed unlikely to most people that the earth revolved around the sun. Sherlock Holmes declared it impossible that anyone had gone through the door, but obviously for H.G. Wells it would not be impossible for a person to walk down a passage unobserved, and any number of technological possibilities could explain a door being opened without a key. As academics, of course, we don't want to tell stories that are so far from the realm of the discourse that we wouldn't be accepted, but we do want to use our imaginations to think about the different stories that are consistent with the questions we asked and the results we received. And for that matter, we just want to be able to imagine different stories that could explain a phenomenon of interest, because that consideration of different possibilities is the place where we generate the hypotheses that we can test.

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