Monday, December 15, 2008

Defining personal space

Just some random musing--I don't, at least as I start writing, have a conclusion.

A writer told me that I had been helping her set boundaries, especially with her committee, and that it was helping. Which seemed odd to me, because I couldn't remember ever talking about setting boundaries with her. I do remember talking a lot about having a sense of purpose, about believing in herself and her bringing out her own voice and about tapping in to the things that she felt most strongly about, and then to use that to tell her committee what it was that she wanted, and to use what they gave back as much as it was useful to her and not to get stressed about the parts that weren't useful, but just to stay focused on her own sense of purpose.

I understand, in retrospect, how these things can be seen as boundary setting issues.

But I guess I was thinking of them in a different way. We can define spaces--actual or conceptual--in two ways: in terms of distance from some central point(s), or in terms of boundaries. These can accomplish the same thing, but they don't act quite the same way.
Sometimes we have clearly delimited boundaries--between nations, we find rivers often are used to determine boundaries; a vegetarian sets a clear boundary between what will be eaten (everything but meat) and what will not (meat); religious fundamentalists tend to set strict boundaries.
Sometimes boundaries are not so clear: where is the clear line between music that is too loud and music that is not? Where the line between a photograph that is over-exposed and one that is not?

I like to think in terms of centers--in terms of principles--more than I like to think in terms of boundaries (though, as I say above, both are useful). Boundaries limit our ability to adapt and negotiate. I feel like when I'm focused on the central issue that I'm concerned with, then I can allow various changes in the periphery without sacrificing the central principle that is important to me. When I have a boundary set, it's harder to give it up in a compromise, even if that compromise allows me to attain a central goal.

To choose a stark example, we might look at the biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill." This is defined in terms of a boundary: there is a clear line marked--the line between killing and not killing. The guidance derived from this boundary is clear. But that clarity can be problematic: what if you are faced with the option of killing one person to save the lives of hundreds (or thousands or millions...)? The boundary definition creates a dilemma: death will ensue, and to some extent one will be responsible, but the boundary rule pushes one towards allowing the individual to live. We can recast the same idea as a principle: strive to preserve life. This principle sets no boundary, and in the case described above, it clearly guides the user: one life is taken to save others. Perhaps this is a bad example, because the question is very tricky and loaded. Obviously this is the sort of justification that the Bush administration used to justify torture: "well, we don't want to do it, but our higher principle excuses it."
Nonetheless, I still find it powerful (without being reprehensible) to work from principles. In the case of the writer I was talking about at the beginning of the post, all the things that she saw as being a matter of setting boundaries, I saw as a matter of her developing a good understand of her core principles and her trying to apply them. She's thinking about it in terms of setting boundaries that keep her from accommodating her committee when it serves her ill; I'm thinking about it in terms of her clearly identifying what she wants and then clearly asking for what she wants to get from the committee. I guess I like being able to see it both ways and to think about it both ways.

I guess, also, I'm a little disturbed when I see how the use of reasoning from principles, instead of boundaries, can allow terrible justifications. But the flip side is that boundaries are also used to terrible ends--such as the boundaries set by certain cultures that allow the exploitation or destruction or oppression of another culture (e.g., the clear boundary that defined Jews in Nazi Germany, or the clear legal boundaries that defined who was "colored" and where "colored people" were allowed to go in the Jim Crow laws of the US).

Well, both ways of looking at things can cause problems, I guess, so it's best to understand how we can define spaces--in our lives and in our discourse--in two different ways, and having those two ways helps greatly.

Another thought: it had been kicking around in my mind, but hadn't popped out. How are categories defined? What makes a category? How is membership in a category determined? The classic, rationalist view is that categories are defined by a boundary, but cognitive science research (esp. by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues) shows that conceptual categories are often structured around a central prototype (a model, paradigm or exemplar) and not defined by boundaries. Studies of semantics show that the usage of words is typically defined in terms of central models that are then extended to new meanings (cf. Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). So, in terms of how we think about the world (and in terms of how we might want to set up an argument about the world), we need to understand the difference between defining concepts in terms of boundaries or in terms of centers/prototypes.

I'm not going to try to draw this together into any meaningful conclusion.

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