Why it matters that humans are animals.

| May 3, 2009 | 75 Replies

I have written numerous posts advocating that because humans are animals they should be recognized as such (for example, see here , here, here , and here).  For zoologists and others who study animals, it is obviously true that we are animals.  We do hundreds of things that the other mammals do, plus a few extra. You can see it every day when you eat, breathe, emote, poop, become fatigued and fall asleep.  Yet millions of Americans are horrified by the thought that human beings are animals.

Image by U.C. Regents Davis (Creative Commons)

Image by U.C. Regents Davis (Creative Commons)

Consider that we aren’t simply animals.  Our species is a carefully defined type of animal.  We are apes.  Frans de Waal explains:

Darwin wasn’t just provocative in saying that we descend from the apes—he didn’t go far enough . . .  We are apes in every way, from our long arms and tailless bodies to our habits and temperament.

If you want even more detail on what type of animal humans are (we are in the ape sub-division of primates), watch this brisk video by Aron-ra.

Again, this sort of information is really disturbing to many people, especially religious conservatives.

So why don’t I simply leave religious conservatives alone? Why do I persist on standing on rooftops and proclaiming this message that humans are animals?  Why don’t I just whisper this sort of information only to my closest of friends: “Pssst.  Human beings are animals.”   Why don’t I just let it be, and keep it all to myself? What could possibly be at stake that I feel compelled to spread the word that human beings are animals?  I was in the process of assembling my own list when I just happened to read Chapter 12 of Mark Johnson’s new book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.

Johnson is well known for his work with metaphors and embodied cognition with George Lakoff.   Chapter 12 of his new book contains a section that leaped out at me:  “The Philosophical Implications of the Embodied Mind.” In that short section, Johnson sets forth nine reasons why it really and truly matters for people to acknowledge that they are animals and to fully accept that their minds are embodied, not free-floating entities independent of physical laws.

Johnson’s biggest target is the “objectivist theory of meaning,” the idea that meaning “gets defined without any connection to the experience of the creature (i.e., the human) for whom the words are meaningful. Johnson points out that those who follow the objectivist theory of meaning believe that words and sentences somehow “carry” meaning without even trying to explain how words and sentences ever come to acquire meaning.  It should send up immediate red flags that the predominate theory of meaning relies on floating thoughts, a theory of meaning that is not biologically anchored.  Reacting to (and rejecting) this objectivist approach, Mark Johnson premises his analysis “with a mind that is not separate from or out-of-ongoing-contact with its body and its world.” His worldview includes a specific definition of body and his impressive list of why it matters for human beings to take seriously “the embodiment of mind and meaning.”  Here are those reasons (I will be borrowing liberally from Johnson’s book with these descriptions, beginning at page 279):

1. Mind and body are not two things. Johnson points out that the mind “is not a mysterious metaphysical guest that just happens to drop in for a temporary visit at the home of the body.” A human being is not a body plus a mind. Rather, it is a “body-mind.”

2. Human meaning is embodied. It is possible to understand meaning only because we learn meanings “at the most primordial bodily level. Things are meaningful by virtue of their relations to other actual or possible qualities, feelings, emotions, images, image schemas and concepts.” We never cease accessing meaning through feeling, even while we communicate using abstract concepts.

3. Understanding and reasoning are embodied. Ideas don’t float over our heads. Our meaning-making capacities are entirely embodied.  See here. “Our resources for making sense of our world are based primarily on our sensory motor capacities, which have neural connections to other parts of the brain responsible for planning, deliberating and reasoning.

4. Human beings are metaphorical creatures. Johnson, a co-author of Metaphors We Live By (1980), reminds us that “conceptual metaphor is a nearly omnipresent part of the human capacity for abstract conceptualization and reasoning.    As Johnson and George Lakoff have clearly shown, “metaphor shows up in virtually all our abstract thinking.” The fact that we depend on conceptual metaphor must be contrasted with “literalism” causes people to reject the importance of conceptual metaphor. Literalism claims that all our concepts can be spelled out clearly, which is false, misleading and very dangerous [because] literalism lies at the heart of fundamentalism.”

5. There is no absolute truth but there are plenty of human truths. Johnson makes a strong case in this book, and elsewhere, that “human life does not require absolute truths.”

Neither science, nor morality, nor philosophy, nor politics, nor spirituality really need absolute truths, even though most of our traditional theories in these areas assume that they are founded on absolute (disembodied, universal, eternal) truths. Human truth, by contrast, arises in the context of human inquiry, relies on embodied meaning, and is relative to our values and interests.

6. Human freedom. Johnson challenges the idea of the Kantian notion of “radical freedom.” This is Kant’s view that “we are, or possess, a transcendent ego that is the locus of our capacity to negate any bodily, social, or cultural influence, habit or tendency.” Many people believe in this radical freedom because it supports their notion of moral responsibility and religious aspirations. Johnson argues for a “naturalistic idea of the body-mind as [giving us] a modest freedom to contribute to transformations of our situation, and therefore to self-transformations.”

7. The person you are cannot survive the death of your body.  Johnson recognizes that this is a “controversial and distressing” idea for many people. To the extent that anything survives your death, Johnson argues that “it could not be the you that we know and love,” because that you is possible only due to the workings of your human brain engaged with its human-related environment.  Johnson points out that a brainless soul “would lack your memories, your experience, your emotions and your grasp of the meaning of things.”

8. Embodied spirituality. Johnson rejects “vertical transcendence,” which he describes as the “alleged capacity to rise above and shed our finite human form and to ”plug into the infinite.”  Johnson would allow for “horizontal transcendence,” the ability to sometimes “go beyond our present situation in transformative acts that change both our world and ourselves.” Horizontal transcendence relates to our ability to see ourselves

as part of a broader human and more-than-human ongoing process in which change, creativity, and growth of meaning are possible. Faith thus becomes faith in the possibility of genuine, positive transformation that increases richness of meanings, harmony among species, and foraging, not just at the human level, but in the world as an ongoing creative development . . . none of this is grounded in the infinite, but rather in the creative possibilities of finite human experience. It gives each of us more good work to do than we can possibly realize within our lifetime.

In short, we can leave our imprint in this world after we die, but it’s only because of the work we’ve done on earth before our brains die.  No hovering.  No ghostly meddling post-death.

9. Philosophy as a search for meaning. Johnson recognizes that we are seriously limited as embodied creatures. We delude ourselves to the extent that we search for “absolute truth.” Embodied meaning and mind limit us to reflecting on “the fullest, richest, deepest meaning of experience, as a way of helping us deal with the real problems of human existence that define our existential condition. This is the hallmark of genuine pragmatist philosophy, which is about “discerning the full meaning of experience and transforming experience for the better.”

Johnson concludes that human beings are forced to live in a human-related world and we would be much better off if we could only recognize this. The alternative world that many of us attempt to live in, “the more-than-human world “can only be understood and engaged by us via the structures and processes of human understanding and action. We should be spending our energy to make our world a better place rather than trying to “escape our bodily habitation.”

Where does Johnson’s worldview make a difference?  In the heat of almost every major moral dispute.  What if all of us fully accepted the idea that there weren’t any unembodied thoughts?  In other words, what if people didn’t believe in supernatural (the term I prefer is sub-natural) souls?  This foundation would substantially reframe abortion, stem cell and birth control arguments, since the lack of the equipment for thinking in a one-day old embryo would mean there is not yet any thought process.  The lack of the brain means (to those of use who understand even the slightest bit of biology and neuroscience) that there is no thought process.  The more I study neuroscience, the more a dark thought creeps into my mind.  The thought is that those who, after being exposed to the clear findings of the science, nonetheless believe in souls, need some sort of therapy.  Consider that many courts define “insanity” as follows:

If a person persistently believes supposed facts, which have no real existence except in his perverted imagination, and against all evidence and probability, and conducts himself, however logically, upon the assumption of their existence, he is, so far as they are concerned, under a morbid delusion; and delusion in that sense is insanity. Such a person is essentially mad or insane on those subjects, though on other subjects he may reason, act, and speak like a sensible man.

Under this definition, how could it be that believing in brainless thoughts is not insane.  Nor does it take any elaborate scientific demonstration.  If some sort of “soul” does our thinking, then why do person black out when struck hard on their heads?   Why do people with brain tumors suffer thought disturbances?  Is it because their souls simultaneously suffer parallel ethereal brain tumors?  Come on . . .

Johnson’s discussion should also re-frame end of life issues.  If Terry Schaivo had no functioning brain, she could not possibly have had any conscious thoughts.  To believe that people without brains can nonetheless think is as silly as concluding that a destroyed computer can run software programs in computer heaven.

Philosophy would also be reframed pursuant to Johnson’s analysis.   For instance, there is not any such thing as pure thought or pure rationality, contrary to the views of many philosophers.  It is thus impossible to set the body aside in order to “think clearly.”

These are merely some of the many ways in which our culture would revamp the way it considered major moral issues, if only we could accept the clear evidence that without functioning brains there are no such things as thoughts.

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Category: American Culture, Human animals, Law, Meaning of Life, nature, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (75)

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    I don't know that I can, Mark. I have about 36 feet of books that are called Literature (I'll use your "L" nomenclature) by others. I got them mostly for my home-educated children, but also because I might someday read them. I also have a book "How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines" because I don't have that gene for reading into a book. It hasn't helped, but then I didn't get far in reading it either.

    Right now, I can't think of anything that I would call Literature. I looked up "L"iterature and found somebody's explanation: "Literature is the kind of writing that reminds you what it is to be human when you start to forget…", with the caveat that it is hard to define and must be different for each reader.

    I'll think on it and see if I can at least come up with a few fiction titles that I might consider profound. I can think of some that I thought affected me when I was young, but now that I'm older, I look at that younger self as immature and susceptible to a misplaced influence (Rand's stuff…if I read it now, it would be with a critical eye and not a drinking the kool aid eye.)

    Long non-answer to a simple question. I was just approaching from the standard direction – why are A, B, and C? Or just A in this case. From my perspective, I simply can't understand why A, et al, are considered "great". Hemingway reads like a Mondrian looks (to me). Joyce reads like a Pollack looks. Also, to me.

  2. Jim,

    You might try Harold Bloom. Two of his books do a good job of explaining this—The Western Canon and How To Read and Why.

    I'll try a short answer here.

    I used to have similar problems with the so-called Literary Greats. It seemed they were long on introspection and short on story. Partly, this was my own inexperience as a reader in understanding just where Story lies. Much as I didn't want it to be, it lies with character.

    Having penned a few bits of fiction myself now, I can see it and appreciate it, although I still have serious problems—not with the works themselves, but with their "ranking" on the scale of worthiness. (I cannot abide Henry James, mainly for the damage he did to 20th century fiction by convincing The Academy that "serious" literature is almost purely about character, with all other considerations being secondary or even tertiary. This caused a divide between The Novel and Genre that we are only now coming to reasonable terms with.)

    The reason The Great Gatsby remains one of the Greats is in its layered portrayal of its period and the characters involved and how it brings into clarity a tension between desire and ability. It's a first-rate tragedy and it's about the American Dream in a rather pointed way—that the Dream is in many ways an illusion and we can lose anything important (including our lives) in not understanding the nature of the Dream. Jay Gatsby is a victim of both his own effort to believe himself into the person he thinks he wants to be and of the society that has convinced him of what he thinks he wants to be. That this goal is unachievable (because it requires the kind of character he actually doesn't possess) and unsustainable (because it's all surface, image) makes the agony of the fact that, for a short while, he's convinced not only others but himself that he's Made It poignant, tragic, and revelatory.

    And the fact that while it's about The Jazz Age the theme is still relevant today, that the novel can be read across generations and all these themes are resonant.

    The answer to why certain books remain "classics" is that they sustain multiple readings without being exhausted. Like a musical masterpiece in which every time you listen to it you hear something else or react to it with the same level of emotion, a great novel always reveals more with each reading. More, often, about yourself than about it.

    Which makes "Ulysses" kind of the king of such novels, because it's a deep mine of that kind of stuff. The trouble is, you have to be willing to research it to make it give up its yield.

    Hemingway is on those lists because he told the truth about people in a way that had not been done before. His style is spare, sure, but that was radical when he began. I still find "A Farewell To Arms" an emotional read, though.

    I could go on, but this is bit off-topic. I'd be happy to exchange emails about this if you'd like.

  3. Mike M. says:

    This is Literature – and if you can't "get" that, you are beyond help.

    "Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

    "And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

    "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

    - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 9

  4. Wow. Mike…nice selection.

  5. Serendipity is amazing.

    The Gatsby house has been torn down.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5UJ3svlnCw&fe

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    Well, Mike, that's actually Opinion. And not very constructive. Look back at the thread for my comments (and my post on a missing gene) and you'll see why.

    "Dad, I don't understand this problem."

    "But it's Algebra (with a capital 'A"). Read it again."

    {later}"Still no good. I don't understand it."

    {sigh}"Then you are beyond help."

    I guess I'm beyond help because those are just words. Well arranged to the point that I can admire their composition if I thought about it, but just words.

    But Mark, thanks for your help – that answers the question I asked. I don't see it, and probably never will, but I do want to know why others consider it good. Fortunately for my sons, my wife does understand. She teaches them about human nature so that they won't be beyond help and I teach them how things work and how to analyze (she can do that too, but I have to have some job in the family.) She tells me all the time about what a writer/director/artist was trying to convey (and she's usually right, at least when I listen to the director's comments.) It doesn't take, and sometimes I'm more stubborn than others because I really can't see what she's saying. But at least I hear what others see intuitively.

    The answer to why certain books remain “classics” is that they sustain multiple readings without being exhausted. Like a musical masterpiece in which every time you listen to it you hear something else or react to it with the same level of emotion, a great novel always reveals more with each reading. More, often, about yourself than about it.

    I think Frank Herbert's "Dune" (only the original, not the sequels) does that for me, and TLOTR used to – except the part about myself. And I never (almost, because one should never say never) get emotional reading anything. Music, sometimes. Words, no.

    Except things that tick me off – that's an emotion, so there's the "almost".

    I'll check out Bloom.

  7. Mike M. says:

    Jim, I'm betting that you also think it's "Opinion" that DaVinci's 'Mona Lisa' is Art. Yes?

    Even though 99% (I'm guessing) of all art historians and "experts" would consider it a piece of Art? In 'Jim's World' the museums are filled with framed opinions, and the libraries are stuffed with awful rot (your words) such as the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. You are entitled to you opinion, of course, but…I feel like I'm debating with a lunatic.

    You say you are missing the art "Interpretation Gene". Unless you know of a biogeneticist who can insert this gene into you, or a doctor who can fix this part of your brain which is malfunctioning, then yes, I believe you are beyond help.

    In one of your posts you state – "It’s clear yet again that I do not understand “art.”

    My advice to you: Stop shooting from the hip and pasting unfair and derogatory labels on things you admittedly don't understand. Stop pissing on art which has withstood the test of time, and stop insulting the artists who, through their creations and gifts to humanity, have earned their lofty status.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I'm not moved by many attempts at "art" that excite others. It happens all the time to me, and it often happens with works of "literature." Also, I am moved by many attempts at art that leave others cold or antagonized (e.g., I love jazz and many people don't). It appears that there are many paths to aesthetic satisfaction, yet not all of those paths work well for all people.

      This comment sounds trite to me now, after I have written these words. But I don't see any need to struggle to find a universal objective definition of "art."

  8. Mike,

    The fact is you can't "tell" someone something is art and expect them to automatically either understand that it is or accept that injunction. Millions of kids have their appreciation of literature ruined regularly by an educational system that does exactly that.

    "This is a wonderful novel that many great intellects have determined is a classic, therefore you should appreciate it."

    I am reminded immediately of Mark Twain's response: "A classic: a book which people praise and don't read."

    As to the Mona Lisa…

    Beating someone up because they don't get it is possibly the worst way to show them why they should. If you do not come to it naturally and respond honestly, then all you have done is accept someone else's assessment—many people do this, which is one reason why propaganda works so well, because people can't distinguish it from legitimate art. For that to happen, people have to learn to see and hear and to do that requires exposure and time and occasionally helpful remarks from others.

    A friend of mine has a fairly standard disdain for so-called modern art—DeKoonig, Pollack, Klee. We were in the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art one day attending an abstract retrospective and we started discussing it. After a few false attempts, I finally asked her if she liked jazz.

    "Sure."

    "What kind? Who?"

    She named Miles Davis, Freddy Hubbard, Chick Corea. I suggested Keith Jarret and she said, yeah, sure. I pointed at the Klee we were looking at. "Jazz."

    Her eyes widened and I saw her finally "get it." All she needed was an entree. She's still not a fan, but she can see it as more than dribbles now.

    Such moments are what we all require to appreciate something on a level of deep, resonant response, the way aesthetes expect us all to respond to "great art." But the fact is you can't make those moments happen, you have to come to them, and until you do, having someone stand on the sidelines telling you what an idiot you are helps nothing. In fact, it makes it less likely such moments will happen.

    I have read books that I attempted to read at several points in my life and could simply not comprehend until the day I finally did. What changed? I did. I brought more to the reading each time, until finally I had the tools to decode the content in a meaningful way. And I can tell you that doing it that way turns you into a lover of art a hell of lot more thoroughly and honestly than fifty review courses on why such-n-such is art.

    We hardly consider this because as children, when we are the most open and most plastic, these experiences happen every day, with everything, until we acquire the ability to categorize and assess. If we are lucky, we learn to respond to art along the way and go on into a wonderful adulthood fully capable of responding. But if those childhood moments get crushed or deflected by ham-handed instructors of life experiences that simply don't include meaningful encounters with art, then it is much much harder to learn the ways of seeing and hearing necessary to Get It.

    And even when we do have those tools, not all things are "Gettable."

    It is, finally, the functional equivalent of Opinion, because it is utterly personal. Which is why it matters not a whit to me how many learned critics and scholars tell me Jackson Pollack was a great artist, it looks like shit to me. I do not respond.

    But I adore Paul Klee.

    I used to ignore Monet until one day, walking through a museum, I quite suddenly Saw, and ever since then I think he's great. I loathe Gaugan and don't think much of Van Gogh, but I'm blown away by Joseph Stella and Charles DeMuth.

    The literary world fawns over Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, but I find them facile and unfulfilling. I think John Dos Passos is underrated, prefer Edith Wharton to Henry James, and that William Gaddis wrote one great novel and the rest are just good, but Thomas Pynchon took all of Joyce's lessons and made them accessible.

    It's personal. Which makes it functionally equivalent to opinion. Certainly there are works that can be regarded as indisputably great, but not everyone will think they are and such reaction may be perfectly honest.

    Once long ago someone told me, in front of several people, that if I didn't like a certain novel I must be an idiot. I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining exactly why the work in question was crap and even those listening who disagreed with my assessment found no argument with my analysis. Obviously I'd read it, obviously I'd "gotten it" and just as obviously I hadn't liked it—it's personal.

    So if your intention is to drive out people who don't seem to meet your criteria for properly educated aesthetically attuned humans, then by all means deride them, piss on their reactions, and turn them out "with a flea in their ear." One more member of the book-burning brigade in the making.

    But if you want to educate, share, introduce, and make people welcome in the extraordinary world of great art, then you have to recognize up front that it is all personal and that's the only valid way in. Because we share what is personal and make friends that way and open up possibilities and in the end that is what great art does best—it shares.

  9. Jim Razinha says:

    Gee, Mike, I'm not sure what I said to offend you. I'll apologize, but I'd like to know what it is I am apologizing for before I do it.

    1) I thought that my Algebra counterexample need no explanation as to why pasting lines from the story in question with nothing more than the comment "This is Literature" did not answer the question. I was wrong.

    2) DaVinci's Mona Lisa is almost a strawman argument (and I don't think I've indicated that your characterization is true – I'm not keen on most "modern" art, but that's not the same)

    3) Me saying I don't get why something is literature – with or without a capital L – is not the same as saying it is not. I think I made it clear that I don't see why it is, not that it isn't.

    4) The "interpretation gene" was a metaphor to examine something I recognize within myself. Apparently too subtle. My brain is different. And different is bad? I'll go out on a limb and guess that there are things I find beautiful that you probably don't, or wouldn't consider because they are not in your circle of influence.

    5) Your "advice" is noted – with the biggest grain of salt that I can imagine. Rather harsh, don't you think? Is is because I don't like something you like? If so, you might want to do some introspection of your own. I'm not offended that people like things I don't or don't like things I do. But I do want to understand why – that my introspection.

    And Mark, thanks again. You "got" it and said it well.

    (Anti-spam word = "trees" – now I can't see the forest)

  10. Jim Razinha says:

    One of the things Robert A. Wilson said that I agreed with in part had to do with E-prime. That seems to be great art to me. But it may not to you…I encourage you to check it out…hopefully with an open mind…because I happen to like it…and I'd be happy to talk to you about why.

    As opposed to "That is great Art."

    (It may surprise you, Mike, but I like most art and Art. Modern art, not so much…a point on which my wife – an artist – and I disagree often.)

  11. Karl says:

    Why is music, art and even theology interpreted in so many varied fashions?

    While our physical existence points to an animal component to being human, it really does matter to more people than you want to admit, that we are more than just physical creatures or animals.

    Aristotle said in his book On Politics that:

    "No man can call himself truly happy and live a good life who had no particle of fortitude, temperance, justice, or wisdom.”

    These are what could be called a few of the fruit of the spirit.

    Simply stated, nothing external can be provided to an animal from education or government that can give us these immaterial or spiritual qualities that are so essential to happiness and well being. Tendencies towards happiness and well being come from how an individual interprets their internal relatedness to the external conditions of their lives. Government can't give us or collectivize the good life no matter how much they give us in material goods, money or physical provision.

    Even the rhetoric of politicians is often used against us to keep us from clearly recognizing how external conditions really have little to do with the internal choices we make every day to be happy or not. Questions like, “Are you better off now than last year?” are often favorite political statements. If all one factors in is the material goods and physical provisions allotted to you, people are really dependent upon the external world for their happiness.

    Anyone that simply reduces their existence to simply the interaction of energy upon physical matter has little understanding as to what significance their daily choices make for themselves or for those they interact with in long term relationships.

    For anyone who considers themselves just an animal, the likes of Rousseau, Marx, Darwin, and Huxley make them happy with what they have already decided fits into their worldview. How these people determine their internal happiness is then relatedness to the world around them that finds expression in the kinds of reasoning and philosophies they have decided fit with their internal thought processes and values.

    These internal values then lead the individual to also interpret music, art and even theology in ways that fit with the predesigned desire for happiness that comes from a coherent internal set of choices overlaid upon the external conditions of their lives.

    The problems then only come when the external conditions of their lives make it very hard to continue to make the choices they are accustomed to making on a regular basis.

  12. Mike M. says:

    Jim, I generally find it offensive when people spew viscious criticisms in areas that they admittedly know nothing about, on subjects that they've barely investigated, and on dead authors and artists (unable to defend themselves or their work) who have earned their reputations. Specifically, when you labelled Hemingway as "awful" and then admitted to reading only a portion of one of Ernest Hemingway's novels.

    That seems like "shooting from the hip" and unfair. It makes me wonder if you've read any Jane Austin or Faulkner at all (before you said about them, paraphrasing, -"Literature? Nope-not buying it.").

    For example, I admittedly don't "understand" architecture, but I would hesitate to label a bulding (that I strolled by one time) ugly, worthless and awful if 99% of architects and historians had deemed the same bulding to be "an architectual wonder; a classic beauty of lasting artistic value." I would defer to the people that DO understand architecture, and have studied it, and may have more expertise than I. To avoid sounding foolish, I would keep quiet, and hold my uninformed opinion in reserve.

    Btw, I found your Algebra scenario a strong and insightful example. I liked it, but note that the student didn't declare algebra to to be awful rot, either.

    Honestly, Jim, I truly don't get offended when people disagree with my artistic tastes (annoyed possibly, but NOT offended). I love diversity (a function of evolution) on all levels, especially diversity of opinion. That makes life more interesting and exciting.

    As far as my advice–I think it is rock solid I wouldn't change a word.

    E-Prime seems very valuable to me. Kudos to you for catching me on my non-e-prime statement "This is Literature." You got me on that one, but I thought the Gatsby exerpts would stand, as self-evident, to be Literature. Not so, apparently.

    I actually wrote a post on DI a couple months ago that mentioned the linguistic benefits of E-Prime with this link: http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm

  13. Jim Razinha says:

    Mike,

    1) If I understand your first point, you think I spewed vicious (deliberately cruel or violent?) criticisms on something I know nothing about (I assumed "people" meant me.) How can you infer from what I've said that I know nothing about these things? I said that I didn't understand what it is that sets them apart as Literature – not the same thing.

    2) If you also infer that I've barely investigated (again, I'm assuming "they" meant me), I'm surprised that you think that. I research intensely not just this subject, but all others that I want to learn about. Some things come naturally to me, others not. Deconstructing art and literature … not, so I have to work harder…that's why I ask the questions. If I offer an opinion along the way, it it still just an opinion.

    3) Dead authors and artists – and live authors and artists – don't have to defend their work. Or shouldn't have to. If the works stand on their own merits, good. If not, well, the artist/writer can always fall back on the I'm misunderstood or ahead of their time arguments. And defending against a single person's views? "I'm sorry you feel that way. I wrote/painted/composed this for myself/everyone knowing that no one can reach 'everyone', but we try anyway. I hope you find something that you do like."

    4) Caught me on Hemingway. I should have said "I consider his writing awful". No value judgment on the man. And I did not admit "to reading only a portion of one of" his novels. I said I couldn't finish a short one. You inferred that I've never read any others (I have – though I never finished them) and you inferred "only a portion" (actually I read nearly all of Old Man – I used to be very stubborn and try to finish everything no matter how much I disliked it; I set Old Man down before I finished and never picked it up again.) So shooting from the hip? Well, I guess you might see it that way with those inferences. But I really did give it a more than fair shot. Same with Joyce (I did finish most of his works that I read, Ulysses being the exception.) Just not my thing.

    4) I've read Austen and Faulkner. But I don't have a taste for romantic fiction and I've already said that I don't care for stream of consciousness writing. "Nope. Not buying it." Did you read the next paragraph in that post? You'll see that I value that understanding highly. I've read "great" works and didn't see anything that stood out as "great". Thus the "not buying it." But, Faulkner was a long time ago. I plan to retry someday (Austen, probably not) – I've changed as I've aged; maybe the next time around I'll "get" it.

    "Great" is an overused term, entirely subjective, yet if the majority (that's not really a good metric, but for things like art, music, writing, of which an evaluation of the technical merit cannot really be made, it may be the best we've got) think something is "great", then it probably is.

    Oh, I've finished The New Inquisition and will be posting my reviews soon on my personal blog. I did investigate both of those – intensely; it was tiring and trying. Sad he was such an angry man.

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