Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Signpost 2

It is over a month since I started this blog and it is time for another signpost. So far, progress has been pleasing in some areas, less pleasing in others. I have written quite a bit of stuff about my travels, and have written one or two introductions to the different kinds of material that I intend to put in this blog. However, I have not written as many introductions as I would have liked (Reviews, Travel, Diablog, Borax and History are still ungrounded by any introductory foundation); I have not written much Philosophy at all (despite having a few draft notions and one or two Good Starts On Paper, my blog writings in this area are, at the moment, a tapestry of loose ends); and I have not yet finished that thing I started about a month ago, and which I called, pompously and optimistically, “Education as an Ideal: Part I” (as if it was the first installment of a comprehensive ten-part series, to be published, perhaps, in three leather-bound volumes).

Where I have neglected some topics, this neglect is due partly to a lack of time and partly to a lack of interest. One thing that I have discovered in the last few months, and which I will no doubt discover more keenly in the next few years, is that it is quite hard for a person to sustain a habit of substantial intellectual reflection and imaginative activity, if he or she is not fortunate enough to have made that habit into a job or a subject of full-time study. Jotting down one or two Philosophical thoughts (for example) a day, and discoursing at length on the subject once or twice a week, might not actually be easy for a person doing Philosophy at University, say. But I expect that it is easier, more natural, for such a person to maintain such a habit, than a person who spends their day at an accounting firm, or doing mathematics. And even people who spends their day travelling, if they want to do the things that travellers do, has to make a big effort of the mind and the will, if they also want to do some of the things that philosophers do. Travelling is a full-time job, though an unusually pleasant one. If you’re tramping, for example, you get up at 7am and spend the morning eating and preparing your pack; walk until 2 or 3pm; unpack, prepare a meal, lie down, make yourself agreeable to your hut companions, think about preparing another meal; make yourself more agreeable to your hut companions; eat your meal. At the end of it all there may be enough time to jot down a few thoughts on the people and the scenery, as I have been doing. But there’s not much time left for other forays of the mind; and not much energy left either (in my experience, physical exercise comes very easily after a period of wearying mental work; but I don’t think it works so well the other way around. Physical fatigue seems to seep into the mind in a way that mental fatigue does not seep into the body. Perhaps, then, it would be a good idea to do any mental work early in the day).

As I say, neglect of those other forays of the mind is also due to lack of interest. And to explain myself here I am going to enter into a little semi-philosophical discussion of these things we call Interests.

I am frequently surprised and alarmed by the extent to which my level of interest in this or that activity correlates with seemingly unsubstantial factors ie. factors that should not, from a rational standpoint, have much effect upon my evaluation of the activity which engages my attention. Such a factor, for example, is the level of involvement in the activity: almost without fail, my evaluation of the worth of the activity X alters in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend engaged in that activity. Now that I have written that down, it strikes me as a psychologically natural pattern of behaviour, and not something to be alarmed about. Our interest in a novel increases the more time we spend with its scenery and its characters, the more richly it congeals around us; and our interest in the novel declines when we have spent time away from it, when the places and people in it are scattered and half-hidden and do not cohere properly. And if the interests of humans work in this way in novels, it is unsurprising if they work this way in life.

Nevertheless, it would indeed be alarming if this rule both held all the time, and held for one’s intellectual evaluation of a novel as well as one’s psychological interest in the novel. This would be alarming because one’s evaluation of a novel would then be constantly and easily changed. Such re-evaluations, in small amounts, may not be a cause for alarm: human fallibility means that our first judgement, or even our hundredth judgement, may be in need of refinement. But if one’s re-evaluations occur at such a rate, as they could occur if evaluation of novel X varies proportionately to time-recently-spent with novel X; then there is indeed cause for alarm. There is cause (I suppose) to doubt the validity of any of those evaluations, for the reason (I suppose) that each one is highly unstable.

(Now I see, belatedly, that one might arrive at this conclusion by a much shorter route, by making the non-daring assumption that the correlation here indicates a dominant cause ie. if we assume that the dominant determining factor of one’s evaluation of X is time-recently-spent reading X. Now, clearly this factor should not be dominant. If it is dominant, then one’s evaluation will neglect factors that should be highly influential, such as the quality of the characterisation in the book and the fluidity of the prose.)

And so it goes with activities in life. There is indeed cause for alarm if my evaluation of activity X is highly unstable, and it will be highly unstable if that evaluation correlates with time-recently-spent engaged in activity X. This state of affairs is alarming because I want to settle on an activity that is somehow best for me, and to make sure I settle on the right activity I need to evaluate the candidate activities in a sound way.

Perhaps I can find my way out of this problem with the help of the distinction made earlier, between an intellectual evaluation and a psychological interest. Perhaps it is only the latter that behaves in the alarming, unstable way, while the former is stable and unalarming. So, when I complain that my interest in writing amateur Philosophy, which I thought had some substance to it, seems to disappear simply because I spent some time away from that activity, perhaps what I really mean is something much more innocent. I do not mean that my prior interest in Philosophy has turned out to be completely illusory and fickle. I just mean that at the present moment I do not have that sense of immediate enthusiasm for the activity, which you get when you have been immersed in it for some time; a sense which is analogous, perhaps, to the visceral, unreflective sort of excitement that one feels when immersed in a plot, whether it is a well-written plot or not. My interest has not dried up; it has just fallen into a state of surface calm.

The problem with this is that in real life it is quite hard to disentangle one of those attitudes from another. What counts as an intellectual evaluation and what counts as a psychological interest? How do you recognise them? And in making an evaluation, one needs to consider one’s impulses, one’s psychological hunches about an activity. But how does one distinguish between the psychological hunches that arise merely from a time-dependant interest, and those which arise because of more stable properties of oneself and the activity one is evaluating? This may be possible in principle, but it must be quite hard in practice.

One could go on, I suppose, to wonder whether or not there is any point in trying to settle upon one practice just by thinking about it. Perhaps there is, for each person, a large group of activities that have about the same worth, and no amount of earnest contemplation could separate one from the rest. And it is almost never the case that a person is asked to choose one activity at the complete exclusion of the others. And, although time-spent-doing X should not correlate with value-placed-on X, it probably does correlate with degree-of-certainty-in-evaluating-X: so anyone who wants to ascertain soundly the relative worth of his options should spent a goodly amount of time pursuing each of them, as a kind of trial. And even if one might lose something by failing to settle upon some most-highly-valued activity, perhaps there is something to gain, a sense of freedom perhaps, from settling on nothing very quickly.

All of that could, I am sure, be spelt out more thoroughly, and with more skill, by other people. Here it is enough to repeat that I have not only lost the time to engage in the activity of Philosophising, but also, in one sense or another, lost interest in that activity. I do intend, in the next few weeks, to make some effort to rediscover both some interest and some time for that activity. However, it is likely that the results will not amount to much: where I do post on Philosophical topics, those posts will probably just be brushed-up versions of things I have already written, or filled-out versions of things that I have half-finished.

Apart from those Philosophical odds and ends, I hope in the next month or so to continue writing short descriptive pieces about the places I encounter in my travels. I also want to write pieces about the people I meet, as I have not done much of that so far. On top of that, I hope to supply introductions for the categories that are not yet so supplied, so that visitors can see more easily what I am going to place in those categories, and why on earth I would want to devote large parts of my spare time to doing so. If there is any time left over, I will post some extracts from, and reviews of, some books that I have been reading while traveling, or thinking about reading, or wondering if I should bother thinking about reading. These are:

A Land of Two Halves (Joe Bennett hitching around NZ and writing about it.)
All Visitors Ashore (CK Stead’s novel about love and politics and Rangitoto Island, set in the 1950s.)
Philosophy As It Is (An introduction to the subject that I purchased from a Wellington second-hand bookstore; and which I may dip into every now and then).
The Penguin History of New Zealand (Michael King, perhaps NZs most well-known and most-admired historian, summarises the birth and adolescence of his country. Whether or not that country has reached adulthood yet is something that the book will shed light on, I hope).


The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Would they have high-quality paper that would only yellow just a very bit, at the edges, over the next 150 years, and perhaps even grey a little, perfect for making marginal notes in pencil and for reading under a green-glass bankers lamp?

Some people have Academy Awards speeches; authors seem to tend to favor bookbinding dreams.