Blogging Philosophy Part II: Hanging Out with the Peasants

Friday January 30, 2009

Polar Bear

In the early 1930s, the Soviet ethnographer, psychologist and linguist A. R. Luria travelled to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to explore the modes of thinking of the non-literate peasants of outer reaches of what was then the Soviet Union. Like all good ethnographers, Luria spent a fair amount of time baffling (and perhaps entertaining) his subjects with bizarre questions. ‘In the Far North,’ he asked, ‘where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What colour are the bears?’ The man Luria put this question to thought for a while. And then he said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others…

Luria tried another tack, setting the following somewhat Gradgrindish task: ‘Try to explain to me,’ he said, ‘what a tree is.’ This was greeted by puzzlement: ‘Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is, they don’t need me telling them.’ Which is, of course, quite true, even if there are some difficult borderline cases (is this bush a tree? this plastic Christmas tree? this picture of a tree?)

Luria, however, was undeterred, and so asked something that seemed closer to home, something much more intimate, something that surely could not generate this degree of perplexity. ‘What sort of person are you,’ he asked, ‘what’s your character like, what are your good qualities and shortcomings?’ Most of us would have little difficulty in answering this question, even if we might have problems answering it honestly; but the people Luria interviewed seemed perplexed. One man replied, ‘What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.’

What was going on in these strange examples of miscommunication? Were Luria’s peasants obstinate? Were they slow-witted? Or else were they playing that popular game – a game far more popular perhaps than most of us realise – of tease the ethnographer?

Or – perhaps more intriguingly – none of these. Walter Ong, from who I have borrowed this story, suggests that what is going on here goes much, much deeper than any of these explanations might suggest. In his book , Ong explores the hypothesis that the various technologies of communication that have been used throughout human history have profoundly restructured the human mind. It is not, that is to say, that the people to whom Luria spoke were somehow shy of his questions, or were not quick-witted enough to understand them; instead Luria’s ways of posing questions and relating to the world were themselves conditioned by the historical and technological conditions in which he found himself, in particular by the culture of print of which Luria (but not the Uzbek and Kirghiz peasants) was a part.

Luria’s questions are very much the kind that we might recognise as a philosopher’s questions. The first deals with syllogistic logic:

  • All bears in the North are white
  • Novaya Zembla is in the North
  • The bears in Novaya Zembla (if bears there be) are white.

The second deals with the business of definition – what is a tree? – and with the division of the world into firm categories. The law of the excluded middle: tree or not-tree. The third question deals with what some philosophers call ‘interiority’ and others call ‘the view from within,’ the self-evidence of consciousness. Yet these three questions do not seem to much preoccupy – nor indeed do they seem to make much sense to – Luria’s interlocutors.

This opens up a somewhat alarming possibility: perhaps, to put it succinctly, those things that the philosophers like to claim are central to what it is to be human are far more peripheral than we would like to believe. If we take away formalised syllogistic logic, concern with rigorous definition and reflection from within upon human character, it is no longer clear that what we call philosophy is possible at all.

Walter Ong relates the birth of the kinds of questions that Luria asked – about syllogistic logic, about definition and about the view from within – to the move from cultures that are exclusively oral to cultures that are, at least to some degree, literate. There is not room here to explore the richness of Ong’s arguments – although his book is well worth reading – but what I am interested in here are three things. Firstly, the suggestion that the kinds of questions that we think of as crucial and fundamental may be much more local affairs than we imagine. Secondly, that the kinds of questions that philosophers ask, and the way they ask them, may be rooted in the technologies of writing and the changes to human consciousness that have resulted from these technologies. And thirdly, that as a result, philosophy may not speak for all humankind (as some philosophers claim), but instead for particular kinds of human. It is not that Luria’s Uzbek and Kirghiz friends were in any way deficient in their mental capacities, it is not that they were lacking in what might be called quickness of wit, but only that they were possessed of the kinds of minds for which questions about abstract bears, definitions of trees, and elaborate self-reflexivity were simply not compelling, or simply failed to make any sense.

Nevertheless, we should step back a bit to remember that, even if philosophy is not possible in such conditions, then surely wisdom is. Luria and his Uzbek and Kirghiz companions may have had difficulty in understanding each other when it came to the question of how one might establish the colour of bears (if bears there be) in Novaya Zembla; but one suspects that they would have agreed that it would be unwise, were one to meet a bear – whether white or black or any other colour – to go and tickle it behind the ears, or to attempt to give it a hug. Similarly, whilst they might not have seen exactly eye-to-eye when it came to the question of what a tree exactly was, perhaps they could have reached a kind of homely accord by agreeing that it was a wise man who planted apple trees so that, in a few years time, he could have a ready supply of apples. Not only this, but they might both have agreed that wisdom is something to be cherished, something worthy of love. Wisdom, in this sense, is nothing particularly grand. It is not about securing a deep and esoteric understanding of the world; but in this everyday sense, whatever their philosophical differences, Luria the peasants have no difficulty in discoursing about ordinary everyday wisdom relating to bears and apple trees. To put it in philosophical language: philosophical ways of thinking – at least, what we perhaps think of as philosophical ways of thinking – may provide neither the necessary nor the sufficient conditions for wisdom.

Now, here comes the intriguing bit. Walter Ong traces not only the transformations that may have taken place between purely oral cultures and literate cultures, but he goes on to consider how the invention of movable type and the readily accessible printed text in turn may have had a profound influence on the way that our minds are structured. And although Ong does not explore the implications of this specifically for philosophy, it would be possible, I think, to map transformations in what we call philosophy on to these changes in material and technological conditions, the birth of philosophy coming about with the particular kind of consciousness associated with writing (a process you can see not only in the West, but also in India with the change from texts like the Vedas to the Upanishads and the Buddhist Suttas, and in China with the move from stark works such as the Yijing to the likes of Laozi); and with the move, after the era of Gutenberg’s printing press, towards a kind of supercharged philosophy in which there was an ever greater concern with inwardness (think Descartes and Husserl), rigorous systematisation (think Kant and Hegel) and rigorous definition (think Frege).

But it doesn’t stop at Gutenberg. For Ong suggests that with the advent of mass-media communication, we are moving into a period of ‘secondary orality’ that ‘has a striking resemblance to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment…’ This was written before the appearance on the scene of the internet, but it seems prescient. As some scholars have suggested (see this paper by Tom Pettitt) we may be moving beyond the ‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’ in which the authority of the book reigned supreme, and this may have profound effects on the kinds of beings that we are, the kinds of minds that we have, and the kinds of thoughts that we are capable of having.

This may, depending on your perspective be either a) exhilarating, b) alarming or c) a load of nonsense; but what it suggests is that the kind of thinking that goes on in internet writing (and, perhaps more generally, in an age saturated by electronic mass media) is fundamentally different from the kind of thinking that goes in within the pages and cultures of the book. If this is so, then we would expect philosophy itself to start to take on a rather different character, to begin to reshape itself. Philosophy, post-Gutenberg Parenthesis, may look very different from the kind of philosophy that Kant or Hegel or Descartes wrote.

How this might already be happening will be the subject of my next post in this series. But for the time being, perhaps it is worth saying this: that whatever the implications for the future character of philosophy, and however philosophy itself may be changed by electronic mass media, what perhaps matters more is that we might be able through all of this to maintain some degree of wisdom: enough, at least, to allow us to refrain from getting too close to bears, and to remind us to plant apple trees so that we might, one day, have a decent crop.

Read the previous post in this series on the virtues of amateurism. Part three to follow soon!

Image: Ansgar Walk / Wikimedia Commons

# · Wren

What an interesting and well-written article. What you describe with Luria’s inquest is a very lovely example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistics.

I haven’t read Ong, but it does make me wonder how much influence he had on Benedict Anderson, who, today, is one of the gold standards in nationalism and print-capitalism. It seems Anderson’s treatise on Imagined Communities may have first been brought up, in part, by Ong. To understand the influence and relationship there may be enlightening.

Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I now have three new thinkers to look into (Luria, Ong, and Pettitt). Excellent.

# · Ted Bagley

You helped me expand even more Lacanian ethics for myself. Thank you.

# · Christine

Hi, I found your blog entry and it expresses a feeling I’ve held for a long time. Strangely I’ve heard references to Luria’s work – but they’ve never gestured this content in their intention – and yet I have still – myself -thought along these lines. Great to find a like mind on Luria’s peasants.

I am interested in the mediation of ICTs and have long valued a spoken oral dialogic form. So I haven’t a ‘website’ as such – or really many articles.


# · Robert

What happened to Part III?

# · Will

Robert, that’s a very good question. I can only say in my defence that “soon” is a relative term. Since I found myself working full-time, the time I’ve had for blogging has been a bit restricted… But there’s life in this old dog yet, I think.

Good to hear from you, Christine. My knowledge of Luria comes through the filter of Walter Ong, so it may be a bit shaky.

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