Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to Build a Scholar (part 1)

To keep in touch with my roots in analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science I regularly read It's Only a Theory and Certain Doubts. Last night, the CFP for the third annual Formal Epistemology Festival made me curious (in part, probably, because it is being held in Toronto). This year, the festival is dedicated to the memory of John Pollock, whom I haven't spent a lot of time on, but who has had an important influence on how philosophy is done (in some corners) since the 1970s.

In 1989 he published a book with the wonderfully provocative title How to Build a Person, which he followed up with Cognitive Carpentry in 1995. He's using language that's close to my heart to develop ideas that lie far from it. In this post I want to explain what I mean.

Part of my objection is certainly a predictable reaction to his titles, and that's no doubt intentional on Pollock's part. (Though there is apparently some question about whether he was deadpanning or wholly serious.) Creating people is not, I would hope, a craft skill that can be developed like making furniture. It's something we want to leave to impersonal forces like evolution or, if we prefer, personal but omnipotent beings like God. While people may be "physical objects", as Pollock argues, they are not simply arrangements of physical matter. And it is at this point that my objections pass from the gut to the head.

The rhetorical effect of a title like How to Build a Person comes from its combination of sublime and quotidian elements. It reminds us of books called things like How to Build a Table or, my favourite in the genre, Oliver Senior's How to Draw Hands. But its subject is more often dealt with by books with titles like What is man? Or in evolutionary terms: The Origin of Man.

The strangeness of the title can perhaps be seen more clearly through intermediary cases. Suppose a botanist wrote a book called How to Build a Tree. On the other end of the of the scale, an astronomer might write a book called How to Build a Galaxy. In different ways, neither object, though perfectly "physical" is the sort of thing we "build", but presenting its structure as a "design problem" is certainly a way of approaching the task of writing a book about it.

But there are limits to the analogy. Building something requires not just formal knowledge but craft skill. You have to know not just what a table looks like, and not just what its parts look like, and not just how its part "go together". You have to know how to put them together. Moreover, you have to have some sensitivity to what the parts must be made of. You have to be able to select the right pieces of wood for the project. Both your practical skills and sensitivity for materials develop through years of training, and in the end, as any master craftsman (always a kind of zen master) will tell you, you no longer impose your will on the materials but, rather, let the will of the materials be expressed through you.

A table is not just something you make. It's largely the realization of a form that you find in nature. No book can tell you how to do that. You become good at it by trying (and failing) again and again. The contents of an "instruction book" are only the tip of the iceberg, and the author assumes that you will try the instructions provided in it and that you will honestly assess the results. Simply following the instructions in a book called How to Build a Table will not bring about good results (if any) the first time around. The book must be taken as guide to a series of exercises that, if practiced regularly, will lead to mastery of the art. Most of the "knowledge" that goes into making a table comes from experience.

And this is why Pollock's project must (I think) fail. Even if it were possible to "build a person", the knowledge required to do so would be tacit and unconscious. In the end, a table "grows" out of the ground in a process that begins in the seed (indeed, that begins in the tree that the seed came from and so on ad infinitum). I'm being as intentionally (and, I hope, wittily) "mystical" as Pollock was when he pretended that rationality is merely a "design problem". In the end, any instruction book, whether about drawing hands or making tables or writing articles or thinking rationally could be called How to Build a World*. Craftsmanship is the presence of the sublime in the ordinary.

[Part 2 here.]

* "The essential thing in a poet is that he builds us his world," said Ezra Pound.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

A tee-shirt Pierre Joris told me about once: "Instant human, just add coffee." We talk about shaping, molding our students, of a scholarly formation. Or Greenblatt's "self-fashioning." The human, then, is seen as raw material, the scholar or student or self is fashioned or sculpted out of this material.