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Posts Tagged ‘thought’

I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ‘499’ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself – with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.

Jean-Paul Sartre: the archetypal French intellectual

You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.

Susie Orbach:

Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.

There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.

Will Self:

What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

Mary Beard:

I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.

Lionel Shriver:

I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.

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