Monday, September 11, 2017

Experienced observation (& another brief for description as the way forward in literary studies)

My friend and colleague, John Wilkins, philosopher of biology extraordinaire, has just run-up a wonderful post, 50 words for snow, or conceptual confusion – and, no, he's not trying to revive or debunk that idea. He's up to something rather different. You'll have to read his discussion of various philosophies of science yourself. That discussion leads to this:
By focusing on the theory-observation dichotomy so exclusively, philosophers of science have tended to overlook the phenomenality of categories in both wider culture and science. Initially, when a field has no theory to speak of (other than ancillary theories in related or technical disciplines like optics), the guiding principle for categorisation is experienced observation. To illustrate with an anecdote or two:

A few years back I happened to host a world-renowned American bryophytologist in Sydney, so I took him to the location in the Blue Mountains where Darwin had gone while on his Beagle voyage. I expected naively that he would find the vistas breathtaking and the sense of history would be his focus. Instead, we hardly got out of the carpark, as he found some liverworts in gametophore stages. He thanked me profusely, much to my consternation, for taking him there. I could barely see them except as background plant-like things on the car park embankment.

A year or so later, a well-known coleopterist, specialising in a group of beetles that have many representatives in Australia, visited from the US, and so his host and I took him out into the bush. As we wandered, I was impressed that he not only knew where to look for the beetles, but that he could even see them in the undergrowth and litter. I couldn’t. To him, they leapt out in his field of vision – he had the search image in his head and literally saw them as patterns in the mess. In some ways, I was like James’ newborn child, in a blooming, buzzing confusion of experiences, while he was an expert observer, filtering out the noise to spot the targets. In a later trip I got to see something of how he did it, but not much. I lacked the professional and experience learning.

In many ways, this is like the ways a traditional hunter hunts. A trained hunter sees the prey even when camouflaged or obscured. They know where to look and what to look for. Successes in the past, and folk lore, reinforce those observational techniques that will find the natural types of things being hunted. A forager is the same: they see the indications of useful plants and animals that can be used for food, medicine and cultural purposes. If your living depends on getting the natural world (mostly) right, experience tends towards the right phenomena.

There is not much in the way of theory here. Neither is the observation naively empiricist, nor is it just evolved predispositions, or else I would have had no problems at least seeing the differences that identified these types. This is culturally-scaffolded and experienced observation that converges, out of necessity, on natural phenomena. There are several aspects here. One is that of course observation of any kind relies initially upon our evolved predispositions to respond to certain types, scales, and duration of phenomena. [...]

But that is not enough. No single set of observations or the experience of a single person is going to engage with enough of the world to develop what we might call “well-formed categories”. Evolution sacrifices false negatives on the altar of false positives (Wilkins and Griffiths 2013, Griffiths and Wilkins 2014). So a different process aggregates and selects out the experiences of many: cultural evolution. We are trained by our peers, and the expertise of others is passed on, sometimes as rules, yes, and definitions, but mostly as setting up the framework in which individual learning, trial and error, will home in on the “right” categories. Thus, three factors determine observing phenomena: biology, culture and individual experience.

Let me note a passage from Dan Everett's Dark Matter of the Mind (141-142):
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness.
The Pirahãs were very experienced observers indeed of their Amazon environment while Everett was, at best, merely experienced. He was no tourist, nor even an anthropologist in a year-long stay as participant-observer. He was in fact, a Christian missionary, but that's irrelevant here. Except that, in that role, he'd put in years among the Pirahãs. But years is not the same as born and raised here. His sensorium simply was as not sharply and deeply tuned to the environment as those of the Pirahãs.

And experienced observation is what, in my view, literary critics have to offer, both to the general public, but also to the world of specialized scholarship and investigation. Frankly, what academic literary critics have come to call Theory is rather thin when considered as a theory of literary phenomena, which is not how it's used. The varieties of Theory emerged as and are used as systems for interpreting the meanings of literary texts. That's where literary criticism has focused its energies since World War II. But that enterprise has run out of steam. 

The discipline is looking around for new places to go, new things to see. One possibility being explored, ever so tentatively, is description: Maybe we ought to think about this, elevate its status in our minds, maybe even within the profession – can you imagine, someone getting tenure because they do good description [the very idea!]. Yes, description, in particular, the description of form.

There is no substitute for experienced description. Everything else is built on it. Learning it takes time. You have to do it. In particular, knowing all the theory in the world won't get you around the need to observe observe observe. Without observational experience, theory is empty abstraction, airy nothings. Hence the valorization of "close reading" in literary criticism. Close reading is a method of observation. Classically, if you will, it has been in service of interpretation. Now it is time to put it in service of description.

And here I'll stop. I've got plenty of material on description, both here at New Savanna, and at

Note: I've added this post as an appendix to my working paper, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature.


  1. Reminds me of Eunice Pike's story about a walk she took with some Australian people whose language she was learning. As they went along, one of them suddenly said, "Watch out, there's a snake! Jump East!"
    Like most Australian languages, directions are locus-centric, not person-centric, like Right and Left. There's a remarkable set of movies of the same storyteller telling the same story twice, but seated facing a different direction. When he gets to the part in the story where there is motion to the north, he gestures to the north, though it's a different direction from him in the two movies.
    This is a real cultural variable, the sort of thing that should be subject to cultural evolution, whatever that might be.

  2. I'm aware of that particular variable, John. I believe that the late Revere Perkins did some work on it for his dissertation. It was published by John Benjamins, Deixis, Grammar, and Culture. Here's the brief description:

    Many linguists have believed that there is no connection between culture and language structures. This study reviews some of the literature supporting vocabulary connections, hypotheses for other connections, and critical views of this type of hypothesis. Precisely such a connection is developed employing a functional view of language and grammaticization principles. Using a world-wide probability sample of forty-nine languages, an association between culture and the grammatical coding of deictics is tested and statistically found to be corroborated to a very significant extent. Suggestions are included on how some of the concepts used and developed in this study might be extended.

    I'd guess there'd be a shift from person-centric to locus-centric with increasing levels of cultural complexity (which Perkins assessed using one of the standard metrics).

    1. My copy of Perkins is storage. I was able to get a peek at the book on Google Books and what I was able to see, which isn’t much, suggests that Revere didn’t cover locus- vs. person- centric directions.

      I seem to recall reading of something even more strange (to us) than locus-centric directions. Come to think of it, it was an article by Ralph Dixon on Dyirbal in an anthology of articles on semantics (also in storage). But a little Google-fu turns up:

      balbala – medium distance downriver
      balbulu – long distance downriver
      dawala – medium distance upriver
      dawulu –long distance upriver

      I’m thinking upriver vs. downriver isn’t going to be much use once you’ve left your home territory.