Newsletter: May 2023

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of May!

This month began and ended with me wrapping up teaching commitments. In early April, we concluded this winter’s online course, “Humans and Other Animals.” And on Thursday and Friday I taught my last classes at Deep Springs College. Yesterday I packed things up and set out on the road. I’m sending this message out from Bishop, California, as I head toward San Francisco and then up toward home in Vancouver.

After a fairly hectic pace over the past few months, I look forward to slowing down a bit in Vancouver. The main goal for the summer is to make a bit of progress on a book project that’s been long delayed. I also look forward to a couple of presentations and workshops this month, one with the British Columbia Prosecution Service and one with the Chartered Financial Analysts Society of Vancouver. If you’re attached to an organization that might be interested in a talk or workshop on a philosophical theme, let me know!

Speaking of which, I shared some thoughts on the human–animal multi-species community with the World Community for Christian Meditation in late March. A video recording of that gathering is now available online.

This past week I also added a new entry to the “reflections” section of my blog. I offer some thoughts on what Cora Diamond calls “deflection,” the tendency in our thinking to turn our minds to one thing as a way of not thinking about something else.

I’m leaving Deep Springs in that pleasant period of warm weather before too cold turns to too hot. There’s been a lot of snow melting this past month and that allowed me to get up into the White Mountains, which afforded some terrific views. I feel such a fool that I left my snowshoes in Vancouver.

Sometime in the 11th century BCE, the Mycenean civilization that had dominated mainland Greece for about seven centuries collapsed. We don’t know the full story of what happened, but historians conjecture the invasion of “Sea Peoples,” who wrought havoc across the eastern Mediterranean. The Myceneans’ massive palace complexes were abandoned, the Linear B script, which was the earliest form of written Greek, was forgotten, and refugees spread out across the Aegean Sea and to western Anatolia.

These refugees kept alive the memory of their past glories in the way people have always kept memory alive: they told stories. These stories told the tales of the great kings and heroes of the Mycenean age—Achilles and Odysseus, Agamemnon and Ajax—of their long and ultimately victorious war at Troy and of their arduous journeys home. These tales passed from generation to generation, transmitted by skilled and highly esteemed storytellers. Without a system of writing, anything that was forgotten was lost for good.

Many thousands of miles away and several thousand years later, another coastal civilization was experiencing collapse. The Haida were known—and feared—across the northwest coast of North America. From the archipelago of Haida Gwaii they would travel in dugout canoes to trade with and raid their mainland neighbours. But in the nineteenth century, the population of Haida Gwaii dropped by more than 90%, mostly due to smallpox and other diseases brought by European colonizers.

Those same colonizers sought to save the souls of the survivors by converting them to Christianity. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the residential school system separated children from their families and punished them for speaking their own language or practicing their cultural traditions. Between 1885 and 1951, the Canadian government banned the potlatch—the major gift-giving feasts by which northwest coast leaders displayed and distributed their wealth and maintained alliances and ties of kinship.

Like the post-Mycenean Greeks, the Haida didn’t have a writing system. Like those Greeks, they kept their cultural memory alive through the telling of stories. As in archaic Greek culture, the role of the storyteller among the Haida was held in great esteem. These were the scholars, the encyclopedists, the memory-keepers of their people.

About four hundred years after the Mycenean civilization collapsed, some of the stories of these post-Mycenean refugees came to be written down in a new script, one the Greeks had inherited and adapted from the Phoenician people of the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest stories of which we still have a record are attributed to a poet named Homer.

In 1900 and 1901, an American anthropologist named John Swanton spent the best part of a year on Haida Gwaii recording the stories of Haida mythtellers. He was particularly impressed with the power and depth of two mythtellers, Skaay and Ghandl, who had arrived in Skidegate as refugees from smaller settlements in southern Haida Gwaii that had been abandoned during the waves of plague. The stories told to Swanton by Skaay, Ghandl, and others, are both the first and the last written records we have of classical Haida storytelling.

The written record of an oral culture is a delicate thing. We would have no knowledge of oral storytelling at all if these tales had not been written down. But the very fact of their being written is a sign that the old oral culture was on the verge of disappearance.

What I’ve shared with you here is a brief background to an independent study I conducted at Deep Springs, which was one of my richest intellectual journeys in recent years. One of the students at Deep Springs is Haida and wanted to learn more about what’s sometimes called “oral literature” (a tellingly misleading expression: “literature” derives from the same root as “letter,” and hence denotes written texts, so “oral literature” is a name applied to oral cultures by literate people). We read Homer’s Iliad and a number of Haida myths—primarily drawing from Robert Bringhurst’s wonderful book A Story as Sharp as a Knife—as well as texts about orality and literacy by Eric A. Havelock and Walter J. Ong.

Literacy is one of the most transformative technologies that humans have ever invented. So transformative is it that it’s hard to imagine your way into an oral mindset from a literate perspective.

Imagine living in a world where anything that is forgotten is lost forever, where a word is no sooner spoken than it vanishes into thin air. Havelock demonstrates that Homer’s epics are a kind of oral encyclopedia of the Greek world of his time. The little asides and digressions that fill the Iliad and Odyssey—descriptions of the proper form of sacrifice, detailed accounts of a ship trimming its sails, and so on—aren’t just colourful background but rather the main event. Suspended on a vivid and rhythmically told—and hence, crucially, memorable—narrative you find a storehouse of archaic Greek knowledge. The vivid story is a way of making sure the knowledge doesn’t vanish. Dry textbook knowledge is a luxury—or a burden?—of people who have a way of storing knowledge outside their own minds.

The shift from orality to literacy transforms the way people think. Literate people are more inclined to think of words as things. Written words are detached from any particular speaker and we can study them as objects in their own right. One consequence of seeing words as thinglike—and “seeing” is a crucial word here, as literacy shifts a person’s relationship to language from something heard to something seen—is greater abstraction in our thinking. Words like “good” or “true” are no longer tied to the particular context of utterance and we can ask in a more abstract way what the “good” is in itself, what “truth” is, and so on.

In short, philosophy is a product of literacy.

That makes the study of oral cultures especially interesting from a philosophical perspective. In the Haida mythtellers you find nothing that resembles philosophy as I learned it in university. But reading the stories of Skaay and Ghandl, a picture of the world emerges. Haida metaphysics shows up in the form these stories take rather than in any kind of explicitly philosophical content.

One way to put it—and here I’m borrowing an idea from Bringhurst—is that the distinction between philosophy and literature, between poetry and prose, becomes possible with the advent of literacy. In myth we find the original wellspring of these different forms, coming from a time when there was no significant difference between them.

I draw two lessons that philosophy can learn from the study of orality. The first is that we can recognize the emergence of philosophy from myth in much ancient philosophy. Plato’s dialogues are vivid narratives and a number of them conclude with elaborate myths. The first chapter of the Zhuangzi—and indeed much that follows it—is more mythic than philosophical in its presentation. These thinkers weren’t working in a discipline called “philosophy” because that discipline scarcely existed yet. Instead they were striving to make sense of a world that was structured by orality but that was in the process of being transformed by the novel technology of writing.

The second lesson is one of humility and open-mindedness. Philosophers sometimes take themselves to be studying the essential form of human thought. But at best they’re studying the form of literate human thought. The relation between mind and world is very different without writing, and orality has been by far the rule and literacy the exception in human history.

I can only encounter Skaay and Ghandl and Homer in writing, and only in translation. I can be grateful that their stories were written down since the alternative was oblivion. But especially with the Haida mythtellers, this gratitude is marked with sadness. That written record also marks the end of a way of life that was structured by myth and storytelling. 

Five things I learned in April
  1. There’s a street called Ocean View Road in Bishop, California. Bishop is at 4150 feet above sea level in a valley between two large mountain ranges and about 200 miles from the coast. (source)
  2. Galen was the most influential medical researcher of antiquity. He was also the most prolific. Galen’s writings amount to about 10% of all surviving Greek texts from ancient times until the Middle Ages. (source)
  3. There’s so much great stuff in John Lanchester’s piece about the microchip for the LRB—technical, historical, and political. Here are just three tidbits. (1) Forty years ago, the main consumer use for transistors was in transistor radios. A laptop today contains so many transistors that you could use them to make a 1983-style transistor radio for every person on the planet at that time and still have a billion left over. (2) The smallest transistors today are half the size of the coronavirus. (3) China spends more on importing microchips than it does on importing oil—and more than the entire global trade in aircraft. (source)
  4. Despite its small size, the Netherlands is the world’s second biggest exporter of agricultural products after the United States. It produces more than twice as much cheese per capita as France. (source)
  5. Rice is a bigger source of greenhouse gas than any foodstuff besides beef. Its emissions footprint is similar to that of aviation. (source)

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