The fog from early this morning has given way to brilliant sunshine and I am borrowing a cubicle in which rays of sun actually fall on the desk at certain times of day – lucked out with this busted computer thing for a change! But despite this bright morning, it’s feeling very transitional in Vancouver these days, and I expect soon to be plunged into the rain that never ends. Until May at least. Or maybe even July. So brief the dry months!
I’m working on a term paper right now about the nature of story and social construction, how stories are used as an ideological prop even when demonstrably false, and what we need to consider if we are going to be successful in changing the story, and thus changing society. I haven’t gotten to the writing part yet, it’s all reading and listening to lectures off the Internet – (my favourite part of working on a paper – the preparing part).
Last night we were listening to Charles Taylor’s 1991 Massey Lectures on the Malaise of Modernity and I realized (into the 2nd lecture) that I read these lectures for a political science class in my first year of college (nineteen years ago). I had read them, yes, and in particular the phrase “ethic of authenticity” has stuck with me all these years – but what I remembered last night was how little I (at the age of twenty) had a clue as to what Taylor was talking about.
It’s not that Malaise is particularly difficult writing, the Massey Lecture series is aimed at the accessibility of ideas after all. But it is political philosophy. And like all good scholarship, it draws on a knowledge of the history of western philosophy – something I knew almost nothing about in 1993 fresh out of high school and working in bars and restaurants. What stands out from that class is how out of depth I felt with all the discussions, and that at one point the professor wrote on a term paper “this is supposed to be a research essay, not a polemic.” This and other weird experiences lead me to switch my major from Poli Sci to Communications when I entered SFU two years later, and I haven’t given much thought to those discourses since.
What’s interesting about turning back to this work now – after an undergrad degree, a lot of reading and life experience, and a year and a half of graduate-level education in philosophy – is my “observation” of how much my ability to think has changed since I was a young adult. As much as I feel that I am not as “fast” at picking up new skills or memorizing information as it once was, I do recognize that my accumulated knowledge allows me to come at all new information from a much deeper and considered place. Which is a bit of a “yeah, duh,” but still comes as a shock to me even though I’ve got a prolific reading history to back my thoughts up (not to mention all the conversations I get to have with smart people like my partner).
Sewing, crochet, gardening, and other concrete practices all have an observable element. A here-to-there line that is understood through the practice of doing over and over to recognizable improvement. But the mind? It’s unobservable. We can not really remember what our state of mind once was because by the time we are remembering, we have grown and left that previous shadow of ourselves behind. So while we might think about things we once did, and deduce an earlier existence from a different frame of mind or thought (yeah. punk rock! party every night!), it is hard to recall that actual thinking/feeling state in which we did exist. Got it? (Incidentally, that’s why you can never go home again either.)
All this to say – last night’s listening brought me back to the person I was twenty years ago – and briefly enabled a comparison between my current and former states of mind. Guess what? Twenty years later, I am much smarter. And the last year of reading and thinking in grad school has had a lot to do with that. My memory is pretty crappy (always has been), but my thinking seems to have room for improvement. Even now, at almost-forty! Which means this education thing has been good for more than just my self-esteem.
Interested in Charles Taylor? His book The Ethics of Authenticity is available online here.