Friday, October 18, 2013

"Behold I see the haven nigh at hand," by Edmund Spencer

"Behold I see the haven nigh at hand,
To which I meane my wearie course to bend;
Vere the maine shete, and beare up with the land,
The which afore is fayrly to be kend,
And seemeth safe from storms, that may offend;
There this fayre virgin wearie of her way
Must landed bee, now at her journeyes end:
There eke my feeble barke a while may stay,
Till mery wynd and weather call her thence away."

From Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto 12, Stanza 1

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Pen that Refused to Work

There once was a man who had a job that required him to write things down by hand. He had a whole drawer full of pens and paper, and he usually didn't think much about which pen he was using as long as the pen worked. Sometimes the man would pick up a pen and start writing with it, but the pen would not work. So he scribbled in little circles on the edge of a piece of paper in hopes that the pen would start working. It did, and the man was able to get on with his work.

But there was one pen that would not work, even when the man scribbled in little circles with it for quite some time. He would pick up the pen and start writing, and the first few letters would come out all right, but then the pen would suddenly stop working. The man went back to try to correct the letters, but the pen would still not work. So he scribbled in little circles with it. This worked with all the other pens, so why should it not work with this one? He scribbled and scribbled and the pen began working, but when he started to write with it, it would stop.

The man checked the ink level in the pen. The pen was full of ink, and the man could not understand why the pen would not work when he wanted it to.

So he scribbled in little circles and, again, the ink would begin to flow. But then it would stop. The man scribbled and scribbled for what seemed like a long time, but there was no change in the pen's nature. Ink. No ink. Start. Stop. The pen's ink would flow forth as if this time it was finally going to keep working. But then it would stop.

So the man, knowing that he had a whole drawer full of pens that would work and desiring to continue his labor, threw the pen away.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance and a Snickers Bar

According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings are motivated by something he calls cognitive dissonance, which is essentially a fancy name for disharmony among or within our thought processes, beliefs, and/or opinions (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 3). Human beings thus have a drive to produce consistencies, reduce inconsistencies, and avoid situations that might produce inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance comes from receiving new information, which can also be manifest in new events (4-5).

Cognitive dissonance is implicit whenever we have a decision to make, when we choose between two or more options. These options are dissonant--they're not in harmony--because they cannot be done at the same time and in the same moment.
Let’s look at a trivial but revealing example. Let’s say I am sitting at my desk, busily working on a project. I am focusing on my work when all of a sudden I have a problem--I receive some new information: my stomach growls, I start salivating, and I think about the Snickers bar that’s in the vending machine down the hall. At this new information, I have cognitive dissonance, an inconsistency, and one my nature drives me to resolve. I am hungry and I want to eat, but I also want to continue to do what I’m doing because if I get up to go get that Snickers bar, I will lose much (or all) of my concentration. (I also already know that Snickers bars aren’t very good for my health, which means that eating one is going to create another kind of dissonance.) But I have to make a choice. I cannot make both choices at the same time, and both choices have some consequences that I do not want--no Snickers on the one hand, a loss of focus on the other. The choices are dissonant because each choice will take me in a slightly different direction than the other. But when I do make a decision, and since both options have undesirable consequences, I must justify the resulting dissonance from that choice. If I choose to eat the Snickers bar, I’ll argue to myself that once in a while is okay (studies have said that chocolate is good for your health!), I needed a break anyway and will be able to focus better after I get a snack, and, besides, it just tastes so good that it’ll be worth it. On the other hand, if I choose to stay at my desk, my justification would be that I don’t need all those calories or all that fat and sugar (I’ll just have to exercise them off!), I’m getting so much done that I cannot risk losing my focus right now, and, besides, I find pride in not stooping so low to give in to my cravings--mind over matter, right?
In my own mind, the problem has been resolved. For now.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What Is an Emotion?: Categorizing the Uncategorizable

Something cool that came up when I typed in "Seneca De Ira"
When we call something by a name, we put that thing into a category. And when we write a paper or book or a blog post or an article and then give it a title, we assume that what we have written is rightly categorized under our title. That being said, it’s no wonder that in a book titled What Is an Emotion? we’d find excerpts from Seneca’s De Ira, Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Sartre’s The Emotions, and so on. But what about the other readings? If we’re reading a book about the emotions, then why are we reading excerpts from books with titles like Ethics, On the Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Being and Time, and, my personal favorite, Rhetoric? What this means is, not only do Aristotle and Spinoza and Heidegger and Scheler and Brentano (among others) believe that emotions have to do, in some way, with the topics under which their books are titled, but also--apparently--Solomon, the editor of What Is an Emotion?, believes that the titles of these books--in some way--deal with the emotions.
So the question is, why, if these philosophers are as wise as we think they are, why did they include a discussion (in several cases a very lengthy discussion of which we only have a very small excerpt or an explanatory essay) about the emotions in books of these names? Ethics? Rhetoric? Origins of knowledge? Being? What do these things have to do with emotions?

I think it has to do with the act of categorizing and naming. The very nature of language forces us to categorize. We have to draw lines that may not (and in some cases do not) actually exist if we are to say anything at all. So, my question is, can we really categorize the emotions? Sure, we do it to talk about them, and language is, to some degree, the way in which reality appears to us. But, on a deeper level, there are some things that are real that we just can’t talk about. For example, in terms of emotions, don’t they seem a bit trite when we try to put them into words?

But we try anyway, and so have these philosophers. I do think it is significant, however, that while these philosophers seem to disagree on a whole bunch of different things, they all agree--whether they think emotions are bad or good--that emotions are part of who we are. Emotions make us human. (Or at least, one of the things that make us human.) And this is the problem, in The Joy of Philosophy, that Solomon had with much of analytical philosophy--the form contradicts the content, and modern philosophy tends to dehumanize the human experience. So maybe we can’t categorize human beings very much, either.

Or at least, we see what happens when we take the principle of categorization to its logical extreme. Because we can’t just not talk about human experience. And, besides, I think there is value in reading and studying others’ categorization of the uncategorizable. The more we study it, the more we understand the human experience--ourselves and one another, our lives together and alone.
And the more we understand life, the better we live, and the better we die.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part III: Actions

This series of posts has been discussing how an argument is an assertion based on reasons, and its first two posts were about how speech acts and thoughts are arguments. This post will discuss actions.

An Example of an Actions as an Argument
Let's say I'm sitting on a bench playing the piano, and my stomach growls. So, I go into the kitchen and make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Then I eat it.

It's not a peanut butter sandwich, but he is eating.
Am I making an argument here? At first glance, we'll be tempted to say, "No, of course not! How on earth can eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich--as good as they are--how can this be an argument?" I certainly haven't said anything out loud by my actions. I haven't spoken any words, but I have "said" something by acting. Let's analyze this action and see if it's an assertion based on reasons.

While we could summarize the story by saying, "I ate because I was hungry," an argument that follows the enthymematic form from Aristotle, the statement, "I ate because I was hungry," is an argument because we've already discussed the argumentative nature of statements in our first post on this subject. And we're not here to talk about statements in this post, but actions. We're here to talk about eating, and that means that we can only talk about the act of eating.

So, to say that eating is an argument is to say that eating
  1. is an assertion
  2. is based on reasons
To make the following discussion easier, let's break the analysis up into these two parts. We'll first talk about number 2, the reasons for eating, and then we'll talk about number 1, eating as an assertion. Once we've done that, we'll see that eating is an argument. When that's over, we'll talk about why we should care in the first place.

Reasons for Eating
The most obvious reason for eating is because I am hungry. But there are other reasons for eating, for just because I am eating does not mean that I am hungry. In the above story, I eat because I am hungry--assuming, of course, that my stomach growling is the same thing as being hungry. But we might also eat because we like the taste of food. Maybe we're in the mood for a snack. Or perhaps we are stressed and have our own sort of comfort food that makes us feel good. Maybe we have an eating disorder and eating (or not eating) does something to our mental functions and behaviors. Or perhaps everybody around us is eating, and, since we want to fit in, we eat. These are some reasons for eating even if we are not hungry. But usually, we eat because we are hungry.

Eating as an Assertion
To eat something means to place something into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. So, when I eat, I assert a whole bunch of things, the simplest and most general of which is the fact that I am the kind of being that has the capacity to eat.  And by eating, I assert that I have the ability, the power, the faculty to do these things: I have a mouth, a jaw, a throat, and a stomach. I can control my lips and jaw, making them open and close at will, and I can bite, chew, grind, and masticate (now there's a word we don't often use) my food. A tongue may not be absolutely necessary, but it does help to move the food around in my mouth. It also, thanks to those taste buds, allows me to taste my food, which is a reason why I choose to eat some foods over (and instead of) others. I believe eating asserts all these things, including and perhaps especially the fact that I am an embodied creature.

Let's go one more further. Besides the fact that I am eating asserts that I have the capacity to carry out the act, it also asserts, in most cases, that I have the will to carry out the act. And after I have finished eating, I may say, "I ate." My evidence for my statement is an act in the past tense.

Last point about eating. Note that the act is made up of smaller actions just as assertions are made up of smaller assertions as we noted in Part I. It isn't hard to see the common ground acts, speech, and arguments have with one another. And speech is a type or a subset of action.1

Actions as Arguments, Generally
Acting asserts that I am a certain kind of being. It asserts that I have the capacity to do whatever it is I am doing. I am capable because I do. Then, after I've done something, I am capable because I did. From this last statement, my being capable now becomes a new assertion, with my past action as the evidence. And there we have a nested argument.

What else? Action is embodied. And the reasons for my actions include appetites, desires, passions, emotions, and expectations. I act in a certain way because I choose to, and I choose to because I believe it is good for me to do.

So wait. Why should we care? I wrote about eating as an argument not to show only that eating is an argument, but, more importantly, that actions are arguments. Eating is one example of any other action we could have analyzed. We can use the same logic we've used in this post on any other action because acting asserts that I am a being that has the capacity to act. We could do this same analysis with anything. Playing the piano. Driving to work. Sitting down to watch a movie. Washing clothes or dishes. We could go on, but I don't think there's a need for it.

From the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth
Wayne Booth, a literary critic and philosopher, wrote something that applies here. He said,
“Would you not agree, friends of truth that you are, that reality, although it appears to us in diverse forms, is all somehow unified? Discriminate realities as you will, you must finally admit that everything is related to everything else, really related, in some important sense, and that it is thus more important to work on recognizing new similarities beneath differences than to make distinctions where none were before” (Critical Understanding 94).
I believe this information is valuable because knowing what arguments our actions make help us to know who we are. They also help us to know who others are. Philosopher Robert Solomon writes about emotions, but what he says applies to our actions (he did, after all, believe that emotions were actions, but that's another post for another day). He wrote that it is "a reflection of one's self. It shows or betrays who one is" (True to our Feelings 218-219).

But I feel like now I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Could we go one step further and say that my very being also asserts the "statement," "I did," because my being is capable? (That's a mouthful of a sentence.) In other words, can things make arguments?

That will be the subject of the next post.

1. See Kenneth Burke's The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology.

2. The picture of Booth comes from the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth, Ed. Walter Jost.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part II: Thoughts

The last post defined an argument and discussed how any speech act is also an argument. This post builds on that last one by addressing our thoughts.

So, are my thoughts arguments? We defined an argument as follows:

An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a person asserts something and provides supporting evidence for that assertion.

At first glance, asking whether my thoughts are arguments sounds like a really weird question. After all, if they are, then who am I arguing to? Isocrates, a guy who set up a school to rival Plato's way back in the day, seemed to believe that thoughts were arguments and that the person we're arguing to is implied--it's ourselves. Isocrates wrote,
the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds. (Antidosis 329)
Yep, there he is. Isocrates.
In other words, we debate within ourselves whenever we have a decision to make, and the same kinds arguments that we make externally (to other people) are the same kinds of arguments that we make internally (to ourselves in our own minds). Why? Because what's on the outside is a reflection of what's on the inside, and the arguments we make to other people are the arguments that we are capable of making. I have especially in mind here the form of an argument, and not necessarily any one particular argument.

So, if the same kinds of arguments we make to others are the same kinds of arguments we make to ourselves in our own minds, then if our outward assertions are based on sound reasoning then it is likely that our inward ones are also based on sound reasoning.

For example, if I'm making fallacious arguments with other people, we can also assume that, when I debate things with myself in my own mind, I'm also making fallacious arguments. Since the kinds of people we are is determined by the kinds of decisions we make, there is a direct relationship between the arguments we make and the kind of people that we are.

This is why several Roman and Renaissance philosophers, rhetoricians, and scholars such as Cicero, Quintilian, Desidrius Erasmus, and Baldassare Castiglione would build on Isocrates' statement, arguing that it is impossible for the good speaker to not be a good person. Only good people could be good speakers.

But wait a minute. Only a good person can be a good speaker? What about Hitler? Wasn't he a good speaker? I mean, didn't he persuade a whole bunch of people to believe him? Perhaps, as philosopher Leo Strauss said, this reductio ad Hitlerum is irrelevant. But just for the sake of argument, let's see if our assertion can withstand it. If it can, I think we're on to something.

Hitler's Fallacies
In his Mein Kampf, Hitler makes arguments all over the place.2 What we want to do is see if these arguments are good arguments. Let's take a look.

In Chapter XI, "Nation and Race," he argues that the Aryan race ought to purify and isolate itself because other animals in nature do the same things: "The consequence of . . . racial purity, universally valid in Nature, is not only the sharp outward delimitation of the various races, but their uniform character in themselves." Well, there's a claim. What evidence does Hitler give his audience to accept it? Here it is:
The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, etc., and the difference can lie at most in the varying measure of force, strength, intelligence, dexterity, endurance, etc., of the individual specimens. But you will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might, for example, show humanitarian tendencies toward geese, as similarly there is no cat with a friendly inclination toward mice. (285)
Haha. He's just tried to pull a fast one on us: he's comparing different races to different animals and essentially using his metaphor to argue that just as a cat isn't nice to mice, the Aryan race shouldn't be nice to Jews. But Hitler's evidence and metaphor is fallacious. He is using what is called a false analogy, a fallacy meaning that two things are compared to each other but the two things have more differences than similarities, yet they are compared as if they had more similarities than differences! Bad evidence, Hitler!1

Hitler is making a faulty comparison. His reasoning is fallacious. And the same arguments, going back to Isocrates, that he makes to us are the same arguments that he makes to himself in his own mind. So, either he's lying to us or he really believes what he says and he's just trying to manipulate us. But whether he's lying or not, a fallacy is still a fallacy. More on this idea of lying below. First, let's look at one more example.

Hitler often takes a statement that almost anybody would agree with and twists it just a bit to make it untrue. Or, he talks about something that everybody will agree with for several pages and then, at the very end of the discussion, he'll tag on a small phrase that he didn't actually address or argue for in the previous several pages. For example, here is a statement that I think most people would agree with: he says, talking about the youth, "Parallel to the training of the body, a struggle against the poisoning of the soul must begin" (254). Most people would agree that youth and children shouldn't go to certain movies. That's why we have a rating system. Hitler is essentially saying the same thing. Next, Hitler goes on to smack down some of the immorality that had been going on in Germany at the time: he says we must
clear away the filth of the moral plague of big-city 'civilization' and [we] must do this ruthlessly and without wavering in the face of all the shouting and screaming that will naturally be let loose. If we do not lift the youth out of the morass of their present-day environment, they will drown in it. (254-255)
Hitler then continues to talk about the preservation of body and soul, and argues that cities ought to be cleaned up from prostitution and pornography because such an environment is not good for children and youth--again, he's writing about things that most people would agree with. We wouldn't take a 4-year old to see an R-rated movie. It just doesn't make sense.

But then Hitler tries to pull another fast one on us, a fast one which, if we're paying any attention to what he's actually saying, isn't all that fast. A page later, he says that "the sickening of the body is only the consequence of a sickening of the moral, social, and racial instincts" (256).

Unrelated, but amusing. See Note 3 for citation.
Haha. Very funny. Hitler has just spent 2 pages talking about moral and social problems and how they need to be solved, but where did "social and racial instincts" come from? Nowhere, that's where. Hitler just threw it on the end of the sentence without having provided any evidence for it. Tagged it on at the end of the sentence. So he's talking for 2 pages and people are nodding their heads at what he's saying, and he's hoping that he can just stick little things on the end of sentences like "social and racial instincts" and the people will just keep on nodding. Unfortunately, some people really did keep on nodding.

The same overarching principle was discussed by Kenneth Burke, rhetorician and philosopher, when he wrote,
we know that many purely formal patterns can readily awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us. . . . Once you grasp the trend of the form, it invites participation regardless of the subject matter. Formally, you will find yourself swinging along . . . even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form. Or it may even be an opponent's proposition which you resent--yet for the duration of the statement itself you might "help him out" to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such. Of course, the more violent your original resistance to the proposition, the weaker will be your degree of "surrender" by "collaborating" with the form. But in cases where a decision is still to be reached, a yielding to the form prepares for assent to the matter identified with it. Thus, you are drawn to the form, not in your capacity as a partisan, but because of some "universal" appeal in it. And this attitude of assent may then be transferred to the matter which happens to be associated with the form. (A Rhetoric of Motives 58)
Here's an example Burke gives: "Who controls Berlin, controls Germany; who controls Germany controls Europe; who controls Europe controls the world" (58). He then says,
As a proposition, it may or may not be true. And even if it is true, unless people are thoroughly imperialistic, they may not want to control the world. But regardless of these doubts about it as a proposition, by the time you arrive at the second of its three stages, you feel how it is destined to develop--and on the level of purely formal assent you would collaborate to round out its symmetry by spontaneously willing its completion and perfection as an utterance. Add, now, the psychosis of nationalism, and assent on the formal level invites assent to the proposition as doctrine. (58-59)
A similar thing is going on here in this passage from Hitler. The audience already agrees with his discussion of cleaning up immorality because almost everybody agrees with not exposing young children to immorality. So, when he says the sickening of the moral instincts are problematic, they're already nodding their heads. But when Hitler tags on social and racial instincts while the audience is already nodding, it's hard for them to stop the head from going up and down because they've been doing it for the last 2 pages and are already passionate about what he's been saying. It's hard, when we agree so wholeheartedly about one thing that a speaker says, to stop agreeing when something we completely disagree is brought to the fore, especially if we're passionate about what the speaker has just told us before he's tagged something else on. What we try to do instead is figure out why what was said was said. It's actually harder for our brains to rewire themselves, so we try to justify our beliefs and the nodding of our heads.4

So where are we?
We are showing that Hitler's book is full of fallacies because his fallacies are evidence of his not being a good speaker. But, since the same kinds of arguments we make to others are also the same kinds of arguments that we make to ourselves in our own mind, since Hitler's arguments to us are bad, we also assume that his arguments to himself are bad. Meaning that Hitler is not a good person because his arguments are not good.

Fallacies are what Hitler is capable of. He's trained himself to think fallaciously. What this means is he's also making fallacies in his own mind, so the choices he makes are also "fallacious."

The counter-argument could be that Hitler doesn't really doesn't believe what he's saying--meaning he could be lying to us just to get us to follow him. But this counter-argument misses the whole point. Because even if Hitler is lying to us we still must classify him as a liar, which, by definition, is also a bad person.

But what if he doesn't know better? What if Hitler is using these fallacies on accident? One of my teachers, Nancy Christiansen, once taught me that to use fallacies on purpose makes a person evil, and to use them on accident makes a person a fool. But either an evil person or a foolish person isn't the kind of person we want to follow. It's not a good person.

Quintillian, a Roman rhetorician and educator, wrote that "[T]he mind cannot be in a condition for pursuing the most noble of studies unless it be entirely free from vice" (Institutio Oratorio 12.1.3). I don't know what is or was in Hitler's mind. I can't read his thoughts. But I don't need to know what was in his mind to know that he was not a good person. His actions tell me that.

Thoughts are arguments. And arguments are action. The next post will address actions.

1. The fallacy also borders on (and could be seen as a derivation from) a hasty generalization.

2. By discussing Hitler's Mein Kampf, I am not recommending that the reader go out and read Hitler. If you need something to read, read Aristotle. I am not advocating hate literature. I am only showing that there is something psychologically, logically, and morally wrong with the logic of hatred. See also this post.


4. Robert Cialdini discusses this in his book, Influence: Science and Practice.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part I: Speech

An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a speaker asserts a belief in and provides supporting evidence b, c, d, etc. for that assertion.

From this perspective, we argue with one another all the time--we say things and we back up what we have said with evidence. Teachers assert to students and give evidence for their assertions; lawyers assert and back those assertions up with evidence. It happens all over the place.

Let me be clear. By argue and arguing I do not mean that two (or more) people are yelling at one another at the top of their lungs. That is not (necessarily) an argument. An argument is not about bickering or fighting. It is about asserting something and backing that something up with reasons, and I do not write about the word as if it had a negative connotation.

I'm suddenly reminded of this video:

Okay. But so what?

Well, I think there's something deeper going on here that we don't always notice. And this something deeper is important to understand because it will help explain many of the nuances in the world around us. When we see this something deeper, we'll start to see arguments--assertions--all over the place, which, beside the fact that it's really cool, will help us understand who we are as human beings, how and why we understand and misunderstand one another, and why we do the things we do.

This post is the first of a 4-part series about the usefulness of broadly defining arguments to include things such as speech, thought, and action (and perhaps even objects?--I'm still figuring out this last one). This particular post will discuss arguments in terms of speech. So let's check it out.

An argument is an assertion or belief that is supported by evidence. So, even everyday statements like, "I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy," or "May I please cut in front of you because I am in a hurry?" are arguments.

So, the statement, "I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy" asserts that the speaker "appreciated what she said to me," and the reason for that assertion was whatever was said "made me feel happy." Okay.

We could also talk speech in commercials and how the people who write commercials try to persuade us to buy their product. They give us reasons why we should buy the product, such as this product will make you popular, it will make your life easier, or it will taste good. We could go on, but let's stop and talk about something more interesting and less obvious. Let's talk about statements that don't seem like arguments but that actually are arguments.

So what about the statement, "It made me happy"? Is that an argument? Are assertions (and hence arguments) nested and recursive? 

If they are, then the reasons that we use to back up our assertions are actually assertions with reasons behind them. And those reasons are further assertions, etc. Just for fun, let's assume that reasons are also assertions and see what we come up with.

So, in the above example, the reason, which is whatever was said "made me feel happy," is also an argument. This assertion's assertion is that something was said to make me feel happy. But what is the reason of the assertion's assertion? This is where things get interesting: the reason is not stated, but it still exists--in the mind of the speaker.

So what might be the reason? Or are we assuming too much in that last sentence by using the word the and the singular form of the word reason? In other words, there might be multiple reasons behind a single assertion. Some of those reasons are stated, while others exist unstated in the mind of the speaker.

But how on earth can an unstated reason actually be a reason for a stated assertion? Well, we can start from the fact that the words were spoken by someone in the first place. In other words, why do we even say anything?

The things we say reflect our individual capacity to choose: I say things in a certain way because I choose to speak, I choose to speak about something, and I choose how I will say what I want to say. Furthermore: we say things because we want to. The things we say and the way we say them are a reflection of our desires, appetites, attitudes, and emotions. The things we say are a reflection of states that we feel in our bodies.

So, going back to the above example, by asserting that something someone else said made me happy, I'm also asserting several of my own unstated beliefs.

I assert my belief
1. that it is desirable to speak about things that make me happy. 
2. that it is, in this case, a desirable thing to share information (especially positive information) with other people.
3. in being loyal to my hearers and sharing personal information with them.
In fact, depending on the context, the subject about which I'm speaking, my own emotional state of mind, who my audience is, and what that audience desires, there could be a whole bunch of other things we could have listed that will influence my assertions and my reasons--in short, my arguments. There's a lot going on when we say something. And we're usually not paying attention to everything that's going on.

So where are we?
1. An argument is an assertion with attached reasons, and we make arguments when we speak.
2. Our reasons behind our assertions are also themselves assertions with reasons.
Next step: I'd go so far as to say that we're always making arguments when we speak. Not only that, but our assertions (arguments) are so nuanced that we make multiple arguments and assertions whenever we speak and at the same time.

My grounds for that assertion come from my earlier-stated belief that the things we say and how we say them reflect our own capacity to choose. When I speak I make judgments about what is good and not good, and I try to the best of my ability to choose what is good--hopefully to choose what is better over what is good and what is best over what is better. I don't always choose the best or the better or even perhaps the good, but I try. And the more I try the better I get at it.

Let's look at another example, an example that would not seem like an argument because it is such a casual occurrence, but an example that nevertheless reveals a speaker's judgments.

Let's say I'm passing you on the sidewalk and I say, "Good morning." Is this statement an argument? It seems like it isn't, but from what we've discussed above, I believe that it is. So how do I back up that claim? What assertions does a simple, "Good morning," make?

Obviously, by saying, "Good morning," I am asserting that the morning is good. But what about the reasons? Do I as a speaker have evidence to back up my claim? Does my assertion that the morning is good have reasons? These reasons are certainly unstated, but they do exist--in my own mind, for I would not have said, "Good morning" if I did not have reasons for thinking that it indeed was a good morning.

So perhaps to me it is a good morning. Maybe I had sausage and an omelet for breakfast and washed it down with some orange juice, and maybe I hit all the green lights on the way to work. I have reasons to back up my claim, and I desire to share my good morning with other people by wishing someone I have not met a good morning.

I am also asserting that I am the kind of person that says, "Good morning" to a person he passes on the sidewalk. Some people don't say anything, some only make eye contact and nod, and others avoid eye contact altogether. Not only that, but saying, "Good morning," asserts that I am the kind of person that says, "Good morning," in this particular situation instead of any of the other things I could have said, or not said: instead of "Good morning," I could have said, "Hello," "Greetings," or "Wassup?" My act of choosing to say one thing over something else asserts that I am the kind of person who has chosen one thing over other things in this particular situation. My choice is an assertion, and my assertion is backed up by reasons.

But enough of speech. Let's move on to thoughts.

[Thoughts will be discussed in the next post.]

1. Sometimes, such as in logic and philosophy, an argument is defined as a form of persuasion based on reasons. Since an assertion based on reasons is also a form of persuasion, "a form of persuasion based on reasons" contains in germ the phrase "an assertion based on reasons." I only discuss an argument as an assertion based on reasons instead of as a form of persuasion based on reasons in this post.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Analysis of and Annotations on an Email I Just Received from The White House

Before we get to the good stuff, let me make one thing clear: I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with what the author below says, and my act of discussing the following email is not meant to promote nor contradict what it says.

All I want to do is reveal what is going in here through language. Both sides (dare I say "all people"?) use strategies such as the ones I'm discussing, so here we go. First the email, then my commentary.

Now it's time for some commentary. I'm going to talk about what the author(s?) are going to do to their audience through language. Let's look at the first bit:

The White House, Washington
Hi, all!
This week, we got some big news about the immigration reform bill. It's a little wonky, but it's so great that I couldn't wait to share it with you.
"Hi, all!"
First of all, the logo at the top gives the email an official and professional feel, yet the casual opening—with the brief and friendly “Hi,” “all,” and perhaps especially the exclamation point—invites the audience to feel at ease and get excited about what will follow. Excitement is contagious, as long as it’s not over the top, and I assume here that by expressing excitement the authors want readers to feel excitement. The authors seem sincere in that they really believe what follows, and who wouldn’t be excited after finding out the facts that follow? This excitement is all over the email and is manifest at the end of the first paragraph with, "it's so great that I couldn't wait to share it with you."

"a little wonky"
Honestly, I had to look the word wonky, but the word does add to the casual feel of the email. As citizens, we like things to be on our level, and politics is often so highly technical that we don’t understand it. By using casual speech and word choice to speak on the same level as readers, authors help readers make the assumption that authors and readers really are on the same level socially, intellectually, etc.

Also, “a little wonky” helps address concerns that audience members might already have about the issue. The phrase “a little wonky” is saying, when read in the context of the entire email, “Sure, the bill isn’t perfect—nothing is—but its merits outweigh its defects.” 

Now let's check out the next paragraph:
The nonpartisan experts who estimate the financial impact of legislation for Congress concluded that because undocumented immigrants will start paying more in taxes for things like education and Social Security, the immigration proposal in the Senate will make the economy fairer for middle class families while cutting the U.S. deficit by almost $1,000,000,000,000 over the next two decades.
"nonpartisan experts"
These are not just “experts,” but “nonpartisan experts.” This is a carefully chosen phrase. We like things to be nonpartisan because we like things to be unbiased. We are more likely to trust the authors when they tell us that they are using “nonpartisan” (read "unbiased") sources. Is "nonpartisan" equivalent with unbiased, however? I don't know. I don't think we have enough information here to answer that question. But it's easy to think they mean the same thing in this context.

"undocumented immigrants"
Note the careful word choice here, too: these are not “illegal” but “undocumented” immigrants. “Illegal” is a negative term, and the authors of this email want to stay positive.

"for things like"
Here we have some simple yet somewhat vague language: “things like” tells us that things are being simplified into terms that we can understand, but there are also things that are unlisted. There is more going on here than we know, but it’s also being translated. If we trust the authors we trust their translation, and if we like the casual and optimistic tone, we may not even question word choices such as this one.

"almost $1,000,000,000,000"
Spelling out the trillion is strategic: to see that many zeros on a page is impressive. It’s not every day that we see a number that big. “1,000,000,000,000” is physically longer (it takes more space on the page) than “a trillion.” Spelling the word out makes the concept seem bigger than if we just had “one trillion.” According to The White House's Google+ page, the number is closer 897,000,000,000. 

Finally, let's take a minute to check out the last two paragraphs:
With every passing day, it’s becoming clear that we can’t afford not to act. Now we know exactly how much is at stake, and it's the kind of news that can help to change the policy conversation in Washington.
So we've put together a graphic that explains exactly how this works, and we need your help to share it. If more people get the facts, it'll be easier to build a nationwide, bipartisan consensus to get this done.
"we know exactly"
This “we” is especially nuanced. Since above we’re told “almost $1,000,000,000,000,”  and since we’re also given simplified examples such as “things like,” as discussed above, can “we” really say that “we know exactly how much is at stake”? This particular “we” does not seem to include readers of the email but only the authors of the email, the “nonpartisan experts”--unless, of course, the readers of the document already trust and have sided with the authors. Then "we" really do "know exactly how much is at stake." Trust, as Aristotle once said, is the strongest rhetorical appeal. We believe those we trust. Trust is always an issue. Cf. Kenneth Burke's "Responsibilities of National Greatness" for more commentary and discussions about the identifications concerning the word we.

"the facts"

An ultimate term. See this and also this. The assumption here is that the things which the authors have shown readers in this email are the facts.

"bipartisan consensus"

Also an ultimate term. Most of us are sick of the fighting between parties. We want a “bipartisan consensus,” which is the political ideal. We do strive for agreement, and nothing gets done without it. The assumption here is that if we accept, agree with, and share the information contained in this email, we will begin to be less frustrated with partisan politics. 

Thanks for reading. Again, I'm not arguing for or arguing against the content of this email. I'm just discussing what the authors leave implicit.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Farmer and His Chickens, by Kenneth Burke

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had some chickens. Whenever he poured food into the chicken troughs, he would ring a bell and the chickens, hearing it, would come running. At the sound of the bell, the chickens knew it was time to eat, and they were hungry.

Months passed, and it eventually came time for the farmer and his family to eat the chickens. The farmer grabbed his gun and his ax and went out to the chicken coop. He also brought with him the bell. When the farmer got to the chicken coop he loaded his gun and rang the bell. Then the chickens came running.

The chickens were trained to believe that it was time to eat when the bell rang. But when the situation changed, they did not understand that the bell no longer signified that they would receive food--on the contrary, it now signified that they would become food. The chickens had been trained in a way that made them incapable to see things from another perspective.

So the chickens were killed, and the farmer and his family ate.

(This post is a retelling of an idea from Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change 7-10.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ruminations on E.T.

Yes, I know you've seen it, but it's probably been a while. It was the same for me when I'd watched it a few weeks ago. It had been a while.
Original poster found on Wikipedia

You remember it: E.T. gets stranded on earth, is found by a ten-year-old kid, Elliott, who befriends him. For a while, Elliott is the only one who knows about and can see E.T. And while he tries to tell others about E.T., they disbelieve him and are angry with him for making up worthless stories. Eventually, however, his siblings and some other kids start seeing E.T., too. The adults, on the other hand, have a hard time seeing him, either because the kids are trying to hide him from the adults or because the adults are so preoccupied that they don't see the signs that he is there. Sometimes, the adults don't even see E.T. when he is right in front of them, like the scene when Elliott's mother opens Elliott's closet and sees E.T., but mistakes him for a toy since E.T. has frozen in place. Indeed, the boys even say at one point that adults can't see E.T. E.T., however, wants nothing more than to go home.

Eventually, E.T. becomes ill. It's not exactly clear what makes him ill. Sure, he may have caught a cold by staying up all night trying to contact his alien family. Or maybe the Earth food had a negative effect on his immune system. He may also have become physically sick because he was mentally homesick. But this last time I watched it, I wondered about something else. Could it be that E.T. symbolizes an idea and, when that idea gets tampered with, dies? Could we say here that, in Wordsworth's words, "Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-- / We murder to dissect"?

Eventually, E.T. is discovered by adults, and they start trying to help him, to cure him, of his sickness. But could it be that we're not seeing everything here? Could they also be doing tests on him and otherwise messing around with this new creature that they had never before seen and never would see again? For who can withstand the curious inclination to discover and behold something that no other earthling had ever seen before?

Perhaps it's a long stretch. But whatever happens, E.T.'s body can't handle it, either the sickness, the tests, or both. Perhaps in their trying to help E.T., the doctors actually hurt him. At least, that's what Elliott believes and even screams at one point.

Are there some things that die when they get tampered with? I'm suddenly reminded of two things.

C. S. Lewis, in his first-published Narnia book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, dedicates the book to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield with the following statement:
My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather, 
C. S. Lewis
What does Lewis mean when he says that "some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again"? Do we get to a point in our lives where we begin to take for granted some of the best things? Best things? What am I saying? J.R.R. Tolkien has written that fairy tales, or fantasy, is "not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent" ("On Fairy Stories," The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays 139). That may sound like quite a surprising statement from an Oxford don and Cambridge professor, a world-renowned philologist and scholar of Anglo Saxon. Why would he say such a thing?

Does this mean that all fairy tales are worth while? Certainly not. For while some stories shouldn't be read at all because they aren't worth our time, "If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults." ("On Fairy Stories" 137).

Yes, E.T. comes back to life when Elliott says through tears that he loves E.T. But after that, both E.T. and Elliott are on the run. The kids are the ones that save E.T. from capture the second time, and the kids are the ones that take him back to the forest where his ship comes to rescue him. The adults, except for Elliott's mother, don't see him up close after that.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here's what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju's mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju's mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju's mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom's family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju's mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can't describe the expression on Ju's mom's face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn't understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A's experiences and person B's experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We're all human beings here. And we don't have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Considering Sources of Knowledge as We Near the End of Another Semester

Before we began the current semester just a few months ago, we may have heard or felt a subtle voice that called us by name, saying,
Where are your books?--that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you! (William Wordsworth, "Expostulation and Reply")
Had we not heard this voice, at least in some form and to some degree, we probably would not have began our studies this semester.

And yet, now that we're nearing the end of it, some of us may hear yet another voice, one that is now telling us the exact opposite:
Up! up! my Friend and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it. (William Wordsworth, "The Tables Turned")
We hear this voice as finals week approaches and, especially when we look outside and see the beginnings of a warm and bright spring day, are almost compelled to agree: "An 'endless strife' indeed!"

But the purpose of the above poem, as I understand it at least, is not to denounce books or to say that there is no value in learning. It is, on the other hand, to say that there are more and perhaps better sources of knowledge and learning than that which comes out of books alone. The poet continues:
And Hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
. . .
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives. (William Wordsworth, "The Tables Turned")
Enough--that's what's on our minds as we contrast sitting in a room and taking a test or writing a paper with what happens on the other side of the window: white clouds, blue sky, and warm sun. When we consider this contrast, perhaps our thoughts flow to this question that was implicitly asked in the first poem: Why do I do the things I do? Why do we read and study so much?

Here's another related poem by Walt Whitman on the same subject. He writes about charts and diagrams the same way Wordsworth discusses books in the above poem. Here it is:
When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the stronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Knowledge can come from books and lectures and charts. But these are not the only sources of knowledge.

In the above poem, we don't get to the stars until the very end--the last word, even. In other words, we don't symbolically ascend until we've physically left the lecture hall and actually turned our gaze upward. A focus on one thing involves to some degree a neglect of something else (cf. Burke Permanence and Change 49), and if a gaze is looking at "charts and diagrams"--or words on a page or a computer screen--it is conversely not seeing stars in "perfect silence" and "mystical moist night-air."

That isn't to say that something might not be learned by seeing these "charts and diagrams" or words on a page or a screen. Quite the contrary. But when we sit in a lecture hall and look at charts and diagrams, we're only seeing a symbolic representation of the stars. The stars are not actually seen with the eye. They are only "seen" symbolically with the mind (Cf. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By).

Charts and diagrams--books--should ultimately lead people to study things as they really are--dare I use the word truth here? Yes, I think so. I believe that truth is things as they really are. There may, of course be some value in studying books and charts for their own sake--it it is important to look at a lens from time to time in order to make sure that the lens is a pure instrument for letting us see through it.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way:
Men of the world who value the Way all turn to books. But books are nothing more than words. Words have value; what is of value in words is meaning. Meaning has something it is pursuing, but the thing that it is pursuing cannot be put into words and handed down. (Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Watson 1968, 152)
In more religious discourse, Joseph Smith expresses the same idea as Wordsworth, Whitman, and Zhuang:
Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relationship to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.
Yes, books are certainly valuable. But there's more to learning than just seeing words on a page.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Crossing a Crosswalk in the Rain

Ben had been running, and it was time to turn around and go home. He knew it was time for two reasons: first, he was tired, and second, he was drenched. He wasn't drenched with sweat, however (at least, hopefully he didn't sweat that much); he was drenched because it had been pouring down rain ever since he left his house. Ben wasn't very cold though--his own movements had kept him warm, but he knew he didn't want to stay out in the rain much longer, as exhilarating and liberating as running in the rain might be.

So he turned around and ran the other direction.

There were no other faces in the rain that day. Ben was the only person on the sidewalk, probably thanks to the downpour, and the only other traces of human beings were the cars, trucks, vans, and suburbans that came constantly up and down the 4-lane road. There was a variety of them, just like there would be in any other city. Their headlights illuminated the drops of water that fell from the sky, drops that were otherwise invisible unless you looked at the ground and saw their points of impact on the wet surfaces. But there were no faces. Ben tried to look through the windows of the passing cars. He wanted to catch a glimpse of another human being, another face. But he couldn't see anything, or anyone, inside.

Ben knew he would need to cross the street in order to return home, but there were too many vehicles and no room or place for him to cross. Like a wall. He couldn't just run across the road. If he did, his actions would cause some of these vehicles to slam on their brakes which would then get them rear-ended by the vehicles that drove behind them. It wouldn't be a pretty sight, even if he didn't get hit. No, he wouldn't--couldn't--just run across the road, even though that's what he had done on his way down. It didn't make sense; it wasn't logical. Besides, there was a crosswalk up ahead. It wasn't far, and he would get there soon enough. He would cross at the crosswalk.

Ben kept running. Rain landed on his cheeks and in his eyes when the wind blew, so sometimes he had to squint to see where he was stepping. Earlier, the rain would mix with his sweat and with the gel that he hadn't washed out of his hair before he went running. Then the rain-gel-sweat would drip into his eyes and sting. But now there wasn't really any gel left. Just water and sweat.

Ben was getting closer to the crosswalk.

There sure were a lot of cars. Endless, they seemed. Ben wondered why there were so many and where they were headed. He also wondered about the people, those faces that he couldn't see but that he knew were still inside these vehicles, somewhere. He thought about how each face, each person was headed in a specific direction and towards a specific destination. Each also had a reason for being in his or her car at that particular time, and each had some idea of where he or she was going. Where exactly were they all going? What was on their agenda? How long would these cars stay on the same road together, and when would they part company without ever actually meeting, without ever actually seeing the face behind those other windshields?

Ben approached the crosswalk and slowed, letting his shoes slap against the sidewalk in a small puddle. It was one of those crosswalks that is not at an intersection, but that still has a button for pedestrians to push so they can safely cross. Unless the system is malfunctioning, the traffic light above the crosswalk is always green unless a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button. Then it would turn red and stop traffic.

Ben was the only one around and wanted to cross the street. He pushed the button. It was one of those buttons that isn't really a button but a slab of metal that you don't really push--when your finger touches the metal, a little red light blinks and you hear a two short tones, a higher one followed by one that is less high. As is typical with these kind of crosswalks when they haven't had a pedestrian in a while, the stoplights turn yellow and then red almost immediately. Those lights had to turn red in order for the pedestrian light to turn green. The masses had to stop so that the individual could cross.

Ben watched the stoplight change color. And as it turned to red, Ben saw the consequences of his act. It was a chain reaction. At first, a car in one lane kept driving, even though the light was red. But the other vehicles stopped at the red light. Then the vehicles behind them stopped, and so on, down as far as Ben could see in the rain. He looked through the windshield of the car in front and thought he saw the outline of a face that was distorted by the wet windshield. The wipers passed in front of the outline, yet the image didn't get any clearer to Ben.

But the cars on both sides of the road had stopped--all of them. Or rather, he had stopped themIt didn't matter what their destination was, why they were on the road, or even how late they were. They were not moving. It was almost as if Ben had stopped time and parted a sea of rubber, fiberglass, plastic, aluminum, and steel. But he wasn't crossing on dry ground.

One small act of raising an arm and touching a metal pole to some degree changed this corner of the world--not just for Ben, but for every face in every vehicles, those faces that sat there waiting for a lone, soaking pedestrian to cross the street so he could go home.

Only then could they continue their journey to their respective destinations.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Rent Collector and Zizek

I recently finished a book called The Rent Collector. It's about a woman, Sang Ly, who lives in a garbage dump in Cambodia. She and her husband collect bottles and metal they find so they can sell them in order to make enough money to eat dinner. They also have a baby boy who is perpetually sick thanks to the neverending trash, stench, and lack of nourishment. Their house is 3 tin walls with a tarp for a roof, and they sleep on cardboard. The dump is constantly on fire because methane builds up under the trash and spontaneously ignites, so they have to be careful where they walk. And if that isn't bad enough, there's a drunk old woman who goes around collecting "rent" from the inhabitants of the dump. As if the people who live in Stung Meanchy (the dump) aren't poor enough.

Well, Sang Ly makes a deal with someone who can read, and the book is about her learning to read even though she lives in constant poverty. It's worth reading.

It's interesting because I look around me and see all of the things that I think I really need to live that I may not be absolutely essential--things like my computer, phone, food, shower, running water, carpeted floor, matress, to sleep on, and the internet. I've been living in this way for so long that I don't often think about what life might be like without these things. And yet, life isn't like that for everybody on earth. Some people work all day just to make enough money to eat dinner. And then they go to work the next day just to do it all over again. There's not much time for entertainment. Just survival.

And yet, we're constantly told otherwise. We're told to consume, to spend money, and, in short, to Enjoy! On that note of enjoyment, well, we certainly do live in a society saturated with entertainment (to what degree is or is not this a result of capitalism, an ideology of which money is a, if not the, god-term?). While entertainment is necessary and good to some degree, when it becomes a primary focus of an individual or a society, it can be dangerous. I've never read it, but perhaps Neil Postman was on to something when he titled one of his books Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Distinguishing Nature from Custom: On Journeys and Adventures--Perhaps Especially the Unexpected Kind

Life is good, but do you ever get that feeling that it's sometimes not as good as it could be? To be honest, I get it all the time. It's like there's something missing, but in order to obtain that missing thing I have to do something I've never done before. And it's not exactly easy to get outside of a comfort zone.

Well, now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been in theaters for almost two months, I think it would be useful (and interesting) to consider those feelings discussed above and some of their possible solutions as they appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The Original 1937 Cover. Doesn't it look adventurous?
But why? Well, even though Bilbo's adventure certainly is an unexpected journey as the movie's subtitle suggests, the story is a lot more than that. It is not just a physical journey from Bilbo's hobbit-hole in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain and back again, but more importantly, The Hobbit is also a symbolic journey during which Bilbo becomes something better than he once was. The story describes Bilbo's change from a somewhat typical hobbit to an extraordinary one, from a being that was once content with who he was to one that, when he left his comfortable home to go on an epic quest, ended up helping those who needed help and was actually true to a part of himself that he wasn't sure existed, a part of himself that he found only when he left his comfort zone.

Let's talk about Bilbo's comfort zone, which was comfortable in several ways. At the beginning of The Hobbit, we're told that hobbits live in comfort and relaxation. Hobbit-holes, the places where Hobbits live, are by definition comfortable:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (3)
Bilbo's own hobbit-hole is perhaps even more so, by hobbit standards. Besides being one of the biggest and best hobbit-holes that included a garden, Bilbo's has things like "a perfectly round door like a porthole . . . a very comfortable tunnel without smoke . . . polished chairs, . . ." etc. (3). It was a nice home, and for a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins had the life.

But, like the rest of us, to some degree Bilbo can be defined by the places in which he spends his time, and more especially so by those places in which he spends the majority of his time. Since Bilbo's hobbit-hole is described as comfortable, perfect, and polished, we can also assume that his life was similar: it was certainly comfortable, was about as polished as it could get, and it was, in a word, perfect--as far as typical hobbits go, of course. Bilbo's neighbors expected him to do certain things, to say certain words, and to be a certain kind of hobbit, and Bilbo accurately and consistently fulfilled those expectations. He was a "very respectable" hobbit because the Bagginses "never had any adventures or did anything unexpected" (3).

This is the version I read when I was younger.
It almost looks like Bilbo lives in a sort of Eden-before-
the-Fall, or maybe even a pre-mortal-life-before-his-
That is, until along came Gandalf to tell Bilbo, "I am looking for someone to share an adventure I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone" (6).

At the word difficult, it's no wonder that Bilbo gives what we might call a typical hobbit-response: "I should think so--in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" (6, emphasis added). I have italicized the word uncomfortable to make obvious what seems to be an inconsistent relationship between the life of a hobbit and the having, going on, and perhaps even the very existence of adventures. Real hobbits like Bilbo don't go on adventures or quests. They only do what is expected of them, and Bilbo would have none of Gandalf's talk. Or so he thought.

After Bilbo hopped inside to get away from Gandalf's talk of adventures, he shut his perfectly round door, leaving Gandalf outside. In response, Gandalf lowers the tip of his staff to the door and leaves his mark on it, a mark that we're told "made quite a dent on the beautiful door" (11). We're obviously getting some foreshadowing here--Gandalf's act of leaving his mark on a "perfect" door does create a dent, but the door is still functional. The door has something that it did not have before. It has the mark of someone older and wiser than the actual owner, and the mark of someone who knew the owner better than the owner knew himself (7). Bilbo's perfect life is about to get a dent in it. But that dent is coming from someone who knows best.

Bilbo does acknowledge that Gandalf knows at least as much about Bilbo as Bilbo knows about himself: when the dwarves see the mark the next day and enter Bilbo's house for tea while Gandalf returns, steps inside, and tells the dwarves where Bilbo's food is located, Bilbo says that Gandalf "Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!" (12). The location (Bilbo's hobbit-hole at Bag End) and the character (Bilbo himself) can be interchangeable to some degree, and when we talk about one, we are also to some degree talking about the other.

Alright. So, all the dwarves are sitting around in Bilbo's house and Gandalf is there, too. And at first, Bilbo doesn't want anyone there. He doesn't even want to think about adventures or anything of the kind. He just wants to have dinner by himself. But something happens to Bilbo that wakes up a part of himself that he didn't even know existed. Something makes him want to go on this adventure and leave his comfortable home.

It looks a bit like the first edition's cover.
Suddenly, after dinner is finished, the dwarves pull out instruments. Clarinets, flutes, viols, a drum, and a harp--"It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin [the leader of the dwarf company] struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill" (14), the author tells us. Then the dwarves sing. They sing about their past and their ancestors. They sing about adventure, their once-powerful race, and its fall from greatness. They sing of the current, sorrowful state of their people. And they sing of their desire to restore that which was lost.

Note that music, poetry and stories do something to Bilbo. They influence him, and the songs that were sung in his hobbit-hole that evening gave Bilbo a "love of beautiful things" (16), and a desire to act, a desire to change: "Then something . . . woke up inside of [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick" (16).

You'll notice that I omitted a word in the previous sentence with an ellipsis (. . .). That word is Tookish: the sentence actually reads, " Then something Tookish woke up inside of him." The Tooks were some of Bilbo's ancestors who went on many adventures, and hence, as their descendant, Bilbo had a part of them in him. We could almost say that to some degree Bilbo had an innate desire for adventure. There's evidence for this innate desire when Bilbo, as soon as he recognizes Gandalf for the first time, says,
Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves--or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter--I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time. (7)
This statement gives us evidence that, to some degree, Bilbo wasn't completely true to himself. He was living a life in which he was content, but there was, however, something inside of him that desired adventure, something that he had stifled and choked until it had fallen asleep, and something that had woken up when Bilbo was moved by the song of the dwarves. And when that something woke up inside of him, Bilbo began to distinguish who he thought he was with who he really was. He began to realize that there was a part of himself that was hungry and needed nourishment. Was he merely a hobbit that would just sit around and be comfortable? No, that was only part of it. His adventurous, Tookish part desired more. It desired to do something in the world.

Of course, this desire of Bilbo's doesn't always stay with him. It keeps coming and going, and it does so because he hasn't been nurturing it. For so long, Bilbo had kept the desire for adventure underground, and it will take him some practice to finally keep that desire constantly. Even good desires come and go. They do so because they haven't yet been cultivated, and it will take a long time for Bilbo to become comfortable with the adventurous and Tookish part of himself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back in the hobbit-hole, the dwarves aren't yet convinced. They don't know who this guy is or how he will be useful for their adventure. They're worried that he'll just take up space, make things inconvenient, and eat all the food. They're reluctant to let him come along with them, at least until Gandalf makes this profound statement: "I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you . . . There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself" (19).

That seems to satisfy the dwarves for now, but Bilbo is still a bit hesitant to leave his comfort zone on a quest that no one even thinks about describing as safe. Even having a desire to leave doesn't exactly make it any easier, for it's hard for all of us to leave the known and step into the unknown. At this point, the movie adds an insightful line: Bilbo naturally asks Gandalf, "Can you guarantee that I'll return?"

And Gandalf responds, "No. And you won't be the same if you do."

No, Bilbo certainly isn't the same when he returns. But since I realize that some people haven't read the book, perhaps I'll save what I have to say about the story's ending until the third movie comes out. Let me at least say the obvious, that Bilbo ends up better than he was when he left. And it is always interesting to me to note that, before he left, he thought that he didn't need a adventure. After all, adventures are just "Nasty, uncomfortable things" that "Make you late for dinner!" and for a hobbit, dinner is everything (it's an ultimate term)--and no rational hobbit would ever want to be late for dinner, let alone go without it, as Bilbo often does during his quest with the dwarves. But when Bilbo gained a love for more beautiful things, his vision and perspective were expanded, and he was motivated to forget about things like being late for dinner.

I'm reminded of a statement by Samuel Johnson (he was a famous writer in England about 300 years ago), that might just summarize this post and the transformation that Bilbo goes through. In the following quote, Johnson is talking about writing, but we can apply the same principle to Bilbo Baggins' symbolic journey, as well as to human beings and human interactions in general:
It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established. (The Rambler 152)
I think this is what happens to Bilbo during his unexpected journey. He comes to realize that the comfortable customs around him, while nice, weren't always the best, and there was something more to who he was than what he had become.

I found this image on

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