May 31, 2020

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2020

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to say anything about architectural history, or anthropology.

C. E. Stalbaum, The Last Goddess
Mind candy: Wily Thieves get embroiled in politico-religio-magical machinations in Fantasyland.
Sonia P. Seherr-Thoss, Design and Color in Islamic Architecture: Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey (Photographs by Hans C. Seherr-Thoss, introduction by Donald N. Wilber)
This is a gorgeously-illustrated photo book of outstanding architectural monuments from those countries, more or less ending with the Timurids and Ottomans. It shows its age (1968) primarily in the assumption that a western reader might hope to visit most of these magnificent buildings.
(Thanks to my parents for a copy.)
Elsa Hart, City of Ink
Mind candy historical mystery: continuing adventures of a mild-mannered early-Qing-dynasty scholar who keeps having to unravel murders when all he really wants to do is quietly pursue his implacable revenge. I love these and just wish Hart would write faster.
Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hid from Our Eyes
Nth (9th?) volume in a mystery series in set in upstate New York. Spencer-Fleming's weird hybrid of clerical mystery, police procedural, and portrait of small town life continues to work much better than it ought to.
Pascal Boyer, Tradition as Truth and Communication: A Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse
This is an interesting-but-weird one, making a kind of poverty-of-stimulus argument about "tradition". Boyer is an anthropologist, and draws a lot of examples from his West African field-work. He's not interested in traditions like foodways, vernacular architecture, or even genealogies. Rather, he's interested in traditions like oral epics, initiation rites, and divination, and magical cures or curses. Anthropologists have tended to explain these as expressions of shared traditional world-views. Boyer denies that such shared traditional world-views exist. The shaman, or epic bard, or initiate, has not learned a fuller, more articulated version of the world-view shared by other members of the community. Rather, they have seen examples from predecessors, and deploy them opportunistically ("anthills are a sign of witchcraft", except for all the anthills which aren't). The results of divination rituals, etc., are supposed to be believed because they are supposed to directly connect the diviner with the object of inquiry. The secrets revealed to initiates can be trivial because the real point is just having been initiated. (*)
Boyer would, I think, allow that some shamans, bards, etc., might induce a coherent world-view out of their individual experiences of tradition discourse and rites, but would ask why we'd expect those different shamans' inductions to point in the same direction, towards a shared world-view. He would say it's psychologically strange if they did, and what other evidence do we have of this shared world-view? It's something anthropologists posit to explain traditions and rituals, not something they ever directly encounter evidence for. I think these are strong arguments, though not perhaps decisive ones. I called this a "poverty-of-stimulus" argument, and that phrase was of course introduced by Chomsky to name the following line of reasoning:
  1. The examples of language children are exposed to are not informative enough to uniquely pick out the grammar (syntax, morphology, etc.) of their native language. (Grammar induction done on these stimuli could return all sorts of languages.)
  2. But all normal children do learn the same grammar of their native language (**);
  3. Therefore they must have an innate language-learning capacity which, presented with these impoverished stimuli, will return a grammatical language, and will return the same grammatical language from different stimulus sets. (As I've intimated before, Chomsky's "universal grammar" is basically a regularizer for an ill-posed inverse problem.)
Boyer's point (in these terms) is that there isn't an innate world-view-learning mechanism, so bards, shamans, lay-people, etc., will not acquire the same or even very similar world-views.
Now, without getting into the issue of whether the linguistic stimuli available to children are really as impoverished as Uncle Noam supposed (cf.), I could imagine a defender of traditional world-views making such a reply to Boyer, say that from (uncontradicted) instances of anthills being designated signs of witchcraft, any normal person will, in fact, induce such-and-such an elaborate cosmology. (This would seem to imply that, romantic exaltations to the contrary notwithstanding, the human imagination is in fact very limited and uniform from person to person...) The natural counter would be that we can (more or less) see that people who've learned the same language agree on its grammar, and there's no counterpart to that for traditional world-views. (It's fairly explicit that Boyer thinks the introduction of writing changes this situation a lot, and Goody's Domestication of the Savage Mind is duly cited.) And innate learning devices ought not to be multiplied without necessity.
There's a lot of interesting material in this brief little book, and potential connections to all kinds of debates. I've sketched above how it might link up to psychological and anthropological arguments about innateness and learning. Regular readers may have already made the links to the work of Dan Sperber and his school, though Sperber is not, I believe, mentioned in the text. Stephen Turner's work on tacit knowledge and "the social theory of practices" points in similar directions. All of this also also potentially links up with ideas about informal institutions in economics and sociology. If I were a real scholar of anthropology, I would of course now be digging out critical replies and rejoinders, instead of just imagining them...
(There is also a collision waiting to happen between Traditionalists and this theory of "tradition as truth and communication", where, e.g., the primordial esoteric wisdom passed down by the chain of initiation is the secret that there is no secret wisdom. But I guess this is just one part Straussianism to one part Foucault's Pendulum, and so not worth elaborating.)
*: I suspect he may be down-playing the extent to which humiliating initiation rites work towards social control by elders through sad-but-mundane psychological mechanisms. If you let old men do degrading things to you, and you admit to yourself that all you learned from the ordeal is that the spirits who frighten the women are really those old men in masks (which you may have half-suspected anyway), you're just a punk. But it's intolerable to think that you are a punk, therefore the initiation must have been really valuable in some other way, and you will commit yourself to the cause. (This would make initiation ordeals parallel to the grotesque displays of servility, or attacks on designated enemies, demanded by monarchs and cult leaders.) But this is mere arm-chair theorizing.
**: Strictly speaking, Chomsky doesn't need everyone to learn the same grammar, just sufficiently similar grammars for mutual intelligibility. This is good, because, on learning-theoretic grounds, it's hard to see how we could guarantee that the grammars would be exactly the same. The late Partha Niyogi actually developed an interesting theory of language evolution where this idea played an important role.
Hellboy in Hell
A Walk Through Hell
Comic book mind candy, all in various flavors of horror. (A propos of Semiautomagic, I can't resist saying that if you're convinced you'll never get tenure anyway, teaching at a school notorious for not granting tenure to young scholars isn't such a bad idea.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Portraits of Our Ancestors; Commit a Social Science; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Writing for Antiquity; Islam and Islamic Civilization; Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted at May 31, 2020 23:59 | permanent link

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