“A Disrespect for Certain Kinds of Things”
When Richard Feynman was a boy, his dad would take him on nature walks through the woods near his home. His father would point out a bird and say “there’s a Spencer’s Warbler” and explain to him how at that very second it was eating the lice that ate the proteins off its feathers because everything is a source of food for something else.
It turns out that only half of what he told him was true. The important half. The part about why the bird acted the way that it did, what it was doing, or what it meant. The name was mostly just jibberish.
To Richard Feynman, this was an important theme for the rest of his life. When he taught in Brazil, he realized that although the students often studied physics, they rarely understood it. To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy. What people forget, he felt, was that the words themselves are relatively worthless. Their meaning is what has value.
I saw that Fred Wilson gave a speech a few weeks ago on what he called “earned media.” It’s very likely that this will be one of the next big internet phrases. And as usual, people will miss the operative word: earn. They’ll miss that the concept is both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts. That “earned media” communicates both a literal definition (hard work) as well as an idea (genuine vs paid media). They’ll be too busy “using” the word to really understand it. I’m sure only few of them will stop to think about how strange it is that the concept is also known as “free media.”
What made Feynman so special, at least to me, was that he only cared about what things meant. His father taught him that there was an enormous difference in knowing about a bird and knowing what other people call birds. One is harder to test, it doesn’t fit as well into textbooks, and like earned media takes time to accumulate.
Deciding to live that way is difficult but admirable decision. People who are self-taught know how embarrassing it is to try to use a word you’ve seen but never actually heard before – how quickly someone will jump in to correct you. But which side of the table do you want to be on? The side doing the correcting or the doing? Correct in detail or in principle?
I can really relate to some of this.
A few weeks ago I went to my school’s writing lab to have a transfer essay I wrote looked over. To start, the guy who was helping me made me read it out loud, to try to find the awkward sentences and such.
At one point in my essay I had used the word “apotheosis” but had never actually heard the word out loud and had difficulty pronouncing it. Before continuing the person I was reading to stopped me and asked if I actually knew what the word meant, understandably since I mispronounced it. When I told him both definitions of the word, and how both meanings fit well into the point I was trying to make, he didn’t believe there were two definitions and went and grabbed a dictionary to try to call me on a mistake.
I think this is also why I will never be great at history classes;sure I can understand what happened, but if you want me to remember dates and names I always have difficulty.
I only read a small portion of The Peloponnesian Wars, but what your saying about Feynman sounds similar to the Thycidides’ intro to the book–saying essentially that not all the facts are themselves accurate, but that this should be overlooked to understand the ideas he presents.
Correct me if I’m wrong. In either case, interesting post.
“To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy.”
Given the subject of the post, I’m sure this must be a deliberately provocative error…
The accuracy with which you strike the heart of often contemplated but rarely discussed issues fascinates me. For my sake I hope that it is not a talent, and instead can be learned with time and practice.
At http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ascetic if you click on the speaker next to the word, it pronounces it for you. They have this feature available for nearly every word on there. http://www.merriam-webster.com/ has the feature as well but it’s in a pop-up window so it’s really slow.
I duno, this was okay, but this blog is at its most interesting when the comments section isn’t one massive elephant walk. Know what I mean?
Are you saying that you don’t understand how IP addresses work and you’re under the impression that I don’t know who this is?
I really wish I didn’t look up the phrase “elephant walk.”
[“To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy.”
Given the subject of the post, I’m sure this must be a deliberately provocative error…]
I think your point is that the true disciple of Socrates’ would be the person reading Greek, not the one dissecting philosophy. But being able to read Greek is not the same as understanding the meaning of your being able to read Greek. It’s not even the same as understanding the meaning in the Greek you’re reading. You aren’t automatically closer to the Socratic ideal by being a practitioner if you’re only doing your work mechanically. Socratic FAIL.
But how interesting that you fixed on Ryan’s “error” even though you clearly ascertained his meaning, which you then failed to apply by commenting only on his “error.”
It occurs to me that we may now be stuck in an infinite regression…