The best part about Law and Order is that you can turn on any episode, at any point in time, and have everything you need. The show just does what it is supposed to do. This is because Dick Wolf designed the concept around the parameters of the syndication market, which had never been very kind to dramas. They’re too difficult to break apart and air out of order across channels. But not Law and Order. In fact, it is so different that were channels so inclined, they could split each episodes into two independent halves when the show switches from the investigation to the prosecution and have twice as many.
If I wrote a book about stoicism, I would have so much to say that I wouldn’t have any room to waste on ‘catching people up to speed.’ I wouldn’t even mention Zeno or Cleanthes or Chrysippus or Panaetius. Just like Law and Order doesn’t waste time on flashbacks and character romances and plot lines that bridge between episodes. The same should be true for any book, especially philosophy. But so many pages are wasted on dates and places and context and all this crap that nobody needs.
I’ll put it this way. Most times when I finish a book, I still have no idea who the author was or how to pronounce the names of the characters and subjects they wrote about. I will often find myself in a conversation about something I’ve known very well for a very long time and realize I have no idea how I am about to pronounce the word that is going to come out of my mouth.
The message from other people is that this is supposed to be embarrassing. Or insufficient or uneducated. In fact, in school you’re punished for doing so. But it seems to me that this is not only the best way but the way the author would want. Because what matters are the ideas and they only matter now, to you.
The rest is filler and masturbation. Or worse, it’s a ruse.
Are you against masturbation?
I pretty much agree with everything in your post, just wish to emphasize one thing: a context and a story are necessary when the idea is a bit too complex or seems too ‘obvious’ or it’s not clear what it’s pointing towards when plainly stated – the whole Curse of knowledge thing, and the necessity of a story to carry the idea like a scaffolding and then disappear from memory once we grasp the essence – like your intro-example of Law and Order.
On the other hand, as you say, the danger (and the problem with most of today’s educational systems) is in thinking that the scaffolding is what’s important. I guess some gravitate to it because it’s measurable? It’s easier to memorize such things than actually connect the dots behind them? I guess that it’s also scary for some to grasp the ideas, because the ideas point you towards proper action in the real world (which entails uncertainty and risk and demands that you learn a lot more “vague” stuff – it exposes you much more vividly to your anti-library), while just sitting there and knowing facts is “safe”.
You know what this will get you? A fragmented mind. The ideas you absorb may very well shape your paradigm and become part of who you are, but knowing the source of those ideas is knowing yourself. You’re limiting yourself by removing the context from your internalized observations. You’ll be a person with no knowledge of how you came to be.
You’re saying that, even though you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, you have no desire to know the giant’s name or see his face? I don’t get it.
This post illustrates why I genuinely hate reading fantasy; when I tried The Fellowship, there were so many names, dates and flashback information that I couldn’t tell past from present from future. Hogwash! Let’s give books the fine hair cut they need for a more appealing Do.
how could schools measure what matters?
Ryan and Frank,
Thanks for articulating my own ongoing internal dialogue with more subtlety and nuance than I have ever been able to. It is much appreciated, and also helps me be a little more gentle with myself for not ‘resolving’ this paradox. I hope you find each others’ words as useful and reassuring as I have.
“The rest is filler and masturbation. Or worse, it’s a ruse.” I could not agree more with Ryan on this. I do believe what matters is the idea and not the names and places. I only write down the name of the author if I feel I need to find more about his other writings.
“You’re saying that, even though you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, you have no desire to know the giant’s name or see his face? I don’t get it.”
He was simply saying that as long as you understand the ideas and the themes and the content, then remembering the names of the stuff that doesn’t matter isn’t important, and is a waste of time.
So if the names and faces of the giants don’t matter, then yes, he doesn’t want to know them. If for some reason in your crazy analogy a person needs to know the names or see the faces, then they are, for some reason, important and not what Ryan was talking about.
Sometimes it matters to have a frame of reference with dates and names – sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously, the primary concept of a book is paramount. I can’t imagine having an understanding of history without a vague idea of time-line for all history. I don’t memorize dates, but I do need to relate what was going on about the same time in various parts of the world.
I do understand what you’re saying. I just think it is a little over the top to discard all but the idea of any given discipline.