Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Knowing'

Sometimes I feel that I'm saying things here—into the void of cyberspace, and is it a case of "in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream" and/or "do you really make a cyberspace sound if nobody hears it?"—that are so dazzlingly obvious that they should require no elaboration. Yet I elaborate. Why is this so?

Here's a case in point.

Question: What does it mean to 'know somebody'?

Like when you say "I feel I know you!" or maybe "Sometimes I think I don't know you at all!"—whatever the case may be.

What say with this is effectively: "I know what's going on one your head." And even more importantly: "I know what you're going to do in a given situation."

If we're wanting something more profound, we may think of 'knowing' someone's 'soul', whatever that's supposed to be. But basically it boils down to something that's ultimately concerned with explanation and prediction.
  • Explanation of why some person acted in a particular way in a particular context.
  • Prediction of how some person is going to act in a particular context in the future.
That's really all there's to it. Our 'knowing' of another is confirmed either by the consistency of our post hoc explanations or the success of our predictions. It is called into question by the lack of said consistency or predictive success.

But is that really all there is to 'knowing'? And, even if it is, is there something 'behind' all this, that is the actual thing to be known? And what, if anything, is that 'thing'; that element of what there is to be 'known' about a person?

To any self-respecting Aburdist or non-religious Existentialist, 'the Soul' obviously won't cut it as a suitable answer. Besides, we then have to ask further: "What about the soul is it that we claim to 'know'?" It's likely way to respond to this or that situation? That's basically, as any half-decent philosopher should know, a naïve form of materialism, where the soul is some object of substance, no matter how esoteric, which takes the part of the body in defining the 'real you', or something along those lines.

A much more useful question to ask about 'knowing' is: "What characteristic of our beings, what property, events, cause-effect relationships, and so on, can actually be held to be broadly causative of our actions and therefore need to be properly understood, or their detailed nature or contents identified and characterized, in order to serve as suitable explanatory frameworks for explanation and prediction—and thus qualify as the things that we need to be able to claim to 'know' if we want to make any sensible statement about 'knowing' a human being?"

Yeah, that was a long and convoluted sentence—offending my own sense of 'Plain English, please!' So, I apologize, but I'm not going to rewrite it.

The answer—and you could have predicted it, coming from me—is, of course, that it's the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the people around us and the world and the universe. Know the stories and know the person. It's a simple and complex as that.

What changes as we go through life—in some people more than in others, driven by their dispositions and life experiences—are our stories. And when someone says to someone else "I just don't know you anymore!" that's all they're saying: "Even if I once knew your stories, I know don't anymore; at least not the ones that matter to our relationship."

Think about that next time you look at another person. Think about what it means for your relationship, and for what you have to do—and the other person has to do—to make it better.

A quick note about fiction writers—whose business it is, of course, to tell stories that usually aren't true, except maybe in a metaphorical, symbolic or allegorical sense. Any fiction writer, however, will, by implication or intent, incorporate portions of the stories they are telling themselves about themselves and the world into their fiction. Even those who think they don't, do. They're just too naïve to realize it.

Because of this, if you have a good friend who is a writer of fiction, it will almost certainly help your 'knowing' of him or her, to read what they write. If you don't do this, then those who actually do read what they write, even though they may just be a part of the 'general reading public' may well know your friend better than you do. They may know more about his aspirations and dreams, about his views of life and the universe, about what matters and what doesn't.

It's possible, of course, that the kind of fiction your friend writes isn't your cup of tea. Like maybe, you're a detective fiction fan and your buddy writes sci-fi. Or maybe you like 'literary' fiction, but your friend writes what you consider trashy romances instead. Or invert those things, if you will.

Your friend not worth that much to you, that you'd step out of your "this-is-what-I-like" circle and into his to see what really going on in his or her head? Interesting. Why is it so? Is it because you actually don't really want to know about your friend, but would rather cling to the image you've built up over years, maybe decades, and it would be disturbing for you to have all that shattered by a dose of what's really going on in his head?

And take this one step further, because that's the next logical place to go. Because, say, your friend doesn't actually write fiction; but almost everybody reads it; or watches movies or TV series. I know, one will argue that of course the choice of reading and watching material consumed by a person in their 'option' time will leave clues as to what they think and like and are interested in and aspire to and dream about. But nothing, nothing at all, will reveal this as directly and pointedly as the fiction they consume 'for fun'. Meaning that which isn't work related or in any way obligatory. We're talking about the books they read themselves to sleep with, or inside of which they'll spend endless hours in preference to doing other things, some or all of which may appear like they must surely be hugely more important that reading this book or watching that movie—and possibly not just for the first time, but again and again and again.

The fiction consumed in people's 'optional' time will tell you just about anything worthwhile about a person; not only what they are like now, but about what made them into the people they are—because where they were at one time on the way to where they are now is just as important to understand someone as a current-state-of-affairs analysis. Every psychoanalyst will tell you that, but how many of them will actually try to find out what kind of fiction their patients/clients like, and liked, to consume? And it's all such a total giveaway!

So, if you want to 'know' your friend, your mate or whoever you choose to have a close relationship with, in this dullwitted urban 'civilized' world of ours, where true life-trials as character-revealers and 'I-know-you' testers are rare indeed, have a look at the fiction s/he consumes. And, of course, if s/he's a writer, or, more generally, a story-teller, look at the stroies s/he tells. If you don't do this, you may indeed not be in a position to 'know' your friend.

And, yes, this is personal. Very, very few of my oldest—sometime very 'old'—and closest friends, people I've known for decades, haven't read a single line of what I've written; and certainly not a single one of my novels. I do understand partially why this is so: because sci-fi—and especially the rattling-yarn, adventure, romance, sex and violence kind I tend to write—is basically below the level of what they consider 'literature'; and often is, indeed, unless it makes obvious pretenses to social or philosophical commentary, considered somehow irrelevant to their lives.

I have good reasons to 'know' them to this degree, because I know what they read, have read some of it; and I know the movies they watch, and those they watch again. I'm a 'library spy', and a bookshelf tells me more than you know; especially the fiction. So, yes, I can claim to know their stories to some significant degree. Yet it strikes me as somewhat ironic that they know far less of mine than any stranger who has actually bothered to, for example, read the entire Tethys series.

This is not something one holds 'against' one's friends, of course. Friendship, if the evidence is anything to go by, obviously can transcend such apparent trivia as 'knowing' one another. At least as far as certain individual-stories are concerned. There are more important things; other stories, sufficiently shared to create a social bond, which can be very strong.

So, no judgment is implied, and I want to make this clear. But there is irony nonetheless...

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