Literature and the
Role of Words
By Jack Greer
The Symbolic Wheel
All disciplines use symbolic constructs, whether words, mathematical formulas, or musical notation, to create meaning and relation to the concrete world, in this case the Chesapeake Bay.
"The greatest enterprise of the human mind," says E.O. Wilson, "has been and always will be the attempt to link the sciences and the humanities."
Wilson makes this statement in a new book entitled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He argues that most of the problems that face society – environmental problems, for example – lie at the bulls-eye of a matrix of disciplines. Radiating outward from its center are the biological sciences, the social sciences, environmental policy, ethics, while the problems themselves, the challenges to our national and international human communities, lie most often right at the center, where all disciplines converge.
"As we cross the circles inward toward the point at which the quadrants meet, we find ourselves in an increasingly unstable and disorienting region," Wilson says. "The ring closest to the intersection, where most real-world problems exist, is the one in which fundamental analysis is most needed. Yet virtually no maps exist; few concepts and words serve to guide us."
As Wilson points out, we need concepts, we need words. To achieve bridging concepts that can pass through rigid disciplinary boundaries, he suggests the concept of "consilience." He borrows the word from William Whewell's The Philosophy of Inductive Sciences (1840); it means, he says, literally a "jumping together" of knowledge. Wilson prefers the word to "coherence," or other more common words, which are likely to suggest a wider variety of meanings.
In his matrix of knowledge, Wilson draws lines between "imagination" and the "real world" to emphasize the importance of their connection. Scientists have long acknowledged the role of imaginative thought in the scientific process – not only were specific inventions such as the submarine first dreamed up, long before they became a reality, by imaginative thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne, but mathematicians and physicists have also attested to the value of free-wheeling, spontaneous breakthroughs from the less-than-fully-conscious mind. A famous example involves the mathematician Poincaré, who, upon stepping down from a bus suddenly visualized the solution to a difficult problem. He conceived of the solution not at his desk with pencil in hand, but while walking about, perhaps because of some unforeseen trigger in daily life. And one thinks, of course, of the apocryphal story of Newton and the apple.
Contemporary thinkers like James Hillman have written eloquently about the role of the imagination in the workings of the healthy mind. Hillman describes the nonlinear ways that the human brain employs to "solve" problems, and points to the importance of myth not only to ancient peoples but to modern writers, philosophers and psychologists.
"Freud, it should be remembered, did not win the Nobel Prize for medicine, but rather the Goethe Prize for literature," Hillman notes.
Language and Water
When considering a body of water like the Chesapeake Bay, with an eye toward deep understanding, it becomes clear that more than one discipline pertains. Physical hydrology explains the Bay's elaborate two-layer estuarine circulation pattern. Chemistry can explain how the Bay's complex mixture of sodium interacts with a range of metals and with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
Once we understand the physical and chemical substructure of the Bay, we can better explain its biology, first in terms of individual species, and then ultimately as an integrated, interdependent ecosystem.
But will those levels of understanding explain why, when standing at the end of a long low point of land, we stare at the red sunset with such interest and longing? Can physics explain our response to the deep purples and violets that dance across the surface of the waves? What explains not only the sizes and shapes of the waves themselves but the way we feel upon looking at them?
This is the task set before the writer, to bring all these facets of the mind to bear. Consider this excerpt from a recent article by Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
"All my life, I have loved this sight: a standing wave in a boat's wake, shaped like a thorn. I have seen it rise from many oceans, and I saw it rise from the Sea of Galilee. . . .
What I saw was the constant intersection of two wave systems. Lord Kelvin first described them. Transverse waves rise abaft the stern and stream away perpendicular to the boat's direction of travel. Diverging waves course out in a V shape behind the boat. Where the waves converge, two lines of standing crests persist at an unchanging angle to the direction of the boat's motion. We think of these as the boat's wake. I was studying the highest standing wave, the one nearest the boat. It rose from the trough behind the stern and spilled foam. The curled wave crested over clear water and tumbled down. All its bubbles broke, thousands a second, unendingly. I could watch the present; I could see time and how it works" ("The Wreck of Time," Harper's Magazine, January 1998).
Dillard's fascination with a boat's wake is hydrodynamic and physical, it is aesthetic ("shaped like a thorn"), it is spiritual. In fact by the end of the paragraph, when she states, "I could see time and how it works," we have linked the concrete physical with the metaphysical.
The joining of science and the humanities is, as philosopher Ernst Cassirer said, a joining of symbolic structures. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, poetry, music – all our separate disciplines are complex symbolic constructs, ways of trying to understand and manipulate the world, or to express it. The mathematician employs a numerical system; the composer uses musical notation. The chemist employs representative formulae; the poet uses phonemes built from a finite alphabet, what we call "words."
Cassirer describes these almost inconceivably complex symbolic constructs in his major work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Fortunately for the average reader, he explains the role of the humanities in a much shorter, more accessible book, The Logic of the Humanities.
Expanding on E.O. Wilson's diagram, and with Ernst Cassirer in mind, we could describe what could be called the "symbolic wheel" as we try to bring all our faculties to bear on a body of water like the Chesapeake Bay. At the center, as with Wilson's diagram, lies the "real world," in this case, the Bay, and radiating out from it are all our many disciplines – physics, chemistry, biology, economics, psychology, anthropology, literature, music, sculpture, myth, religion – and next to them, mystery, that part of understanding that will, as Albert Einstein once reminded us, always lie beyond our ken, no matter how much we learn.
The sciences and the humanities will always work in concert, and to understand the link will, as Wilson says, be the greatest enterprise of the human mind. Working side by side with scientists, those whose main tools are written words will help slowly push back the boundaries of human ignorance – as E.M. Foster said of Virginia Woolf, they will struggle to bring light a little further into the darkness.