Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

Philosophy of Learning 4 (active listening)

  1. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening

Active Listening is often reduced from a method of learning to a technique for success in business and diplomacy. Psychology textbooks teach active listening as a tool for diagnosing patients. More than one popular “success in business” text blithely offers this method as a skill. However, in the Eastern understanding of active listening, the Chinese character for the phenomenon captures the complexity that the West so often dismisses as mere technique or skill.

Active Listening Chinese

The symbol above is a sophisticated combination of characters. The senses of the eyes and the ears are both employed as the mind focuses and the heart analyses the conversation. The U.S. Department of State teaches this Chinese lesson explaining that to listen, the diplomat must use both ears, watch and maintain eye contact, give undivided attention and be empathic.

Ideally one is listening to a monologue more than participating in a back and forth. When I am conducting a eulogy interview, I ask an open ended question such as “Tell me about your loved one,” which is the colloquially correct way to ask, “Teach me about your loved one.” The words may issue forth in a monotone but the face and the body will often with emotion, whether it is a furrowed brow of pain or gesticulating arms of excitement.

Active listening is the opposite of asking questions to elicit answers. While psychologists may be correct that active listening is a technique for discovering the issue or the trauma, the method offers so much more to learn. When questions are asked, they are open ended ones or requests for clarification, or in my personal language, “Tell me more.”

This type of learning may also be the most ancient, the oral tradition of passing down knowledge. Unlike all the other forms of learning, this form is first and foremost aural. Learning is comprehending words spoken and words not spoken; silence has the power to teach in this method. The absence of words, the people, events, and issues not mentioned are powerful lessons.

The point about active listening is that it is not about you, the listener. Active listening is not a conversation after all; it is receiving, organizing and analyzing. When I start a discussion of a eulogy, I put away my pen and paper. I will write it down later in the car soon after I depart the house of mourning. The writing afterward is the analysis and synthesis of the teaching, in this case of learning the events, circumstances and essence of one person whose life is now complete. One gains the knowledge of relationships, of human success and folly, of history and philosophy.

This is knowledge that novelists attempt to capture in words and this is their most powerful method for capturing the emotional turmoil of their characters. They listen.

Philosophy of Learning 3 (common sense)

  1. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense

The old tired cliché is common sense is neither common nor sense. Some go so far as to argue the entire idea of common sense is a fallacy. Definitions of common sense are as varied as the ideas of what common sense might encompass, which is the source of the confusion. One might easily argue that the rubric is a phenomenon that everyone can perceive but no one can comfortably define for everyone else to agree. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court decision, it is hard to define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) We know common sense when we hear it, which is not only too ambiguous to be useful but also counter-productive. We are left without a definition; nonetheless, the rubric exists.

Common sense can be found in all sorts of human endeavors but no matter where common sense is identified or claimed, two elements must be present. First, there must be a convincing argument. The argument does not have to convince everyone but the argument must have accepted assumptions, a logical progression from point to point, and reasonableness. The first element must be well-structured argument whose conclusion cannot be challenged because one of the assumptions is false.

The second element is all other competing arguments must be disproved. For a common sense point to be valid, the presenter cannot just have the best argument. The presenter has to demonstrate conclusively that the other arguments fail to prove the point they are attempting to make, or unmake as the case may be. This second element is a much higher bar of proof than most other human endeavors.

If one of the two elements is not present, then one holds an opinion rather than a proof. Even if a presenter offers a persuasive argument with gifted tongue and keen insight to sway the most skeptical, unless the presenter meets the higher bar of disproving the other arguments, then all of the bombast is for naught. A good argument is not enough.

From the other side, if all that one can do is prove that the other arguments are inadequate but can offer nothing in their place, the presentation is also a failure. Disproving everyone else is an accomplishment but by itself, this type of argumentation fails. The absence of competition does not convey success because common sense is neither a race nor a battle of wits.

Common sense is rare because both elements together are difficult to create. Common sense is a type of truth, a rarity of human truth that is also universal. Most human truth is flawed because anything mortal is imperfect. Common sense is a high goal but as we can attest, this truth can be achieved.

Philosophy of Learning 2

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction

The rubric of understanding, which is used in this case as a technical term, is one of the ideas in human history whose evolution can be demonstrated. The evolution begins with a concrete or literal understanding of the world and transforms over time, sometimes with revolutionary leaps and other times gradually, into abstract ideas.

Consider the human quest to understand math, which is worldwide. The path begins with addition/subtraction, which are inescapably concrete equations. The first documents unearthed in the Ancient Near East are tax collection documents – all addition until the king spends it. Humans quickly discover fractions, decimals, zero as a number, pi, algebra and onto calculus, the most abstract set of concepts of mathematics. The history of mathematics is not just the history of learning and discovering, advances in mathematics required the development of an idea of existence without a concrete substance to anchor it. Plato records this first great explication of abstraction as “The Theory of Forms,” one recognizes a chair, not because one sees it, but because of understands what “chair-ness” is and sees that form in that particular object.

In our own day and age, we are so far into the compelling world of concept and abstraction that we do not even recognize that the foundational assumptions we use every day are great leaps of comprehension. Sticking with math a moment more, the least of the book-learned of the world have no problem understanding this symbol: “3”. The symbol 3 represents three objects such as three x’s – xxx. Whether one is giving a foreign tourist a price at a store or one is standing at an ATM, when eyeing the 3 symbol, most recognize they are expecting 3 of that currency. Holding up three fingers for three euros is concrete, writing the number 3 on paper across the sales desk is abstract.

This evolution of thought can be applied to every human endeavor. The walls of the ancients Egyptian tombs are filled with art, yet all of the gods have distinct concrete depictions, no matter how fantastical, of a human body with the head of an animal, a falcon or a jackal perhaps. Compare that one of these figures to a Picasso where the human figures are presentations that have to be interpreted.

From simple counting to double-entry accounting, or from quill and ink to the ballpoint pen, these are examples of the evolution of understanding, not just the evolution of discovery and invention.

The ideal of being able to manipulate abstraction in one’s thoughts using memorized points and conscious focus is a goal of the common core curriculum. When entrepreneurs in the New Economy jobs are successful, their success is often attributed to this type of learning. STEM jobs are supposed to be this type of comprehension, although they are so much more.

From the other side of the coin, when people proclaim that they are stupid, what they often are referencing is a perceived failure to comprehend abstraction. “I just don’t get it” or “I hear what you are saying but I don’t understand.” The slang “get it” refers to the failure to formulate an abstract thought.

One’s ability to comprehend abstract ideas cannot be measured by tests unless the test is attuned to way a specific person learns. Humans learn and practice the art of abstraction using different methods. Some are visual learners (“I see what you mean”), some are aural learners (“I hear what you’re saying”), and some, particularly artists, are kinetic learners (Let me draw you a picture”). None of us are purely one type. Films combine all three types of learning and viewers pick up cues from all three sensory avenues to follow the story although not everyone will follow the film in the same manner or identify all of the cues.

Understanding is not simple; it is a universe of perceiving ideas and invoking imagination.