(Note: this piece is in progress; last updated
Yesterday at the park I meditated the following:
My philology is not an analysis. It is not an immersion, for an immersion would count out the experiences that I bring in, and I set forth these experiences. My philology is not an enumeration, though this is a closer interpretation. My philology is a topology of meaning, and my morals direct me to do so as an Epicurean: to value the senses and lived experiences; to value preconceptions, for these lead to our hypotheses, while also holding myself accountable for questioning where these preconceptions come from and politely asking others to do the same; to treat others with respect that do me no harm, to feel no shame in quickly removing the things from my life that make me feel bad, and to give critical thought to the means of removal because they may harm me and others as time goes one; and to ground my actions and my creations in the happiness it brings me and others, without expectation for how these things will be used, only an open ear for when the ends of these means is not to my design.
Philology–noun, the study of text as it is situated in history, in context, and by language. See also: Cognitive Philology.
I hadn’t journaled in over a month, and I haven’t really posted here in over a year.
This meditation marks a long, personal development. I’ve, like others my age been struggling with an identity as a computer scientist, instructor, and academic.
“What am I even doing?”
Just how every programming language brings with it a particular way of thinking that is suited to solving problems–expressing solutions and implementing them–, I have been looking for an identity to give me a way of thinking to organize me.
And yesterday I realized–for anyone not in therapy and with no connections to those that are, I ask you to give weight to the following statement as something really important to me–, in my last relationship I didn’t fuck everything up. I let myself say this. Do not mistake this to mean that I’ve been caught up in my last relationship for, what, three years now? Simply, I haven’t let myself say these words in a long time.
I didn’t fuck everything up.
Everything here means Future me. Everything here means certainty, motivation, confidence, health, physical safety, the lease on my car, the bond I feel with my cat. Yeah, things end, but not everything. I let myself say this, so now I know how to say this: I didn’t fuck everything up.
I can say that I have generalized anxiety and I’m getting help, and that won’t fuck everything up.
I can say I’m queer and I’m questioning, and that won’t fuck everything up.
And in this meditation I keep coming back to the word “philology.”
Let’s break this down:
My philology is not an analysis.
I have chosen the term “philology” purposefully.
I am not declaring a philosophy, a framework, a methodology, or a new analytical technique.
A philosophy has grander intention then what I mean to accomplish, so this is not a philosophy.
A framework and a methodology is a structure that is given to others to implement to their own ends, but I am writing this down for my own sake–if others adapt these thoughts for themselves, then I hope they do so by making changes, reflecting on their own choice of words just as I have done, and that adaptability within a definition does not a framework make.
And it is definitely not an analysis.
An analysis is a breaking down of a system into subcomponents and then either drawing conclusions from that break down or using that break down as a guide to creating a new system from the old. An explication.
By philology, I of course mean carrying out analysis, but also doing more and also looking elsewhere.
I mean a reading of texts and technologies. I mean paying close attention to history and authenticity, critically looking at the language of the texts creation, implementation, and societal impact.
I mean paying attention and fairly judging, as one aims to do in peer review, to give an example from common practice.
I mean comparative, critical, linguistic, and cognitive understanding of a long-term kairos.
It is not an immersion
The word “immersion” here has special meaning to me.
In doing research, it can feel like we need to immerse ourselves in it in order to appreciate our subject. This can be suffocating.
Of course, I actually completely still mean to do that, but I am not meaning to approach a subject by giving myself over to it.
In earlier mediations, I had made a leap from hard technical thought to humanities by allow myself to “be present” with the readings we complete in my masters classes. To let words take me away and let my imagination show me what the author wanted to show me.
But to brutally “be present,” in the sense of brute strength and “brute reason,”, is to immerse oneself.
But again, to be able to “be present” with a creative work in the first place, well, was really hard for me after years away from the humanities and knee-deep in measure theoretical probability.
Enumeration, interpretation, topology
If analysis is me two years ago as a Computer Science M.S student, and immersion is me one year ago as a budding English Rhetoric M.A. student, then topology is me a few months ago working on a forty page paper on tea and “books within books” in works by the Bronte sisters.
An enumeration is, like an analysis, a break down of components, but more specifically a listing of components with an understanding that the structure of the list itself is not important: we are just visiting concepts one at a time. But taking this a step further, via the heart of literary analysis (interpretation), we might start to see a “landscape” of meaning emerge from the enumerated images. This is, in essence, if I may make a metaphor here, what a neural network is doing when it is “learning.”
This “feeling out” of a “topology” of course is prone to raise questions of its own, which one should set out to answer following such a feeling out. It is also an analytical technique akin to grounded theory, which has been used in human computer interaction research on YouTube content in response to the iPhone 3G release.
But I do not want to collapse this idea of “topology” into a grounded theory, as grounded theory does not carry with it the interpretation and judgement of critical theory. Nor do I want to claim that I am actively doing anything else here with these topologies. Simply, what I want to say is that such “topological thinking” will probably be a good idea if we are already carrying our philological thinking, but grounded theory and topological thinking are neither very meaningful as ends in themselves.
“Why am I even doing this?”
To be happy.
By Epicurean, I don’t mean that I adhere to the beliefs of Lucretius that all images are readily available in the head, but we can only pay attention to one at a time, thus explaining where images of thought come from (they are already all there), while also explaining why we don’t see them all at once (we have limitations after all).
That theory is just weird.
But Epicureanism provides methods of thinking that answer some really stressful questions. To summarize some of the key ideas most important to me:
- Let’s be happy.
- But let’s be happy in moderation of course.
- Remove the bad. Don’t feel bad for this.
- Everyone has preconceptions all the time about everything. These are feelings, emotions, ideas, biases, most thoughts, and so on.
- It’s one of our duties to feel out these preconceptions and find the right words for them.
- Material explanation and trust in the senses are more important than abstract ideas, as the latter might not be grounded in reality.
- Friendships begin as professional contracts. It just takes time.
- Everyone you meet in a professional setting has the potential to one day be your friend.
- Abstractions of lived experiences cannot be defined by those that do not have those lived experiences (e.g., Feminism). You just gotta trust the definitions given you by those with those lived experiences.
- Stoics and Skeptics are jerks. Don’t be a jerk.
Epicurus trusted his senses. I don’t mean “trusted his gut,” but whatever he sees and feels and hears, he believes wholeheartedly that he saw, felt, and heard those things. This is not to say that seeing my reflection means that a clone of me must be running around. Simply, he means that we can’t be skeptical of our senses. When I take off my glasses, I see blurred images, yet I don’t believe that my vision is unrealistic: I do see what I do see.
Our senses are all we’re were given to learn about the world with, so we just gotta trust that they work.
It is when we encounter seeming contradictions in this–contradictions of the senses–that we should ask not what sense is failing us, but in what way is our understanding of the world lacking.
Consider the classic stick bent in the water that we can feel is straight. Upon encountering a problem like this for the first time, we should immediately seek a material explanation and validate that explanation. This may be a material explanation involving the refraction of light, the interaction of wood and water and air, or the very physics of the sight organ itself. Everything is up for consideration, so long as we ground our results in the material world and, above all, trust that what we see we do see.
Of course, the above leads directly into the question of “what we believe.”
Epicurus believed that some knowledge was “built in,” a sort of “preconception starter pack.” On this, we differ.
In order for the material explanation reduction to work, it’s true we need some epistemic bedrock, a base case. Epicurus offered preconceptions to solve this. Me, I say who cares? At the point that it matters, after years of experience living, the epistemic bedrock is so buried under our new beliefs that arguing the base case becomes pretty much a moot point.
Instead, I ask not where “knowledge” comes from, but where the “hypothesis” comes from.
And like it really pisses me off–okay?–that this old, comprehensive guide to research says that if you can’t even think of a hypothesis to test then you must be a dumbass. And I see this sort of intellectual put down repeated everywhere in the discourse of “research methods.”
Where do good ideas come from?
I can’t speak for them all. But I do offer what Epicurus called “preconceptions” as a solution.
- We get exposed to the world.
- We form feelings, biases, misconceptions, preconceptions, and so on–all equivalently a “hypothesis” in one manner or another.
- We notice our preconceptions, and we usually challenge them or defend them or, like, a lot of other toxic crap.
- What we should do is realize that we always already have hypotheses we could test, and ask not “how do I prove this,” but simply, “why do I believe this,” couching the result, regardless of the reseach methodology that we follow, somewhere between narratives and statistics.
What I’m saying here is that, no more no less, the answer to “where do hypotheses come from” is “we already have them.”
Want to do a research project on music? Then listen to a lot of music and kick it with a lot of musicians until you start to form feelings or opinions or ideas about it, and ask yourself early and often, “How do I feel about this?” One of these will be an idea that a thesis advisor will accept as a project pitch, and man will it be a long process, but there will be an idea there nonetheless.
You’re not dumb.
Treat others with respect
And this leads naturally into–So when do you know you’re right?
What you can do, is be present in the world and work with the rest of us in trying to find the right words for things. We’ll never reach total agreement, and language is constantly evolving, and now we have emojis in the mix so that’s cool 🐍. And the point of it all isn’t to reach some stable state anyway, so go watch an anime and think about how we carry the banners of those who came before us, even though they failed, but we carry them nonetheless because we carry the banners of all who came before us and we’ll learn from their mistakes and we’ll fuck up and we’ll die and our children will carry our banners, but not my banner, all of our banners.
This is the conclusion of the central moral dilemma of that anime, a story that follows The Once and Future King in questioning the reason for war, in turn following the entire Arthurian tradition in asking what is the conclusion of “honor” and yet, regardless of its repeated failures, we’re still drawn towards it.
So let’s find the right words for things. Ground your shit in your own lived experiences, and don’t give me any of that abstraction crap for the experiences you don’t have: most men can’t–in the sense of epistemically impotent–define feminism. Look people in the eye when they talk to you. Trust the stories they tell you.
What about deceit, you ask.
I don’t know, I’m from Bowling Green where people aren’t jerks so, like, try not being a jerk I guess. If someone is a jerk to you, then feel free to count them out of your life because there’s no shame in taking care of yourself. You’re not going to be able to do good in this world if you don’t take care of yourself.
Ground, without expectations
I want to do good in this world, so I got to take care of myself, and I am a computer scientist so I like to make things.
I make things and people will use them and they won’t ever use them as I expect. And that is okay.
What if they are using these things wrong?
What is “wrong?”
A good rule of thumb I guess is, unless you work for a lighter company, if the things you make start fires then it’s well past time to step in.
What if they use your things in ways you didn’t expect.
Be surprised. Say “wow!”
Kidding aside, don’t have expectations for how your software is going to be used. Have an interaction design in mind, but don’t expect people to follow that design. Listen to them when they deviate. Learn more about the world, society, yourself, and follow me on Twitter ∎