Sunday, October 12, 2008

'Here be dragons' in the mind   posted by Razib @ 10/12/2008 12:19:00 AM

A few days ago I ran across Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance at a used book store. As suggested by the title the author focuses a great deal on mercantile happenings during this period. I read this book 10 years ago on a train ride. As I picked it up again I remembered that much of the narrative centered on the Fuggers, a prominent banking family which prefigured the role that the Rothchilds would play more recently in international affairs. Flipping through the chapters I refamiliarized myself with the contents, much of it was vaguely familiar to me. On the one hand if you had asked me to repeat anything from Worldly Goods I would have offered a general point about the importance of the Fugger financial network in the geopolitics of Central Europe during the 16th century. And yet I think there are many other facts and structures of facts which I retain implicitly in my mind. A great deal of cognition emerges out of these thickets of implicit data; networks which are essential in giving one a mental map of the world. Though I might not be able to explicitly recall in detail facts and arguments from a specific book when asked to do such a thing, in the course of a conversation or thought which might relate to the topicality of a given work I often experience data bubbling up from what might be termed the "subconscious."

I recount this because a few years ago a friend expressed an interest in the Middle Ages. I told him that Christopher Tyerman's God's War: A New History of the Crusdades might be worth his time. Later I asked if my friend had looked into Tyerman's book, and he told me had, but it was just too long (~1000 pages) and there was extraneous material he didn't find interesting. All fair enough, but then he proceeded to explain that felt he had little recall of anything he read and that he didn't know if there was any point. At that time something struck me as very strange about this claim. Now I feel I can elucidate more fully what I think my friend was missing: very few people have explicit on the spot recall of very much of a given work. So the contention that one does not retain much is plausible when viewed purely reflectively. But, the sum totality of data ingested does leave a mark on the implicit mind, sketching out structures and analytic sieves which can constrain and guide how one processes information and generates inferences.* You may not remember what happened to you on Janary 20th of 1999, but you have a sense of the general arc of that year in your life.

* More pointedly, many people assert rather dumb things because they are too ignorant to know any better. In fact, all people do. Some ignorant people are smart enough to assert very little, and some are not so smart.