Reflections on Aphorisms #73

As I write more, I find myself finally starting to develop some more of the differences in form and tone that I’ve been going for. This doesn’t apply as much to this writing; these aphorism reflections are well within my comfort zone by this point, but I’m definitely making more progress on my own development as a writer.

It’s not as fruitful as I’d hoped, since I’m actually down a little on word count, but I think I’m getting ready to write better as well as more.

Aphorism 111

History is the science of what never happens twice.

Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry

Interpretation

What astounds me is that the universe is constantly in states it has never been in before. This level of distinction can apply all the way down to the most minuscule of things. By the time my finger depresses the key to type a letter I am no longer the person I was, or at least not in the same state as I was, when the impulse to press the key was formed in my brain.

I attribute this understanding of the universe with a lot of who I am as a person. I don’t like arbitrary distinctions. I don’t think they’re as useful as people think, though I do believe they’re part of the way our minds work.

As a result, I fight constantly against what I consider the default state of being.

I also believe that it is in this, as much as anything else, that I may be accused of hypocrisy. Admittedly, I tend to draw these distinctions in unreal things, rather than reality: storytelling, game design, and the like, not real things.

But at the same time I have an appreciation of the fact that even my understanding of something as ubiquitous as the human mind is drawn from, essentially, drawing mountains upon mountains of arbitrary distinctions.

I think what Valéry is getting at here is that the world never unfolds the same way twice. Despite what people think, we’re not deterministic creatures, and there’s no universal arc of history, as comforting as it might be to think that we’re at an advanced climax of our kind.

A lot of what we think we know is precisely that: what we think we know.

I think of an example from education: modes of learning. It was a great theory that asked whether people learned better when given the method of learning that they preferred best.

The answer is: kinda.

On one hand, people were more likely to engage in learning activities that matched their preferences, but on the other these highly designed and cultivated activities proved little better than the ones that did not rely on different learning methods.

If something is taught best with the written word, a diagram doesn’t necessarily do it better. Combining multiple means does have an advantage, but only when the information is complicated.

However, if I were to try and present a novel using photographs of key scenes, the result would be that students would learn relatively little from the photographs. They may help foster visualization, but the actual exercise of them observing images only works if the purpose I am after links to those images.

I often taught a novel called Inside Out and Back Again, which recounts a Vietnamese refugee’s experiences fleeing her homeland in a fictional framework.

One of the things that I did before teaching it was to give a gallery of images that depicted a variety of important scenes in the Vietnam War.

The reason for this is that it gave the students a chance to engage with the part of the world that they were going to see, and stressed for them what it was like to wait in line for a ride out of Saigon while hundreds of people were being turned away ahead of you.

However, once we got into the novel it would never have occurred to me to show images of the scenes that were depicted, because it’s made up of poems with visuals. Unless students don’t know something important (like what a papaya is) to help them visualize the scenes, I’d actually be detracting from my learning goals by showing them depictions.

Not all information is created equal.

And in our lives we encounter information that is unique to us. How we hear it, how we see it, how it is passed on to us, our mood and condition when we hear it, and our immediate situation will all vary when we encounter any situation in our life that is worth noticing.

We will never repeat history.

That we look for trends in it is worthwhile, but only in the sense that it lets us understand the greater human condition, the ties that bind us together. We can search for something like Jung’s collective unconscious, but it will never deliver to us a rule that lets us predict the future.

We’re simply very good at deceiving ourselves.

Resolution

Don’t assume knowing the past means knowing the future.

Don’t teach calculus with a philosophical treatise.

Accept that every situation is unique, every response needs to be considered carefully.

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