One of the most fascinating ideas I have come across in my life is put forward in David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. The book discusses phenomenology, the school of thought that derives from the fact that all reality is experienced reality, that try as we might, we cannot ever have "objective" truth detached from human experience, perception, and bias.
This seems obvious, but phenomenologists have some very interesting ways of looking at -- or rather, being in -- the world.
Abram explores the concept of animism, the impression that people have of things as animate, living presences. Even a looming building or a body of water may "feel" alive, contrary to "rational" explanations. That's part of lived experience, which most people deny because it doesn't "make sense". Other cultures are far more comfortable experiencing birds, animals, plants, and natural objects as other entities around them. The world for them is much more animate. Native Americans, for example, feel a certain spiritual presence in air, in trees, in the earth, in the animals they hunt, in the corn they grow. Abram believes that this was the default way in which humans experienced the world.
So what happened?
He points out a profound and powerful shift in perception that comes with written language. He mentions synaesthesia, a mental disorder in which some people "hear" images or "see" sound, and notes that in fact, the senses are not quite as distinct as we think: when we listen to symphanies, we may have inner visual imagery or a sense of color or lines or bursting patterns; when we look at a splat on the ground or a point or bright red or gentle blues, we may have a sense of taste or sound. This effect becomes more pronounced with recognizable objects like a photo of a thunderbolt, or the sound of a bug whizzing past our ear -- we will feel or see or hear what is associated with it. Birdsong has color. A fuzzy caterpillar, seen from several feet away, "feels" prickly.
Humans managed to invent something that compels us to synaethesia far more than we realize: letters. At first, writing was pictographic, representing what it was supposed to indicate, for example, a bull's head for a bull or a sun for the sun. The sign synaesthetically called to mind the "real" image. But there was a correspondence.
When we got to phonetic writing, however, where the letters no longer represent real-world things, but sounds, our brains started to do something quite startling. When we see a letter with our eyes, we hear its sound. The meaning of the word has become divorced from a real-world equivalent in a very abstract way. In order to read, we disconnect our senses from the perceived, experienced world around us, and let the writing "speak", filling our minds with sound and images and taking control of our conscious perception. The book is animated -- it comes to life, it shapes our experience.
So human thought literally (and I mean the word "Literally" very literally) took on a life of its own with the written word, and we became much more capable of detaching from our environment and viewing it semi-objectively, that is to say, as if we were not a part of it.
Abram's idea is even more radical. For him, the animism of pre-literate cultures is equivalent to our giving the written word "voice". Based on numerous anecdotes from native populations in Australia and America, he demonstrates that many of them "read" the world as we read books -- or rather, that they "hear" the landscape, animals, and plants as we "hear" books talk to us.
And now I need to get back to writing this danged paper. Anyway, that's my deep thought for the week.