August 5, 2009

Principles of Different Types

Justin Katz

Of all the topics covered in my wide-ranging conversation with Dan Yorke, my inarticulateness on the application of principles to discrete issues is bugging me the most. My intended meaning was much broader than the ideological platform that I described. "Principles," in my usage, was meant to indicate not only general rules of thumb, but also habits of mind and a gut understanding of reality.

Dan asked about my writing practice, and I mentioned my belief that I have some species of learning disability. I've often found it difficult to understand subjects in the way that they are taught, with a given fact applied under a set of rules, requiring instead the time to break the lesson down to a sort of molecular level of intellectual mush, the defining property of which is that it's "just the way the world works." So I'll stir a new subject or a new fact or a new perspective into the mush, and its essential hue and texture will change accordingly. When a problem presents itself — whether it's repeated or unique — I've found it necessary to figure or refigure it out from the scratch of the mush, because the directly relevant instructions have often been lost in the poorly organized jumble of my brain.

Perhaps this contributes to my being a good "test taker" — which term seems most often to be used as a mild pejorative. It also has the effect of encouraging continual reevaluation.

An obscure example: I've written books, studied piano, and built houses. The first and third of these activities are mainly different in externals; at the fundamental level of the intellectual mush they're different applications of the same mental processes. The underlying meaning of a house is the distribution of weight, which must transition down coherently from the roof ridge to the foundation. The architect must have a reasonably secure vision of the ending before the first blobs of concrete are poured; just so, in order for a book to have a solid purpose, the author's first words must take into account the very last, and all phrases between.

Rooms have the same relationship to the distribution of weight that a story's plot has to the underlying meaning. Sometimes the structure is dictated by spaces that make the building functional or appealing, and sometimes the spaces seem to have been fated to exist within the structure. Either way, their development is mainly an intellectual exercise prior to construction.

Aesthetic details — such as trim and repeating shapes and amenities — help to define the sense of the house in such a way as to make the plot seem plausible and the underlying meaning coherent. Ultimately, the details may be superficial (unless they are the meaning), but no one will believe the story if the setting and characters are not well drawn.

As to the piano playing, music has many of the same aspects as just described, but its greater contribution to the mush is a set of principles of performance. Typing takes on a flow like a piece of music, and the tapped rhythms and accents can help to coax appropriate words from the mind through the fingers. Similarly, rhythm brings fluidity to the act of building, and aesthetics contribute as much to the pursuit of efficiency as monetary incentive. (Indeed, among carpenters who enjoy their work, the aesthetic satisfaction of efficiency often outweighs a monetary incentive to slow down or work in a muddle.)

The upshot is that, when a topic comes up on which I'm disposed to write a blog post, the process is a reconstitution of my opinion based on the series of principles and intellectual practices that I've established to be true. In a sense, it's easier to write about disparate topics because I'm always writing about the same thing, ultimately.

With that all laid out, to be read or not, as you desire, I apologize for the self-indulgence. My lips betrayed me by falsely intimating my thought process to be "what should a conservative believe," rather than the more accurate "how does the world function around this topic." But I had to work these thoughts into written words, because whatever my brain's been up to, I've always been better with my hands than my mouth.

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I've always been impressed and amazed at the amount of high-quality work you produce. The process you employ sounds like something that would take most of us a week to complete one quality piece. I return often because of what I gain in insight and perspective from Anchor Rising.

Be joyful for what you do well and keep up the good work!

Posted by: George at August 6, 2009 3:41 PM