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Life as a book

John Locke and his most famous work

John Locke, the British philosopher, not the character in the TV series “Lost,” is more popularly known for his theory of tabula rasa, or blank slate, as a metaphor for his empirical epistemological beliefs — that how we know what we know is the result of sensory perception, not, as his nemesis Descartes supposed, the result of clear and distinct ideas obtained through the reasoning processes of the mind.

This is not about Locke and empiricism, but a starting point for suggesting story (book) as a metaphor for our lives. From the point of view of Locke’s empiricism, we are born with our minds essentially a blank slate, on which our experiences, as a result of our sensory encounters with the world out there, is how we know what we know, so that what we know is an accumulation of experiences in which we turn simple ideas into more complex ideas by combining them, by generalizing, and abstracting.

We are born with the slate clean, and fill it with experience

Let me simplify without, I hope, trivializing this idea for the purpose of making my point about life as a book.

We are born with our minds essentially empty of sensory experience — empty pages. From that moment on we gain knowledge about ourselves and the world we find ourselves plopped into instant by instant, with each and every sensory encounter with life.

So, I will say, the better our abilities of perception and the more our exposure to experiences, the more we know, and this implies the more we are capable of understanding.

We are “smarter” when we are five years old than we were when we were two; smarter when we are twenty than when we were ten; smarter when we are forty than when we were twenty … . This is how youth is wasted on the young. When we are, barring misfortune, healthier, stronger, more energetic, and physically more attractive, we are deficient in the experience department; by the time we accumulate and synthesize enough of life’s possible experiences to acquire a certain wisdom, the rest is crumbling. (One of a malevolent God’s nasty little jokes on us.)

The span of knowing

So we begin our lives with a book of blank pages, the number of pages capable of expanding with need, onto which we write our story. That story is going to be as expansive, as interesting and profound, reflecting the nature and content of our experience — our sensory encounters with the world.

The more you do, the more you see, the wider you range, the more you have for the book. Some of us pass through our short years and end up with a ten-page chapbook containing little more than bare data. Some will need many volumes to contain the worlds and things they know, the ideas their experiences generate.

The quality of your book is the quality of your life. And you cannot do any editing. Once a page is written, you cannot go back and change it. The younger you are when you come to understand this, the more likely you are to pay more attention to how you spend your days. You will have learned that being open to experience, willing to encounter the world as your own personal fountain of knowledge, finding nothing alien to you, is going to make a better story, the story of your life.

If it’s going to be this long, make it good.

If this is going to be worth reading, it's up to its author

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10 replies »

  1. I find this a very apt analogy.

    I had one of those pointless internet arguments with some 25-year old the other day who considers himself something of a literary auteur; was trying to point out to him that part of having a true reading aesthetic was simply having lived long enough to have not only read lots of books, but to have re-read lots of books, and let then have the requisite experience to let them soak in. The punk did not listen to his elder. 🙂

    Is youth ever wasted on the young … having done some wasting myself, I can attest to this.

  2. I never argue with 25-year-olds (or under). First, it’s not a fair fight; second, (knowing from memories of my own youth) it’s not going to have any effect. It takes a long time to come to grips with how much you don’t know.

    • Yeah. No such thing as a humble 25-year old. Says the Mostest Humblest of All, Ever-Modest 35-year old.

  3. I wandered a lot and was very open to experience because i did believe, as you put it, that the quality of one’s book (work) is the quality of one their life. not that i’ve put an end to the adventures, but life has been a little quiet for me in the last 1.5 years or so (mostly practical reasons) and i also made conscious efforts to not waste my time on destructive relationships (which include friendships, not just romances or flings). learning to be quiet and focused is also an experience, i guess, until things turn again.

    • Think of quiet as a bit of descriptive narrative that separates action. Too much of either one makes a book unreadable. At the expense of repeating eons of sages, balance is the key.

      It seems to me one only understands the nature of one’s own life when seen receding into the past, not as some knowledge of the present, and certainly not in predictions of the future.

      I know what kind of book I have written when I have finished it. I know what I intended, what I hoped for, but I don’t know what I ended up with until it ends up.

      But one should remember that we make a life more often than not within the context of what we hope for. As if hope is the structure within which we live.

      Thank you for visiting here, Nicole.

  4. It seems to me that since ol’ Johnny Locke’s time, there has been quite a bit of new information about human perception and human consciousness, most notably in the role that genetics play. For example, it would appear on the surface that our native language is completely determined by what we are exposed to as an infant (our “sensory perception”). While this is indeed the language we end up speaking in (and some might even argue that we also “think” in that language), Chomsky did a good job of showing that the fundamental framework of all human language is “hard wired” into the brains of all people, regardless of ethnicity or place of birth. Certain rules apply no matter what language you speak. This is reinforced by the fact that since only humans have the genetic code that forms that framework in a brain, humans are the only animal that can talk (although certain exceptions are made for conservative politicians).

    Since most would agree that we are most impressionable when we are children, why is it that from one family, one environment, such different personalities can appear in siblings? One kid becomes a rational humanist while the other becomes a mass murderer, or even worse, a rabid bible-thumper. I have the feeling that things like stanch nationalism or the belief in imaginary gods occurs in people that are genetically disposed to that sort of thing. The wiring is already in place, and all you have to do is insert the locally popular tribe or dogma, and bingo, instant fanatic.

    I guess my point is, I don’t believe the slate is totally blank. At least for belief systems, the “Chapter List” and the “Introduction” are most likely typeset in the womb. And it is a given that what we believe shapes how we perceive, how we think, and much of what we do.

    Not that any of this really challenges your premise that a person is ultimately responsible for his own life story, whether the first chapters are determined by genetics beyond his control, or his birth circumstances/environment and early sensory perceptions (which, are also beyond control). I think part of my story has been the attempt to erase some of the funky shit that was on my slate when I got the damn thing, although I can admit to seldom being successful. And when I occasionally hit blank pages, well, I just make some stuff up and pretend that’s what I planned all along.

      • Sorry, I must have ended up posting this to the wrong blog. I should have known that in literary circles anything that even vaguely resembles science is considered in bad taste; as only metaphors are allowed or tolerated. My apologies for the intrusion. I’ll go back to working on my “F” chord now.