How Do We Know What We Know?

In recent weeks, a friend acquired a book by Rebecca Solnit, an author I admire.  I immediately offered to read it at the same time, in order to discuss it together.  Having read the book several years before, why return to this one when I had so many unread books in piles around the house?

The answer comes in understanding how we know what we know.  That’s been on my mind recently as I’ve thought about topics as wide ranging as cultural norms, untold histories, political divisiveness, and generational perspectives. Just how do we—as humans—shape our personal world view?

Skyscape at Villa Panza

Pondering the big questions

In rereading Solnit’s book, I came to the material at a very different time in my life and that of our country. I had vaguely remembered parts of the book from my first reading, but frankly there were whole sections that seemingly had escaped my notice or understanding the first time through.  But I also realized how much more of the book aligned with my current “model” of how the world works. And I don’t think that’s by accident.

“Reading and experience train your model of the world,” writes Paul Graham. “And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”  Henry David Thoreau said something similar when he wrote: “Every man…tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain.” In Thoreau’s formulation, I “half knew” what I’d read earlier, and was ready to receive it on a second reading and have it connect more deeply with my model of the world.  Graham, the computer programmer and investor, notes,

“…reading and experience are usually ‘compiled’ at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase ‘already read’ seems almost ill-formed.”

There’s much to be learned by going back to that which has formed us—consciously or unconsciously—to see how our current base of knowledge and experience reacts with this material today. In fact, it is critical to continued learning.

So take the time to reread the books that captured your imagination as a teenager, or in graduate school, or in mid-life. It is one way we know what we know.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

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