Monday, April 28, 2008

A renewed account of impulses from a vernal wood and their effect on moral perception

I came across this poem in an epigraph in Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

The Tables Turned

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth

Here's a somewhat related XKCD comic. As a personal note, my own grad school decision was nothing like the character there, but it's illustrative.

The theme is something similar to something I talked about here on Underlinguist. Despite my somewhat defiant tone in that old post, "murdering to dissect" is something I vaguely worry about from time to time.

Not that I've done a survey, but I do get the feeling that occasionally researchers in Linguistics, and other areas, lose focus of what the reality is out there in the world that they're trying to examine. Somehow a propensity for abstraction combined with an obsession with minutia turns the object of study into something nearly unrelated to the reality of experience that must have been the initial inspiration for anyone to set about such an investigation.

Maybe that's the right thing to happen when we try to plumb the workings of the non-conscious mind. I'm not making any claims about the quality or verity of research like this. Here, I'm writing about the personal experience of the researcher with their subject. I always try to keep in mind that any research I do or read has some sort of bearing on some one impulse from a vernal wood.

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