Tuesday, June 02, 2009

the invitation to direct observation

Human beings throughout hundreds of thousands of years of evolution had been dependent on accurate observations of their natural environment for survival. While we think of science being newly derived, accuracy of scientific observation is not. Knowing where food could be found, knowing how and when to take shelter from dangerous circumstances, and knowing how to make the objects necessary for subsistence and safety, were crucial factors that no single individual could ignore. Today, we can live in the shelter of our homes and offices, surrounded by objects manufactured by others, without a thought to the weather outside, and without regard for the external consequences of the choices we make in living our lives.

These circumstances allow us to live completely out of harmony with the natural environment without ever knowing that we do so, and without ever anticipating that we or future generations of our kind will pay a price for it. We might feel far superior to the men and women who walked the earth hundreds or thousands of years ago, but they lived in harmony with the natural environment in a sustained symbiotic relationship dependent on acute attention and skilled observation. At this point, in comparison, we live thoughtlessly, with our minds wrapped in meaningless internal dialog which we escape only to enter the unreal worlds of computer screens and television.

You don't need an expert to tell you the truth of this. You can know it from careful observation of your own life.

At one point, in the early age of science, British Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort developed a scale with which any common seaman could take useful measurements of wind velocity based on directly observable phenomena. Through the use of the Beaufort scale, the British Admiralty gathered an incredible amount of data enabling safer navigation of British ships throughout the world. The Beaufort Wind scale was an example of a framework for scientific investigation that had the potential of directly increasing the part played by the common man. For those not at sea, there is a land version that allows an observer to note the wind velocity based on the movement of leaves, branches and trees, or simple things like the way the smoke rises from a chimney.

The wisdom of the hands is an invitation for academics to move beyond the purity of intellectual academic pursuits and to the tradesmen, craftsmen and common men and women of the world to move beyond the motions of the purely mechanical toward a renewed primacy of direct observation, and recognition of the value of one's own direct perceptions.


  1. Anonymous6:03 PM

    Quite apart from woodworking, but actually just another sort of mindfulness, I was out sailing on Lake Erie this afternoon as the weather turned from sunny with light winds to that dark shade of gray that means bad weather is on the way. My compliments to Admiral Beaufort.


  2. I was just reading Wendell Berry's thoughts about a "diversity of specialists," which I think is directly related to your recent posts. Part of what shuts us down to being aware of and responsive to our evironments is the early urging on the part of our cultural leaders to specialise, to declare that we will be a doctor or a lawyer or a factory worker or a plumber. The ability to experience a broad range of ways of work and methods of thought is limited earlier and earlier in life. Now, in some universities, there is (finally) the opposite trend, a nascent understanding that a student with a broad world view is a more effective student as well as a more effective citizen.
    I am following this blog with a great deal of interest. Thanks for your words.

  3. Specialization has brought tremendous benefits to our economy, but having broad general knowledge is essential to problems solving.

    I'm not sure what the hurry is for pushing our kids though school into occupations and specializations before they have had the opportunity to explore. Study abroad programs are good, but they should also have the opportunity to explore internships in the crafts.

    With our local school of the arts, ESSA, I have been trying to sell local corporations on the understanding that providing scholarships and participation time to their staff would be good for encouraging direct creative problem solving mentality. There are liberating things that happen when the hands are engaged, providing access to a range of thought that was previously bound in either-or constraints.

    Zeke, I believe we met at Arrowmont. Do you and your family still take classes there?