Monkeys in our treehouse

by Charlie Huenemann

“. . . . For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. […] The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.” (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.6)

So when Hume looked inward he found nothing stable: nothing but “a bundle or collection of different perceptions”, he said. But when he wrote about looking inward, he produced intricate and elegant successions of words like the paragraph above, which vividly describes that disordered jumble of perceptions and thoughts. One wonders how a mere bundle of perceptions could produce such a fine account. If Hume were correct about the nature of the mind — an ever-flowing chatter with no suggestion of unity — one might expect to read instead:

“…he kissed me in the eye of my glove and I had to take it off asking me questions is it permitted to enquire the shape of my bedroom so I let him keep it as if I forgot it to think of me when I saw him slip it into his pocket of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete that one in the cream muslin standing right against the sun so he could see every atom she had on when he saw me from behind following in the rain I saw him before he saw me however standing at the corner of the Harolds cross road with a new raincoat on him with the muffler in the Zingari colours to show off his complexion and the brown hat looking slyboots as usual what was he doing there where hed no business…” [James Joyce, Ulysses]

Or perhaps even:

“I’ll borrow a path to lend me wings, quickquack, and from Jehusalem’s  wall, clickclack, me courser’s clear, to Cheerup street I’ll travel the void world over. It’s Winland for moyne, bickbuck! Jee-jakers! I hurt meself nettly that time! Come, my good frog-marchers! We felt the fall but we’ll front the defile. Was not my olty mutther, Sereth Maritza, a Runningwater.’ And the bould one that quickened her the seaborne Fingale.’ I feel like that hill of a whaler went yulding round Groenmund’s Circus with his tree full of seaweeds and Dinky Doll asleep in her shell. Hazelridge has seen me. Jerne valing is. Squall aboard for Kew, hop! Farewell awhile to her and thee!” [James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake]

Or anything, really, other than the measured and cautious prose Hume provides in his Treatise. It does not help that elsewhere Hume identifies resemblance, contiguity, and causation as the three available relations to link the appearance of one idea to the next, since these three poor cousins are surely insufficient to generate the careful dialectic of reasoning and careful presentation of evidence Hume so masterfully displays in his writings. It boggles my bundle of perceptions, frankly, that Hume could put forth such effort in crafting his philosophical account without the fact hitting him squarely on his head that what he was supplying was itself insufficient for his supplying it; in other words, Hume’s own efforts at writing should have told him that he was seriously underestimating the human mind.

“Thought is quick” wrote Thomas Hobbes, as he considered how quickly one thought gives way to the next. But — with a tip of the hat to Mr. Joyce —the quickness of thought is not at all the same as the slow and deliberative practice of selecting an order of words, sentences, and paragraphs when we write about the quickness of thought or about anything else. We like to think that the sentences we craft mirror the thoughts we think, but a moment’s reflection shows this is not the case: our inward jumbles need to be smoothed, shaped, ordered, and secured into grammatical structure before we send them out to others. Or, if we are being tricky like Joyce, we find artful ways of stitching our words together so as to magically evoke the cavalcade of thinking in real time. Joyce doesn’t hold up a true mirror either, but the mirror he holds up calls loud attention to the falsity of any mirror.

Only the most inward looking philosopher would be surprised to hear that language is essentially social. We don’t learn language and discover later that it turns out to be useful in expressing thoughts to others. Instead, we learn to converse, in ceaseless dialogues with parents, siblings, friends, dolls, and dogs — and failing all those, ourselves — and we learn at the same time how to name, identify, and describe the condition our condition is in, as we might say. If anything can be said to come first, it is the dialogue itself, and it is through that dialogue that we learn how to use the first-person pronoun so that we can initiate our long chain of complaints. Thinking comes from talking.

How we are able to talk — the surprisingly effortless channeling of thoughts into words made available for public consumption — is a startling mystery. The next time you find yourself jabbering, see if you can direct some unemployed part of your mind toward observing just how it is you know what word to put next. Within seven seconds you will find yourself tongue-tied and bewildered as to how you do it. Words come to us, and usually we, like everyone else, do not know exactly what’s coming until we hear it from our own mouths. 

One likely theory is that we have a bunch of monkeys in our treehouse whose job it is to come up with stuff for us to say. They’re a creative bunch and not always keen on relevancy, so there must be some other unit — a panel of straight-faced orangutans, perhaps — that rejects the craziest proposals put forth by the monkeys and shapes what isn’t rejected into something that, for the most part, is not an unreasonable thing to say. The monkeys are enthusiastic but clueless, so they propose a wild array of sayable things; the orangutans tend to be more sensitive to local conditions, and take up the proposals that seem likely to accomplish whatever it is we think we might want to accomplish by making our noises. (Lack of sleep, alcohol, and the presence of someone you’d like to impress all skew the orangutans’ judgment, as is well known.) 

So when someone like Joyce tries to write down the chaos found within his own treehouse, the orangutans give the monkeys a free pass on all the chatter they want to broadcast to the world — all of the ideas, proposals, remarks, exclamations, insults and funny words —and the orangutans only require the chatter to form a tidy queue and march out in somewhat orderly form, as if they are permitting the world just a taste of the nonsense they have to put up with all day long. A more reserved fellow like Hume simply allows the orangutans to give a steady report of their miseries, preserving the decorum of the enlightened salon he shares with his readers.

But our treehouse, such as it is, does not run without being informed by our environment, circumstances, and the expectations of our partners. The hidden engines of word production are sensitive to the demands placed upon them. Someone who devotes their time to improvisational comedy will have a limber army of monkeys and a set of permissive orangutans. Someone who lectures for hours on the intricacies of medieval religious heresies will have a pretty tame set of monkeys and a very stern set of orangutans. (And someone who is able to do improvisational comedy sketches about medieval religious heresies has come along too late, as Monty Python is no longer hiring.)

The practical upshot of all this is that we can train our monkeys, if we want to. I want to. Each night, around three in the morning, my monkeys decide to have a party, and I lie awake defenseless against their ravings. (And it’s made worse by the fact that I have been listening to polka music lately; for if you already find your monkeys annoying, then let me tell you, the situation does not improve when you hand them an accordion.) 

My strategy is to devote more of my waking attention to turning my thoughts into clearly focused sentences. For the most part, this is just my job, which is teaching and reading and writing, so I get plenty of opportunity to train. But even when I am just knocking about, on a walk talking to myself, or in casual conversation, I am trying to be more Hume, less Joyce, as it were: I am trying to frame all my thoughts with the aim of expressing some clear idea to someone else, or just to myself. I try to attach reasons, subordinate clauses, and qualifications to unmistakable assertions. My hope is that the monkeys will respond to this demand, and to some extent reform their behavior in a less noisome direction. 

I am sure this makes me a stuffy person to talk to. I am trying to talk like a book. But perhaps this is a price we should consider paying. Media life seems to consist in more and more monkey chatter (or bird twitter, maybe). There are advantages to this: chattering is cheap, easy, entertaining, and universally available. But it also precludes us from saying anything more thoughtful. By raising our expectations in how we talk and what we say, it encourages our monkeys to put forward proposals that have a greater chance of making it past the orangutans. 

From this perspective, it is unfortunate that our society has a bias against deliberative speech. We hear that it is stuffy, pretentious, elitist, and boring. But when we see someone training for a marathon, or trail running, or yoga, we praise them for developing their physical capacities. Why shouldn’t we have the same attitude when someone tries to improve their thought and speech? To be sure, there are many ways of doing this: one can be a philosopher, a poet, a rapper, a joke writer, a blogger, or just a thoughtful partner in conversation. All of these wordsmiths are training their monkeys for a higher purpose of communicating interesting ideas in a direct and illuminating fashion. They are expecting their monkeys to produce more than mere buffoonery (or “baboonery”, to fit our running theme). 

What both Hume and Joyce demonstrate, in different ways, is that we can be more than mere bundles of ideas. We can require that our ideas be bundled more meaningfully, with the aim of producing not just what comes to mind, but what should come to mind, or what merits saying. Then, maybe, when a party starts up in our heads at three in the morning, we will awaken to delightful conversations with ourselves. Or if that is expecting too much, at least we can expect more delightful and thoughtful conversations with one another during our waking hours.