tastes in the head

Note: these posts are copied over from the ‘mathbucket’ section of my old tumblr blog and I haven’t put much effort into this, so there is likely to be context or formatting missing.

[I don’t really know where I’m going with this post, but my brain seems to be fixated on writing it. It never comes out right, so this time I’m just going to push it out the door in whatever confused form I can manage, and then hopefully my brain will shut up.]

Tastes in the head is some idiosyncratic piece of mental furniture I have cluttering up the place. I’m not even sure where the best place to look is if I want to find a better vocabulary for this sort of thing (phenomenology? meditation practice? do I have to drag my way through Heidegger or something? ugh). I first got it from Empson’s Seven Kinds of Ambiguity:

“… what the poet has conveyed is no assembly of grammatical meanings, capable of analysis, but a ‘mood’, an ‘atmosphere’, a ‘personality’, an attitude to life, an undifferentiated mode of being. Probably it is in this way, as a sort of taste in the head, that one remembers one’s own past experiences, including the experience of reading a particular poet.”

He obviously liked the phrase, because he uses it again a bit later to snark about the Romantic poets:

“They admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realize that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing.”

I don’t know if I’m that close to what he meant, but I interpret his ‘tastes in the head’ as that kind of preverbal emotional tone ideas have – once you have some description in language you can manipulate that and catch some of the meaning, but there is also some qualitative essence that is harder to get at. I’m not going to give any examples now, because 1. that ‘preverbal’ bit makes it really hard, 2. the ones I tried were really distracting and ended up taking over the post, but I will quote a couple of sources further along that hopefully clarify it a bit.


This is a bit of an aside, but I’m really not aiming for clear structure in this one: while I’m talking about the the New Critics, there’s an interesting link here to the idea of the ‘objective correlative’ popularised by T.S. Eliot. I often see this used to mean just, like, imagery in literature that helps to convey the emotional tone of the piece, but iirc he originally used it to make a much stronger, wrong-but-interesting claim: that each image in literature maps to a distinct ‘taste in the head’ – a specific nonverbal emotional tone – that is ‘objective’, i.e. the same for each person (provided they have cultivated the Correct level of literary sensitivity, is the disclaimer at this point.)

This would be amazing if true: we could generate a load of poetic imagery, discover exactly what impossible-to-convey-with-normal-language emotional tone it mapped to, and then produce a giant lookup table that people could use to reliably convey the background texture of their thoughts, and then nobody would ever misunderstand each other ever again. E.g., taking the latest SSC post as an example, Scott digs up the image that exactly corresponds to lived-experience-sympathy-for-the-plight-of-overworked-junior-doctors (it’s probably some kind of whale), sticks it in the post, and we all understand it on an intuitive level and none of us ever need to argue about it again. This sounds like the ultimate rationalist project, but unfortunately we’re going to fail given the obvious problem that the same image provokes very different responses in different people. (And even in the same person at different times.) It’s actually hard for me to believe that this idea was even on the table, but, well, behaviourism was popular at one point, and this is a good deal less reductionist.


Normally I approach this stuff through my endless droning on about the role of intuition in maths. In that case I sometimes also think of the feeling as ‘falling in love with the gears’. This comes from the intro to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (pdf) where he talks about his early fascination with cars, and how playing with gears helped his early intuition for maths:

“I believe that working with differentials did more for my mathematical development than anything I was taught in elementary school. Gears, serving as models, carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head. I clearly remember two examples from school math. I saw multiplication tables as gears, and my first brush with equations in two variables (e.g., 3x + 4y = 10) immediately evoked the differential. By the time I had made a mental gear model of the relation between x and y, figuring how many teeth each gear needed, the equation had become a comfortable friend.

“Assimilating equations to gears certainly is a powerful way to bring old knowledge to bear on a new object. But it does more as well. I am sure that such assimilations helped to endow mathematics, for me, with a positive affective tone that can be traced back to my infantile experiences with cars.

“A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears.”

That ‘positive affective tone’ is what I mean by ‘taste in the head’, and for me learning maths is all about the process of finding that kind of tone in new areas:

As an example I’ve been going on about a lot, for me at the moment differential geometry is strongly associated with a positive tone, and abstract algebra most definitely isn’t. (This hasn’t always been true, so hopefully one day I can like both!) Lie groups provide one natural bridge, as an algebraic object that is also a differentiable manifold. Using that I can start to see a path to more “unpleasantly algebraic” components, like, I don’t know, classifying Lie algebras or something, and hopefully later I can move further along it.


So this has mostly just been a lot of quoting various links. I was going to try and make some rambling ill-defined claims at this point, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to manage that this time so I’ll just wave vaguely at one of them.

I must be unusual in that one part of Less Wrong that I actually like is all the stuff about ‘akrasia’ and reducing procrastination – I don’t get a whole lot of practical use out of this, but the vocabulary of ‘ugh fields’ works very well at communicating the pre-verbal feel of what’s going on. Some of Alicorn’s ‘Living Luminously’ posts are even closer to what I’m interested in, including a much more developed idea of ‘hacking yourself’ to like things (like my Lie group example, but she seems to manage a greater level of control.)

When I read this stuff (also the parts about cognitive biases, Kahneman’s System One, etc., but there I haven’t read so much of the LW content), LW seems really good at taking all this preverbal substructure seriously. And then suddenly, bam!, I’ll be reading something else and it’s all about fitting everything into some incredibly restrictive language-based formal structure. I don’t know, I am possibly just missing the part of my brain that can get anything out of philosophical discussions of ethics, but this part of LW in particular gives me this strong feeling of “how the hell have have you reduced this gigantic mess of tastes in the head to a clean conceptual system, which in certain versions is clean enough to actually take values in the real numbers? This is worse than the T. S. Eliot Emotional Lookup Table! And more importantly, what the hell have you left out by doing this?”

I don’t know, sometimes formal systematizing does work, really well. I would be very surprised if this is one of those times.

OK, I’m going to finish here, and push it out the door like I said I would. Hopefully this has got some of what I wanted out of my head.

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