In a grey dawn threatening rain the dogs howl and yelp, a kind of lament for confinement, a note of resignation in the song as if the protest nevertheless acknowledges the ineluctable way of life of a farm dog—a few hours of ecstatic running over steep hills, chasing sheep and practising the selective deafness that allows them to ignore whistled commands and shouted curses just to the point of exceeding the musterer's tolerance, followed by days of boredom and sleeping in their kennels, waiting for the next wild run. It doesn't help that they can see the sheep grazing in the paddock next door, nor even—oh, the humiliation!—right next to the kennels. These sheep, some hand reared and crafty, know the dogs; know their impotence when they're caged, and they'll graze right up to the wire cages while the prisoners bark and bounce around, frenzied, apoplectic.
They're supposedly man's best friend. Dogs, that is, not sheep (setting aside the usual jokes about whichever section of society you wish to slander—Australians if you're a kiwi, kiwis if you're Australian, for example) . The assertion could be analysed, argued about, chewed on like that old bone, worried to death even, but the crucial point is that whoever first said it undoubtedly had in mind the capacity of dogs to maintain their adoration of their human companion in the face of every contrary reason. Which raises the question: what is the nature of friendship? What does it mean to be a friend?
The word itself qualifies as another of those that, without context or an accompanying adjective, can be almost meaninglessly vague, covering the range from those you met just once before and only the other day—or even never in person—to someone you'd trust with your life or for whom you'd lay down your own. Given this huge range, perhaps any definition would have to be so inclusive it would fail to capture the essence of friendship. Besides, definitions can be among the least useful ways of understanding.
Let me explain.
“The sky is blue,” I say, to which you, having somehow forgotten all knowledge of blue, reply, “What is blue?”
I point to the jeans hanging on the washing line.
“Those are blue,” I say, “ and those too,” pointing to each of the four blue prayer flags interspersed among the red and white flags on the line strung in the corner of the verandah.
I look around for more blue.
“That colour on the end of the dog kennels is blue,” I say, “or at least it used to be.”
The dogs look at me, sadly. They look a little blue, but I'll let that one go.
“And this, of course,”—patting the pale blue vinyl of the verandah seats—“is blue too.”
By now, you're beginning to understand. These dissimilar objects—jeans, prayer flags, kennel wall, seats—have some characteristic in common: their colour, even if the colour isn't exactly the same.
Should I have gone inside, booted up the computer, dialled up the Internet, and checked the definition of “blue”, then returned and told you, blue “is a colour, the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm”?
Examples and analogies usually help me understand a concept far more easily and effectively than formal definitions. Resistance to this idea is, I think, why much scientific writing proves so impenetrable. The usual criticisms—the insistence on or overuse of the pseudo-objective third person, the passive constructions, the jargon, the big words, the complex sentences, and so on—have some validity , but I think the real problems with science writing usually lie elsewhere: in particular, with the insistence that being succinct overrides everything except being exact . This obsession with succinctness means repetition is ruthlessly weeded out; anything you say must be said once and only once. What’s the problem? The problem is that the writer has only one opportunity to explain it, and the reader only one opportunity to understand it. Then you’re on to the next point. It’s like trying to run a marathon by sprinting the whole way—the effort must be intense, and it must be sustained. That’s a hard way to complete a marathon. It’s also a hard way of making it to the end of a densely written scientific paper.
Examples and analogies are like rests. They allow you to recover your ability to concentrate; they enable you to consolidate what you think you’ve just learned; and, importantly, they allow you to check your understanding. If you can't see the connection between the example and the explanation that preceded it, you know you don't understand. They're rests because the effort required to understand them is generally less than that needed to understand a definition; in turn this is because they're grounded in day-to-day experience rather than consisting in the abstract concepts that so often make up formal definitions.
If you're lucky, a reviewer or editor might let you get away with an example to illustrate a point in your manuscript on the mating behaviour of Indian ants (someone used that as an example in a speech at my school when I was a kid—which shows, I guess, that a vivid example can be a powerful thing). But further examples illustrating the same point will be struck out, with the stern admonishment, “repetitive”. However, repetition (ignoring the trivial case of exact repetition) contributes strongly to understanding, in two ways.
First, repetition gives you more than one chance to understand. How often have you heard someone say, “Let me explain it another way. It's like...,” and after she's given another example, something clicks; you get it, you understand at last? No matter how good the first explanation, sometimes it won't “click” with a reader (or listener). Perhaps a phrase in the explanation sets the reader on the wrong track; perhaps some words have connotations for that reader other than the usual associations; whatever the reason, an explanation can sometimes be like that famous young woman/old woman sketch— all you can see is the old woman, then, suddenly, something switches on in your brain and you recognise the young woman. The second (or third, or whatever) example's like someone pointing out, “See, that's her cheek, and that's a necklace...” and suddenly you see her .
Second, when you have several examples, you instinctively look for how they're related — what's the common characteristic? This is a different way of understanding; yes, it's less precise, but it can be powerful, particularly when it's hard to articulate the nature of that characteristic. Again, when asked the meaning of a word, how often do you find yourself shrugging and saying, “I know what it means, but I can't explain it.” If you're like me, you probably resort (frequently) to giving examples of the word's usage.
In fact, examples are sometimes considered a class of definitions: so-called ostensive definitions . Whether ostensive definitions should be considered true definitions (whatever “true” means in this context) remains controversial. Apparently Wittgenstein had something significant to say about it; something about the fact that an ostensive definition is useless unless you already know something about what's being defined—for example, it's no use pointing to blue things to explain “blue” unless the person you're trying to enlighten already understands the concept of colour (but I'd have thought the same would apply to any form of definition). I'd love to explain what Wittgenstein had to say; to explain it in accessible language, but for the moment I'll have to leave you to investigate it for yourself (and if you explain it to me, please make good use of examples—they'll help me understand). However, I haven't actually read what he said. I did pick up one of his books once, and even opened it, but I can't say I read it, in any meaningful sense.
No, I mention Wittgenstein because my nth-hand knowledge suggests he has at least as much to say as anyone regarding ostensive definition. I also confess it's nice to drop the name Wittgenstein into a conversation, but at least I've confessed my ignorance—and my name-dropping. I see I've also digressed a long way from dogs and friends—probably irretrievably far, so I'll abandon the attempt to investigate the nature of friendship and leave you with examples instead; if a picture really is worth a thousand words, these photos might tell you far more than many pages of text. Perhaps not much about friendship, but something about friends. Mine, at least.
1. In my experience, these criticisms, or at least some of them, are better levelled at much writing in the arts and humanities and most writing by and for 'managers'.
2. Here I suggest that neither succinctness nor exactness guarantee understanding. Nor, even, does clarity, which can sometimes be too narrowly focused: I might be able to explain clearly what a dog is, but unless you've shared your life with one, you probably wouldn't truly understand the nature of a dog.
3. Some people find it difficult to see both the young and old woman in that figure (which of course emphasises my point). An easier example is the rabbit-duck.
4. Ostensive definitions are a type of extensive definition; these give meaning to a term by listing all (or enough) examples. In contrast, the usual idea of a definition tries to capture the essence of the term by identifying its necessary and sufficient conditions (e.g., the definition of blue as a colour the perception of which is evoked by ... blah blah blah ... (see above)); these are intensional definitions.
Photos (click to enlarge them) (Note: some names have been changed):
1. Kahurangi, the hand reared kokako at Pukaha Mt Bruce. As I crouched next to her cage with the big lens pressed against the netting, trying to photograph her, she flew up, clung to the wire, and peered at me, within arm's reach. Here's the song of the kokako (with a few wheezings and chuckings from a nearby tui).
2 & 3. Tony and Viv playing at the Waterford Cafe/Bar on Boxing Day 2007.
4. Colin pipes a tin whistle tune at the Waterford. Same day; a great afternoon.
5. My uncle, the last time I saw him.
6. Amelie on a beautiful afternoon in the Pohangina River.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor