05 February 2008

Friends and definitions


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, Tony & Viv at the Waterfordbut 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 Tony at the Waterfordkennels 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 [1], 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 [2]. 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 Colin at the Waterfordreader 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 John at Great Malvernreader 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 [3].

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 [4]. 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 meAmelie 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


Duncan said...

That Kokako song is fantastic Pete, has echoes of our Pied Butcherbird.

Zhoen said...

Repetition is the hallmark of adult education. So said my preceptor to me over and over and over.

You are right back to dogs. What is a dog? That great dane, that poodle, that terrier? Examples are how children learn language, I suspect that method never ends.

Beth said...

I loved this meditation, Pete, and looked at the picture of your uncle, especially, for a long time -- before I learned he was your uncle. You said a lot here; thanks.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Good to see you back and trust your reunion with family was a fine one. As always a thought provoking read and look forward to your continued investigations of friendship wherever it leads. The pictures are all cool, but I agree with Beth, the one of your uncle stands out to me as well. That photo says so much. Have a great day.

Anonymous said...

I read the sad story of your uncle and now I've seen that wonderful photograph and I can see that you must be heart-broken to lose him. I send my love and sympathy to all your family.

pohanginapete said...

Duncan, I trust I'll get to hear the real thing one day. Moreover, the chances of that are increasing, as kokako, once dangerously close to extinction, now have relatively safe refuges in some of our mainland and offshore islands, where predators have been eliminated. The thought of losing these birds forever is too awful to contemplate, yet we came so close.

Zhoen, that's a very good point about children learning by example. Imagine the look you'd get, trying to explain "blue" by using the formal (intensional) definition. ;^D

Beth, thank you. The photo was originally taken on film (transparency); I had it scanned and printed in town when I returned. Actually, I must check — it might actually have been on my penultimate meeting with him rather than the last time. In any case, it's how I remember — and want to remember — him.

Cheers Robb. Yes, had a wonderful time with the family — very relaxed and happy; lots of laughter. Interesting and thought-provoking to see the nephews growing up, too.

Key West, thank you. I was lucky; as I said in my reply to Beth, it's how I remember him. I was spared the ordeal of seeing him as someone else; whoever he was after that terrible injury, he wasn't the uncle I knew, nor the husband and father his family knew. Perhaps that's why I don't actually feel heart-broken; I got to meet him as he was and I'm enormously grateful for that. The sadness is mostly for my aunt and cousins, who did have to endure the ordeal; my own loss is tiny compared with that, and, of course, there was always going to be one visit that would have been the last.

Gustav said...

Friendships are like plants - they need to be watered, nurtured and cared for.

Our relationships are like different plants in a garden. There are weeds that need to be pulled, some plants need pruning, others require water, and a few need to be talked to.

In the end certain plants wither and die, a few bloom for a few brief shining moments never to return, but some grow into Redwood trees with roots as long as their branches that reach the sky.

We all make our own gardens in life. You and your blog are a sanctuary in the corner of my garden - a place to sit and meditate.

pohanginapete said...

Gustav, friendships as plants, relationships as gardens — a good analogy :^) And thank you; very pleased you think of this blog as a sanctuary. A great compliment.

vegetablej said...

Hi Pete:

This is wonderful writing, evocative and then becoming scholarly, only to drop off like a cliff at the end with the advice to figure out what you were meaning to say about friendship by looking at the pictures of your friends.

I'm not sure I can do it, but I sure can appreciate them.

I guess the bird must be a friend too, but wonder why it has that sort of wary look in its eye? Maybe it doesn't feel quite as much friendship as you do, a state of affairs most common, since humans (and perhaps birds) aren't quite as forgiving as dogs.

Love the very twinkle-eyed picture of your uncle, who looks remarkably like you, or vice versa. He must have been fun to talk to.


Anonymous said...

I was going to say just what vegetablej said - you and your uncle are so very alike, from what we see of your portraits. Can you tell us more about him? Was he a writer as well? Guess you must miss him an awful lot.

Anne-Marie said...

Pete, so much to contemplate in this post. I really liked what you said about analogies. I find it easier to both understand and explain information using analogies. Children respond well to them too. Humans have probably used analogies to communicate information since we first developed speech. Every culture has its own myths and legends and fairy-tales - and what are they if not analogies?

The kokako photo is great. They're such stunning birds - I love their startling blue wattles and that black "robber mask" over their eyes. I'll never forget being sung to by a family of kokako early one morning at Tiri Tiri Matangi island. Very special.

Vegetablej, I've met Kahurangi and I doubt that's a wary look in her eye. Kokako are bright, curious, sociable birds at the best of times. Kahurangi was hand-reared by staff at Hamilton Zoo and as a consequence is very fond of human company. Any one who stops near Kahurangi is treated to a friendly "conversation" with her.

Paterika Hengreaves said...

Your writing is profound and provided a delightful read. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Oh, I miss the sounds of the tui. I long to return to Kiwi land which is awesomely beautiful. Very soon, very soon. I must.


vegetablej said...


Thanks for the information about Kahurangi. She sounds like a lovely being. What I wrote was mostly tongue-in cheek, but perhaps that didn't come across.

Anyway, thanks. :)

Anne-Marie said...

Sorry VegetableJ - that should "learn me" not to make assumptions about what people are saying! Oops :-)

pohanginapete said...

VJ, thanks. I'm glad you appreciate the writing, which of late has tended to meander — a bit like me, I suppose. And yes, you guessed right about Kahurangi (incidentally, the name is the Maori word for 'blue' — another connection which I forgot to mention in the post). Anne-Marie's right about her — I suspect she (Kahurangi, that is, not Anne-Marie) considers anyone a friend if they're likely to feed her (her aviary's tagged with signs requesting not to feed her, but I'm sure she's too appealing for some visitors).

Karen (& VJ): I think there is a physical resemblance between my uncle and me. Whether that extends to personalities is much harder to say — my aunt and cousins are really the only people who could comment on that. He was certainly fun when I visited, and he did write, but not the sort of writing that appealed much to me. My aunt, on the other hand, writes wonderfully — the sort of writing you can't put down; writing that has you choked with emotion one minute and laughing the next. When her book's published you'll hear about it here.

Anne-Marie, thanks for the info about Kahurangi. I'm so envious about your serenade on Tiritiri. Everyone I know who's met kokako in the wild seems to have fallen in love ;^) Good point about the myths and legends, too. At the risk of being flamed by fundamentalists, I'll point out that Lloyd Geering made exactly that point about much of the bible — that rather than being literal accounts, the stories therein were aids to understanding (I might be wrong about Geering, but I'm pretty sure he argued that).

Paterika, thank you. You're right about Aotearoa; sometimes it's so beautiful it leaves me unable to speak. It's important not to make it into a myth, though — it's by no means the 'clean and green' environment it's marketed as overseas. A recent, major report on the state of the New Zealand environment put paid to that myth. Sure, there are beautiful and clean places, but the agriculture which still forms the basis of our economy has had major, unpleasant impacts, and continues to do so. Dairying in particular is a major contributor to the poor quality of many of our rivers and lakes.

Patry Francis said...

In so many ways, friendship is better defined by photographs than by words. Even if I had no language, I would understand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to my talented nephew for the amazing portrait of his uncle (which I hadn't seen before, and which was initially so disconcerting that I couldn't congratulate him). If there is anything more to be said about the power of the image, well, this is it!
And to the several people who showed interest, yes, they share a physical resemblance and a certain twinkliness. Also a fascination with obscure thoughts! Thank you for your interest in Pete's Uncle. He will not be forgotten.

robin andrea said...

I cheated. I did not read all of the words. My eyes are tired and the screen is bright. I looked at your photographs and understood blue.

pohanginapete said...

Patry, clearly, you've understood. And pictures really can say so much — I'm late in replying at least partly because I've been working on almost a thousand photos from a wedding I photographed the Saturday before last. That seemed to drain any facility I had with words, perhaps because I'd tried to say so much through those photos... I trust it's temporary.

P.E.A. (I refuse to use 'pea brain' because it's so inappropriate) — I'm sorry I didn't warn you about the photo. But thank you, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him, including some of the eccentricities I trust I'll be able to avoid... ;^)

Robin Andrea, nice! It's not cheating — it's efficient; a neat way of grasping what's essential. And I now understand tiredness, too. All the best to you and Roger.

butuki said...

When I started reading your post I never would have predicted that you would be moving on to talk about repetition and analogy, but then how does one put a frame around the idea of friendship? Sometimes it takes a lifetime to understand just how big a part of life friendship really is. Or to see that when any creature, even a squirrel or a sparrow, begins to trust you, there is something exchanged that goes beyond merely eating and being eaten.

For some reason I kept thinking of Gregory Bateson, especially two books, "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" and "Mind and Nature" when you spoke of the way we perceive the world around us. I still don't quite comprehend Bateson's ideas about cybernetics and the way one thing influences the existence of another thing, but one thing I felt early on in reading his work is that nothing in the world exists independent of anything else, and that a thing like friendship surely must be shaped by language and world views and even the impressions that a photograph has on viewers.

Good to see you back, Pete. Sorry for the long absence. I've been wandering, too.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, good to see you back also. I know how it can be, trying to keep up with blog posts and comments — my own performance in that area is hardly exemplary. Thanks for the nod towards Bateson's ideas; I won't promise I'll investigate them in the near future (which is almost ridiculously booked out for someone with a supposedly relaxed way of life), but I'll at least try to keep them in mind. Meanwhile, the photos are mounting up; now I just need to find the words to accompany them.

All the best, Miguel. I trust the wandering has been fulfilling.

Anonymous said...

Sitting out in the warm autumn sun on a still autumn day, I've just made my first foray for several weeks into the blogosphere, beginning where I left off. I was certainly not disappointed!

The thing I liked about listening to Paul Callaghan (alas, no longer appearing with Kim Hill on Saturday morning radio) was his ability to make physics understandable by his use of apt analogies. Some scientists have the gift, some don't.

As for friends: well, they have certainly buoyed me up over the last few weeks. I hadn't realised how richly I was endowed.

Now, Pete, a chiding note: why this reluctance to use the name "pea-brain"? Its joking irony makes me smile every time. A literal interpretation is belied by its genesis. When I first read it several posts back, it told me something about your aunt I would never have gleaned from a mere "P.E.A."

Now on to the post above this...


pohanginapete said...

Peregrina, it's good to hear you're recovering well. I'll try to catch up while I'm down South. And the chiding has been noted!