An Amazing Book

March 10, 2007 at 3:21 pm (Books, Dissertation, Education, History, Languages, Writing)

I’m reading a new book. And it’s blowing my mind. In a good way.

No, honey, it’s not a comic book. And it doesn’t have any zombies in it (at least, not yet). In fact, it is an academic book that I’m reading as part of researching my dissertation proposal. Despite all of those shortcomings, however, the ideas that it presents, and the arguments that it uses to defend them, are echoing around in my skull like atomic poolballs. I’m only two chapters into it, and its already changed the way that I look at world history and human behavior dramatically. Not bad for 35 pages, huh?

The book is The Domestication of the Savage Mind, by Jack Goody. It was published back in 1977, and challenges previous anthropological models of human social evolution that distinguished between two phases of, essentially, evolution in human society, a pre-logical and a logical period (that latter being contemporaneous with modern society). I realize (to anyone who actually knows what I’m talking about) that that’s a dramatic oversimplification of the issues, but I don’t want to bore all two of my readers (hi, Mary!) to tears, so I’ll leave it at that. Despite the title, Goody does not apparently believe in any fundamental difference between the minds of so-called ‘savage’ humans and modern, ‘civilized’ humans, which argument earlier scholars have used to explain the dramatic differences, especially as regards beliefs in magic, religion and science, between the two types of societies. Instead, Goody chalks the difference in mindset to a fundamentally technological gap, that is, the existence (or lack thereof) of writing.

Goody’s thesis, as I understand it so far, is that the technology of writing (and it is a technology, just as speech is a technology) allows (if not causes) human beings to perceive the world in a different way from how they viewed it before writing. This is certainly the case in areas of literature, authorship, economics, religion, science and government. One example that he gives, that (to my mind) perfectly explains the complete difference in worldviews, is this:

But the point that I want to make has nothing to do with the speed or accuracy of counting, but with the relative concreteness of the procedure. When I first asked someone to count for me, the answer was ‘count what?’ For different procedures are used for counting different objects. Counting cows is different from counting cowries. We have here an instance of the greater concreteness of procedures in non-literate societies. (pg. 13)

In our society, we have not necessarily standardized how to measure quantities; after all, we still buy eggs by the dozen and pants by the pair. However, if someone were to ask me to count, I would immediately begin spouting off, “One, two, three…” The fact that the LoDagaa, whom he was studying, did NOT do this, in fact, did not apparently have a concept of abstract counting, that is, counting as separated from a concrete object being counted, is what I find most fascinating and illustrative, since, if correct, it gives me a tremendous new insight into the nature of human thought and behavior, and consequently historical processes. I’ll keep you posted as I get further into it!

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