Guokr: Your friend Daniel Dennett said you are the best “practicing phenomenologist” because you are always studying the phenomena — the feelings, the inside actions — of your own mind. For so many years you have been recording all your own language mistakes. Could you please elaborate why such mistakes are relevant to thinking mechanism? With such a great accomplishment, do you think you “know thyself” better than average people?
I have a huge collection of typing errors (which are traditionally called “typos”), speech errors (which I like to call “speakos”), hearing errors (“hearos”), action errors (“actos”), and so forth. I am the most frequent contributor to this collection, since I am the person I observe the most, but my friends and relatives and students have all made great contributions to it (inadvertently), as have radio announcers and random people in restaurants and gas stations, and so forth and so on. I started collecting errors when I was about 16 years old, and I am still adding to my collection, just about every day.
Of course I haven’t captured all my own language errors, since there are far too many of them, and also since the boundary between errors and correct usages is anything but precise. Sometimes a tiny, almost inaudible hesitation or a minuscule, almost imperceptible distortion of a vowel or consonant will reflect a momentary indecision on my part between two competing pathways in my brain. Are such phenomena errors? Even when such a hesitation or distortion happens and I consciously hear it (maybe even laughing at myself for its silliness), I am almost always totally unaware, on a conscious level, of the rival forces that are competing in my brain, so when I write down this mini-error (or semi-error or quasi-error), I must do so without any sense of clarity as to what was really going on behind the scenes.
In any case, I do indeed have a collection of many thousands of errors, going back five decades, to which I am the most frequent contributor. Some of these errors are wonderful insight-givers into unconscious processes whose existence I would never have suspected 50 years ago, when I was a deep believer in the mind as a kind of “logic machine”. Yes, I truly was convinced, when I was a teen-ager, that thinking was a rigorous, mechanical process closely related with symbolic logic. Error-making played no role in such a process, or at least no interesting role. Why, then, did I collect errors back then? I don’t know for sure; I think it was mostly because they amused me, often making me laugh out loud at my own or someone else’s surprising sloppiness. But today, my feeling about errors is exactly the opposite of what it was back then. To me today, error-making provides a marvelous scientific window onto the invisible substrate of the mysterious act of thinking. And I will add that wherever one looks, one finds analogy is the culprit behind error-making. Let me explain.
If, as I emerge from a pizza parlor with a fresh hot pizza to take home, I say to my friend, “I’ll carry the pizza home in my trunk”, but I’m riding my bike rather than driving a car, what is going on? Taken literally, my remark makes no sense at all, since my bike has no trunk. I was confused; I used the wrong word. But there is a simple analogy behind the scenes, and my friend could understand my errorful remark perfectly clearly by taking the word “trunk” fluidly. In this case, the analogy’s basis links two vehicles — my bike and a car — and more specifically, it links two parts of the vehicles (namely, parts designed to carry objects), and lastly, a key role is played in this analogy by the fact that my bike’s basket, just like a car’s trunk, is located behind the “driver’s seat”. This is just one example showing how errors come from hidden, unconsciously made analogies.
Similarly, if I call someone by the wrong name, behind the scenes there is always an analogy that connects the two people involved. A stereotypical case of this kind of error is the man who calls his new girlfriend by the name of his previous girlfriend. In such a case, the analogy is self-evident and very simple, but in other cases of calling someone by someone else’s name, it can be much deeper and subtler.
就连那些最简单的输入错误也是由某种类比导致的——通常非常简单，但有时也极为复杂。比方说，我的朋友鲍勃（Bob），他在学了一点儿中文以后去了中国，然后有一天他发了封邮件给我讲述他的行程。他打开邮件，输入“Hi hao!”我读到这两个字的时候忍不住笑出了声来。在这个滑稽的错误里，鲍勃无意中将美国人打招呼的“嗨”（Hi）和中文人称代词“你”（Ni）弄混了（因为这两个字在拼写上非常相似——可以类比），而又因为“嗨”（Hi）和“你好”（Ni hao）分别在两种语言中具有可以类比的功能。此外，小写字母的 “h” 和 “n” 长得很像，这一无意识的类比联系或许在鲍勃的思维里也起了作用，尽管他输入的是大写的“H”而不是小写的“h”。还有可能，在鲍勃的脑海中大写“H”的形状和“n”的发音也紧密相关，因为他学过几年俄语，而在俄语中，“H”这个形状发“n”的音。当然，我们不知道、也不可能知道在那一天鲍勃的脑子里究竟发生了什么，使得他犯下了这么一个有趣的错误。但是，有一件事情是可以肯定的：当时出现了一个或更多看不见、摸不着的类比，从而导致了这一看得见的行为。
Even the simplest of typos is caused by some kind of analogy — often very simple but sometimes extremely subtle. For instance, my friend Bob, after learning a little Chinese, went to China, and at one point he wrote me an email to report on his trip. He opened his email by typing “Hi hao!” When I read these two words, I couldn’t help laughing out loud. This is a hilarious error in which Bob unintentionally blended the American greeting “Hi” with the Chinese pronoun “Ni” (because they are very similar — that is, analogous — in terms of their spelling), and because the two phrases “Hi” and “Ni hao” play analogous roles in the two languages. Moreover, the lowercase letters “h” and “n” look alike, and this unconscious analogical link between the two letters might have played a role in Bob’s mind, even though he typed a capital “H” rather than a lowercase “h”. It’s even possible that in Bob’s mind, the capital “H” shape and the “n”-sound were closely related because he had studied Russian for several years, and it happens that in Russian, “H” is the shape that stands for the “n” sound. Of course one doesn’t know, and one can’t know, exactly what was going on inside Bob’s brain on that particular day to give rise to this particular humorous error, but of one thing one can be sure: there were one or more invisible, unfelt analogies taking place, which led to this piece of visible behavior.
The key point here is the centrality of analogy in error-making — and from there, it’s but a stone’s throw to seeing the centrality of analogy in all of thinking. What I have learned about thinking in general, and about my own thinking in particular, over the last few decades, is how profoundly my thinking is pervaded with errors due to unconsciously made analogies — usually pretty simple ones, but sometimes very subtle ones. I take great joy in this discovery about myself — and also (by analogy!) about other people — because it shows me that human thinking is far subtler and infinitely less mechanical than I once thought it was, when I was a teen-ager.
Ironically, coming to see myself as a prolific and crazy error-maker has given me enormous respect for thinking, because it shows how distant human thinking is from the simplistic model of just manipulating “propositions” according to strict “rules of inference” that are trying to “maintain truth”. That rigid and outmoded vision of thought is an ancient dream of philosophers, but we can now see that it is impoverished and feeble, in comparison with a vision of thinking as the collective outcome of a see thing chaos of unconsciously competing tiny processes. To me, that is a beautiful and wonderful way of looking at thinking — and since I am a thinking being, it’s a delightful way of looking at myself. In losing the dream of myself as a precise and rigorous logical engine, I have gained a vision of myself as a crazy and sloppy analogy-making engine. I love it!
Guokr: Your research path is the one less traveled. Have you ever feel lonely, in intellectual ways? What if it is you, not the others, take the wrong road?
I am who I am, and I guess I just accept it. Sometimes I feel as if the value of my ideas about the nature of thinking is not sufficiently recognized, but then I remember that there are quite a few people whom I greatly respect and who appreciate my ideas, and at that point I feel all right. I have had plenty of recognition over the years, and I’m satisfied with it. My university appreciates me, giving me plenty of freedom to teach seminars on all sorts of topics that I’m interested in, and I can write books on all the topics that interest me. I’m actually very lucky. And I think it’s better to be in the minority than in the majority, because nothing could be more boring to me than being a “bandwagon jumper”, as we say in America — that is, somebody who only goes for the most popular, trendy, recent ideas. Bandwagon-jumping is pretty mindless, and I’d much rather be an independent thinker who isn’t always in the forefront of people’s attention. Being unnoticed by most people is okay with me. I’d like to believe that eventually my ideas will be more widely recognized. That hopeful thought is enough for me.
As for the idea that perhaps I have taken the wrong road, of course it’s possible, but it’s not something that I worry about. Life is too short. I believe in my own ideas, and I will stick up for them. After all, as the old saying goes, if you don’t stick up for yourself, then who will?
Guokr: What is your ultimate life goal? Do you have any great regrets? If yes, what would they be?
Do I have an ultimate life goal? I guess it would be: producing many things of great beauty. I have done lots of visual art (for example, ambigrams and some other types of letter-based art), and I have composed some small piano pieces, and creating all those artistic things has meant a great deal to me. Also translating poetry (especially Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin) and writing my own poetry have been deeply meaningful to me. And more recently, dancing salsa (and some chacha and some swing) have been fantastically exciting things. I may not be creating anything eternal when I try to dance gracefully, but simply being something beautiful is a wonderful sensation. Of course, I’m not nearly as graceful or precise as I’d like to be, but despite all my lacks as a dancer, the sensation of moving beautifully and rhythmically through space is almost without equal in terms of pleasure.
Do I have regrets about my choices in life? I don’t know. I’ve followed my own pathway and in so doing have run across many, many things of enormous, deeply moving beauty — beautiful mathematical patterns, beautiful analogies, beautiful ideas in physics, beautiful pieces of music, beautiful letterforms and alphabets, beautiful plays on words, beautiful poems, beautiful novels, beautiful sounds in various languages, beautiful cities, beautiful sunsets, beautiful photographs, beautiful movies, beautiful smiles, beautiful friendships, and on and on. Sometimes I even have created or discovered beautiful things myself. Really, that is a wonderful thing. If I am looking for things to regret, I suppose I could say that I wish I had started learning Chinese or Russian or salsa-dancing earlier, but if I had done that, then I would have done something else less. I think that overall, I’ve used my time pretty well. All in all, I think at my stage in life, one should just be satisfied with what one has done. Life unfortunately has all sorts of crazy twists, and so if one lives healthily to my age (68, as I write these words) and if one has experienced tremendous, enriching beauty of many sorts, then one is pretty lucky and has many reasons to be happy.