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  • Labels, Stories, and Personal Experience

    Posted by David Foster on February 17th, 2012 (All posts by )

    Erin O’Connor links to George Eliot:

    It is an interesting branch of psychological observation to note the images that are habitually associated with abstract or collective terms — what may be called the picture-writing of the mind, which carries on concurrently with the more subtle symbolism of language. Perhaps the fixity or variety of these associated images would furnish a tolerably fair test of the amount of concrete knowledge and experience which a given word represents, in the minds of two persons who use it with equal familiarity. The word railways, for example, will probably call up, in the mind of a man who is not highly locomotive, the image either of a “Bradshaw,” or of the station with which he is most familiar, or of an indefinite length of tram-road; he will alternate between these three images, which represent his stock of concrete acquaintance with railways. But suppose a man to had successively the experience of a “navvy,” an engineer, a traveller, a railway director and a shareholder, and a landed proprietor in treaty with a railway company, and it is probable that the range of images which would by turns present themselves to his mind at the mention of the word “railways,” would include all the essential facts in the existence and relations of the thing. Now it is possible for the first-mentioned personage to entertain very expanded views as to the multiplication of railways in the abstract, and their ultimate function in civilization. He may talk of a vast net-work of railways stretching over the globe, of future “lines” in Madagascar, and elegant refreshment-rooms in the Sandwich Islands, with none the less glibness because his distinct conceptions on the subject do not extend beyond his one station and his indefinite length of tram-road. But it is evident that if we want a railway to be made, or its affairs to be managed, this man of wide views and narrow observation will not serve our purpose.

    Probably, if we could ascertain the images called up by the terms “the people,” “the masses,” “the proletariat,” “the peasantry,” by many who theorize on those bodies with eloquence, or who legislate for them without eloquence, we should find that they indicate almost as small an amount of concrete knowledge — that they are as far from completely representing the complex facts summed up in the collective term, as the railway images of our non-locomotive gentleman. How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.

    Read the whole Eliot passage plus Erin’s post.

    See also Peter Robinson’s post about Khrushchev and Soviet management practices, which I see as being pretty related.


    7 Responses to “Labels, Stories, and Personal Experience”

    1. Anonymous Says:

      “a man to had successively the experience of a “navvy,…”

      Would likely be taking part in a Gilbert and Sullivan production ;)

    2. David Foster Says:

      Navvy=someone who does heavy excavation work. The term was shortened from “navigator”, which was applied to the canal-builders.

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Navvy is used in Gordon Lightfoot’s beautiful trilogy about the Canadian railroads.

    4. david foster Says:

      Canadian Railroad Trilogy is indeed a great song. It’s available for on-line listening here.

    5. tyouth Says:

      Thanks for letting me know David, it’s good to learn at Cboyz.

    6. Otto Maddox Says:


      I have been wondering about that word in Lightfoot’s song for nearly 40 years. Thanks.

    7. Mitch Says:

      It’s amazing: the less you know about something, the simpler it seems. This may help explain the unwarranted confidence of our technocrats.