Denken ist Danken, again
December 10, 2005

In his fascinating book on aging and the brain ( The Wisdom Paradox , 2005), Elkhonon Goldberg focuses attention on the phenomenon of “pattern recognition,” the “ability to recognize a new object or a new problem as a member of an already familiar class of objects of problems.” With experience, our ability to recognize patterns can increase, and problem-solving can actually get easier. Think of the old pastor who can cut through thousands of hours of counseling and magically (prophetically) get to the heart of a marital problem in a few seconds, and you’ve got a good idea of the phenomenon Goldberg is talking about.

Goldberg suggests that pattern recognition is based not only on individual experience and “generic memory,” but on cultural memory: “we humans are spared the hardship of discovering the world from scratch. Instead, we benefit from the incremental efffect of knowledge accumulated gradually by society through millennia. This knowledge is stored and commuicated through various cultural devices in symbolic form and is transmitted from generation to generation. Access to this knowledge automatically empowers the cognition of every individual member of human society by making it privy to society’s cumulative, collective wisdom. If wisdom is defined as the availability of a rich repertoire of patterns enabling us to recognize new situations and new problems as familiar, then we truly are a wise species.”

Language is one such repository of wisdom/patterns: “Language is much more than the means of recording specific knowledge. Language also shapes our cognitition by imposing certain patterns on the world. Without these patterns, the world around us would be an overwhelming kaleidoscope of disparate impressions. Each of us acquires a rich collection of patterns that represent the collective wisdom of society, and this spares us the hardship of discovering the crucial patterns de novo.”

Learning language as children means learning “a taxonomy, a way of categorizing the virtual infinity of things, events, and impressions that is the world, and thus of making our world stable and manageable. Knowledge of word meaning is part of our system of patterns enabling us to recognize new things as members of familiar classes. By learning the lexical and conceptual structure of language, we acquire an understanding of complex hierarchical relations among things. And by learning the grammatical structure of language, we acquire the taxonomy of possible relations among things.”

A couple thoughts of a more theological character: First, this suggests that our thought is enhanced to the degree that we receive inherited wisdom with gratitude. Second, Goldberg’s emphasis on pattern recognition provides one angle on biblical theology: Through learning the vocabulary and patterns of biblical history, we learn to discern patterns in our own history, and the strange becomes familiar.

Third, I’m not satisfied with Goldberg’s description of the place of language, since it assumes that the world is an uninterpreted, disordered buzzin’ confusion until we come to it with our linguistically based categories. In fairness, Goldberg does not believe that categories function like a linguistic version of the Kantian categories; rather, we have certain open-ended capacity for language development that is specified by the particular environment we find ourselves in. Still, if the world is created and ordered by a God who is Word, there is always already an interpretation prior to our own, and the goal is not to impose order but to speak God’s Word in our words.

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