Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mountains of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is a history of how we understand, see, and live with mountains. It's both high-quality public communication of scholarship, of a kind I'd like to emulate, and an engaging personal memoir of the attractions and pains of mountaineering.

My interest here is what it suggests about the perception of value. Mountains of the Mind shows, by well-chosen anecdote and readings of travel-writing, that several values we might now take to be central to human flourishing - discovery, originality, the experience of wild beauty - have short, local histories. Quite recently, mountains were experienced as ugly wastes, not as provocations to Romantic emotion or heroic effort. How should we react to this revelation of contingency in our ways of valuing mountains, and in our forms of valuing generally? Here are four possibilities:

1) Profanation The discovery that others valued differently in the past, and that our own values have a history, throws all value into doubt. My perceptions of value are just what my history has made me perceive, not access to anything real.

Response: of course our value-judgements don't meet the impossible standard of being without history, but that doesn't show that they aren't true. One of the shifts in understanding Macfarlane maps is the discovery of deep time: the world is ancient, and mountains, far from being permanent, are brief by comparison to it. They're thrown up and worn down by vast geological processes operating over millions of years. But that mountains are temporary doesn't show that they aren't real.

2) Fluidity Human flourishing, and our experiences of value, are infinitely, culturally variable.

Response: we don't have evidence for infinite variability, only for difference within a range, and a pretty narrow range at that. Our shared nature as talkative, tool-using, child-rearing East African plains apes with a very recent common ancestor suggests that our possibilities have limits. The interesting problem is to map the range of difference and the loci of similarity.

3) Multiple expressions There are many ways to enact core human activities and passions, and different cultures have accessed and expressed that core differently. Mountaineering is our way of approaching what others approached through bullfighting or spiritual exercises: triumph, the numinous, addictive terror.

Response: this could be true, but it needn't be. There are some new things under the sun: contour maps aren't just an alternative way of describing mountains, they're a better way. Some forms of expression may be deeper and clearer than others.

4) Discovery Rousseau, Coleridge, and other central figures in the history of understanding mountains uncovered something latent in human nature. What we now recognise in wild beauty wakes something in us which, before them, was much harder to bring to fruition. These pioneers may also have discovered new forms of corruption: Macfarlane is very clear on the addict's selfishness of the mountaineer.

Response: but how are we to tell that some new experience of value is a discovery, rather than just another  one of the nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right? I don't know. Much of my thinking at the moment - including this post - is about that question.

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