Glyph learning curves

So looking back a little bit beyond where history starts we see the beginnings of agriculture 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after which permanent settlements began with sturdier buildings and greater concentrations of people. Eventually this led to cities, the organization of resources for their supply, civic governance to keep order where more opportunities for conflict arose, wider trade, greater interactions with strangers, etc. Then humans began to learn about glyphs and history was born.

In earlier posts I wrote about the power of spoken language to communicate rapidly, our MEMBRAINs’ power to produce and comprehend this auditory stream with such facility, and the power of conversation to develop our empathic connections and thereby increase both our intimacy and our cooperative pragmatic strength. I have also written about prehistoric paintings and other symbols, including even those involved in dancing and arithmetic, and music. During some period around 6000 years ago, humans began to use the visual markings for more than presenting some felt aspect of vital life as art or presentational (yes, following Langer again) forms and glyphs appeared, visual symbols used to communicate what had been said, i.e., discursive symbolic forms, that had previously been available solely in passing, ephemerally.

These seem to have been used to communicate factual matters such as trade, laws, drought, harvests and the life events of the powerful (oh, there’s some factual material). The learning curve here goes through hieroglyphs to cuneiform to alphabetic renderings. Here are an early and a later hieroglyphic tablet; you can see that the forms became more abstract.

512px-Hieroglyphs        409px-Papyrus_Ani_curs_hiero

Certain forms of Chinese and Japanese writings still rely on idiographic symbols, i.e., a distinct symbol for each word, and that requires the rather keen memorization of thousands of symbols for the scholarly. Alphabetic scripts are the easy way forward.

But here is another glyphic learning curve, going from capturing facts to more vital truths. These latter were relegated to the oral traditions of the bards and priests, e.g., Homer and the druids, again making severe demands on verbal memory. Then we began to learn how to use writing to express such truths, establish a record, a tradition, and then to build upon that. Here the Greeks excelled early on from 3500 to 2000 years ago. The period around 3000 years ago (1000 BCE) is the period Julian Jaynes discussed (see previous posts). Yes, during this time civilization changed and religion changed to meet its needs. The writings Jaynes analyzed do not reflect the origin of human consciousness so much as the learning curve of how to conceptualize and render these ephemeral truths in an optical and stable form, a curve which continues today in various ways.

We westerners do not think much about the prehistoric and ancient Chinese (or simply Asians back then). A few weeks ago I discussed the early grammarians around 700 BCE; they dealt for the first time with communications as facts and analyzed the structure of these facts. And then we have the Book of the Tao around 500 BCE originally written in seal script, a simplified form of Chinese. Here it is on the right with the more complex on the left.

"Seal Eg" by Original uploader was Gsklee at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Darwinius using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Tao Te Ching is one of the first and greatest statements of mysticism. I am not sure our learning curve ever exceeds this but I enjoy the asymptotic approach. Here is verse 19 from the version by Ursula K. LeGuin and a beautiful version it is.

Stop being holy, forget being prudent,

It’ll be a hundred times better for everyone.

Stop being altruistic, forget being righteous,

People will remember what family feeling is.

Stop planning, forget making a profit,

There won’t be any thieves and robbers.

But even these three rules

Needn’t be followed; what works reliably

Is to know the raw silk,

Hold the uncut wood.

Need little,

Want less.

Forget the rules.

Be untroubled.

Clearly Lao Tzu was highly conscious and had learned well how to render a vital moment of an encounter with truth. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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