… languages recognized, not as the means of contemporary communication but as investments in thought and records of perceptions and analogical understandings; literatures recognized as the contemplative exploration of beliefs, emotions, human characters and relationships in imagined situations, liberated from the confused, cliché ridden, generalized conditions of commonplace life and constituting a world of ideal human expressions inviting neither approval nor disapproval but the exact attention and understanding of those who read …

Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Liberal Learning,’ p. 23.

Last month I wrote about ‘creative reading‘ and the art of noticing what is read. This post focusses on making judicious analogies between this (what is currently being read) and that (all else that has been read).

Oakeshott’s view of English as requiring ‘exact attention’ and ‘analogical understandings’ provides a way through the thicket of exam technique and assessment objectives that blight much of what the study of English has become. By exploring language as a ‘record of perception’ and an ‘investment in thought,’ and in contemplating literature as the imagined story of humanity in all its aspects, students can begin to amass the tools to hew meaning from the edifice of words with which they are confronted. The study of English requires that we pay attention in particular, specialised ways and, once we have learned to focus, to be able to experience new insights through seeing that what we are attending to is connected to things we have experienced previously.

The judicious application of analogies and allusions – analogising – requires that we know as much as possible. The more we know – and, in particular, the more we know about language and literature – the better able we are to recognise that this piece of knowledge fits just there, or that the word, image or structural device over which we’re currently poised reminds us of something we’ve seen elsewhere. This know- ledge is not always literary.

For instance, when Julia is first introduced in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we’re told, “Winston disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her … He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young pretty ones.” On reading this a student who happened to be an aficionado of the 60s rock band, The Doors said this reminded her of the line from ‘People Are Strange,’ “Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted.” This is precisely how we use analogies to make meaning.

The literary critic and professor of English, I.A. Richards once said, “All thinking from the lowest to the highest – whatever else it may be – is sorting.” Meaning in English is built up by analogies with all we have read and experienced. The broader our literary knowledge, the more attuned we are to intertextual references, the conversations between texts. The more our students know of literary texts and their history and traditions, the greater their facility for comparing what they are studying now with everything else they have read. Developing literary knowledge helps students to hone a sense of connoisseurship with which they can move from naïve responses to the exercise of taste and the stating of educated opinions. Without it, students are limited to the most basic and banal of ideas.

So, all thought is concerned with finding analogies between concepts and categories. Words point to meanings, to categories we hold in mind, and we find our way in the world by seeing connections, overlaps between one category and another. A dictionary definition merely grazes the surface of these meanings; most of what we know is tacit. We ‘just know’ what we mean when we point to a dog, or a pencil, or a poem. Strictly defining these categories may seem superficially satisfying but there are inevitably blurred boundaries between, for instance, what is and is not a dog. Is a picture of a dog a dog? Is a dead dog still a dog? If we hear barking are we hearing a dog? What about a recording of a dog’s bark? And this becomes much more difficult when trying to pin down the essence of something less precise: what is and is not a poem? Should it rhyme? Contain metaphorical language? Does it have to ‘look like’ a poem? Is a song a poem?

Thinking about language – as with thinking about anything – is about placing new information within existing categories or recognising layers of abstraction and placing more concrete ideas into more abstract ‘boxes.’ Consider this:

We might read this and place it into the category ‘poem,’ or we might recognise that it’s a sonnet, a type of poem, and categorise it accordingly. We might place it into the category of ‘rhyming poem,’ or ‘love poem,’ or ‘old-fashioned poem.’ But to do any of these things we must have something to compare it to; there needs to be a pre-existing category that meshes with the features we have spotted. Depending on the sophistication of the categories we possess, something else might happen. We might notice that the poet is being a bit rude about the object of his affections (“her breasts are dun”; “black wires grow on her head”; her breath “reeks” [Not quite as rude as you might think. In Elizabethan English ‘reeks’ meant ‘smokes.’]). It doesn’t fit tidily into the category of ‘love poem.’ If we’re familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence we might recognise this as ‘Sonnet 130,’ and, if we have the category ‘Elizabethan love sonnet’ fairly well fleshed out with examples from Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser, as well as other examples from Shakespeare, we might be able to draw the conclusion that this – despite many superficial similarities – is not exactly like that. We might decide that this poem’s essence is different and label it accordingly. We might conclude from the final couplet that Shakespeare is commenting on the entire tradition of the love sonnet – that sonnets falsely compare their subjects and therefore being blunt and honest in writing is a more trustworthy way of conveying emotion. Maybe it’s a more sophisticated example of the category, or maybe it deserves to be labelled as ‘satire.’ Either way, two things are true:

1. Thinking is allegorical and new ideas arrive via comparisons with existing ones, and;

2. You need a firm foundation of relevant categories to see anything beyond the most superficial

This post is extracted from Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, Making Meaning in English.