Posted by Sophia_Gates on 02-07-2002 08:44 AM:

Icon, Symbol, Pattern, Design

We've gotten into a stimulating discussion centering around the Herati pattern and the possibility that it's mutated into something else - or wasn't drawn from it in the first place - on certain bags. Also, John is complaining that I am not being clear enough or offering enough "proof" for her ideas concerning the possible parallel development or even spontaneous creation of certain designs.

Note: this is a Socratic dialog, not the Sermon on the Mount So bear with me while I muse! And muse along! The Delphic Oracle I’m not, OK? Just a distant descendant.

But I digress.

I think what's causing some confusion is this: I've been talking primarily about iconography - symbolism – and somehow that’s been tangled up with pattern and design. Not surprisingly, since the one can’t exist without the other – for example:

Here is a painting by Hans Memling, The Mystical Wedding Of Saint Catherine, 1479 CE. This is one of the paintings “quoted” by Gantzhorn in his book, in which he attempts to define the influence of Christian Armenian weavers on Oriental rug design.

The painting at first glance might appear to be a picture of a woman, a child, and some adoring relatives. But to the initiate into Christian iconography, it’s loaded with powerful symbols, all relating to the Christian story and ethos. This is but one example of an artistic tradition which has lasted for nearly two millennia, in one form or another, and in fact is still being practiced: that of the Christian painting. On the surface, we see a beautiful, rich, elegant object d’art - underneath, the story of a god. Most people couldn’t read when this painting was made; there were no printing presses when Christianity spread throughout the world. So paintings like this told the story, to people who could understand them. Indeed, icons as created in the Eastern Orthodox world are not merely paintings or representations of spiritual power: they are thought to actually POSSESS power, to embody it – much as Navajo sandpaintings or Berber blankets. In fact, the Navajo word for “sandpainting” translates as “place where the gods come and go”.

In this context, every person, pattern, object in the painting has iconographical significance. I define “icon” as “a figure or image having religious significance”. Thus icons differ from “symbols”. “Symbols” may or may not have religious significance. Commercial artists, for example, spend their lives creating symbols of businesses for the purpose of attracting customers.

In the Hyatt logo, the crescent moon or dawning-planet symbol has been incorporated because it is beautiful, immediately recognizable on an international scale, and evocative. It is evocative of moonlight, of course, but also of dawn, of the passage of hours, of planetary scope. So here we see a very old, an ancient, primary symbol, incorporated into the logo of a 21st century hotel chain!

As we’ve discussed, Oriental rugs contain many symbols. A “symbol” is “an image or emblem that stands for another thing”. For example, the capitol letter “H”, which to chemists stands for “hydrogen”, or the angular animal figures which are said to stand for “birds” in Oriental rugs, although why animals with four legs, horns and no wings are called birds is beyond meJ

Extra drumsticks, maybe? OK – so I’ll buy the fantail critters with the TWO legs – but those other guys?

Anyhow. Birds are an important symbol in Oriental rugs – universally, in fact, perhaps even iconic, because they are beautiful, they can FLY, they are edible, some of them hunt or carry messages – important animals about whom and to whom many mythological properties are attached.

There is considerable argument over which designs, in Oriental and particularly tribal rugs, are symbolic and which are merely decorative motifs. The arguments centering over Turkmen rugs are particularly intense, with some writers declaring that their designs most certainly represent tribal affiliations, arrows, birds, spiders, leaves, elephants, flowers, moons, camels, hunting cats and so forth, depending upon which gul or motif one is admiring at the moment. The images Jon has shown us, which match up so amazingly with the ancient seal, seem to support this assertion: that Turkmen rugs contain actual symbols – i.e., motifs which represent or at one time stood for something else: an idea, a name, a creature – in other words they are not just decorative objects.

For some reason there has been considerable resistance on this board towards this idea, toward the idea of a symbolic language in rugs. I do not understand this; it’s present and accepted in all other art forms. In fact, symbol recognition is an important survival tool not only among humans, but even among insects! Butterflies, for example, flash eye forms at birds to scare them into thinking they’re large predators and not lunch. Other butterflies mimic Monarch butterflies – orange & black – because Monarchs taste really horrible and the mimics are hoping to acquire some protection. Leopards and other big cats sport eye-spots on the back of their ears. People who live in the regions of India where tigers hunt often wear masks on their heads – with the faces facing BACKWARD – to protect them from tigers attacking from the rear. Humans couldn’t survive for long on a modern highway without a highly developed sense of symbol recognition. So why is this such a strange idea to append to Oriental rugs?

Perhaps we can discuss this further down in this thread.

Let’s pause for a moment now to discuss “pattern”. I think this is important because Michael & I got to wrangling over oranges and apples, in a sense: I was talking about an image, and he was talking about a pattern, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But – they are very different things.

I do not believe the Herati “motif”, if you will, is a symbol in any real sense. Perhaps at one time it was, but over the centuries it has become a pattern, a representation, very abstract, of leaves arranged in a group-of-four around a center. Here I would like to pause for a moment and explain something which people get confused – and that’s the difference between “realistic art” and “abstract art”. In fact, it’s all a matter of degree. ALL two-dimensional art is abstract, even the most “realistic” – that’s the crux of the art – making a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object! So let’s not get hung up too much on that one, ok?

OK. So now we have a motif, which as Michael rightly points out, has been around for a long time and can be seen in many carpets, particularly to my mind, in Persian rugs. I see also, when Michael supplied the link to the Herati rug in the Dragon/Leaves thread, why he doesn’t feel it’s truly a traditional Kurdish design. It really looks more traditionally Persian – but that’s beside the point. The fact is, he is absolutely correct. It has been used for centuries in many rugs by many weavers. It is a very popular PATTERN.

Pattern is an ELEMENT of DESIGN. The Bauhaus school created a very effective way of “deconstructing” design, if you will, in order to understand it better. Essentially, one can break down a design – any design – into several elements, which in turn are governed by several principals. Elements consist of pattern, color, value, texture, line, shape, size, scale; principles consist of ideas like balance, repetition, alternation, variation, dominance, contrast – in short, they’re the artist’s tool box. Artists use these ideas more-or-less consciously, depending upon the individual and the circumstances. The abstract expressionist in the heat of passion may appear not even to be fully conscious, but I assure you the GOOD abstract expressionist will be aware of his palette, of his brushstrokes, of the relative values and scale of objects in his piece – or if not at the moment of inspiration, in which everything seems to come together in a rush, in a trance like state, then the next day, when he stumbles out of bed and is confronted with the god-awful mess on the easel! THEN – he (or she!) will sit down, go Oh Shit, and start to think – hard – about how to rescue the disastrous waste of paint. At that point, the intellect will start applying ideas like: well, I have too many areas the same color. I should introduce some contrast for the sake of variation. This value is too high; it disturbs the overall dominance of the arrow-like forms. I will make this area darker in order to focus the eye better over here. Etc. etc. and so forth – and most importantly – beyond every other consideration – WHAT DO I WANT TO SAY?????

In other words, at some point the object being created takes on a life of its own, and the artist enters into a dialog with the painting, sculpture, embroidery, so forth. Again, this is a process – both the process of inspiration and the difficult, much slower process of testing and refinement, which seems to have met resistance on this board. May I ask what is it that seems strange or unnatural about this? Do you think it doesn’t exist? Or than “right-brained thinking”, for want of a better term, is less truthful or revealing than – well – “left-brained thinking”? I.E., logic, empiricism, science? It strikes me that human thought and perception require both to be effective – but that we are trained to emphasis the one in our culture, at the expense of the other. Comments?

Carpet design is a little different than what I’ve described happening to the painter above, due to the demands of the medium. The process for professional designers is probably very similar, except that they’re doing the design work up front, on paper, and the weavers carry it out “in the wool”. In this case, as with large bronze sculptures and other types of non-fluid media, and/or media in which a great deal of cost is invested, the creative work is largely done before the final process of finishing the piece. Drawings are made, armatures are built; in the case of the sculpture, the work can be continued, into the clay. And even commercial weavers probably sneak in a few improvisations, while the carpet is being woven.

But this isn’t quite the case with tribal weavers. They’re using memory-based ideas and they have to choose their colors in advance; they have to plan their repeats mentally and visualize the borders. Once they’re woven-in, it’s probably too late to fix a mistake. By the same token, the very nature of tribal design mitigates somewhat against improvisation. Not entirely – but tribal cultures are conservative by nature. And – if the designs being woven are symbolic or even iconic – they would definitely tend to be done the same way again and again, over very long periods of time.

The same constraints would not necessarily append to city or village rugs. Indeed, in that case a pattern, such as the Herati motif, might provide an easy-to-remember framework for improvisation. When I was in school learning Bauhaus, we were taught to lay everything out on a grid – one could eventually learn to think in a grid – making the problems to be solved by a painter or a designer or an architect easier to manage.

Hence, the individual ELEMENTS of the Herati pattern could be airplanes but the overall PATTERN would remain the same. Does this make sense? Four elements around a center – could be leaves, might have morphed into animals, whatever. Look at Afghan war rugs to see this idea in action: traditional elements replaced with warplanes, guns, tanks, in response to changing circumstances. The artist wanted to discuss war, not flowers! If you look at it this way, the Wendorf/Gates bagface might well be a Herati pattern in which the leaves have turned into dragons!

Okay, okay. When Michael had it, it was leaves. NOW, it’s dragons, darn it.

So – on to John’s question: why does Sophia think some designs are traditional, long-lived, and can be communicated; and others not? For precisely the above reasons: the presence of IDEAS within the designs, in other words, iconographical or symbolic significance. These designs, like the painting above, are actually a type of language. This would tend to last for long periods of time whereas decorative patterns would diffuse, yes, from people to people and across borders and time, but their meanings, if they ever had any beyond simple decoration, would change drastically or even vanish. To make some examples which I think are real symbols and have meaning to practically everybody, and which might go back to prehistoric times: trees of life; flaming botehs and/or lotus blossoms and/or trees; animal trees; animals facing trees; animal combat; serpents (also dragons!); birds; fish; horses and other quadrupeds; insects; faces; people and symbols of people; sun, stars & moon; earth, water. Eyes; and one of the most important in all design, and which is really iconic in its evocation of dualism: various forms of the yin/yang.

Now – how realistically or not these are rendered, is immaterial. However, the more “abstract” the design, the more likely it is to survive over time: it is less specific, therefore more universal; it is capable of carrying more than one meaning – arrow/tree – eagle/blossom – and the more easily it is combined with other symbols, such as alternating rows of blossoms and stars – conveying an idea of fertility and limitless space. Or for example, the cross, which has layers of symbolism and iconography built into it, including the Christian story. One can look at a Christian cross and immediately be reminded of the Virgin Mary and her Son; his enlightenment, temptation, suffering, sacrifice and resurrection. One little symbol and the mystery unfolds in the mind’s eye. Or to the Navajo – the cross is woven and Spider Woman teaches The People how to weave. Or to the Berber: her border of crosses and diamonds forms a barrier against evil and misfortune.

Other images have acquired, through their sheer visual vitality, the POWER of symbols or even icons – one of my favorites is the Chelabird design. My primary reason for fighting the Close idea is precisely that: perhaps on a technical level, somebody took a little bit of this idea – four knots this way, six knots that way – from a Persian carpet; and it continued to evolve over time – although some people would say “degenerate” – but what this does NOT take into consideration is precisely what makes the Chelabird eagle/sun/flowers so spectacular: at some point, somebody breathed life into the wool and made something new, fantastic, stunning and individual. So tracing it backwards may be an interesting exercise but to my mind it is essentially meaningless.

And yes – I think this is a REALLY Caucasian design.

Fire when ready!

Posted by Steve Price on 02-07-2002 09:50 AM:

Hi Sophia,

First, thank you for taking the time to prepare this very illuminating post. The distinctions between icons, symbols, patterns and designs do, indeed, get lost in our discussions and it's useful to be reminded of this.

There are a few points with which I'd take issue, some fairly important to the matters at hand, others less so.

Let's start with one that is of no great importance to the rug world, but something that I (being a biologist) simply can't let go by without correcting it. This is the notion that butterflies flash their ocelli (spots on the wings that look like eyes) to scare off birds, or mimic other species that taste disgusting in order to avoid being eaten. It's true that the ocelli serve a protective function, and it's true that this mimicry exists. It's not true that the butterflies we're talking about flash their ocelli or control their color and appearance voluntarily or consciously or that the mimics know that their models taste disgusting to birds.

Back to rugs and stuff like that. You made the following statement:
For some reason there has been considerable resistance on this board towards ... the idea of a symbolic language in rugs. I'm not sure this is accurate. We have been presented from time to time with rather explicit statements of how to read that language, and every attempt to extract the basis for this remarkable knowledge was met with smoke, mirrors, and hostility. I've been about as critical as anyone, and I have no real problem with the notion that the motifs mean SOMETHING, or, at least did at one time. That's very different than seeing elephants, mushrooms, raptors, weapons and sailboats, which, in turn, is a pretty long leap from placing meanings on those things. In the absence of any evidence beyond someone's insistence that he simply knows, period, I reject the hypothesis that the thing being pointed out to me was, to the weaver, an elephant, mushroom, raptor, weapon or sailboat. And, of course, the interpretation of the significance of the elephant, mushroom, etc. is rejected along with it.

At another point you said,
...the artist enters into a dialog with the painting, sculpture, embroidery, so forth... this ... seems to have met resistance on this board. ... Do you think it doesn’t exist? Or than “right-brained thinking”, for want of a better term, is less truthful or revealing than – well – “left-brained thinking”? I.E., logic, empiricism, science? It strikes me that human thought and perception require both to be effective – but that we are trained to emphasis the one in our culture, at the expense of the other.

There are two separate notions here, and I think it's easier to deal with them that way. First, the creative artist's process. I don't deny that it exists, and I don't think there are many of our contributors who do. That's quite a different matter than knowing the details, and we have had postings from time to time asserting that the writer knew the content of the weaver's dialog (to use your words) with the weaving. That's been roundly hooted, which is what I think it warrants. Do you know of some way, 100+ years after the fact, to penetrate the mystery of the artist's interaction with what he/she was creating?

Second, the question of whether logic and empiricism occurs at the expense of "right brain thinking", which I guess must be something like intuition. The answer, in my opinion, is that it depends on your objectives. If the goal is to persuade someone else that something is true, the testable hypothesis and the results of testing it seem a lot more useful than sharing fantasies (my word for ideas based on neither logic nor empiricism). Not that fantasies aren't fun - Lord knows, I live as rich a fantasy life as the next person - they just don't have the legs to persuade someone with different fantasies. And as a practical matter, if I want to know how to make a hand grenade, dishwasher or TV set, I'll ask the person with logic and empirical knowledge of the subject. The fantasies of those who know nothing about the object, no matter how fervently expressed, won't do. Yes, we do emphasize this in our culture, perhaps at the expense of imaginative fantasizing. The expense is, in my view at least, part of the cost and entirely worthwhile when all things are considered.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-07-2002 04:44 PM:

Hi Steve - hopefully this time I won't get blown off the 'net - so much for my FIRST response to your excellent post!

A few thoughts: yes indeed, I agree with you that the butterflies aren't conscious of looking like predators or of being orange - in one sense. In another - in the intuitive, instinctual sense - they're fully conscious. This is one of the points I've been trying to make about symbols and how they work. To a great degree we are hard-wired creatures, just as the birds are absolutely cognizant of the meaning of those eye spots. The orange color is possibly a case of learned behavior by the birds who would eat the mimics - one bite of a Monarch butterfly and he leaves the Viceroys strictly alone!

The advertising designers who sell us our soap and cars and hotel rooms are fully aware of this and use it to "push our buttons". They'll use everything from archtypes (the Marlboro Man) to cute little animated babies (the Pillsbury doughboy - another archtype) to symbols like the jaguar and the crescent moon to seduce us into parting with our money. It works! It works and it has worked for the whole of human history.

Medicine people - shamans, vegitalistas, crystal gazers, and Jungian psychologists to name a few, work with this same concept to effect healing and cure. One thing they all have in common: they believe absolutely in the existence of the human intuitive mind and that they can reach those places, often deeply buried - repressed - to cure the illness or restore the balance of the soul. Often the Navajo "singer" realizes the illness is fatal but that it is not necessary for the patient to remain out of harmony with his circumstances: balance, harmony - beauty, in the Navajo mind - are healthy and wholesome whereas imbalances are not. In these cases restoration of a sense of harmony with the universe is the goal of the curing ceremony.

The use of ritual and symbol to reinforce the power of a healing ceremony, a rite of passage, or a religious faith is so widely known that it almost doesn't bear repeating. But we've become so intellectualized that I wonder if sometimes we haven't forgotten how we "work".

You make an excellent point with which I wholly agree: I wouldn't hire a vegitalista to fix my car! But - do I believe in employing the power of the subconscious mind to heal the body and the soul; to make art; to enable communication and understanding on a subconcious level? Absolutely! And - I wouldn't be so sure that we've made a good bargain by repressing our animus - our subconscious, ancient selves. We haven't been around for very long, in our post-industrial, technologocially oriented form at least. Hopefully we won't wind up like the Mimbres, destroying our resources and our culture along them. I think by allowing ourselves to acknowledge and listen to that other self, through art, meditation, ceremony - there are many paths - we can discover - or rediscover - whole oceans of wisdom. We can see with new eyes.

Finally - on the subject of iconography in rugs: I think we should keep an open mind. An understanding of the people who made them, of their cultures, their ceremonies, their hardships, might help lead us to greater understanding. But - we must listen to that "other voice" - allow the "right brain" to help us see.

Posted by Steve Price on 02-07-2002 06:12 PM:

Hi Sophia,

With all due respect, the Viceroy butterfly does not know that it looks like a Monarch, nor does any butterfly get its ocelli by an act of volition. They are not conscious of their appearance in ANY sense that has meaning. The bird doesn't know that a Monarch tastes awful until he tastes one. He learns from it. He does NOT instinctively avoid the Monarch until discovering that it isn't nearly as delicious as he'd hoped it would be. To build hypotheses on the basis of thinking otherwise cannot succeed.

The advertisers do make use of our subconscious wants, but I don't think it's nearly as mystical as you think it is. Guess what they use to sell stuff to men? Gorgeous women and sports stars. Real mystical. The same is true for other customer bases too, of course. I see nothing mysterious or hard to understand when a hotel chain (which sells places to sleep) uses a symbol that I associate with the night and pleasant weather (you can't see the moon when it's raining), and some genius probably collected a nice fat fee by pointing out that the crescent not only looks like a moon, it also conjures up an image of a bridge and of a roof over your head. Besides that, it relieves the boredom of nothing but letters spelling Hyatt, and kind of holds them together. I see none of this as an appeal to some subconscious spiritual harmonizing.

Your list of the kinds of people who use ritual and symbol for healing - achieving what us linear thinkers call placebo effects - is almost a brief catalog of frauds and quacks. Shamans and crystal gazers as models to be emulated. You're kidding, right? It reminds me of another little story. About 10 years ago I was interviewed for a job at Wichita State University. While visiting, I spent a couple of hours in the city's excellent museum. I noticed a bunch of people wandering around who had badges identifying them as attendees at a convention of psychics. I approached one of them and asked if they had a convention every year. "Yes", he said. ""It must be great," says I, "to not even have to send out notices to let your members know when and where the convention will be." He just turned away.

I agree with you that an open mind is a prerequisite to learning anything new. But it must be used critically and analytically. Otherwise, we never know what's information and what's misinformation. In a lot of situations it makes a difference.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-07-2002 09:38 PM:

Spiritual Healing

Dear Steve:

I couldn't be more serious about the possibilities inherent in spiritual healing. We are really being stupid if we allow our "advanced thinking" to shut off other forms of wisdom.

Have you ever hunted, or otherwise put yourself in a situation where you were in a physically daunting and strange, unknown place? Let's assume - heaven forbid - that all of a sudden everything changed. You find yourself totally alone, without money, family, or job. Your identity, for all intents & purposes, has disappeared. Survival depends upon being able to use your body and your senses to find friends, or at least people and animals who won't kill you; money and/or food; shelter. Who would know you? Who would respect you? What if nobody around you spoke English?

At this point I suspect you'd find yourself thanking your lucky stars that The Goddess equipped you with a subtle, complex brain that won't ALLOW your "reasoning skills" to kill you! This is a difficult sort of thing to try and describe but believe me - you'd discover how acute your senses really are, and how "psychic" - how aware, how sensitive and intuitive - you can be if you need to be.

And yes - I admit that there's nothing particularly subtle about beauty & fast cars. Ain't it grand?

Posted by Steve Price on 02-08-2002 06:13 AM:

Hi Sophia,

The mindset you describe is the one that gets you to try almost anything when you can't figure out what to do in a desperate situation. Sometimes you survive the situation and wind up believing that what you did was correct. Those who don't survive the situation, of course, give no testimony to others about what they believed. This is how superstitions arise, and I don't think it is the road to progress.

I'll take my chances on reasoning skills and experience every time. With my lucky penny in my pocket, of course.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-08-2002 10:29 AM:



I would not argue that "spiritual healing" is not amenable to scientific quantification, but we should realize that when these weavings were being made in the 19th century, even Science was considered Magic by many of the rural, mostly illiterate people.
The iconographic, apotropaic, mystical powers of the objects, the rituals of the weaving and the cultures within which they were used were suffused with the ubiquitous mysticism of the world around them.
The weavers and their culture not only supported the ideas of the supernatural, but actively worked to ward off the bad and capture the good "spirits". Even today, we still celebrate the seasons with rituals and icons from the distant past. Easter with bunny rabbits and eggs, Christmas with Trees topped with an angel or star, the Maypole, Halloween.
Not that we should invest in our retirement funds using mystical rituals, crystal balls and incantations, but the remnants of our metaphysical underpinnings still pervade our culture even today.
Take a look at the back of a one dollar bill if you don't think there are still powerful symbols in use. I love the eye floating above the pyramid. The eye symbol has not only evil but helpful, watchful properties. Who voted for THAT thing, anyway?

Monetarily yours,

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-08-2002 10:38 AM:

Hi Patrick,

I understand and agree with all you just said, but the belief system of the central and western Asian people of the 19th century (and earlier) isn't the issue. The matter about which Sophia and I disagree is the belief system that is most useful to us today.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-08-2002 11:16 AM:

Belief Systems

Thank you Pat! You hit the nail on the head.

Steve: I think it's helpful in understanding rugs to "feel" what they and the people who made them were trying to say. For want of a better word: empathy.

But I also believe that the instinctual senses we were born with are still with us. They don't simply disappear when we get our high school diplomas! I'm not just talking about belief systems: I'm talking about a way of looking at and understanding our world.

Am I making any sense at all? If not let me know and I will try to rephrase!

Posted by Steve Price on 02-08-2002 11:31 AM:

Hi Sophia,

I believe the topic is, more or less, an attempt to trace design sources in Caucasian rugs. That is an attempt to interpret whatever evidence we can bring to bear on it in a way that leads to understanding one or more historical events and processes.

I don't know - can't even imagine - what "empathy" with a rug might be, so I don't know how much use it would be in this pursuit. Your exposition of the way you/we use the words "symbol", "icon", and so forth was useful and straightforward. Perhaps you could do the same with "empathy". To me, it means shared emotions. Rugs don't have emotions, so the rug and I can't share them.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-08-2002 11:58 AM:

Rugs Don't Have Feelings?????

Dear Steve:

You've hit the nail on the head! Bingo!!! The RUGS may not have feelings, although you may want to go and apologize just in case

BUT: the people who MADE the rugs had feelings, and their designs REFLECTED or EMBODIED those feelings. AND - they still have the power to invoke those feelings in you.

I hope.

A quick aside on tribal art: there are plenty of instances where the art object IS considered to actually be alive - for example, Zuni fetishes. People feed them. They most definitely ARE considered to have feelings. And many of the people who made rugs, as late as the 19th century and possibly still today, are animists who continue to share these beliefs. So when I say "empathize" - I mean it! This isn't dead history!

Why do you collect tribal art if, on some level, you can't connect with that?

OK - back to the main topic: the symbols and icons which we can find in Caucasian art. Steve: I've tried to break these down into a logical progression, so it would be easy to understand the difference between a cross, for example, and a bird-symbol, and a decoration which might be pretty but is not necessarily "meaningful". But there's no way to fully understand what I'm trying to say unless you can identify with the people who made them.

And - with the feelings they invoke in YOU.

And - this is more difficult because as Gantzhorn has found out, it's very controversial - to explain WHY they invoke these feelings. Are we responding to the cross imagery? To the color harmonies? To the power of a dragon which might not "be" there? Steve - this is the very nature of art!

I know you have some beautiful pieces in your collection - and not just rugs. Why did you buy them? On some level, you must be reacting to them. I'm trying to explain why!

Unless of course they're just investments? That's another story of course.

And - as an artist - I'm trying to explain some of the thought processes that are involved in MAKING a piece, in CREATING something. Again: this is a different type of thinking than that involved in making an airplane fly. BUT - I submit that the whole idea of WANTING to fly - that's an EMOTION. It is not EMPIRICAL THINKING AT ALL.

Why do you think people wove all those bird symbols?

Empirical thinking is useful. It is NOT what drives us. And it is useful in discovering SOME types of truth. It is useful for example in developing better mousetraps. In discovering certain "finite" truths, for example the nature of lift over an airplane wing. But is that nature, truth?

Isn't truth much bigger and more complicated than that? Isn't nature?

Does this help? I'm saying "truth" is never only one thing. And didn't somebody say "truth is beauty, beauty truth"?

Help. This is why I paint. Past a certain point I run out of words.

Posted by Michael Wendorf on 02-08-2002 12:00 PM:

power and significance

Dear Sophia:

Much like Steve, I enjoyed your initial post in this thread. For me, it has provided a much more manageable framework with which to understand your thinking and arguments. In addition, consistent with tradition in the rug world, as the owner of that bagface, I accept and agree that you are entitled to call the lancet/sickle leaves in your bagface dragons or whatever else you want to call them. Perhaps, in fact, it is an example where a weaver was bored or inspired and changed those leaf elements to dragons or fish or scorpions in the context of the Herati pattern. (Note, Wendorf does not believe this, but he is also a man).

I also agree that it is important to remember the distinctions between design, motif, pattern and image. Although the distinction between motif and pattern is a little blurred for me in your post.

Where I do not follow you and am even frustrated is when you start to talk about ideas within design. If I understand your thinking here, some motifs or patterns have it or convey it, some do not.

In the other thread, you called the Herati pattern wallpaper. I understand this to mean that in your view or from your perspective the Herati pattern conveys no ideas, has no icongraphical or symbolic power or significance. I, of course, objected to that.

On the most simple level, how does a pattern or a motif remain so popular and resilient if it has no power, no significance? And what exactly is this power, this significance, this symbolism you write about and how is it conveyed?

On another level, how would you or any of us know this? You speak of perception, intuition and other powers I apparently lack. But what is it exactly that puts you in a position, and I write this in the context of this stimulating Salon, to have some special perceptive power or intuition that others, men and women of varying abilities who have spent years studying carpets, do not have? I do not think being an artist gives you any particular insights into specific patterns or motifs and whether they manifest ideas or not. This is particularly so where you have not read all the relevant literature, handled any of the relevant body of carpets and have limited understanding of what I would call the most influential carpets patterns and motifs of the last three hundred years?

I think that you are conferring special power on those motifs and patterns that speak to you. There is nothing wrong with this except that you are making it more than it is. From my perspective, before you can really talk about ideas, power and symbolism, you need at a minimum to have a fairly detailed understanding of the Harshang, Avshan, Mina Khani and related patterns, including the Herati, as well as the motifs that make up these patterns. I also do not understand how you can really appreciate or talk about design in rugs without an understanding of these patterns. I think it is evident from the great corpus of known output that these patterns - arising out of the Iranian or Persian weaving tradition - provide much of the building materials, the familiar motifs, that allowed weavings such as your bagface to be woven. I also think it would help to have a better understanding of the context in which city, village or cottage and tribal weaving is occuring. We could all benefit from this, including me.

[And actually I wish to clarify that to me the Herati pattern is more than the motif on that bag face and in the link provided previously by Patrick Weiler. The Herati pattern consists of two basic horizontal rows filled with motifs that are repeated in a drop sequence: serrated leaves around a rosette, a palmette and then more leaves and a rosette. In the second row, it goes palmette, rosette and another palmette form. Then the repeat starts. But I digress.]

Following on the need for familiarity with the carpets themselves and the literature and returning to your Salon and your ideas about Kurdish dragons and dragons generally, Serare Yetkin wrote that "the basic unit of the Dragon carpet pattern is a lozenge, formed by pointed serrated leaves which link rosettes and palmettes...The second major characteristic of Dragon carpets are the stylized animal figures and, more especially, the dragons which fill the smaller lozenges." See Early Caucasian Carpets, Volume II page 9. She goes on to write that the palmettes and rosettes, which in dragon carpets join the lozenges or were used as fillings, came from Iran, but the use of symmetrical knots imparts a distinctive character. The Dragon carpet thus offers a unique blend of Anatolian and Iranian influences. Ibid. It seems to me Yetkin's conclusions, based on examination of virtually all known examples, is inconsistent with your conclusions about the use of dragons generally and their existence in weavings such as your bag. I.e, the dragons when they were used, were filler motifs.

There is more I wish to say, but am being called away.

This is a stimulating Salon and I thank you for that even if and when we may disagree.

Regards, Michael

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-08-2002 12:19 PM:

Persian Influence

Dear Michael:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You make several very strong points.

I'll attempt to answer when I have had a chance to think it through.


Posted by Steve Price on 02-08-2002 12:41 PM:

Hi Sophia,

I'm very much aware of the supernatural powers with which many people, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) those in tribal cultures, imbue certain artifacts. One of the most striking characteristics of tribal arts in general is, as you've noted, that the objects often don't simply represent power, they POSSESS power. A central African ancestor figure doesn't just represent the ancestor, it IS the ancestor. I collect such things, and am interested in them and in the cultures from which they came. But, I don't believe that the objects have the attributes that the makers believe they have.

You wrote, a couple of messages back,
... the people who MADE the rugs had feelings, and their designs REFLECTED or EMBODIED those feelings. To this, I say, absolutely and without question, this is true. We're tuned to the same station up to that point. Then comes your next sentence: AND - they still have the power to invoke those feelings in you. Here's where we separate. How could those objects conceivably invoke the same feelings in me (or you) as they did to people in a totally different culture? And, if they did invoke the same feelings in me (or you) as they did for those people, how could we possibly know it? Beethoven's symphonies invoke powerful responses in my psyche. My guess is that they do so in yours, too. And it would be surprising if Beethoven was indifferent to them. But do you really believe that what they invoke in you, me and him is all the same? If so, how did you arrive at that conclusion? Bear in mind that what they evoke in me isn't even the same from day to day.

Regards, and (just in case there are any doubts), add my thanks to Michael's for this very stimulating discussion.

Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-08-2002 02:17 PM:


This is an excellent point, Steve, about how do we know that certain symbols, icons, forms, evoke the same emotions in you as in the people who made them.

I think in most cases they don't. I think we are so different, so culturally conditioned, that there is a significant barrier between us and the people who made, for example, your African sculptures.

BUT - there is a philosophy - that of Carl Jung, among others, which states that on a subconscious level we are all linked and will respond in similar ways to similar stimuli. This is the level on which the bird responds to the flashing "eyes" of the butterfly. And - much as you want to make light of it - it's the level on which even the commercial artist is trying to reach you, let alone that of the Van Gogh or the Beethoven.

Michael, this ties in a little with what I was trying to say about the decorative motifs of Persian carpets vs. symbolic motifs in tribal rugs - although your post deserves and will get more attention. There are symbolic, ancient forms that we find almost universally - they crop up again and again, all over the planet, in different time frames - I've elucidated some of them in the title piece - that are so basic: forms of people, of eyes, of animals, of water, moon, stars, sun - that they form a type of symbol language and will affect most people to at least some degree on a more or less subconscious level.

And on the other hand, you have the highly refined motifs of the Persian carpet - in a sense they represent the opposite end of the scale: they are, at best, the essence of refinement, of specificity. Except in their essential format - four-around-a-center, for example, which is easy to repeat and makes a good format for improvisation, they don't travel well. Because they're so delicate, so specific, every time somebody "copies" them they change. If they at one time, in an earlier form, "meant" something in the symbolic sense, they've become both so decorative and refined and so "pat" - easy to like and appreciate - mannered - the original "meaning" has gotten lost in the filigree. No wonder people speak of "design degradation" when they mention these - it's impossible NOT to degrade them, to change them - they are so complicated! No wonder they turn into fish. They didn't say 'LEAF' so much as they said "curvilinear design". And of course when confronted with a coarse, symmetrically knotted bagface - well - they can and did "morph" into many new, strange, and abstract forms. And oddly, those "crude" forms often have so much power it's difficult not to believe that they were intended as, for example, dragon or scorpion symbols.

Make sense? It's like comparing the Rococo with the Quattrocento - and yet - in the Caucasian rugs, I would argue that we don't feel "degradation" so much as 'EXPLOSION'! Hence my point that I feel uncomfortable with the theories that the Eagle/Sun/Flower Chelabird motif "degenerated" from the Persian. Something intervened - or the link doesn't exist at all - to imbue the design with such vitality, such originality and power.

In any case I'll try to get some scans up to illustrate this point. And, I think I must at this point state that Michael has pointed out a major gap in my thesis: that of the Persian influence on Caucasian rugs. Because to me they look and "feel" so different, I don't make the connection on a gut level - but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Thank you, Michael, for elucidating this.

Finally, I think we can TRY and empathize with the people who made our art. I think through study, meditation - which can and should take physical forms such as music and dance - we can "remember" parts of our selves which have become buried. This is an absolutely critical aspect of making art, in my opinion - I don't see why it can't also be a way of appreciating it.

Posted by R. John Howe on 02-08-2002 06:03 PM:

Sophia et al -

I do admire the spirited way in which you are arguing your thesis.

And it may be that occasionally some progress is being made in sorting out the different perspecitives and standards in our group.

Two or three thoughts:

I agree, Sophia, that there is some "knowledge" not reducible to "words." Some knowledge resides in "doing," and attempts to describe it are almost always unsatifactory in one way or another.

There are a wonderful pair of books in my field of instructional design, by Donald Schon entitled "The Reflective Practitioner," and "Educating the Reflective Practitioner." In both of them Schon gives wonderful concrete examples, often dialogue between a learning practitioner and an expert practitioner mentor. One of the instances he traces is of someone learning architectural design. Another is someone learning to play a musical instrument. In both cases, at the beginning there is no real way for the mentor to convey with words what the learner is to learn. One mentor says, "There are a set of experiences, that you need to go through. I know what some of them are and can help you learn from them but you must, at least for awhile, simply trust me."

Now while much of what is going on here is beyond language, it does not mean that standards do not exist or that mistakes cannot be recognized. Sometimes an illustration must flow at the level of example or counter demonstration but things never get to the point where anything goes so to speak.

So while I would agree that important knowledge sometimes moves beyond language, I would not agree that evaluation in terms of standards is not possible or desirable when it does.

Different point: Early in your initial post in this thread you said in part: "...To a great degree we are hard-wired creatures..." You use this claim to buttress your argument that we can "empathize" with members of other cultures far removed from us in distance and/or time. This is a particular theory of art history (the "formalist" one) and if I am not mistaken is a minority view even in that field. One is tempted to wise-crack in response to your statement above by saying, "if so, why is there so much disagreement about what are the great or even the good rugs?"

My own view, which I do not claim to be able to support with much published evidence but which I rather think can be, is that most of our "empathetic" tendencies are both learned and often rather culture-specific.

Italian working class men like and are knowledgeable about opera in the same way that U.S. factory workers are often knowledgeable about football. One reason that the advertizing world in the U.S. can successfully mobilize a rather restricted array of symbols against us as consumers is likely that we have a rather shallow history and a rather pedestrian understanding of art.

The veteran's committee that commissioned the Vietnam Memorial were astounded that the expert panel that they hired to choose a quality design did not chose a statue and the tendency to feel that the only proper momument must be a statue was such that they ultimately had two made. And when the Korean War Memorial was designed they made sure that no such error could occur again and in fact the resulting momument has a complimentary wall but the center of it is an entire infantry rifle squad. Lots of statues. This is not "hard-wiring." This is dramatically limited learning.

So while you're in good company, with Jung's archetypes, and the formalism of the noted art scholar Wolfflin and even Christopher Alexander, in the rug world, I think the view you champion is a minority one not yet demonstrated to be the case.

Good fight though,


R. John Howe

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-08-2002 08:19 PM:

Hi John!

Gee I'm glad SOMEBODY'S on my side, even if it's Alexander

More later, you guys are making me think! I am temporarily out of steam.


Thanks all - as the Saturday Night Live lady says, I'm all verklempt Discuss among yourselves

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 02-09-2002 04:49 AM:

Dear All,

I was reading again this thread because at some point I get lost. Now, I think I found the correct path. The core of the question is here:

Sophia (the artist) to Steve (the scientist): "I know you have some beautiful pieces in your collection - and not just rugs. Why did you buy them? On some level, you must be reacting to them. I'm trying to explain why!"

Steve’s answer: "I collect such things, and am interested in them and in the cultures from which they came. But, I don't believe that the objects have the attributes that the makers believe they have."
And later: "Then comes your next sentence:
AND - they still have the power to invoke those feelings in you. Here's where we separate."

Steve, you did not really answer to the question of why you collect tribal art, I think.
Without disturbing too much C.G. Jung and his theory of archetypes, I think those objects strike an inner cord in all of us who love them. The effect being at subconscious level, we are not aware of it. It cannot be a pure aesthetic impact, it must be something more powerful.

Sophia makes a point, too, when she speaks about "highly refined motifs of the Persian carpet " and in commenting the Chelaberd design: "somebody breathed life into the wool and made something new, fantastic, stunning and individual". Just look at it.

Why we don’t react in the same way to Persian urban rugs? I know, there are people who love them, but I’m speaking of US, the Turkotek folks…

Filiberto (the art restorer: at midway between science and art)

Posted by Steve Price on 02-09-2002 07:46 AM:

Hi Filiberto,

My disagreement with Sophia's statement ,
AND - they still have the power to invoke those feelings in you is in the word "those". The objects do, indeed, evoke feelings in me. They evoke what you refer to as an inner chord in all who appreciate them. Sophia asserts that they are the same feelings the weaver (or sculptor, varying with art forms) had - that's what "those" means in her full sentence. Not that the objects evoke feelings but that they STILL have the power to evoke THOSE feelings. This, I suspect is not true and I'm sure is unprovable.

Why do I suspect that it's not true? If it were, everyone would react to the same art the same way, and a person would react to the same art in the same way throughout life. That just isn't what we observe. If the objects reach into my soul and grab me by my unconscious hidden inherited memories (their reach extending to some evolutionary period between the stone age and the 15th century, as nearly as I can understand the hypothesis), why didn't that happen until I was past 40? Why did rock and roll music do this to me when I was 15 to 25? It doesn't, anymore, but other music does. Why don't I respond to most contemporary art with anything except puzzlement about why anybody cares about it at all? Why does it take education to appreciate art? Why don't Turkmen collect Japanese art? It takes no education to appreciate staying warm, eating regularly, sleeping or avoiding pain. All of this, I cite as evidence that there's nothing hereditary about my reactions to art objects, no matter how visceral they may seem when they are happening. And, I suggest, the same is likely to be true for everyone else.

My ongoing dialog with Sophia is, in many ways, a religious argument, and nobody can get very far with those because the outcome depends on the assumptions and we begin with different assumptions. Her opinion is based on inner feelings so powerful that she cannot imagine that they are not telling her the truth. I respect that, and I understand it. I'm just not convinced that it proves anything from the standpoint of my beliefs. When the subject is religion
per se, like most people in the USA, I simply avoid the subject. My fundamentalist Christian friends (and I have many of them) believe that I will go directly to hell when I die because I haven't accepted Christ as my savior, but our relationships are warm and close. We are each convinced that the other is mistaken, but that this is neither a sign of mental illness, low character, or stupidity, so we avoid the subject and accept each other for what we are.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 02-09-2002 08:13 AM:

Dear folks -

I might add here that we had the occasion some time back and with the help of Nikos Salingaros, a Christopher Alexander disciple, who is also a mathematician, to mount a small test of whether there are any visible tracings of the "hard wiring" that Sophia feels we all have in our responses to two very specific sets of pieces, three very similar and three very different from one another.

Here is the link to that salon:

Although the number of those who responded was very small and too small for conclusion, I said in my summing up of the results of the salon that it was hard to see in our various responses any trace of the "hard wiring" that the formalist school feels we all have.

You can likely tussle with this test at a number of levels, but I would feel that something like it would have to be mounted with different results in order to hold with any confidence Sophia's view that we share hard wiring with the weavers of over 100 years ago that let's us experience the "same" responses to the designs and patterns in the rugs they wove as they experienced as they wove them.


R. John Howe

Editor's Note: This thread continues on a second page. Clicking on the numeral 2 at the lower left of the screen will bring you to it.

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-09-2002 11:38 AM:


Thank you, Filiberto, for clarifying the issue. And John, for posting that link - I thought that was a fascinating salon. It is difficult to understand but worth it, I think, to try and comprehend what Alexander is trying to say.

Steve, Jungian philosophy - among others - has no problem with what you describe, being attracted to rock & roll at one age and only lately being able to appreciate African art. There are life-stages and stages of development in consciousness. It is natural that a very young man would be concerned primarily with getting a wife, establishing a career and avoiding starvation - or being killed in a war or a bar fight! Only later, when this work is done, can other levels of the mind be accessed and yes, educated. There are all levels of consciousness. Yogis know this and so do adepts of any art. People don't go out without any preparation and walk across hot coals! (And if Turkmen were exposed to Japanese art - they might well appreciate it!)

Unfortunately, we live in an era in which youth is worshipped and the rewards of gray hair aren't veneration as Wise Ones, but marginalization in old folk's homes. But I don't find it surprising at all that you began life digging rock & roll and have matured to appreciate tribal art.

Incidentally I think GOOD rock & roll, still rocks! But it is the music of the young, isn't it - pounding loins and so forth. Sigh.

Finally, there are theories of "objective art" which I'm studying and will try to convey to you later on. These attempt to lend a "scientific" underpinning to what I'm trying to describe. But even in that case I think it's difficult to explain verbally and might not cover every case. And just to clarify: I don't think "hard-wiring" is limited to mathematical proportions, for example, the golden section - which I believe I mentioned in the Salon John posted and which I believe is a very strong foundation for building communicative art. I think it also extends to certain symbols, which, like the oscelli on the butterfly's wings, we all respond to on certain levels.

In any case - I hope this at least provokes some thinking! We keep coming back to the word "proof" - why is that a requirement? I'm puzzled. Are dragons "proof"?

By me, they still fly!

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-09-2002 11:46 AM:


There is enough "hitting the nail on the head" in this thread that you would think it was a construction site!

Some designs are imbued with symbolism, some are not. A simple blob carries no symbolic significance, unless you are Rorschach. Our involuntary reaction to "art" is embedded within our physiology just as much as the eye patterns on the butterfly, through a long process of selective breeding, ensured the dominance of this trait because the butterflies with it survived and most of those without it did not.
It is not voluntarily that they flash the "evil eye" at their enemy. Our immediate reaction to art is also not voluntary, but our appreciation and deeper understanding of it can be learned. And then incorporated into our own art.

If you recall your childhood (look out Freud!) art class, you basically painted/sculpted/wove what you were told. You did not understand the cultural significance. If you were a rural Kurdish child, you would have woven a bagface with a herati pattern and may have thought it looked like dragons circling the family hut. And the next bagface may have actually had your interpretation of dragons insted of lancet leaves.
If you were a Salor child, you may have woven a turreted gul chuval with the "charch-palak" secondary motifs (a diamond composed of small squares with stars in them) and thought you were representing a group of yurts with small herds of sheep among them. You were probably just weaving a representation of a "coffered" tile design. If you are Gantzhorn, you would probably say it was from the floor of an Armenian church.

Yes, we are hard wired. For survival. How can thinking leaves are dragons help with our survival? Try picking grubs out of a mass of leaves on the ground for a bit of yummy protein. Try discerning the scorpion among the branches you intended to use for the fire. Try finding enough hallucinogenic mushrooms in the chaff and dross for all of the guests you expect over for a shamanic ritual this evening.

That reminds me, I need to go shopping for dinner.

Physiologically yours,

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-09-2002 12:31 PM:

Hi Sophia,

Let me simply focus on one important sentence in your preceding post:
In any case - I hope this at least provokes some thinking! We keep coming back to the word "proof" - why is that a requirement?

It isn't a requirement, but evidence is. "OK Steve", you might say, "have it your way. Why is evidence a requirement?" The Salon concerns the design sources of Caucasian rugs. That means a central point of the exercise is something like this: Historical events of one sort or another resulted in certain designs appearing in Caucasian rugs. Those historical events are matters of fact, even if we don't know what those facts are. The objective is to come closer to knowing those facts by discussing things that might help us to do so.

I think that's a pretty straightforward statement of the central issue of your Salon, if I understand it at all. It certainly reflects the title.

How can we find out what the historical facts are? One of us might have a vision, a dream, that tells all with great clarity. In what way would anyone else know that there is any relationship between the dream and history? None. In my view, this wouldn't get us anywhere collectively, although it might be completely satisfactory to the one who had the vision. If you agree that this is so, we agree that some rules are essential to progress, and that independent verifiability is one of them. That's the long way of saying we need evidence to get where we are going, and introspective revelations, no matter how persuasive to the person who has them, simply don't constitute eveidence for anyone else.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the visionary's account would be adequate evidence, we have no common ground for discussion. It becomes futile (and potentially a source of irritation) for the same reasons as arguing with my Christian fundamentalist friends (or, for that matter, my Moslem friends) about the road to salvation. It's best to just recognize that we aren't on the same wavelength and get on to other things.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-09-2002 01:17 PM:


You said, in an earlier reply:

"I believe the topic is, more or less, an attempt to trace design sources in Caucasian rugs. That is an attempt to interpret whatever evidence we can bring to bear on it in a way that leads to understanding one or more historical events and processes."

Just above this reply, you said:

"Historical events of one sort or another resulted in certain designs appearing in Caucasian rugs."

The empirical, scientific method of determining the tortured trail that designs traveled to become the Caucasian rugs of the 19th/early 20th century is one of extreme difficulty due to lack of written evidence and sufficient intermediate examples "anchoring" the current designs to their progenitors, compounded by the insistance of some researchers to fit the available, round, amorphous findings into their predetermined, square-box conclusions.

The Caucasian "type" is related to design influences from only four places. North, South, East and West. The formal designs of Persian courts moved North into the Krabagh/Azerbaijan area. The Anatolian-Ottoman designs (of Persian and Turkic influence) moved East into the Armenian area. The florid/floral European designs moved South, the Chinese and Indian designs moved West. We are left with a fabulous montage of methods, influences and imagery from just about every religion, region and structurally-determined source extant.

Dragons? They are everywhere.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-09-2002 01:31 PM:

Hi Patrick,

I understand that it's difficult. This is why some fields of study have to put up with "softer" evidence than others. I never expected us to arrive at conclusions, but I think it is reasonable to hope for some progress about the origins of some designs.

I see no alternative to dealing with evidence subject to external verification (as opposed to introspection, which is not subject to such verification) except settling for chaos (every opinion is right, even if some are contradictory) or superstition. Do you have something else in mind?


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-09-2002 04:05 PM:

Complete Agreement


Your stand is entirely correct.
In the study of rugs, the only way true, even if only incremental, progress can be made is, of course by the use of
"evidence subject to external verification" as you have stated.

Comparative design speculations can provide a place to start looking, as can similarities in structure, materials and format. Many books and articles have been written comparing rug designs with architectural, textile and religious designs. Incontrovertible conclusions, however, are few and far between. Often the author of one book will discover the true origin of a design, only to be trumped by the author of the next book contradicting it!

The tracking of motifs also does not completely explain the meaning of the motif as originally intended, no matter how confident we are of the source. Since Sophia is quoting Yeats, I will quote one of our modern philosophers, Groucho Marx: "Why a Duck?"

Patrick Weiler

Posted by R. John Howe on 02-09-2002 05:26 PM:

Just a Little "Evidence"

Dear folks -

A few post back Sophia asked in part:

"...I hope this at least provokes some thinking! We keep coming back to the word "proof" - why is that a requirement?..."

Steve responded that it's not so much a matter of asking for a knock-down "proof" of anything but of what evidence is there that we should treat some assertions being made seriously.

Again, this exchange triggers a couple of thoughts for me.

First, as an instructional designer Sophia's goal of "provoking some thinking" seems very like the man-on-the-street learning objectives I used to hear some advocate in job training. They'd say "that should provoke a good discussion." But in both cases I would hold that these objectives are not very satisfying and are both well short of that to which we can likely aspire. In job training it is actually possible for participants at the end to be able to DO things in their jobs that they couldn't do before the training (nobody should ever pay job training monies for a "good discussion" but they mostly do).

Similarly, I would hold that it's not adequate to "provoke thinking."

First of all the objective is too ambiguously stated to estimate it's worth and second at the end of "thinking" there is not necessarily any progress.

So how are we to estimate what kind of "thinking" is worth our time and what kind is not. I would argue that one major way to tell if we are engaged in worthwhile thinking is if the thoughts take forms to which evidence can speak (as Steve says, if someone says "I believe," the conversation is basically over in a world that values evidence).

So in the case of this discussion I would not myself be attracted to or pursue much claims and thoughts to which evidence could not speak at all. I would not demand proof, but I would prefer to spend my time talking about things to which evidence can speak.

Second, there are statements being made in this salon that are clearly testable with evidence.

Sophia believes that the eagle Kazak is distinctively Caucasian. OK, what is the evidence that would be cited to support this insight and what is the evidence (even hypothetically) that would be seen to demonstrate that this is not the case?

Sophia also says flatly that we are "hard-wired." OK, what evidence would confirm this indication? The test that we mounted in Salon 11 was an effort to take Alexander's formalism seriously and to see if it was confirmed in the evaluation of two sets of rugs by 6-7 different people. If we are hard-wired it would seem likely that in at least some of these instances there would be a visible "clustering" of our evaluative decisions but it appeared at the end there there was not. Now one can object to Alexander's particular theory, to Saligaros' operationalizing of it in some specific evaluative questions and/or to my construction of the particular test situations used in Salon 11, but at the end it would still seem to me not nonesensical to ask for some evidence that the assertion that we are "hard-wired" is in fact the case.

Sophia, says "why" is "proof" a "requirement?" I would ask in turn, "why is the resistence to the demonstration of our assertions on the basis of at least some evidence" so strong?

We will soon wear each other and all of our readers out.


R. John Howe

Posted by Michael Wendorf on 02-09-2002 08:16 PM:

still waiting

Dear Sophia:

I am still awaiting your promised response to my post of 2 - 8.

Thank you, michael