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Comment on my concept of “prior notes”

The following is an exchange that unfolded in the comments’ section of my video On thinking, living, acting. The contents and the name of my correspondent are shared with permission.

Gabriel Chuede

hey prot. thanks for the video just one thing: when you talk about not taking preliminar notes i really cant understand when someone actually knows something, a concept, so that he can start taking notes. is there a time when this ocurrs? can we say at some point that we really know hegel’s philosophy, for exemple, and then start with the notes? if not when can we start taking notes? after reading the book? the chapter? all of his books? my method of ‘taking notes’ was for me to write down what i understand about the specific reading session at the time, i would not look at the note again then, it would help me not read passively. what do you think?

Hello Gabriel! My approach to note-taking is to (i) be mindful of one’s ignorance and (ii) give the author the benefit of doubt. It is okay to record notes while reading a book. Those are “bookmarks” of sorts or “reminders” more broadly. The nuanced point is to not be opinionated about stuff you do not know. The notes must then be sufficiently generic so that they do not condition your thinking down the line.

An example of an “ignorant note” is when you start reading a nuanced article. Paragraph 3 elaborates on a fine point which is only rendered clear in light of paragraph 10. But as you read through the text, you stop at paragraph 3 and record your opinion: “this is ridiculous, because […] and then we should consider […]”.

Imagine you accumulate lots of those “ignorant notes” and revisit them after reading the article/book to determine what you have learnt: they are giving you a distorted picture. Whereas “reminders/bookmarks” will help you retrieve some finer detail, but you do not rely on them to form an opinion: they are generic. You only form an opinion when you have a sense of the complete work.

My approach depends on one’s familiarity with the subject matter. The more you know something, the less work you need to anticipate what some new information is telling you. For example, someone who has no idea who Hegel is should not start reading and take notes like “this is some absurd mumbo-jumbo […]”—that simply reflects their ignorance and prejudice. Instead, they should take it slow to understand what Hegel is saying in each section. Whatever notes should be of the “reminder” sort: generic and with no intent to be argumentative.

To me, notes embody knowledge that my future self will find useful. They are points of entry to a larger corpus of work. As such, notes will be taken after I am familiar with the source material. That way, I do not allow “past ignorant me” to condition the thinking of “future knowledgeable me”.

Does this make sense?

By the way, can I publish this on my website? I want to quote your message and my reply to it, as this might help others who have similar questions. I will keep your name a secret (unless you want it to be public). What do you think?

@Protesilaos Stavrou it makes sense. you can publish the message and the name as you like. i get a little confused by this because i think it would imply that for a person to talk about something he must have some knowledge about the subject he would talk (something like you must read the book xyz before talking about the current politic situation) and that is a bit paralyzing isnt it?

I probably did not explain it properly, so let me retry. In the example of politics, you are not presented with a totally new subject matter. You are already familiar with it. Perhaps this is your homeland, you have been reading the news, have an understanding of the country’s history, know the people and their culture, etc. It is perfectly fine to have an opinion about politics.

I am not suggesting that we should only speak when we are the foremost experts on the subject because then no-one will ever speak. There is always something that eludes us (strictly speaking). My point is to not be dogmatic at the outset and try to understand what the facts are or what the author is saying without filtering them/it through our prior beliefs, to the extent possible.

Instead of politics, think about an example with programming. I started using Emacs in the summer of 2019 as a non-programmer. All those parentheses of Elisp were alien to me. I did not understand anything and was confused the whole time. But I did not form an opinion about Elisp because I recognised my ignorance. Any opinion would have been unreliable at that stage, such as “why use parentheses when you can add extra spacing?” Now I know there is a good reason for those parentheses, but I wouldn’t have learnt as much if I had let my prior beliefs govern my thinking.

Annex with another comment

UPDATE 2022-09-23 15:49 +0300: I had the following exchange with another correspondent whose name shall remain private. It is shared with permission.

Hi, Prot.

Hello there!

I’ve just read your post “Comment on my concept of “prior notes”” and I thought that this essay might be of interest to you: http://www.paulgraham.com/avg.html

An interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

Some context: if you haven’t heard of him, the author is a programmer and businessman (he helps startups grow and cofounded Hacker News), and also studied philosophy.

This is the first time I encounter this author. The writing does show a blend of insights from different disciplines/backgrounds. On this note, I remember once hearing Matt Mullenweg (developer of WordPress, among others) say that as a programmer they learnt valuable lessons from the humanities. I don’t have the source, as it was many years ago and my laptop at the time broke, but the core idea was that the humanities taught them to think in terms of diverse systems.

SPOILERS AHEAD (I just wanted to give you some more context, but instead I ended up basically explaining the essay)

Haha, that’s okay. I did read the essay.

It is about the power of different programming languages and something the author calls The Blub Paradox: “You can’t trust the opinions of the others, because of the Blub paradox: they’re satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs.”

You can then extend it to: “You can’t trust the opinions of people (including you), because of the Blub paradox: everyone’s satisfied with their current knowledge, because it dictates their perception, the way they think about the world.”

So it’s basically about the importance of being aware that everyone’s dumb (especially you), remembering not to get used to almost anything (because brains just like staying where they currently are) and seeking knowledge until you kick the bucket.

Yes, this is the gist of it. What you already know conditions how you think about something unfamiliar. So if you are argumentative about that new concept, you are most likely just showing your ignorance. Being argumentative is a sign of being defensive about what you have: you are afraid to lose it. Why though? If we let go of a falsehood we are not losing anything: we are gaining the freedom to think things anew, equipped with better insights (and, perhaps, a newfound excitement).

I was also confused when I started learning my second programming language. First I learned C++ and that - the syntax and underlying mechanics - was programming to me. I didn’t know that this is just how you program in C++. When I started learning JavaScript and Python after a few months of learning and playing around with C++, these languages were so strange to me - I had thoughts like “Why is there this weird feature/mechanic? Why does it work like this? Why can’t it just be like C++? Why can’t it be normal?” That made me not appreciate some of these languages’ more unique features.

This is indeed where it gets tricky. Your prejudice is affecting your ability to recognise what the reality is, so even when the unique feature is there, you are likely not paying attention to it or are misunderstanding it.

I think being mindful of our condition is a skill that improves with practice. The more we are aware of this propensity we have to be defensive, the easier it is to overcome it and to keep an open mind.

So yeah, just wanted to share my thoughts.

You did well. Thanks!