by False Dichotomies
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—William Butler Yeats Among School Children
A s we mentally navigate through life and try to figure out where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going, we use two very basic approaches. One is analysis, and the other is synthesis.
When we analyze, we quite literally break things down into their parts (ana = down, apart; lysis = break, destroy).The old poet Yeats, wandering through a schoolroom filled with young children and pondering their past and future and that of all human beings, ends his musings on the continuities and discontinuities of life by analyzing a simple chestnut tree. Where does it begin and end? Which part is its essence? Is it the trunk (bole) from which it grows, and from which the tree will renew itself each year in the rebirth of spring? Is it the flower, fragrant and beautiful but also ephemeral, which produces a seed and then dies? Or is it the leaf, the green umbrella that breathes for the tree and gives it energy to sustain its life? Obviously, it is not one of these, but all of them.
Analysis is a powerful tool. We human beings are probably the only creatures who can consciously analyze in this way.We use analysis to see structure and components in things.We can break the continuity of time into pieces and create concepts such as past, present, and future.We can define interfaces between ourselves and others and develop ideas such as family, tribe, and nation.We can divide the face of the earth or the universe into maps with boundary markers and regions, and give them names like Earth or Mercury.We can create units to weigh and measure things after we have broken them down into parts, such as meters, miles, and minutes.We can assign values to the things we see and measure, based on rarity (as in gold), beauty (as in art), or utility (as in food or water).