A&O – DESCRIPTION as a tool of insight


“Describe, describe, describe”


Before commenting on DECRIPTION, the bed-rock of shared understanding on which science and its theories are constructed … 

A REPRISE of the essential disciplinary structure of A&O–our scaffold:  In our pursuit of the connectedness of phenomena to each other and to our selves, DESCRIPTION  is a first strategy–and the deployment of our capacities for description is a crucial first step in ART and in DEEP ethology.   


Our respect for the power of the existential phenomenological perspective means that a description of our FEELINGS are just as important  as a PHYSICAL APPEARANCE


[sensations, perceptions, and feelings, co-constitute experience: what we share is how these are represented in our minds.  In our pursuit of confidence in the validity of our experience—its correspondence and coherence—we represent it to the world as best we can.  We tell the best story we can with the best evidence we have.]


We can ask how our phenomenon of interest has been represented in the words or work of other people–ARTISTS in particular have the disposition and skills to represent their perceptions to the rest of us, but all of us are to some degree artists and we possess the advantage of first-person experience.   


DEEP ethologists, then systematically assess the correlated phenomena–especially apparent causes and consequences–that  can be described with precision in terms that can be shared and mutually corroborated or validated:

development, ecology, evolution, and physiology. 


HOW DEEP can we go?

I find myself repeating a mantra from my earliest training as an ethologist: when uncertain or mystified or seeking deeper understanding or insight by what you observe,

describe, describe, describe!  Describe the crap out of it!”



READ “Take this Fish…”

about how the great zoologist Agassiz taught a student about description.

then: a guide to getting started:

How Drawing Helps Us Observe, Discover, and Invent


The intuition that “description is a special form of attention” has emerged often in musings about how best to know one’s own mind–but it never assumes this is easy.  It cannot be complete because it derives significant meaning from love and prayer–ideas which may not be at first blush related, but end up as central.  Recall Goethe’s observation: You cannot understand anything you do not first love. (Man lernt nichts kennen als was man Liebt)[i]  But this connects curiously to Marcel Proust’s idea, “We love only what we do not wholly possess.” (On n’aime que ce qu’on ne possède pas tout entier.”)


[i]. One learns to know nothing but what one loves, and the deeper and more complete the knowledge is to become, the stronger, stronger and more alive must be love, even passion.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  (1749-1832),  letters. To Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, May 10, 1812


Speaking to the importance of description, Gina Baucomb (A&O-2019) shared a quote by Edward Abbey: “Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet/, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers.” As for Love, we must connect with Goethe’s idea, that one cannot understand what one does not first love. (think about this)    


ONCE DESCRIBED we can entertain the power of communication to help understanding: Thoreau WROTE, “It takes two to speak the truth– one to speak, and another to hear.” (1849, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” “Wednesday”) . . .  but like all communications—it may also be an important bridge between different parts of the painter’s mind, evoking experience formerly veiled in unconsciousness.

“It is said that Verdi sat with a pounding heart and on occasion wept while composing the music for his operas. More than a century later, some listeners show the identical reactions. Thus, like written text in literature, a musical score is the medium through which creative artists communicate with their audience.”[i]


IN OUR DESCRIPTIONS, ART and SCIENCE collaborate—are inextricably intertwined—and thus co-constitute the experience we wish to understand.  Their distinctive constellations of cognitive functions map roughly on to sentience and sapience—feeling and thinking.


From the perspectives of ART we can ask about its EXPRESSIVE and RECEPTIVE qualities, as well as the MEDIUM—the mode of transmission.


From the perspective of SCIENCE we seek a physical description of whatever traits we perceive. And we emphasize ethology—the integrative biology of behavior—and its four main perspectives: Development, Ecology, Evolution, and Physiology.

BUT HOW DO SCIENCE and (e.g.) POETRY INFORM EACH OTHER? A book by physicist Kip Thorne and artist Lia Halloran explores the mysteries of space through poetry and paintings.  Journalist Ron Cowen’s  BOOK REVIEW  explores the idea by interviewing the authors. (LINK)  



“It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” ― Albert Einstein


 IN ART, especially when economics are a significant concern, there are enormous investments in provenance and detail … for an example, look at  the connections and history of Vermeer’s Milkmaid   …  But there is often  more: a kind of empathy with an object of art (see Brinck 2016 on empathy and aesthetic experience

What did Adam Gopnik (2021) mean when he said (speaking of The painter Lucian Freud), that he “captured the imperfections of the flesh so completely that they became a kind of perfection.”  (in The New Yorker 1 February 2021;  lucian-freud-and-the-truth-of-the-body)


IN ETHOLOGY our outermost “scaffold” is the ETHOGRAM:  supporting and framing analysis & interpretation:

















ETHOGRAM.  An objective DESCRIPTION of all units of behavior and behavioral patterns accessible to observation is the “BEHAVIOR INVENTORY” and its elements, when examined in relation to each other is an “ETHOGRAM.”  These provide clarity and a shared vocabulary on the nature of the phenomenon of interest.  Questions will certainly be raised, but invest your time in those which are at least in principle answerable. The ethogram enables us to discern patterns and  devise testable hypotheses.   Survey the intellectual and investigative tools and techniques available, and remain open to information or ideas from sibling disciplines that might enable creative new approaches as we pursue understanding.  (See Greenberg, N.  1978.  Ethological considerations in the experimental study of lizard behavior.  In: Behavior and Neurology of Lizards,  pp. 204‑224, Rockville, MD, NIMH) adapted from DEEP ETHOLOGY]


















DESCRIPTION in practice and art. 

Arguably, the processes of description, ranging from unaided human perception through extreme technological prostheses providing access to many layers of organization, appears as a pursuit of greater intimacy with the phenomenon being described that might be mistaken for the observer wanting to be as one with the phenomenon. What does it feel like to be a molecule, a nebula, a bat, or another person.  The artist or artist so inspired explores every clue, every association from raw physical properties through the biological to the cultural.  But recall, that even “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry” (Niels Bohr in conversation with Walter Heisenberg)


  • “Take this fish.” A lesson from the great Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz   [A&O link]


FREE ASSOCIATIONS   (any mind-map I’d make would have these links)

  • DESCRIPTIONS are necessarily objective but when agreed upon provide a shared belief, shared foundation for further exploration.
  • IMMERSION in your topic can foster love (look at LOVE – its biological and psychological background) 
  • (sensupropinquity” (?))
    • associate with Goethe [i]  (“A man doesn’t learn to understand anything unless he loves it” (Man lernt nichts kennen als was man Liebt))
      • [Connects also to Marcel Proust’s “We love only what we do not wholly possess.” (On n’aime que ce qu’on ne possède pas tout entier.”]
    • may induce sensory adaptation which may be connected to figure-ground transitions: foreground sensations and perceptions receding into background & thereby revealing new elements.  (Like staring at optical illusions … in fact, anything, including yourself in the mirror). 
    • Is it a coincidence that the eye-lock—mutual staring—of  potential friends gets a less obstructed view through the “window of the soul”?—insight into the implicit, possibly ineffable, feelings and intentions of the other person) 
  • “Listen to be Influenced” (a favorite phrase of Kathy Greenberg)
    • [= “look to see” affected by context (museum) and attention; appreciation of art outside deliberate display can be overcome in part by looking for “found art.”]
      • [connected to: “But in the mud and scum of things / There alway, alway something sings.” — Emerson’s “Fragments of Nature and Life”This emphasizes the role of the observer in finding additional or deeper meaning in experience.  

  • The unexpected power of describing.   WHEN you are stymied in thinking about the how’s and why’s of a phenomenon, “DESCRIBE THE HELL OUT OF it !!”   for example, 

  • “Our Town”  How can someone else’s words (or music) help you describe yourself—even if only to yourself.

Saturday, February 13, 2021.   On this morning’s NPR Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, I  heard a very interesting bit on the universality of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” and the diversity of interpretations—this play is a great reminder of how a certain level of constraint: the notes of a musical score, the words of a song or opera, the words in a script can provide a scaffold that enables a unique point of view to be constructed.   For example, a play is a medium that actors as artists can use as artists to represent themselves—one striking example of how new meanings can be derived from familiar words was a production in Sing-Sing Penitentiary.  Listen to how writer Howard Sherman describes his new book (Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century) to Scott Simon: (https://www.npr.org/2021/02/13/967600332/returning-to-our-town-why-the-play-still-hits-home-after-80-years).

A comparable phenomenon in MUSIC is how a key theme can trigger multiple rhapsodies.  In jazz, “The Listener’s Club:” blog for Feb 17, 2023  provided a masterclass on the unique ways in which a specific popular song (the standard “Then I’ll Be Tired of You” from the 1930’s) was manifest “in three jazz improvisations. First, we’ll hear Keith Jarrett’s poignant solo piano improvisation from a 1987 concert in Tokyo. In the spontaneity of the moment, Jarrett seems to become a vessel through which powerful cosmic forces work. The saxophonist John Coltrane included Then I’ll Be Tired of You on his 1963 album, Stardust. He is joined by Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Arthur Taylor (drums). “Fats” Waller’s recording returns to the song’s swinging, jazz age origins.”  


With respect to DESCRIPTION, in particular, read how Thornton Wilder prepared his audience–From the Script of Our Town:

In Act 1, they describe Grover’s Corners: Professor Willard describes its place in geological & anthropological history (pp 21-22)



     …  Now we’re going to skip a few hours.  

     But first we want a little more information about the town, kind of a scientific account,      you might say.   So I’ve asked Professor Willard of our State University to sketch in a few      details of our past history here.         Is  Professor Willard here?


     PROFESSOR WILLARD, a rural savant, pince-nez on a wide satin ribbon, enters from    the right with some notes in his hand.

     May I introduce Professor Willard of our State University.  A few brief notes, thank you,      Professor, unfortunately our time is limited.



     Grover’s Corners … let me see … Grover’s Corners lies on the old Pleistocene granite of      the Appalachian range. I may say it’s some of the oldest land in the world. We’re very proud of that. A shelf of Devonian basalt crosses it with vestiges of Mesozoic shale, and some sandstone outcroppings; but that’s all more recent:   two hundred, three hundred million years old.


     Some highly interesting fossils have been found … I may say: unique fossils . . . two miles      out of town, in Silas Peckham’s cow pasture. They can be seen at the museum in our      University at any time that is, at any reasonable time. Shall I read some of Professor      Gruber’s notes on the meteorological situation mean precipitation, et cetera?



     Afraid we won’t have time for that, Professor. We might have a few words on the history      of man here.



     Yes . . . anthropological data: Early Amerindian stock. Cotahatchee tribes … no evidence      before the tenth century of this era … hm . . . now entirely disappeared . . . possible traces in three families. Migration toward the end of the seventeenth century of English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock … for the most part.   Since then some Slav and Mediterranean …



     And the population, Professor Willard? 



     Within the town limits: 2,640.



     Just a moment, Professor.

     He whispers into the professor’s ear.



     Oh, yes, indeed? The population, at the moment, is 2,642. The Postal District brings in 507    more, making a total of 3,149. Mortality and birth rates: constant. By MacPherson’s gauge: 6.032.



     Thank you very much, Professor. We’re all very much obliged to you, I’m sure.

Another snip of a scene near the end of Act 1 takes us from particular and unique to the cosmic:



     I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He        wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The    Crofut Farm; Grover’s       Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.



     What’s funny about that?



     But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God that’s what it said on the envelope.



[i]. Man lernt nichts kennen als was man Liebt‑‑ Goethe. [complete:  “Man lernt nichts kennen, als was man liebt, und je tiefer und vollständiger die Kenntnis werden soll, desto kräftiger und lebendiger muß die Liebe, ja Leidenschaft sein.”  (Goethe in einem Brief an Jacobi, 1812)


FREE ASSOCIATIONS of not quite random, ricocheting ideas, possibly meaningless,  They’re creating a constellation of ideas that feel connected at a deep level I have not yet visited:    Many people (not least artists and scientists) find it anxiolytic to look progressively more closely at the elements of something that they feel is about to reveal a much sought after resolution.  obsessive collectors?  curators that have an intuition of the meaningfulness of their collections but not much more.   Artists that create their own pigments or materials, harvest their own plant fibers to make strands that may belong in some composition taking form… like searching for whatever it is that is on the tip of your tongue … or there is a feeling that you know something but cannot quite express it.  There emerges an intimacy with elements even if their relevance to a project may not be apparent. such intimacy enables love.  Is this the love that must precede understanding that Goethe speaks about?   Maybe love is enough, but understanding–insight is so satisfying.   


[i]. Excerpt from  Josef P. Rauschecker (2002) “Where Science Meets the Arts,” A review of Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture by William Benzon (Basic Books (HarperCollins), New York, 2001. in Science 296:1032.



   On Representation and Revelation 


Description is revelation.  It is neither

The thing described, nor false facsimile

It is an artful thing that exists

In its own seeming, plainly visible,


Yet not too closely the double of our lives

Intenser than any actual life could be.


Wallace Stevens