“As We May Think” as a complex, multi-level argument

It occurred to me today that Dr. Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” article involves multiple theses, and simultaneously makes several interleaved arguments supporting those theses. It has several layers, brilliantly composed and interwoven, to effectively accomplish multiple purposes. Perception of the layers depends in part on each reader’s biases and motivations: particular readers will perceive one or more of the layers which particularly appeal to them, and ignore or overlook the others.

I was (an am!) reading the paper with respect to its description of what kind of tools are required to enable humans to capture, store, recall, and build upon our store of knowledge. Therefore I strongly perceived the sentences and ideas which pertained to that thread.

Another thread involves war and peace: given the end of World War II, and especially the horrific atomic blasts which helped end it, how can (and should) we build upon our new knowledge peacefully, and avoid or survive future conflicts?

Yet another thread involves hope, and a view that many fantastic things are possible. He describes certain aspects of technology, projects reasonable extensions which are potentially achievable, and then projects beyond that to indicate even better and more fantastic things may lie ahead.

I have a mental visualization of the paper in which different words and sentences appear in different layers (some in more than one layer at a time), where each layer describes one of the theses and its supporting statements. Each layer is not only at a different z-coordinate (depth), it is also rendered in a different color. Looking down through the layers, one can see how the entire paper is a brilliant interweaving of those different layers: they all fit together, and some words and sentences support several of the layers at once. I wish I had the graphic arts skill to actually draw this (or create it in a 3-D modeling program such as Google Sketchup). (Perhaps you do, dear reader?)

An alternative crude implementation is to use a word processor to highlight the words in different colors, depending on which layer they support.

Given that UNIV 200 is in part about “the Craft of Argument”, perhaps interested participants can together dig further into this, tease out the various threads and theses which Dr Bush incorporated into his paper, identify how each word and sentence supports one or more of those threads, and analyse how he interwove them so skillfully. The results of this analysis will then serve as an excellent example of a brilliantly crafted (set of!) argument(s)!

3 thoughts on ““As We May Think” as a complex, multi-level argument”

  1. An additional thought: the layers may be primary (supporting the main purpose(s) for which Dr Bush wrote the paper) or secondary/tertiary (supporting other purposes or objectives), and also may be intentional (Dr Bush consciously implemented these layers, intentionally incorporating these ideas and concepts) or accidental (WE may perceive this layer or thread, but Dr Bush did not intentionally try to include it and may not have been aware of its existence at all.)

    I mention the intentional/accidental aspect with respect to something which bothers me about some “Literary Criticism”: when the critic asserts what the author intended, even when the author him or herself clearly states that’s not what they had in mind at all. That’s bogus! An author has particular things in mind, and intends to communicate certain things. If we as readers pick up on other meanings or perceive other intentions, that’s usually and mostly an effect of our own context: what the author’s words evoke in our minds. It’s true that the author may have and (unintentionally) communicate other (additional) intentions, but it is not appropriate for us to assert that’s what they intended in the first place.

  2. I’m reading your posts with great interest. Thank you for these contributions.

    The Bush essay is indeed many-layered. I’ve read it over and over and continue to be struck by the elegant density of thought it represents. The prose is lucid, the style easygoing and almost avuncular at times, yet the closer one looks, the more textures appear.

    For me, the “hope layer” now appears most vividly as I read it. Everywhere there is a poignant optimism, all the more poignant because it must be asserted in the face of explicit evidence, in the essay itself, of humanity’s failures as well as the way circumstances limit our ability even to attempt to be our best selves. These are all reasons that “presumably” in the penultimate paragraph now resonates so strongly. Bush seems to understand the essential grounds for the most devastating critique that can be mounted against his vision: the damning critique that human ingenuity will inevitably cause more harm than good. If that is true, then reviewing our shady past will merely deepen our despair at best.

  3. It is an interesting thought to consider that the programs you reference as capable of portraying your mental image are the types of programs that Bush is discussing in the essay itself. Human technological advancements have come a very long way in the sixty-nine years since the essay was crafted.

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