Meeting of the Minds?

In a lecture a few weeks back, a student in great consternation asked the professor how an evidently smart and Christian man like Columbus could have approved of enslaving the Native Americans. What was up with that? Columbus was a Christian!

The professor’s response was very interesting. He basically said that despite all our education and literacy today, we still have a really serious problem with not being able to truly meet another’s mind when that other is separated from us by so many centuries and cultural differences. The professor held up his copy of the translation of Columbus’ log which we were all reading and pointed out that it was precisely because we were all reading Columbus in translation and in a mass-produced book formatted all neatly and nicely in crisp black letters on sparkling white paper, we just did not have the real insight into Columbus’ mind that the mere act of reading him seems to imply.

Columbus didn’t speak English. He didn’t think of Christianity the way we think of Christianity. He didn’t live in a world of democracy, capitalism, and industrial mastery of the external world. He sailed seas that weren’t even fully mapped – and indeed, couldn’t even in principle be fully mapped since at that time there was no way to determine longitude. Having lived only a couple of decades after the invention of the printing press, not just a book, but the very act of writing a record for others to read, were very different things for Columbus than they are for us. Indeed, his very mental picture of the world was radically different from our own, leading him to a radically different understanding of what he himself was doing than we, living 500 years later, think he was doing. All of these things shaped the original text of Columbus, written in late 15th century Spanish and conveyed a whole different worldview held by a man whose mind bore a fundamentally shape and texture than our own.

But this fact and its tremendous importance for how we view the past and our own relationship to it tends to be obscured by translation and technology. We pick up our nice, neat, pretty little translations in our $9.95 mass produced paperbacks, sit and read it in the comfort of our climate-controlled homes, in a culture created as one result of Columbus’ deeds, and just by reading the book we think we that because it’s all right there “in black and white” that we understand Columbus and his world. But we don’t – or at least, understanding doesn’t come that cheaply and easily. This is not to say, I hope, that some degree of meeting another’s mind is totally impossible. It is to say, however, that it just might be a lot more difficult than we tend to think it is. Translations and cheap books make it very easy to spot the cultural assumptions of other people who lived a long time ago, but precisely because we are us, our own cultural assumptions are not so easy to spot.

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6 Responses to Meeting of the Minds?

  1. The Scylding says:

    Tim,

    I must say, your professor seems to be out of the ordinary. A wise man.

  2. Ron Henzel says:

    Tim,

    It sounds as though your professor never actually answered the question that was put to him? Or did he?

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Ron, I think he did answer the question. The answer is that there is no black and white answer – we can understand something of another person’s mind, but not all of it. We can understand sufficiently, but not exhaustively. The professor’s point – and mine on this very blog for the last few years I’ve been posting historical materials – is that getting to the “sufficient” point is often a good bit harder than just reading things in “black and white on the page.” It’s the “something is always lost in the translation” principle, but applied to human beings and cultures.

  4. Ron Henzel says:

    Tim,

    I have no problem with your point that we cannot understand another person’s mind exhaustively. And certainly this goes at least double for trying to understand the mind of a person from another age and culture. But, as you yourself also indicate, this does not mean it’s impossible to understand another person’s mind sufficiently, and that’s all your classmate seemed to be asking: i.e., how can we sufficiently understand why an intelligent Christian man like Columbus approved of slavery. Was your professor saying that it is impossible to sufficiently understand Columbus’s rationale for slavery, or did he at least offer a possible understanding based on available data?

  5. Tim Enloe says:

    Ron, I think the point of the class is to get the student’s thinking for themselves about difficult issues rather than spoonfeed them. These are graduate level classes, after all.

  6. Ron Henzel says:

    Tim,

    If that was your professor’s actual point, then it’s fair enough. I simply did not catch that point in the slew of answers on transcultural worldview issues that he actually did spoonfeed to your classmate.

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