Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth)

John Stuart Mill wrote a great book called On Liberty (IGB 3-5).  The introductory notes say “Mill was a fervent egalitarian in private and in public life.  As a Member of Parliament he made the motion that the word ‘man’ be replaced by the word ‘person’ as the question of a woman’s right to vote was raised in legislative assembly for the first time in modern history.”  That was England 1867.  Fast forward to England 1928.  Virginia Woolf gave a couple of lectures on Women and Fiction at two women’s colleges.  She expanded on these lectures and published a book called A Room of One’s Own.  In this story a young woman receives a generous annual payment for the rest of her life from her aunt’s estate and she got this news “about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women.”  Her reaction is interesting.  She says “of the two (the vote and the money) the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.”  This young woman valued economic freedom more than political freedom.  Would a young man come to the same conclusion?  The young woman is doing research on a topic entitled Women and Fiction.  She has a “swarm of questions.  Why did men drink wine and women water?  Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?  What effect has poverty on fiction?  What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”  Armed with questions like these she goes off to do some “research in books which are to be found in the British Museum.  If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where… is truth?”  She wonders if truth can be found in the stacks of a library.  A modern researcher may wonder if truth can be found on the Internet.  She quickly gets off track.  The first problem she encounters is the sheer volume of information available.  She wonders “how shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper?”  A modern researcher may similarly wonder if the Internet is a help or a barrier in the pursuit of truth.  If we want information then search engines are a big help sorting through all the junk to get to the jewels.  But if we’re looking for wisdom then search engines might be a barrier to actually finding it.  We need a method of sifting through mountains of words and numbers.  We need a way to determine what’s true and what’s not.  There’s a big difference between the goal of Truth = Information and the goal of Truth = Wisdom.  And the young woman seems to sense this.  She says “the student who has been trained in research at a university has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen… but if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter.”  In modern America having university training is all important.  Socrates would not be qualified to teach a course in philosophy at a modern university. 
Without university training the young woman is bewildered by the vast resources of the library.  Anyone trying to do research on their own knows what she’s up against.  She wants to know why women are poor.  Where should she begin?  She tries looking up Women and Poverty in the card catalog and gets dozens of subheadings such as Conditions in Middle Ages of, Habits in the Fiji Islands of, etc.  First there wasn’t enough information; now there’s too much.  A university trained researcher calls this an Aristotelian system.  Take a complex problem.  Break it into simpler parts.  Re-define the problem and focus your research on that.  “Women” is too broad for research.  Women and Poverty is still too broad.  Concentrate on Women and Poverty in the Middle Ages or in the Fiji Islands, etc.  Voila.  See, this is what happens.  You ask a simple question, why are women poor?  And before you know it you’re off on a wild goose chase in Medieval Europe or the Fiji Islands.  America in 2016 isn’t England in 1928.  We use computers instead of 3x5 cards.  But the search for Truth is still confusing as ever.  Maybe even more.


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