Lateral Learning

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. A lot. I have six books on the go at the moment, ranging from short stories through philosophical fiction to non-fiction.

Partly it’s just a cyclical thing — I often have periods of intense reading and then periods of months when I hardly read at all. Partly it’s a consequence of having varied interests and being fascinated by many diverse areas of study (if money weren’t an option I’d love to just collect masters degrees. The world is such a fascinating place! There’s so much to learn!). But partly, I think this is a result of being in a time of ‘lateral learning’ or perhaps better, ‘lateral exploration’.

What I mean is that, I’m not really in a place in life where I’m directed to any particular goal. Left to their own devices, my interests are sort of doing their own thing, so I’ve been reading up the past few months on anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, cooking, philosophy, Eastern and Western religions, history, creativity, writing, etc. This is scattered and unfocused, but, if I know my mind, a couple years from now I’ll be able to see a pattern and direction that I can’t see right now. My guess this is a very common phenomenon. I was thinking about this the other day when I stumbled across a passage by Robert Pirsig that touched on similar things using practically the identical terminology:

[L]aterally. That’s a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn’t move forward like an arrow enlarging in flight … Lateral knowledge is knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that’s not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one’s existing system of getting at truth.

To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. *

He’s clearly not talking about exactly the same thing, but it comes to the same point, I think: sometimes we can only find what we’re looking for by not looking for it; and sometimes by not looking for anything in particular we can find the big thing we really are looking for without knowing it.


*Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Bantam Books, 1974), 106.


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