(You really should play the song below while you read this post. For the full audio-visual experience.)
A routine turn of phrase in the English language is to enhance a claim by using the metaphor of depth — thoughts can be deep, the hero looks deeply into his love’s eyes, or “deep down, I feel that…”. Conversely, of course, a lack of such depth signifies insincerity and probably insufficient intelligence — after all, “Shallow Hal” was a movie all about overcoming a preoccupation with surface appearances, learning instead to see true, “inner beauty.”
Too often I find scholars get mesmerized by certain things about the people they study, for example mistaking their rhetorical conventions for substantive claims about some supposedly corresponding object in the world. (This is something I’ve written about before and a topic that has appeared here on the Edge before as well.) Case in point: while scholars have spent considerable time trying to develop a theory of the spirits and the souls people claim to have, or the experiences they reporting having had, I’d hazard a guess that those same scholars wouldn’t expend much effort on developing a theory of depth. Instead, I presume (or should I say hope?) they’d simply see it as a technique speakers use to give their words the impression of weight (oops, there’s another neat technique we use to make our changeable words seem even more substantial, massive, enduring, consequential).
So, instead of doing an MRI, getting out a drill, and setting out to journey to the center of the self to discover what’s on the inside, scholars listening to someone going on about what they feel “deep down” will presumably start with the assumption that a nifty (because it is effective) trick of language is taking place — a linguistic illusion.
If so, then what I wonder — what, way down deep, I really really wonder, in my heart of hearts… — is why we can’t approach claims of “the human spirit,” “human nature,” and “self” in that same way as how we hear someone going on about how deep their love is: as nifty (because useful) illusions that are no more or less interesting than the way we usually use language — whether it’s a philosophical text or the dulcet harmonies of the Bee Gees.
I really need to know….