Dec 3 2022

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind (Part I of II)


The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind
(Part I of II)

This fire, these flames, is and are the imagination ablaze across the range and country and prairies and hollows and wildlands that encompass the globe of my mind. Here this mad rush of heat and energy waves both smoke and light on acquired knowledge and endured experience.

This enveloping imagination of mine reaches for whatever it can grab, then, connects it with the larger patch of bursting energy burning across the semiconscious land.

The flames grab Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and her remarks on certain works by Kafka and van Gogh––how the final act of creation occurs when the reader-listener-viewer begins to think:

It often appears in works of art, especially in Kafka’s early prose pieces or in some paintings of van Gogh where a single object, a chair, a pair of shoes, is represented. But these art works are thought-things, and what gives them their meaning—as though they were not just themselves but for themselves—is precisely the transformation they have undergone when thinking took possession of them.
(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 184)

And flames of the enveloping imagination found and flung and fed on Arendt’s comments, then, connected them to passages from that tale from 1912––“Das Urteil” (“The Judgement”) by Franz Kafka (1883–1924)––and that tale’s absences of the character of “mother” and of the place of “Russia”––and how those absences reemphasize and highlight the ideas of “mother” and “Russia” rather than negate them:

Two years ago his mother had died, since when he and his father had shared the household together, and is friend had of course been informed of that and had expressed his sympathy in a letter phrased so dryly that the grief caused by such an event, one had to conclude, could not be realized in a distant country….

Georg stared at the bogey conjured up by his father. His friend in St. Petersburg, whom his father suddenly knew too well, touched his imagination as never before. Lost in the vastness of Russia he saw him. At the door of an empty, plundered warehouse he saw him. Among the wreckage of his showcases, the slashed remnants of his wares, the falling gas brackets, he was just standing up. Why did he have to go so far away! ….

 “You have no friend in St. Petersburg. You’ve always been a leg-puller and you haven’t even shrunk from pulling my leg. How could you have a friend out there! I can’t believe it,” [said Georg’s father].
(“Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 78, 85, 83)


And the flames move on. They now consider and consume shoes painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890):

(Wiki Commons)


The flames now run wild—consuming and connecting everything before them. Before Arendt, Kafka, and van Gogh, there was Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781), who suggests in a line from his play Emilia Galotti (1772), that “one praises the artist most when, in looking at his work, one forgets to praise him.”

(Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm, and Other Plays and Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Anna Johanna Gode von Aesch, (New York: Continuum, 1991), I, iv, p. 80).

Somewhat following Arendt, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) encouraged readers to ponder the negation and opposition of an idea, if one is to understand the motivations behind that idea. This process of imagining the negative—as in the case of Van Gogh’s shoes––is, at least according to Kaufmann, sometimes but haphazardly called Hegelian dialectic.

(Discovering the Mind Vol. I: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 266).


The fire now burns deep: it compares C. S. Peirce (1839–1914)––a reader, but perhaps, not a follower of Hegel––and how, as Peirce and fellow philosopher-logicians might say that the sociology of humans being is based on semiotics––though non-philosopher-logicians might instead say that a human’s place in his or her community is itself a symbolic relation—a relation where the human is a symbol to the community. As Peirce puts it:

There is no element whatever of mans consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; and the reason is obvious. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the word homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought….

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man.
(“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1868))


Flame and soot and smoke and ember—elements indeed of any and all’s imagination––now burn close. Closer to our own time, Umberto Eco (1932–2016) summarizes what Peirce is getting at:

It may seem paradoxical to talk of the icon, which Peirce held was the first moment of an absolute evidence, as pure disposition-to, of pure absence in some way, an image of a thing that is not there yet. It would seem that this primary icon is like a hole, given that we have everyday experience of it but nonetheless have difficulty defining it, and given that 152 can be recognized only as an absence within something that is present. And yet it is precisely from that nonbeing that one can infer the shape of the “plug” that could stop it up.
(“Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content,” Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), pp. 110–11. On the point of the plug, Eco cites: Roberto Casati and Achilie C. Varzi, Holes and Other Superficialities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994))

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) has also pointed out that space and object probably cannot be logically isolated. My imagination says I should say “probably” because Wittgenstein left some possibility open by suggesting we humans may not have yet exercised our imaginations to the fullest extent—we have not yet burned through everything:

An atmosphere that is inseparable from its object—is no atmosphere.

Closely associated things, things which have been associated, seem to fit one another. But in what way do they seem to fit? How does it come out that they seem to fit? Like this, for example: we cannot imagine the man who had this name, this face, this handwriting, not to have produced these works, but perhaps quite different ones instead (those of another great man).

We cannot imagine it? Do we try?––

(Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, vi, 50), p. 192)

Or, as Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived.”

(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 39).


Do readers-listeners-viewers really sink themselves into Kafka’s quasi-stories and the painted shoes depicted by van Gogh? I really don’t know. But it sort of makes sense to meme, neither firefighter nor firestarter—me, only a beholder of the enveloping imagination burning across my mind’s land.

Aug 22 2022

The Imagination: Toy for the Child, Tool for the Adult

pencil shavings

We need more imagination to address our traffic congestion, our housing shortages, our mass-shooter threats, as well as our energy supplies and climate alterations. We need incubators and accelerators of imaginative thought (not just for the arts) but to aid in determining solutions to our greatest social pains. For where there’s pain, there is a problem. But there, there is also life; because only what is dead feels no pain.

I don’t pretend to be clever enough to know exactly what that fully entails—but I believe it begins with taking imagination very seriously—seriously enough to study it and analyze it (at least for starters).

And if, at the start, we’re too ill-equipped to undertake such an analysis, let us, if nothing else, attempt to analyze the findings of those who have already analyzed the human imagination.


Let’s cut to the chase by beginning with Hamlet (II, i), where he is confronted by his old buddies from university Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:

What you have,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord!

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
: to me
it is a prison.

Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind. 

Hamlet here seems a bit childish. And one of the major questions, throughout the earlier parts of the play, concerns the audience, along with the rest of the play’s characters, all trying to decide: how authentic is Hamlet’s childish behavior?

While the word imagination isn’t used in this passage, Hamlet’s holding here that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” marks a possible origin to imaginative thought.

I interpret one of the meanings to the line “thinking makes it so” to mean: the act of thinking allows one to discern a difference between two or more things, in this case, the difference between good and bad (whatever that difference may be).

But even if this is but a single legitimate meaning to the line “thinking makes it so”—one might still label it a childish judgment on Hamlet’s behalf.

Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that it is the latter’s “ambition” that “makes” Denmark seem like a prison.

So, from this scene, a reader might extrapolate (or perhaps daydream) the hypothesis that imagination begins either from thinking or from ambition.

Certainly thinking in-and-of-itself is generally not considered to be childish. (But an over-abundance of ambition might be so considered.)


For the Enlightenment-age sociologist Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), imagination is part of the complex relationship between reason and memory:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development, it should in no way be dulled. Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it. In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained. Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted…. The Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

This is why, writes Vico elsewhere:

As the children of the new-born human race, the first people believed that the sky was no higher than their mountain heights, just as children today think it no higher than the rooftops….

People living in the world’s childhood [that is, the earliest days of humanity] were by nature sublime poets….

By nature, children retain the ideas and names of the people and things they have known first, and later apply them to others they meet who bear a resemblance or relation to the first.


The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons.

(Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14; Vico, La Scienza Nuova (The Third New Science) (1725), trans. David Marsh, (New York: Penguin, 1999), “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, xi, 148), p. 208.)


So I interpret Vico to say: there is this thing called imagination, and its ingredients (or perhaps catalysts) are memory and reason.

But why talk about thinking and memory and reason when the discussion should be about imagination? The terms and concepts keep multiplying, but it seems better to keep it simple and as few as possible.

Yes, the terms and concepts keep multiplying, but that is because, as journalist and social-theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) has explained, when it comes to discussing the particular act of thinking we call imagination, simply because it is a word, it is (and shall always remain) a metaphor for something else:

The chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself—whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego—there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world. All metaphors drawn from the sense will lead us into difficulties for the simple reason that all our senses are essentially cognitive, hence, if understood as activities, have an end outside themselves; they are not Energeia, an end in itself but instruments enabling us to know and deal with the world.

(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 123)

In other words, we readers cannot “start from zero” (ex nihilo), for—just as there is no emoji for the word emoji––there is no metaphor for metaphor.


Imagination isn’t just a mental activity—it can also mean a mental place where such activity can occur. In the tale “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1927), Japanese novelist-poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) the child character of Giovanni does this effortlessly:

I’m a great big locomotive! Watch as I speed down this incline! And look, my shadow has slipped out in front of me, swaying like a compass needle, he played around in his imagination.

(Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, trans. Julianne Neville, (Long Island City, New York: One Peace Books, 2014) “§ The Centaurus Festival,” 54)

But one shouldn’t accept Vico’s statements on children and imagination at face value. Some people, like Canadian comedian (and social philosopher) Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) as a child, imagination takes a tremendous amount of effort psychological effort:

So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 20–21)

This passage serves as a kind of over-arching metaphor for Norm’s book—readers don’t really know completely what is fiction or fact or some combination of the two, blended by memory.

Adults too, make use of imagination as a place where they can imagine they know things that they actually don’t know. As the glad genius Umberto Eco (1932–2016) once explained:

Even though I too am incapable of telling an elm from a beech, I can easily recognize mangroves (which I was able to identify one day thanks to having read about them in many travel books) and banyan trees, about which I had received plentiful instructions in Emilio Salgari’s adventure books. But I was convinced I knew nothing about the paletuviere (mentioned equally frequently in Salgari’s books), until on reading an encyclopedia one day I discovered that, in Italian, paletuviere is simply another word for mangrovia. Now I could reread Salgari, imagining mangroves every time he mentioned paletuviere. But what did I do for years and years, from childhood on, reading about these paletuviere without knowing what they were? From the context I had deduced that they were plants, something like trees or bushes, but this was the only property I could manage to associate with the name. Nevertheless, I was able to read on by pretending to know what they were. I used my imagination to integrate what little I had been able to glimpse within the half-open box, but in fact I was taking something on trust.

(Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), p. 292)

Finally, compare the imagination of patient Leonard L. in the Awakenings (1973) report by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1933–2015), where the imagination is an aid to survival and quality of life:

Leonard L. had in fact, been hallucinating for years—long before he ever received L-DOPA (although he was unable or unwilling to admit this to me until 1969). Being particularly fond of ‘Western’ scenes and films, Leonard L. had, indeed, ordered the old painting of the shanty-town as long ago as 1955 for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it—and it was his custom to ‘animate’ it for a hallucinatory matinée after lunch every day….

Most of the patients’ hallucinations lack the ambivalent, often paranoiac, and in general uncontrollable nature of schizophrenic hallucinations; but that they are, in contrast, very like scenes of normal life, very much like that healthy reality from which these pathetic patients have been cut off for years (by illness, institutionalization, isolation, etc.). The function (and form) of schizophrenic hallucinations, in general, has to do with the denial of reality; whereas the function (and form) of the benign hallucinations seen in Mount Carmel has to do with creating reality, imagining a full and happy and healthy life of a sort which has been cruelly denied to them through Fate. Thus I regard it as a sign of these patients’ health, of their enduring wish to live, and live fully—if only in the realms of imagination and hallucination, which are the only realms where they still enjoy freedom—that they hallucinate all the richness and drama and fullness of life. They hallucinate to survive—as do subjects exposed to extreme sensory, motor, or social isolation; and for this reason, whenever I learn from such a patient that he constructs a rich and benign hallucinatory ‘life,’ I encourage him to the full, as I encourage all creative endeavours which reach out to life.

(Awakenings, (New York: Random House, 1973; Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 214–15)

Feb 18 2018

We Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, ItaliaWe Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike):
Or, Relying on the Resemblance of Others to Think for Ourselves

catena: n. A string or series of extracts from the writings of the fathers, forming a commentary on some portion of Scripture; also, a chronological series of extracts to prove the existence of a continuous tradition on some point of doctrine. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As I have previously done here and here, what follows is another cantena of thoughts supplementing Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) and his point of how it is impossible to think for ourselves because we always rely on the thinking of others in order to think for ourselves.

However, the further I plod along in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which Jacobs refers to (sometimes in agreement, sometimes not), the more I suspect that the quotations below, as well as those in my previous posts, may not compare as well with Jacobs’s point as I initially thought. They may not because I may be falling for resemblance bias, for all the quotations I give are based on my limited recent reading––which itself might constitute a combination of what Kahneman calls the availability and priming heuristics.[1]

In other words, instead of relying on the words of others so that I can understand Jacobs’s book, perhaps I’m really just relying on the resemblance of the words of others as they compare to Jacobs. Either way, here it goes:


At age 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808–1882) recognized: “I suppose my friends have some relation to my mind.”[2]

At age 37, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) taught that our convictions are worthless until we encounter others who dare challenge our convictions:

Ultimate convictions are often inconsistent and can be refuted. They cannot be proved. But they can be responsible or irresponsible. They are irresponsible if they are arbitrary and blind. They are responsible if they have grown out of encounter after encounter. And in the end we can only ask others to expose themselves to the same encounters—and, if after having done this they do not agree with us, expose ourselves to their criticisms. [3]

At age 44, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) knew that, even the artist-as-author must rely on others to render creation. The working artist cannot be isolated but must come into communion and let the surrounding community contribute to the work at hand:

The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstance, and unless you use this feedback [of the cast and crew on the set] to your positive advantage, unless you adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realize the most out of your film…. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break for a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.[4]

At age 66, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) explained how Hegel got it wrong: that we cannot think in pure isolation:

No one has fought with more determination against the particular, the eternal stumbling block of thinking, the undisputable thereness of objects that no thought can reach or explain. The highest function of philosophy, according to Hegel, is to eliminate the contingent, and all particulars, everything that exists, are contingent by definition. Philosophy deals with the particulars as parts of a whole, and the whole is the system, a product of speculative thought. This whole, scientifically speaking, can never be more than a plausible hypothesis, which by integrating every particular into an all-comprehensive thought transforms them all into thought-things and thus eliminates their most scandalous property, their realness, together with their contingency. It was Hegel who declared that “The time has come for the elevation of philosophy to a science,” and who wished to transform philo-sophy, the mere love of wisdom, into wisdom, Sophia. In this way he succeeded in persuading himself that “to think is to act”––which this most solitary occupation can never do, since we can act only “in concert,” in company and agreement with our peers, hence in an existential situation that effectively prevents thinking.[5]

At age 77, Daniel Kahneman shared in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011):

Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters…. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.[6]



[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For Kahneman, “systematic errors are known as biases” (3–4), while “the reliance on the ease of memory search” is called “the availability heuristic,” (7). “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found,” (58) is one of Kahneman’s examples of the priming heuristic.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82). Vol. V (1835–1838), October 19, 1836, Journal B, p. 223.

[3] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958) 408.

[4] Strick and Houston, “Modern Times: an Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight and Sound, 41 (Spring 1972) quoted from Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi University Press, 2001) 134.

[5] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 89–90.

[6] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 3, 28.

Feb 12 2018

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

Samuel Matlack’s essay “Quantum Poetics: Why physics can’t get rid of metaphor” in The New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017) covers all the right bases (via Vico, Borges, and George Steiner among others) of how science relies on language in order to explain itself.

Yet language (particularly metaphor and idiom) are abstract in the very ways science seeks to be precise. This is why, Matlack, suggests:

It is easier to translate between Chinese and English — both express human experience, the vast majority of which is shared — than it is to translate advanced mathematics into a spoken language, because the world that mathematics expresses is theoretical and for the most part not available to our lived experience.

And that reminded me of something I’d recently read from Hannah Arendt (1906–1975):

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China…. There “the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image,” and not the other way round, as in the alphabetic languages, where script is thought of as secondary, no more than an agreed-upon set of symbols. For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence—Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for “dog” is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding “no image could ever be adequate to the concept” of dog in general. “It would never attain that universality of the concept which renders it valid of all” dogs.[1]

And what I had read from Arendt reminded me of something I’d previously read in Vico:

All these observations prove that human nature determined the creation of poetic style before prose style, just as human nature determined the creation of mythical and imaginative universals before rational and philosophical universals, which were the product of discourse in prose. For after the poets had formed poetic speech by combining universal ideas, the nations formed prose speech by contracting these poetic combinations into single words, as if into general categories. Take for example the poetic sentence ‘My blood boils in my heart’, which expresses a natural, eternal, and universal property of humankind. They took the notions of blood, boiling, and heart, and formed them into a single word, or general category: anger, which is called stomachos in Greek, ira in Latin, and collera in Italian. By the same steps, hieroglyphs and heroic emblems were reduced to a few vernacular letters, as general types to which countless different articulate sounds could be assigned. This process required the utmost ingenuity; and the use of such general words and letters rendered people’s minds more agile and more capable of abstraction. This in turn prepared the way for the philosophers, who formulated intelligible general categories. This offers us a small piece of the history of human thought, from which we see the origins of letters could only be traced in the same breath with the origin of languages![2]

But mostly, Matlack’s essay reminded me of ideas found in the works of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), first suggested to me in an essay by his buddy C. S. Lewis (1898–1963):

[Michel] Bréal [(1832–1915)] in his Semantics often spoke in metaphorical, that is consciously, rhetorically, metaphorical language, of language itself. Messrs. Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning took Bréal to task on the ground that “it is impossible thus to handle a scientific subject in metaphorical terms.” Barfield in his Poetic Diction retorted that Ogden and Richards were, as a matter of fact, just as metaphorical as Bréal. They had forgotten, he complained, that all language has a figurative origin and that the “scientific” terms on which they piqued themselves––words like organism, stimulus, reference—were not miraculously exempt. On the contrary, he maintained, “these authors who professed to eschew figurative expressions were really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure; they were rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds.”[3]

And let’s examine a little more from Barfield on how, whether in science or social life, we think by means of words:

We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.[4]

The new meaning becomes a means to distort ends, for: “the creative imagination latent in the word itself.” [5] Barfield goes on to point out that the poet makes the terms; the logician/scientist uses the terms:

Thus, the poet’s relation to terms is that of maker. And it is in this making of terms—whether the results are to be durable or fleeting—that we can divine the very poetic itself.… The use of them is left to the Logician, who, in his endeavor to keep them steady and thus fit them to his laws, is continually seeking to reduce their meaning. I say seeking to do so, because logic is essentially a compromise. He could only evolve a language, whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether. But he compromises before this zero-point is reached.[6]

For Barfield science and poetry are not all that different:

It has already been emphasized that the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he as ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.[7]



[1] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 100.

[2] Vico, [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh, (New York, NY: Penguin 1999), II, § 2, v, [¶ 460], p. 189.

[3] Lewis, “Bulspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) quoted from The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) 36.

[4] Barfield, History in English Words, (New York, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1926) 173.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (1928), Third Edition, (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 37.

[6] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 135–36.

[7] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 145–46.

Jan 30 2018

“We” Think; Therefore, “I” Am

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part II of III

We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference.
Why not ask “What are we? What am I
?”–Riccardo Manzotti

According to Count Tolstoy (1828–1910), we live for ourselves only when we live for others. We only learn when we serve to teach others.[1] Compare Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who follows Peirce:

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream. Objectivity is built into the very subjectivity of consciousness by virtue of intentionality. Conversely and with the same justness, one may speak of the intentionality of appearances and their built-in subjectivity. All objects because they appear indicate a subject, and, just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject. In Portmann’s words, every appearance is a “conveyance for receivers” (a Sendung für Empfangsapparate). Whatever appears is meant for a perceiver, a potential subject no less inherent in all objectivity than a potential object is inherent in the subjectivity of every intentional act.

That appearance always demands spectators and thus implies an at least potential recognition and acknowledgement has far-reaching consequences for what we, appearing beings in a world of appearances, understand by reality, our own as well as that of the world. In both cases, our “perceptual faith,” as Merleau-Ponty has called it, our certainty that what we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perceiving, depends entirely on the object’s also appearing as such to others and being acknowledged by them. Without this tacit acknowledgment by others we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to ourselves.[2]

Compare Arendt’s line: “That appearance always demands spectators” to a pair of observations from the Elizabethan playwrights:

“For though the most be players, some must be spectators.”

––Ben Jonson

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players….”

––Will Shakespeare

More recently, Charles Taylor has observed:

To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to know what to do, have to have practices in their repertory that put the new order into effect; and (2) the ensemble of actors have to agree on what these practices are. [3]

Tolstoy, meanwhile, goes so far to say that if the community cannot easily understand a work of creation, then it doesn’t count as a work of art:

It cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to appreciate the highest works of art. The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone. Why is it that the majority suddenly lost the ability to understand the highest of our art?[4]

(Read Part I here  and Part III here)

Erddig Hall Library….📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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[1] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 123.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 45–46.

[3] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 115.

[4] Tolstoy, Что такое искусство?/Chto takoye iskusstvo? What is Art? (1897), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995) X, 80.