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

Mark Twain in Athens

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

Wildfire on the mind-lands, burning books and paintings, consuming ink and hue—this marks the imagination in action. It reaches for Van Gogh one moment, Kafka the next. Flames lick at critical reflections from Arendt and Kaufmann—smoke and soot surround C. S. Lewis and J. S. Mill in Dickensian fashion. The prairie is full of fire. The enveloping imagination burns wild.

Last time at Bookbread, readers were initially presented with comments by Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) on Kafka and van Gogh and how the final act of creation occurs when the audience 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 Vol. I. Thinking, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), p.184)

Arendt’s remarks should be compared to those of Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) when he compares the letters of Kafka (1883–1924) to those by Van Gogh (1853–1890). Kaufmann sees a similarity in how each artist was able to almost detach themselves from themselves while thinking about themselves:

If ever a great artist worked under the spell of inspiration it was Vincent van Gogh. He created literally hundreds of the finest paintings in the world in a mere four years. Of his high emotional tension and total, self-sacrificing devotion there is no doubt, yet his copious letters to his brother show how far he was from regarding the fruits of his inspiration as sacrosanct. Even when committed to an asylum, he never lost or disparaged his critical powers. He discussed his works as well as his situation with a rarely equaled lucidity that furnishes a startling contrast to Buber, not to speak of Benjamin, Adorno, and Heidegger. Freud’s and Kafka’s letters are also free of falseness, pretense, and murkiness but not so intense. All three men—van Gogh, Kafka, and Freud—were distinguished by an amazing capacity for detachment from themselves and could see themselves from above.
(Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 256)

At one point in the 1919 letter to his father, Kafka’s explains what he’s trying to do with his writing:

I have already indicated that in my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me.
(Brief An Den Vater (Letter to his Father), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, (New York: Schocken. 1971), p. 117)

And about forty years before Kafka’s letter, at one point in a letter to his brother, Van Gogh explains what he’s trying to do with his painting:

Of the drawings which I will show you now I think only this: I hope they will prove to you that I am not remaining stationary in my work, but progress in a direction that is reasonable. As to the money value of my work, I do not pretend to anything else than that it would greatly astonish me if my work were not just as salable in time as that of others. Whether that will happen now or later I cannot of course tell, but I think the surest way, which cannot fail, is to work from nature faithfully and energetically. Feeling and love for nature sooner or later find a response from people who are interested in art. It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work, so that it becomes intelligible to other people.
(“To Theo, The Hague, July 31, 1882,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 159–60)

But back to Arendt and her observation that “the transformation they [Kafka and Van Gogh’s early works] have undergone when thinking took possession of them”––for C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the great artist like Kafka or Van Gogh presents a “total response to the world”:

Very roughly, we might almost say that in Rhetoric imagination is present for the sake of passion (and, therefore, in the long run, for the sake of action), while in poetry passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health—the rightness and richness of a man’s total response to the world….

The idea of a poetry which exists only for the poet—a poetry which the public rather overhears than hears––is a foolish novelty in criticism. There is nothing specially admirable in talking to oneself.
(A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford UP, 1942; Galaxy Book, 1961), p. 54)

Lewis is here riffing on an earlier observation by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) that:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action. (“What is Poetry?” (1833))

Between Kaufmann, Lewis, and Mill, readers might surmise: whatever the status of the reader, writer-artists tend to overhear themselves when they are rereading-rewriting their works. As overhearers of their own works, writer-artists must somewhat negate themselves during the act of overhearing (if overhearing here means the process of rereading-rewriting). The enveloping imagination negates as it consumes. Yet a fire cannot catch itself on fire…..

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I think Kafka hints at the overhearing-through-reading mentioned by Mill when, in an early story, Kafka’s character of Raban points out the inevitable connections that are made between reading two random works:

“Well, it isn’t so important,” Raban said. “I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.”
(“Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country”) (1907–08), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 74–75)

It is as if, while reading, one overhears the comparison of one book to another, or one passage from one book to another (much like how this blog post was written).

Van Gogh was, at least in his early life, notoriously unmethodical (that is, random) in his reading. As his sister-in-law Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger observed:

No other thing has taken its place yet; he draws much and reads much, among others, Dickens, Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, and Michelet, but it is all done without system or aim.
(“Memoir by His Sister-in-Law,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 50)

And as Mark Roskill, editor of Van Gogh’s letters, put it:

It was characteristic of him to identify himself with fictional heroes, and to pick out from the books he read whatever seemed to have a moral and spiritual application to his own destiny.
(“[Note to] To Theo, Paris, February 19, 1876,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 94)

Other critics of Vincent have noted:

Van Gogh always needed an intellectual framework for defending his opinions, his projects, and the positions he took. When he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos, for example, he plumbed Michelet in search of justifications for his stubborn arguments for marriage, contrary to the opinions of everyone around him, and also contrary to the wishes of the person in question. Along the way, he did not hesitate to take quotations out of context, to abbreviate them, to paraphrase them … an effective way of joining ranks with a thinker whose aura and gravity preclude any attempt at further argument.
(Wouter van der Veen and Peter Knapp, Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days, (New York: Monacelli Press, 2009), pp. 40–41)

Yet is there any way the arguments in this blog post could be taken further?

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Let the present reader find something more random than Bookbread can feed them—perhaps only then could the argument be carried along to some new place—only by a kind of overhearing of oneself whilst reading….. burning while brooding…. the enveloping imagination transfixed on the unbound horizon of the mind-land prairie it has yet to consume…. yearning to burn all into the background.

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

typewriter

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)

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

(Wiki Commons)

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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).

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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))

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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).

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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.

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

I’ve been studying Chaucer lately, and soon stumbled on to some of his usages of the word fellowship.

For wher-so men had pleyd or waked,
Me thoghte the felawship as naked
Withouten hir, that saw I ones,
As a coroune withoute stones.
(The Book of the Duchesse, ll. 977–80)

And:

Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
(Tales of Canterbury, General Prologue, ll. 25–34).

And, in describing the Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s Narrator notes:

In felawschip wel coude she laughe and carpe.
(General Prologue, ll. 474)

In a time of frequent mass-shootings, controversial court decisions, and pandemic supply chains … a turn toward fellowship might not be so much an exercise in idleness, but one of escapism.

So fellowship is the root word fellow with the added suffix –ship.

For fellow, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says it’s Anglo-Saxon (Old English) but borrowed from Scandinavian:

The early Scandinavian etymon is a derivative formed on the compound reflected by Old Icelandic félag , Norwegian felag, Old Swedish fælagh, Old Danish fælagh (Danish fællig ).

Likewise, the suffix –ship is Anglo-Saxon:

Added to adjectives and past participles to denote the state or condition of being so-and-so. Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century; e.g. Old English árodscipe briskness, dolscipe folly, druncenscipe drunkenship n., drunkship n. (Middle English), glædscipe gladship n., gódscipe goodship n., láþscipe hardship, prútscipe pride, shendship n. (Middle English), snelscipe boldness, wildship n. (Middle English), wódscipe madness. The only survivals of this formation now in common use are hardship n. (first in Ancren Riwle), and worship n. (Old English weorþscipe).

But fellowship as an entire word, according to OED, doesn’t show up till the 1200s, that is, about a century before Chaucer.

In his book The Idea of the Holy (1917), German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) lists fellowship as one of three types of spiritual silence:

Devotional Silence may have a threefold character. There is the numinous silence of Sacrament, the silence of Waiting, and the silence of Union or Fellowship.

(Das Heilige. Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational) (1917), trans. John W. Harvey, (Oxford UP, 1923), p. 216)

Otto here admits that he found these ideas in the works of George Fox (1621–1691), founder of the Quakers, who formally call themselves The Society of Friends—that is, literally an organization devoted to fellowship. And the silence in fellowship that Otto mentions is what Mrs. Mia Wallace was trying to explain to Vincent Vega oh-so-many years ago:

In the Prologue to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954), one finds a casual, cozy fellowship:

‘How Old Toby came by the plant is not recorded, for to his dying day he would not tell. He knew much about herbs, but he was no traveller. It is said that in his youth he went often to Bree, though he certainly never went further from the Shire than that. It is thus quite possible that he learned of this plant in Bree, where now, at any rate, it grows well on the south slopes of the hill. The Bree-hobbits claim to have been the first actual smokers of the pipe-weed. They claim, of course, to have done everything before the people of the Shire, whom they refer to as “colonists”; but in this case their claim is, I think, likely to be true. And certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine weed spread in the recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers, as still passed to and fro through tat ancient road-meeting. The home and centre of the art is thus to be found in the old inn of Bree, The Prancing Pony, that has been kept by the family of Butterbur from time beyond record.’

Though the word fellowship isn’t used in this particular passage, the idea of it bleeds over from writer to reader, for fellowship is a prominent theme in Tolkien’s very big book.

And I find a deeper, more formal fellowship than that above in both the Nine adventurers who constitute the Fellowship of the Ring, as well as between reader and writer, such as when Gandalf (but let us imagine author-professor Tolkien speaking in his stead), explains the fellowship-like task of the writer, (in this case, a historian):

And Gandalf said: ‘This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Gandalf-Tolkien goes on to explain that the task of the reader, with regard to fellowship with the writer, is to be a sapling (for the writer is a planter):

And Gandalf coming looked at it, and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telpherion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake.  Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Nor is fellowship limited to the realm of readers and writers. Fellowship can extend to religion, as Walter Kaufman (1921–1980) once pointed out, for fellowship is meant to counter loneliness:

Religions do not so much offer truths as a common language in which to express truths as well as superstitions. Whitehead once said that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” This definition tells us more about the age in which it was written than about religion. Religion offers man a way out of his solitude. Even when it does not lure man into church or visible fellowship with others, religion offers man a language which makes real loneliness impossible. The language of religion may be ritual, prayer, or an idiom based on Scripture: the man who speaks this language breaks out of the solitary confinement of his mute emotions, transcends the isolation of his boredom or despair, and becomes part of a community. He belongs.

(Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958), p. 350)

And fellowship may even extend to nationhood:

Justice Felix Frankfurter spoke of the need “to shed old loyalties and take on the loyalty of American citizenship,” which is a kind of “fellowship which binds people together by devotion to certain feelings and ideas and ideals summarized as a requirement that they be attached to the principles of the constitution.”

(Benjamin R. Barber, “Constitutional Faith,” For Love of Country? ed. Martha Nussbaum, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; ed. Joshua Cohen, 2002), p. 32)

Is There Any Wisdom in Laughter? One Last Crumb from a What was Once a Work in Progress

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Here is a final crumb removed from what was once a work in progress, but is now a work needing but a final polish before being ready to be submitted. Just one more darling killed and culled and cut from the final draft:

Common sense says it’s often wise to remain silent, but is there any wisdom in laughter? Augustine of Africa mocked the legend of how, instead of crying, the infant Zoroaster of Persia laughed at the moment of his own birth (Confessions 21:16). “It is taught,” moreover, says the Talmud (Kethuboth 103b), that “if one dies laughing, it is a good sign for him.”* Socrates, before drinking deadly hemlock, made some around him cry, others laugh––though Socrates himself refrained from doing either. And though the Talmudic and Socratic approaches seem more akin to Chad’s style, one does suspect he too was the kind of child who would’ve laughed at the moment of his own birth.

*Quoting Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958; 1978) p. 281.

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Hiding Out In the Open

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Hiding Out In the Open

From the always wonderful Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980):

“Does one not write books precisely to conceal what one harbors? …. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy.”

–Discovering the Mind Vol. II – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber,
(New York: McGraw Hill, 1981) 153–54, 161

Ero: all pornography conceals sexuality.

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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:

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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]

NOTES

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[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.

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

COMMUNITY AND THE LACK OF ORIGINALITY
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

A post shared by Rich Pellegrino (@dustyatticrarebooks) on

NOTES

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[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

book spines

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

Books I probably should’ve already read a long time ago but somehow hadn’t: For this category, I call it a tie between the Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) Study in Scarlet (1887), which introduces the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897), which was certainly not the first book that introduced the world to vampires, but a staple of twentieth-century popular culture in the West nonetheless.

Best autobiography: ‘Tis Herself (2004) by actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015)––someone whose tough spirit, terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the classic Hollywood era, and her proud (but also modest) part in promoting Irish independence made the telling of her own life stand out when compared to some other autobiographies I read this year, such as those by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014) was a powerful telling of justice (and its opposite) occurring in Central Texas, and was a close second behind Miss O’Hara.

Most useful book of the year: Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Allan Jacobs’ How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) is a book I will be keeping within reach and often returning to, much like H. W. Fowler’s (1858–1933) Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, 1965), or University of Texas English professor emeritus John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Jacobs’ book can, at times, be just as casual and amusing as Fowler can, but Jacobs is especially good at taking personal anecdotes and demonstrating that he has already applied to his own life the lessons he’s now trying to impart to readers in this book. All authors should be so self-applicable.

Most anticipated book of the year: this would be Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Dreher is a prolific blogger at The American Conservative, someone whom I’ve read weekly (if not daily) for the past 4–5 years. Like my observation of Jacobs, Dreher is also especially good at taking his own life situations and applying them to whatever it is he’s writing about. The Benedict Option, however, is a departure from Dreher’s typically personal style of writing. It is much more theoretical than his previous books, much more detached than even his particular blog posts on the Benedict Option that led up to him writing the present book. Dreher’s book is certainly not an indictment of the present-day United States, though it may be a lamentation.

2017 as the year for reading history: In the Benedict Option Dreher writes:

I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare (p. 154).

I recognize some of this as being true for me as well, particularly with respect to history. So this year I got through Herodotus’ (~484–425 BC) Histories, Thucydides’ (460–400 BC) History of the Peloponnesian War, and Livy’s (~64– ~17 AD) History of Rome (books I–X, XXI–XXX). I will say reading these have already helped me find things to write about and get published as I did this year with my essays “Custom Versus Culture: a Modest Distinction” by Real Clear News of Chicago and “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas” in The Fortnightly Review of London.

Best reread of the year: former professor of philosophy at Princeton, Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958, 1972) is a tour de force spanning all across the humanities. I found it much more difficult reading the second time, probably because I forced myself to read it at a much slower pace than I did about 5 years ago. I’m a better reader now than I was then, but there’re parts to Kaufmann’s Critique that still seem to slag, particularly the digressions on Aquinas and Niebuhr.

Most difficult book of the year: Certainly the winner of this category belongs to the Max Weber (1864–1920) anthology, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1945), trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958)––a long book with a long biographical introduction to Weber––a book that requires many notes to be taken, reread, and thoroughly pondered before proceeding further. It was Charles Taylor’s titanic A Secular Age (2007) that turned me on to this collection of Weber’s work. I started Taylor in about June, and probably won’t finish until this time next year.

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

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An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

A metaphor is just a particular tool for mythmaking, and as C. S. Lewis points out, there are two ways in which we use metaphor: one for teachers, another for students. When a metaphor starts with a teacher attempting to teach a student, the teacher is free to choose the metaphor because the teacher already knows the meaning behind it. Here, one might say the teacher’s myth is certain. It is either true or false, and can be proven to be one or the other, because the teacher, by definition, knows the meaning of what he teaches and can, therefore, provide the evidence of the meaning behind the myth that would necessarily make it certain. [1]

On the other hand, as Descartes observed, “One cannot so well seize a thing and make it one’s own, when it has been learned from another, [but] as when one has himself discovered it.” In a state when learning has decreased, as when the teacher is unavailable or inaccessible to the student, or when communication overrules conversation, the student, suffering confusion, is left in Lewis’s words, “to the mercy of the metaphor.” She must make her a myth on her own. But the student’s metaphor is never true or false. No matter how true it “feels” it cannot be made certain. For when the student creates an original metaphor, she is bound by her subjective certainty and is not free to choose it the way the teacher did. She thinks and feels, and indeed may know it to be an appropriate metaphor but is probably unable to explain why. [2]

Metaphors are fine; but they need to be labeled says Gregory Bateson:

The conceptual models of cybernetics and the energy theories of psychoanalysis are, after all, only labeled metaphors. The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals.

That is to say, he must live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communicational habits will be in some sense appropriate. The hypothesis which we offer is that sequences of this kind in the external experience of the patient are responsible for the inner conflicts of Logical Typing. For such unresolvable sequences of experiences, we use the term “double bind….”

Among human beings we meet with a strange phenomenon—the unconscious falsification of these signals. This may occur within the self—the subject may conceal from himself his own real hostility under the guise of metaphoric play—or it may occur as an unconscious falsification of the subject’s understanding of the other person’s mode-identifying signals. He may mistake shyness for contempt, and so on. Indeed, most of the errors of self-reference fall under this head…. He may learn to learn.[3]

Compare Wittgenstein’s Investigations: we concurrently play two different games with the same word at the same time:

It can never indicate the common characteristic of two objects that we symbolize them with the same signs but by different methods of symbolizing. For the sign is arbitrary. We could therefore equally well choose two different signs and where then would be what was common in the symbolization.[4]

NOTES

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[1]. C. S. Lewis. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). Quoted from Max Black, ed., The Importance of Language, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 39–40.

[2] René Descartes, Discours de la Methode, § VI. For the differences in “belief” versus “certainty” versus “truth,” see: Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, (New York, NY: Viking, 1976) 108; Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 112–13; Plato, Meno 79C–81A, 85C–86E; John Searle, “Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society, (October 2008): 443–59 at 445.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” (1956) in Theories of Schizophrenia, eds. Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss, (New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1969) 132, 130–31.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden, (1921) 3.322.

The Limits of Limiting Ourselves

pencil shavingsThe Limits of Limiting Ourselves

No, I can’t hope to embrace the whole world in my verses,
no not though I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
and a voice made of iron. Be with me, sail down the coastline––
land lies in sight. Nor shall I hold you back with improptu
songs, untoward wandering, and windy introductions.

–Virgil, Georgics II, 41­-46. Translated by Janet Lembke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP. 2005.

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Suffice it now to say that [G.E.] Moore attacked the fog that secondhand Hegelians had spread over the British universities. A therapeutic effort was unquestionably called for; but the cure of a disease should not be taken for a panacea, let alone salvation. The limits of its [analytic philosophy’s] applicability should be recognized.

–Walter Kaufmann. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1958. p. 26.

wood

Economy and constraint are companion concepts, for the more highly constrained a system of multiple elements, the more economically it may be described and understood.

–Philip Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (Originally published in David E. Apter, ed. Ideology and Its Discontents. NY: The Free Press of Glencoe. 1964. Republished in Critical Review. Vol. 18. No. 1-3. (2006). pp. 1-–4 at 11–12.)