Brain Pickings

Hegel on Knowledge, Impatience, the Peril of Fixed Opinions, and the True Task of the Human Mind

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“Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there.”

I frequently lament a particularly prevalent pathology of our time — our extreme impatience with the dynamic process of attaining knowledge and transmuting it into wisdom. We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it — and so we reach for simulacra that compress complex ideas into listicles and two-minute animated explainers.

Two centuries before our era of informational impatience, the great German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (August 27, 1770–November 14, 1831), who influenced such fertile minds as Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir, addressed the elements of this pathology in a section of his masterwork The Phenomenology of Mind (public library).

Hegel writes:

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind … cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book. Click image for more.

Our mistaken conception of knowledge as a static object is also the root of our perilous self-righteousness and the tyranny of opinions. (“When you come right down to it,” Borges observed, “opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”) Knowledge, Hegel argues, isn’t a matter of owning a truth by making it familiar and then asserting its ideal presentation, but quite the opposite — an eternal tango with the unfamiliar:

The form of an ideal presentation … is something familiar to us, something “well-known,’ something which the existent mind has finished and done with, and hence takes no more to do with and no further interest in. While [this] is itself merely the process of the particular mind, of mind which is not comprehending itself, on the other hand, knowledge is directed against this ideal presentation which has hereby arisen, against this “being familiar” and “well-known;” it is an action of universal mind, the concern of thought.

What is “familiarly known” is not properly known, just for the reason that it is “familiar.” When engaged in the process of knowledge, it is the commonest form of self-deception, and a deception of other people as well, to assume something to be familiar, to give assent to it on that very account.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Errol Morris’s magnificent New York Times essay series on the anosognostic’s dilemma, Hegel adds:

Knowledge of that sort, with all its talk, never gets from the spot but has no idea that this is the case. Subject and object, and so on, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are uncritically presupposed as familiar and something valid, and become fixed points from which to start and to which to return. The process of knowing flits between these secure points, and in consequence goes merely along the surface. Apprehending and proving consist similarly in seeing whether everyone finds what is said corresponding to his idea too, whether it is familiar and seems to him so and so or not.

True understanding, Hegel argues, requires that we demolish the familiar, overcome what psychologists have since termed the “backfire effect,” and cease clinging to the fixed points of our opinions:

The force of Understanding [is] the most astonishing and great of all powers, or rather the absolute power.

[…]

The life of the mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder.

The Phenomenology of Mind remains one of the most mind-stretching treatises ever written. Complement this particular passage with E.F. Schumacher on the art of adaequatio and how we now what we know and Hannah Arendt, who was heavily influenced by Hegel, on the life of the mind.

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Amanda Palmer’s Extraordinary BBC Open Letter on the Choice to Have a Child as a Working Artist

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“We’re artists — not art factories.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández wrote in her devastatingly beautiful meditation on being an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth … will also become the raw material for the art you make.” And yet we continue clinging to limiting ideas about what it means to be an artist. Our bipolar culture renders the choice not to have children a controversial act of courage while at the same time pitting parenthood against other aspects of personhood, including the identity of being a creative warrior, and insisting that there is an inescapable tradeoff.

In April of 2015, musician Amanda Palmer received a letter from a self-proclaimed “fan” affirming one of every artist’s worst nightmares — the “fan,” also a woman, argued that Palmer’s newly announced pregnancy would be to the grave detriment of her art; that, what’s more, it was a form of perpetrating fraud on her fanbase by accepting Patreon micro-patronage (I myself am a proud supporter) for art bound to devolve into motherly mediocrity. The “fan” seemed unaware that the history of creative culture is strewn with brilliant women who had children without compromising their genius — from Susan Sontag, who entered motherhood at the age of nineteen and went on to become one of the greatest intellectual titans of the twentieth century, to Patti Smith, who became a mother at forty-one and has continued to bestow her brilliant badassery upon the world in the decades since, often performing with her daughter.

At a live recording of BBC’s excellent Four Thought, Palmer addressed the “fan” in a vulnerable, courageous, and unflinchingly loving open letter that speaks to the mire of cultural complexities in reconciling one’s new identity as a parent with one’s lifelong identity as a working artist.

When you’re a crowdfunding artist, it shouldn’t matter what your choices are — as long as you’re delivering your side of the bargain: the art, the music. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re spending money on guitar picks, rent, printer paper, diapers, college loans, or the special brand of organic absinthe you use to find your late-night muse — as long as art is making it out the other side and making your patrons happy.

We’re artists — not art factories. The money we need to live is often indistinguishable from the money we need to make art.

[…]

I’m just about to jump into this net that I’m praying will appear to catch me, my art, and this baby — all at the same time.

A full transcript of the reading can be found here. Join me in weaving that art-affirming, life-affirming net under Amanda by supporting her on Patreon — the payoff is reliably magical.

For a complement and a counterpoint, see some equally courageous perspectives on the choice not to have children, then revisit Amanda’s suddenly triply poignant reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” and her fierce performance art piece for the New York Public Library’s children’s book donation drive.

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Willa Cather on Happiness: A Soulful and Deeply Alive Account of True Bliss

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“That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

The history of recorded thought it strewn with evidence that happiness lives in the most ordinary of moments. And yet no matter how universal a human aspiration it may be, articulating happiness in those rare moments when it is perfectly attained remains an elusive art. For Albert Camus, it was a moral obligation; for Mary Oliver, a kind of seizure; for Kurt Vonnegut, a sense of enoughness. But nowhere have I encountered an account of happiness more soulful and deeply alive than in a passage from Willa Cather’s first masterwork, the 1918 novel My Ántonia (public library) — the story of a spirited pioneer named Ántonia Shimerda, who settles as in Nebraska as a child and grows with the land, told through the loving and wakeful eyes of her childhood friend Jim Burden.

In this passage, Cather’s narrator is lying in his grandmother’s garden, drowsy and drunk with life under the warm autumn sun:

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

The truth and beauty of this vignette never left the soul from which it sprang. Cather requested that her grave site, which she shared with her partner, bear the inscription: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

Photograph by Richard Schlecht

Complement with Cather’s moving letter to her brother about keeping one’s decency through difficult times and her only surviving letter to her partner, Edith Lewis, then revisit Gaston Bachelard on reverie and happiness.

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Mad About Monkeys: A Loving Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weird and Wonderful Kindred Creatures

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A captivating primer on our fellow primates, from belligerent baboons to brilliant macaques.

We share this planet we call home with an astonishing array of equally astonishing creatures. But, perhaps because we judge everything by our solipsistic human criteria, few elicit our admiring fascination more potently than monkeys — our fellow primates, which evolved some 35 million years ago; we share with them a distant common ancestor, from which we diverged on our separate evolutionary paths. (But, contrary to a common misconception, we did not evolve from monkeys.)

In Mad About Monkeys (public library), a wonderful addition to the best children’s books celebrating science, British illustrator Owen Davey presents a stunning and richly informative primer on these marvelous primates.

However wildly different the 260 known species of monkeys may be from one another and from us, we continue to share surprising commonality with these distant cousins — from our highly networked societies to our capacity for play, that peculiar activity serving no other purpose than providing pleasure and delight.

Davey traces how their evolutionary history set monkeys apart from gibbons, lemurs, and chimpanzees — lest we forget, Jane Goodall has spent a good chunk of her career patiently debunking the popular misconception that chimps are monkeys — and how monkeys migrated from Africa to Asia to North America to develop into the distinctly different Old World and New World classes.

With art that calls to mind Charley Harper and the golden age of mid-century children’s book illustration, Davey explores the glorious diversity of these weird and wonderful creatures, their sophisticated social life, and their elaborate communication style — from West Africa’s Diana monkeys, which send sentence-like messages to each other by combining a variety of call sounds, to Ethiopia’s geladas, which broadcast their reproductive readiness via the brightness of a skin patch on the female’s chest, to South and Central America’s howler monkeys, which are among Earth’s most vocal animals and have the loudest call of any primate.

Davey spotlights a few fascinating record-holders, including a Rhesus Macaque named Albert, who became the first primate to fly in space in June of 1949, more than a decade before the first human primate, and the Bearded Emperor Tamarin, which puts all of Williamsburg to shame and uncontestedly earns the title of Earth’s “best facial hair.”

From mythology to ecology, Davey explores both the role of monkeys in human culture and humanity’s responsibility toward them — the book’s final pages take a sobering look at the detrimental effects of deforestation on monkey habitats and explore what we can do, as individuals and as a civilization, to protect these remarkable but vulnerable kindred creatures.

Mad About Monkeys comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such treasures as the illustrated biography of Shackleton, Emily Hughes’s marvelous The Little Gardener and Wild, the imaginative encyclopedia Monsters & Legends, and the cosmic primer Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For an illustrated love letter to another magnificent mammal, see Jenni Desmond’s The Blue Whale.

Illustrations courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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