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18 AUGUST, 2014

How We Think: John Dewey on the Art of Reflection and Fruitful Curiosity in an Age of Instant Opinions and Information Overload

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“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.”

Decades before Carl Sagan published his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, the great philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey penned the definitive treatise on the subject — a subject all the more urgently relevant today, in our age of snap judgments and instant opinions. In his 1910 masterwork How We Think (free download; public library), Dewey examines what separates thinking, a basic human faculty we take for granted, from thinking well, what it takes to train ourselves into mastering the art of thinking, and how we can channel our natural curiosity in a productive way when confronted with an overflow of information.

Dewey begins with the foundation of reflective thought, the defining quality of the fruitful, creative mind:

More of our waking life than we should care to admit, even to ourselves, is likely to be whiled away in this inconsequential trifling with idle fancy and unsubstantial hope…

Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something — technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

Thought, Dewey notes, also denotes belief, which he defines as “real or supposed knowledge going beyond what is directly present,” which is “marked by acceptance or rejection of something as reasonably probable or improbable.” But that process of acceptance or rejection is also where we brush up against one of the most quintessential human flaws, the same one responsible for the “backfire effect” — our tendency to construct our beliefs based on insufficient knowledge and understanding, then to cling to them blindly, rejecting all evidence to the opposite. Stereotypes and prejudice are among the products of such thinking. In that sense, our “thoughts” are not based on true reflection but on crippling cognitive shortcuts, often borrowed from society rather than arrived at by our own cerebration. Dewey writes:

Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. They are picked up — we know not how. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. Tradition, instruction, imitation — all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion — are responsible for them. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.

To truly think, Dewey argues, we ought to consider not only the origin of our beliefs but also how they affect our actions, which they inevitably do:

Thinking in its best sense is that which considers the basis and consequences of beliefs…

To think of the world as flat is to ascribe a quality to a real thing as its real property. This conclusion denotes a connection among things and hence is not, like imaginative thought, plastic to our mood. Belief in the world’s flatness commits him who holds it to thinking in certain specific ways of other objects, such as the heavenly bodies, antipodes, the possibility of navigation. It prescribes to him actions in accordance with his conception of these objects.

Dewey defines reflective thought, our single most potent antidote to erroneous beliefs:

Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.

This basis of reasons, Dewey argues, is a relational framework for how different bits of knowledge connect to and validate one another. To think well is to construct fruitful linkages:

[The] function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, [is] the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking… Reflection thus implies that something is believed in (or disbelieved in), not on its own direct account, but through something else which stands as witness, evidence, proof, voucher, warrant; that is, as ground of belief.

What follows naturally from this is the idea that to think is also to embrace uncertainty and harness the power of not-knowing:

Thinking … is defined accordingly as that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce belief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former. We do not put beliefs that rest simply on inference on the surest level of assurance. To say “I think so” implies that I do not as yet know so. The inferential belief may later be confirmed and come to stand as sure, but in itself it always has a certain element of supposition…

[There are] certain subprocesses which are involved in every reflective operation. These are: (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or to nullify the suggested belief.

Much like getting lost helps us find ourselves, being uncertain drives us to reflect, to seek knowledge. The spark of thinking, Dewey argues, is a kind of psychological restlessness rooted in ambiguity — what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability” — which precipitates our effort to resolve the unease by coming to, by way of reflection and deliberation, a conclusion:

Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another…

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection… This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

This is where the art of critical thinking becomes crucial. Like the scientist, whose chief responsibility is always to remain uncertain, so the thinker must cultivate a capacity for not only welcoming but seeking out doubt:

If the suggestion that occurs is at once accepted, we have uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection. To turn the thing over in mind, to reflect, means to hunt for additional evidence, for new data, that will develop the suggestion, and will either, as we say, bear it out or else make obvious its absurdity and irrelevance… The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful… To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

Just as importantly, Dewey argues, reflective thought acts as an antidote to autopilot — it “affords the sole method of escape from purely impulsive or purely routine action.” But like the use of any tool, thinking “may go wrong as well as right, and hence … needs safeguarding and training.” Dewey admonishes against the assumption that one’s intelligence prevents the operation from going wrong — if anything, the relationship between creativity and dishonesty suggests that the most intelligent people are often those most deft at rationalizing their erroneous beliefs and the resulting behaviors. Dewey writes:

Natural intelligence is no barrier to the propagation of error, nor large but untrained experience to the accumulation of fixed false beliefs. Errors may support one another mutually and weave an ever larger and firmer fabric of misconception.

Perhaps the greatest gift of thought, Dewey notes, is that it allows us to imagine things not yet experienced, based on what we know in and about the present — it grants us the power of “systematized foresight,” which enables us to “act on the basis of the absent and the future.” And yet therein lies one of the most perilous potential pitfalls, as well as the greatest potentiality of learning the art of reflective thought:

The process of reaching the absent from the present is peculiarly exposed to error; it is liable to be influenced by almost any number of unseen and unconsidered causes — past experience, received dogmas, the stirring of self-interest, the arousing of passion, sheer mental laziness, a social environment steeped in biased traditions or animated by false expectations, and so on. The exercise of thought is, in the literal sense of that word, inference; by it one thing carries us over to the idea of, and belief in, another thing. It involves a jump, a leap, a going beyond what is surely known to something else accepted on its warrant. Unless one is an idiot, one simply cannot help having all things and events suggest other things not actually present, nor can one help a tendency to believe in the latter on the basis of the former. The very inevitableness of the jump, the leap, to something unknown, only emphasizes the necessity of attention to the conditions under which it occurs so that the danger of a false step may be lessened and the probability of a right landing increased.

Paying attention, essentially, means understanding the context in which an idea occurs and the conditions under which it is given credence — in other words, knowing why we believe what we believe. That, Dewey argues, is a function of critical thinking, the result of which is proof — something without which we can’t be certain that what we believe is true:

To prove a thing means primarily to try, to test it… Not until a thing has been tried — “tried out,” in colloquial language — do we know its true worth. Till then it may be pretense, a bluff. But the thing that has come out victorious in a test or trial of strength carries its credentials with it; it is approved, because it has been proved.

(How brilliantly this applies not only to the pursuit of capital-T truth, but also to the basic fabric of our wants and desires — so often we dismiss something as unworthy without having tried it out. To dismiss experiences and ideas in that way is, then, a profound failure of reflective thinking and of our highest human potentiality.)

In testing our inferences, Dewey argues, it’s crucial to discriminate between “beliefs that rest upon tested evidence and those that do not” and to be mindful of “the kind and degree of assent yielded,” both of which require a rich library of knowledge and experience against which to test our beliefs.

This notion strikes with particular resonance: I founded Brain Pickings around the concept of combinatorial creativity, the idea that our capacity to create — which is, essentially, a function of fruitful thinking — is predicated on a vast and diverse pool of insights, impressions, influences, and other mental resources.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

Dewey captures this elegantly in considering “the factors essential to thought”:

Thinking involves … the suggestion of a conclusion for acceptance, and also search or inquiry to test the value of the suggestion before finally accepting it. This implies (a) a certain fund or store of experiences and facts from which suggestions proceed; (b) promptness, flexibility, and fertility of suggestions; and (c) orderliness, consecutiveness, appropriateness in what is suggested. Clearly, a person may be hampered in any of these three regards: His thinking may be irrelevant, narrow, or crude because he has not enough actual material upon which to base conclusions; or because concrete facts and raw material, even if extensive and bulky, fail to evoke suggestions easily and richly; or finally, because, even when these two conditions are fulfilled, the ideas suggested are incoherent and fantastic, rather than pertinent and consistent.

We stock our “store of experiences and facts” via one of the greatest human faculties — our inherent curiosity, a “desire for the fullness of experience”:

The most vital and significant factor in supplying the primary material whence suggestion may issue is, without doubt, curiosity… The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.

Dewey explores curiosity at its most natural and uncontaminated — in the child’s mind. Children not only offer a model for fruitful risk-taking and overcoming the fear of failure, but their boundless curiosity, he argues, is precisely what we need to reawaken in ourselves in seeking to cultivate fertile thought:

In its first manifestations, curiosity is a vital overflow, an expression of an abundant organic energy. A physiological uneasiness leads a child to be “into everything” — to be reaching, poking, pounding, prying… The most casual notice of the activities of a young child reveals a ceaseless display of exploring and testing activity. Objects are sucked, fingered, and thumped; drawn and pushed, handled and thrown; in short, experimented with, till they cease to yield new qualities. Such activities are hardly intellectual, and yet without them intellectual activity would be feeble and intermittent through lack of stuff for its operations.

From this springs the next developmental stage, the what/why phase that often exasperates parents and teachers but provides the foundation for critical thinking:

A higher stage of curiosity develops under the influence of social stimuli. When the child learns that he can appeal to others to eke out his store of experiences, so that, if objects fail to respond interestingly to his experiments, he may call upon persons to provide interesting material, a new epoch sets in. “What is that?” “Why?” become the unfailing signs of a child’s presence… Yet there is more than a desire to accumulate just information or heap up disconnected items, although sometimes the interrogating habit threatens to degenerate into a mere disease of language. In the feeling, however dim, that the facts which directly meet the senses are not the whole story, that there is more behind them and more to come from them, lies the germ of intellectual curiosity.

Curiosity rises above the organic and the social planes and becomes intellectual in the degree in which it is transformed into interest in problems provoked by the observation of things and the accumulation of material. When the question is not discharged by being asked of another, when the child continues to entertain it in his own mind and to be alert for whatever will help answer it, curiosity has become a positive intellectual force. To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.

Once again, Dewey reminds us that this unique human gift is predicated on our fragile willingness to befriend uncertainty and welcome the unknown — something most of us relinquish by mid-life. Lamenting the ease with which “the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood” is lost, Dewey writes:

If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity. This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.

In a sidebar comment on the notion of dullness, he considers the very metaphors we use for the quality of the mind in a rather lyrical passage:

The common classification of persons into the dull and the bright is made primarily on the basis of the readiness or facility with which suggestions follow upon the presentation of objects and upon the happening of events. As the metaphor of dull and bright implies, some minds are impervious, or else they absorb passively. Everything presented is lost in a drab monotony that gives nothing back. But others reflect, or give back in varied lights, all that strikes upon them. The dull make no response; the bright flash back the fact with a changed quality.

But Dewey’s most prescient point has to do with how information overload — a malady undoubtedly far worse today than it was in 1910, yet one each era bemoans by its own terms — muddles the clarity of our view, hindering our ability to think critically and reflectively:

So many suggestions may rise that the person is at a loss to select among them. He finds it difficult to reach any definite conclusion and wanders more or less helplessly among them… There is such a thing as too much thinking, as when action is paralyzed by the multiplicity of views suggested by a situation… The very number of suggestions may be hostile to tracing logical sequences among them, for it may tempt the mind away from the necessary but trying task of search for real connections, into the more congenial occupation of embroidering upon the given facts a tissue of agreeable fancies. The best mental habit involves a balance between paucity and redundancy of suggestions.

In today’s culture of exponentially growing “multiplicity of views,” Dewey’s admonition exposes with great urgency both meanings of critical in “critical thinking.” (Thirty-five years later, in 1945, Vannevar Bush would propose a complementary solution to the predicament by predicting the emergence of “a new profession of trail blazers” — essentially, knowledge sherpas who “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”)

For Dewey, the solution was in large part a matter of depth — how deep we are willing to penetrate the bottomless pit of information. It is our capacity for depth that determines the richness and fruitfulness of our thought — something of equally urgent importance today, when the information web is dominated by bite-sized opinion riffs and “How Cat Are You?” quizzes. Deep-diving, according to Dewey, is something that can and should be taught:

One man’s thought is profound while another’s is superficial; one goes to the roots of the matter, and another touches lightly its most external aspects. This phase of thinking is perhaps the most untaught of all, and the least amenable to external influence whether for improvement or harm. Nevertheless, the conditions of the [person's] contact with subject-matter may be such that he is compelled to come to quarters with its more significant features, or such that he is encouraged to deal with it upon the basis of what is trivial. The common assumptions that, if the [person] only thinks, one thought is just as good for his mental discipline as another, and that the end of study is the amassing of information, both tend to foster superficial, at the expense of significant, thought.

Even more important, in our era of snap-judgments and instant opinions, is Dewey’s point about the slowness and deliberative contemplation inherent to such deep thought:

Sometimes slowness and depth of response are intimately connected. Time is required in order to digest impressions, and translate them into substantial ideas. “Brightness” may be but a flash in the pan. The “slow but sure” person … is one in whom impressions sink and accumulate, so that thinking is done at a deeper level of value than with a slighter load… The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows.

Ultimately, Dewey argues that thinking is predicated on mapping out the interaction of information and on an intentional organization of knowledge — something that requires a comfort with uncertainty, a systematic curiosity that stocks the mental store of ideas, and a willingness for depth and slowness:

Thinking [is] not a machine-like, ready-made apparatus to be turned indifferently and at will upon all subjects, as a lantern may throw its light as it happens upon horses, streets, gardens, trees, or river. Thinking is specific, in that different things suggest their own appropriate meanings, tell their own unique stories, and in that they do this in very different ways with different persons. As the growth of the body is through the assimilation of food, so the growth of mind is through the logical organization of subject-matter. Thinking is not like a sausage machine which reduces all materials indifferently to one marketable commodity, but is a power of following up and linking together the specific suggestions that specific things arouse.

[...]

Facts, whether narrow or extensive, and conclusions suggested by them, whether many or few, do not constitute, even when combined, reflective thought. The suggestions must be organized; they must be arranged with reference to one another and with reference to the facts on which they depend for proof. When the factors of facility, of fertility, and of depth are properly balanced or proportioned, we get as the outcome continuity of thought. We desire neither the slow mind nor yet the hasty. We wish neither random diffuseness nor fixed rigidity. Consecutiveness means flexibility and variety of materials, conjoined with singleness and definiteness of direction.

And yet, he is careful to point out, it is not a black-and-white matter of tuning out distraction and pursuing absolute concentration — that, in fact, is the very mechanism by which we confine ourselves to our existing beliefs, never leaving our comfort zone of knowledge and opinion. Good thinking, he argues, embraces contradiction rather than shunning it:

Concentration does not mean fixity, nor a cramped arrest or paralysis of the flow of suggestion. It means variety and change of ideas combined into a single steady trend moving toward a unified conclusion. Thoughts are concentrated not by being kept still and quiescent, but by being kept moving toward an object, as a general concentrates his troops for attack or defense. Holding the mind to a subject is like holding a ship to its course; it implies constant change of place combined with unity of direction. Consistent and orderly thinking is precisely such a change of subject-matter. Consistency is no more the mere absence of contradiction than concentration is the mere absence of diversion — which exists in dull routine or in a person “fast asleep.” All kinds of varied and incompatible suggestions may sprout and be followed in their growth, and yet thinking be consistent and orderly, provided each one of the suggestions is viewed in relation to the main topic.

So why would we ever go through all that trouble in the first place, rather than sinking into our comfortable routine? Dewey argues that thinking arises from the need to action — something undoubtedly evidenced by the history of successful entrepreneurship, wherein many great inventions came from the inventor’s own need for something that didn’t yet exist in the world, be it the Polaroid camera, which Edwin Land dreamed up after his little daughter asked why she couldn’t see a photograph right after it was taken, or Instapaper, which Marco Arment built out of frustration with how hard it was to read web articles on the iPhone offline. Dewey writes:

Intellectual organization originates and for a time grows as an accompaniment of the organization of the acts required to realize an end, not as the result of a direct appeal to thinking power. The need of thinking to accomplish something beyond thinking is more potent than thinking for its own sake. All people at the outset, and the majority of people probably all their lives, attain ordering of thought through ordering of action.

How We Think is a magnificent read in its entirety, exploring everything from the defects and potential reform of the education system to how we can train ourselves to interpret facts and create meaning out of them. It is available as a free ebook.

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07 JULY, 2014

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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02 JUNE, 2014

Kandinsky on the Spiritual Element in Art and the Three Responsibilities of Artists

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“To harmonize the whole is the task of art.”

“Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit),” 31-year-old Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1964. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” wrote Alain de Botton half a century later in the excellent Art as Therapy. But perhaps the greatest meditation on how art serves the soul came more than a century earlier, in 1910, when legendary Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free download; public library) — an exploration of the deepest and most authentic motives for making art, the “internal necessity” that impels artists to create as a spiritual impulse and audiences to admire art as a spiritual hunger.

Kandinsky’s words, penned in the period between the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the consumer society, ring with remarkable poignancy today. He begins by considering art as a spiritual antidote to the values of materialism and introduces the notion of “stimmung,” an almost untranslatable concept best explained as the essential spirit of nature, echoing Tolstoy’s notion of emotional infectiousness as the true measure of art. Kandinsky writes:

[In great art] the spectator does feel a corresponding thrill in himself. Such harmony or even contrast of emotion cannot be superficial or worthless; indeed the Stimmung of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator. Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they “key it up,” so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Yellow, Red, Blue' (1925)

Bemoaning the tendency of the general public to reduce art to technique and skill, Kandinsky argues that its true purpose is entirely different and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist? … To harmonize the whole is the task of art.

And yet, Kandinsky admonishes, the notion of “art for art’s sake” produces a “neglect of inner meanings” — a lament perhaps even more “sad and ominous” in our age of consistent commodification of art as a thing to transact around — to purchase, to own, to display — rather than an experience to have. He writes:

The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.

He goes on to offer a visual metaphor for our spiritual experience and how it relates to the notion of genius:

The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.

The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment.

At the apex of the top segment stands often one man, and only one. His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman. So in his lifetime stood Beethoven, solitary and insulted.

[…]

In every segment of the triangle are artists. Each one of them who can see beyond the limits of his segment is a prophet to those about him, and helps the advance of the obstinate whole. But those who are blind, or those who retard the movement of the triangle for baser reasons, are fully understood by their fellows and acclaimed for their genius. The greater the segment (which is the same as saying the lower it lies in the triangle) so the greater the number who understand the words of the artist. Every segment hungers consciously or, much more often, unconsciously for their corresponding spiritual food. This food is offered by the artists, and for this food the segment immediately below will tomorrow be stretching out eager hands.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Composition VIII' (1923)

But he admonishes that our “spiritual food” should always be appropriately suited to the segment we belong to, else it becomes indigestible and even toxic:

Too often it happens that one level of spiritual food suffices for the nourishment of those who are already in a higher segment. But for them this food is poison; in small quantities it depresses their souls gradually into a lower segment; in large quantities it hurls them suddenly into the depths ever lower and lower. Sienkiewicz, in one of his novels, compares the spiritual life to swimming; for the man who does not strive tirelessly, who does not fight continually against sinking, will mentally and morally go under. In this strait a man’s talent (again in the biblical sense) becomes a curse—and not only the talent of the artist, but also of those who eat this poisoned food. The artist uses his strength to flatter his lower needs; in an ostensibly artistic form he presents what is impure, draws the weaker elements to him, mixes them with evil, betrays men and helps them to betray themselves, while they convince themselves and others that they are spiritually thirsty, and that from this pure spring they may quench their thirst. Such art does not help the forward movement, but hinders it, dragging back those who are striving to press onward, and spreading pestilence abroad.

But the most culturally toxic effect of all, Kandinsky argues, takes place in periods when “art has no noble champion” and “the true spiritual food is wanting.” It is then that we begin to mistake technical advances for spiritual growth and, dismissing the artists whom history would one day deem geniuses, we come to worship at false altars:

The solitary visionaries are despised or regarded as abnormal and eccentric. Those who are not wrapped in lethargy and who feel vague longings for spiritual life and knowledge and progress, cry in harsh chorus, without any to comfort them. The night of the spirit falls more and more darkly. Deeper becomes the misery of these blind and terrified guides, and their followers, tormented and unnerved by fear and doubt, prefer to this gradual darkening the final sudden leap into the blackness.

At such a time art ministers to lower needs, and is used for material ends. She seeks her substance in hard realities because she knows of nothing nobler… The artist in such times has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him)…

But despite all this confusion, this chaos, this wild hunt for notoriety, the spiritual triangle, slowly but surely, with irresistible strength, moves onwards and upwards.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Composition X' (1939)

He then turns to the spiritual essence of art and the artist’s responsibility in bringing it forth:

If the emotional power of the artist can overwhelm the “how?” and can give free scope to his finer feelings, then art is on the crest of the road by which she will not fail later on to find the “what” she has lost, the “what” which will show the way to the spiritual food of the newly awakened spiritual life. This “what?” will no longer be the material, objective “what” of the former period, but the internal truth of art, the soul without which the body (i.e. the “how”) can never be healthy, whether in an individual or in a whole people.

This “what” is the internal truth with only art can divine which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone.

Kandinsky considers art a kind of spiritual anchor when all other certitudes of life are unhinged by social and cultural upheaval:

When religion, science and morality are shaken … and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.

And yet despite this eternal spiritual element, he recognizes that all art is inescapably a product of its time. Examining the music of Wagner, Debussy, and Schoenberg — each celebrated as a genius in his own right — Kandinsky writes:

The various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble each other… The greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of this freedom, but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go. But the measure of freedom of each age must be constantly enlarged.

A key source of this enlargement, Kandinsky suggests, is the cross-pollination of the different arts, which inform and inspire one another:

The arts are encroaching one upon another, and from a proper use of this encroachment will rise the art that is truly monumental. Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Several Circles' (1926)

Kandinsky, who was greatly influenced by Goethe’s theory of the emotional effect of color and who was himself synesthetic, considers the powerful psychic effect of color in the cohesive spiritual experience of art:

Many colors have been described as rough or sticky, others as smooth and uniform, so that one feels inclined to stroke them (e.g., dark ultramarine, chromic oxide green, and rose madder). Equally the distinction between warm and cold colors belongs to this connection. Some colors appear soft (rose madder), others hard (cobalt green, blue-green oxide), so that even fresh from the tube they seem to be dry. The expression “scented colors” is frequently met with. And finally the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would try to express bright yellow in the bass notes, or dark lake in the treble…

Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

He later adds:

The spirit, like the body, can be strengthened and developed by frequent exercise. Just as the body, if neglected, grows weaker and finally impotent, so the spirit perishes if untended. And for this reason it is necessary for the artist to know the starting point for the exercise of his spirit.

Considering color and form the two weapons of painting, and defining form as “the outward expression of inner meaning,” Kandinsky examines their interplay in creating a spiritual effect:

This essential connection between color and form brings us to the question of the influences of form on color. Form alone, even though totally abstract and geometrical, has a power of inner suggestion. A triangle (without the accessory consideration of its being acute — or obtuse — angled or equilateral) has a spiritual value of its own. In connection with other forms, this value may be somewhat modified, but remains in quality the same. The case is similar with a circle, a square, or any conceivable geometrical figure [which has] a subjective substance in an objective shell…

The mutual influence of form and color now becomes clear. A yellow triangle, a blue circle, a green square, or a green triangle, a yellow circle, a blue square—all these are different and have different spiritual values.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Circles in a Circle' (1923)

In a footnote, he makes the case for the sensibility of minimalism:

Form often is most expressive when least coherent. It is often most expressive when outwardly most imperfect, perhaps only a stroke, a mere hint of outer meaning.

In considering the inherent aesthetic intelligence of nature, Kandinsky returns to his piano metaphor:

Every object has its own life and therefore its own appeal; man is continually subject to these appeals. But the results are often dubbed either sub- or super-conscious. Nature, that is to say the ever-changing surroundings of man, sets in vibration the strings of the piano (the soul) by manipulation of the keys (the various objects with their several appeals).

But perhaps his most poignant insight has to do with the expectations of art:

There is no “must” in art, because art is free.

Rather than a “must,” Kandinsky argues, art springs from an inner need, the psychological trifecta of which he itemizes:

The inner need is built up of three mystical elements:

  1. Every artist, as a creator, has something in him which calls for expression (this is the element of personality).
  2. Every artist, as child of his age, is impelled to express the spirit of his age (this is the element of style) — dictated by the period and particular country to which the artist belongs (it is doubtful how long the latter distinction will continue to exist).
  3. Every artist, as a servant of art, has to help the cause of art (this is the element of pure artistry, which is constant in all ages and among all nationalities).

A full understanding of the first two elements is necessary for a realization of the third.

Sharing in Schopenhauer’s skepticism about style, Kandinsky predicts that only the third element, “which knows neither period nor nationality,” accounts for the timeless in art:

In the past and even today much talk is heard of “personality” in art. Talk of the coming “style” becomes more frequent daily. But for all their importance today, these questions will have disappeared after a few hundred or thousand years.

Only the third element — that of pure artistry — will remain forever. An Egyptian carving speaks to us today more subtly than it did to its chronological contemporaries; for they judged it with the hampering knowledge of period and personality. But we can judge purely as an expression of the eternal artistry.

Similarly — the greater the part played in a modern work of art by the two elements of style and personality, the better will it be appreciated by people today; but a modern work of art which is full of the third element, will fail to reach the contemporary soul. For many centuries have to pass away before the third element can be received with understanding. But the artist in whose work this third element predominates is the really great artist.

[…]

It is clear, therefore, that the inner spirit of art only uses the outer form of any particular period as a stepping-stone to further expression.

In short, the working of the inner need and the development of art is an ever-advancing expression of the eternal and objective in the terms of the periodic and subjective.

Therefore, Kandinsky points out, the true artist gives credence only to that inner need, and not to the expectations and conventions of the time:

The artist must be blind to distinctions between “recognized” or “unrecognized” conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and hearken to its words alone. Then he will with safety employ means both sanctioned and forbidden by his contemporaries. All means are sacred which are called for by the inner need. All means are sinful which obscure that inner need.

This is also why theory invariably fails to capture the essential impulse of art. Kandinsky offers a beautiful, if inadvertent, disclaimer to his own theoretical treatise:

It is impossible to theorize about this ideal of art. In real art theory does not precede practice, but follows her. Everything is, at first, a matter of feeling. Any theoretical scheme will be lacking in the essential of creation — the inner desire for expression — which cannot be determined. Neither the quality of the inner need, nor its subjective form, can be measured nor weighed.

In another parenthetical, he considers the paradox of what we refer to as “beauty,” which is more of a theoretical agreement based on convention rather than a true spiritual response:

“Outer need” … never goes beyond conventional limits, nor produces other than conventional beauty. The “inner need” knows no such limits, and often produces results conventionally considered “ugly.” But “ugly” itself is a conventional term, and only means “spiritually unsympathetic,” being applied to some expression of an inner need, either outgrown or not yet attained. But everything which adequately expresses the inner need is beautiful.

[…]

That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.

In reflecting on the birthplace of art, he returns to the notion of creative freedom:

The work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way. From him it gains life and being. Nor is its existence casual and inconsequent, but it has a definite and purposeful strength, alike in its material and spiritual life. It exists and has power to create spiritual atmosphere; and from this inner standpoint one judges whether it is a good work of art or a bad one. If its “form” is bad it means that the form is too feeble in meaning to call forth corresponding vibrations of the soul… The artist is not only justified in using, but it is his duty to use only those forms which fulfill his own need… Such spiritual freedom is as necessary in art as it is in life.

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Decisive Pink' (1932)

He brings everything full-circle to the metaphor of the spiritual triangle, reexamining the essence of art and the core responsibility of the artist:

Art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul — to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle.

If art refrains from doing this work, a chasm remains unbridged, for no other power can take the place of art in this activity. And at times when the human soul is gaining greater strength, art will also grow in power, for the two are inextricably connected and complementary one to the other. Conversely, at those times when the soul tends to be choked by material disbelief, art becomes purposeless and talk is heard that art exists for art’s sake alone…

It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand. The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.

[…]

The artist is not born to a life of pleasure. He must not live idle; he has a hard work to perform, and one which often proves a cross to be borne. He must realize that his every deed, feeling, and thought are raw but sure material from which his work is to arise, that he is free in art but not in life.

The artist has a triple responsibility to the non-artists: (1) He must repay the talent which he has; (2) his deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere which is either pure or poisonous. (3) These deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations, which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a spectacular read in its entirety, is in the public domain and is thus available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on emotional infectiousness and Oscar Wilde on art, then revisit the 7 psychological functions of art.

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