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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

28 AUGUST, 2015

Happy Birthday, Goethe: The Beloved Poet on Beginner’s Mind and Choosing One’s Influences

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“One must be something in order to do something.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.

In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Eckermann writes in the introduction

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.

Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:

A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!

Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:

On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:

Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.

But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:

The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.

Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:

One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.

Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.

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27 AUGUST, 2015

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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24 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on the Paradox of Friendship and Separation

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“It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”

Friendship is one of life’s greatest graces, and yet we hardly understand the gossamer threads of sympathy and love by which it binds us together. C.S. Lewis likened it to philosophy, art, and the universe itself in that “it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Aristotle saw it as a mirror we hold up to one another. For Emerson, it was the product of truth and tenderness. John O’Donohue found its essence in the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara. For David Whyte, it is “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.”

One of the most profound meditations on friendship comes from French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a woman of immense insight on such complexities as how to make use of our suffering and what it takes to be a complete human being.

In the indispensable Gravity and Grace (public library) — which also gave us Weil on attention as a form of prayer — she writes:

It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.

[…]

To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).

[…]

Friendship cannot be separated from reality any more than the beautiful. It is a miracle, like the beautiful. And the miracle consists simply in the fact that it exists.

In keeping with this Zen-like notion, Weil argues that the sympathetic communion of friendship is a complement, not a counterpoint, to our essential capacity for solitude:

Keep your solitude… When you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.

But Weil’s most striking stance of friendship bridged the philosophical with the practical — the very survival of her ideas is the direct product of friendship.

In June of 1941, when the antisemitic laws of the Nazi administration barred her from teaching philosophy at the University, Weil decided to work on a farm in the country for the same reason she had labored incognito at a car factory some years earlier — to better understand the human experience and its most trying dimensions. A friend of Weil’s introduced her to a farmer named Gustave Thibon, six years her senior, who she hoped would take her on as a worker. (“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote just a few years later.)

Gustave Thibon

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon — who eventually became a philosopher himself and lived to be ninety-seven, outliving Weil by nearly six decades — recounts his initial skepticism:

I am a little suspicious of graduates in philosophy, and so for intellectuals who want to return to the land, I am well enough acquainted with them to know that, with a few rare exceptions, they belong to that order of ranks whose undertakings generally come to a bad end. My first impulse was therefore to refuse.

Still, he relented and took a chance on this earnest young woman. The relationship, Thibon writes, was “friendly but uncomfortable” at first and the two “disagreed on practically everything.” But he soon came to see that Weil was indeed one of those rare exceptions — her combination of sincerity, goodwill, and genius won him over and the two developed a deep friendship that outlasted Weil’s weeks on the farm.

In 1942, as the Nazi occupation drove Weil out of her homeland and she reluctantly headed to New York, Thibon met her at the train station. She handed him a giant portfolio of her papers with the instruction of taking care of them during her exile. And so he did, binding them with the thread of friendship into a lasting volume of ideas that continue to ennoble and illuminate long after Weil’s untimely death — Thibon curated her writings for posterity, in the truest sense of the word, which has its roots in the Latin cura, “to care for.”

In a letter to Thibon, included in his book Simone Weil as We Knew Her, Weil writes from America:

The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation … we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be. Meeting and separation are two forms of friendship that contain the same good, in the one case through pleasure and in the other through sorrow… Soon there will be distance between us. Let us love this distance which is wholly woven of friendship, for those who do not love each other are not separated.

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon shares another 1942 letter from Weil, which further speaks to her idealism about friendship:

Dear Friend,

It seems as though the time has now really come for us to say goodbye to each other… Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.

[…]

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow … and that if you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood. I do not want ever to occupy a different place from that in the hearts of those I love, because then I can be sure of never causing them any unhappiness.

A few months later, Weil left for England, where she died on August 24, 1943, at the age of only thirty-four. Her ideas, collected in Gravity and Grace, endure as the book one is always reading in childhood — that is, in the sincerest, truest, most ennobled part of the psyche.

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21 AUGUST, 2015

Buckminster Fuller’s Brilliant Metaphor for the Greatest Key to Transformation and Growth

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“What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. It’s a sentiment both paradoxical and profound — we tend to think of the total and the minute as polarities, and yet any total transformation is the product of a series of minute, purposeful shifts. That, after all, is the transformative power of habit.

No one has articulated the machinery of transformation more succinctly and powerfully than architect, inventor, and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895–July 1, 1983) — a man of timeless wisdom and prescience so extraordinary that he envisioned online education, TED, and Pandora decades before these ideas became a reality.

Buckminster Fuller, 1978 (Photograph: Fred Blocher courtesy of Stanford Libraries)

Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, offers a brilliant naval metaphor for how we transmute the minute into the momentous in transformation and growth, both as individuals and as a society. In an altogether fantastic 1972 Playboy interview, Fuller introduces the “trim tab” — a small mechanism that helps stabilize an enormous ship or aircraft — which would became a central metaphor in his philosophy.

In response to the interviewer’s question about how we can live with “a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,” Fuller offers his magnificent metaphor:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”

The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.

When Fuller died a decade later, this ethos was inscribed into his gravestone.

Buckminster Fuller's gravestone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The trim tab metaphor was subsequently appropriated (regrettably, without attribution to Fuller) by Stephen R. Covey in one of his books and expanded upon (with proper attribution) by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book Recovery: The Sacred Art (public library).

Complement with Emerson on our resistance to change and the key to personal growth, then revisit Fuller’s scientific revision of the Lord’s Prayer and his manifesto for the genius of generalists.

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