Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay

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Thoughts on navigating the open sea of knowledge.

For my part in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I had the pleasure of collaborating with animator Drew Christie — the talent behind that wonderful short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality — on an animated essay that I wrote and narrated, exploring a subject close to my heart and mind: the question of how we can cultivate true wisdom in the age of information and why great storytellers matter more than ever in helping us make sense of an increasingly complex world. It comes as an organic extension of the seven most important life-learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings. Full essay text below — please enjoy.

We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.

“Knowledge,” Emerson wrote, “is the knowing that we can not know.”

To grasp the importance of this, we first need to define these concepts as a ladder of understanding.

At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.

This is why the storyteller is all the more urgently valuable today.

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

Susan Sontag once said that “reading sets standards.” Storytelling not only sets standards but, at its best, makes us want to live up to them, to transcend them.

A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

I think of it this way:

Information is having a library of books on shipbuilding. Knowledge applies that to building a ship. Access to the information — to the books — is a prerequisite for the knowledge, but not a guarantee of it.

Once you’ve built your ship, wisdom is what allows you to sail it without sinking, to protect it from the storm that creeps up from the horizon in the dead of the night, to point it just so that the wind breathes life into its sails.

Moral wisdom helps you tell the difference between the right direction and the wrong direction in steering the ship.

A great storyteller is the kindly captain who sails her ship with tremendous wisdom and boundless courage; who points its nose in the direction of horizons and worlds chosen with unflinching idealism and integrity; who brings us somewhat closer to the answer, to our particular answer, to that grand question: Why are we here?

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

C.S. Lewis on True Friendship

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“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.

[…]

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Montaigne and the Double Meaning of Meditation

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“There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous … than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts.”

“We all have the same inner life,” beloved artist Agnes Martin said in a wonderful lost interview. “The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.” But in an age where we compulsively seek to optimize our productivity, the art of presence with and recognition of our inner lives, while infinitely more rewarding, is one fewer and fewer of us are able or willing to master. Of those who seek to cultivate it despite the cultural current, many turn to meditation. And yet meditation itself has an ambivalent history that reflects this tug-of-war between productivity and presence.

Among the timeless trove of musings collected in his Complete Essays (public library; public domain) is the following passage Michel de Montaigne penned sometime in the second half of the 16th century:

Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, “those for whom to live is to think.”

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

“Meditation,” here, is taken to mean “cerebration,” vigorous thinking — the same practice John Dewey addressed so eloquently a few centuries later in How We Think. This conflation, at first glance, seems rather antithetical to today’s notion of meditation — a practice often mistakenly interpreted by non-practitioners as non-thinking, an emptying of one’s mind, a cultivation of cognitive passivity. In reality, however, meditation requires an active, mindful presence, a bearing witness to one’s inner experience as it unfolds. In that regard, despite the semantic evolution of the word itself, Montaigne’s actual practice of meditation was very much aligned with the modern concept and thus centuries ahead of his time, as were a great deal of his views.

In How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) — that remarkable distillation of timeless lessons on the art of living from the godfather of “blogging,” explored more closely here — British philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell points to Montaigne’s oft-quoted aphorism — “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.” — noting that he “achieved an almost Zen-like discipline” and remarking on his “ability to just be,” the essence of meditation:

It sounds so simple, put like this, but nothing is harder to do. This is why Zen masters spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, learning it. Even then, according to traditional stories, they often manage it only after their teacher hits them with a big stick — the keisaku, used to remind meditators to pay full attention. Montaigne managed it after one fairly short lifetime, partly because he spent so much of that lifetime scribbling on paper with a very small stick… Observing the play of inner states is the writer’s job. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown.

Meditation, then, isn’t merely the product of solitude — that increasingly endangered art of learning how to be alone — but is also aided by an active record of one’s inward gaze, the very practice that makes keeping a diary so spiritually and creatively beneficial, particularly for writers.

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

How to Live is revelational in its entirety, full of Montaigne’s timeless and ever-timely wisdom on the most central questions of leading a meaningful life.

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