Brain Pickings

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

“Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life.”

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

In her spare, stunning poem “Optimism,” Jane Hirshfield reverences the “blind intelligence” by which a tree relentlessly orients toward the light to survive — a kind of unreasoning, life-hungry intuition distinctly different from the way we humans define and measure our own intelligence, our measurements and definitions mired in myriad cultural biases and blind spots. The Western model of intelligence, with its fixation on the logical-mathematical mind, is in some deep sense the ultimate “blind intelligence,” dappled with blind spots that obscure so much of the raw, unmediated attentiveness to life that make it not only survivable but worth living.

That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a wonderful aside toward the end of On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the gauntlet he throws at our culturally inherited, unexamined ideas about love and what makes us who we are.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Lamenting the “extremely small” number of truly intelligent people, Ortega hastens to anchor the lament in a definition of intelligence rooted not in the intellectual snobbery of Western high culture, which equates intelligence with erudition and acumen in the narrow domain of verbal-mathematical ability, but in something more akin to the Eastern notion of mindfulness — the sort of unclouded perception and clarity of consciousness at the heart of Buddha-nature and Zen-mind. In consonance with Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence that intelligence “is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself,” Ortega writes:

By intelligence I mean only that the mind react to happenings with a certain sharpness and precision, that the radish not be perpetually seized by its leaves, that the gray not be confused with brown and, above all, that objects in front of one be seen with a little exactness and accuracy, without supplanting sight by mechanically repeated words.

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s observation that “most people remain all of their lives in a stupor,” Ortega rues that most people spend most of their lives with the radish fully engulfed by the leaves:

Ordinarily, one has the impression of living amid somnambulists who advance through life buried in an hermetic sleep from which it is impossible to stir them in order to make them aware of their surroundings.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Observing how much more influenced by our environment and cultural milieu we are than we realize — something reflected in the original Latin use of the word genius in the phrase genius loci, “the spirit of a place” — and how much our habits sculpt our fate, he adds:

Probably, humanity has almost always lived in this somnambulistic state in which ideas are not a wide-awake, conscious reaction to things, but a blind, automatic habit, drawn from a repertory of formulae which the atmosphere infuses into the individual.

Much of the erudition we mistake for intelligence is the product of this trance, intoxicated with the atmosphere of ideologies invisible to those living under the dome of their time and place — we need only look at eugenics and phrenology, once regarded as pinnacles of science, to shudder with the fact of such culturally constructed fictions. Half a century before Siddhartha Mukherjee confronted these damaging “slips between biology and culture” in his superb inquiry into the dark cultural history of IQ and why we cannot measure intelligence, Ortega writes:

It is undeniable that a large pat of science and literature has also been produced in a somnambulistic trance; that is to say, by creatures who are not at all intelligent… Science and literature, as such, do not imply perspicacity; but, undoubtedly, their cultivation is a stimulant which favors the awakening of the mind and preserves it in that luminous state of alertness which constitutes intelligence. The difference between the intelligent person and the fool is, after all, that the former lives on guard against their own foolishness, recognizes it as soon as it appears, and strives to eliminate it, whereas the fool enchantedly surrenders to their foolishness without reservations.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Half a millennium after the polymathic physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal considered the limits of the logical mind against intuition, and a generation before philosopher Martha Nussbaum made her penetrating case for the intelligence of emotions, Ortega offers an antidote to the common cultural snobbery about what intelligence means — the kind of snobbery particularly virulent among the privileged and overeducated. Echoing Henri Bergson’s perceptive and paradoxical observation that “the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life,” he writes:

I consider it a grave misfortune if, in any period or nation, intelligence remains, practically speaking, reduced to the limits of the intellectual. Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life. The intellectual, however, barely lives; they are usually a person with poverty of intuition; their acts in the world are few and they have very little knowledge of [love], [work], pleasure, and passion. They lead an abstract existence, and can barely throw a morsel of authentic live meat to the sharp-pointed teeth of intellect.

Complement with Proust on how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, then revisit Ortega’s sweeping meditation on love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being, in the final pages of which he shines this sidewise gleam on intelligence.


The Truelove: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Reaching Beyond Our Limiting Beliefs About What We Deserve

“if you wanted to drown you could, but you don’t because finally after all this struggle and all these years you simply don’t want to any more, you’ve simply had enough of drowning and you want to live and you want to love”

The Truelove: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Reaching Beyond Our Limiting Beliefs About What We Deserve

Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and watermelon to the grandest luxury of a passionate creative calling or a large and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. Bruce Lee knew this when he admonished that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” James Baldwin knew it when he admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” and Viktor Frankl embodied this in his impassioned insistence on saying “yes” to life.

The more vulnerable-making the endeavor, the more reflexive the limitation and the more redemptive the liberation.

That difficult, delicate, triumphal pivot from self-limitation to self-liberation in the most vulnerable-making of human undertakings — love — is what poet and philosopher David Whyte, who thinks deeply about these questions of courage and love, maps out in his stunning poem “The Truelove,” found in his book The Sea in You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love (public library) and read here, by David’s kind assent to my invitation, in his sonorous Irish-tinted English voice, in his singular style of echoing lines to let them reverberate more richly:

by David Whyte

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
so Biblically
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love

so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

“The Truelove” appears in the short, splendid course of poem-anchored contemplative practices David guides for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit, in which he reads each poem, offers an intimate tour of the landscape of experience from which it arose, and reflects on the broader existential quickenings it invites.

Couple this generous gift of a poem with “Sometimes” — David’s perspectival poem about living into the questions of our becoming, also part of Waking Up — then revisit the Noble-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on great love and James Baldwin, who believed that poet are “the only people who know the truth about us” — on love and the illusion of choice.


Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

“The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.”

Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.

Consider this.

For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.

Possible Certainties. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” and a scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.


Humanity’s Most Successful Scientific Theory, Animated

How the gaps in gravity contour the next frontiers in the quest to understand the fundaments of what we are.

Humanity’s Most Successful Scientific Theory, Animated

Between the time Hypatia of Alexandria first pointed her pre-telescopic eye to the cosmos millennia before the notion of galaxies and the time Vera Rubin stood at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope to confirm the existence of dark matter by observing how distant galaxies rotate, and in all the time before, and in all the time since, we have hungered to understand the forces that move the stars and the Moon and the mind. Ever since Galileo leaned on his artistic training in perspective to draw his astronomical observations intimating that the universe might not be what the theologians have claimed it to be, humanity has been on a passionate and disorienting quest to understand the nature of the mystery that made us.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In the centuries since, we have made staggering discoveries of fundamental forces swirling exotic particles into “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Along the way, in our longing for a final theory of everything, we have been staggered by revelation after revelation that things are not what we previously thought them to be and beneath each layer of reality we have unpeeled lies another. The heavens are not a clockwork orrery of perfect orbs revolving around us in perfect circles. The cosmic wilderness is overgrown with a species of mystery we call dark matter and the fabric of spacetime is pocked with black holes the rims of which gape our Munchian scream at the sense that the universe remains a sweeping enigma whose native language we are only just beginning to decipher, naming our particles and composing our equations in the alphabet of a long-gone civilization that believed the Earth was flat and the stars were at its service.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Our yearning for a Theory of Everything has culminated in what we call the Standard Model — a conceptual map of all the known particles and the fundamental forces that govern them to make the universe cohere into everything we know and are. It is the most successful scientific theory in the history of our species. But it is rather a Theory of Everything We Know So Far, at once triumphal and tessellated with incompleteness.

The essence of that theory, its central contradictions, and how it contours the next layer of reality awaiting discovery is what theoretical physicist David Tong details in this animated primer for Quanta Magazine, drawing out discoveries and questions that punctuate the excellent anthology Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire: The Biggest Ideas in Science from Quanta (public library).

Complement with an animated look at the little loophole in the Big Bang model, then revisit the remarkable story of how Johannes Kepler revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.


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