The Mighty Strings of Pleasure and Pain

The Mighty Strings of Pleasure and Pain

"The universal war is not limited to the relation between different states, but takes place between villages, between households, and between individuals, and that it takes place even between the different parts of each individual soul."

~ T. K. Seung

A Way Through

A Way Through

"The quite cynical response would be to say, Why we love nihilism in pop culture is that it saves us having to be burdened with it. It saves us from feeling it. We can enjoy it in our rooms. We can get off on it. And then we let it go and we go back to work." ~ Simon Critchley 

If We Didn't Try to Hold the Flux

“What both science and at least some philosophical and even religious traditions tell us is that the world is impermanent. Nothing in it stays the same. We don't stay the same. Our bodies don't stay the same. The people that we love and the things that we love don't stay the same. That's just the truth of the matter, that there's this constant impermanence, this constant flux. And some philosophers have argued over the years that we should just embrace that. We would be freer if we didn't try to hold that flux for a moment.” 

Alison Gopnik

Unselfed and Decentered by Beauty

Unselfed and Decentered by Beauty

"There are lots of things in the world that give us acute pleasure. There are also lots of things in the world that make us feel marginal. But there's almost nothing other than beauty that does those two things simultaneously, that gives us acute pleasure at the very moment that it makes us feel marginal and happy to be on the margins, to stand back, to listen to the piece of music and just feel awe at what has been created."

~ Elaine Scarry

The Difference Between Wisdom and Understanding

Excerpt from The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts by Herbert Read:

Le Penseur (The Thinker), Auguste RodinA distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding.

By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages.

Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom.

To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.

See also: "The Forms of Things Unknown: A 1963 Essay on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society," Brain Pickings, August 29, 2012

A Collection of Parts

From "What Does it Mean to be You?" by Julian Baggini, RSA, June 22, 2011:

Hume invites us to discussing the proposition but over by people like Descartes — that the existence of the self was the most certain thing in the universe — he kind of said, For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, and try to find this self, all I ever stumble across is a particular feeling, a particular thought, a particular memory, and so forth. 

The people who study how the sense of self emerges through the brain are pretty much in agreement that there is certainly no one spot in the brain where it all comes together and also the very nature of subjective experience is much more fragmented than we kind of tell the story of it afterwards. 

We basically do a lot of work tidying up experience to create a coherent sense of self and narrative, and that in experimental conditions and if you examine people with certain brain pathologies and so forth, it's not difficult to show that actually things are much messier than that — much more like Hume said, One thing after another, diferent bits of the brain not knowing what the others are doing, lots of unconscious processes and so forth.  

The question that emerges fromt this, really, is whether or not that means that the self is an illusion. Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who likes to use the illusion theme, and she gives a good justification of it. She says, 

An illusion is something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually. So when I say the self is an illusion, that's what I'm saying. I think that is what the Buddha was saying — not that there's no such thing as a self, because in many contexts he would say there is, but that the self is not what it seems to be.

But I think when you go around saying "the self is an illusion," I don't think that's generally how people take it. People take it to mean that the self doesn't really exist in some way and I think that's nonsense...You don't discover that something doesn't exist by discovering that it's just a collection of parts, because everything is just a collection of parts.

Full audio recording of presentation including audience Q&A

See also:


Nothing Cannot Be Thought

Bust of the great Greek philosopher, Plato. SOCRATES: He then who sees some one thing, sees something which is?


SOCRATES: And he who hears anything, hears some one thing, and hears that which is?


SOCRATES: And he who touches anything, touches something which is one and therefore is?

THEAETETUS: That again is true.

SOCRATES: And does not he who thinks, think some one thing?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And does not he who thinks some one thing, think something which is?


SOCRATES: Then he who thinks of that which is not, thinks of nothing?


SOCRATES: And he who thinks of nothing, does not think at all?

THEAETETUS: Obviously.

SOCRATES: Then no one can think that which is not, either as a self-existent substance or as a predicate of something else?

~ Plato, from Theaetetus

The Way We Perceive

Ludwig Wittgenstein "That it doesn't strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn't strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it's impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world. What I wanted to say is it's strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea and never long to escape from it."

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

See also: Hidden in Plain Sight All Around Us

Condemned to Freedom

Excerpt from “The Limits of the Coded World,” by William Eggington, New York Times (July 25, 2010):

In Immanuel Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

rainbow Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism…

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre…gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

Read the entire Opinionator post…

Experiencing Light

Excerpt from Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions by Lex Hixon:

Imagine you are wandering through a vast cathedral. Countless stain-glass windows, radiant in the darkness, represent the modes of worship and ways of understanding that humanity has evolved throughout its history. Some windows picture divine presence through personal forms or attributes, and seekers worship these windows with devotion. Other seekers, preferring the way of wisdom, contemplate stained-glass windows that present nothing personal, simply esoteric patterns evoking primal harmony and unity. Devotion and wisdom are alternate ways to enlightenment. Some sacred traditions interweave both ways.

St. John of the Divine What occurs as we contemplate these cathedral windows? We are really experiencing light, diffused through complicated contexts that have been created, individually and communally, by visionary artisans. And we cannot step outside this cathedral, which is human thinking, because we must depend on some personal and cultural medium. We cannot articulate any experience, even to ourselves, without some process of thinking. This is not imprisonment but simply the nature of light or reality, which expresses itself as experience only through some particular medium.

Each window of devotion or wisdom translates the same radiance of ultimate consciousness by means of personal figures or symbolic patterns unique to itself. Through dedicated contemplation of even a single window, we can attune to light, or reality, and eventually realize that our intrinsic nature is the light. Once realizing the universal cathedral to be flooded with the conscious light of our true nature, once enlightenment has dawned, we are at home everywhere. We have been freed from the competition between worldviews, by understanding the essential equality of all windows of contemplation and the harmony between the ways of wisdom and of devotion. Everywhere in this vast cathedral, through all possible languages and images, we now recognize the light, or consciousness, which we are, which all beings are, which Being is.

Rose Window of The Cathedral Of St. John The Divine Contemplative thinking is not confined to certain fields such as religion, art, or philosophy but flourishes subtly throughout every culture, often obscurely among small circles or secretly within the inner life of individuals who may or may not be aware of any mystical tradition. This ever-deepening way of contemplation, which follows devotion and wisdom to their source, is perhaps the most precious human possibility. The holy person, or shaman, in every culture—poet, musician, saint, warrior—is revered for the powerful touch that awakens and sustains deep thinking and its sense of discovery, freedom, and harmony. The figure of the shaman is a sacrament through which all members of the culture without exception can enter the mood of contemplation.

Producers of Knowledge and Doubt

Excerpts from “The University’s Crisis of Purpose,” by Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Times (September 1, 2009):

John_Harvard_statue_at_Harvard_UniversityHigher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable.

Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

Aware of the Possibility

moviegoer “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is often overlooked. The search is what everyone would take if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

~ Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Caring is Not Grounded in Reasons

The Reasons of Love "Love enters the picture through reflection on what it is to care about something or someone, which is related to but not identical with desiring something, finding it valuable, or finding it important. And we are led to reflection on what we care about through confronting the most basic questions about how we should live, or what Frankfurt calls ‘authoritative reasoning about what to do.’ Nothing can answer that question for us without appealing to what we can, or do, or should care about. Caring about something is not the same as wanting it, since we may desire many things that we do not really care about at all. We can also be in no doubt about the intrinsic value of something without caring about it or giving it any importance in our lives. When we care about something, we may well find it valuable, but the caring itself is not a response to its value. In this way, caring is not grounded in reasons; but at the same time caring about something is productive of reasons, for caring about something necessarily involves taking its interests as reasons for acting. The reasons we have are dependent on what we care about, rather than the other way around."

~ Richard Moran, from Essay-review of The Reasons of Love by Harry Frankfurt

Princeton Professor Harry Frankfurt discusses ideas and themes of his book, "On Bullshit."

Thinking Reeds

"Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this."

~ Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)

"Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when
he is not calculating and thinking. 'Childlikeness' has to be
restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness.
When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He
thinks like the showers coming down from the sky; he thinks
like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars
illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage
shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze. Indeed, he is the
showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage."

~ D.T. Suzuki (1870 - 1966)