below: Sonnets, #113, 2
table of contents commented bibliography and index say what? noframes


And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
The roles of ideas change for thinking as the centrality of process and temporality gain recognition. Is thinking more like science or art?
In this survey of our century's first surveyors, already several characteristics are implicit - but too easily overlooked. First, it is of extreme importance to recognize that the diversity of approaches which were actual testify that none were exclusively correct. Japanese print of the six blind men and the elephant parable Neither were they all in error, nor even part right and part wrong: it is true that we cannot fit them into a single picture, but we can accept the witness of their diversity to demonstrate that mind fits reality in many different ways. After such an admission, part of what remains problematic hinges on the role of ideas in thinking. Few of the important thinkers at the turn of our century were naive on this subject; they knew that any idea asserts a universality that invariably turns a blind eye to what it doesn't include, yet they also knew that they had no choice but to express themselves through ideas. Unlike the thinkers before them, they tended to subordinate ideas to methods in such a way as to delimit the relevance of their investigations. Earlier thinkers had more or less allowed the over-flow of their ideas to devalue the ideas put forth by other thinkers - as if there WERE a 'single picture' we should have of things and that the truth of one kind of picture discredited the truth of other kinds.
The term 'Classical' is used here to refer to the philosophic tradition in rough parallel with that of musical composition, hence as culminating near the end of the 18th century. But what is on this basis Classical philosophy often explains itself as taking its point of departure from Descartes (1596-1650), and it is only just after Descartes' death that we find modern harmony taking root in musical composition.  
It is worth looking more deeply into the background here: ideas are among thinkers primary 'materials', just as harmonics are among the primary 'materials' for composers. The grand philosophic` systems before Kant allowed ideas to claim as much universality as possible. Similarly, Classical composers organized their compositions Georgia O'Keeffe's 'Blue and Green Music' (1919) around sets of harmonics - keys - that unified the entire work or movement. In Romantic music, first key changes then chromaticism found their way more and more into composition. As we cross into our century, a twelve-tone approach comes into use which aims to eliminate altogether the 'false universality' of individual keys. Without the 'deceptive unity' given by keys, though, most people still cannot find their way around in what remains even today 'new' music.
example, chromaticism :
Against my soul's pure truth
why labour you
to make it wander
in an unknown field?
The thinkers from the turn of the century found ways to affirm differences of ideas, tried to express principles of unification and universality that went beyond ideas, or searched for new roles for ideas in experience. Often their work seems difficult: Just as the new music did not offer familiar and centering emotional satisfactions as rewards for its demands, so the new thinking often did not offer that cognitive experience of ANSWERS which suggest to most people that they have not been wasting their time when they try to think. Instead, offered were only ways to be involved in a PATH or to recognize a PROCESS. Philosophy is often expected to prove itself to be both useful, like Science, and nourishing, like Art. But if thinking is truly nourishing for the mind it is because it can lead to kinds of mind not previously experienced, hence its 'usefulness' may be more like a bridge than a tool - but only if we don't always think we know where we are going and what kind of satisfactions we want in advance!

Fluorescence microscopy of a cell: blue = nucleic acids, green = mitochondia, red = lysosomes.
The development of philosophy, like science, explains itself as on-going advance, driven - for example - by the carrot of truth and the stick of criticism. But the works of individual thinkers stand as wholes, like works of art, not science: a thinker's work invokes the thinker's thinking, so it is not to be 'improved on' by another thinker, though we may experience the work as included in a newer work as an ancestor, a counterpoint, or even an 'organelle'. So too the increasingly explicit role of literature for thinking weighs in on the side of art. Above all, on the way to learn thinking for ourselves we need to feel what it was like for others to learn thinking, that is, read their work as literature: more than anything else what has been shared between thinkers is what it feels like to stretch out and deepen experienced questions. But pre-modern thinkers were like the old composers of symphonies - for them it seemed necessary to aim toward a rousing finale where all the questions together met their answers. Every one of the thinkers we are most concerned with here already knew better. As in modern Physics, what becomes most important is the uncovering of foundations. But for Thinking, unlike Physics, the challenge is to cultivate and nourish the faculty of thinking itself: How can thinking remain within and deepen its relation to those cosmic foundations which gave us our brains in the first place? For such an approach to thinking, answers are like signs along a road - they help 'fix' our path.
And strange it is that nature
must compel us to lament
our most persisted deeds

'Fix' is a word whose variety of connotations are found relevant here. The use just made calls first on a meaning like 'set', and if we set our path well we are using signs to help take our bearings in a wider context, but if our path gets too 'fixed', those signs refer only to each other and hence reduce our ability to relate to our world. If so, we might need to 'fix' the way we look at things. Here 'fixing' our previous 'fix' means recognizing that there are problems with our answers and doing something about them. Though some thinkers in our time have employed the answering part of thinking to try to set particular bearings, more have used it in this critical way to identify and address as problems fixations that we have inherited in one way or another. Some have even claimed that philosophy boils down only to that kind of problem fixing. What is best about such an approach is that it brings us to look at our habits of forming and needing answers: interestingly there is another use of fix which means to refer to what our habits demand of us - those specific kinds of satisfactions we have become used to. Not being able to find - or repeat to oneself - a melody, for example, when we listen to music, denies us a particular kind of aesthetic 'fix'. But if music and thinking nourish the life of the mind by helping mind to outgrow itself, it cannot be only on the basis of the quantity or even quality of such satisfactions.
J.M.W. Turner's 'Angel Standing in the Sun' (1846)' Real music and real thinking have always stretched toward 'a light not seen on sea or land'. Still, even thinkers who have held real meaning for such transcendence nevertheless felt pressed to account for the role of the impulse to order or repeat the forms of experience within the life of the mind: and for some the strength of the temptation to fix experience in 'answers' and judgments even seemed crucial for comprehending thought's own foundations.

Overall, Twentieth century thinkers' application of their own impulses to set up orders in relation to the subjects of their inquiries occur in a context of turning backwards toward an order of critical engagement with their own methodologies. Through the filter of focusing critically on methods, moreover, they were able both to maintain relationships with the central role that answering judgments had played in earlier philosophy and to communicate more concerning how they found thinking to be a path or process.
before after
table of contents commented bibliography and index say what? noframes


  None yet...

...lineup and alibi

Against my soul's pure truth why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?

- Comedy of Errors, III, ii, 37
And strange it is that nature must compel us
To lament our most persisted deeds.

- Antony and Cleopatra, V, i, 36

The Copyright holder grants permission for free personal use, and noncommercial on-line use, of this text.

send email to author