Synthesis & coincidence

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Ah, synthesis! The conjoining and combining of objects, ideas, theories, values and systems, arts, media, experiments, research, disciplines, metaphors, symbols, rhythms, patterns, DNA, et (“&”) cetera.

Synthesis can be planned, hypothesized, purposeful–and it can be spontaneous, unexpected, coincidental. There are times when I feel as though the overlapping and intertwining of experiences seems to have been somehow “planned by the cosmos” (or some higher power); but coincidences occur more often than we think, especially when our consciousness is primed to make connections.

I have primed my own brain, recently, to synthesize thinking about aesthetics, neuroscience, the arts, philosophy and consciousness. So it should not surprise me–though it does!–that the books I have recently been reading connect many threads of my thought, including other recent readings. For example, Martha Reineke’s Intimate Domain: Desire, Trauma, and Mimetic Theory is an exploration of family “romance” in psychoanalytic theory that draws on Freud and Girard; but because Reineke uses Girard’s early writings as her basis, she cites Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology quite often. Furthermore, mirror neurons and the place and operations of consciousness appear in her claims and explorations in this (difficult) text. Mirrors and mimesis, minds and spirits…Gabrielle Starr’s Feeling Beauty, which I’ve mentioned in recent posts, examines the art-body-mind connections in neurological domains and mentions, more than in passing, the phenomenological aspects of the experience we term “art.” Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1983, though I read it last month) also wove itself into my thinking as I read Starr’s more current book. In addition (oh, there’s always an “in addition” with synthesis), I am re-reading Csikszentmihalyi’s classic, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The states humans experience when we work hard at challenges we enjoy, such as art-making, are deeply connected to our brains and also rooted in our bodies.

So there is a coming-together, a process not unlike chemical bonding, that all of these texts and ideas produce in my mind. This post is one outcome, I suppose. But there will be others.

~

From Carl Sandburg’s “Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry” (1928): “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

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Too difficult?

Another difficult book, Poetry, Language, Thought by Heidegger offered me less insight than I’d hoped and irritated me more than other philosophical readings I’ve been perusing lately. I do see a link between Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, etc.; these essays also connect to linguistic and semiotic philosophies. In the semiotic-etymological vein, however, I much prefer Umberto Eco‘s writing.

Of the essays in Poetry, Language, Thought, my favorites are “The Thinker as Poet,” “Building Dwelling Thinking,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art,” although that last one is problematic in a number of ways. Heidegger uses etymology, history, and his own concept of the fourfold making  up the onefoldedness of being (crucial to his philosophical cosmos but unconvincing to me) to question being and origin. The problem, always, is language. How to express the inexpressible? How can we use words to communicate when we cannot even reasonably define them–there’s no staying-in-place with words. Wittgenstein proves that even so simple a word as “game” has no single, stable definition that can serve as a premise for a logical assertion–yet, he notes, we do not need a definition in order to use the word. [For a ‘cave-man’s explanation’ of this topic, see the section called “Meaning and Definition” in this Wiki article: philosophical investigations.]

Dwelling: a light-house

Dwelling: a light-house

As a poet, I work with words, so these ideas interest me. Heidegger hasn’t helped much, though his discussion of what it means to “dwell in” will stay with me, resonating a bit with Arne Naess’ writing. I also found helpful his assertion that the best meaning for the word truth is unconcealedness. I like the idea that Truth, that vague abstract Big Concept we invoke so often as pursuit or justification, is always and ever present–but that we must un-conceal it, a slight variance in connotation from the usually-cited revealing of truth.

~

Some Heidegger quotes of note:

“Truth is at work in the work [of art]”

“Art…is the becoming and happening of truth. All art is essentially poetry” –because, “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is.”

~

So onto what irritated me. Among other things, most of all the essay “What Are Poets For?” The discussion stems from a famous line of Hölderlin‘s: “…and what are poets for in a destitute time?” Heidegger proceeds to use this famous inquiry to examine a lesser known poem by Ranier Maria Rilke–in the sort of philosophical critical analysis that drives me bonkers. Granted, this is a personal bias of mine and I won’t go into a rant upon it in this post. But, if you have read Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you’ll have some idea of what I mean by interpretation for one’s own purposes. This essay could almost have been Nabokov’s inspiration.

Maybe it’s me, and Heidegger is just too brilliant for my limited depth in philosophy and art. But I am pleased to be leaving him behind now and am already enthusiastic about the lectures and essays in Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre.

I suppose I ought to stick with poets who philosophize about poetry.

Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

“Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.”

             Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The philosopher argues that while empiricism, psychology, and neurology (brain science was still in its infancy in 1951, and I think Merleau-Ponty would have been fascinated by current medical science involving brain studies) are valuable and offer insights into philosophy, they fail to uncover the origin of being. He also argued that philosophy could become less relevant if philosophers continued to ignore phenomena. Granted, many of us could not care less about the origin of being; but this philosopher claims there is no way to truth if the questioner does not recognize the limits of his or her own perspective first, including physiological limitations that earlier philosophers ignored. Because of radical, rapid developments in science and medicine during the 20th century, and the impact on medical and environmental ethics, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is significant today.

That for us in the quote above means within each individual’s perspective; that in-itself, derived from the Kantian ding an sich, means we possess the ability to ken that the other is unknowable even as we treat the other as an object empirically, physically, intellectually–hence the paradox. Those readers familiar with Kant will recognize similarities with noumenon.

One of Merleau-Ponty’s analogies involves a house. We name it: house. We perceive only one aspect of it in time: what is visible with our human eyes or our other senses. We see the front of the house while knowing the house has a back, sides, a foundation, and interior–none of which are visible to us simultaneously, given our physiology. Yet we are capable of believing (not merely assuming) that there are hidden facets to the house, the pipes, the insulation, electrical wiring for example. And we can believe in a world that embraces all of these facets, even what we cannot see, hear, touch but all of which we can “know.” The house can be a physical phenomenon, one I encounter with my physiological senses; and it can also be imagined by me (intellectually) whole or in part–the house for-me as opposed to the house in-itself–and the person next to me will experience the house for-her and even the house in-itself in a different way due to a whole spectrum of physiological, psychological, and intellectual perspectives. Are any of these perspectives “true”? Are any of them “false”? The facts of empiricism do not explain the mystery of our knowing what we cannot empirically know through induction. The hypotheses of intellectual philosophy do not acknowledge the being-here of the physical experience and the complex psycho-socio-neurological goings-on that make up cognition.

What appeals to me about phenomenology is its awareness that we are limited by our perspectives to the fields of our physical, physiological, psychological, and intellectual points of view–including the empirical, science and its “facts.” And yet, this philosophy admits of our ability to imagine beyond these limits, to speculate; we function amid apparent paradoxes such as the simultaneous existence of unity and monadic separateness, perspectives that overlap, interconnect, communicate with and relate to those other than our own perspectives (or phenomenological fields). Phenomenology accepts that the philosopher’s thinking must be conditioned by situation. Thus, if I understand it aright–and I may not–phenomenology admits of us being in the world-as-itself.

Hence:

“Be here now,” as Ram Dass famously advocated in a book all of my friends had in their libraries in the 1970s.

Ram Dass' Be Here Now

Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’m over-simplifying. Yet I see a correspondence between the phenomenological approach and some aspects of (so-called) Eastern knowledge-practices/philosophies. The idea of consciousness as a network of intentions. The statement that “consciousness does not admit of degree.” The notion that actions and observations matter.

And now I am like the Zen practitioner…as far as phenomenology goes, I have “beginner’s mind.”

Still more difficult books

I am perpetually out to confound myself.

After reading Larson’s odd but lucid koan-like “biography” of John Cage’s creative interpenetrations with Buddhism, I have begun Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1961 text The Phenomenology of Perception. Already I have encountered some thoughts in Merleau-Ponty that relate to the indeterminate, a concept that excited Cage and that Larson demonstrates shares a great deal with Zen. But reading Merleau-Ponty is more challenging than reading Larson’s book, as I have less background in early 20th-century philosophy than I do in Zen studies. I enjoyed reading Bachelard’s imaginative, image-based take on phenomenology because I could relate to it on a poetry level even when I missed some of the philosophical antecedents (or contemporaries) he references. That possibility isn’t available to me with Merleau-Ponty.

I do appreciate that his writings were formulated before technologies that made neurological processes visible and while psychology was still bickering with the “hard sciences” about empirical measurements. (Actually, that bickering continues in some areas of study.) I do not think Merleau-Ponty would agree with, say, E. O. Wilson’s rather reductionist idea of consilience. Yet clearly, the philosopher was willing not to discount the sciences or empirical study–he just felt those areas were not of particular use to a philosopher, particularly a phenomenologist.

The body is what we have with which to experience the world, Merleau-Ponty tells us. But the human body is limited by its perceptual experiences. Structures–and that includes abstract structures such as thought–appear to have recognizable patterns, and the perceiver may posit cause and effect as a result. But another body may perceive differently, due to a different biological process or a different time or any number of physical or environmental variables. We perceive yellow with the cones and rods of our human eyes; the dog or the bee, the spider or the hippopotamus, may have eyes that do not see yellow as we do. Is yellow a quality or a perception? Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying (I am not very far into the book, so I  may be in error) that science cannot be objective, even though it is science that made us question our senses: “We believed we knew what feeling, seeing, and hearing were, and now these words raise problems.”

And how does this all relate to consciousness? Maybe I’ll figure that out as I go along.

ann e. michael poet

~

Here’s a sentence I love because it speaks to me of poetry and the arts on the level of ambiguity: “[Science, with its categorization] requires that two perceived lines, like two real lines, be equal or unequal, that a perceived crystal should have a definite number of sides, without realizing that the perceived, by its nature, admits of the ambiguous, the shifting, and is shaped by its context.”

Or perhaps by observation? A little Uncertainty Principle going on there. I feel that good poems change when observed, and change in the context of the reader’s time, place, experience; that they possess ambiguity not in the sense of rhetorical wishy-washiness but in the rich sense of complex possibilities, indeterminacy, transformation.

~

I’m especially pleased to have found Bernard Flynn’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the link to the entire article is above), which ends with the following reflections on Merleau-Ponty:

If we think how the thought of Merleau-Ponty might prolong itself into the 21st century, or as it portends a future, then we cannot not be struck by the fact that his philosophy does not entertain any conception whatsoever of an ‘apocalyptic end of philosophy’ followed by the emergence of some essentially different mode of thought. Unlike Heidegger, there is no anticipation of an ‘other beginning’, also there is nothing like Derrida’s ‘Theory’ which is waiting in the wings to displace philosophy, and unlike Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty’s thought does not await the disappearance of philosophy. In the academic year 1958–1959, Merleau-Ponty gave a course at the Collège de France entitled “Our State of Non-Philosophy.” He began by saying that ‘for the moment’ philosophy is in a crisis, but he continued, “My thesis: this decadence is inessential; it is that of a certain type of philosopher…. Philosophy will find help in poetry, art, etc., in a closer relationship with them, it will be reborn and will re-interprete its own past of metaphysics—which is not past” (Notes de cours, 1959–60, p. 39, my translation). After writing this he turns to literature, painting, music, and psychoanalysis for philosophical inspiration.

The theme of the indeterminate frequently recurs in the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Philosophy is enrooted in the soil of our culture and its possibilities are not infinite, but neither are they exhausted. In an essay entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere, ” Merleau-Ponty explicitly reflects on the future of philosophy, he writes that philosophy “will never regain the conviction of holding the keys to nature or history in its concepts, and it will not renounce its radicalism, that search for presuppositions and foundations which has produced the great philosophies” (Signs, 157). In his Inaugural Address to the Collège de France, he claimed that “philosophy limps” and further on that “this limping of philosophy is its virtue” (In Praise of Philosophy, 61).

What will philosophy do in the 21st century? It will limp along.

Apparently, I shall be limping along with it.