Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and watches are the best known examples of surrealism, one of art’s less rational movements. (Image: Wikipedia)
When we look over the highlights of that artistic tradition, we see that it constitutes a kind of progression as one major art movement superseded another, often reacting against the one that went before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our rather eclectic times, all of them persist in one form or another. For example, in writing, the Gothic, fantasy, and science fiction genres draw heavily from the ideas and conventions of one of the oldest and most colourful movements – romanticism.
German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs (i.e. businessman), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz always said that he found no book so bad that he could get nothing from it. He was referring to serious works of non-fiction and meant that he could glean a few bits of worthwhile material from any book he read. There is a more powerful way to think about bad books. The fact that they are obviously wrong helps you to clarify your own thinking. (Perhaps Leibniz had this in mind as well.) You can view your own notions in the light of the wrong ideas in the bad book, make comparisons, and work out arguments to knock down what you are reading. I make a habit of reading books (not necessarily bad ones!) that present views opposed to my own.
Philosophers such as Leibniz work out entire philosophical systems. Ordinary people settle for a set of personal values. (Image: wpclipart.com)
In recent decades, a great deal has been made of the notion that language and object are not related. That is to say, a signifier (word) can never fully capture or embody the signified (object). From this position, philosophers and others (such as psychiatrists) then draw the conclusion that language is somehow useless or dangerously misleading.
Language is essential for sustaining consciousness. Without it, we go into a coma. (Image: Reusable Art)
A vague mysticism sets in where we assume that humans are condemned to live in a world we can never properly describe or even conceptually grasp. Unless we can master something like the knowledge-obliterating Buddhist technique of direct perception, we are forever divorced from reality and therefore must live our lives in a language-induced haze of unreality, error, and arbitrary subjectivity. There exists a widespread opinion that what goes on inside our heads has little or nothing to do with what goes on around us. Solipsism, the philosophical theory that all we can be sure of is the self, gains credence.
These are irrational times. Subjectivism (noun: the doctrine that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by your subjective experience – WordWeb) is something I believe in myself, but the idea is being misused to justify some highly questionable moral and spiritual positions. We see this in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. Martel is a fine writer. His book is a great read, but its message is just plain foolish.
Can we skip thinking, ignore reality, and believe something just because we like the sound of it?
Nowadays, we strongly emphasize emotion. Our IQs seem to matter little while our EQs loom large. I thought it would be useful to remind ourselves of what it means to be a thinker.
With the emphasis now on feelings are we, as a society, losing sight of the value of thinking? (Image: public domain)
The Desire of Knowledge
French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges writes: “The desire of knowledge defines our intelligence as a vital force … it is the thinker’s special characteristic to be obsessed by the desire for knowledge.”
In other words, for the thinker, the acquisition of knowledge is an emotionally important idea. It is what American psychologist Carl Rogers would call a “subjectively formed guiding principle.” This means acquiring knowledge is one of the primary objects of the thinker’s authentic will. The activity is not an add-on, an external “interest” he has acquired; it is a fundamental part of his self and personality. The behaviour will have been there from early childhood remaining unrecognized until the thinker matures and turns to matters that are more serious and noteworthy.
Most folks just buy into the consensus worldview of their time unquestioningly adopting it as they grow to maturity, but this means we have a second-hand worldview made by others. (Image: public domain.)
Human beings have an inborn need to make sense of their lives and the world around them. The drive is stronger in some (such as artists and philosophers) than in others, but generally, we all want to know what things signify. Knowing the meaning of something means knowing how things fit together. To make sense of our lives, to give them meaning, it is essential that we possess a comprehensive, consistent, unified worldview.
Worldview is defined (by COED) as “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.” At first glance, this suggests an objective view of things, something you could study in a book and learn, either by rote, or by understanding. Ideologues do just that, adopting viewpoints like the cultural Marxism currently so popular with the left. Religious people do the same, converting to one sect or another’s standard declared creed. Most folks just buy into the consensus worldview of their time unquestioningly adopting it as they grow to maturity.
Concepts, abstract or general ideas, are a veil that hides reality from our eyes. Without our knowing it, they create a powerful illusion. Anyone who unquestioningly accepts their society’s consensus worldview is suffering from cultural hypnosis. Most of us are affected. We sleepwalk through our lives never understanding that much of what we assume to be true simply is not. We are not even aware that concepts can have this effect.
Many of us sleepwalk through our lives in a muddled state of cultural hypnosis. (Image: public domain)
To dispel the illusion, we must peer past preconceived concepts at the raw data of experience. There is a hidden reality, but it is not on some astral plane or stashed in some mystical “beyond.” The hidden reality is all around us, firmly rooted in this world, yet invisible to eyes blinded by consensus notions of what we are seeing. The hunger that cries, “There must be more to life than this” is, in part, the hunger to experience what lies behind the obscuring veil of concepts. Many sense its presence, as indeed they must, but immediately fall into the very trap they need to escape. They conceptualize the nature of this hidden reality in bizarre and obscure ways, thus trading a consensual illusion for another, even more unrealistic, one.
Powerful artists infuse their work with a blend of deliberately chosen emotional themes, their own emotionally important ideas, and subtly distinguished shades of meaning. The great work always starts with the individual, yet manages to present universal aspects of life. Artists do this by looking for the universal elements of their own experience. They never lose sight of the simple fact that we are all human beings. What happens to one of us, in some specific way, has undoubtedly happened to others, in somewhat different ways. Artists suggest the underlying commonality and reveal the universal. In this way, they make the specific general, the individual universal.
Lighthouses and stars are examples of those images with a rich array of symbolic meanings favoured by writers, poets, and painters. (Image: public domain.)
Ground breaking author Virginia Woolf is certainly one of the most respected writers of the twentieth century and any current writer, whether mainstream or cutting edge, can improve their work by learning something about her unique abilities. What was at the heart of Woolf’s unusual approach to writing? She once said, “I have some restless searcher in me,” indicating that a process of discovery was the basis of her life and work. For what was she searching?
Woolf believed even trivial incidents can have intense emotional significance. She treasured certain moody moments of being and used them to great effect in her work. (Image: public domain)
We find the answer in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Her young impressionable protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, takes ship for South America on a vessel owned by her father. During the voyage, her interaction with an odd assortment of passengers radically broadens her horizons. She has come from a secluded life in a London suburb, but exposure to challenging intellectual discourse and stimulating new ideas starts a process of rapid growth. She quickly transcends the limitations of her stuffy upbringing. She has begun an exciting psychological voyage of self-discovery.