Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, July 30, 2010

Energy, ignorance, and insight

Over on An Und Fur Sich, Adam Kotsko remarks (a propos Christopher Nolan's film Inception) on:
the difference between a book that shows how smart the author is and a book that makes the reader feel smarter. That feeling is an illusion…Yet by introducing them to the gut-level satisfaction of intellectual work, we might arouse in them a hunger, that peculiar intellectual hunger that can only work through an initial overconfidence.
I want to briefly expand on some comments I made at the time. As I wrote there, this succinct passage of Kotsko's almost suffices as a definition of successful art or successful philosophy, or indeed just successful teaching. Most of us have known the sense of reading a novel and feeling in oneself the sense of co-creating it. This is reader-response theory, or even the affective fallacy, at its best, one might say. (Sometimes it goes wrong--one experiences an off-the-rails sense when a plot or character makes a move one would have handled differently. One wonders how many works of art have resulted from the re-writing of other works; Anna Karenina, for instance, out of Tolstoy's dissatisfaction with Madame Bovary.) Harold Bloom's entire "anxiety of influence" notion is based on the premise that art provokes in us a kind of competing, agonistic urge, an urge to “do that too,” and doubtless gives you the (illusory) sense that you can. Indeed, in this Bloom just shows himself a good disciple of the Romantics, whose notion of the Sublime was precisely this thought of the object as a provocation, a challenge that occasioned for us a project, a measuring of oneself against it.

There really are films, or books, and above all conversation partners, that bring our of you some half-hidden capacity for wit and even occasional brilliance. Sometimes after seeing a Woody Allen movie, everyone is spurred on to an hour or two of crazier levels of funniness, derivative, no doubt, and (thank God) not long-lasting, but not for all that merely a phantom. It's not unlike a good round of drunkenness. Likewise, there are books or thinkers who make one able to soar; especially the moment that one first, and all too imperfectly, understands some basic premise, and the world looks different. Indeed, I think it is often especially just at first that one attains these sorts of insights; and I think we make a mistake if we write them off as just an emotional rush that chances to accompany real intellectual work.

One is very lucky to find a teacher who, when you talk with them, makes you feel smarter in this way, who sets your heart as well as your mind afire; and if one ever is so blessed as to be such a teacher for even an hour, one should offer a thank-offering on the altar of ones heart.

Plato often shows Socrates doing a variation of this, asking leading questions, letting his interlocutor run off with the topic, striking the perfectly "teachable" pose, only to deflate (not always gently) these pretensions. Plato himself, too, does this by planting in this works leading questions, or positions with objections you can see yourself, so that you can congratulate yourself for thinking you saw the problem. In both cases, the follow-up is various. Some of the participants in dialogue go off still feeling self-congratulatory, or convinced of poor Socrates' muddle-headedness; some get angry and defensive; a few enter more fully into Socrates' own perplexity in a way that makes them feel more, not less, alive in a life worth living.

In this way many of the dialogues are like the cave-allegory; there are levels and stages of ascent, as one turns from one set of false premises to another, until (maybe) one comes to a kind of blinding "I-get-it!" moment--but then, challenged to say what's been "got," one crashes into the bathos of insight; not (or not always) because the insight isn't real, but genuinely because "it is not the sort of thing that admits to summary in words."

Much more frequently than between teacher and student, in my experience, this rapport happens between fellow-students. (As a teacher of pre-teens, I have often seen a kid internalize in two minutes a piece of advice from a peer that encapsulates the same hoary wisdom I would have spent vain hours or days or months trying to convince them of.) Of course, from the outside (or, occasionally, in retrospect) this can look like it reduces to a mutual-admiration-fest, with flippant in-jokes ringing back and forth. Sometimes this really is what it is; one ego plays off of another, in a cyclone of reinforcing projections. But a good teacher--which means, first of all, one who does not sneer at the alloy of narcissism and naive enthusiasm in such groups--can turn this cycle of regard to good use, harnessing the energy of discussion to produce the genuine questioning moment. Of course this can only happen when one is free from condescension. In other words, the teacher must themselves in a sense buy into the "illusion" that the student knows as much as the teacher. In other words, to use a word that is by now charged on this blog, the teacher and student have to both participate in the same pursuit of understanding.

This is at least part of the secret of "Socratic ignorance." So the question is, then, is it an illusion?


  1. The 'increment of association' was coined by Major Douglas whose economic theories interested such diverse characters as Barfield, Steiner, Pound, Fuller. cf.

    The increment of association with the ancestors is called tradition, with the holy dead, the communion of saints, with the living saints, satsang. I don't know what its opposite might be, bad company I suppose.

    Good teachers will find you out which may be elevating or sobering.

    I asked a woman teacher in India for some instruction, a little bit of spiritual capital to hump away in my fardel. She replied:
    - The Divine Mother does not give any instruction.

  2. From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: "some brothers . . . went to see Abba Felix and they begged him to say a word to them. But the old man kept silence. After they had asked for a long time he said, . . . 'There are no more words nowadays. . . . Since the brothers now ask without doing that which they hear, God has withdrawn the grace of the word from the old men and they do not find anything to say, since there are no longer any who carry their words out.' Hearing this, the brothers groaned, saying, 'Pray for us, Abba.'"

    Thus even declining to give a word becomes a word, and withdrawal is seen as pregnant with signs.

    I might add, that so-called Socratic ignorance and peer-to-peer learning/teaching (upon which Sudbury education is also based in part) also involves what Shunryu Suzuki referred to as "beginner's mind" in Zen.

  3. That Sudbury school sounds like a place that would have been a distinct improvement on what I suffered. I've been looking at the wikipedia article on them. Interesting.