Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

chimborazo-3Chimborazo, Ecuador

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Turner’s poem is called ‘Romance’ and it records an experience most of us have felt at some point in childhood, the enchantment that arises from the potent combination of exotic names and far-off places, usually the result of reading books. I first heard it (my father was a great reciter of verse and lodged many poems in my head long before I ever read them, though I think it may have been my brother made me aware of this one) when I was still at primary school and I remember being perturbed by the second verse:

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

How could that happen and he not notice? I wondered. The fourth verse resonated with me: in those far-off days, we thought nothing of walking considerable distances to school, and being the youngest, I was often on my own, my brothers having moved on to the Big School, and I was certainly a dreamer:

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

volcano-popocatepetl-by-jakub-hejtmanek-wallpaperShining Popocatapetl, Mexico – photo by Jakub Hejtmanek

This poem came to mind on my morning walk when I was trying to recall when I first read Plato. I was about fourteen; it was a summer holiday in Barra, with no television. We learned to play cribbage and I read Plato’s Republic. So, not the misty heights of the South American volcanoes but a golden land of a different sort, the bright morning sunshine of the Mediterranean and ancient Greece, ‘when all the world was young’ – and not Romance, but Philosophy.

I say it was not Romance, and yet I wonder. For all his stern strictures on the ‘deception’ of art and poetry (which he would banish from his ideal state, unless it could be used for propaganda purposes) Plato is at his most persuasive when he is at his most poetic: the Simile of the Cave, where the prisoner starts out shackled in darkness, watching the play of shadows on the wall, but escapes to the upper world and gazes at last on the Sun of Truth, remains one of the most potent invitations to the study of philosophy.

Central to Plato’s thought is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This posits a world of immutable Forms which are what really exists – that is Reality; the world we perceive with our senses is deceptive Appearance, a mere shadow, whose contents stand to the World of Forms as the copy to the original. Thus, there are many tables, but each is an instance or expression of the single Idea or Form, ‘Table’.

As a teenager I found this beguiling, but I think an ambivalence was always there: although Plato plainly states that this World of Forms can be apprehended only by the intellect and not by the senses, his own presentation of it is so vivid (The Simile of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, which is an account of metempsychosis, following the journey of the soul after death into the timeless world of Forms thence to rebirth in another body, where its ‘acquisition’ of knowledge is actually ‘anamnesis’ or remembering its sojourn between death and birth) that it lends it the quality of concrete reality; to my teenage mind it was super-real: it had all the the vividness of the sensible world, only more so; as such it was a continuation by other means of fairyland and all the mysterious realms that had succeeded it in the stories of my childhood – it was the secret realm that lies hidden behind everyday reality, attainable only to the fortunate few.

(Another strand that was important to me was the compatibility of Plato’s thought with my religious beliefs – which should be no surprise, given that Platonism was the first big philosophical influence on Catholic thought, long before Aquinas assimilated Aristotle)

It has taken a good four decades and more for my perspective on Plato to shift. I think his way of looking at things retains a great deal of potency but is mistaken (or rather misleading) in two key particulars. The first of these is the elevation of the intellect with a concomitant denigration of the senses. I am beginning to think that this may have been a major wrong turning in Western thought and that its effects have been almost wholly pernicious. Plato may not be the first but he is certainly the foremost in establishing the antithesis between Appearance and Reality, effectively relegating the senses (and with them the emotions) to an insignificant and untrustworthy sideshow: the senses cannot be trusted; the intellect alone apprehends Truth. That is something that has bedevilled Western thought ever since; it could be summed up as the triumph of Head over Heart.

The second fault is not in his description but his labelling of it. There is a world that is apprehended by the intellect and a world apprehended by the senses, but it is the latter that is Real and Original, the former that is artificial and derivative.

(At this point, a curious things happened. Casting about for a suitable image to convey that Plato’s way of looking at things was a complete inversion of how they actually are, I recalled a particular optical illusion, where a hollow mask is rotated and we see it as a positive, convex face whichever side we see, and to accommodate this, we reverse the direction of its rotation. I recalled that I had used it in a previous piece I had written (Force of Habit) but when I checked, the link was broken. Searching for another version I came on this but what really excited me was the note at the end:

‘this illusion often fails to work on people suffering with schizophrenia; they are able to see the hollow mask for what it is. In this case the raw visual information (bottom-up processing) is not over-ridden by higher cognitive processes (top-down processing). Some psychologists believe that this dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality.’

Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details.’

Screenshot 2015-03-23 13.13.06

This, couched in different language, is just what Plato proposes in his Theory of Forms: the Form or Idea is general, and specific instances are derived from it (interestingly, it was Plato’s pupil Aristotle who devised the system of classification using Genus and Species, where things are grouped together according to their common or general characteristics, and subdivided according to their specific or detailed differences – a way of looking at things that seems so ‘natural’ that we forget that it was an invention).

Biological-Taxonomy

However, what excited me even more than this unexpected sidelight on Plato was how well the idea that the ‘dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality’ fitted with the notion I floated in my last piece  namely that some (perhaps much) ‘mental illness’ has its roots in an inability to learn the conventional way of seeing the world that most of us have adopted. Of course, from my point of view, I would insist on the inverted commas round ‘reality’ here, and I would resist the superiority implied in describing ‘top-down processing’ as ‘higher cognitive processes’.

In other words, Plato’s Theory of Forms – or ‘top-down processing’ if you prefer – is the very ‘carapace’ that we interpose between ourselves and reality, as discussed in my previous articles [here and here]. It is worth exploring this idea further.

The first thing to say is that we must remember, first and foremeost, that what we are discussing here are not actual things but ways of seeing – what Plato (and all who have followed) are offering is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking about it – ‘seeing it as’ .

In saying this, I do not mean that before Plato no-one saw it this way and that since then everyone has learned consciously to do so. What Plato has made explicit and others (principally Aristotle) have refined is a technique, a way of dealing with the world, of operating in it, that was doubtless already implicit in much of our behaviour (though it would be interesting to know to what extent).

At the heart of this technique is abstraction, or the power to generalise, the trick of ignoring (superficial) difference and homing in on (underlying) similarity. This is certainly a very powerful tool: it enables us to use general terms, group things under the same head: ‘tree’ for all and any tree, ‘car’ ‘man’ ‘insect’ and so on. We can imagine that without it our mental processes might be very cumbersome; certainly our language would be. (I have discussed an aspect of this before, in relation to number, here).

I remember as a youth having an interesting discussion with an elderly Australian jesuit, Fr. John Flynn, an eminent islamic scholar among other things. His brother was a man of the same cut and had compiled one of the first dictionaries of the Australian Aboriginal tongue. One point that has stuck in my mind was that (apparently) they had no single verb ‘to wash’ but used a different word depending on what was being washed – the feet, the hands, the head, some article*. Fr Flynn cited this as evidence of ‘primitive’ thinking and I remember arguing that it might rather have been that, for them, more significance attached to the difference between the specific acts than to the similarity of the action, so that to suppose that washing the feet was like washing the face might strike them as ludicrous or possibly indecent.

This calls to mind what is said in the excerpt quoted above about one set of cognitive processes ‘over-riding’ another and the attitude this implies. We could say that the Aboriginal Australian (in the instance cited) has not developed the ‘higher’ cognitive processes that enable him to see that all acts of washing are essentially the same, share the same general form; but equally the Aboriginal Australian could retort that our debased ‘Western’ way of looking at things is a bit like having bad eyesight – we can no longer distinguish critical details. It is we who are deficient: we have forgotten how to see.

I find that idea exciting. It resonates with other things that I feel are bound up with this whole area of discussion, the question of what constitutes Reality and how best to perceive it. One is the celebrated ability of the Aboriginal Australian to ‘read’ the landscape and navigate without any of the aids that ‘Westerners’ require; when it comes to reading our surroundings, it is we who are illiterate. (When we lost this ability is an interesting matter to consider. There has recently been something of a revival in Britain of the idea of reading a landscape in this way (as here, for instance) and it is a commonplace that those who work close to nature and depend on it for their livelihood – shepherds, farmers, fishermen, say – are much more skilled in gleaning information from their surroundings.)

Another point of resonance is the experience of learning to draw, and developing skill in art generally; one of the first things you have to be aware of is the extent to which we allow concepts to interpose between us and the thing we are looking at. The simple exercise of drawing a familiar object – a cup, say – soon brings this home. We know what a cup is – we have the idea of it ‘in our head’: it seems superfluous to provide an example; we could draw one from our imagination. And to begin with, that is what we do. We fail to see the specific cup that is in front of us and draw our idea of it instead; we need to learn various techniques for seeing past the concept to the actual object, which is a pattern of light, shade and colour. (One such is the technique of ‘negative space’ where instead of attending to the object, you look at the space round about it (see some interesting applications here)).

Here I think we are approaching the heart of the matter, which is the possibility that we have evolved a way of seeing the world that has proved so useful and beneficial in so many respects that we have become blind to its shortcomings (it is, in fact, a form of elective indispensability, an idea I discuss in an earlier piece). The consequence is that when we experience difficulty as a result of these shortcomings – as I think is increasingly the case – we fail to recognise the source. We resemble, if you like, people who have become increasingly wearied and burdened by a heavy back-pack and try every method to make it easier to carry – walking sticks, different diet, improved fitness – save the obvious one of taking it off.

*I am open to correction here, as I am recalling something from forty years ago.

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The Exploration of Inner Space II : by way of metaphor

101_1705

In a recent piece, prompted by Eliot’s line
‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’
I suggested that we have constructed a carapace that protects us from Reality much as a spacesuit protects an astronaut or a bathysphere a deep-sea explorer.

This in itself is an instance of how metaphor works as a tool of thought and I think it is worth examining. There is, as I have discussed elsewhere  a certain hostility to metaphor and this should not surprise us, since metaphor – ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle defines it – effectively violates at least two of the three so-called ‘Laws of Thought’ that underpin rational argument:

Identity – ‘A is A’ (metaphor asserts that A is B)
Contradiction – ‘A is not not-A’ (again, metaphor asserts that ‘something is what it is not’)
(The third law, Excluded Middle, states that where there are only two choices, there is no third possibility (so ‘A or not-A’) That may also be violated, but let’s not go into that now.)

Yet despite that – in fact, I would assert, because of it – metaphor is a key tool for thinking about the world and how we are situated in it.

There is no mystery to its mechanism, as I think can be illustrated from the particular case we are discussing. The essence of metaphor is ‘seeing as’ – considering the thing we are trying to understand in terms of something we already understand. In most cases, what we are invited to see is a set of relations – ‘x stands to y much as a stands to b.’ So, in this case, I say that we should think of ourselves standing in relation to Reality as someone who is protected by a carapace or intervening layer that comes between them and their surroundings.

This, of course, is to do no more than unpack what is already implied in Eliot’s line and to reinforce it by concrete imagery: we understand the importance of the spacesuit and the bathysphere, so we are being invited to see our experience (by which I mean ‘what it is like to be alive and conscious’) in terms of being surrounded by an environment from which we must protect ourselves by interposing some mediating layer since we cannot cope with prolonged exposure to it.

There will be people who view this sort of talk with some degree of hostility and scepticism, and it was to forestall them that I modified my earlier expression ‘thinking about the world and how we are situated in it’ to ‘our experience’ as a signal to step back from conventional terms which could be misleading. This is because we are not looking down a microscope here, at something (e.g. plant cells) whose place in a particular scheme of things is already agreed; we are taking a step back to where the ‘schemes of things’ are dreamed up in the first place, namely ‘inside the head’ (or inner space, if you like): we are operating in the realm of the imagination, attempting to disentangle problems of thought.

This highlights a difficulty inherent in philosophy, which someone once described as ‘a kind of thinking about thinking’: how do you get back to the starting point and avoid being ensnared by preconceived ideas? How do you use an existing way of thought to think about a different way of thinking? It is a kind of paradox. Wittgenstein touches on it in the Tractatus (6.54):
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

Descartes was trying to do the same thing in his Discourse, where he aimed to get back to some bedrock of which he could be certain, to use as a foundation on which to build a system of thought, and came up with his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (some thousand years after Augustine had said the same thing). It is in that wanting to be certain that Descartes goes wrong – in the territory where we are operating, nothing is certain, everything is provisional; the question is not ‘what can I be sure of?’ but rather ‘how can I see this?’

Thus (to return to the matter in hand, our metaphorical carapace) we proceed obliquely, by suggesting ‘ways of seeing it’ that coincide or seem complementary. It should be no surprise that the first is yet again drawn from poetry, since that is where metaphorical thinking is at home:

detail of Averkamp's Winter Landscape(Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape (detail))

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

That is WB Yeats’s poem, The Cold Heaven. As Seamus Heaney observes (in his brilliant essay ‘Joy or Night’ in The Redress of Poetry)

‘This is an extraordinarily vivid rendering of a spasm of consciousness, a moment of exposure to the total dimensions of what Wallace Stevens once called our ‘spiritual height and depth.’ The turbulence of the lines dramatizes a sudden apprehension that there is no hiding place, that the individual human life cannot be sheltered from the galactic cold. The spirit’s vulnerability, the mind’s awe at the infinite spaces and its bewilderment at the implacable inquisition which they represent – all of this is simultaneously present.’

I was strongly reminded of Yeats’s poem, particularly the lines

I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

when I came across a deeply moving account by a mother of life with her daughter. This is an extract – I urge you to read the whole piece here – a terrific piece of writing.

‘I have had to learn to do these things quietly because my daughter needs me to.  She is seven; bright, super funny, articulate, thoughtful and loving.  She also has autism spectrum disorder.  If you saw her on a good day, you’d maybe think she was a little shy and kooky.  You’d maybe wonder why I am letting her wear flip-flops in the winter rain.  You’ll never see her on a bad day as she can’t leave the house*.

She has severe sensory processing difficulties.  A normal day exhausts her and when she feels overwhelmed, even a gentle voice trying to soothe her with loving words can be too much to process, making her feel crazy.  She describes walking into a room of people as “like staring at the sun”. She’s incredibly empathetic but you may not realise as she feels her own and others’ emotions so deeply she can’t bear it, and so sometimes she has to just shut down. ‘

(that asterisk, by the way, links to this footnote:
‘*3 months of non-stop bad days and counting, not left the house since December 3rd 2014’ – the blog was written on 3 March)

I apologise for appropriating another person’s anguish to use as an illustration but I hope I do not do so lightly. I have my own experience of the pain that results when someone you love cannot cope with the world and I am increasingly convinced that a great deal of what we term ‘mental illness’ – particularly in the young – has to do with their difficulty in reconciling Reality (or Life, if you like) as they experience it with the version that those around them seem to accept – it is a learning difficulty or impairment; they just cannot get the hang of how they are ‘supposed to’ see things.

In fact, ‘supposed to’ is just the right idiom here, for the subtle nuances it has in English:

‘that’s not supposed to happen’
‘you’re not supposed to do that’
‘it’s supposed to do this’
‘because that’s what you’re supposed to do!’

– it conveys not only a divergence between how things are and how they are meant to be – the infinite capacity of life to surprise us, the inherent tendency of all plans to miscarry (‘the best laid schemes o mice an men gang aft agley’) – but also the tension between social constraint and the individual will: ‘you’re not supposed to do that!’ is what the child who has bought into the conventions early on (that would be me, I fear) squeals when his bolder companion transgresses (and that squeal is followed by an expectant hush during which the sky is supposed to fall in, but doesn’t).

The world is not as we suppose – or perhaps it would be better to say that it is ‘not as we pretend,’ since that brings out the puzzlement that many – perhaps all – children experience at some point, that the adult world is an elaborate pretence, a denial of the reality that is in front of their noses.

Here is Eliot again, from Murder in the Cathedral:

Man’s Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children’s party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration,
All things become less real.

fredwcat1909

the hollowness of achievement and the emptiness of success is a commonplace of adult writing, and it complements a central theme of much children’s writing, that the world is a marvellous and enchanting place full of magic and wonder (and terror) – but adults, as a general rule, cannot see it (which has just this instant reminded me of a favourite and curious book of my childhood, The Hick-boo**. about a creature only children could see – the adult exception being an artist).

And that is a hopeful note to end on, for now: that there may be a better way to mediate Reality than the conventional carapace, namely Art (in its most inclusive sense – painting, sculpture, poetry, storytelling, music, dance). That is something I shall come back to.

**to be exact, ‘The Hick-boo, a tale of a tailless transparent goblin’ by MH Stephen Smith (Hutchinson 1948).

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The Exploration of Inner Space, I : Facing up to reality

Scott_Gives_Salute_-_GPN-2000-001114From time to time, you come across ingenious arguments that purport to show that the moon-landings were an elaborate hoax, which I think say more about those who advance them than they do about the veracity of lunar exploration; yet there is a sense in which man has not experienced ‘being on the moon’ any more than he has experienced being in the depths of the ocean.

What Neil Armstrong and others experienced was being in a space suit on the moon, just as deep-sea explorers experience being in a submarine vessel at great depths: they are not in immediate contact with their surroundings, as the denizens of the deep are, or as we would be, exploring somewhere on the surface of the earth – they cannot smell or touch or taste or hear, and though they see, it is only through a window of sorts.

Do not think I say this to disparage these achievements, which are admirable, but rather to point out something that has troubled me since I was a child, transported in my imagination to the depths of space or the sea – the sense that the suit or the submarine would seem claustrophobic, that the inability to reach out and actually touch would be infuriating (in an odd way, an extension of the same frustration caused by a glass case in a museum); the feeling that, though I had gone all that way, I still had not actually ‘got there’ – rather as if I had walked many days to see a famous palace or cathedral but had been barred from entering it.

WCS_Beebe_Barton_600“WCS Beebe Barton 600” by U.S. Federal Government (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Of course it will be objected that such an experience as I envisage would be, not impossible – since one could discard the suit, venture out of the submarine – but certainly ill-advised, since we could not hope to survive it, and that is perfectly true; but there is something very potent in this image of going places yet remaining fortified by our own portable version of home (a variant on the comical tourist who goes abroad with tins of baked beans in his luggage and insists on eating only British food)

This notion of the protective suit or carapace (whether mental or physical) called to mind Eliot’s line, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ (which is worth reading in its (second*) context, the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’, here ).

It is a commonplace of sociology that ‘reality is a construct’ by which is meant, I suppose, that a great deal of what we call ‘real’ is actually mere convention – we agree to see the world in such a way and this is expressed in the way we talk about it and act in it (an example would be the elaborate edifice of time that we have erected, with its minutes, hours, days and years (and its adjuncts of clocks and calendars and diaries and year-planners) that enables us to order the past and envisage the future). The corollary is that what is real – the reality humankind cannot bear very much of – is something quite other, against which our constructed ‘reality’ acts as a screen or a protection – much as the space-suit for the astronaut or the submarine for the deep-sea explorer.

Doubtless there are good reasons for that protective construct, just as there are for the space-suit or the submarine – it might well be that direct exposure to reality would indeed ‘blow our mind’ (a phrase that recalls the sixties’ fashion for using psychotropic substances to gain access to an altered vision of reality). On the other hand, we can conceive of an alternative route, not the single step of a mind-altering substance, but rather some process of acclimatisation, as pearl-divers train themselves to go deeper and deeper, and climbers to go higher and higher without supplementary oxygen.

Not that there is anything new here: the ancient practice of meditation, particularly in the East, is surely just such a kind of ‘acclimatisation’ – ‘detachment from self and from things and from persons’ to quote Eliot, again.

The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are (and consider here the expressions we use: ‘ecstasy’ (literally ‘standing outside (oneself)’ ‘transports of delight’ and being ‘carried away’).

I had a curious insight soon after writing the previous paragraph when I went out for a walk in our crowded, busy town. I tried to ‘unthink’ the social construct, the agreed convention – i.e. that I am such and such a person in such and such a place on a particular day at a certain date and time in a certain country with a particular history, and indeed I have my personal history which is documented both officially – birth and marriage certificates, passports, various qualifications – state exams, degree, driving licence – and privately, by things I have written, pictures and so on. All these things are, if you will, like the surrounding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which define the unique space into which I fit: so what happens when you ‘think away’ these arbitrary things – what are you left with?

The interesting thing was that I could not do it, and I fell to wondering why. My first thought was that it must be the traffic, which seemed unusually busy, so that the constant noise and movement – to say nothing of the need to watch where I was going – was distracting me from my line of thought. Then it struck me that that was only partly true, on the surface, as it were – the real deep distraction was not just the cars, but the roads and the buildings; it was the town itself, the physical embodiment – in fact, the realisation, in a precise sense – of the very ideas I was trying to unthink.

780px-Ferrara-1600We are inclined to overlook this necessary link between the man-made object and the idea: the object is present and actual, a tangible thing, and it arrests our attention: we do not go beyond it, to see that it is an end product [cp Plato’s Theory of Forms, which sees each actual instance of something – a table, say – as the embodiment of the ‘ideal form’ (or ‘idea’) ‘table’; or from a slightly different angle, Aristotle, whose ‘final cause’ is ‘the end to which something is directed’ – in plain words, ‘how it is meant to end up’ – which equally gives priority to the idea or concept as the starting point – you can have the idea without its realisation, but not vice versa]

In this way, every city is a witness to the idea of civilisation, not just in the narrow sense of living in cities, but all that goes with it – the idea of a settled community, of imposing control on nature, cultivating crops, harnessing rivers and all the rest – indeed, beyond the city (backing it up, as it were) is the convention of government, law and order, nations; so it is no surprise that those who wish to escape the construct and come closer to reality start by escaping the city – they seek the wilderness, the desert, the mountains or the sea – wherever man has not interposed the protective suit we have constructed to enable us to survive day-to-day contact with reality.

*interestingly, it is a line he uses twice – the first time is in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’

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