Monday, June 28, 2010

Sentence and context

Many sentences have several interpretations, and even more interpretations when they are divorced from the context. The latter need not be bad, as long as one realizes what one is doing. Interpreting sentences can be a creative act and make the mind open for new ideas. In my blog of April 30 last I explained that a sceptical interpretation of the first part of Wittgenstein’s second aphorism in his On certainty is not correct in view of the context. To remember, Wittgenstein said there: “From its seeming to me - or to everyone - to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.” He argued that fundamentally we cannot be sceptical because in the end we need a frame of reference (a language game, as he called it) in order to make doubt possible. We need a frame of stable presuppositions, he says, and only within this frame we can doubt. However, as I showed, also such a frame of reference is not beyond doubt, for in the end it is a shared individual frame at most: frames of reference appear to be stable, because many people have them. Then we have dissolved scepticism in a practical way, so it seems.
Nevertheless, a fundamental sceptical interpretation of what we perceive may be useful. Actually it is that what scientists often do when they practise science. One of the problems in science is that a theory might seem to be a good one and still we do not know whether it is true. For how should we know that the theory is true? We only know that it works in the sense that when we apply it, it gives good results. Take a sunset, for instance. For thousands of years people thought that the sun really went down at the end of the day and they lived with it. The idea behind it was that the earth is the centre of the universe and everything in heaven moved around the earth. Okay, a few heavenly objects moved a bit strange and not in circles like the other ones, but who cared? Some people cared, like Galileo and Copernicus, and it was discovered that this problem could only be solved by changing the frame of reference, and putting the earth on a far less important place in universe. Everybody knows this story, but it still teaches us something important: our stable convictions and frames of reference are often not as stable as we might think. It shows also that false thoughts can be stimulating, for the original explanation of the sunset and the central place of the earth was false, but just the fact that it led to some strange phenomena (the apparently strange movements of the planets in the sky) stimulated the development of better ideas. Seen in this way, it need not be bad that sentences are divorced from the context, for Wittgenstein’s anti-sceptical interpretation of the quotation would stop us, where the context ends, but taken as it is its seemingly false sceptical interpretation can be a first step to topple what everybody “knows”. At least so it seems.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The turmoil in my mind

Thoughts sprout from my mind
(Photo taken at the International Garden Festival, Ch√Ęteau Chaumont, 2010)

A reader who commented on my blog “The fluency of reality” (April 26, 2010) reproached me of having “too much turmoil in my mind”. I do not know whether he referred only to what I wrote there or that he thinks that it is generally so, but I suppose that he is right and I am proud of it. Even more, probably I couldn’t have written my blogs and what else that I have written during the years without the turmoil in my mind, sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes maybe even in that degree that I did not know where to start writing. For I think that some disorder in your mind is necessary for being creative and developing new ideas.
Most creativity does not start from nothing, with a flash and there it is. No, creativity is hard working. You cannot be creative without knowing what you are talking about, so you need thorough background knowledge. Therefore, I spend much time on reading on themes that I find interesting and that are important for what I want to write about. Themes that broaden my mind. From this background I choose my subjects for a blog or for an article or maybe even for a book. But then, I am not yet ready: I need a plan of work. I do not want to say that I have always a well developed plan when I am writing. Far from that. A vague plan is often enough for me to make a start and to come to a good end. Once I have begun writing, my mind produces lots of associations and when I pick them up, it leads me gradually to the development of what I have in my mind and want to express.
Writing in this way is not enough for creative writing, though. For until now it is simply a matter of practice and it does not bring something new. I do not want to say that the result will be unimportant. What is routine knowledge for me may be new for other people and help them a lot. But if I want to bring something really new and want to be really creative, I need something more: everything that I have gathered in my mind for my blog, article, book has to be mixed. That is where the turmoil starts. Unexpected and unlikely associations must be made, associations with themes, events and facts that do not belong to my main theme must be brought in. Thoughts that look foolish at first sight must be considered and developed in their consequences, old thoughts must be reconsidered, and so on, and so on. It is impossible to describe what happens, for much of it is an unconscious process. But one thing is clear: it is turmoil in my mind. And then it suddenly happens. It can be a matter of minutes, a matter of days, or sometimes a matter of years, but then, if everything goes well, all at once new creative thoughts sprout from my mind. It makes me happy and elated: something really new has been born. I am the first to admit that the result may also turn out to be false, and may have to be thrown away later. It may be an idea about which another person would say: “it involves too much turmoil in your … mind”. But is that bad? I don’t think so. For every thought can be the starting point for a new thought. Even a wrong thought, a false thought often is. It is the way creativity works and brings something positive. And in the end that couldn’t have happened without much turmoil in my mind and in the minds of other persons.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Producing and practising

I shall not give an answer to the question of my blog last week. I simply haven’t one. At least not now; maybe later. However, when I had finished the blog, I had to think of a distinction by Aristotle that may be relevant for the answer on the question whether we die a bit when my action has finished and the result of it no longer exists.
In the blog I mentioned several examples of actions: writing a book, making a garden, shopping, making a bike ride, chasing away a burglar, visiting a friend. Let us look at two of them: writing a book and making a bike ride. Writing a book is a long and complicated action. It can last many years, but in the end there is a result: a book, which you can buy in a shop, for instance. If you find writing a book a too complex example of an action, let’s say that I write a letter to a friend. It takes me half an hour to write it and then it is ready for posting. An action like making a bike ride does not have such a material result. I love cycling and several times a week I make a ride just for pleasure. However, when I am home again, I cannot say: Look, here is my bike ride. I have just finished it. Do you want to have it? Nobody would understand it, for making a bike ride does not lead to a result that you have at the end of it as a ready-made product independent of the action itself. No, the aim of making a bike ride is just the doing itself. Such an action was called “praxis” by Aristotle (from prattein, to act, to practise) and he distinguished it from actions like writing a book or a letter, which he called “poiesis” (from poiein, to make).
In view of the distinction between praxis and poiesis, maybe it is possible to say that one dies a bit when the result of a case of poiesis is destroyed, while praxis is an instance of living. Although this may be a starting point for answering my question, I think that it is not as simple as that. In the first place, we produce many things during the years. Letters, memorandums as an office worker, objects as a production worker or in spare time, meals in the kitchen, and so on. Can we say that I die a bit each time such a result of our productive actions is destroyed? I think that not everything we produce is so important that we can go that far. But secondly, not all actions can be clearly classified as a case of poiesis or praxis. Take making a garden. I have changed the wilderness behind my house into a garden. Must I say now that I have produced a garden? But at which moment was my garden finished? When I have put the last plant in it? And how about garden maintenance? A garden is not something stable but must be kept. Moreover, making a garden as such, the action of gardening, is for many people also a case of praxis. These are only a few of the points that need to be cleared, when one wants to distinguish poiesis and praxis. Nevertheless, I think that the distinction is useful and that it may help a bit to understand better what fundamentally belongs to us.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The destruction of actions

Let us suppose that I like gardening. I have a large piece of land behind my house and when I bought the house and moved there this piece of land was a wilderness. It was full of weeds. Birds and insects loved to live there and rabbits loved it, too. In short, it was a beautiful piece of nature. However, since I like gardening, I was not satisfied with it. I wanted to cultivate and to civilize it. And so I did. I invested time and money in it, made a garden plan, bought plants, bought seeds, grew plants, planted them out. I did everything a gardener does with such piece of land and after many years I had a beautiful garden. I opened it on Open Garden Days for everybody and my garden attracted always many people. It became famous and it was considered a piece of art. Then, after again many years, I moved. Nobody in the family that bought the house liked gardening, the garden went in decay and in the end it was again a beautiful piece of nature and the birds, the insects and rabbits loved it again and so did the frogs that lived in what remained of the pond. And after some time everybody had forgotten that once there had been a beautiful garden there.

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Let us suppose that I like writing. I always wrote little stories for myself, wrote articles for the school paper. When I went to the university and studied philosophy, I loved writing term papers and then my dissertation. However, as a philosopher it is difficult to get a job and I did something else but in my spare time I managed to write a couple of philosophical books that became rather popular, although it was not enough to live on it. Actually they gave me not more than a bit of pocket money. But I loved it and I had put my heart and soul in these few books, which were actually an extension of my mind. But fashions change. My books were less and less bought and in the end nobody wanted to buy or read them any longer. They were considered boring and outdated, secondhand bookshops did not want to sell them anymore and what remained was snipped. Maybe you still find here and there a copy in an odd corner, and of course, in my bookcase, but I will be sure that after 100 years no copy will be left any longer.

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I ended my last blog with: “When we destroy a book, we destroy not only a bunch of paper, but we destroy a part of a human mind, a part of what we as humans are.” Burning books like the Nazis did is considered uncivilized and a criminal act. It destroys our culture. It destroys what we are. If we see books as an extension, if not a part, of the mind, we can say that I die a bit when my books are destroyed. Many people agree with this idea. Books are holy in a certain sense. But what about when my garden is destroyed? Didn’t I have put my mind in it? Okay, gardens are considered to be a piece of culture by many people. But what about my other actions? I do a lot in my life. Some actions have a material expression, like my books. Other actions do not have such an expression. They fade away at the moment that I have done them and that is it. My shopping, my making a bike ride, my chasing away a burglar in my house, my visiting a friend: What is the difference between all such actions, including writing a book and gardening, and is there a difference? Do I die a bit when my bike ride has ended or when I leave the shop?