Friday, June 27, 2008

Preface (old version)

I enjoy the reflective essay. But there are many voices and mine is only one of them.

When I began blogging I wanted to create a site where I could publish lengthy quotations from the books I read. Without being in graduate school, I live the life of the interdisciplinary scholar, always sifting through a different book and taking notes. Although these books have little to do with each other, I draw connections.

I draw connections because I see connections. Many think I am mad. The art of linking is a mad art. Linkages can be found anywhere.

Linkages between life and art, linkages between science and religion, linkages between architecture and writing.

Because I do a lot of reading I’m constantly discovering tidbits of wisdom; and that’s what I had originally called this website, “The Philosopher’s Tidbits.”

Since then, things have changed.

The first changes began to show themselves when I added to the pages my own ideas. It began with a short essay, and then a longer one.

I continued to publish lengthy quotations in between my essays. The purpose was twofold. By typing the quotes into my computer, I learned the material of these great thinkers. And two, I suspected that I could increase my page views if I published a famous quote on the Net every couple days.

I also have a long history of copying and recopying.

My earliest memory of obsessive copying is during my sophomore year in high school. I was taking an AP European History class and it was impossible for me to remember anything without copying it down in small print. I was very meticulous and neat. My handwriting drew the attention of my classmates. Before the AP test, I had two stacks of ink-covered pages.

And then in college I remember one of my professors gave us an assignment to keep a “literary theory journal". While she only meant for us to jot down a couple definitions, I set about the Sisyphean task of collecting two volumes of notes and quotations on literary theory. These journals epitomized my habit of overachievement; labors so absolutely unnecessary that they became marvels in their own right.

Therefore: I have a tendency to write things down, especially the thoughts of others.

The line between graphomania and reverence is a thin one. At times I copied down the thoughts of others because they inspired me. At other times I copied them down because I needed words to explain things about life. And there were also times when the physical act of copying satisfied a deep urge inside of me.

Could I have been using the words of others to form a wall around myself?

I am a writer.

I am also afraid to write.

Reaching for ready-made sentences relieves the terror of having to say something original.

And the words great thinkers used seemed different from my own. Their words were more permanent. Their aphorisms like pieces of jade.

I am an idealist. I will always look for the best, and try to achieve my best potential.

The pitfall of this thinking is that I am often mesmerized by what is esteemed “great”. And by fixing a perpetual gaze on others, I undermine my own abilities.

Sometimes I’m just lazy and would rather quote somebody else instead of writing an original sentence.

Whatever the value and greatness of another’s words, nothing compares to the freshness and originality of my own tongue.

I have taken refuge in the words of others for too long; now I am ready to speak.

I no longer want to be afraid.

At a certain age, a person’s identity and purpose gains momentum—

Until the direction cannot be easily averted.

We are—one day we realize—exactly who we have longed to be.

Whatever posturing we did in our youth blends indistinguishably into an essential personality and person—

This is then a symbolic and literal transition from the words of others into our own.

Our own language.

A prelude to the knowledge of our own being.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More Thoughts on Building

Since my last essay I've done some thinking about the questions I've raised.

A friend also helped me to understand what I was trying to articulate.

She suggested that my point was:

To create something, a building, a work of art, we need sufficient space; without space, nothing can be built upon.

Another way of putting this: openness yields creativity.

With a strong desire to create, and to reflect on creating in the process, I am interested in the notion of "building" as a metaphor for life and art.

In my essay I wanted to join the metaphorical idea of building with the literal one.

Recently I have re-discovered an interview I read in Tricycle Magazine (Spring 2008), which deals with a similar topic.

The magazine interviews Christopher Alexander, a renowned architect and author of the book, A Pattern Language.

Here are some original tidbits from that interview:

"It had to do with the Whole and whether things can be aligned with the Whole and unfolded from it. At Harvard, when I was doing research for my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time in the anthropology department, simply trying to find out what it was that people in all the so-called primitive societies had been doing when they built their buildings. Most of these buildings were, at their best, beautiful, and at the very least, harmless. They were building in a way that helped what I call unfolding--that was almost a given. People wanted to revere the earth, revere God, and maintain the Whole. And that is not the motive now."

"Yet it is the Wholeness that binds things together. My own experience as a builder is that you cannot do this unfolding unless you do it as an act of worship. Craftspeople, ancient and modern, know a tremendous about about this. If you're not steeped in that entity, if you really don't think about it or don't believe in a version of it, then when somebody says, Okay, now build me this motel, you've got absolutely nothing to go on."

"If people think something ought to be a certain shape and then they start making it that shape instead of doing what the unfolding tells them to do, they will royally screw it up. Because of concepts! Concepts interfere with this process--indeed, this is the teaching of Zen, isn't it? You can only act appropriately according to Zen teachings, if you are free of concepts. Because human concepts, no matter how cleverly conceived they are, almost always work against the Whole. And that's what we've been witnessing in architecture now for about one hundred years. The world is now prevented from unfolding."

Later in the interview, discussing universal design principles, he says:

"So why are these forms appearing again and again in different ways? That's what essentially led me to believe that the unfolding we're witnessing is a more fundamental process. The space unfolds to form these configurations, and the particular force that we say are responsible are really just examples of a much more general process that's going on."

"The Whole is always taking shape by differentiating itself in a way that is harmonious with what has come before."

Now I'm going to quote my own essay and bring the two ideas together.

Here is what I said in my essay:

"I want to erect buildings. Not concrete ones. But I believe in the architecture of ideas. I believe there is a harmony to life and a harmony to our relations with others. There is perhaps no secret to discover but only a monument that we have been creating for the longest time. The monument contains our history, our meanings, our vast disconnected thoughts and it connects them all through this great edifice of time."

Revisiting Alexander's interview, I wish to make a slight revision to those words of mine.

Alexander would agree with me about the invisible structures, about the harmony of our relations with others, about the Wholeness of our lives, our lives as spiritual edifices, and our individual accomplishments as personal buildings.

But he would also add that we, as individuals, do not create this Wholeness.

As individuals we perhaps allow the Wholeness to unfold. We can build in a way that "helps" the unfolding.

And this is something that Heidegger never thought of because he was too entrenched in concepts, even though he was trying to point to something beyond them.

The history of Western Philosophy is all the same in this sense: conceptual and abstract.

Hear what Lin Yutang has to say about Western Philosophy:

"Philosophy in the Western sense seems to the Chinese eminently idle. In its preoccupation with logic, which concerns itself with the method of arrival at knowledge, and epistemology, which poses the question of the possibility of knowledge, it has forgotten to deal with the knowledge of life itself."

He concludes, using a prodigious metaphor:

"The German philosophers are the most frivolous of all; they court truth like ardent lovers, but seldom propose to marry her."

Perhaps I descended somewhat into abstraction in my first essay, but my purpose wasn't to put forth a single idea so much as to allow the unfolding of my mind.

If I can merely touch the Wholeness in my writing that Alexander talks about in relation to buildings, I will be satisfied.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Bridge

Martin Heidegger, German existentialist, writes:

"to be sure people think of the bridge as primarily and really merely a bridge; after that, and occasionally, it might possibly express much else besides; and as such an expression it would then become a symbol of those things mentioned before." (Poetry Language Thought)

So just what is Heidegger getting at when he says, "much else besides"?

Clearly he is not talking about the physical and concrete bridge.

My guess is that he means: bridge as symbol, bridge as metaphor, bridge as analogy.

Literal and figurative meanings of words seem to stand at opposite poles of representation.

Let us begin with a concrete bridge. And instead of a bridge, let's use a building.

What makes a building unique? A house, a museum, a skyscraper, a stadium. These are structures that serve a purpose. Right? The purpose of a house is to give shelter. The purpose of a museum is to display artifacts or artwork. The purpose of a skyscraper, generally speaking, is to give shelter or provide office space. The purpose of a stadium is to stage sporting events.

The hollow-space inside a structure makes it usable. This is the practical dimension of a building. The concrete.

What is architecture?

To me, "architecture" refers to both the building itself and the style of the building. Architecture is also the construction of the building.

Besides serving a purpose, we can position ourselves outside of the building merely to look at it. That is, to see the building objectively. To see the building as art.

I am aiming to discover a linkage between two worlds. The first world is the concrete world. The second world is harder to describe. But let me try.

Bernard Tschumi, a renowned architect, reports to the NY Times Magazine (June 7) in an interview:

"My apartment reflects my views as an architect. It is minimal, austere. The architecture doesn't impose itself upon you. The apartment is a stage for other things to take place."

I am very interested in this aesthetic: "a stage for other things to take place."

Call it the aesthetics of negative presence.

A building is a container, a vessel of sorts.

The container should not intrude upon the space inside. The words on the page should not draw too much attention to themselves. The vessel should be clear, transparent. Through the vessel you should be able to see other things.

Two elements come into play: the material and the non-material (or spiritual).

They are intimately linked, although they do not appear to be. Heidegger writes that buildings "are locations that allow spaces." He goes on to say, "That is why building, by virtue of constructing locations, is a founding and a joining of spaces."

Tschumi prefers an apartment that is "minimal". Too many objects take up floor space in architecture and in life.

The more you do, the less you feel you have accomplished. The more you buy, the less you feel you have. Our lives become increasingly more diminished with each new acquisition and activity. We will always crave freedom so long as we are bound to a collection of things.

Lin Yutang writes, "It is that unoccupied space which makes a room habitable, as it is our leisure hours which make life endurable."

I do my best thinking when I am not intending to think. I do my best thinking when I am walking outside, among the trees and the whistling birds. The only roof over my thoughts is the sky. My intellect can spread into a larger vessel, the vessel of nature.

A writer builds structures, not unlike buildings.

These structures "allow spaces" for conversations. Writing invites participation by an audience just as buildings invite people to come inside.

How do we "stand inside" a poem or a novel?

Sometimes when I'm reading a novel, I feel as though I am immersed in a vivid, dreamlike world. But I'm also aware of my reaction to that world. The imagery may evoke sadness or joy in me, or produce a train of exquisite thoughts.

It seems as though a structure has gone up around me without my realizing it. An invisible structure was errected, a container, a vessel for my thoughts and emotions. And now I am baffled by this fourth dimension.

Where does the material end and the spiritual begin? Or are they so conjoined that it is impossible to seperate them?

When I'm reading I'm only aware of physical sensations and mental ones. But somehow they mix inside my experience. The spiritual and physical intermingle.

But why am I curious about this topic? Why has it nagged at my conscience, propelling me into this essay?

This essay is the conjoining of disparate ideas, the founding and joining of spaces. And these are new spaces for me to stand in and inquire about the material and the non-material. But what does it mean? What am I trying to accomplish? I am not sure yet. Perhaps I will continue to examine these ideas. I am afraid they have not been penetrated yet.

So there are visible and invisible structures. A poem is an invisible structure although it's meter and stanza breaks may be visible. A marriage is an invisible structure; sealed by the trust between two partners. A symphony has an invisible architecture. We listen from the audience and hear so many layers of sound built one upon the other.

I want to erect buildings. Not concrete ones. But I believe in the architecture of ideas. I believe there is a harmony to life and a harmony to our relations with others. There is perhaps no secret to discover but only a monument that we have been creating for the longest time. The monument contains our history, our meanings, our vast disconnected thoughts and it connects them all through this great edifice of time.

Who know? The edifice may not be here tomorrow. But whatever I build, I know, will remain in someone's mind.

I will repeat the sentence I quoted at the beginning of this essay. Maybe it will shed greater meaning on the topic now that I'm through; maybe not:

"to be sure people think of the bridge as primarily and really merely a bridge; after that, and occasionally, it might possibly express much else besides; and as such an expression it would then become a symbol of those things mentioned before." (Poetry Language Thought)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

NY Times Week in Review: The Ethos of the Net

From an excellent article in the New York Times, "The Wiki-Way to the Nomination," Sunday Edition (June 8, 2008), by Noam Cohen, here are some insightful observations about the ethos of the Net, and how it's shaping the way we see the world.

Philosophical quotations:

"But at the same time, Mr. Obama's notion of persistent improvement, both of himself and his country, reflects something newer--the collaborative, decentralized principles behind Net projects like Wikipedia and the 'free and open-source' software movement. The qualities he cited to Time to describe his campaign--'openness and transparency and participation'--were ones he said 'merged perfectly' with the Internet. And they may well be the qualities that make him the first real 'wiki-candidate.'

"In this scheme, Mr. Obama's role, at least in rhetoric, is less leader than facilitator, a conduit for decentralized collaboration as described by James Surowiecki in his book 'The Wisdom of Crowds.' 'The ethos of the Net is fundamentally respectful of and invested in the idea of collective wisdom, and in some sense is hostile to the idea that power and authority should belong to a select few,' Mr. Surowiecki wrote.

(bold mine)

Link to the Article


Friday, June 6, 2008

NY Times Book Review: "What to Watch"

Some interesting philosophical quotes that relate to the conversation of the "histrionic instinct" (see previous posts; here and here).

With scholarly assurance and meticulous care, he builds the case that "theatre is the art by which human beings make human actions worth watching." (Incidentally, this is precisely what that word "theatre" means: a place to behold.) From the time we are small, according to Woodruff, we have an innate need to be watched, to know that we are witnessed; equally, we have a need to watch, to drink in the actions and presence of those around us. When these two conditions are met, we grow.

His other main approach is to remind us that "we are all in this together." With rare exceptions, human experience is lived in community. Theatre, by definition (and Woodruff's own definition is careful to exclude solitary forms of watching), is a communal enterprise, both for those who mount a performance and for those who take it in. When it is done well, when it accomplishes its purpose of making human action truly worth watching, we come to care about the characters. This is a good and worthy practice, Woodruff tells us, because it "is not just a matter of theatre; we are better members of the human community if we know how to see other people as carable-about."

From What to Watch," New York Times Book Review, by Leah Hager Cohen.

Review of The Necessity of Theatre: The Art of Waching and Being Watched, by Paul Woodruff.