Meditations & Mediations 1 — Introduction and Section I: On Sources.

By Otto Paans

“Philosopher in Meditation,” by Rembrandt (1632)

If one practices philosophy in some form or the other, how should one do it? What should one do? This question is as old as philosophy itself. Apart from dealing with problems like the nature of free will, the nature of mind, causation, the acquisition of knowledge, the existence of a supreme being, Being in general, and morality, questions about the practice of philosophy and its methodology have always developed in parallel with its core problems.

The contemporary term for this development is metaphilosophy. This area of specialization reflects on the nature of philosophical practice and methodology, apart from all the other “first-order” problems that are addressed by the discipline.[i]

The term has its advocates and detractors, but quibbling aside, it seems unambiguous that the nature and methods of philosophy have generated a sizeable, if somewhat insular literature. As far as I know, pre-modern and early modern philosophers did not write much on the practice of philosophy or its method(s). What we find in pre-modern and early-modern philosophy is that remarks on the nature of philosophizing are woven throughout the classical texts. They appear as asides, short pointers, off-the-cuff observations, clarifications or autobiographical remarks. Correspondingly, the interest in metaphilosophy is a more recent phenomenon, deriving, it seems, from late-modern philosophy, that is, philosophy starting with Kant’s 1781 Critique of Pure Reason, which, as Kant explicitly says in the B edition Preface in 1787, “is a treatise on the method [of metaphysics], not a system of the science itself” (CPR Bxxii).

Meditations & Mediations deals with metaphilosophy in a slightly different manner. It is an exploration of an age-old practice: meditation. With this term, I do not refer to meditation practices one can find in Zen Buddhism or mindfulness courses. Instead, I refer to the contemplative and reflective practices that we know from Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, De Montaigne, Descartes, the pseudonymous Kierkegaard, the later Wittgenstein, or the very late Heidegger.[ii]

In the series of essays that will follow this Introduction — one directly below, and the others appearing in subsequent installments — I want to describe what I take to be the nature of philosophical meditation. The first difficulty is of course, how to do this? To my mind, the best approach is to write about philosophical meditation in a meditative way. This text is therefore not a formal report, or standard journal article, on the practice of meditation; neither is it a manual or set of guidelines for successful meditative practice. Instead, it is both an exploration and a demonstration of philosophical meditation.

It follows that Meditations & Mediations is not organized like an argument in the logical sense. Instead, one may view it as a mirror palace, the individual mirrors of which illuminate, reflect and amplify the images visible in them. Each section deals with different aspects of philosophical meditation, although they need not to be read in any fixed order. The mode of presentation does not follow a linear trajectory–it can be viewed as a map that can be read in multiple directions. How one encounters its contents and what one regards as reference points depends on where one started–or wants to end up.

The footnotes contain references, but they are mostly lines of thought that spin off and could be followed wherever they lead. This use of notes changes the relationship between the main text and the references. No longer are notes just points of reference, but they lead into divergent trails. As such, the note is no longer a scholarly device, but an autonomous component of the text that activates and supports the creative capacities of the reader.

A perennial problem in writing philosophy is the presence of source material that has amassed around each topic or problem. Whether the topic is free will, the nature of knowledge or the mind-body problem, each has commentators from the ancient past up until the present. Canonical works like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or Nietzsche’s Will to Power are reference points regarded with fear and trembling.[iii] It seems easier to break new ground — you can set the rules of engagement and start from scratch.

Philosophical meditation offers a chance to do so: to return to a primary text and orient oneself again towards it. How to orient oneself in thinking is indeed a central problem in philosophy![iv] In doing so, one may even relegate the authority and other works of the author temporarily to the side. This enables one to focus on the content of the text itself. Like the meditations of Descartes, the thoughts that develop in such a way have the character of musings, explorations, ruminations, speculations, or soliloquies; meandering and circling around a fixed point of departure or central thought, a meditation creates from the materials of the text a new context and new lines for philosophical reflection.[v] Thinking meditatively has not always to do with developing a novel theory or argument; instead, it has more often to do with rethinking an idea, starting from an autonomous mindset.

Coherence is a central yet somewhat self-conflicted theme here: on the one hand, one should not always try to read all of an author’s work (or even a single work) as a unity or single oeuvre; but on the other, the lines of thought that develop out of a meditative reflection on a philosophical text, or a section of such a text, follow their own logic and generate their own coherence. One should therefore not be afraid of any objections about “reading in context.” Involving a historical or cultural context is just one possible reading strategy among many. It is entirely true, a context can be illuminating, but it is not retrospectively determining the alpha and omega of a work. One may wrench the creative potentials hidden in a text or painting loose by prying a section out of the surrounding context in which its deeper layers of meaning remained hidden.

What is at work in the emergence of coherence is a kind of free association — a playful and spontaneous generation of thoughts and ideas in an open form of engagement.[vi] This engagement is not heavily formalized or structured. It meanders and searches, like streams of water trickling down a mountain in search for the lowest point.

Free association is not free in the sense of being arbitrary, unfocused or non-critical. Arbitrariness does not lead to coherence — only to juxtaposition or lines of thought that end up in confusion and obscurantism. The “freedom” in free association is centered around sources, around recurring points of reference. These points are different for each person. They may involve authors one has read, ideas that are on one’s mind, images, events and experiences — including one’s own body. These are the coordinates between which the free association takes place.

Excellent examples of such free, yet focused writing are some of De Montaigne’s Essays, or Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.[vii] In a different manner, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus comes to mind. The meandering search for coherence is not random and not only purposive. It is located in the borderland between the two, taking on the character of a pleasurable dérivé (in the Situationist sense of the term). The Situationists were certainly right to describe their wandering tactics and playful living strategies as a psychogeography.[viii] Exploring the uncharted corners of one’s mind and one’s presuppositions is a journey, a geographical undertaking. It is a journey where one returns to the same points again and again, yet every time one arrives there, something has changed.

Returning to a primary text with a fresh look amounts to starting from scratch without starting over. There is a tangible and important difference between the two. A novice starts from scratch for the first time — empty-handed as it were; a master starts each time from scratch, but not empty-handed. The novice has no choice but to approach a task without preconceptions; the master has learned that sometimes the preconceptions are hindrances in order to carry out the task. The novice must explore, because everything is unknown to him; the master must explore but knows at least how he explored last time. Yet, for both the task to be done or text to be interpreted contains hidden depths that require reconnaissance.

To start from scratch without starting over demands discarding materials. It amounts to a certain isolation — an orientation in thinking that willfully and purposefully decides to take nothing for granted but that accepts only that which can be experienced first-hand. The older, more ancient and more revered a work or text is, the more difficult this becomes. “One cannot read Plato without consulting author X, Y or Z.” One can do so, however! Think for yourself.[ix] Plato did not write his texts so that others would not read them or read them only after they had digested all possible commentaries. Plato’s texts are sources, in the sense that every primary text is a source.

Not only is a source a literary or scientific point of reference, but it is also the wellspring that animates an entire torrent of thought. To read only secondary sources is to travel just halfway up the river. To find the source is to see what animates the stream of thought. Once the source has been found, one must see what animates the source. A good part of ancient and Islamic philosophy consists of commenting on source materials — most notably the texts or Aristotle and to a lesser extent Plato. As form of philosophy, the commentary is one of the most underrated techniques.[x] This is strange, as a direct engagement with primary material demonstrates in what sense canonical texts are sources: for the careful reader, they pose problems that cannot be avoided or that are hard to solve. Commenting on a text concentrates the mind on the problems the author grappled with — without the distraction of an endless stream of secondary publications that merely reflect the new and the contemporary academic tendencies.[xi] Re-thinking and re-visiting frees one from the pressures of current intellectual trends, and especially from the false need to create something novel out of thin air. Instead, the repeated reference to a core idea creates instances of insight and new contexts of interpretation.

[i] This not meant to suggest that the “first-order” problems are necessarily the most important or only problems that philosophy grapples with. One could easily start philosophizing on a “second-order” or “third-order” problem and develop a whole new train of thought from there.

[ii] Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Augustine’s Confessions, De Montaigne’s Essays, Descartes’s Meditations, Kierkegaards Either/Or, Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations and Heideggers Besinnung.

[iii] Those are reference points for the Western tradition — we are still far from a plurality of sources and a real cosmopolitan, global philosophical exchange.

[iv] Kant recognized in his 1786 essay What does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? something about the relation between spatial orientation (i.e. outlook, direction) and thinking as such. One cannot think without some form of orientation. Whether this is an orientation as in one’s education, one’s presuppositions, one’s bodily disposition, and one’s preferences. The insight that Kant has here is that thinking is always a relative phenomenon, constrained to the perspective of the thinker, and constrained by the a priori structures that pre-shape the form of thinking as such.

[v] Among the many of Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s spatial metaphors (plane, desert, ocean, surface, fold, body), the line is certainly one of their most dynamic creations. The line of flight is as it were the new array of possibilities that stretches out from a given problem once a new idea has been found.

[vi] We find this thought worked out in great detail in Derrida’s notion of différance in the 1973 essay of the same name and Gadamer’s treatment of dialogue in Truth and Method.

[vii] Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was in a sense an unfinished book — it lacks final editing. However, that seems to me precisely its potential. There is as it were a kind of redundancy in the language, a rough edge that has not been polished off to facilitate a smooth presentation. One must work on the book to read it and to understand it. In other words: one must engage with it in an active and participatory manner.

[viii] The Situationist’s psychogeography was a philosophical and political practice that involved playful wandering around cities, creating and encountering situations — i.e. constellations in which creative potentials and political actions were combined in engaging with the physical environment.

[ix] Following Kant, who coined the phrase sapere aude in his 1784 essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?

[x] This point is convincingly demonstrated by Peter Adamson in his third book in the series A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, dealing with of Islamic philosophy. It is possible to read large parts of the Islamic philosophical tradition as a particularly refined practice of commentary, not unlike the numerous commentaries on the Torah that can be found in the Jewish philosophical and religious traditions.

[xi] Nowadays, in a world filled with of digital information, the new is easily equated with the best. Terms like “frontier science,” “cutting edge research,” “evidence-based policies,” or “breakthrough innovations,” all signify images of frontiers that are shifted, barriers that are overcome and old, obsolete information that is left as a cybernetic residue along the roadside. The road of progress knows only one frontier, and its cuts like a razorblade through reality. Only that which is located at the very edge is deemed worthwhile. Yesterday is old, last week is practically forgotten. The debris of this progress is a field of silence, occasionally punctuated by echoes from the past. If you were to stand in this field, and look further down along the road of progress, you would see the cutting-edge frontier vanish in the night, like the taillights of a car moving away from you. The very notion of the “cutting edge” relegates large portions of reality to irrelevance. It discards the recent past, occasionally revers the ancient past, but is by and large focused on the here, now and inevitable future. Terms like “evidence” do not signify evidence in the scientific sense any longer. Instead, they refer to research that is relatively recent and that is heralded as the “new-here-and-now” and that is hailed as a new breakthrough or innovation. The cutting edge does not cut through the thicket of the unexplored universe in order to create a highway of progress — although it is presented as such. It does not demarcate the explored and unexplored parts of the universe. Instead, it cuts through reality by sharply demarcating what is relevant from what is irrelevant; what is useful for justification from what seems obsolete; what is worth bothering with from what one should leave well alone. In short, it promises to divide reality into two realms: the relevant (here and now with the occasional reference to ancient history) and the irrelevant (the recent and slightly more distant past).


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 30 July 2019

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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