Meditations & Mediations 2 — In An Instant.

By Otto Paans

“Philosopher in Meditation,” by Rembrandt (1632)

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Previous Installments

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Section II: In An Instant

Even if mustering up the courage to decide something requires time, making the decision itself happens in an instant. Likewise, to become aware of something often happens in an instant. Instantaneousness and insight share a deep and unexplored connection. Heidegger called this connection aletheia — the moment in which truth manifests itself, disclosing a portion of reality.[i]

This manifestation happens like a discernible event (or series of events) in time, a chain reaction that again sets off new lines of thought. It is the moment when certain features of a work or situation stand out against a receding background. While some features (for instance, of a painting) recede into the background, others stand out, forcing themselves on the spectator.

If the potentials of a work (or situation) reside in working out its hidden possibilities, recognizing these possibilities takes the form of a series of instants. Becoming gradually aware of the potential of a work happens in a sequence of moments that may be widely distributed in time. Coming back to a text or work after years of reflection or avoidance suddenly seems to open up a new window into the very substance of the work; instantaneously, one recognizes a potential, a real possibility. Gadamer may have called this a “fusion of horizons,” but in reality, the event is more like a door or vista opening –what takes place it is a widening or breaking-open of new horizons.

Insight then is not a triumphant conclusion — or a “knockdown argument.”[ii] Instead, it is more like a series of lights illuminating the contours of a dark space. The more moments of insight occur, the more their interrelations can be reconstructed. The “instant” is a moment of realizing a potential in a double sense: first, one recognizes a potential or really possible relation between notions, ideas or interpretations; and second, by doing so, one can see further and actualize the potentials or real possibilities of this recognition.

There is a close kinship here to both William James’s and Kitarō Nishida’s versions of “pure experience” and the idea of “knowing forwards.”[iii] One must reconstruct and know conjunctively. A series of instants functions as a “plane of immanence” as Gilles Deleuze called it. It is as it were a virtual plane on which intellect, affect and imagination ceaselessly construct, re-iterate, transform and hypothesize. The moments in which the potentials of an idea, work, or thought emerge as if protruding from a barren landscape is a moment of insight. In the flow of thinking, these summits may submerge again almost directly, but they leave a mark like an after-image — perceiving them transforms the perceiver. In short: in an instant one had an experience that cannot be anything else than something that is at once affective and cognitive; feeling and knowing; body and mind.[iv]

The way I describe it is a poor substitute for the penetrating directness of insight. Unfortunately, it conveys the idea of an indirectness, a process that takes place in stages or well-demarcated phases. In reality, however, the recognition and the actualizations are the opposite sides of coin that is flipped up in the air: one is presented with a series of quickly alternating snapshots of each of its sides.

“Actualization” is probably the best word. Possibilities and potentials actualize themselves in the perceiver, as if they activate a world by demonstrating it — a variety of presences as it were.[v] The presence is a prerequisite for living the instant: for the transformative, directly experienced moment.

NOTES

[i] The theme of disclosure is multiple times worked out in Being and Time. Rather than giving one single definition, Heidegger himself engages in a kind of philosophical meditation on the topic, turning it over and over to illuminate how it relates to the world and many of his other ideas.

[ii] This term was coined by Robert Nozick in the introduction to his important book Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Press, 1981). Nozick criticizes the tendency of contemporary philosophy to refute an opposite point of view, instead of trying to provide philosophical explanations — i.e., a range of real possibilities for answering puzzling questions.

[iii] I found the following clarifications of the idea of experience in a Jamesian vein:

Experience must therefore be understood in a very general sense: pure experience is the ensemble of all that which is related to something else without there necessarily being consciousness of this relation.

One must start from a field in which experience is virtually subjective or objective, indifferently mental or physical, but also primitively neither one nor the other. This means that one must free the flux of experience from the categories with which it is traditionally partitioned.

See D. Lapoujade, “From Transcendental Empiricism to Worker Nomadism: William James,” Pli 9 (2000): 190–199.

[iv] It may seem that I am reviving the notion of the “Cartesian theatre” here. This is an needless concern. My suggestion is not that one has a homunculus in one’s head. The self-evident claim is that we possess a “Mind’s Eye.” No matter how distributed and spread in time this is (memory, imagination, forming a mental image), it appears as more-or-less unified or at least accessible from an — again — more-or-less unified, first-person point of view. Again, this point-of-view is not a dimensionless Ego:it has layers, some of which may be forever beyond our reach.

[v] It seems to me that Alva Noë is right in insisting on the notion of “presence” in his book Varieties of Presence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 319

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