Meditations & Mediations 3 — Context.
By Otto Paans
#2: In an Instant.
#1: Introduction, and On Sources.
Section III: Context
If a series of insights creates a context, what is it — and what does it do for philosophy?
The notion of context is one of the strangest concepts we have created. It is a waste basket of all those things that are hard to describe. It is also a description of what one deems important in describing the surroundings in which a given work (text, drawing, film) is embedded. We may speak of a historical or cultural context; or about an artistic or personal context. Such analyses function as explanations: given the prevailing historical context X or artistic context Y, we can confidently assert that work A looks the way it does because of X and/or Y. Often, talk about context is meant to provide a semi-causal explanation for the features of a given work. Such explanations range from elaborate historical narratives to personal motives.
The context in this sense provides an enclosure, safely yet claustrophobically insulating and enveloping a work. “We can only read Kant in such-and-such a way because he wrote about topic X in a letter to his contemporary….” In this sense, the context is both illuminating and constricting.
The more context a work gathers, the larger the walls of respectability are put up around it. In the end, what remains is a dusty monument that “has amassed too many myths, stories and analogies.”[i] It becomes a reference point, but no one remembers why. It becomes so heavily burdened with the symbolic and semantic content that it has amassed in the course of time that its creative potentials are extinguished. It becomes a monument, frozen in time and therefore unassailable. One has no choice but to look up to it and regard it as an impenetrable monolith, not unlike the spaceship in Denis Villeneuve’s magisterial 2016 movie Arrival.
Creativity freely creates contexts (or, as Nelson Goodman had it: worlds).[ii] A series of insights or ideas — whether they come from inside the mind or from interacting with a work — creates a new background for engagement. This works in drawing- practices, but also in reading a text, dancing or making a sculpture. The context changes: it is not static in the sense of an insulating context. With it, the norms of evaluation change.
A context simultaneously creates its contents and the norms for evaluating them. This implies an evolutionary relativism. And although this idea scares many scientists and philosophers, it is the mechanism that underlies our tremendous creative potential and cognitive capabilities. Flexibility and relativism are a kind of adaptation. We might think of it as a vindication of Darwin’s point that not the strongest or smartest survive, but those who are most used to adaptation.
Adaptation comes in many forms, and the ideas and insights adapt, as well as the person interacting with them. Changing a context and experiencing insights is an adaptation towards a new situation.[iii] Evaluating the findings or changing the norms of evaluation is a recognition of a change in a situation.
This is progress. One must not stick to old or established modes of thought because an insulating context demands this.[iv] An insulating context reinforces these modes, but the art is to see at which point such insulation is no longer productive. More importantly, one must recognize when and where it becomes counter-productive. At this point, a new context must be created, and a re-orientation is necessary. This re-orientation is the first insight, but the doors or perception really open when one explores further. In an instant (or series of instants) a given work can be re-interpreted, and the background against which it is viewed changes with the new interpretation. Gradually, the work embeds itself in a new context that may or may not be continuous with older ones. The degree of continuity between new and old contexts determines to what degree a dialogue is possible between them. Some new interpretations overthrow or discard long-established ideas; others transform or seamlessly integrate them.
The created context embeds a work differently, lifting it out of its original positioning in the world, and re-orienting it in a new way and towards new sources and references. Gaston Bachelard held that every idea or concept has a vector of abstraction. Simply put, this is the structuring way a concept connects many layers of information. To create a new context or concept is to re-orient its vector of abstraction, unlocking its potential in a different direction. When speaking about vectors, one must consider forces (of which the vector itself is an abstraction). The forces that are directed by ideas are often radical insights that change the coordinates of how the world, or an area of specialization is perceived up until that point.
Thus, an idea has the potential to change the context called “world.” Notions like “universal equality,” “human dignity,” “Will-to-Power” or “thing-in-itself” changed how the possibilities and configuration of worlds were perceived. In a conceptual sense, there exists a plurality of worlds — in those alternative contexts, things are different than in the existing world.
If the potential of a work resides in working out and elaborating on its inherent real possibilities, then a re-interpretation of the work goes hand-in-hand with the re-creation of a new context from which it is understood. Sometimes the work is re-interpreted initially, and then gradually a new interpretive context emerges around it; sometimes the other way around. The context as series of insights and field of creative possibilities allows for the free association discussed elsewhere. Its internal points of reference create a kind of “presence” or “panoramic plane” on which new ideas can be tested, probed and investigated. Through careful analysis and creative synthesis of notions and ideas, new forms of interpretation come into being.
In this sense, re-creation is just as important as re-understanding, because it is a process that is continually and continuously differentiating, and inherently dynamic. It perpetually creates instants of philosophical break-through — moments of insight — and dynamically generates new and evolving contexts.
[i] See: G. Bachelard, The Formation of the Scientific Mind , trans. M. MacAllester Jones (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2002).
[ii] See N. Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing 1978). See also S. Yelavich and B. Adams (eds.), Design as Future-Making (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014). The idea that designing is a way of future-making (or, to use an older term: “imagineering”) seems to me one of the core ideas for any creative endeavor. Plato’s Republic describes a really possible world, no less than Nietzsche’s concept of the Will-to-Power describes one. This has little to do with modality, and everything with creation and autonomy. These worlds are not just metaphysically possible scenarios, but the creations of the human mind:they are purposively developed.
[iii] Insight is an experience, not an intellectual construct. Often, it involves mental activity, but it is not reducible to it. An insight has emotive and affective properties. Not coincidentally, we describe them as “Eureka moments”, “a flash of insight”, “aha-Erlebnis” or “ingeving” (something “given in” your mind).
[iv] This critique can be extended to the contemporary professional academy. This social-institutional context is created by certain norms, ideas, ideals, and expectations. They structure and stratify thought to a large degree. The demands imposed on thinking in such a context reinforce its prevailing norms, reproducing the conditions that were responsible for the molding of the thinker. Overcoming these norms on one’s own terms, for the sake of insight, is called real philosophy. Overcoming such norms for its own sake is pointless.
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Sunday 15 September 2019
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