Meditations & Mediations 4 — Movement.

By Otto Paans

“Philosopher in Meditation,” by Rembrandt (1632)



Section IV: Movement

To think is to move.[i] Sometimes, this means moving around a given work or topic; sometimes it amounts to following a thread of thought in a sequence of steps, however staggering or hesitant they might be. Moving mentally involves a difference in proximity: away from accepted readings or familiar patterns of thought; moving towards new theories or interpretations; zooming in one detail, focusing on it; zooming out and taking one’s distance.[ii] It involves a dialectic between the proximal (close) and distal (far) — a background and a foreground.[iii] To move in thinking is to orient, to look in a certain direction and to oscillate between where one came from and where one is headed.

Kant called the spontaneous movement of thinking synthesis (Critique of Pure Reason, A77–79/B103–104). But all these philosophical thoughts about the movement of thinking converge in Hegel’s work. One of his towering achievements is to have introduced the notion of movement as the defining characteristic of thought into the very fabric of philosophizing itself. Before Hegel, there were accounts of dialectical thinking, but they do not emphasize the importance of movement with such intensity. The ceaseless transformation and differentiation of notions is made explicit in the Preface to the Phenomenology and it is the topic with which the Science of Logic begins.[iv] Instead of a fixed categorization — Kant had asserted that “pure synthesis, generally represented, yields the pure concepts of the understanding [aka “the Categories]” (A78/B104) — philosophy becomes the movement of a notion.

This mental movement was given autonomy in Hegel: but a bit too much perhaps, because Hegelian concepts seem to move around of their own accord.[v] The Hegelian play of concepts is called becoming — and for all his criticism of Hegel, we see that this conception is also at work in that most dynamic of recent philosophers, Gilles Deleuze. In a different way, it is at work in Derrida, this time via the ceaseless differentiation inscribed in all acts of representation: the toil of the negative.

The movement of thinking is equated with thought’s development — although this does not automatically imply progress. Moving around concepts, ideas, emotions is a way to trace out the grounds, the territory covered by a philosophical idea.[vi] How one moves determines what comes to light. Like a person moving around in a dark warehouse with only a flashlight at his disposal, what is seen is heavily determined by what the light is aimed at.

It follows that the movement of thinking has exploratory and combinative dimensions. As I mentioned above, in philosophy, both notions have been uncritically categorized as becoming. In exploring an idea, one moves around in it, and thereby discovers its potentials in a series of iterations, retracing of steps, U-turns and dead ends. “To walk is to lack a place”, or alternatively it is an unfolding dialectic, a sprawling rhizomatic development or continuously moving Passagenwerk.[vii]

All these terms point to an instability and tentativeness that characterizes thinking. Nothing is more fluid than thought — this is why freehand drawing is such a liberating exercise — the connection between the heart, the hand and the head is shortened to the extreme, materializing almost directly into an image that becomes present in the physical world. Text is too complicated and precise to accomplish this type of essentially embodied, visceral spontaneity.[viii] Were I to sketch my ideas here, it would generate a speculative geometry, a ceaseless movement around a relatively fixed, yet morphing and differentiating point of departure.

The movement of thinking: the first steps are hesitant, stumbling. Later on, they acquire purpose, skill, directness, firmness. One gets used to walking. So it is with what the Port Royal logicians called l’art du penser or “the art of thinking” — the Greek word for “art” is not coincidentally techné — whereby an art manifests itself in its fullest sense through technique.[ix] Thinking’s movement is an encounter, a repositioning that has its own tentativeness presupposed in its very mode of exploration. Now one stands here, now one stands there. The movement cannot be thought apart from two spaces: the one it explores and the one it creates. The trail in the sand is a demarcation and a line stretching away from a given point. It is a process and a result; a line and a series of steps; a coherent sequence and an unbridled speculation.

Nothing is more speculative than the movement of thinking; the drawn line becomes a line by tracing it out, by actively enacting its form. As such, thinking’s movement entails a present in a double sense. First, it makes an idea present in the mind or on paper, via thoughts or marks; and second, a coherent line of thought must be created: its structure must be enacted in thought or notation.

Just as drawing a line means that one has to trace it (that is: to trace it forward), so a line of argument or thought must be carried onward towards insights. For example, we can think of John Constable’s famous study of rain-clouds — the streaks of the paint brush are the physical residue of mental movement, and this we call a painting. This residue of mental movement has a coherence and dynamic of its own in its constitution as a depiction. This quality is called affect or sympathy.[x] Not coincidentally, we say that a painting, text or piece of music moves the spectator, reader or listener. An affect is a movement in thinking.

This happens mostly one step at a time. While we may be able to think two different thought simultaneously, we cannot concentrate equally on both of them. Nevertheless, we are able to experience a multitude of affects or sense impressions simultaneously. But concentrated thinking — even if it freely meanders and explores — takes on the form of a sequence of consecutive steps in time.

To be sure, not all these steps go in the same direction. In thinking, we encounter unexpected side-steps, make steps backward, perform giant leaps or shuffle awkwardly. All these forms of mental movement serve to connect, juxtapose, align, distance, approximate and order thoughts.

All mental movement must start somewhere. And while beginning does not entail that one starts from scratch it nevertheless is the origin of a new sequence (or web) of thoughts. A work or text around which one moves is as it were a beacon or lighthouse, connected by paths and trails to other beacons, however dimly they shine. However, in thinking about the content of a work, one may discover new trails that were not there formerly. Each work provides new inroads — and subsequently “outroads,” depending on one’s orientation.[xi] One must mentally move, must speculate to produce the trails among which one can move and reposition oneself.

The movement of thinking is sometimes the opposite of stillness.[xii] In the Hegelian dialectic, tensions between the two fixed poles of the dialectic create an imbalance that must be overcome; yet the process of overcoming creates new tensions of its own.[xiii] The Absolute is not a final, harmonic state without tensions: on the contrary, it is the state in which all tensions are allowed their space to create sufficient disharmony. This principle underlies all movement in thought: the irritating presence of tension or imbalance is needed to think productively — a kind of osmosis in the intellectual realm.

Put differently, to move mentally is to create a context dynamically. The points of reference in such contexts possess different degrees of stability. They are fixed points or shifting positions. In the case of philosophical meditation, a text or topic may be taken as core reference point, but in meditation, it dynamically opens up through the movements it inspires — and sometimes almost enforces. The text or artifact that serves as point of departure for philosophical meditation becomes a dynamical and layered object. It only reveals its richness as one moves around it and in it.

Polanyi was therefore right to emphasize the idea of indwelling: insight is an inextricable familiarity with an object, to the degree that the object almost becomes part of oneself.[xiv] The architect must dwell in his creations; the pianist must inhabit a sonata.

The point of departure has an interiority that allows the onlooker or philosopher to walk around in it. The interiority is itself a context: a set of relatively fixed reference points that are continuously created or that are given from the start. Indwelling or inhabiting creates instances, changing the context. As these instances require a deep familiarity with the text or point of departure, this familiarity must be “thick” or “layered.”

The changes that occur while dynamically creating a context out of instances are productive because they recur. They recur as one moves through the context. Mental movement goes to something or from something; it implies approaching and distancing. The same points of reference recur from different distances, different angles and different speeds. We can illustrate this point by the action of zooming in and out by leaning over a drawing or pulling back and as it were “withdrawing.”

The act of zooming in or out (think here of Hitchcock’s delirious “zoom in, boom out” shots in Vertigo) enables one to perceive new characteristics and (sometimes purposively) losing sight of others.[xv] In philosophical meditation on a given topic, some details shift out of focus; others force themselves into the perspective, or even determine it completely.

In this way, thinking’s movement around a given work or topic ceaselessly develops and provides an opening for a new reading. Each time one moves, one re-positions oneself. From the newly and temporarily inhabited vantage point, some features of a given work are text stand out or are pulled into the frame of reference. The position is as it were the opposite of movement. However, as each positioning provides one with new insights that are nevertheless incomplete, one must move on. As such, mentally moving is the creation of a series of vistas on a given work.[xvi]

The series of vistas provides a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives on the objects of thinking that nevertheless do not neatly add up. They overlap, coalesce, turn into their opposite, yield paradoxical results, and force the meditative subject to move on beyond their incongruencies. In mental movement, then, not only is the subject’s movement (i.e., thinking) dynamic, but also this very movement makes the objects of thinking themselves appear to be inherently dynamic.[xvii]


[i] Heidegger’s What is Called Thinking opens with the following sentence: “We come to know what it is to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking.” What Heidegger alludes to here is the fact that all thinking starts from a movement, from taking action. In taking action, we realize our shortcomings, an insight that cannot be decoupled from the decision to start thinking. The realm of insight is as it were closed off by inaction, and accessible once action is taken, or a movement is initiated.

[ii] There is a coincidence in the history of philosophy that seems overlooked: Kant, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche were all avid walkers. Heine mocked Kant’s passionately regular walking habits, wickedly turning them into something machinelike, and Rousseau wrote the Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is — if anything — a series of intellectual journeys and detours centered around the notion of Will. Moreover, it should be noted that Schopenhauer was an avid mountaineer during the early years of his career. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous personas are so many walkers, each with their own pace and rhythm. Nietzsche “danced with concepts” — and he also walked with them, sometimes up to six hours a day. Undoubtedly, the wandering and autobiographical Zarathustra is his most dynamic creation: the Deleuzian line of flight personified. By sharp contrast, the professional academic philosophy of the 19th century written behind desks or spoken behind lecterns entirely lacks the essentially dynamic dimension that characterized the Lebensphilosophie tradition. “One must not lose one’s desire to walk,” as Kierkegaard once said.

[iii] M. Polanyi, Tacit Knowledge (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 16–17.

[iv] The Science of Logic begins with the most basic building blocks of philosophy: the opposition of Being and Nothing. Hegel uses this pair of terms to insert — somewhat arbitrarily — the notion of Becoming: i.e., the first movement that makes all subsequent thinking possible.

[v] This complaint is also found in the Euthyphro, where Socrates is accused of making definitions move around freely, thereby confusing his interlocutor. Socrates points out that if the definitions seem to move around, that is because we do not have a firm grasp on them. Here, the theme of movement surfaces already, and — in a characteristically Socratic manner — the whole dialogue expresses the fluidity of language and thought.

[vi] The core idea of the Derridean trace or inscription, and to an important degree the Hegelian idea of becoming, are ways of acquiring insight in an idea (or “notion” as Hegel calls it). For Hegel, we can also say that he projected the idea of movement into the very idea of the notion itself. The Hegelian Absolute is the notion’s self-conscious insight into its own development.

[vii] See M. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Rendell (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988); G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi (London: Continuum, 2003); W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press, 2002).

[viii] I borrow the idea of our “visceral connection” to drawing from Michael Graves’s thoughts about the act of drawing in architecture. See M. Graves, “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing,” The New York Times (1 September 2012), available online at URL = <>.

[ix] See: <> [accessed 23 September 2019].

[x] See, e.g., for discussions of sympathy from a philosophical and architectural viewpoint: D. Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, sections–; and L. Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things. Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (Rotterdam: V2_Publishing, 2011).

[xi] For an excellent discussion of space as where the roads lead to and from as well as the connection between mental, cosmic and everyday spaces, see Y.-F. Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2001).

[xii] One should read Zhuangzi and his perpetually fluid Taoism here, as there is movement in stillness. All movement is as it were enveloped by stillness, but one has to reach a perfect state of stillness to be able to perceive it.

[xiii] Hegel wrote most famously about dialectical process in the Master/Slave sections of the Phenomenology. Of course. this is far from the only kind of dialectical process to be found in Hegel’s work. Indeed, reading the Phenomenology as a whole, it seems to me that there are multiple dialectical processes in Hegel. The problem is that words are relatively fixed, while thought is fluid. Struggling against the limitations of a text-based presentational format, Hegel had almost no choice but to produce near-unreadable text. The thoughts that are being thought can only barely be contained in the words. They struggle to get out. This is why in reading Hegel, there is a strange feeling of elusiveness: one reads half-formed thoughts that beg for a form but that cannot materialize fully. Correspondingly, to reduce Hegel’s dialectical system to a “deviant” dialetheic paraconsistent alternative to classical logic does him no justice. Hegel tried to condense concepts, logic, history, ontology, poetry and the movement of thought itself into one single medium, an attempt that could only fail. Nevertheless, it failed heroically, and the result is a kind of essentially open text through which one can only wander.

[xiv] See Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, pp. 17–18; the same line of thinking can be found in Eastern philosophy. James Heisig describes how in Japanese philosophy the basic idea is — in very general terms — that one overlaps by means of thinking with a given object, or as it were mentally merging with it, and thereby one is no longer distanced from it. See J. W. Heisig, Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

[xv] Nietzsche addresses the idea of zooming in or out as a form of positioning in his sixth poem in Scherz, List und Rache: Bleib nicht auf ebnem Feld/ Steig nicht zu hoch hinaus / Am schönsten sieht die Welt / von halber Höhe aus. (Translation: Don’t stay on the plains / Don’t go up too far / The world looks best / From halfway up.) In an ironic vein, Nietzsche titled the poem “Welt-Klugheit,” a term roughly equivalent to “street-smarts.” Or, if you read it in another way, to know where to stop thinking in abstractions is the ultimate in pragmatic wisdom. An added layer of meaning here is that the German word “hinaus” does not only mean going up too far in this context, but also carries the connotation of exiting a domain or circle. In other words: if one exits the world by distancing oneself too much, one lose’s the necessary resolution of fine-grained detail for doing any real-world philosophy at all.

[xvi] This idea has caused a number of unfortunate responses in the history of philosophy. On one hand, it has capsulized the fallacious idea of subjective idealism: a perceived object is nothing but its being perceived (esse est percipi). And on the other, it has given rise to the equally fallacious thesis of solipsistic idealism that’s characteristic of classical phenomenalism and postmodern nihilism alike: insofar as conscious, thinking subjects receive information from the world only as sense impressions in some form or the other, then the only entities that are real are my own sensory impressions. This move reduces reality to a fleeting play of images and sensory fragments. That all being so, however, one can still hold without contradiction that our grasp of reality is heavily mediated and even fragmentary, without holding that therefore reality is not accessible at all or truth is forever out of reach.

[xvii] My sincere thanks to Robert Hanna/Z for editing this series, and for providing particularly excellent suggestions for this installment.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Friday 27 October 2019

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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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