Meditations & Mediations, #6 — Inwardness.

By Otto Paans


Previous Installments:

#4: Movement.

#3: Context.

#2: In an Instant.

#1: Introduction, and On Sources.


Section VI: Inwardness

To put it differently, any transcendental philosophy postulates a limit or gap. In Kant’s particular version, this is the gap between reality as in-itself and the reality as mediated by our cognitive capacities. In Plato, it is the gap that divides the ideal character of the Idea from the imperfections of the physical world.[i] This limit naturally leads to two different types of “inwardness.” On one hand, the mental life of the observing or experiencing subject; on the other, the hidden depths of the world “out there.” In both directions, it is possible to keep on wandering. Our own inner lives give us sometimes cause to wonder whether there are any limits to it; and likewise, the physical world keeps on revealing its innermost secrets.[ii]

The strange thing is that inwardness travels in both directions simultaneously. On one hand, one can explore a given notion further and further; one the other, all adjacent notions (and they seem to accumulate the longer one thinks) spur thought to expand in all direction, yet they keep connecting them to the central notion with which one started. Thus, on one hand, one moves further and further out in all directions, yet one retains a single source, or reference. One creates again a dynamic context in which a single point is embedded.[iii]

Nowhere is this more visible than in a meditative process, especially when one considers that the meditating subject mentally creates the object on which he meditates. Object and subject overlap in philosophical meditation. They share the imaginative, mental world of the subject, yet the object is not completely transparent. Despite the fact that the meditating subject creates the object, its workings and potentials reveal themselves only gradually. A moment of insight comes therefore often as a surprise, for example: “I have been thinking about this for years, and I never thought that it would lead me here.” One’s own mental journey is not transparent from the outset. The gap that any transcendental philosophy postulates vis a vis our access to physical reality is redoubled in the meditative subject. The gap that separates one from the world as it is, re-appears as the gap in one’s self-understanding. Nevertheless, we experience the world directly, even if we ascribe our experience to the play of images or as a cloud of phenomena. Yet, full understanding of external reality is mirrored in an inward horizon of access. In both directions, we cannot see all the way beyond the horizon.

Inwardness may seem the prime feature of philosophical meditation. Like the philosopher in the Rembrandt painting, the image of meditation is closely bound up with a sense of detachment or even resignation. The philosopher in the painting sits with closed eyes, silently ruminating on a given topic. The paradigmatic meditative figure of modernity, René Descartes, appears as the quintessentially new and rationalistic mystic, who — by the sheer power of intellect — gains an insight into the fabric of reality itself by meditating in a secluded and concentrated manner.[iv]

Before Descartes, the Stoic, Early Christian and Medieval philosophical traditions regarded philosophical meditation as an accepted method or form of investigation. Anselm of Canterbury writes his Monologion as a meditation; Meister Eckhart writes a treatise titled “On Detachment” essentially elevating it to the status of a key virtue; Augustine writes his Confessions as an intimate conversation with God himself; Marcus Aurelius writes his Meditations as reflections in spare moments of silence and detachment.

In all these cases, the written result of the meditation reflects an inward journey.

Nevertheless, however strictly the meditation seems constrained to the head of the philosopher, it reaches out into the world from a detached yet not isolated vantage point. A given work, event, or text may serve as point of departure for philosophical meditation, but its development is not constrained to the inner life of the intellect. In an inversion of Anselm’s ontological argument, that which actually exists can exist inside the mind.

Every text or work contains many focal points that can serve as starting point for philosophical meditation. It is beneficial to see a given work as a meshwork, that is, a network of entangled lines. Unlike the network, the meshwork is not reducible to nodes and connections. It consists simultaneously of lines and nodes. In a meshwork, lines do not terminate into nodes, but are co-continuous with other lines. Consequently, one can start thinking from anywhere to anywhere. A meshwork is co-extensive in the fullest sense of the word. Its elements have merged together, and only seldomly are identifiable as discrete entities. The same can be said of the process of meditation. Thoughts that are clear, well-demarcated and that stand out against the background are exceptions. Most thoughts are enmeshed in a mental texture that seamlessly connects them to each other.

Every single one of these focal points contains in itself an infinite inwardness. It is not possible to exhaust the possibilities for creative thinking and re-interpretation. Focus on the intricacy of any given thought: the hidden world it represents is without any limits. Likewise, focus on a basic idea like free will, beauty, becoming: you will encounter no limit. You can take an idea anywhere. There is no point at which inwardness will give way to a limit. For a given person, yes — our lifespan, culture and imagination constrain us in what we can achieve. But the focal points of development live on beyond their authors in a realm that confers an autonomous status on them.

Traveling inward is a matter of directed association that is nevertheless unconstrained. A single thought or work serves as point of departure and its content can be freely connected to every occurring thought, creating a reflexively structured network of possibilities. One can as it were spin out endless possibilities from a single mental point. Free association is a great way of achieving this, setting a process in motion that cannot be described but as a journey. Free association itself is aided by the spinning out possibilities in all directions to see which line of thought leads to a new focal point in the mental texture. Blank or insufficiently defined areas of a given work serve as attractors: almost naturally, the mind veers towards them, seeking to integrate the emptiness or dissonance into the overall structure of surrounding ideas and notions. The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor once described this as the “blanks in an idea that the mind could inhabit.”[v] One must dwell in an idea, walk around in it, travel further and further until the point of departure is just one of the many points in one’s frame of reference.[vi]

Inhabiting an idea simultaneously creates it.[vii] The mental texture of inwardness is formed as one goes along, and discovery is not a mere matter of finding new contents or facts, but consists in working out possibilities, approaches, and angles that were implicit or partially submerged in a field of references. In intuition, these new thoughts are encountered in all their rawness and affective impact; in reflection, they are placed, positioned and conceptually integrated. The entire mental edifice comes into being around one’s cognitive capacities, as it were.

Put differently, inwardness is a form of pure experience.[viii] We might visualize this as a mental plane or landscape from which points emerge. Each point represents a clear and distinct thought that stands out in conjunction with others or alone; and for a longer or shorter duration. Otherwise, certain thoughts only light up once they are illuminated by others. How these points are experienced differs. However, they are often slowly taking shape, and are being affectively experienced. This occurs when one has an idea but can’t bring it into sharp focus. The mental plane as a pure experience is pre-conceptual, but concepts can be applied to it, or even emerge from it. It is a pure experience because it extends well beyond subject-object interactions. It also necessarily visualizes what the Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida conceived of as “nothingness”: not merely the negative correlate of Being, but the Absolute over and against which Being is a mere relative.[ix] This nothingness makes the plane of experience infinite; each thought that comes into Being passes not over from mere nothing but emerges out of nothingness itself. As such, thought can travel forever, and it explains the unending number of interpretations, the unceasing play of the imagination and deeply felt metaphysical insights that can be had once one attends to a text or idea. Travelling inwards dynamically opens up new vista’s, creates new points of reference, and with this, new contexts. All the preceding elements of thought come together in inwardness. Adapting William James’s description of conjunctive and disjunctive experiences for this purpose, we can see how irreducible pure (inward) experience is:

According to radical empiricism, experience as a whole wears the form of a process in time, whereby terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content are themselves experiences, and must in general at least be accounted as real as the terms which they relate.[x]

In a continuous tapestry or landscape of experiences, our sensibility encounters terms that appear as disjunctive or conjunctive.[xi] They share a degree of connection or overlap, or alternatively their very disjunction is informative in its very exception or disturbance of an otherwise harmonious mental experience.

Concentrated attention is the necessary condition for achieving this. This does not just mean directed meditation, but it could also be creative expression or spontaneity. However, it has to be spontaneity or concentration that has passed through the stages were it evolved from mere capacity to fully-developed technique. Only a skilled musician has internalized playing his instrument to such a degree that he can make the most difficult passages sound spontaneous; only the skilled thinker can write out what he thinks; the roughness of a sketch betrays a skilled spontaneity that grasps that which lies beyond it; and creative exhilaration is only reached through practice. Thus, the player becomes the instrument; the draftsman becomes the drawing; the thinker becomes the idea. And as the mind is infinite, one can becomes one’s thoughts without limit.

Likewise, a mere fussing mind is concentrated, yet goes around in circles. Its concentration accomplishes nothing but an obsessive repetition of past thoughts. Yet, skilful concentration moves purposively forward, in the same way that a swordsman moves in a fight, or a calligrapher makes a pen stroke, or a gardener sculpts a hedge. Such practiced concentration unlocks something new through the magnitude of intensity. Its intensity brings out a quality that cannot but stand out from its background: it appears as a distinct thought on the mental plane. The genius of artists consists in this, that they make this universal dimension of thought palpable and tangible. An artwork is not so much the concrete universal in Hegel’s sense, but it is best regarded as a singular universal: it possesses qualities that can only emerge in a singular context, but yet its represents universal values.[xii] This singular power or presence is what suffuses all ideas proper, and they appear with an imposing force that is impossible to avoid or overlook.[xiii]

It is attendance that brings an idea into proper focus. Heidegger, in his reflections on art demonstrates the mystery and infinity of inwardness. In reflecting on a painting of a pair of peasant’s boots, he struggles with the perceptible, yet uncharted depths that art unlocks. Indeed, he concludes that the artwork opens up a completely new world that lurks behind the visual representation of the boots.[xiv] Their worn surface, the lumps of earth attached to them, the plane on which they appear all contribute to the opening of a world that can be apprehended, but that cannot be grasped in its vastness. Yet, it is present and suggestive of its presence, but it also suggestive of its vastness and expanse. As such, the contents of an artwork, be it a piece of poetry, a painting or a sculpture cannot be exhausted, but have to make themselves known through familiar means. For philosophical ideas, the same logic applies. One must perpetually travel inside an idea, paying attention — close attention — to the points at which an idea opens up, and something new emerges.

Attendance requires intensity and concentration. Not mere concentration of focusing the mind in a free yet purposive manner, but a focus on details that forcibly pulls them into the foreground of thought, making them into objects of reflection. This process makes something new out of the familiar; repurposes that which appears as ordinary; unveils that which was presents all along; and cannot be done without skill and structure. We might be reminded here of the opening sentence of Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa: in thinking, we are as it were” jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts enter our head.”[xv] “Jotting down” in this context means to make these thoughts explicit, tracing their outline and exploring their inwardness, thus substantiating them — i.e., literally giving them a substance, making them into an internalized, infinite, and mental object of reflection.

In a more dialectical vein, the point that every focal point contains an infinite inwardness can be sustained because every concept contains the seed of its own negation; in turn, this negation contains the seed of its negation (i.e., the Hegelian “negation of the negation”). As such, every idea is caught in a field of tensions that can be best described as a form of autopoietic self-movement or self-actualization over against nothingness.

Therefore, the positive features of each idea are negated, leading to a next stage in its development, whereby the now-negative is itself negated, thus resulting again in a gesture of affirmation through which an idea develops. In order to develop, the so-called “negative” must split an idea into fragments or focal points that can be taken up in the next step of thinking, or that can be discarded. In Hegelian terminology, a kind of distinction needs to be set up in an idea; whether one calls this positive and negative, self and other, lord and servant or the movement of the notion, does not matter. The main thought is simply that a kind of polarity needs to be set up in an idea to create tensions. It is through these tensions that the potential and depth of an idea becomes visible. In different contexts and through careful movements through the possibilities and associations in which an idea is dynamically embedded.[xvi]

This process of “self-othering” in any idea grants it an inherent dynamism, a series of infinite transformations that develop it more and more by traveling deeper and deeper inwards. Each idea is therefore characterized by a constitutive rift that opens it up inwards and towards itself.[xvii] The best auditory analogy of this principle is perhaps the compositional technique that Jean Sibelius used in his large-scale orchestral works.[xviii] Sibelius has been reported as sarcastically exclaiming that “every teacher has a method.” By this, he meant to convey his disdain for composing according to a pre-set method or procedure. And indeed, there is an intangible, auratic, immanent element in Sibelius’s music. Themes appear and disappear, and the compositional form is used as vehicle for what can best be described as the traversing of a vast auditory landscape with undulating hills and valleys, jagged peaks and murmuring brooks, rivers and waterfalls, budding flowers, and dramatic skies. The sequence of expression results not in a rigid symphonic form, but in a somewhat surrealist, spatial tapestry that appears as a journey in a world just beyond our own. This compositional approach can also be found — albeit in a more modernist manner — in the work of Sibelius’s countryman Einojuhani Rautavaara. In particular his 8th Symphony (not altogether coincidentally subtitled “The Journey”) is a musical invocation of an ever-continuing inwardness, a journey during which breath-taking vista’s and imposing enclosures, tension and relief are encountered in equal measure.[ix]

In both these cases, the inward-oriented musical world is but partially composed of familiar elements.[xx] Instead, the music as a whole appears as a spatial element. As such, one can inhabit it. It contains, via its immanent organicism, an aesthetic quality of becoming, a lure that beckons one to come in and chart out the expressive space that is being opened up before one’s ears and eyes. The very interplay of raw expressive power and rudimentary, yet tangible structure creates a space in which affect and cognition cooperate in an ever-continuing inward movement that does not ground the inward landscape as a whole.[xxi] This quality applies to thinking no less than to composing symphonic works to writing works of philosophy. Affect and cognition must cooperate and due to the movement of self-actualization, they can do so endlessly, simultaneously activating many different registers of perception and receptivity.


[ii] Even to the degree that we start to approach the point where we believe that no matter how thoroughly we examine an object or phenomenon, the resulting data does not add up to something coherent, or the next level of understanding. This unsettling idea is as it were a reversal of Platonic thought: the Idea itself is not coherent, but only bits and pieces of our physical world are to some degree–as long as you try not too hard to assemble them into something like and ideal abstraction. For a philosophical account of this thought, see T. Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013). For a literary exposition of this idea, see J. Vandermeer, Area X. The Southern Reach Trilogy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

[iii] And each new notion can become the central point of a new context, enabling one not only to move from notion to notion, but to regard each notion as a potential central point for thinking; each point is simultaneously a part of a context, a whole, and the reference point for a new context. For a very detailed exposition of this thought in decision-theoretic terms, see P. Pirolli, Knowledge and Processes in Design. DPS Final Report (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California at Berkeley, 1992).

[iv] Descartes’s virtue of concentration characterizes his Meditations. The six Meditations form a tremendously concentrated mental effort in dealing with a single topic. Moreover, their brevity displays a kind of extreme concentration on the part of their author. Their subject (i.e. the construction of the Cogito) showcases a kind of philosophical concentration: all mental activity is reduced to a single, dimensionless point. With this move, Descartes simultaneously reduced the mind to the Cogito.

[v] P. Zumthor, Architektur Denken (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014), p. 13.

[vi] M. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 17–18.

[vii] For an extended discussion on the theme of uncovering the hidden aspects of a given object, see O. Paans, “Opening up Towards the Non-Conceptual: From Kantian Judgment to Creative Oscillation,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 5 (2020): 116–131, available online HERE.

[viii] See W. James, “A World of Pure Experience,” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 1 (1904): 533–543; see also K. Nishida, An Inquiry Into the Good, trans. C. Ives and A. Masao, A. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 3–10.

[ix] For an illuminating discussion of Nishida’s notion and the many ways in which it was taken up by other members of the Kyoto School, see J.W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness (Honolulu, HI: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2001), pp. 61–64.

[x] W. James, “A World of Pure Experience,” pp. 541–542.

[xi] We find this thought worked out in a series of interesting variations by various philosophers of the Kyoto School. Nishida’s Logic of Locus, Tanabe’s Logic of the Specific, and Nishitani’s Standpoint of Emptiness all touch on the idea of a primordial field of experience that grounds all appearances, without either being an explanation for them or being reducible to them.

[xii] For extended discussions of the concrete universal, See R. Stern, Hegelian Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), chs. 5 and 12.

[xiii] For a discussion of the concept of singularization in the context of artistic practice, see I. Rogoff, “Practicing Research/Singularising Knowledge,” in J. Cools and H. Slager (eds.), Agonistic Academies (Brussels: St. Lukas Books, 2011), pp. 69–74.

[xiv] M. Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” trans. J. Young and K. Haynes, in J. Young and K. Haynes (eds.), Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), p. 14.

[xv] This is a paraphrase of the sentence with which Yoshida Kenkō opens his Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

[xvi] In Spinoza’s Ethics, part II, proposition 8–9, we find a variation on or perhaps even an embryonic form of this idea: every idea must be understood through another that encapsulates it. It follows that nothing (not even God himself) is complete without such a supplement with which it can be understood, and that demonstrates the fullness and depth of the original idea.

[xvii] The Hegelian idea that the “Notion moves itself” does not lead to an all-encompassing synthesis, but to a new opening up of a further journey: it could not be otherwise, as with the final act of dialectics the process of self-actualization itself would stop, the entire theory would be rendered null and void.

[xviii] T. Mäkelä, Jean Sibelius, trans. S. Lindberg (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2011), pp. 149–150.

[xix] Rautavaara also refers in exactly these terms to his work, in particular the 5th and 8th Symphonies; see T. Howell, After Sibelius: Studies in Finnish Music (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 125–126.

[xx] Sibelius’s disdain for method does not preclude the possibility that he did not in fact had a method for composing his pieces, but that hae never made an explicit effort to systematize his thoughts on the topic.

[xxi] This is simply a radicalization of Berkeley’s central thought: that all we have are our own experiences (“ideas”). The search for a ground itself is useless, even while this has been the enterprise of Western metaphysics. It amounts to reducing all of reality to a set of rules; but even if we could find the rules we would have the problem that reality always extends beyond the rules. Therefore, we might as well start from the other end, and create a metaphysics that does not search for a ground, but that takes clarity as its point of departure, or put differently: the aesthetic quality of vividness. This, then, is a reworking of the Kyoto School’s idea of nothingness: the self must open up itself onto the world, but this is an existentially risky act: it cannot be done other than with dread.


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