From Taxonomy or Definition to Augenblick

More along the lines pursed in Steve’s response to my last post.  A late entry  from Thoreau’s Journal — one of the last before his death, dated 1861 —“ All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering” (J XIV: 346).

Each die that is cast (in Steve’s imagery), or each ‘egg laid in its nest,’ or each ‘wind passing through’ (to use Thoreau’s images)  is self-registering, sufficient unto itself, in no need of explanation, definition, transcendental deduction or taxonomical file-name.  It doesn’t need these because it contains its own intelligibility intrinsically in its act of coming-to-be.

Of course at times Thoreau does give us plant taxonomy, by the Latinate bushel.  But I think his hope is that a biologist’s label and classification and ordering will intensify our perception of the radiant import and glory of this moment of time, of kairos — that moment when chronological time holds still or evaporates, and is occupied by a ‘moment of vision’ [Kierkegaard’s Oieblikket (Augenblick)].  This is a moment of indeterminate, indefinite, infinite time in which something special happens — we get an infinite intensification of the presence of the thing (or the event of its coming-to-be).

After all is said and done, for Thoreau the point of taxonomic identification is not to increase scientific knowledge for its own sake.  (If science progresses as a side effect, that’s OK.)  He wants to increase Sympathy with Intelligence (as he says in “Walking”).  As I’d translate, he wants Intelligibility, and sympathetic immersion in the moment of its radiance.  He wants to acknowledge, or perhaps to induce, yet another Augenblick.

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney Pt. III

Dean Dettloff

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney

Part III: Whirling, Living, Dancing

This post is part of an ongoing series. Part I.Part II.

 Dean Dettloff:You covered a lot of ground in your previous answer, Ed, anticipating a few other questions I could have followed-up with. Your previous response ended in a reflection highlighting the pin-wheeled nature of your being, that is, while you may have distinguishable parts or facets, all of them blur together in the motion of life itself. This feeds retroactively into your discussion of teaching and intimacy, wherein your commitments to intimacy and its recovery are not put on hold when you enter your “professional” role but instead integrate wholly together as you touch the lives of students through the gifts you have been given. With this in mind and your veteran-status as an educator, what kind of advice would you have for those…

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More on Heidegger on unknowing via Thoreau

If I read late at night about “Eco-phenomenology,” that might be just a banal way to get through sleeplessness, or it might be a case of curiosity whose trajectory should satisfy a thirst for knowledge.  I can still ask, what lies beneath this thirst?  Do I want to know about Eco-phenomenology in order to score well in a competition with other thinkers who will show up at a conference on Eco-phenomenology – or at least not be exposed as utterly clueless?  If my curiosity were always-and-nothing-but a stage on the way to knowledge-seeking aiming to satisfy and defuse such curiosity, I’d feel I was missing something, that the heart was left out, that a sort of wonder that is distinct from such knowledge-tracking curiosity was left out, and I was the worse for it.

Is there a way to be ‘open to the world,” to be “curious” in a way that sets knowledge-acquisition aside?  Or is there at least a way to be that honors a knowledge we could call intimate, close to the heart, to the heart-beat of others, to the heart beat of the world (whether the world’s heart beats in terror or serenity or warm excitement)?

What should we call a state of ‘relaxation and wonder,’ where information- or explanation-seeking curiosity seems to fall away and one dwells in the moment, a moment, say, of unknowing intimacy?  I call this is a moment of relaxation because a search is set aside.  Yet it’s not a feeling of self-congratulation that one has ‘explained’ something, or ‘found the reason’ for something (though on plenty of occasions, it’s certainly OK to ‘kick back,’ cease seeking, and relish an answer or explanation one has come upon).

Yesterday I shared a haunting and unsettling passage from Heidegger, passed on by Kelly Jolley.  Heidegger suggests a thinking that veers off from explanation- or reason-seeking , that’s not a banal or sophisticated curiosity, chained to an impulse to mastery or the victory of intelligence.  Today it still mesmerizes  . . .

In the sort of moment that interests me here, the need-to-know is silent,  not because one has a satisfying answer.  One can wonder silently at the smile of a child, and seek nothing, be curious about nothing at all.  So wonder need not be the launch to knowledge (as Aristotle held).  In the moment that interests me and interests Heidegger, I think, wonder — say, at the smile of a child —  is a satisfying end-point, sufficient unto itself.  It needn’t be a start up toward Knowledge (that end-all divinity for creatures with minds).  Wonder needn’t be a start up for anything.

Thoreau has a memorable — and perplexing — line in “Walking.”  He says, roughly, “I don’t seek Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.”  On a good day, the world sends us luminous intelligibility (we’re not in the dark, things make sense, we’re not afflicted by anxiety or doubt).  To be bathed in intelligibility, as I hear Thoreau’s 19th century diction, is to be bathed in Intelligence.  Things vibrate sympathetically with intelligibility, as the old Viola de Gamba has extra strings under the finger board that vibrate sympathetically with the strings above, the ones that are set in motion by the bow.  A shower stall vibrates sympathetically with a certain pitch sounded by my voice.

The vibrating under-strings of the Gamba sense the luminous ‘intelligence’ of the tones sounding on upper-strings, and the shower stall senses the intelligibility — the luminous intelligence and fittingness — of the C below middle C that I voice; it vibrates sympathetically.  Looking out over the river, I don’t know it . . . but I sense its ‘intelligence,’ its flowing luminosity, and tremble gently in sympathy.  Looking at the child’s smile, I wonder, that is, take in its luminosity, and respond sympathetically.  That moment is a moment of highest value, but it is not a moment of Knowledge.  Sympathy with Intelligence is not knowledge but attunement to the world, others, words, sounds, sights, tastes, the very breath of life.

Sympathy with intelligence, exhuberant knowledge

For what it’s worth, Thoreau might seem more acceptable to classroom philosophy if we decided that he provides an epistemology, one we could herald, with only a touch of tongue-in-cheek, as a “Theory of Exuberant Knowledge.” 

Let’s say we take the idea, from “Walking” of knowledge taking a back seat to “Sympathy with Intelligence” – being intelligently sympathetic and sympathetic to the intelligence or translucent intelligibility of things – as a just warning against dry learning or mere argument or haughty neglect of the particular.  As Thoreau puts it in his Journal, knowledge must be visceral, we want facts that are “warm, moist, incarnated.”  “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.”  Knowing is intimacy, is immersion, is sympathy.

                 Thoreau’s Journal, 2/23/60, many editions