Tag Archives: Socrates

Bridges of Play in Art, Philosophy, and Childhood


The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life.  Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will.  How much power does one person have?  How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others?  How exactly are we situated in this world?  To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.

The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation.  The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding.  To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.

Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem.  Socrates is the archetype for this.  In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?”  As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s  inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective.  Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.

Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side.  In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict.  In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides.  Good is labored equally to evil.  This cannot be understated.  Evil is not run away from.  The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil.  The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity.  And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living. 

The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone.  Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth.  No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next.  What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation.  In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map.  Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it.  Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us.  Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops.  If we would travel though experience, our transformation would be the effect.  In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness.  There are many compatible modes of being.  There is no going out of character.  To quote Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

flowery-thing-oct-2016

The Disembodiment of Knowledge

Thinking about Media with Socrates and McLuhan

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”    – Marshall McLuhan

A gradual externalization of human knowledge began with the advent of written language, the first alphabets arising around the 3rd millennium BC, and the old Latin alphabet around the 2nd century BC.  Invented smack in the middle of a world thriving on oral traditions, alphabets gave humans a revolutionary tool for sharing and preserving information, knowledge, and wisdom.  This new vehicle for human thought seriously influenced not just how we communicated and documented our world, but it  changed the ways that we understand and respond to reality.  The brilliant and prolific writer, Marshall McLuhan, known best for his memorable statement “the medium is the message,” commented on how the invention of writing laid the foundation for our modern mode of thinking:

“Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic [alphabet] .… Rationality and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”

The advent of writing also relieved individuals of what was likely an ongoing and challenging task—that of memorizing and internalizing all of their stories, myths, rituals, poetry, recipes, and inter-generational knowledge.  What once only travelled by means of memory and the tongue, now could be written down and spread across great distances, enduring the test of time with acutely consistent messages.   Socrates spoke of this transition, and Plato wrote of it.  However, these two thinkers were not quite so keen on the convenience of writing, but rather wary of its effects on man.

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

In Plato’s writing entitled Phaedrus, Socrates claimed that his true teachings would never in fact be transposed into writing, but spoken only.  So, can we say that we know anything of (the already very elusive) Socrates?   He feared the disembodiment of learning which he believed came with writing, including the loss of context, intonation, and response.  Still, it proceeded thus onward with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, and so on to the virtual age, each technological medium bringing with it great strides for the collective human thought-pool.

With such elaborate conveniences, however, one must wonder which muscles of ours have been allowed to rest, and to what atrophy?

Living alongside the Internet, for example, we today need remember little because Google will always recall it for us at a moment’s notice.  Nothing need be internalized or set to memory because it’s already stored in the mind of the global village, in the external memory of our collective consciousness.  McLuhan, who referred to these inventions as extension of man — a reaching outward, beyond oneself.  He was aware of and wary of this disembodiment, and yet he knew that this was the direction into which humans would need and choose to venture.   (And indeed we have–from living through online avatars, to visiting art museums via robots, to the Voyager space probes–humanity has created a multitude of extensions of our selves and species which enable us to reach further and with greater and more creative facility out into the universe.)

We expand adventurously outward into the universe with our tools as our tightropes.  Alan Watts once said that we “…are a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.”  From this perspective, our man-made extensions only reveal an ongoing natural  progression of extensions and connectedness between us and the universe.   Whitman, in his epic Song of Myself reminded us that we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.”

Still, what other effects are included in this abundance of extensions?   Socrates went on to describe the burden of too much information:

“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Mocking Bird, 2009, graphite drawing by Jennifer Ramey

Many of us have so little time today to spend in quality research of a topic in order to really understand it.  So we trust various news sources, reporters, writers, or journalists to garner for us information synthesized into an understanding.  And this sates many of our hunger pains or the social pressures to stay “informed.”  Yet these are second hand opinions, often from perspectives containing ulterior motives.   If we are seeking to learn online, the distractions alone can turn many sincere pursuits of knowledge into scenarios of kids in candy stores.

So, how we learn about the world around us is a tricky and mysterious process.  We learn whether or not we intend to.  One thing is certain, as McLuhan points out:

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Education specialists suggest that educators and learners need to bridge the gap between theory and practice—that is, to practice what is referred to as Experience Based Education.  We need more opportunities to practice and have experiences with a body of knowledge in order to effectively transform it into useful insight or wisdom.  We must embody it:  try it on, touch it, maneuver it.   If we try to build knowledge with bits of information which are housed—to varying degrees—outside our heads and out of our hands, it becomes significantly harder to synthesize these bits into meaningful, larger ideas, projects, or movements.

This synthesis produces all of humanity’s great emergent art forms and includes the alchemy necessary for making meaning in, improving, and contributing to our world.  Maria Popova, an articulator of interdisciplinary thought and a prolific author, writes:

“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”

Our memories and experiences are qualitative and exponential “castles” which continuously build upon themselves.  Though it’s wonderfully exciting to live vicariously through film and sitcom and bloggers and vloggers, it is essential to remember that they cannot earn for us our experience or or make for us our art.  And though it is convenient to allow our technology to temporarily remember for us our stories, recipes, quotes, and poems, we must keep in mind that it cannot earn for us our wisdom.