Cultivating a Habit of Receptivity in Philosophy and Art

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate sense, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel. Whereas we creatures of reason, we don’t live fully; we live in an arid land, even though we often seem to guide and rule you. Yours is the plenitude of life, the sap of the fruit, the garden of passion, the beautiful landscape of art. Your home is the earth; ours is the world of ideas. You are in danger of drowning in the world of the sense; ours is the danger of suffocating in an airless void. You are an artist; I am a thinker.”  -Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

What struck me about this passage is it sounds like it was written by an artist doing his best to imagine what it’s like inside the mind of a philosopher. It perpetuates the stereotype that philosophers are stiff and dry and only concerned with arcane questions and infuriating distinctions. And it asserts that the way of the artist is superior to that of the thinker.

However, I know from experience that the mind of a thinker is not, in fact, arid and airless. We are not all cold and calculating. There is life in us. And there is more in common between the true artist and the true philosopher than is at first obvious.

All Men By Nature Desire To Know…Right?

Throughout his body of work, Aristotle builds up a system of thought in which being is greater than non-being, knowledge is greater than ignorance, and form/actuality is greater than matter/potency. In short, the perfection of a thing is greater than its imperfection. If a thing is still becoming, growing, actualizing, then it is not yet as real as it can be. This concept seems so straightforward and self-evident that no one would argue with it.

Or so I thought. But Romantic poet John Keats did argue with it when he wrote about ‘Negative Capability’ in a letter to his brothers in December 1819:

Several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

When I first encountered this term, I thought it bore a striking resemblance to Aristotle’s model of potency and actuality, which he uses to explain motion and change. Put simply, potency is the ability to be different, to change, to grow. Actuality is the perfection of a thing, such that it has no room for change.

Event #247 by Edmondo Bacci, from the Guggenheim Collection

When something is completely potential, it is completely formless, it can become anything. I have this vision of Chaos from Greek mythology — a dark, randomly swirling cloud. Or the image we get in Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” It is pure matter, waiting to be formed into some actual thing (substance, in Aristotle’s terminology). Form and matter represent, respectively, actual and potential, giving and receiving, male and female. And as I said above, actuality is “better” than potency. Actuality is the end goal, and potency by definition is imperfect.

But Keats turns this on its head. He says that great poets do not strive or grasp, do not reach for that final state of perfection. Instead, they remain in a state of potency, passivity, reception. They do not attempt to exert their will or force things to conform to their understanding of the world. They probably do not even claim to have one, single, definite understanding of the world. Instead, they let their minds “be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (from his letter of September 17, 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats).

When I first started thinking about these questions, my understanding of the relationship between philosophy and art was that philosophers and artists are ultimately asking the same questions and looking for the same answers, albeit by different means and communicated through different media. However, after meditating upon this Keats passage and others by artists and poets, I began to see that artists aren’t so much looking for answers as they are, as Rilke put it in Letters to a Young Poet, “living the questions”:

Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

At this point in our inquiry, then, the difference between the philosopher and the artist is that the one “irritably reaches after fact and reason” and the latter calmly and serenely opens himself up to receive whatever the universe sends him, and accepts that he does not have all the answers.

Only The Silent Hear

However, this view does not do justice to the full and proper activity of the philosopher–in other words, maybe he isn’t so irritable after all.

From Keats, let’s jump forward another century to the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper and his I-recommend-it-to-everyone book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In it he explains how setting aside time for contemplation should not be viewed as a luxury, but as a necessary part of life that breathes peace and deeper meaning into people’s increasingly workaday lives. He is careful to distinguish leisure from idleness: leisure is not mere laziness, it is not “vegging out”. Rather, he defines leisure as

a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness’; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.

Young Italian Woman at a Table by Paul Cezanne, from The Getty Museum

He explains the two modes of human thought as they were understood by Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers [the italics are his; the bold mine]:

The Middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.

This last sentence beautifully encapsulates the way in which philosophizing is like making art. The “effortless awareness” and “contemplative vision of the intellectus” in which the philosopher participates is comparable to the “negative capability” of the artist. First we listen, and then we work. And if we follow that metaphor one step further, the activity of the ratio  by which the philosopher constructs his arguments corresponds to the creative, making activity of the artist in which his artwork, poem, etc. is actually brought to life.

So: The philosopher, too, is a type of artist. 

The artist might have this ability–capability–more naturally than the rest of us; and we might have to try harder not to try, but Pieper reminds us that to all humans belongs the ability and the responsibility to set aside time for passive contemplation, for quiet, for the “recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe.”

The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous. –Thomas Aquinas, from Commentary on the Metaphysics