Monday, January 21, 2008

On (First) Reading Gestalt Psychology

It makes my heart flutter and miss a beat: essentially this is what a good book does, specifically this is what a good idea does. It makes me want to hope that this new thing - which I have always wanted to pursue but never found the opportunity to - has finally caught me by the scruff of my neck and made me sit upright, facing.

(Indeed, this is how, as god-fearing people would like to say, how fate makes you sit up and take notice.)

It makes me think about this century past.*

The great advances in speculative psychology, psychiatry (Hi! Spy Tracy!), psychoanalysis ("cop shy, say nails?").

Advances in modern physics and finally the bomb. Great advances in materials science, and "atomic" theories in general, finally leading to the anticlimactic (possibly poetic?) mushroom clouds. Spectre of destruction, possibility of man annihilating himself and consciousness. Possibility of placing consciousness itself under erasure.

Needlessness of war sung about by the beatniks. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. Hippies. Grunge.

Economic theories. Chicago School and capitalism, greed and exploitation bounce back. The age of business, every which way.

Alternating between man and machine, the social and the scientific. (Now it seems the match is between exploitation and opposition.) Essentially proves that the two - are indeed two, they do not speak the same language, the same rules do not apply to them, the same techniques of understanding do not apply to both groups.

Understanding is the key here: a society can be understood, a man can be understood. But a society cannot be explained, and man cannot be. Understanding is to make sense of something. It is making sense of something as it is. Explanation is part-propaganda; to explain is to expound, to make clear. An explanation is an excuse, a justification. It is a statement of something. It does not denote an essentially mental process, which understanding certainly is. Explanation is outside of the thing; understanding happens within an individual. It is a fiercely dynamic and personal phenomenon, something that requires a human being to do.

And it is seen that throughout the ages - man - any man - has been doing one thing best. And he instinctively tries to bend the will and lives of those around him, supremely confident of the superiority of his own methods. Why does he do it - but that is not the point. The point is that the man does it, men have been doing it for thousands of years - at least for the past three or four thousand years, which have crammed our history books with the biographies of kings and emperors who are otherwise dull and revolting.

So we have the common misjudgement: one solution fits all, one technique suits everything. The scientific technique, since it can make such fantastic weapons of destruction, applies equally well to the human mind. So let's analyze and raze your brain-citadel to rubble. Book closed, matter ends.
As things stand, we all seem to be concerned with one thing. (Right now. Earlier it used to be idealistic considerations such as the insistence on truth. But more recently, the very nature of truth has been given, by a peculiar choice of interpretation, as highly interpretive or speculative - of course, this does not include the apparent truths which no one could profitably refute for any practical purpose. More recent theoretical work has concentrated on "binding" or connecting 'theory' with practice. Earlier there used to be no such qualms, theory was theory and it could say what it wanted to. But now - business pressures, maybe.)

The question of truth is a painfully difficult one. Keeping aside pedagogic and ontic concerns - such as how the truth of a matter can itself be known - supposing that truth can be known - it presents considerable difficulties in the light of the current philosophical (allow me) trends. It is fairly well known that there is no philosopher currently practising who is (or will be) comparable in stature to someone like Derrida (even allowing for the fact that Derrida's philosophy has not been successful outside the academia, whereas the philosophy of Foucault has been tremendously successful), who is often said to be the one philosopher who lived in our times. (I doubt it - if his writings and work will stand the test of time. It would be quite another matter when his living tongue could silence one and all - but that's a different question, again.)

What has been the singular thing that has happened to philosophy since the fall (decline) of modernist philosophy, the rise of the beat generation, and finally post-'modernism'?* To me, the singular 'advancement' has been the attempt to make philosophy self-inclusive: acknowledge that the bounds set forth by philosophy includes itself, and thus indicates quite correctly that these are after all just opinion. This, of course, is not something new. It certainly was present in 1921, when Wittgenstein published his major work on logic.

It is no longer possible for any body of knowledge to make undue claims about its intrinsic superiority or completeness; in the light of this, all forms of knowledge have "adapted" themselves, made themselves ready for meeting the world, in a peculiar way: a show of modesty, that it knows its place in the order of things. The general idea is this: 'I know my limits, so you're safe with me. I am asking you to travel with me.'

There was a time when I cherished philosophy; there was a time when I considered myself lucky in finding philosophy easy to read, rewarding, and meaningful. I still find it meaningful - but I don't find "modern" philosophy - or interpretation or hodgepodge or whatever they call it - meaningful. Apart from university charlatanism, nothing makes sense about its agenda. It almost universally excludes the universal: the people, the general public. It is meant as a rather inane pastime of a few.

Now we address the question of what is really novel in the new (current) discussions in philosophy circles. Considering that no idea is completely new, and that any discussion on any subject must necessarily borrow from past works at least for the sake of making sense, we come to the inevitable conclusion - borne out in our common observation - that it is really old wine in new bottle, or old wine dressed up as tonic water or as Coke or whatever that is in fashion.

If really things are what they seem (=a continuation of a tradition, continuation of the discussion of the age-old questions and problems) then there surely must not be anything substantially new in, say, Derrida. And that indeed seems to be the case. When we wrestle with his interpretations of various texts, we seem to gather the peculiar idea that Derrida was a clever reader and a sly writer. A clever reader uncovers the embrasure (I bow before that resourceful translator who made Derrida a household name in the English-speaking world), through which he fires salvos at an, readership. That his readings are incredibly close and clever, and his writing immensely detailed, does not detract from the fact that he is inventing a lot many of the situations which he pins on the old masters whose texts he seems to take apart before putting together again (after a fashion, of course, as dictated by his self-inclusive method - or non-method). (At this point, there is the further question of whether that putting-together itself is subject to the law of self-inclusion (or exclusion), and, if (not) so, then is there not a possibility of finding the "navel" of such a process itself, and so on ad infinitum.

The real question to me is not this. It makes little difference if reading a text were indeed like what Derrida says. I wholeheartedly accept that there are indeed such clever readers as he makes reference to (at least there used to be one). What makes the real difference is how little a difference it really makes if indeed it were so - even if all the people in the world were those type of readers (then there would be very few texts), it would still make no difference at all. The real issue is not about reading or writing. The real issue is reading and writing. The real issue is how much text is really being read. (I know for a fact that the texts are being read less than texts about texts.) The real question is whether we can meaningfully sustain serious reading within the framework - and existing reading habits - of whoever still chooses to open a book to read it. The real difference is made not by the critics but by the writers and the readers. In the end, the critics merely serve to fan the flames of an immature flareup.

Critics - have traditionally been cronies and egoistic morons. Their own closed words are their perennial tickets to their period-relevance - and hence, their outright worthlessness - to the work of art.
* I write as an absolute novice: I was born in 1976, so I have no idea of any of these "things" except as terms, gleaned from movies and the literature.

Raphael might be disappointed with this post - which he is liable to interpret as signifying another change in style. This has been a while in coming, there's a hiatus of more than three months since my last serious post of a philosophical nature. As always, he is the judge, I merely present my case. It is of perfect indifference to me how it is interpreted, because that is not something I can consciously do with everyone.

These thoughts... just came to me as I read a few score of Gestaltphilosophie pages. I have been acquainted with their brilliant theory and even more spectacular (if inconclusive) "connects" with life. I have as yet to read a full work. (The record in intact.) What has been impressive is that it is more forceful than I ever anticipated. Using the methods of science, using the the methods of phenomenological inquiry, Wertheimer and the others are able to show that feelings and emotions are not scientific in character, and that it is a basic error to resort to scientific methods in their understanding.

Since I'm likely to forget all about this evening when I spent reading Wertheirmer, I present this, my case. My fondest hope would be that Blogger would stay on, and at some later date in the future, I might chance upon this and find some spark that connects me with this time, with this PC, and with all the things that bind me here and now as a human being. (1792)

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