The artistry of thinking

Sometimes our endeavors have the character of a purgatorial climb. We grope and grope toward some undefined end — head down, grunting and grabbing. It is good to pause and wonder toward what end we are working. In my own case, I can still only speculate. My latest hypothesis is that I am working toward a theory of thinking.

I recently attended a TEDx conference that my wife organized. One of the speakers was the artist Philip Morsberger, who gave a talk called “Some Thoughts on the Making of Art.” I thought the speech (and the event) was fantastic. Here is a quote from the speech:

Art is a sacred undertaking. It strikes me more and more as a spiritual quest — an ongoing spiritual meditation. It is about asking questions — and distrusting easy answers. Even if an answer is hard won, arrived at through enormous struggle — a color relationship that finally works, a spatial arrangement that finally works, a concept or attitude that finally works — one begins after a bit to distrust the thing precisely because it does work. One goes back out on a limb, and the whole crazy process starts all over again. Henry James said it beautifully: ‘We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.’

I am struck with how similar the experiences are of both artist and thinker — just replace the applications of paint with the venturing of opinion. Like art, thinking is demanding. I think there are two components to this “demand.” First, thinking is demanding in the sense of being hard, in always working against and through difficulties and resistances. There is no frictionless thinking and the friction that makes movement hard also makes movement possible. Second, thinking is demanding in that the driven thinker is responding to demands made evident through his activity. Any serious thinker must be obedient to such demands as they come. We work hard to reach a vantage point and we can look back on our success in reaching it and delight in the contrast with the confusing struggle it took to get there. But like Casella’s song, our new position can become an occasion to avoid the climb and rest there. And I suppose such resting on ledges is necessary, if only for a time. But soon a stern demand will intrude on our reveries, a rebuke from an inner Cato-figure saying “Climb!” So a vantage that was demanding to reach becomes the place of a demand to climb on. And so we do.

Doxa/opinion is like the ledge in my metaphor. It is at once an end, a means and an impediment to thinking. Every achievement of a stable doxa is both a success and a failure, which we distrust precisely because it works. Our doubt is our passion…

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