Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Hardest Thing in the World

I've been puzzling over Emerson's ideas that he lays out in his essay Intellect. In some ways his ideas are very straight forward. He believes the intellect is a thing the purpose of which is to consider abstract truth. All emotions must be separated from it. "The intellect is void of affection and sees an object as it stands in the light of science, cool and disengaged." Therefore a person must be aloof from what he is thinking about because someone "who is immersed in what concerns person or place cannot see the problem of existence." Emerson believes in complete objectivity, something we recognize these days as impossible. I would argue with Emerson that while distance is a good thing to have when thinking, for understanding, an essential component of thought, experience with your subject matter is a good thing to have. Part of what makes arguing with Emerson on intellect a problem though is that he believes we have no control over our thoughts, that true thinking comes from God. He even goes so far as to call it at one point a "descending holy ghost." He writes:

Our thinking is a pious reception. Our truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence. We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away as we can all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas.
He even goes on to say that while we want a person to be logical, we do not want to hear about it. We want thought to be intuitive not arithmetical. The irony is that Emerson always lays out his thoughts very logically. "What is the hardest task in the world?" Emerson asks. And answers: "To think." I agree with him, but for different reasons. From my perspective, thinking is hard because it takes a certain amount of concentration and an environment that fosters it. There can be little thinking with the television on, the kids yelling, and the phone ringing while you are trying to get dinner ready after a long and stressful day at work. Thinking is also difficult in a culture that makes fun of you for doing it. But Emerson suggests thinking is hard because it is more of an inspiration rather than a willed activity of the mind. The intellect reveals truth in unannounced moments. Not surprisingly, Emerson divides the intellect into two kinds, intellect receptive and intellect constructive. Everyone can experience intellect receptive if he chooses. Because God offers a choice says Emerson. You can have truth and get your world turned upside down and feel unmoored and afloat or you can have repose by taking the first truth that comes along and sticking only to it no matter what. Those who choose truth over repose are intellect receptive. From those who are intellect receptive comes a very small group who are also intellect constructive. These are the artists, the ones who have a special skill to communicate what they have thought. But even so, they are not perfect, they are no more authorities than we are:
The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant or whoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind [even Shakespeare, etc] is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness. He has not succeeded; now let try another.
I wonder what Emerson would say if I could tell him that he does not render back to me my consciousness? Would he accept it or would he argue with me? And here I realize I still know very little about Emerson the person. Time, perhaps to begin to remedy that. Next week's Emerson: Art