Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Novelty in Philosophy

Originally posted on September 13, 2013

Let’s begin with a quote of a passage—one of m favorites—by Alfred North Whitehead, found near the end of his book, Modes of Thought. He wrote near the end (pp.237-238):
   “The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism; not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.
    “Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization. In each case there is reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words. Poetry allies itself to metre, philosophy to mathematic pattern.”

Wow! Novelty? Mystical? Okay, here’s a novel idea: Pure rationality cannot generate ultimate good sense. We need trans-rationality, love, mercy, good humor, humility, playfulness, valuing creativity (which Whitehead does do!), and the like. Dare we even myth-make or use the aforementioned poetry to try to express a world that is only partly describable via rationality?

I illustrate philosophy with pictures, diagrams, maps, poetry, song, or by other means. The goal of novelty also fits here, because we are entering a postmodern phase—and I mean by that all the good parts and none of the bad parts—that really mean a willingness to break free of assmption sets that if it’s not serious it can’t be good. There is some truth to the idea that what has become accepted, familiar, tends to lose its vitality. This is because the unconscious mind habituates to wonder and makes it mundane. Thus much of scripture, if imagined to be a breakthrough vision at first, becomes literal rather than poetic, and as such, loses the excitement of near-ineffability.

There’s a story of a great rabbi who was a little tetched in the head who would get caught up in ecstasy at certain Torah portions. One that knocked him out was “And God spoke.” He was pitched into a frenzy of excitement. If we imagine this with a fair dose of (imaginary) psychedelics having been ingested, the idea that the Everything Becoming, the great sweep of cosmology and physics and chemistry and astronomy and everything “speaking”—deigning to try to communicate with us, to break through our humility and say, in effect, “Never mind the impossible distances of size and time, I’m talking to you!”—that is pretty impressive, you must admit. And whether or not we find any authority to the subsequent words or their interpretations, the idea that the Everything Becoming, the Source of All, would in any way “speak” to little ol’ us, is mind-boggling!

So novelty hints at not just the inner coordination of words that have been if not scientifically validated through experiment, then at least possess a high level of logical consistency: No, the novelty involves a sense of glimpsing at something big and important and exciting in the one who writes about it first. Students generally just learn about it, but often miss the significance, depth, implications.

Whitehead’s concept of mysticism takes God out of the picture and leaves it as the frontier of thought, “depths as yet unspoken.” That’s not a bad term for a center of awe and value that transcends the patriarchal and all-too-human image portrayed in the scriptures of a people newly emerging into literacy a bit over three thousand years ago.

I think Whitehead is talking not about superficial discoveries awaiting some narrow scientific bit of research, but rather about some degree of “gnosis,” really getting “it,” what it’s all about.  For some, that meaning source is given the name God.

Whitehead invites us to engage in the challenge of introducing novel verbal characterizations, and by that, I include the consideration of esoteric maps and other modes of intuitive knowledge, adding also some degree of rational coordination.

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