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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Knowledge in an extra platonic sense

Preliminary thoughts:

It seems important to bring into question, almost whenever possible, the inherited notion of knowledge as the ability to inscribe into language, the ability to say, to paraphrase, to translate either what is not language into language or what is already into language into more language. This is certainly an indicator of a type of intelligence. An important and indispensable skill. For it is only one way to think about knowledge, advancing the platonic hierarchy of personhood that makes a metaphor of the fact that the head is higher than the heart and the heart higher than the stomach. It is, I believe, the prejudice that leads, eventually to Bertrand Russell’s negative critique of Romanticism that turns to feeling when argument fails.

In general there is no hierarchy of intelligences or knowledges. As with all other things, value depends on the moment, on the particular use to which one wishes to put the thing, on what, on short, one is trying to do.
Any athlete, musician or creative writer understands, in particular and diverse ways, the notion that has pervaded our culture since before the days of Plato and which we call “inspiration.” (What is called “inspiration” in poetry may be called “hot hands” in athletics and by various names in the performance of music. In all cases one is “in the zone,” which may last a minute or stretch on indefinitely.) What each one knows is that if he/she took even a split second to think—to invoke the right-brain centers of language—they would fail. Each has to “let it happen.” I myself have always been an athlete and have never been a particularly good one. Nonetheless, I know that in those moments in which have been good, when I have succeeded spectacularly, I was not, consciously, thinking. Good coaches always tell players to react not to think. Good players show wisdom in their choices. It’s not just that in the heat and smoke of a contest there is no time to think. Rather it’s that thinking—in that platonic sense—is an impediment to doing. But this doing proceeds from knowledge (not something we should brush back by calling it “instinct”). The ball comes to you and you know where everyone is and you know what to do with it and you do it. (Steven Gould notwithstanding.) There is a sense, afterwards, of “I can’t believe I did that.” At least there is with mediocre athletes who slip into the zone. But there is no sense that you didn’t do—that it just happened.

I once thought it would be easy to be a writer. Just study writing. Find out what writers do. Analyze good writing. And do that. And so it baffled me that, after achieving a certain level of intellectual accomplishment, I noticed that there were a number of very good writers who, in my opinion, weren’t any smarter than I was, weren’t even as smart as I was. Who didn’t know as much. Who pronounced, in their conversation, logical absurdities no one of their stature should fall for. I thought.

But writing too is a gift. It does not come from the same muse who gives her gifts to the philosopher. She is not a lesser sister, just a different sister. Even in language, what counts, traditionally, as intelligence is not mere intelligence and what stands as knowledge is not mere knowledge. Jazz would not be possible if music were not a response to knowledge and if playing were not an intelligence. Nor would any music.
Where are we going with this? What are the implications?

We often hear of “emotional intelligence.” Such terms are probably bandied about into nonsense quite often, but behind it is, apparently, something real, valid, something that would be to a significant degree misrepresented if we did not use the word “intelligence,” which comes from an emotional knowledge that I do not want to call “instinctive” but rather “deeply learned” through experience and because of a predilection. I would say there is also a spiritual intelligence. I can’t prove that. But it stirs me to note that spiritual awareness is not quite correlated with intelligence, in the platonically derived sense. Very “intelligent” people are, today, less likely to be “spiritual,” (people like Russell who felt the need to distance himself from Christianity but also much more recently like Dawkins). I think this is more a matter of ego than anything else. People who put all their stock in that platonic version of intelligence can’t possibly subscribe to a knowledge that requires some alternative notion of intelligence for support. Nonetheless when I’ve heard such famous atheists speak I hear so many simplifications, so many faulty premises, so many things that are, by any definition, simply stupid, that I have to wonder why they are talking at all or who they think they are talking to? Because, the point here, faith in fact does not quite correlate with “intelligence.” A lot of smart people are atheists. And a lot of people much smarter (on that scale) than you and I not: philosophers like Paul Ricoeur, and scientists and great thinkers in every academic field who have the capacity of spiritual intelligence and, having it (as perhaps everyone does to some degree, as even I, now and then, can impress far better players on a soccer pitch), don’t feel the urgency to suppress it in favor of what they have been told is the only true measure of intelligence.

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