Songs as Another Kind of Parallel University

Meta Intelligence is a heterodox view of education where formal education (courses, diplomas, universities, fields) are incomplete and limited without adding informal education which is part of your life such as movies, songs, conversations and images (paintings, posters, etc). Your “lifeworld” (Edmund Husserl’s apt coinage) fuses all the kinds of education where the word education means thought-provoking and illuminating. Even personal experience counts such as illnesses or bad marriages! Only via this Meta Intelligence will you achieve a glimpsed “holism.” (Meta Intelligence is that meta-field outside fields, borders and boundaries.)

Take songs.

Think back to Jim Morrison’s classic tune, “Riders on the Storm” which begins:

“Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house, we’re born
Into this world, we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm”

This song (by the Doors), expresses in a simple way Heidegger’s notion of human existence as partly governed by “Geworfenheit” which derives from “werfen,” to throw. “Geworfenheit” means “thrownness.” Jim Morrison and his band the Doors are songphilosophers without (probably) being Heidegger’s acolytes. Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, uses the word “disenchantment” to describe the modern world, “Entzauberung” in German, where “zauber” means “magicality” and “ent” means “removal of,” and “ung” means “condition of being.” The magic here does not mean something like a card trick but rather sacred mysteries, perhaps like the feeling a medieval European felt on entering a cathedral.

Enchantment in the West survived in our notions of romantic love and was associated with the songs and outlook of the medieval troubadours. Such romantic enchantment which is fading from our culture in favor of sex is still celebrated in the classic Rogers and Hammerstein song, “Some Enchanted Evening” from the forties musical and fifties movie, South Pacific.

The song lyrics give you the philosophy of romantic love as the last stand of enchantment:

“Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger,
You may see a stranger across a crowded room,
And somehow you know, you know even then,
That somehow you’ll see here again and again.
Some enchanted evening, someone may be laughing,
You may hear her laughing across a crowded room,
And night after night, as strange as it seems,
The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams.

“Who can explain it, who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.

“Some enchanted evening, when you find your true love,
When you hear her call you across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side and make her your own,
Or all through your life you may dream all alone.

“Once you have found her, never let her go,
Once you have found her, never let her go.”

Notice that “chant” is a component of enchantment.

One could say that conventional enchantment has been transferred to the world of science and mathematics where a deep beauty is intuited. Professor Frank Wilczek of MIT (Nobel Prize) wrote several books on this intersection of science and the quest for beauty whereas Sabine Hossenfelder of Germany has argued, per contra, that this will be a “bum steer.”

You should sense that like movies, songs give you a “side window” or back door into thinking and knowledge, which should be center stage and not depreciated.

Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Education and the Kinds of Wholeness

We have stated several times that we seek more educational holism in particular, the tentative kind made by students themselves after they study these “exercises in holism.” Let’s explore this.

There’s a short story by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904), a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. In his classic “A Boring Story,” he tells the reader about his inner yearning for some wholeness in his life:

“In my predilection for science, in my wish to live, in this siting on a strange bed and trying to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole.

Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man.

And if there isn’t that. there’s nothing.”

(Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators), Modern Library, 2000, page 104, “A Boring Story”)

The author wants to unite everything (i.e., “something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole,” as he puts it).

This is not what we have in mind because there is no “scheme of things” or “unified field theory” that we impart to students. That is for various kinds of “madrasas” (Arabic: مدرسة) including secular ones.

Rather, we encourage students to “walk around” topics, fields, educations, discussions, books, movies, quizzes and exams, lectures, assignments to develop a more “circum-spective” view of knowledge.

Remember “Husserl’s rhomboid.” Edmund Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher, died in 1938) would bring a matchbox to his classes in Germany and get students in his classroom to see that one cannot view the whole matchbox at once nor can rotating it capture all of it. Parts are visible, the whole matchbox is not.

We apply this principle to education and knowledge acquisition and offer the mental habit for students of “homemade” exercises in making more holistic views.

The narrator in Chekhov’s story, yearning to have a god-like view of reality and knowledge and experience (theatre, science, etc.) as a unified “thing” is not our interest since it too elusive.

William James (died in 1910) says several times in his writings that “one mind can’t swallow the whole of reality.” Therefore we avoid such “totalizing” visions in favor of much more modest attempts at connecting things better.

Interesting Intuition from Marx

There’s an intriguing and puzzling quote from Marx which is very informative in a completely unexpected way, when Marx says:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
(The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1970, page 47)

This seems to fit Marx’s obsession with practical circumstances as the “driver” and ideas and subjective states of mind as secondary or even derivative. For Marx, culture and consciousness are “epiphenomena” like the foam on a wave.

In a different way, modern philosophers have their own versions of this:

  1. For Wittgenstein, “forms of life” come first before all else.
  2. For Husserl, “the life-world” comes before theory.
  3. For Heidegger, “being-in-the-world” comes before theory.

Marx’s reduction of everything to material circumstances as primary causes of everything would seem to these other philosophers as a kind of extremist monomania on Marx’s part, as when he says:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Their material life-process dominates.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.

Karl Marx with Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, page 47

This idea from Marx is both suggestive and obsessive and maniacal at the same time, what the French call an “idée fixe” or fixation.

It is more accurate to say perhaps that life and consciousness are a “double helix.”

Education and Wittgenstein “Language Games”

It is instructive for a student to get a grip on the whole question of “language games” à la Wittgenstein, who says that these “games” (i.e., ambiguities) are central to thinking in general and thinking about philosophy in particular.

Let’s make up our own example and step back from the meaning of the preposition “in.”

The comb is in my back pocket has nothing to do with the “in” of “he’s in a good mood” or “he’s in a hurry” or “he’s in a jam or pickle” or “he’s in trouble.” Furthermore, in modern deterministic neuroscience language, a good mood is a footnote to brain and blood chemicals so that means that a good mood is in you via chemicals and not you in it.

Does the word “jam” here mean difficulty or somehow the condiment called jam? You don’t know and can never without more information (i.e., meaningful context).

Imagine we take a time machine and are standing in front of the home of Charles Dickens in London in his time say in the 1840s. They say he’s working on a new novel called Oliver Twist.

Someone says: a novel by Dickens is a kind of “fictional universe.” Shall we say that because Dickens is in his home (at home) in London (though in London is itself confusing since London as a city is not like a pocket to a comb or wallet) his fictional universe is “in” the universe which might be a multiverse according to current cosmological speculations? That’s not what we mean. The fictional universe of Dickens is a shared cultural abstraction involving his stories, characters, people absorbing his tales, his mind and our mind, books and discussions. A fictional universe is as “weird” as the other universe. The preposition “in” does not begin to capture what’s going on which is socio-cultural and not “physicalistic.”

We begin to intuit that everyday language which we use and handle as the most obvious thing in the world in constant use, is completely confusing once you look at it more clearly.

Einstein’s friend at Princeton, Kurt Gödel, looked into language as a logical phenomenon and concluded that it’s entirely puzzling that two people could actually speak and understand one another given the ambiguities and open-endedness of language.

A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven. Wittgenstein argued that a word or even a sentence has meaning only as a result of the “rule” of the “game” being played. Depending on the context, for example, the utterance “Water!” could be an order, the answer to a question, or some other form of communication.

In his work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly referred to the concept of language-games. Wittgenstein rejected the idea that language is somehow separate and corresponding to reality, and he argued that concepts do not need clarity for meaning. Wittgenstein used the term “language-game” to designate forms of language simpler than the entirety of a language itself, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven” and connected by family resemblance (German: Familienähnlichkeit).

The concept was intended “to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life,” which gives language its meaning.

Wittgenstein develops this discussion of games into the key notion of a “language-game.”

Gödel saw that language has deep built-in ambiguities which were as puzzling as math and logic ones:

Gödel’s (died in 1978) incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modeling basic arithmetic. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics.

Take any simple sentence: say, “men now count.”

Without a human context of meaning, how would you ever decide if this means count in the sense of numeracy (one apple, two apples, etc.) or something entirely from another domain (i.e. males got the vote in a certain country and now “count” in that sense).

When you say, “count me in” or count me out,” how does that make any sense without idiomatic language exposure?

If you look at all the meanings of “count” in the dictionary and how many set phrases or idioms involve the word “count,” you will immediately get the sense that without a human “life-world” (to use a Husserl phrase), you could never be sure of any message or sentence at all involving such a fecund word.

One task of real education is to put these difficulties on the student’s plate and not avoid them.

Linguistics as such is not what’s at issue but rather a “meta-intelligent” sense of language, written or spoken as highly mysterious with or without the research into vocal cords, language genes (FOXP2, say) or auditory science and the study of palates or glottal stops and fricatives, grammars and syntax.

Seeing this promotes deep education (i.e., where understanding touches holism in an enchanting way).

Essay 42: The View From Nowhere as an Additional Problem in “Thinking About Thinking”

The View From Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.

Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere,” one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Epistemology (what we can know and why) is puzzling to the max if you ponder it for a moment. Think of a painting in a Boston museum. If you walk up to it, you see only the little piece in front of your nose so you back up and try to get an “optimal grip.” (to use Prof. Merleau-Ponty’s language.) If you walk all the way to China and try to see it from there, you will see nothing of it, no matter what telescope you might use. This is sort of what we mean by “the view from nowhere.” You’re way too far.

This brings us to the problem of the “detached observer” (modern versions of which stem from Descartes, who wants to get a bird’s eye view of all other bird’s eye views.  This is tricky and elusive for the obvious reasons. When Richard Feynman or some other physicist theorizes, is he not achieving a view from nowhere or is he? No one will deny a place to theoretical “standpoints” and “viewpoints.” The theoretician is himself a person who breathes, and sneezes, and yawns, and gets hungry and has to stretch his or her legs after too much sitting. One can’t quite “move into one’s own mind” since all theory is “embodied.”

Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: 

We can think about the world in terms that “transcend” our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.”

The strange human situation is seen from the fact that this “view from nowhere,” this “detached observer” theoretical stance, includes the theorist himself, the detachment and the theory as part of the “bird’s eye view” without any particular concrete bird serving as your ambassador or proxy.

“The unifying theme, as Nagel puts it at the beginning, is the problem of how to combine the perspective of a particular person ‘inside the world’ with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included.”

(Bernard Williams, 1986 book review, London Review of Books.)

We have already seen the problem of Husserl‘s (died in 1938) “rhomboid” or “matchbox” (i.e., you can’t see the entire matchbox all at once) or Ortega y Gasset‘s “orange” (i.e., you cannot see the back or obverse or reverse of a spherical orange unless you walk around it and lose the first view from the front) and all this “partial viewing” takes place on “Neurath’s boat.” (Where we’re like sailors on a knowledge ship and can’t go back to any origins and can’t discuss Platonism with Plato himself. The Harvard philosopher Quine, among others, mentions this problem.) The ship movies forward and the “matchbox/orange” are viewed in some cabin on the ship (i.e., your field, such as chemistry or history or biology).

Lastly: think of the opening line of Thomas Mann’s (died in 1955) great novel, Joseph and His Brothers: “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

In other words, there is no way for us as “knowledge detectives” to go back to the origins of ourselves or our history since that’s all unrecoverable and lost “in the mist of time.”

A student embarking on a “knowledge quest” (university education) should not dodge these puzzles and mysteries but look at them “unblinkingly.”  A deep education means all the dimensions of the quest are in front of the student and not wished away.  This includes the student’s own danger of being lost as “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.” (Hannah Arendt phrase we have already seen.). Career aside, there are multiple “Rubik’s Cubes” here if the student wants to experience the deep and the wide.

Essay 24: Education and the Limits of Knowledge

A student should be made aware of the constraints on education or the “knowledge acquisition” effort.

All such efforts face two fundamental constraints:

  1. Ortega’s orange
  2. Neurath’s boat

In his masterful Meditations on Quixote, the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset (died in 1955):

“Some people demand that we everything as clearly as they see an orange before their eyes. But actually, if seeing is understood as a merely sensorial (of the senses) function, neither they nor anyone else has ever seen an orange in their terms.  The latter is a spherical body, therefore with an obverse and a reverse. Can anybody claim to have the obverse and the reverse of an orange in front of him at the same time? With our eyes we see one part of the orange, but the entire fruit is never presented to us in a perceptible form; the larger portion of the orange is concealed from our eyes.”

Husserl (died in 1938), the German philosopher, uses the same metaphor with a rhomboid (like a matchbox) he would show his students trying to get them to see what they could not see. One can twirl the matchbox and bring different sides and aspects into view and the students can walk around it at various speeds. One can never see the entire matchbox.

Deep education is partly the commitment to simultaneously inspect and “circumspect” the Ortega orange or the Husserl matchbox.

The orange and matchbox problem is made even “stranger” by the deep fact that all of this takes place on something called “Neurath’s boat” named after Otto Neurath, the Austrian thinker who died in 1945.

Neurath’s boat” refers to a powerful image he conjured up in 1921 according to which the entire body of knowledge is compared to a boat that must be repaired at sea: “we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom…” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996, page 259)

Any part of the ship can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand. One cannot go back to the shipbuilder and there is no drydock for repairs. We knowledge “sailors” have to replace planks and do repairs “on the fly.” We can’t go back to Plato and Aristotle and discuss with them our interpretations of their thought and perhaps make adjustments for all the centuries between us.

We can’t start again (although Descartes thought he could with his “method of doubt.”)

William James (died in 1910) says in his writings that we must accept that one human mind can’t “grasp it all” and that all real knowledge is “relational.”

All of these constraints should neither be avoided or dodged but put in front of students from day one, since real and deep understanding, which is what education at its best can offer, must consider the overall truth of the “knowledge acquisition” situation.

Essay 15: Simplistic Critiques of Specialization Are Inadequate

There have been many critiques of specialization and the deepest ones involve the rise of the nihilistic techno-virtuosos of evil such as the Nazis who could make the transition from throughput of steel to throughput of corpses in death factories without a moment’s hesitation. One senses that “rationality” has here gone off the rails.

Husserl (died in 1938) observes that reason has become overspecialized, unilateral and instrumentalized, resulting in “a one-sided rationality that can become an evil. The sickness of Europe in 1935 thus cannot be isolated geographically or politically, the philosopher suggests.

At stake is a sickness of reason itself.” (quoted in The Enlightenment Past, Daniel Brewer, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 202)

Adorno and Horkheimer in their classic social critique, Dialectic of Enlightenment published in 1944 argue that the whole Enlightenment project of rationality contains the seeds of 20th century irrationality epitomized by Nazi “experts” who became “technicians of evil.”

We have to tread carefully in this minefield because of a warning by Herman Melville when he says: “I like thinkers who can dive deeply before they soar.”  But how would one “dive deeply” without specializing. A field is also called a “discipline” or a “concentration” and those words tell you there’s something defensible about specializing since being a “featherdusting” dilettante cannot be the only alternative for that would be a “Hobson’s Choice” where both choices are bad or incomplete or unattractive.

The message of this educational remediation book you are reading is not that specialization is ipso facto bad but rather that the additional “skill” of also circumnavigating what life is and what knowledge is gives the student an evolving sense of overview, where all dimensions have been included, including his own existence.

Without this, one falls into the trapdoor expressed in the famous essay of William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” due to background and specialization “blinders.” Diplomas and careers aside, education’s purpose must be to come to grips with this Willliam James warning (i.e., you could “stumble” through your entire life without seeing anything larger than your training). You could become what they describe in German a bit harshly as a “Fachidiot” (a “specialist fool”).

Specialization, by itself, is not the problem even with the Husserl, Adorno and Horkheimer strictures. It’s rather the Jamesian “blindness in human beings” that’s the problem. 

Simplistic attacks on educational specialization as such don’t get at the profounder problem. The same William James talks about the Ph. D. “educational marathon” as “the Ph. D. octopus.” We do get an intuitive sense of what James is getting at while we do want to balance this with the Herman Melville admonition about “diving deeply before you soar.”

There are educational paradoxes here and we propose to handle them by “completeness excursions and exercises” which are the theme of this book.

Essay 13: Can Philosophy Educate Us? Somebody as a Some Body

The German philosopher Husserl (died 1938) educates us by positing two levels of “having a body.”

You can get a slightly strange sense of this when you see that “being somebody” could be written as “being some body.”

Husserl raises this issue of the body and in particular one’s own body. 

In his masterful book Husserl, David Bell writes:

“In one sense my own body is a physical object, a material, spatio-temporal object like any other: it has a weight, a size, a chemical composition, a history, and so forth. Husserl’s term for the human body viewed merely as a physical object is “Der Koerper.” Quite clearly, however, there is also a sense in which my own body is not given to me in that way: it is experienced and known by me in ways quite different from those in which I experience or know other physical objects. I do not, as it were, stumble across my body in the course of experience in anything like the way in which I come across a building, say, or another person. It is not simply that my own body is very familiar to me, nor even that it is ‘always there,’ like some substantial shadow from which I can never ‘escape.’ It is rather that, at a certain level, my ‘relation’ to my body is not strictly speaking a relation at all: it is not, at least, a relation between me and some other object.

“Although my body is certainly a physical object, and is, moreover, the intentional object of many acts of perception, conception, and memory, there is also a sense in which my own body is a subject. And in this sense my body is unique amongst intentional physical objects in that it belongs, also, on the subjective side of the intentional relation.

“My body can feel tired, my legs can feel stiff, my hands can feel the warmth of the fire, and so forth. My own body is an object-subject, or a body-subject.

“Husserl calls the human body viewed in this way ‘der Leib,’ a term which I shall translate as ‘the living body.’ My ‘living body’ is immediately expressive: when I am tired, or amused, or in pain, it is that object which yawns, smiles or cries out.”

(David Bell, Husserl, Routledge, 1991, page 208)

Gabriel Marcel, who taught at Harvard in the 50’s, wrestles with this Husserl point when he (Marcel) writes in his “metaphysical diary” that he has been perplexed for decades over the fact that “I both have a body while I am a body.” Having and being are entwined in a way that I can’t separate.” I have and I am are coiled around each other.

We have an intuitive sense of these entwinings when we say of a person, “he’s a busybody” (busy body/busybody) or “I am somebody” (some body) and not a nobody (no body).

Husserl restates this thesis this way:

“A human being is not a mere combination or aggregation of one thing, called a body, and another called a mind. The human body is through and through a conscious body: every movement of the body is “full of mind”–coming, going, standing still, laughing, dancing, speaking, etc.”

“When I put my hand too close to the fire, it is, when all is said and done, my hand that hurts.”

(David Bell, Husserl, Routledge, 1991, page 209)

In other words, you have a body and your body has you and you have each other. The body you weigh on the scale in the bathroom is one among several “players” and cannot be understood only as a mechanism.

In daily life, we do glimpse this a bit when we use worlds like psychosomatic.

Husserl was Heidegger‘s teacher and mentor.

Essay 6: Enchantment as an “Engine of Education”

We started this book mentioning Wittgenstein’s assertion, “Light dawns gradually over the whole.”

There are two “players”—light (illumination) and the whole.

The learner, especially the deeper variety of learner, then has two quests: the flashlight or searchlight that gives off the light and the “problem” of defining “the whole.”

We argue in this book only something called “enchantment” (seeing the magic in some question or phenomenon or thing) can be the engine that gives you the impetus to go on in this double search.

For example:

  1. Think of the opening line in the great novel from 1959, The Last of the Just, which won the Goncourt Prize, the highest literary award in France.

The opening line, which serves as a kind of “overture” for the entire book, is: 

“Our eyes register the light of dead stars.”

The author uses this as a figure of speech which captures the lasting influence of people who came before you who somehow are “stars” in the sense of principal actors in your mental life. When you begin the novel, you don’t know if the writer is going to use this concept not as a statement about stellar objects in the sky, as understood by astronomy or cosmology or optics, but in the personal influence sense, as he does. 

This is a beautiful “overture” because it links the physical to the personal in a “dual metaphor.” There’s a secondary poetical device since stars could mean shiny objects in the sky or people as in “movie stars.”

Great writing has this “enchanting” quality and it addresses a deep human hunger for so-called “words to live by.”

  1. Go back to our elementary math example where 1=.9 recurring.

A student gets intrigued by this and senses “how can that be? how can you add these decimal nines infinitely?

In fact, this is a deep and “enchanting” question. If you look into something called infinitesimals (smallest math “objects”) you will find that this issue is still an “argument without end” to use Pieter Geyl’s phrase.

Furthermore: If something is or seems to be “an argument without end,” what does that imply about our ability to “nail” things down in our minds?  That’s an enchanting question in itself which resonates with the Descartes “epistemology” and certitude quest we have seen previously.

Then there’s the other elusive “player” in the Wittgenstein sentence: “the whole.”

Does one mean the whole of a novel or math problem? The whole of the world of metaphors and numerical thinking (i.e., math)? Does one mean everything that exists? It’s not a set or static “thing.”

The point is not to decide any of this in a “once-and-for-all” way. The point is only to allow the enchantment engine to carry the student into these realms and domains without insisting on an eternal “final answer.”

This is why this kind of meta-intelligent self-education or re-education parts company with quests such as Stephen Hawking’s, to “know the mind of God” as mentioned in the last lines of his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time.

Enchantment gives you some pre-understanding which pulls you higher and you can relax the insistence on finality or absolute certainty which characterizes the whole trajectory from Descartes through Husserl, who died in 1938 (think of his book, Cartesian Meditations) through contemporary “scientism” such as exemplified by Hawking with his undoubted analytical genius.