Scenic lookouts and recipes for living

You’re told that a scenic outlook up ahead is exquisitely beautiful. Well-worth the time, you’ve been assured by phone. You trust this friend and are willing to go along with his recommendation. So, you and your traveling companion look ahead, therefore, with eager anticipation that this exquisitely beautiful outlook will provide some respite from your long travels. Up ahead, you see the sign, stop the car, and get out.

Immediately, you’re both disappointed. You expected something exquisitely beautiful and the scene before you is something less.

What is it about the very structure of expectation that can only lead to disappointment, dullness (oh, this is rather nice), or a sense of relief? And why is it that it is only when you were not expecting something to occur and it does that it can enliven you, awaken your senses, causing you to take notice, feel wonder, and appreciate something deeply? (I am thinking again of the structure of surprise.)

Knowing this, one had better, so to speak, throw away all travel guides as well as all step-by-step recipes for living.

The nightwatchman is always fooled

The nightwatchman is on the lookout for the intruder. He is instructed to be vigilant. He has learned by rote the common routes, and he has devised certain stratagems for staying awake, for being alert.

But the danger always comes by surprise whenever and wherever he was not looking. He was looking but not for this. Was on the lookout but for something else. Luckily, this time it turned out to be nothing. He is advised in future, lest he lose his post, to be more vigilant. He braces himself to do so, slapping cold water on his face.

We are all told to be nightwatchmen of our lives and thus set ourselves up to be duped. After the gate is breached unbeknownst to us, we instruct ourselves to be more vigilant, less incautious. Yet could it be that we will never be vigilant enough, the surprise always coming out beyond or beneath the lookout, and would we not be wiser if we learned to take notice of this, got good at responding timely, nimbly, and gracefully to whatever has slipped past our initial notice? I am turning the whole thing around. The key is not foresight or resilience, not overfamiliarization, but perceptive, clear-thinking responsiveness.

Preparing for the unforeseen (A welcome joke)

Darkness. Philosophy. Not knowing what is coming but coming prepared anyway. How? Laughter. Eagerly anticipating (is that so?) or slightly unsteady. Fearful, maybe a little. Meanwhile, as still as the desert sand, life is. Are we? Not knowing but here and ready. We say. I tell the story about the pupil who wants to learn swordplay. Years of drudgery, complaints to the master, then the master agreeing to take him on, surprising him left and right. Smashing him on the head this time but not the next. Long pause. Not knowing what to make of this story. Therefore, not ready after all. Laughter. Open now to letting new things come in.

Our minds aren’t in our heads

Yesterday, I finished reading Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. The book is mainly a critique of research programs in the scientific study of consciousness and perception, and in this respect it does not intend to set out a full-blooded account of what our mental life is and is like. Still, it gives us the proper orientation we need in order to understand the layout of our mental lives.

With  Noë, we can say that

1.) The brain does not think, feel, or create of its own resources alone a picture of the world; it is the mind that thinks and feels, and it is the mind for which a world ‘shows up.’

2.) The brain enables mental activities but so does the environment. So, the brain is no more than a necessary condition for mindedness.

3.) The mind just is the dynamic interaction or interplay of brain, body, and lived environment.

A few implications for philosophizing as a way of life follow.

4.) Mental disorders or mental illnesses do not exist (an ontological claim), though brain illnesses and body illnesses clearly do. With Gilbert Ryle, we can say that we can mind what we do. We can do things attentively or inattentively, carelessly or carefully, heedfully or heedlessly, etc. Our mental lives can be disorganized, scattered, or disjointed, etc., or focused, concentrated, and integrated, etc.

5.) Quite naturally, philosophers have no business studying the brain, but they do have reason to investigate what our mental life is and is like, with a particular focus (or so I think) on the ‘fitness’ of clear thinking, feeling, and engaging.

5.) It is vital, therefore, that philosophers who wish to lead a philosophical life cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully as well as teach others to cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully.

When the mind is clear, we read in the Daoist works, then we wei follows. Wu wei means ‘doing nothing’ in the contemplative life, acting spontaneously in the active life. But how does philosophy as a way of life bring us into contact with wu wei? How does philosophy teach us to come to as well as remain true to this style of thinking-acting excellently and beautifully?