An Essay Featured In The Fate of Beauty by O.G. Rose, Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 25, “Do You Love Me?”
The Blank Canvas
On why the true isn’t the rational, why there is no choice where there is “total freedom,” and why aesthetics and philosophy dialectically relate.
Imagine that we wake up on a blank canvas. There is whiteness for as far as we can see. There is no ground, no sky, no furniture, no trees — nothing. We even try to look at our hands, and they are not there. All and all, we are in a void: I said we are on a “blank canvas,” but there’s really not even a “blank canvas.”
So, this in mind, here’s the question: What would be something rational to do right now?
I would submit that it is impossible to determine the rational under these circumstances. To determine what is rational, there must be something there for us to determine the rational relative to: if nothing is around, rationality cannot be itself, for rationality cannot be its own cause (that would be circular). Perhaps I could randomly choose to look around, but the reason to look around would be just as good as the reason not to look around. All things would be equal. Random action cannot be meaningfully deemed “good” or “free,” only random. If somehow “randomness” entails “choice,” it is difficult for me to see how. Yes, I could spend the paper making a distinction between the “meaningless freedom” of “randomness” and “meaningful freedom” of “choice,” but that language would prove bulky to constantly use. So please, let’s just accept that randomness is not choice.
Amazingly, on the blank canvas, I am totally free. I can do whatever I want, and yet it might seem like I cannot do anything at all. “Nothingness” is the freest entity of all, but it is also nothing. Here, there is “total freedom” and absolutely no restrictions on me, and yet it’s also not possible for me to be rational. I am free, yet I am not.
Now, imagine suddenly that I gain a body. I have hands, feet, arms, and legs — I am a human being and not nothing. Well, now that I have a stomach, it’s rational to search for food; now that I have hands, it’s rational to find something to use them for; and so on. In gaining a body, I can now determine something rational for me to do: a meaningful difference has arisen between “choice” and “randomness.” However, now that I have a stomach, I am “no longer free” not to eat; now that I have a body, I am no longer able to fly (I am now stuck in a body). In gaining actuality, I gain standards for rational action, but I also lose freedom and possibility. In gaining actuality, I lose “total freedom.”
Now that I have gained actualization, I have also gained “lack” — now that I have gained a stomach, I have gained “the need/lack of food” — and that “lack” impedes on my freedom while at the same time making my freedom meaningful. When I had “total freedom,” I had “nothingness” and “randomness” (“meaningless freedom”), but I gained “choice” (“meaningful freedom”) by gaining a degree of being which came with a corresponding level of “lack” which impeded my freedom. This being the case, we cannot gain freedom without gaining restrictions on it, which is to say that increases in freedom can bring with them feelings of losing freedom. As we will explore, aesthetics “add” to the canvas of my existence so that I have greater choice, but this also means that aesthetics restrict “total freedom” in order to expand choice. However, this is arguably not much of a loss, because “total freedom” is nothingness.
Though the hunger example is obvious, if I gain a yellow car, I now “lack” the possibility of getting a red car instead; if I take a walk to the mailbox, I now “lack” the possibility of using that time to fish; and so on. All “being” entails “lack,” but where there is no “being” there is no choice. When I feel “lack,” I can feel like I have no choice but to live according to it: because I can get hungry, I “practically must” plan and organize my day to include food; since I must choose between a yellow and red car, I “practically must” live in a world where I only get one or the other (a choice thus entails denying another choice, creating a “lack”). Considering all this, what makes choice possible is also what makes us feel like choice is out of our control.
Point 1: Where there is “total freedom,” we cannot be rational.
Point 2: To be rational is to choose well, so where there is “total freedom,” even if there is somehow “randomness,” there cannot be “good choice.” Arguably, there cannot be choice at all.
Point 3: If we cannot be (meaningfully) free without rationality, then freedom is only possible where there isn’t “total freedom.” “Total freedom” is the death of freedom (unities are “death drives,” as Dr. Last teaches): freedom is only possible where it is restricted. To put it another way, we only gain freedom by trading in potential.
Where there is “total freedom,” there is “no truth” relative to which I can determine “rational action” and (meaningfully) choice. In order for there to be “truth,” there cannot be “total freedom,” but then the question arises: “What restrictions on ‘total freedom’ are worth it to gain truth, rationality, and choice, and which restrictions are not worth it?” (please note that we may not always have a say in this loss/gain). This question will significantly shape how a society forms and what it focuses on, especially if the society realizes that “truth” expands possible choice at the same time it restricts “total freedom.”
If we wanted to use different wording, perhaps we could say that as potential is lost, freedom is gained. This is strange, because we traditionally associate “freedom” with “potential,” and though there is truth to this (for potential is a necessary “precondition” for freedom), we cannot say that “potential” and “freedom” are similes. Nothing can’t be free, and “pure potential” is nothingness. Thus, paradoxically, as potential is lost, freedom is gained.
Moving forward in this work, instead of the language of “total freedom,” I will talk about “potential freedom,” and argue that we must lose “potential freedom” to gain “freedom.” Considering this, truth, rationality, and choice can never be gained without sacrificing some degree of “potential freedom.” The more “potential freedom” there is, the less “actual freedom” we have, but that also means that reductions of “actual freedom” (which must entail “reductions of actuality”) increase “potential freedom”: if the roof is blown off my house, I gain the ability to install a new roof; if I lose the apple I was going to eat, I maintain stomach space to eat a carrot instead; and so on (a blank canvas makes space for a painting, and erasing a painting makes space for a painting too). Loss and gain are “loss/gain.”
On a closing note, it is an entirely different topic discussed extensively in The Conflict of Mind, but “The Blank Canvas” thought experiment proves Hume correct regarding the impossibility of “autonomous rationality.” Rationality is always shaped, informed, and motivated by its environment, and we are either “bound” by our environment or “hold” it (as will be expanded on). “The Blank Canvas” also suggests that humans may need a “nature” to function, to determine “what they should do.” Tabula Rasa seems unlikely, for King Lear is right: nothing comes of nothing.
As discussed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose, what we believe is true constitutes what is rational. Similarly, “what is true” shapes “the rational,” meaning that if there is an actual cup here on the table, then it is generally rational not to throw a ball at the table (this would risk breaking the cup). In this way, we can make distinctions between “what we think is true,” “what is true in terms of the material universe,” and “what could be true” (the last is a space art will occupy). Now, please don’t mistake me as saying that these categories are easy to tell apart, separate, and the like — my point is only that “the true” comes before “the rational” (as hopefully “The Blank Canvas” thought experiment makes clear).
By “the true,” I include under this category general experiences and the phenomenological. I also associate “aesthetics” with “the true,” while I associate “philosophy” with “the rational.” This being the case, since “the truth” determines the horizons and possibilities of “the rational,” aesthetics determines philosophical concerns. Now, I am using “aesthetics” here to refer to the experiential and phenomenological in general, which some readers may not like, but I think it is a fair move. There is indeed something “aesthetic” about my room and the nearby bookcase — it consists of colors, shapes, sounds, meaning, etc. — in the same way that the movie Inception consists of colors, shapes, sounds, meaning, and so on. The difference between the bookcase and Inception is mainly a matter of “construction” — Inception is designed to impact me differently than is my bookcase — but both consist of the same basic ontological material, which is to say both are ontologically “aesthetic.” (And yes, I want to use the word “aesthetic” because that associates well with a “blank canvas”: I’m saying a canvas with no painting is one on which we cannot determine freedom or the rational).
Aren’t I using the word “aesthetic” as basically a simile for “sensual?” I am certainly using the terms similarly, which I think is warranted seeing as bookcases and movies are ontologically not different in kind, only different in degree and construction. Please note though that I’m trying to avoid using the word “art” here for a reason that will become clearer later in this paper (not that I maintain a distinction between “art” and “aesthetic” throughout all my work): indeed, I don’t want to claim that the bookcase and Inception are both equally “art” even if both are equally “aesthetic.” All art is aesthetic, but not everything aesthetic is art. Both however have a similar function of determining “the truth” for us, which in turn shapes rationality. Aesthetics indeed organizes logic and philosophy, but there is something about art that is more Hegelian and “absolute,” as will be explained.
Point 4: “A blank canvas” is entirely devoid of aesthetics, which means it is devoid of any “truth.” As a result, I cannot be rational or free, for I cannot choose. I can only be random. The fate of aesthetics is the fate of us.
Point 5: Aesthetics make logic, thinking, philosophy, and the like possible.
The problem with “a blank canvas” is that it entails no sources of information. If I have a stomach, it can “inform me” that I need to eat; if I have a car, I can “gather information” about driving it; and so on. Aesthetics provide information without which rationality cannot determine itself. Rationality cannot be its own source of information (which means “autonomous rationality” is impossible, as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life”). Sure, since “randomness” could be possible on a blank canvas (I’m not actually sure of this, due note), perhaps we could “make guesses” at what we could do, but “making a guess” is hardly the same as “being rational.” Rationality needs sources of information outside of itself to be itself (otherwise, it’s just thought), and all sources of information are ultimately aesthetic.
What? “All sources of information are ultimately aesthetic?” Yes, for nothing enters our minds which is not understood sensually. Even when we imagine a character we’re inventing for our new Science Fiction novel, the character is envisioned as having shape, color, moving, speaking, laughing — the character is sensual and aesthetic. Even if I don’t see an image, I might hear a voice describing the character or see words or symbols in a sentence — even these examples are sensual (even if not by much). All information is sensualized and aesthetic, and where do we experience the sensual to learn about it and absorb it into our mental faculties for use? Our world, and our world is sensual. (It is possible the universe itself to itself entails “non-sensual” dimensions that we don’t know about, but I think it is safe to say that “our world” at least does not.)
Point 6: Where there is understanding, aesthetics are present; where aesthetics are lacking, freedom and rationality decline and randomness spreads. Considering this, it is possible “a loss of aesthetics” corresponds with a rise of “randomness” (as perhaps suggested by Postmodern and Metamodern humor).
Before moving on, to make a clarification: if we had aesthetics but no logic or rationality, aesthetics would be “meaningless” and “uncontrollable” (life would “practically be chaos” even if not “technically chaos”). Truth without rationality can hardly even be “true,” and so aesthetics and philosophy must relate dialectically. Order does not imply priority: both are equally needed. Even if aesthetics must come first for rationality to be possible, this is no more hierarchical then saying that we must install axles on a car before we can install tires: it’s simply the order of things. The relation of philosophy and aesthetics is like a machine that must “all work together” to work at all: there is no hierarchy, and I do not mean to establish one (though it may seem I am because of my emphasis on aesthetics, which is perhaps necessary in an age that “emphasizes” thinking — please see the piece “Spacetime Makes Sounding Dialectical and Balanced Really Hard” by O.G. Rose and be merciful). Is the foundation of a house more important than the furniture? I don’t think so, even though it’s true that the house would collapse if the foundation failed: without furniture, living in a house becomes “practically impossible”: it can hardly become a home. Without furnishings, a house feels just as “dead” as can a house with a broken foundation: consider an abandoned “haunted house” that is structurally just fine but nevertheless abandoned. Is this house really any different from a house with a cracked base? Practically, I don’t think so.
Point 7: We tend to think “aesthetics” and “thinking” oppose one another, but they make one another meaningful and possible. Where aesthetics and philosophy don’t relate dialectically, society faulters.
If we possessed all the (sensualized) information in world, but no rationality, we couldn’t organize it meaningfully, but if we had rational abilities but no rationality, we’d have nothing to organize.
Aesthetics shape philosophy because aesthetic experiences determine our information sources, which is to say that what we believe is rational is relative to “the true.” Earlier, we noted that distinctions could be made between “what we think is true,” the truth of material facticity, and also “what could be true” — it is this last category I now want to focus on.
Now, it should be noted that all “ideas of the true” necessarily fall under the category of “what we think is true,” for arguably even if I’m experiencing a cup on a table, I must believe it is true that this object is indeed “a cup” and that it isn’t a hologram of some kind. I don’t mean to suggest that “all ideas of x” are equal (as described in “Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, “perception” gives us “reason to think” the cup is “actually there” versus just a hologram, so I think the reality of the cup is more probable than otherwise, even if certainty is technically impossible), but I do think it’s fair to say that our “take” on the truth is always situated within a framework of ideas. That said, I do believe we need to make distinctions between ways we think something is true or false, for this will help us understand the role of art (versus general “aesthetics”) in the formation of rationality (a role I think we can associate with “Absolute Knowing” and Hegel).
Moving forward, I think a distinction between “aesthetics” and “art” will prove useful, at least for this paper (please note that I am indeed using “aesthetic” as nearly a simile for “phenomenological”). Let us think of “art” as an aesthetic experience that couldn’t arise in the world (according to basic causality) without humanity to create it. The sensual experience of the movie Inception cannot be found in nature, but it can be created by human beings. Once Inception exists, it can become a “source of information” that informs my rationality and choice.
Art is not merely animate or inanimate but “(in)animate” (to use a term from “Through (No)thing We Know” by O.G. Rose): art is a mixture of the animate and inanimate. We necessarily experience the “(in)animate” as “inanimate,” but it is a mistake to conflate the categories, for a “rock” and a “painting” aren’t “objects” in the same way. It is possible for me in a movie, book, painting, and the like to create a sensual experience that cannot be found in the world, but once the art is made (“(in)animate”), it’s “as if” the art is merely part of the world (“inanimate”) (a “flip moment”), causing confusion. As a result, we can fail to appreciate the unique role “art” plays in our world.
The images of Salvador Dalí can only exist because humans make them, but once I see those images, what I can imagine, think is possible, and the like can change. Similarly, the movie Inception cannot be experienced outside of the realm of art, and yet it nevertheless “could be true” (there’s no reason to assume technology presented in the movie couldn’t be invented), and after seeing the movie, I might be inspired to try to invent the “possible” technology and thus make it “true.” I can only be so inspired to do this because of the movie, which means a sensual experience of something which only existed because of human creativity then organizes my choice to try to bring about a new truth and aesthetic experience which will expand rationality and choice. Once this technology exists, I will be able to choose to use it or determine that using it would be irrational, considering all the unintended consequences which might arise, which is to say that a movie humans create could inspire what humans try to create in the future, relative to which “rational life” will be organized and determined.
“The Absolute” in Hegel is generally understood in O.G. Rose as “everything which is the case plus us,” which means that The Absolute is not stable and changes relative to the subject and our understanding of The Absolute. Art is a great example of why reality is more like The Absolute than it is The Truth (“everything which is the case (without us)”), for art makes it possible for us to choose the invention of worlds and ways of life which mere facticity couldn’t arise to on its own. We make our art, and then our art makes us. We generate truths which organize our choices (as possible because “total potential” is not the case), and then our truths organize the kind of world we generate. Because we are not “totally free,” we are free.
Point 8: Art is what “could be true” but cannot be found amidst The Truth. Art points to The Absolute, and the creation of art means we can change what is rational and what we can choose. We can shape “everything that is the case,” and thus “everything that is the case” isn’t the whole case.
Harold Bloom famously argued that “Shakespeare made us more human,” which is to say that Shakespeare created characters who are more human than we are human. This is admittedly a bizarre idea, but it starts to make a lot more sense once we understand that art changes the true and then the rational. There are no laws in the universe which make it impossible for someone like Shakespeare to invent characters like Hamlet, Othello, or Cleopatra, and so it’s not impossible for a writer to “create sources of information” (“truths”) which can inform our rationalities and logic to inspire us to make choices which change who we “are” as a human race. Arguably, this is always what art has done: it has transformed what we have believed could be possible, and thus what could “inform” our rationality and choice.
Every work of art reduces “potential freedom” in favor of actuality, and increases in actuality increase our “actual freedom.” After Shakespeare, humanity was “actually free” to become more like Hamlet and to exercise the emotions taught to us by Cleopatra, but since this increase in “actual freedom” brings with it the feeling that we are now “lacking” what is found in Hamlet and Cleopatra, it can seem to us like no freedom is gained at all. So it goes with say the invention of Facebook: it is now possible for us to connect with friends in ways once impossible, but now we also feel like we’re doing something wrong if we don’t have a lot of followers. Thus, “new being” brings with it “new lack.” Please note that what can help grasp this point is to separate the categories of “the good” with “the free.” It is not the case that all increases of freedom are necessarily increases in goodness — that’s an entirely different inquiry. Generally, everything is a mixture of the good and the bad, as everything is a mixture of “being” and “lack” (thus, the need for the ontological category of “becoming”).
Thanks to Blade Runner and Necromancer by William Gibson, humanity received “information” about the possibility of being “cyberpunk,” and so that becomes a possible lifestyle humanity could choose. After the movie Breakfast Club, high schoolers had “information” about a model of “how people could act” in high school, and thus brought what “could” be in reality into reality to be considered. We can’t “live” Akira or Ghost in the Shell, but we can “create” those worlds in films and, in watching them, transform how we think and what we believe is possible, changing what we can choose and what is rational to pursue. Anything we take in, we can be-come.
Art makes experienceable and “aesthetic” what cannot be found in the world without human action, and thus changes how we can be rational and what we can choose in the world by increasing available information (and truth). Here, the logic applied to “art” applies to all “(in)animate objects,” like computers and other technologies (which “the artifex” creates, as discussed in “The Creative Concord” by O.G. Rose) — I’m just focusing on “art-forms” like movies because they make the point clearer.
Because of “us,” what constitutes “everything which is the case” changes, suggesting The Absolute over The Truth. That said, since rationality is influenced by “information” (from aesthetics), it can seem like we aren’t “really free,” because we must follow that information, which seems determined. And sometimes, this might be true: “information sources” which humanity didn’t create might make us possibly “less free” than “information sources” that humanity created. Additionally, the writer of a book is someone who is most “clearly” engaging in freedom in the act of writing, while the reader of the book seems more “informed” and thus “free but perhaps less so.” Considering this, addressing the problem of “free will” seems very relative to one’s particular relationship to a “creative act” (if they’re the reader of a book or instead the writer of a book, for example), but all the same, I think the case has been made that “humanity as a whole is free relative to the presence of its creative actions.” How this particularly manifests is relative to a “network of variables” which can vary based on the particular person we’re focusing on (one person at a given moment could be 50% free and 50% unfree, while another person could be 70% free and 30% determined, and so on). This is a view I like to call “Directionalism”: personally, I find “totalizing visions” favoring freedom or determinism both problematic.
We choose thanks to the aesthetic, but it is “most clear” that we are free when we choose and organize our rationality relative to art (the “(in)animate”). However, since all increases of being and choice correspond with an increase in “lack” and “loss of potential,” it can “seem like” we don’t gain “actual freedom” at all, but this is mistaken. Freedom immediately binds us in its exercise, yes, but it is in fact freedom which binds us, not binding which binds. Creation makes us freer, but if we spend all our time focusing on thinking and philosophy because we think the aesthetic has nothing to do with thinking and is ultimately just in the business of entertainment, we won’t create very much and won’t be very free. Lacking freedom, we will then have reason to think we don’t have freedom, and then it will be rational to believe we can’t be free. We will choose an information source that makes determinism “true,” and thus it will be rational to stay in place.
Point 9: Art changes what kind of humanity we can choose and find rational to become, which otherwise we would never “find” in the world.
Paintings, novels, computers, mental models, metaphors, ladders, fire for cooking — all of these are examples of “human creations” which change who we can be and make ourselves into. We are free to set our limits, but since freedom “sets us up” to experience limits, the use of freedom is often accompanied by a feeling we didn’t use freedom at all. We must “see through” this phenomenological trick: we must realize that limits can be pushed. Otherwise, the limits will “in” fact be limits.
Point 10: If we don’t create, we will not (clearly) be free, and then it will be rational not to try to free ourselves. The more we choose to disregard art, the more we will choose determinism.
In his reading of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Johannes A. Niederhauser recited the line “they would be bound to think so” in a way that made it strike me in ways it never struck me before. The line refers to the prisoners chained in the cave, forced to watch shadows, and it’s regarding the idea that if a prisoner went above ground, saw the real world, and told the remaining prisoners about it, they would be “bound” to think he was a fool. But notice the double meaning of the word “bound”: the prisoners are literally bound by chains, but that means they are also mentally “bound” to think the world outside the cave is fake. Because they are physically bound, it is also “probable” that they think of the outside world as unreal.
Where there is no “art,” we are “bound to think” according to “whatever is the case” (the line between The True and The Absolute will be thin). Whatever aesthetics are “given” are what we will determine rationality and choice according to: if we are born in Plato’s Cave, the aesthetics of the cave will be our truth. If we never create, we never leave “our cave,” and our aesthetics are all we ever experience. “Art” is never a meaningful category for us.
We think relative to how we are “bound,” and ultimately it seems that we each must choose between “being bound” and “holding.” The recent discussion between Guy Sengstock and Daniel Zaruba is useful here, for in “Eidetic Education on Eidos itself,” Daniel Z made an important example of “holding and observing” something (say a stick of chalk) in its particularity, versus “examining, reducing, and binding it” to our intellectual understanding and ideas. We moderns don’t tend to think much about how we “hold” something before we investigate it, but how our investigation “goes” is utterly relative to the nature of “the holding” we choose. If we choose the wrong “holding,” the conclusions of our investigation will at best be problematic and at worst prove destructive. This is to blur “explanation” with “address” (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose), and as a result people today feel “explained away.” As a result, nihilism seems to have been unleashed upon the world.
To “hold life” versus be “bound” is to “create.” Art is the act in which humanity clearly chooses what binds it, the act in which we choose and create a truth to organize rationality and choice (a self-feeding and “Absolute” cycle). Please don’t mistake me as saying art is “the only” free act: my point is only that art “clearly” unveils the existence of freedom, which provides “reason to think” we have freedom in many more areas of our lives. Art is a “case study” that can unveil a general nature of human existence that is harder to “glimpse” in normal everyday life.
We should stress again that, for us, all information is aesthetic, as is all materiality. As noted earlier regarding the “experiential” and “phenomenological,” readers may not like my using of the word “aesthetic” to refer to “experienceable and physical reality” in general, but I think that dislike is part of the problem that makes us think philosophy and art have nothing to do with one another. We never experience or “take in” pure materiality: it always appears and enters us through shapes, colors, design, and the like. Materiality in our experience is experienced aesthetically, and so the aesthetic is what we “take in” to make possible rationality and choice. Aesthetics are what make philosophy possible, because philosophy would not be possible if The True didn’t exist. The Truth is always aesthetic, and it is because of aesthetics that we can make art, a reality that makes The Absolute the case.
Aesthetics are what we think about. If we are thinking, aesthetic experiences are involved. This in mind, art is an aesthetic experience which only exists because humans exist. In making art, we create sources of information for rationality and choice, and thus we make ourselves free in ways mere causality would never make possible. Rather this “new freedom” makes us better for it though is an entirely different matter, for it’s not “given” that freedom is good: that’s up to us.
Aesthetics is what makes philosophy possible, while art is what makes new philosophy possible. The percent of human existence which is motivated and inspired by art is the percent which is “clearly’ an example of human freedom, but we tend to miss this reality because all freedom is actually made possible by reducing potential. Considering this and returning to “The Allegory of the Cave,” we can view the prisoner who leaves the cave as carrying out an artistic act (please note I am mainly discussing “The Prisoner Who Nobody Comes For” version of the Allegory, as so named in “How Does Anyone Leave Plato’s Cave?” by O.G. Rose, though I would argue that even if the prisoner is “dragged,” the logic argued for here stands, seeing as “being dragged” entails experience). The prisoner is not merely philosophizing and thinking to escape the cave, but instead he is walking out and thus changing his experiences. When he was a prisoner, his aesthetic experience was of shadows and echoes, and given that experience, it was rational to participate in games of memorization with the other prisoners. But then the prisoner somehow escaped and ascended out of the cave until he could see the sun. What blinded his eyes was aesthetic, and what changed his life was like a work of art.
Please note the prisoner did not merely “think about” an upperworld, but if he did, in having no experience to give him “reason to think” the upperworld was more than a thought experiment, he likely could not have considered those thoughts “with enough weight” for them to have a real influence on what he considered rational to do. It is one thing to consider a moral conundrum like the Trolly Problem, and entirely another to determine “the moral life” when living next to a difficult neighbor. “The Allegory of the Cave” entails actually leaving, not a “theoretical departure”: it entails practice, action, experience, and/or aesthetics. If the prisoner (“The Philosopher King”) leaving the cave represents the “philosophical journey,” this means the philosopher is born from aesthetics. Those who stay in their thoughts and only think their thoughts indeed only think thoughts — shadows.
By leaving the cave, the prisoner underwent new experiences and gained a new “truth” which expanded the horizons of that prisoner’s rationality. Imprisoned, the prisoner was “in a world-view” that he was able to then expand “into the world” by changing what he viewed. But critically, viewing is aesthetic, a matter that entails experiencing “outside” of thought. It is because the prisoner went “outside” the cave that he became a philosopher, which suggests that a philosopher goes outside of thought, an idea which greatly complexifies our traditional understanding of Plato’s allegory.
Thought is “the cave,” and thought is always trying to make “a cave” around us. Thought is always out to imprison us again, and it will if we cease pursuing experiences and growing aesthetically. It is not thought that primarily helps us escape the cave; again, in fact, thought is the cave. Yes, we need to think to have the idea to “leave the cave” (and thus have that experience) but thought alone can never be experience and correlatively expand horizons. All thoughts that aren’t grounded in experience feel like “thought experiments,” and these often if not always lack the weight of “real thoughts.” I don’t mean to say it is impossible for “thought experiments” to influence our actions (and in fact, we have to “imagine” we can leave the cave to somehow do it), but I do mean to say that the likelihood thoughts change us is connected to how “weighty” those thoughts are, and “the weight of thoughts” is tied to their involvement in experience and aesthetics. To put this point simply, the likelihood we become a Philosopher King by staying down in the cave but imagining ourselves leaving is very low (and probably impossible). Counter to the traditional association, the philosopher is a person of action, and the possibilities of action are relative to aesthetics and art (suggesting a grave irony if Plato indeed exiles artists from The Republic, though I would note that I’m not sure if the story is so simple).
Generally, we have been confused about philosophy and its distinction from “mere thinking” because we have not inquired into its method and defined philosophy in terms of a method versus within a dichotomy that places it in opposite to “practical concerns” (which results in us thinking of philosophy as opposed to action as opposed to complimented by it). Philosophy is dialectics. Non-philosophical thinking is nondialectical: the presence of the method of dialectics is what defines “mere thinking” from “philosophical thinking” (please note that if we understand “critical thinking” as very akin to “empathy,” an act which entails movements between “intellectual frameworks” versus mere “data sets,” then “critical thinking” is likewise dialectical, for empathy creates a dialectic between “I and other(s)”). Philosophy entails a “back and forth,” while mere thinking entails only a “straight ahead,” per se. For thinking to ultimately be dialectical, it must be in dialectics with something that is different in kind from thinking (ontologically) versus merely in degree. Hence, philosophical thinking ultimately entails a dialectic between “thinking and experience,” while mere thinking is, indeed, “just thinking” (unified, nondialectical). Philosophical thinking recognizes the distinction between “the true” and “the rational” (which makes all the difference in the world), while “mere thinking” does not. Considering this, if philosophy is indeed to be philosophy, far from disregard the aesthetic, it must incorporate it: where there are no aesthetics, there can be no philosophy. Nonaesthetic philosophy is merely thinking.
We can discuss “philosophical subjects” (mind, ethics, etc.) without using “philosophical methods,” in the same way we can discuss “scientific subjects” (gravity, quantum mechanics, etc.) without using “scientific methods.” We don’t do science by “discussing scientific subjects,” but by “using scientific methods”; likewise, we don’t really do philosophy by “discussing philosophical subjects” but by “using philosophical methods.” “Dialectics” are the key method of philosophy, and where dialects are lacking, philosophy will be lacking as well. But because we think philosophy is present where “philosophical subjects” are discussed, we fail to recognize the critical role of methodology (and aesthetics by extension). It’s perhaps easier for us not to make this mistake with science, but it’s just as consequential when it comes to philosophy. Failing to understand the role of method in making philosophy itself, we easily conflate “thinking” with “philosophy,” and that makes it impossible for Plato’s Cave “to be made out of thought.” The Allegory must strike us as claiming that the prisoners are those “who don’t think” while the philosopher is the one who does, and that means we escape illusion by thinking at all versus by thinking in a particular and dialectical way. Understanding this to be the lesson of the Allegory, we end up thinking like prisoners who believe they are free.
Bad philosophers aren’t active and are hardly any different from “mere thinkers”: in the name of truth, they discard the aesthetic where truth is found. Since action is necessary for philosophy, “bad philosophers” are those who approach philosophical subjects without a philosophical method. A scientist uses the methods of science to determine how the brain works, not just research the brain with any method whatsoever. To focus on “subjects of science” is not necessarily to be a scientist. Similarly, the method of the philosopher is to dialectically relate experience and thought, which is to relate truth with rationality versus adhere exclusively to one or the other.
Bad scientists study scientific subjects without “the scientific method,” as bad philosophers study philosophical subjects without “the philosophical method,” which is the dialectic. Everyone thinks, not just philosophers: the difference is that philosophers try to move beyond how they have always thought with dialectics, not that they start thinking at all. Anyone can discuss quantum mechanics and biology, but very few people actually do the science of quantum mechanics and biology, using the proper method. Likewise, anyone can discuss the philosophy of mind and ethical life, but very few people actually do the philosophy of mind and ethical life. Once we grasp this discussion, we can start to understand why Plato’s Cave is composed of thinking, and that it is not “mere thought” which leads to a prisoner escaping. Thinking keeps us in the cave, while dialectics lead us out, for dialectics must ultimately be aesthetic and matters of truth versus mere rationality.
Everyone is born with, entertains, and lives by thoughts, but the philosopher questions them. But here’s the trick: we don’t really question thoughts by thinking about them, for our new thoughts would likely prove captured by our old thoughts and make little difference (if not empower the old thinking, like the rebels in the movie Snowpiercer). If all we do is think about our thoughts, all we’ll do is think the thoughts we’ve had, and it seems improbably that we will seriously think against, beyond, or the like in using those very thoughts (after all, we cannot dialectically consider a thing but with something that isn’t that thing). Can I learn to stop eating sugar by eating it? Maybe if I eat a lot of it, but why would I do that? I’ll naturally stop when the sugar starts to bother me, and all I’ll learn from this is not to “eat too much sugar,” not that I shouldn’t eat sugar at all. Likewise, if I think too much according to the thought I’ve always had, I’ll perhaps learn “not to think too much,” but not that “my thoughts are wrong.” Ultimately, I’ll likely just think less, which will in this circumstance just make me more “captured” by my thinking, because thinking less isn’t to necessarily gain new aesthetic experiences. The goal is not to “think less” but “to think and act” — the answer is being dialectical, which is to actually be philosophical. To ask, “What gets people into philosophy?” is to ask, “What gets people into dialectical methods?” and do note how much easier it is to be interested in “scientific subjects” versus “do science” — methods tend to hinder fun.
We question thoughts with experience: we go and read Heidegger (reading takes effort, hence why many don’t do it); we go and meet people different from ourselves (which is hard because people are so different, emotional, and hard to understand); we go and see new countries and cultures (which can require facing fears, being “open,” etc.); and so on. The philosopher is not a man on a rock with a fist under his chin; in fact, “the thinking man” is the prisoner in Plato’s Cave. The philosopher is more like an artist seeking the aesthetic — a view of the sun — so that his or her thinking may forever be changed by the experience. The philosopher is an active thinker, while the prisoners in the cave simply think about what is presented to them. Prisoners accept the aesthetics “given” to them, while philosophers seek to see if they can be “moved” by something else. The prisoners only think within their thinking, per se, while the philosopher tries to gain something “outside” their thinking through the aesthetic so that they can think about something else. The man who sits on a rock has no thoughts unless he walks to the place where he sits down.
Reading a book is an action; discussing Plato is an action; writing is an action. The philosopher acts upon his thinking, while prisoners accept their thinking (or merely “absorb” it, to use language from “Compelling” by O.G. Rose). Prisoners are inactive thinkers — they act on what they think, but they don’t act regarding what they think — while philosophers act to think. Action, aesthetics, and experience, processed through dialectics, is the activity of philosophy, and that means all philosophy is thinking, but not all thinking is philosophy.
It’s a funny point, but in some pictorial depictions of Plato’s Cave, the Cave can resemble a human brain, which suggests prisoners “are stuck inside their heads.” If the way out of the cave can be associated with “the brain stem” and “spinal cord,” then the philosopher “heads into the body” in leaving the Cave — the exact opposite of our traditional association of philosophers who are “too much in their heads.” Perhaps we’ve come to believe that philosophers are “too much in their heads” because that is what the prisoners have wanted us to think, projecting the truth about themselves onto others so that they can escape the accusation and continue to believe they are intelligent in proving mastery over memorizing patterns on walls.
Philosophers seek new sources of thought (like artists looking for inspiration), while thinkers simply accept whatever sources are “given,” and this means philosophers seek aesthetics and art. All thought is “toward” making a Cave around us, and it eventually will if we sit around and do nothing but watch a wall (television, screens, etc.). Far from the philosopher being merely a thinker, the philosopher escapes the tyranny of thought. Left to its own devices, all thought is tyrannical and totalizing (total-itarian), similar to governments and politics. But as it’s true that government is a “necessary evil,” so is thought, which gives rise to the question, “How do we live with a ‘necessary evil?’ ” Well, generally, by keeping it from becoming too powerful and too big, and Federalism in America is an example of how to do that regarding government. When thinking or rationality is “too big” and “too unified,” we similarly have trouble, which is why the philosopher introduces “dialectics.” Dialectics “breakup” thought into small parts (like Federalism), keeping a single thought from becoming so big and all-encompassing that we cannot escape it. Dialectics fight “monotheorism” (as I call it) — trying to understand the world in terms of a single theory — in favor of “polytheorism,” which entails many mental models, paradigms, ways of understanding, and the like. Dialectics, metaphorically speaking, is the Federalism of thinking.
As the State can “put us in a cave,” so can our own thinking, but we can resist this tyranny by learning to be dialectical. And as the State can become a source of great good once rightly ordered and sized, so the same can apply to thinking. Through experience and exploration (which ultimately makes possible dialectics, because all dialectics must ultimately be a dialectic between “truth” and “rationality”), the philosopher transforms the “tyrant of thought” into an artist, from a dictator who keeps us trapped to a dictator orally reciting a story to be written.
Thought either dictates us or we dictate it to write about what we experience.
Thought either dictates what we think about, or we dictate to thought what it should consider.
The moment we cease “dictating thought,” it will begin dictating us.
The moment we cease to be an “active thinker” who is leaving the cave is the moment we begin to sit down near the fire to watch shadows. The floor of the cave is an autowalk — like those seen in airports — which runs downward and against us if we try to ascend upward. If we stop moving, we move back down. Standing still is standing back. Moving forward though requires really “putting our mind to it,” and I fear we never really “put our mind” to what we don’t dialectically consider.
Walking up against “the autowalk” (“absorbed thought”) will be an act of freedom that perhaps doesn’t feel like freedom at all, for we will feel opposed, but “opposition” can be proof of “freedom,” for otherwise we’d perhaps feel nothing. If we fight the autowalk upward, it is because for some reason we believe it is rational to make this choice. But how is this possible, for we have never seen outside the Cave to know the fight is worth it? Well, we saw the exit, and we acted upon what we saw. Now, we fight by faith. We created a vision for ourselves of what could be beyond the “autowalk,” but this idea only arose because we saw an exit, and now we walk and act upon our “vision.” The rationality which is most clearly human is the rationality organized by the information and truth of art, such as a vision we create and act upon. In the fight, our humanity is on display.
In conclusion, the vision of “what might be outside” is linked to the vision of “seeing the exit”: thought and action are dialectically linked. We “experiment based on thought,” but this is no “thought experiment.” We fight. Will the fight prove worth it? That’s a different question, but it certainly won’t if we don’t rise to the occasion. Do we have what it takes to rise? Do we only act, like a performer, or do we only think? That’s up to us to determine, but regardless, where there is no vision, the people perish.
1. Experience we understand is “experience” that is no longer experienced. It is an idea. Rationality naturally translates experience into its own terms, like a musician transcribing a symphony into sheet music. After “the performance” (“the experience”), all we ever have available to us is in fact the sheet music (“the idea”). Is the sheet music the same as the symphony? In a way, but in another way, not at all. Once we take this point and distinction seriously, it becomes clear why “being rational” will not be entirely sufficient for wisdom even if rationality is entirely necessary.
2. To believe in “The Myth of the Blank Canvas” — the myth of “autonomous rationality” — is to be captured by Neoliberalism or the prevailing “framework” of the day.
3. When education becomes “education in autonomous rationality,” education is education.
4. A song writer may write lyrics that declare something about love, and the philosopher may then examine the lyrics to determine if they contain any truth. An artist can simply “declare” a beautiful line or announce it with an emotionally-charged intuition, which isn’t to say the line is necessary wrong, but that the line presents a question: Does it describe something true or not? Generally, artists possess strong intuitions and “sense” what could be true even if they cannot fully explain it. On the hand, philosophers might be good at explaining things, but not so much at intuiting what could be true “underneath” explanations.
When an artist declares something in a song, we realize that the genre permits such declarations simply for the beauty and/or poetry of the lines: if the lines aren’t “true in any deeper sense” (beyond the subjective experience of the individual, which does matter, do note), the artist is not at fault for this, and the work can still be extraordinary and high-quality. On the other hand, if a philosopher explains something “that lacks any deeper truth,” the work is of little use and likely a philosophical failure. At the same time, the artist who produces “overly-philosophical work” is frowned upon: we mostly want “aesthetic intuition,” per se, when the artist performs, not some philosophical tract. Similarly, we don’t want “fluffy philosophy.”
The argument laid out in “The Blank Canvas” may help us understand this balance: the artist offers “intuitions” which can be philosophically unpacked, and philosophers can explain and articulate intuitions so that we can tell which “are most likely to have substance to them,” per se. Since philosophers are generally not great at intuitions, philosophers may not be “the best sources” for what inspires and concerns their work, while artists might not be “the best defenders” of what inspires them. Both of these claims are generalities, yes, and philosophers can certainly “add new directions and possibilities” to intuitions, as artists can elaborate philosophically on their work. Again, the points articulated here are not meant to “draw hard lines,” but to express a valuable and important dialectic: philosophers and artists grow together.
5. “Intrinsic motivation” may play a critical role in this discussion, for there are no “external sources” for the prisoners to motivate them to leave the cave. For a prisoner to leave and become philosophical, some “internal motivation” seems necessary (which alludes to the Artifex discussed in “The Creative Concord” by O.G. Rose). Where does “intrinsic motivation” come from? Perhaps no deeper question can be asked, but it seems clear that without intrinsic motivation, we can’t give ourselves the experiences necessary to direct our rationality out of “capture.” (All of this is explored in “How Does Anyone Leave Plato’s Cave?” by O.G. Rose.)
6. When we return to the Cave, the one who will kill us is likely the one who won the memorization game. If everyone was bad at the game, we might have a chance, hence suggesting why perhaps Hegel is right: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.’