The Poetics of Thought


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on October 14, 2009

It may be useful to remind ourselves here that when I am referring to the organization of knowledge I am not talking about taxonomies, indexes, cladistic disciplinary structures, or allocations of library shelf space.  The topic of that knowing; its content; what programme of study it might form part of or what occupation it might prepare one for is not relevant at this point.  What is important is that there are apparent differences in the forms that this knowing takes, with corresponding differences in perceived value, application, and transferability.  The organization I am talking about here is that which arranges knowledge into the various types I indicated at the top of this writing; ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, ‘tacit’, ‘implicit’, ‘carnal’, ‘occult’, etc.

When we use conceptual metaphors (of perception, object manipulation and bodily movement) to organise these types of knowledge spatially or geographically we seem to use one of two possible maps corresponding to very different metaphorical spaces.  Sometimes we use a cartographic projection which is oriented on ourselves, placing our own experience at the centre of epistemological organization; elsewhere I referred to this as ‘Subjective Space’.  At other times and in other contexts we use a different map and a different space, one more akin to the intersubjective space that gives us the ‘view from nowhere’ that Thomas Nagel refers to.  What I want to outline initially is the experience of knowing that emerges from the first of these spaces, that of subjectivity.

This type of mapping is the most literal and (probably) the most intuitively obvious.  After all, our phenomenology is configured such that we experience our bodies as existing at the axis of a circle of vision, with the significance of objects being largely determined by the degree to which they loom in our presence.  A glance around the room or the view over the landscape tells us that those objects which are closest to us are also the largest and most imposing, (with the grandest being our own body; the hand held up against the sky that blots out the sun). Also, the nature of our situated embodiment as figures in that landscape allows the more remote objects around us not only to diminish in size but also to suffer occlusion.  Our singular viewpoint geometricises the space around us and the objects in that space are prey to the logic of that geometry.  The close obscures the distant and the man walking his dog some way up the path ahead is rendered invisible and irrelevant by the rapidly approaching cyclist who has overtaken him and is now not only blocking him and his dog from view, but also has a dangerous salience that  commands solid attention.  Our embodied experience constantly reminds us that proximity is a measure of this salience, and those objects, entities, and events which appear closest to us are the most actual in terms of their (possibly literal) impact on our lives.

Not only is the stuff which is closest to us larger and uppermost in our perception, but it is also that which is most likely to hurt us, kill us, feed us, have sex with us, or otherwise affect our well-being, and we would be well advised to give particular attention to those approximations.  We hold such entities, important as they are, in the light of necessary constant awareness, since neglecting their presence is likely to be costly.  They do not seep in and out of consciousness the way that more remote phenomena do; the shops and houses that flow past the vision of the driver whose firm focus is on the child who looks like they might step out into the road just up ahead; the church tower and the mobile phone mast on the horizon, tiny and vaporous and partially obscured, if noticed at all, are barely remembered.  Within the ongoing cartographic imagination such peripheral entities barely exist at all.  They are intangible, ineffable, at the edge of sight and almost out of mind.  They have the impermanence of wind, blown by cherubs at the periphery of old maps. The conferring of salience upon those objects which loom and snuggle, on the other hand, gives them a permanence and definition which is absent from these more distal visions.  They are assertively, undeniably solid, and you’d better believe it.

So the subjective arrangement of objects in space around a phenomenal centre brings with it a corresponding set of relationships to do with size, visibility, contact, affordance, substance etc. and such arrangements also correspond with personal salience.  This arrangement then forms the basis for the metaphorical schema which organises knowledge around our subjectivity, and these relationships carry over as entailments of the metaphor.  Objects of knowledge which we consider to be close to our personal centre of being have priority over those which are less intimate and pressing, regardless of any ‘objective’ status such knowledge might have.  A critical word from a loved one, which might have little relevance or status outside the confines of our own small area of knowing and being, may be experienced as huge and imposing, dominating the conceptual landscape and hiding any prior compliments in its shadow; as solid and factual as a slap to the face or a punch to the gut.  The converse of this is the apparent irrelevancy and evanescent vagueness that more apparently ‘distant’ knowledge displays.  Our newspapers carry facts about climate change, diminishing resources, over-population, and the rest, but there is little impact.  These are the church towers and the mobile phone masts that we drive past unaware.  The man walking his dog is obscured by the approach of the cyclist.

This arrangement of epistemology according to the logic of the spatially located being may be the default setting for how knowledge is evaluated and awarded substantial status, at least to the extent that it seems explicable in terms of evolutionary history and current embodiment.  And  given this natural propensity that we have to orient experience around our own phenomenal centre of existential gravity, a tendency built into the fabric of our embodiment and hence into the architecture of our understanding, it is pretty remarkable that we are not entirely locked into this solipsistic viewpoint (at least those of us who are not teenagers).   We do not habitually adopt only an epistemological position on reality which parallels the geographical position we uniquely occupy.  Whilst we are undoubtedly objects apparently located in three-dimensional space; and whilst we have organs of sense and organs for processing that sense which mediate that space in specific ways, and whilst we are (made) subject to the defining logic of this condition with its concomitant features; horizons, perspectives, occlusions, movements toward and away from, front/back distinctions, etc; we also seem to be able to adopt other conceptualizing positions.

Most of us would be uncomfortable with the idea that the status of any particular article of knowledge was entirely dependent upon its perceived salience or metaphorical proximity to any one individual, including ourselves.  We recognize that, whilst some knowledge is appropriately located using this phenomenological map, (insults and compliments for example), it would not be right to follow such idiosyncratic organization for all elements of knowing.  We like there to be such things as ‘objective facts’; knowledge objects which don’t go away when you stop looking at them and which have a permanence and solidity which is not dependent upon their transitory appearance within the phenomenology of any one individual.


5 Responses

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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on October 16, 2009 at 10:28 am

    and this subjectivity plays a crucial role in childhood development,
    perhaps a sense of agency, causality, dynamic relations between objects
    and later events are made sense of by recourse to phenomenal primitives that children experience, (I heard somewhere this phrase, phenomenal primitive, and I may skew its use, but since I am attracted to the word “minimal”, primitive without its negative aspect is also a catchword of mine in every argument with an experiential drift…)
    but may I entertain the idea that subjectivity is objectivity? let me,
    first, let us consider “absolute subjectivity” the source from whence further abstractions and derivations apply, which by giving rise to objective spaces, makes possible a subjectivity that refines further objectivity, so, in this sense, what I say is that that the interpersonal is rather an objective space,
    let me try to explicate this
    an interesting question is (as in Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’ (?) maybe) what happens to an individual “who” grows up totally separated from society, and thus without language and social values, does he have subjective experience?
    is subjective experience a function of selfhood, or is it independent?
    I may sound stupid here, but this a question I ask
    can I imagine animals as not having subjective experience in the sense that we have,
    and so to regard them as so enmeshed in their environment that perhaps absolutely no sense of being emerges for them, no subjective experience, rather it is all just there, happening, hurting, giving pleasure, but not felt, by actually “being” the environment, where there is no distance to construct a subjective experience of this infinite experience,
    this is a similar liminal position, I think, to the one where we struggle with religion, science, in general, with the fact of existence, basically because of our finitude which got articulated via language when somehow individuals started to cohere
    so what if the sense of subjectivity emerges as a result of objectification of experience
    as a result of identifications and acceptance of certain values that the collective space provided for..
    again, I do not suggest or claim anything here
    animals must feel, a sense of separateness may be there
    but is there the possibility that subjectivity is dependent upon objectification?
    I just play with the idea here,
    to dress your post with a tangential comment
    since the space is provided for it here
    best, M

  2. Kaposvári Márk said, on October 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    “Emotions arise as we become displaced and dislocated to another position in adaptive response to some situation. One way of characterizing the felt dimension of emotional experience is in terms of “affective space,” or the space we move through as we experience distinct emotions (Cataldi, 1996)” in Gibbs, 2005 (Embodiment and Cog.Sc.)
    – another aspect of the phenomenal space of experience…

  3. Kaposvári Márk said, on October 22, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    sorry for taking up so much space in the comment box
    (especially if you are already familiar with the stuff I am quoting here)
    but I find it fascinating, how deeply similar insights can issue from a radically
    dissimilar logic, that is basically the idea I offer as a “food” for thought now:
    different beliefs and different modes of approaches leading to similar insights…
    the quote is from RW Emerson’s “Nature” expressing as it does an idealist understanding of language remindful of the cognitive tenets,
    so here it goes:

    “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made, is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed; but the same tendency may be daily observed in children. Children and savages use only nouns or names of things, which they convert into verbs, and apply to analogous mental acts.
    Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope.
    Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass. “The visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible.” The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use.
    In like manner, the memorable words of history, and the proverbs of nations, consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth. Thus; A rolling stone gathers no moss; A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; A cripple in the right way, will beat a racer in the wrong; Make hay while the sun shines; ‘T is hard to carry a full cup even; Vinegar is the son of wine; The last ounce broke the camel’s back; Long-lived trees make roots first; — and the like. In their primary sense these are trivial facts, but we repeat them for the value of their analogical import. What is true of proverbs, is true of all fables, parables, and allegories”

    Emerson is great!

    • Fred McVittie said, on November 13, 2009 at 5:11 pm

      That is a superb quotation. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Kaposvári Márk said, on November 14, 2009 at 11:40 am

    here is another one from his “Experience”

    “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects”

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