Friday, April 2, 2010


In Simon Blackburn's essay (not available online) from The New Republic, on a biography of philosopher R. G. Collingwood, he writes:

...the passage shows Collingwood pouncing on a vitally important point, and the one which gave him perhaps his life's central insight: you cannot tell what someone meant by looking at his artistic, or verbal, productions alone. You must "also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer."...You understand someone, according to Collingwood, not in the way you might come to understand a piece of machinery or any other mechanical or causal process, but by "re-enacting" in your own mind the problem they were addressing and the solution they were proposing.

The best way I know to come to grips with puzzling or frustrating behaviors or states of mind, whether in myself or others, is to ask what needs are pressing their demands, with greater or lesser success. For we are propelled by questions insisting on answers and needs calling for satisfaction. As individuals we are not confined in tunnels or locked into tractor beams, but we are beneficiaries--and victims--of a great and persistent push, comprising both general and idiosyncratic factors, through existence.

In this respect perhaps no metaphor is more misleading than "boot-strapping." It is more correct to say that we make use of our ancient species and individual momentum more or less adeptly. We generate no power per se, rather, we perceive our personal trajectories more or less well, and choose to resist or yield to particular biological, social, or intellectual forces. Life is interesting because these forces are fated to collide, and needs are inevitably frustrated. Or perhaps it is desire that is inevitably frustrated. But how to distinguish need from desire? That is wisdom.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe the gaze, can in part, retroactively formulate the question of an artwork's meaning. Art by its very existence is already an answer: its concreteness/palpability/self-evidence is a response to the non-existence that preceded it. Not all answers follow from questions.