I spent nearly half a century learning and teaching philosophy, with a couple of detours into the wilderness of academic administration. The students were wonderful, the courses challenging, the friendships stimulating, and the research rewarding. You can learn a lot about the world—and yourself—by studying philosophy intensively, and I commend it to everyone.
When I retired in 2011, I faced two roads that diverged (not in Frost’s yellow wood, but just as consequential): Should I continue with philosophical research? I do have a few unfinished articles somewhere, and lots of suitable topics to explore. Or should I try something different? Somehow the question resolved itself. I had always been interested in photography since high school, when I worked on a local newspaper and got to use the very nice cameras of a senior journalist. But over the ensuing years I had little time and less money for taking pictures, despite continuing interest. Upon retirement, that interest burgeoned. So I chose photography over philosophy as a way to spend my time, though I readily confess that my philosophical experience continues to infect my thought process. (A fellow photographer, Patrick Hinely, calls me “philosophotog.”)
I am a naïve amateur photographer, continually learning and always open to suggestions for improvement, both technical and creative. Expanding knowledge always shows us how ignorant we remain and how much more there is to know. The images in this post are drawn from my “Covid Ramblings,” a year-long project I undertook in March amidst the pandemic at the suggestion of our daughter Laura, and the results of which I hope to self-publish next spring. It’s the culmination of my efforts thus far, and it displays what I’ve learned—and makes obvious how far I still have to go.
At this point in my project I thought it might be interesting to put my philosophy to use in reflecting a bit upon photography. After all, the website is named for Susan Sontag, who wrote a well-regarded collection of essays, On Photography, and our posts are in effect letters to her (she died in 2004). Her book mostly reflects on the social significance of photography, to which I have nothing to add, and I think she might be a bit dubious of what I have to say—but since when have philosophers ever agreed? No doubt this post is a bit self-indulgent, but perhaps you, gentle reader, will indulge me for a bit as well?
So here are some philosophical ramblings about photography—not a structured set of claims and arguments, but meandering reflections. It’s rather like the kind of photography I described in my second DS post: serendipitous satisficing while looking at something lurking just beneath the surface. Every subject has its depths, of course, and practicing photographers—all of you—ordinarily don’t have time to plumb these depths, but in a pandemic I hope you might have a few moments to reflect on the following.
First off, I readily admit that philosophy and photography haven’t always been friends. It’s not just that you can’t do serious philosophy at the same time as practicing photography, since that’s true of any subject matter philosophy explores. But ever since Plato, philosophy has been suspicious of any art as pursuing mere appearance and not reality. Plato’s Cave analogy, depicted in The Republic Book VII, is a powerful story—or image. In it, we are ordinarily like benighted cave-dwellers perceiving only the shadows of real things, their appearances, and we must be led, perhaps forcibly, up out of the familiar darkness of the cave into the stunning daylight of the sun to behold reality. It’s a beguiling story that raises many deep questions about knowledge and reality: What is really real after all? How can we know it? Does truth about reality lie in images, concrete percepts, or rather in abstract concepts, Platonic Ideas (or in both, somehow)?
The contrast between percept and concept can be over-blown, but it’s potent. Images are indeed perceptual, and there is something sensorily immediate, concrete and present to consciousness in them, whereas concepts are abstract, not present to sense but seen only by the mind’s eye (itself a metaphor derived from perception!). Photography aims at seeing and representing a concrete particular, whereas philosophy aims at recognizing and representing an abstraction. These differences are real and deep, and I don’t wish to deny them. But I do want to soften the dichotomy in various ways.
Photography is a light-drawing, expressing itself in visual percepts (a “percept” is just a datum of perception, what is perceived, and our perception is via sensation, so our basic percepts are sensual data), whereas philosophy is discursive, expressing itself in spoken and written language, the vehicle of concepts. But both activities aim at representation, literally re-presenting what is presented first in sense or thought, and there may be similarities in the respective manners of representation: style, wit, clarity, concision, synthesis, suggestiveness. Further, language is as supple as image in accommodating likeness, perspective, focus and aspect, useful for so much more than stark (factual) representation. And clearly creativity creates quality in each—better images, better arguments—though there is no substitute for hard work.
And of course there’s that old pair of categories: beauty and truth. A central aim of photography is to express/create beauty, whereas philosophy seeks truth (or the wisdom that appreciates its value). Perhaps Keats is somehow right: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Ode on a Grecian Urn). But offhand it does seem that even if something beautiful—like a photograph—conveys something true about a scene, and perhaps deeply true, it’s not expressing all the truth that lurks in that neighborhood: for the rest of truth we need something more like the disciplined inquiry of science (or even philosophy?) that queries the often-luminous appearance of things and seeks the reasons why things appear the way they do. Contrarily, truth need not be beautiful; in fact it can be the opposite—stark, ugly, dreadful, foul. Understanding the unity of beauty and truth seems beyond our grasp.
Here’s another, important contrast: photography seems intent on “capturing” something transient, a delightful scene perhaps but also one that occurs momentarily and then is gone: the light changes, subjects move, the wind blows, everything passes. That transience is arguably essential to beautiful images: would their subjects be so beautiful if unchanging? (Never mind how the record of that transience is itself transient!) But philosophy has lusted since its origins for something more than transience, something that doesn’t change, something eternal. Plato found eternity in his Ideas, but the conceptual analyses, categorial schemes and knock-down arguments of other philosophers have yearned to be something similar in being more than a “momentary stay against confusion” [Robert Frost, on “The figure a poem makes”]—they seek to be a lasting stay, ideally permanent. But, in the end, these are matters of degree, not of kind. Some photographic images last longer than many philosophical efforts.
Photography and philosophy seem to have divergent ontologies (theories of being), or at least ambitions, one prioritizing the ephemeral, the other the eternal. But perhaps there are also convergences. For one, both works of art and philosophical writings become and then pass on, whether forgotten, ignored, discredited, discounted or simply lost—their transience and eternality subsumed in a greater passing. For another, both elevate the human spirit a bit above the temporal flux, capturing something that endures for a time if not for all times. And here is where beauty and truth may touch one another again: if something is indeed true or beautiful at some time, then it is true for all times that it was true or beautiful at that time, regardless of whether it is accepted by anyone as such.
Here I’m tempted to insert a paragraph on emptiness in Buddhist philosophy, but we needn’t travel to Asia for insight: There is also the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne (about whom I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation), which constructs an ontology not of enduring things and their changing attributes but of events that “process” (or “concresce,” to use Whitehead’s term). Everything—and I do mean everything, from quarks to people and galaxies, even God—is composed ultimately of events, of happenings, of actual occasions. This is a rich vein of thought that I can’t begin to mine here, but it does provide a way of understanding the relatively enduring as founded on actual entities that come to be as creative syntheses of past actualities and present possibilities, and then pass on, unchanging only as part of a causally-effective past. Every present moment is truly unique; it can be preserved (in effects, including memories) but not perpetuated (as continuing subjective experience). Objectivity becomes subjective and then passes into further objectivity. The emptiness of the moment is really temporary receipt of past moments and contribution to future ones.
Is photography a way of knowing? It’s certainly a way of seeing, and seeing is experiencing (bringing things to consciousness). But not all experiencing is knowing; sometimes it’s just just awareness or even pure bliss! Science, from Latin scientia, knowledge, clearly seeks knowledge, and it may be our most reliable form of knowledge (some would claim that it’s the only reliable form, but I won’t debate scientism here). And philosophy, bless its dear heart, is philia sophia, “love of wisdom”—not that philosophers are necessarily wise, but they should at least aim at wisdom if they’re being philosophical. But photography? Does it even seek knowledge or wisdom? It seems more an art form where the goal is anything other than knowledge: making something concrete that brings pleasure, entertainment, satisfaction, joy, perhaps beauty. It’s no doubt absorbing, but where’s the knowledge? Well, in various places, among others: (i) There’s the incredible knowledge involved in the craft of making artifacts such as photographs; this is knowing-how, not knowing-that. (ii) Then there’s knowledge of the subject-matter, in detailed and intimate ways not duplicated by the sciences; this is knowing-of. (iii) Likewise, there’s the knowledge of the light that makes photography possible, not optics but basking in the light; this is knowing-in, existential knowledge.
Both photography and philosophy, like so many other human endeavors, open up and onto infinite realms. They show us how profound even the most apparently simple image or concept can be, ramifying into worlds of associations and connections. They are infinite also in what it takes to get decently good at either, much less masterful, and greatly much less to become an influential creator. Both require long apprenticeship, commitment, discipline and perseverance to become proficient—and of course practice, practice, practice! Immersion in each brings joy along with frustration and exhaustion. But I freely admit that learning how to think photographically isn’t much like learning how to think philosophically, in my experience. Learning how to see and compose images just isn’t the same as learning how to analyze concepts or synthesize structures or construct and criticize arguments.
Both photography and philosophy are subject to the inevitable colorings of humanity. Both kinds of practitioners can be vain, arrogant, self-indulgent, immodest, obscurantist, self-promotional. Both practices are incurably “subjective” in that they are undertaken from a point of view and express aspects of the subject as well as the object of attention. Both have an intrinsic satisfaction that bids to steal time from mundane obligations, and can corrode human relationships if pursued obsessively. Photography and philosophy are frequently selfish activities—and by “selfish” I mean self-interested: the all-consuming delight in being immersed in something intrinsically pleasurable. Other concerns there may be—for professional photogs in particular—but they are quite often secondary.
Photography has often sought to be pure self-expression, pure subjectivity, while philosophy has often sought to gain a “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel’s insightful phrase) that is purely objective, or at least inter-subjective. But again this contrast can be over-drawn: the purest subjectivity seeks to express itself to others and celebrates that expressivity with others, and if it is potent it will enter into others’ subjectivity as well. And the purest objectivity will have traces of time, place and personality stamped on it willy-nilly, no matter how impersonally it seeks to present itself. So be it. Let neither claim the pure high ground! A smidgeon of honest self-awareness and modesty would go a long way.
An allied point: The process of photography (“taking” photographs) and that of philosophy (“doing” philosophy) resemble each other in many ways, though with important differences. There is of course the delight of discovery, the unexpected serendipity of finding an interesting new image amidst familiar scenes or of uncovering conceptual connections hidden beneath surfaces. Both are also intensely creative processes, the realization of new possibilities previously unimagined. (I view creativity as a matter of degree, not all-or-nothing.) Further, there is the inherent satisfaction in making an image and crafting an argument. Then there is the exuberance—and danger—of self-promotion, as we seek to exhibit our images or publish our essays, thereby seeking the approbation of others and inflating our sense of self. And doubtless there is the self-indulgence of forsaking “real world” obligations to pursue the pleasures of our all-consuming passion. Few of us go so far as Gauguin in pursuit of his art or Kierkegaard his thought, but we are all subject to this temptation, if only for a few stolen moments to witness and “capture” a sunset.
I venture, amidst all the contrasts and similarities, to offer this final suggestion: Could it be that rambling is a way to unite, or modestly synthesize, both difference and similarity in photography and philosophy? We often proceed by sharply distinguishing differences and asserting incompatibilities: Either/or! But what if we tried to embrace both/and? I hope I have ventured a few steps along this “road less traveled by.” No doubt we could easily become unserious dilettantes in thinking both/and thoughts: muddled photogs pasting random collages or squishy Hegelians lost in foggy abstractions. But perhaps some rambling can keep us relatively sane and clear-eyed, as well as satisficed if not fully satisfied. And so, I will end with the question implicit in all philosophical pieces, the question that invites a never-ending dialogue: And what do you think?
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I think your efforts at photography, and merging photography with philosophy, are successful.
Your forest canopy images remind me that I need to look up more often.
Though, I have one comment about your comment about lightning. Coming from the world of engineering, lightning often strikes the same location twice. This is also true photographically if we look.
(PS. I think the by line needs to reviewed by the editor. Pascal??)
Paul, Thank you for this. Re. lightning, I was employing the common idiom, not putting forth my own view, which is exactly yours. Perhaps I need to put quotes around idioms I don’t believe? Not sure what the problem about the byline is; that’s my name alright. Lad
So it is! I wonder what happened?
I thought you might be refering to the old saying about lightning, though sometimes its hard to tell in print.
Lovely shots, Lad. Fascinating ramblings, too.
This maybe a completely naive response to your article above. Could it be something as simple as it’s not what one looks at but what one sees in conjunction with it’s not what one thinks but what one thought at the time a scene is initially perceived whilst being influenced by ones thoughts; so as to be able to craft an image in the a likeness representative of ones union of the seeing and the thought. Uh oh, upon reflection, the ultimate answer may not be that naive and simplistic.
Sean, Your thought process is more complicated than mine, not naive at all! I think even at the most rudimentary level of “seeing” we are interpreting/processing as well as receiving data. In fact we don’t even receive data, which are givens; they are more like takens. So something like thought is present from the get-go, and it only gets more complex and thought-infused as we go along in our seeing and remembering and creating. Lad
Thanks for sharing your lovely images and wonderful text, Lad. Such as interesting read with pauses for images which perfectly illustrated your points. It’s just what I needed on this day of bucketing rain. If I had to choose, the stunning vertical tree & clusters of mushrooms on Brushy Hill, as well as the root ball are my favorites, subjectively speaking. I look forward to more of your COVID ramblings.
Thanks, Nancee. Glad you appreciated these–on a rainy day besides! I share your preferences, though I don’t think I’m allowed to pick favorites. ;-). The next ramble will be in January or so, on the subject of black and white images, if I can assemble my half-baked ideas by then. A fifth will mark the end of my project in March and will incorporate your leading question about my “process.” Lad
WOW!!! Well I accidentally stumbled upon “philosophy” when I was supposed to be reading Roman Law. The problem with Roman Law was the lecturer – he used to sweep dramatically into the lecture theatre, turn to face us, close his eyes, ignore us totally for the next hour, and address us in an uninterrupted flow of latin. While I used to top the class in latin in senior school, this was altogether too much – we never learned it as a spoken language anyway.
So I gave myself a treat – I ignored him “back”, and got a free course in Philosophy 101, reading the notes that had been left all over the blackboard, behind him, by the previous lecturer to occupy the room.
Of course I can’t claim to have acquired anything remotely resembling your grasp of it, lad, but at least I have a basic grasp of it – fuelled by a lifelong passion for “Nonsense” which, I imagine, you will recognise for what it truly is – a parallel universe to “philosophy” – where brilliant people head, to find solutions to problems, when conventional logic has failed to provide them with one.
I’m afraid that leaves me in a bind – this week is flat out – so I will have to wait a while, to deal properly with your wonderful post. I’ve savoured a mouthful and I’m hungry for more.
To fill in, I can only add that –
“I am a naïve amateur photographer, continually learning and always open to suggestions for improvement, both technical and creative. Expanding knowledge always shows us how ignorant we remain and how much more there is to know.”
– aptly describes everyone. And that I adore the first few images – I look forward to slowly going through all of the rest of them!
Pete, Thanks for the amusing story about your introductory course in philosophy! I doubt anyone could get much out of my classroom blackboard scribblings. I look forward to further comments in a week or so when you have the time. Happy holidays! Lad
My step father was a philosopher (of the Stoic school), so I was immersed in Philosophy since age 6… reading your post is a delight 🙂
Having a scientific training too, I quickly turned to Metaphysics and Taoism (the philosophy one, from Zhuang Zi, not the way more popular political one from Lao Zi), with an attraction for Jung’s Archetypes… your writing about transient events reminded me the age-old Chinese expression “traces of a bird in the snow”… one of the nicest, simplest short way of portraying that 🙂
I took such a pic decades ago, but quickly noticed that without a short essay, people would often just not make the connection…
I also like to the expression “crystallization” we use to define a “shape” that materializes under our senses, from potential to realized… endless fascinating topic; thanks for the invitation to venture back into it through photography… too bad the pandemic (and distance, let’s be honest) prevents a little meeting in an old pub or café, with a good beer or wine or expresso, philosophy exchanges call for that 🙂
Please forgive me if some terms are just junk, I am French spoken, and I just lurned “globbish” on the fly… decent English is still a far reach for me 😀
Thank you for this great comment; your English is WAY better than my French, and clearly into the “decent zone,” so no complaints at all! I think we all have some tilt toward Stoicism during the pandemic, even though the drift of American society is Epicurean.
I taught for many years a course in Chinese philosophy that focused on the early Zhou thinkers, and I too was attracted to Zhuang Zi, whose light touch I preferred to Lao Zi’s oracular pronouncements. A lot of thinking goes into pithy sayings–and the same I think is true in some photographs, which speak a lot more than 1000 words. I wasn’t familiar with “traces of a bird in the snow,” but immediately pictured a spare Chinese brush painting!
I agree philosophy needs conversation–dialogue!–as well as protracted periods of concentration by oneself. It would be a great pleasure some day to meet you and head for the nearest pub, or classier French cafe (sorry, but I can’t get the last letter accented).
I share your dual interests, as you know, Lad. I applaud your dialogue between/of philosophy and photography, the distinctions you make, but also the notes about similarities. One idea that has been a major part of my photographic learning is “flow,” losing one’s self/ego in the moment, in the process of photography. It’s probably crucial for any creative activity, but it’s taken photography to help me learn this spiritual discipline. I look forward to many conversations about your “ramblings.”
Lad, I’ve been thinking long and hard about your post. I admire the tenor of both your words and your photographs. Your mind’s eye is obviously as astute as your photographic eye. Yes, you help to open up the connections between image making and philosophy. As someone trained in rhetoric, I find myself engaged with some of the issues you raise. Just as I struggle with questions such as ‘what do I want to say’ and ‘how should I say it’ in my photography, I also surely struggle with questions of meaning. What meaning am I making? What am I adding to the world? Am I doing something worthwhile for others even as it feels enriching for me? I am, at present, merely working on answers. Maybe one day I will get there or learn to be content with the journey–it remains to be seen (which is why, I suppose, I keep making images). I truly enjoyed your post. Claude
Claude, that makes two of us (struggling with meaning). My hopelessly self-serving partial answer is that meaning doesn’t have to be explicit. And that if I’m drawn to some of my images on a deeper level than mere aesthetics, then others will as well. This doesn’t help me understand why I make pictures, maybe that’s the domain of a professional analyst or curator. Maybe it’s better that way? Maybe we’d stop if we had all the answers? Pascal
I think you are quite right that meaning need not be explicit–in fact, most of what we know is implicit or tacit. Interesting that you think that the meaning of (some) images is deeper than “mere aesthetics”! I think that depends on what you mean by “aesthetics.” If it’s blather about works of art, especially to “monetize” them, then I agree. But I’m not so sure it’s “mere” if it’s beauty–as a feature of beautiful things or as something in itself (maybe only philosophers are interested in the latter?). Beauty seems very deep to me, as deep as truth and goodness (three “transcendentals” for the ancients and medievals).
But you’re certainly right that not knowing explicitly is part of what keeps us searching–for what we don’t exactly (or at least explicitly) know.
Thanks for the comment, and for everything you do to make this website work.
Lad, of course you are correct, beauty is very deep! 🙂
What I was clumsily saying is that some pretty photographs don’t hold our attention for very long because they do not seem to convey much … meaning (sorry 😉 ) … from the author. They “merely” capture the beauty of a scene rather than create a beautiful interpretaion. Of course, that’s impossible as all photography is interpretation. So, maybe a better way of putting it is that the way that natural beauty is captured follows cliche recipes rather than following a personal path and conveying something about the photographer.
I strongly believe that the story in photography insn’t contained in the subject but in the way the photographer chose to capture it. It is that layer of individual and personal interpretation/meaning (in other words: what the scene evoked in the photographer) that makes the photograph interesting to others. And I think that what Claude, yourself and I are trying to understand is how/why some scenes evoke things in us that they wouldn’t necessarily in others. To me, how we react to our world and become a part of it, is a large part of that meaning. And that shows in our photographs. And while it’s probably impossible to self-analyse our reaction to a scene, looking at our photographs probably shows us a glimpse of that hidden treasure 🙂
As I wrote to Claude, this is all a very naive interpretation of domains I am not familiar with. It is my child-like level of grasping at complex concepts that noone trained me in 😉
All the best, Pascal
Pascal, I agree with much of this, but wanted to add (not prove, by any means) a few points:
One, “pretty” is by no means synonymous with “beautiful”!
Two, I don’t know how you can “capture” beauty without creating a beautiful interpretation, nor conversely. How could the two kinds of beauty be totally disassociated?
Three, I’m resisting the temptation to make photography (and all art–or even all creative endeavors?) finally about the photographer and not the subject. Why can’t it be about both, and in showing something of one it reveals something of the other?
Four, what interests one person need not interest another, and I’m reluctant to say a photograph is finally or only interesting to others because of its personal interpretation/meaning. Some of us can be interested in the subject-matter or the image itself, quite apart from what the image reveals about the imager.
Five, I don’t think stories are the only way of making or finding meaning, though doubtless they are the most popular. I don’t think of scientific theories or mathematical theorems as stories, and likewise many forms of philosophical explanation. I used to have endless arguments (!) with a narrative theologian about this very point, to no definite conclusion.
Six, don’t sell yourself short! Your insights are better than almost everyone’s, even if you claim naivety.
Thank you, Lad 🙂
Thank you again 🙂
Pascal, One of these days we’re going to find something on which we actually disagree! We may have different interests, or find different things interesting (or in different ways or for different reasons), but that’s hardly the basis for disagreement! (Do you know the song, you say “toe-may-toe,” I say “toe-mah-toe,” so “let’s call the whole thing off”?) I learn immensely from your interests, so interestingly expressed! Lad
Pascal, I am remembering a retired, aged rabbi who lived down the city block from where I lived at that the time I knew him. He used to walk up and down the block in the evening, and if he saw me, he’d stop and we’d talk, sometimes for great lengths of time. He was always kind enough to ask what I was working on. What is more, he was educated on many subjects, and I was grateful to be able to learn from him. On one occasion I told him I was making notes for a book on the literature and theories of utopia, with the idea of trying to figure out if what I was reading could help me better understand what it means to reach for a better world with one’s writing. My old friend looked at me and said, “Utopia is the struggle for utopia.” He left it at that and was, of course, correct. For my project to reach its goal, it would have to never reach its goal–or inversely, it already had. In other words, I never finished the book. My co-writer and I decided that a final product was beyond our reach, and looking back I also realize it was beyond our youthful exuberance. I do not say that we did not finish the book, though, with sadness or disappointment, but with humility and an understanding that our efforts led to a different book on a different topic that was finally just as important to us and also closer to our hearts. But let me revise my old friend’s advice to my youthful self. Sometimes meaning is the struggle for meaning. I agree with you. Meaning doesn’t always have to be explicit. To reach what I convince myself are deeper meanings, sometimes, I have to let go of my desire to define. Other times, though, I feel like I have to do the hard work of following a rhetorical path–reaching an insight and following what assertions follow from it to the next level of assertion, and the next and the next. I’m not entirely sure how this pertains to photography. Every time I go out shooting and later examine what I have captured, I see myself looking for aesthetic qualities in the work that are for me still more goals than achievements, but I also search my images for a deeper meaning, namely, an articulation of a vision, a vision of an answer to at least one question that I never seem to answer. And if not a vision, at least a faint outline. And I often wonder if I am on the right path or if I am wasting my time. Am I creating a vision or waiting for one to emerge through the haze of my images? I mean, after all, what is the need to be creative? My photography does not present a vision, either an answer or an instantly recognizable quality. But this realization does not seem to be stopping me from taking more pictures. Yes, Pascal, after all and in the final analysis, the analyst and the curator may be a so-called “creative” person’s best friends.
My naive take on all this is that reasoning covers a limited realm of our experience. And that meaning goes far beyond anything purely rational. Rational reasoning feels like a monocrhomatic flashlight illuminating a small portion of a very large and deep landscape. And everytime we analyse one photograph (or text, or any other “meaningful” creation) we examine one part of that landscape, in that one light. And to follow the paths reaching out from the illuminated portion of the landscape, we have to do so in the dark (letting go of our desire to define, as you say). And when the paths between two illuminated areas join, we make an explicit effort to follow them and light them from one end to the other. It’s naive, as if explaining the brain to a child, but the image works for me.
And that light slowly fades if we don’t keep revisiting the paths, but even when lit, they are only understood rationally, in one colour. To me, it’s when the reasoning meets other realms (tactile, spiritual, emotional …) that we find true meaning. Our light, at this point, has all the colours of the spectrum, not just the one mental colour.
Oh well, I’ll stop now, before this looks like a colouring book version of “Meaning for Dummies” 😉 All the best, Pascal
Pascal and Claude, I hope you will not object to my coloring in part of a page of Pascal’s book. I found your dialogue fascinating. Thanks to you both, and I am glad to have been the incitement to this conversation. You both make persuasive points (and Pascal, I’m sure reason is involved in this, and Claude, it’s not just rhetoric!).
I think of meaning as putting things (in the most general sense, not just material objects) into some wider whole or context, seeing (or creating) the larger picture in which they make sense. We do this all the time for minor matters (making sense of someone’s unkind remark), or in larger ones like science (scientific abduction, or the search for the best explanation, is a kind of search for meaning) and theology. But we want to make sense of things that seemingly elude a wholistic grasp: things like creative processes (making something new) and of course Douglas Adams’ “the meaning of life, the universe and everything,” which Adams satirizes in the answer laboriously calculated: 42. But inquiring minds still want to know, and many get frustrated or intimidated by the difficult process of seeking and claim to have found the (sole) answer, which they cling to in faith which is all the more fervent the more it is questionable.
Claude: Creativity is necessarily opaque to explanation and immune to becoming an algorithm. But I don’t think creativity is totally owned by artists. In fact, I think there are many kinds and degrees of creativity, and every human action that is not involuntary or mechanical has a germ of creativity in it, however tiny. I agree that critics and curators may assist creativity–but never replace it–even thought it may be impossible to both at once.
Your flashlight metaphor, Pascal: I take your point that although a single point-source of light can shine its paltry light on everything seriatim (with enough batteries!), it will miss much if monochromatic and ignorant of other kinds of “light”. However, I would argue (!) that reason is at least polychromatic and much more flexible than you make out. There is indeed a narrow sense of “reason” which is attenuated to logical proof or evidential argument. But there is also a wider sense of the term that applies to the search for and apprehension of meaning. You may not be able to rationally prove meaning, but you can reasonably seek it, as you skillfully do.
Claude, Thanks for your appreciation and your thoughtful comments. The search for meaning can itself be meaningful, but I sense you’re also experiencing some answers to the vital questions you raise. But here’s an added twist: I think our quest can be to find meaning in our quest for meaning–that’s what philosophy is all about! (Some day we must have a conversation about rhetoric and philosophy–they have a long history of antagonism but I think they can learn from each other.). Lad
Lad, this recursive approach is interesting. Douglas Hofstadter defines consciousness as a “strange” loop of the mind observing itself observing itself observing itself … As for rhetoric vs philosophy, that sounds fascinating. I’d love to listen to that discussion! 🙂
I remember reading Hofstadter’s Goedel Escher Bach long ago, and being entranced. Strange loops can be dizzying and fruitless, just snarling all thought. But they can also be insightful, both in what they produce (besides themselves) and in their self-examining process. Thanks for reminding me of this.
Well, Lad, your images and words provided a fruitful context for thought. Thank you for that.
And Pascal, as always I am engaged by your perceptions and connections.
I certainly have no final insight to offer other than that we seem to have reaffirmed both our commitment to the making of meaning (and its interpretation) and to the search for meaning in its many registers and contexts (emotional, spiritual, scientific, artistic etc.).
Yes, Lad, philosophy and rhetoric have long been adversaries. But as you say, we can learn from and with each other. I used to remind my doctoral students that they would have to make a choice as academics. They would have to decide if they were going to practice a rhetoric of negation or a rhetoric affirmation in their scholarship. They could spend their careers trying to tear down the work of other scholars, of those that came before them, or they could affirm the contributions (which means taking the work of others seriously, in context, honestly and critically, acknowledging the limitations and addressing the work still to do). And while the choice of a rhetoric of affirmation may take some extra thought, time and effort, the point is to make a contribution, which is the more satisfying dedication. I suppose that something similar can be said for the world of photography.
So, again, thank you Lad, and also Pascal.
Wonderfully summed up. Thank you Claude 🙂
Gratitude all around! I think you have indeed summed up (at least some of) our common purposes, and I thank you for doing it. We all seem to search for meaning and to find meaning in different ways, but there is a kernel of commonality.
Your words about the rhetoric of negation and the rhetoric of affirmation reverberate in philosophy. There are those who practice philosophy as competitive criticism, where the goals are to poke holes in others’ arguments, skewer claims, disambiguate concepts–usually to display one’s own brilliance in contrast. But there are also those who speculate, who make proposals, construct systems, imagine possibilities–and some even do so without dogmatic assertion!
In photography, I think the contrast is not so much in taking photographs as in talking about them, between two kinds of critics: those who point out shortcomings (“soft edges,” “distractions,” “white balance,” etc. ad infinitum) and those who point out virtues and achievements of all kinds (of which PJ is an exemplar).