'Sensitive Knowing'



If we look at things squarely the only thing left from the greatest philosophical enterprises is a pitiful aphoristic aftertaste, he said, no matter what the philosophy, no matter what the philosopher, everything falls to bits when we set to work with all our faculties and that means with all our mental instruments, he said, I thought.


Bernhard -- The Loser

I've been wondering a lot about this 'philosophy' I'm doing -- trying to see what it is about it which bothers me so much -- which causes my guard to raise, puts me on my defensive. And yesterday, when reading Bernhard, I thought about how these philosophers now are nothing of the sort -- they speak so little of real learning -- of that feeling of something having awoken within -- or moved -- the turning round of the mind from darkness into light. There is something so much more important about the conversation -- the conversation between individual and idea, between individual and text, between individual and individual. Philosophy is done in conversation -- in the process of working upon something -- of trying out a new line of thought, of struggling with a new problem. It is not this new sort of sophistic science which employs words calculated to affect and then promises to pry them open so that we can all see how they work. This new philosophy does not understand it eviscerates -- it isn't analysis it's evisceration -- it leaves empty husks behind -- the path of the woodworm -- chewing its way through everything and leaving only emptiness behind.

Philosophy is at its worst when it begins to write. I suppose this opinion could be a question of temperament -- that's fine -- I have the sort of temperament which prevents me from seeing much of contemporary analytic philosophy as philosophy at all. I have a temperament which disposes me to want something else -- to want philosophy to be some enduring endeavor, one which grapples with problems, both by battle and by embrace -- problems which change their face and form, like Proteus grasped too tightly. I want philosophy to be some sort of endeavor which moves -- which motivates and guides and develops. Something which cannot be a profession. Something which cannot be donned like a mantle and cap.

These thoughts returned to me today as I read through an interview of Jill Marsden by Christopher Branson sent by a friend (thank you Robert!). I was particularly struck by the exchange below. This notion of 'sensitive knowing' joined with the notion of philosophy as narrative -- as a likely story crafted to combat against forgetting -- these are what speak to me -- they are what seem right to me, they are lifelong endeavors, they could do the work of motivating and moving.

CB: I’d like to ask you about the relationship between the philosopher and art, as it is developed in your thought. I think, overall, what I most appreciated in your book was the idea of ‘affective’ knowing. If we are to take the death of God seriously—as our unbelief in forms of identity—then we have to pursue philosophy as sensitive knowing, i.e. as aesthetics, in the broadest sense. I completely agree with you that it is incorrect to pigeonhole aesthetics as the study of art. In fact, it makes it seem altogether absurd that aesthetics, in that sense, should be one of the central four philosophical disciplines, along with metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. It makes the whole enterprise seem trifling by comparison. You have the questions of ‘what is it?’, ‘how do I know it?’, ‘how should I live?’, and then we tag the question of art on at the end. ‘What is beautiful?’ To most ears this sounds like a flighty little trifle by comparison, a superfluous luxury. Such a view of aesthetics shows precisely that we have forgotten its original significance. But it does strike me that, if we are to pursue philosophy in the way you are proposing, it presupposes that the philosopher has an aesthetic sensibility, that he is sympathetic to the types of experiences you are thinking from and about. Now, we all have this to some extent: we all respond to music, for example, but then music is less problematic. It’s my intuition, however, that the majority of our systems of education, particularly philosophical and scientific training, actually inhibit the aesthetic sensibility, insofar as these processes alienate us from the act of seeing. We have a habit of over-intellectualising, wishing to determine a work’s ultimate “meaning,” or wishing to interpret its signs as simple referents of thought. And yet what we are faced with is not a collection of ideas, not even a text, but a piece of art, a composed form. In such cases, we are intellectualising something insofar as we are viewing it under the form of the same, seeking to find in it the concepts that we had already brought with us. The possibility for seeing the new, of the sensation of ecstasy, is thereby minimised. I was wondering if you could talk about your own relationship to art in this context, of the relation between art, philosophy and aesthetic sensibility.

JM: I suppose the idea of rapture has romantic overtones and I’m aware that to speak about aesthetics in terms of rapture seems to focus on a notion of pleasure which is a very old, eighteenth century notion. For me, by contrast, what was important was to really think what it means when you describe aesthetics as a science of sensitive knowing. That gives us a definition of aesthetics, and I liked what that definition suggested for philosophy. It’s too easy to equate thinking with consciousness and mentality, but if you pursue a Freudian line of enquiry, then very quickly you have to relinquish that prejudice and recognise that thought is already ‘of’ the body. If philosophy could abide with that notion, then ethics, epistemology and metaphysics would look quite different. So, for me, it was an attempt to start from a position which doesn’t assume that thinking is the soul’s silent dialogue with itself. I think that Nietzsche is exploring something like that in the ‘physiology of art.’ Art then would be one of the opportunities in which you might talk about that sensitive knowing, and it might be one of the vehicles for encountering that, but, interestingly, in Nietzsche it’s in other places that an aesthetic sensibility might prove more subtle and telling. I do have interests in certain artists, usually the tormented ones [laughs], and that’s not ancillary, but it isn’t imperative for me that aesthetics is thought about in relation to art. I suppose that there are states, and Nietzsche talks about these states, which inspire a kind of ecstasy, because they communicate something of the ecstasy of the creator of the artwork. I suppose this touches upon the question of what you are entering into contact with, when you encounter something which you want to say moves you—and we do use this language of transport, because something is happening. Again, it’s not so far away from Kant, when Kant is talking about the genius not knowing what he has produced—for obvious reasons, it can’t be rehearsed: Kant can’t have a genius knowing in advance what he is doing. So there is this illegibility of an artwork, which, at the same time, is communicated. It’s something which never seems to arrive within the circuit of cognition, it seems to add relatively little to cognition, and yet something happens, something is transmitted. Nietzsche is fascinated, particularly in the notebooks, when he’s talking about that element of perception, things which we are sensing all of the time, but of which we are unaware.