A Priori Castles

La città che (non) muore - Civita di Bagnoregio
Photo by Giuseppe Mondì / Unsplash

A Priori Castles

Walden (1854) is a classic contemplation on simple living. The author; transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said,

“If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

Catching stardust and clutching rainbows appear to be an appreciation for the inexpressible and an exaggeration of the imagination. Looking to Thoreau, his “harvest truth” is the tell, the point at which the bounty of the day is revealed for at least him to see. This vision is an exercise left best to the imagination but is there a biological underpinning innate to the human species. Could it be pre-built into our psyche like a Darwinian presupposition of sorts? If so, as a species, we would be drawn to biodiverse landscapes of natural beauty. E.O. Wilson’s BET (biophilia hypothesis) is exactly that and suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Dubbed, “The Darwin of the 21st century”,[1] this Pulitzer Prize author (Wilson) shares something in common with Aristotle; they are two of many intellectual giants to put forward a concept that could be summarized as "love of life". Diving into the term philia, or friendship, Aristotle evokes the idea of reciprocity and how friendships are beneficial to both parties in more than just one way, but especially in the way of happiness.

As The New Yorker Magazine writer Maria Konnikova explained in her 2013 article, “Why We Need Answers,” that “the human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity.” “From an early age,” Konnikova explains, “we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations.” Human beings are answer-seeking creatures and common motives include “achievement, affiliation, power, etc.” It stands to reason that the certainty of rainbows and stardust inhabit our being. Thanks to Thoreau, et alia and the cumulative data set of humanity’s knowledge (which are one and the same), these claims form any and all claims of epistemology. Know thyself? Indeed!

The transcendental tradition is in direct conflict with Gilles Deleuze’s claims that standards of value are internal or immanent: to live well is to fully express one's power, to go to the limits of one's potential, rather than to judge what exists by non-empirical, transcendent standards. So, how might we live? Where our traditional ontology – our metaphysical structure that identifies concepts and categories within a domain — seeks to discover what is, we instead should be motivated to understand how we can see what we did not see before.

How does one expand the traditional cognitive act of acquiring knowledge in favor of distinguishing the greater knowledge of which Thoreau speaks? Perhaps a start is to relax the feverish pace to analytically decipher our experience or perhaps the approach should be more poetic in origin. Here I am thinking of Shelley who said "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" and Homer who gave us the soundtrack in the key of Dactylic hexameter. Culturally transmitted made manifest! Do you see what I am saying?

How do we know when we’re locked in the nearsightedness of our own structured manner of looking at things? How can we be aware when the conditioning of our history has us in its grip? In his book, Freedom from the Known (1969), philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Man has throughout the ages been seeking something beyond himself, beyond material welfare – something we call truth or God or reality, a timeless state – something that cannot be disturbed by circumstances, by thought or by human corruption.”
“That is the first thing to learn,” said Krishnamurti, “Not to seek.” When we force our minds to conform to an established pattern – our responses become automatic. “If you observe very closely what is taking place and examine it, you will see … the intellect is not the whole field of existence; it is a fragment, and a fragment, however cleverly put together, however ancient and traditional, is still a small part of existence whereas you have to deal with the totality of life.”

So the challenge in looking at the world with fresh eyes in each moment, free from conditioning and automatic responses, is to be able to see without our preconceived notions or to be specific only in rationalizing model punctuated via syllogisms and self serving justification.

  1. "Book Talk: E. O. Wilson's Bold Vision for Saving the World". National Geographic News. November 1, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 2020. ↩︎

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