The Experience of an Idea

I was sitting outside enjoying an espresso when I found myself thinking a thought I've had before: all this — all this humanity with its fears and loves and desires; all this pavement and blue jeans and tequila and American Idol: all this is the great swirl of stuff continuous with the gyrations of the cosmos at every level — from solar flares and asteroid fields and black holes to viruses and cells and strands of DNA. We are not distinct from the cosmos, actors on the stage of the world. We are stuff, as viscous as lava and hard as granite and moving along and with EVERYTHING.

And then I thought of what a friend of mine might say: So what? What does thinking this do for you?

And so I considered what was happening as I thought my thought. What happens when you have an idea? I don't mean how you came up with the idea or how the idea came to you. I mean: what is the experience of actually having that idea?

I believe an idea is a kind of image — an image of the world. When I sit there thinking about the continuous swirl of life, I see the world that way, I perceive it that way. And this particular idea — this particular image, this particular perceptive experience — thrills me. My heart pounds a little harder, my adrenaline pumps and my senses seethe. The experience of having this thought is exhilarating.

Is my thought, my idea, true? Well, it bears a strange relationship to the world. From an abstract perspective, this thought is of course part of the world. But it has a stranger relationship to the world than say, a mug, which is part of the world, too. An idea entails a kind of measuring up, an act of arranging and rearranging parts — history, human bodies, scientific knowledge, literature, all of civilization, astronomy, botany, biology, desire.

In this very act of having the thought — which is the very act of arranging and re-arranging parts — I am feeling for the thought's coherence, its tenacity, and perhaps its efficacy: Does it work? Does it literally make sense? This is all to say that having an idea, a certain kind of idea, entails a truth experience: Yes! That's it!

Do all thoughts demand or involve a kind of truth experience? When I try to make sense of someone else's thought — let's choose Descartes — do I size up the cogito to the world? I suppose I do and I suppose that involves a certain truth experience. I am not saying I believe or disbelieve in the veracity of the Cartesian cogito; I am saying that when I think that thought I can see — yes, see — how the world could be that way.

The difference between me thinking Decartes' cogito and me thinking about the continuous swirl of life is that I experience them in very different ways — much as I experience Van Gogh differently than I experience Warhol.

One thing that becomes clear — sort of — is that an idea is not a structure per se but the act of structuring. It is an event — and a strange kind of event at that. It is palpable, somatic, yet invisible. It is an image that has some of its own texture but borrows most of its percepts from the world.

Of course, there are practical implications of an idea. That is, if we think there is a true self separate from the world we act differently than if we believe that the self is how it goes. Foucault shows how an entire medical-disciplinary regime turns on such thoughts.

Am I dodging the question of thoughts vs. beliefs? I don't think so; I think — I think, yes — that I am trying to understand how a thought becomes a belief. A belief is a thought for which we have a truth experience that also feels good — which makes belief an aesthetic experience of an idea.

Am I too readily conflating ideas, thoughts, and concepts? Probably. I need to keep thinking.


drwatson said...

I really enjoyed this - it felt like an evolution of a thought, which to me makes it a real idea, whatever "real" means.

I don't mind the idea that ideas are "images" but I like the idea towards the end of the structure - ideas to me are sort of points of orientation or hopefully disorientation.

I do this thing every semester where I write "thought - thoughtful, belief - believe and opine and opinion" on the board and try to sort out the difference. It's really tricky and I can't say that I have really made great distinctions, except it sounds good to be called thoughtful and bad to be called opinionated. And it seems like beliefs don't breathe as well as thoughts, beliefs are asthmatic in a way that thoughts aren't.

Pleasure as always.

Nathan said...

This is nice. I like the suggestion that we take up the difference between ideas and beliefs in terms of aesthetic experience. Immediately, I want to say that the two modes of thought have distinct temporalities. Beliefs seem to have a certain speed, like the signal in a feedback loop which traverses the same circuit endlessly. I can feel that speed, that centripetal force, when I go on a rant. In those instances I'm not moving with ideas, I'm being propelled by the whirring action of belief which generates its own sort of exuberant energy. Ideas, on the other hand, seem to have a more geologic temporality. They emerge slowly and then suddenly. But, when I'm thinking an idea, I start to fidget in all sorts of ways: biting my fingernails, tapping my foot, chewing on a pen. So there's a sort of proliferation of quick little physical movements which accompanies the very exacting, slow moving process of thought groping toward the idea. Kind of an interesting divergence. Anyhow, there's plenty more to say on this subject. Maybe in the next post?

Ruby said...

Forming an idea is exhilarating – what is more delightful than young children spinning wild ideas while almost high on the process? I think that delight remains, at some level, in all people whether they are gardeners, shopkeepers or academics.

For me, ideas aren’t images but waves - I feel like an idea is passed through me rather than presented before me. Ideas make my place in the world more clear rather than make the world more clear for me. The old - and still common - phrase ‘it dawned on me’ is fantastically descriptive of the way an idea might be building through experience and then suddenly reach a point of clarity…before fading into the background – to be assimilated or discarded after further consideration and experience. Beliefs and thoughts are not separate here but entwined in a process. Academia makes a God of the process of analysing – that can be very good but also has troubles by being removed from the everyday world of experience and emerging ideas.

The question of ideas V beliefs always makes me think of the 7thC monks who set up thinking shop on a pointy rock out in the Irish Atlantic. Supposedly there to think, how could they have gone without the belief that it would be meaningful? And once they arrive, were they not bound to find some meaning? (This question could be asked of the academic process). It's stunning to look at the wave battered rock and try to imagine how anyone lived there but, as my dad would say, what kind of fool would try to live there? The Vikings speared them in the end - not being versed in the idea of Christianity.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I fucking love the collaborative nature of this thing: thinking in-between is a joy.

@ DrW: I love "points of disorientation" and that beliefs are asthmatic. Brilliant.

@ Nathan: Excellent point — temporality and rhythm: yes yes yes.

@ Ruby: Fucking hilarious. And a thought as a wave is interesting — not just a wave through you but a wave as distinct from a particle. Ideas are analog, not digital — I think.