Knowing, not knowing and teaching

I’ve just been sending off the edits for a paper that I’ve been writing for China Media Research, who are running a special issue on communication and Chinese philosophy. The paper is about education as a matter of communicating not just knowing, but also not-knowing, something that I’m arguing through a reading of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi.

In talking about not-knowing, I am not, I think, advocating anything particularly mysterious or mystical. Instead I am more interested in the fact that most of our lives are lived in what I am calling epistemological chaos, in which knowing and not-knowing exist alongside each other, and in which we don’t always know what we know, what we don’t know, or what the boundary is between the two (unlike Socrates, who always seems mightily—one might say ‘improbably‘—certain of his lack of knowledge). I’ll post here again when the paper is published, but here is a very short extract.

a rich educational context is one in which knowing and not-knowing, assurance and non-assurance swirl around each other chaotically; and teaching is as much about communicating not-knowing, tentativeness, uncertainty, flights of fancy, hypotheses, puzzles, conundrums, bafflements and confusions, as it is about communicating knowing, assurance, certainty, well-mapped paths, proofs, solutions, clarifications, illuminations and clarities.

Review in Frontiers of Philosophy in China

I was very pleased to see a review of my Levinas book (which is only very loosely connected to things Chinese), Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling, in the most recent edition of the excellent Frontiers of Philosophy in China. The link is here. It is a thoughtful and thorough review, by German phenomenologist Annette Hilt, who seems to have enjoyed the book, whilst taking me to task very gently for not saying more about the ‘saying’ and the ‘said’ (which is a fair point, I think). Anyway, have a look at the review if you have a subscription to FPC.

Ontological Claustrophobia – A Short Story

So there I was, sitting amongst philosophers, and we were all talking about ontological claustrophobia, the fear of being, that kind of thing.

The room was getting a bit stuffy. We’d been there a long time, talking and talking and talking. Suddenly I felt out of breath. ‘How about opening the window,’ I suggested. ‘That will help, I’m sure. Then perhaps we can talk about something else.’

The philosophers grumbled. ‘You don’t understand,’ they said. ‘You never understand.’ Read more

In the Moominhouse

Just a quick post this, to round off the year. I’m busy at the moment trying to get a book chapter finished by the first of January. It is about Moomins, flat ontology, Levinas, and other important matters of the day; and if it is taking longer than I had hoped, it is partly because I’m finding some rich philosophical seams to mine. Anyway, the deadline is looming, and it would be good not to start 2014 with a missed deadline, so at the moment I’m holed up with the cat and a pot of coffee,  ploughing through ]Totality and Infinity, Moominland Midwinter and other great philosophical classics.  Read more

What do you want to talk about?

It is always interesting to get reviews, even if they are not entirely favourable — or perhaps particularly if they are not entirely favourable — and so I was pleased this morning to see that my book [amazon_link id=”1441124152″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link]  (the original title, incidentally, was the much nicer Troubled Tales, but Bloomsbury, alas, overruled me!), has had received an interesting, although somewhat ambivalent, review from Jeffrey Di Leo, over on the excellent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Read more

Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about creativity. I’ve been thinking about what it means to bring new ideas, thoughts and stories into being. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about fairy dust.

Part of the reason for all this is that I’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks writing a paper which is due to be published later this month in National Taiwan University Studies in Language and Literature. The paper is called “Participation, Pattern and Change” and is about what I am calling participative creativity. The main idea behind the paper is that whilst creativity is still frequently seen as the intervention of something unworldly into the world—either a god, or a god-like infusion of genius into the mundane, or some kind of fairy dust—when it comes down to this, this is a pretty bad model for how we go about writing stories, composing music, painting pictures, coming up with new thoughts and hypotheses, finding new solutions to problems. So the paper explores a ‘participative’ model of creativity, drawing on my current favourite text, Liu Xie’s sixth century Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (“The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”) and on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). My aim is to set out a model that can account for literary creativity whether in China or in the West, one that does not have recourse to fairy-dust notions of creation ex nihilo.

What is at stake here, is the question of what the conditions are that are  necessary for creativity. As a teacher of creative writing, sometimes I come across students who claim, curiously, that they are not ‘creative’; and when this happens, I wonder what it is that they think that they are missing. It is my suspicion that they are in the grip of unhelpful notions of what it means to create. There is a widespread and popular idea of creativity as something akin to fairy dust: intangible, a bit sparkly, not entirely of this world, and rather hard to procure. And this fairy-dust notion of creativity is, I think, what lies behind the brainless notion (a notion that is adhered to in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that creative writing cannot be taught. This is an idea that is so boringly widespread, and so clearly evidentially false, that it is hard to know why people still maintain it in newspaper column after newspaper column. What this particularly numbskull notion seems to boil down to is this: either you have fairy dust or you do not. And it’s not down to you, or down to whoever is teaching you, whether you have fairy dust: it is, ultimately, down to the fairies (and who knows what they are up to?).

I’ll post a link to the paper when it is published. But here I want to just mention a wonderful book by James Austin (who some visitors to this blog may know as the author of [amazon_link id=”0262511096″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Zen and the Brain[/amazon_link]), called [amazon_link id=”0262511355″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty[/amazon_link], which explores the role of chance in creativity, and which I think makes some interesting inroads into the question of what it is to teach creativity. Our relationship with chance, Austin points out, is not just a kind of victimhood in the face of blind chance. In fact, Austin divides chance into four different categories. I’ll set them out below.

  1. Chance I: Blind luck, things just happen.
  2. Chance II: Chance that favours those in motion (or, as Austin writes, “the posture of creativity is forward-leaning”)
  3. Chance III: Chance that favours the prepared mind.
  4. Chance IV: Chance born out of a distinctive personal “flavour”, out of the fact that it is an idiosyncratic individual who is engaging with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that, from the point of view of teaching creative writing (or creativity in general), although Chance I is out of our hands, chance II, II and IV are not. Chance II is a matter of keeping moving, of going out and rambling over the hills, of seeing what you turn up in libraries (I tell my students, sometimes, that they should hand around in library shelves waiting to be mugged by passing books; Walter Benjamin talks about walking down the street and being mugged by passing ideas).  Chance III is a matter of accumulating a wide store of reading and of experience on which to draw (something that Liu Xie, in particular, insists upon). Finally, Chance IV is a matter of cultivating idiosyncratic interests and obsessions, because out of these strange juxtapositions, interesting things can arise. And all of this can boil down into really quite practical advice. Keep moving and keep exploring the world. Keep accumulating experience and reading. Follow those things that matter to you, and cherish your idiosyncratic interests. It is this, ultimately, that makes creativity participative, because it is about getting involved in the stuff of the world, rather than pulling down something unworldly from a mythical location outside the world.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t believe (or I don’t think I believe) that there is such a thing as an inherently uncreative person; but I do believe that there are more or less creative practices or even forms of life. And these can be taught.

The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China

For visitors to this blog who are not yet familiar with it, the Sino-Platonic Papers website is a repository of freely-available PDF richness and wonder that should not be overlooked. The purpose of SPP, which is edited by Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations is  “to make available to specialists and the interested public the results of research that, because of its unconventional or controversial nature, might otherwise go unpublished”; and new on SPP is an extended essay called “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” by Scott Barnwell of the admirable Bao Pu blog. Scott’s essay is top of my “to read” pile. I’m particularly interested in the idea of “forgetting” the good that one does, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. However, it’s a long paper, so it will be a month or so before I get round to it (must get this manuscript finished first…); but you can get your own copy of the paper here, and I’ll write about it when I have the time and leisure to give it my proper attention.

Great images, non-objects and fog

It’s been foggy lately—the kind of fog that makes the edges of things blur into indistinctness; the kind of fog in which forms dissolve into the background, or loom again, imprecisely shaped, out of the greyness. I’ve been thinking a lot about fog lately, because I’ve been reading François Jullien’s book [amazon_link id=”0226415317″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting[/amazon_link]. The title is admittedly something of a mouthful, the first part coming from chapter forty one of the Daodejing, which reads 大象無形, dà xiàng wú xíng, “the great image is without form”, but it’s a fascinating read.

The central question of Jullien’s book is this: how did it become possible, in Western thought, to “posit an object of perception, simultaneously isolate it, and abstract it in a stable and definitive form?” (p. xxi). So Jullien sets out looking not so much at painting as representation, but as de-representation. This, in other words, is a book that is about vagueness, about that which is indistinct, about the mist and fog that swirls through Chinese painting, about the mountains that simultaneously arise out of, and are dissolved into, the cloud. Read more


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