Cultures of Thought

Each thought, and the cultivation of that thought, has its proper time.  Without cultivation, a thought may visit, may inspire, may suddenly illumine, but chances are it will not form the basis of a culture, a practice, a labor.  Labor not only in the sense of work and craft, the honing of skill and the mobilizing of one’s forces to an achievement, but labor as in the time of labor and gestation, the time of the womb.  Thought brings with it both senses of labor, as it brings with it cultivation, refinement, as well as sudden fits of inspiration or unexpected visitations.

Thoughts come, and there is no telling, no foretelling, when they will come.  Part of the wonder, as well as the hidden travesty, of thought is that no matter how ordered and systematic it is or becomes, no matter how far-reaching and fine-tuned a thinking has become in its development, there is a moment, an event, of thinking which comes on its own, irrespective of its place in a system, irrespective of the aims and projects of the thinker.  Whether such thoughts will end up being incorporated into more developed, constructed thoughts is another matter which we will attend to shortly; for now, let us ask about thought’s arrival, about what it means for a thought to arrive.

Thought comes when it wills, Nietzsche reminds us in Beyond Good and Evil.  As so many others of Nietzsche’s unsettling phrases, this phrase was meant as an assault on the notion of a subject beneath, behind or supporting its deeds, thought being one of them.  The event of thought deconstructs or destabilizes the consistency and validity of the subject.  Thought, which is considered so often and with such readiness as the key to the reservoir of the most private recesses of the individual thinker and his caprice or will, his most inner inclination, is itself already a participant in what is other and outside, external to the thinker.  In thinking, in relishing a thought and, as we will see presently, in cultivating or nurturing a thought, we participate, unknowingly or with insight, in a world of tradition, of cultural transmission, of dreams and the influence of the world on dreams, in awarenesses traversing that space between interlocutors, between subjects, made up of what cannot be contained in any one party.  We have approached this before and called it the Zwischen, the Between.  What is between speakers, or thinkers, or living beings, is not controlled by the whim of any one speaker or thinker or living being; this place is the place of visitations, of enchantments, dreamscapes and nightmares and fantasies, a place any system surely cannot take hold of for too long–before, like an edifice over quicksand, sinking and crumbling.

But thought not only arrives, it not only makes its–surprise–visitations to us when we least expect it or to the chagrin of the forces that wish to systematize, but it also, of necessity and when it follows itself, systematizes itself, or in other words connects, grows connective tissues, catches and holds sight of the panorama of issues or of the more encompassing horizon.  When thought is seen in its eventful, evental aspect, it seems the last movement of thought would be to systematize and bestow order on the place which we have designated the Between.  But lo!  Thought, in following itself, in taking heed of the call of inspiration, makes sure not to treat those fits as so much rubble or, in case it is surrounded by trivialities in its musings and daydreaming, in following a chain of thought binds itself to finding a manner of distinguishing the trivial from the more penetrative.  Thought systematizes and connects with threads and chains diverse elements as part of its proper vocation.  Whether this tapestry of thought will become a snare that captures  unwitting minds and hearts, or whether it will pave the way for a culture to be formed around its guiding sounding, it is critical but difficult to decide, so alluring, so persuasive, so demanding and forceful can a system of thought be!

Rather than look to some practice or duty a thinker must partake in in order to promote, through his thinking, a culture as opposed to an embryonic or explicit tyranny, let us look first to markers of a culture that is built on thinking, and the thinking of thoughts that have been carefully cultivated.  We notice of properly thinking, as opposed to dogmatic, cultures that they exhibit an openness to inquiry, or reveal the questioning and doubt in the background of thinking.  Without such a background the culture is merely repeating an archetypal pattern, passed down by rote from generation to generation, or is taking at its word the proclamation of a specific group, or text or tradition.  The momentum of thinking is brought to a halt in such mindless repetition, unless it be to react or revolt against it.  Also, the thinking culture is keen on maintaining a relationship with what lies outside its presuppositions in the form of other cultures and perspectives, that is, not only is there an internal propulsion to doubt on the part of the thinker who cultivates a thought that visited him, but there is the need for dialogue with forces and cultures outside his current setting.  Finally, the culture built upon cultivated thought, while it does not have any illusions about progress or the inevitability of ascent from one stage of knowing and insight to another, still has within it what Karl Jaspers referred to as a faith, if not in reason or even in the power of Existenz, in the nobility and worth of the cause of thinking.  This is not a self-satisfied or complacent attitude, as it is time and again met with challenges and near defeat by the gravity of certain doubts; it ends up being a type of endurance, the endurance to persist in questioning, in thinking, despite the risks involved, the terrors involved.

Maybe after conceptualizing, getting a grip, on what it means to be in a culture of thought, after seeing the markers of cultivated thought, it will be possible to adopt the practice–to take time for the practice–of thinking wholeheartedly.

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