Nine Throw-Away Ideas With Which to Think

Jul 11, 2013

I've encountered that moment in my conferencing preparations where I have to toss overboard most of my provisions so the fish can make use of them as they will. What better use for a blog, I thought to myself, before realizing how thoroughly I was insulting you. Sorry about that. 

But, incorrigible as I am, I offer you these extraneous and wasteful thoughts judged, by me, unworthy of or unhelpful for the great sea before us. 

 When it comes to making judgments, there are helpful and unhelpful ideas. In other words, some ideas lead to more confusion than insight while others, properly followed, lead to ever greater insight.

As to the former, the idea is usually confusing because we thinkers make it up and then try to use it to explain more than it can possibly explain, such as naturalistic materialism, capitalism, Descartes' "cogito", Rousseau's varitation on the social contract, or communism. 

On the other hand, we find many, many insight generating ideas. With an idea that generates insights, all you have to do is think about it and you'll understand it and many other things (sometimes everything) better. 

I suppose this might sound childish or unrealistic, but in fact it is one of the operating recognitions of both classical and Christian thought. It is a source of great sadness to me to watch modern children have their minds systematically undermined by living in a world built on truly impossible ideas. The consequences are endless, including the inability to make moral decisions (ie judgments), to hold to a moral framework, to figure out how to order one's own thoughts, and to relate to the surrounding social and aesthetic mores.

But today I want to be more pleasant. Today I will write about, or at least list, a few ideas that generate legitimate insights and that help us weave together a thought-pattern that is both beautiful and practical, rather like a fine linen table cloth.

One caveat. I'm not arguing that these ideas make truth-discovery easy, only that they make it possible.

The first idea I will name Analogy (not that I came up with the name, but that I will call it that here). What I am referring to is not a name, but a reality. It is the recognition that everything that is is like everything else that is in some way. Even the kingdom of heaven, we learn, is like - get this - a mustard seed. So to come to understand anything, we are well-served by comparing it with and to anything else.

The second idea I will call "incarnation." Here I speak of the recognition that the created universe consists of material expressions of eternal ideas. Rather astonishingly, I am also referring to the Eternal Idea (the Logos Himself) taking on a created, material body in order to express for our eyes and ears the eternal truth of the God who transcends us in every way. 

That leads to a third insight generating recognition: the ideas are not ultimately abstractions that we think about. The most abstract idea of all, that of being itself, is, in fact, personal and relational. The only place a truly abstract idea can exist is in our minds and that fact leads us to make enormous philosophical mistakes. But true ideas are always acts of communion.

Reality itself is not a collection of gnostic ideas that fell into the material realm. Nor is it a material realm that refers only to itself. Reality is relationship, but it is relationship between real things. First, Being itself is the communion of the Holy Trinity, not an individual existence off somewhere by itself. Second, everything that exists is not only comparable to everything else, but is in some relation to everything else. 

Truth is a sound relationship. Falsehood is a broken relationship. Apply that to grammar and you can see what I mean a little more clearly. 

And that leads to the fourth insight generating wonder: Truth can be known! Our minds, which love truth, and our wills, which seek it, are not engaged in an endless striving after wind. Our mouths can do more than pass wind, as (was it?) Abelard once crassly expressed it. We can perceive truth, and having perceived it, we can tell it to others in words that wing words from one soul to another. We can, if we listen to those with true authority and imitate their ways, come to speak with authority ourselves. 

Fifth, truth is a symphony, or, if you like, a tapestry. In either case, it is woven into a beautiful fabric or played in a key. It involves dissonance and resolution, shedding and picking, rises and falls, but it is all held together by a Logos, as Heraclitus, Aristotle, St. Paul, and St. John realized.

You can see this in specific areas, like grammar and math. In grammar, when we insist on subjects and predicates agreeing in number; in math, when we insert an equals sign between expressions. Both are governed by harmony because the mind is made to seek harmony. This is why harmonics (music) could be said to govern the mathematical arts (the quadrivium) and you could go on to say that it governs all thought. 

The pragmatic mind gives up this quest for the key of the symphony, perhaps because they resent that Christians ascribe it to Christ ("in whom all things consist"), but, in so doing, his mind first reduces the range of its activities, and then dissolves. Truth is more practical than practicality. 

Because truth is musical, we encounter a sixth wonder: form enables us to discover truth better than analysis or induction. In no way is this meant to dismiss analysis or induction. Rather, it is to restore them to their exalted place: to test our hypotheses, which are always deduced from formal leaps. 

But truth is formal. And when we learn to think musically, we learn to anticipate gaps in the form and what might fill them. Some examples:

The asteroid belt was believed to be where it was long before it was discovered because a mathematical formula had predicted a planet at that distance from the sun. There was a dissonance in the music, a gap in the calculations, and the asteroid belt filled it.

When we listen to a song or composition, the composer creates a tension by creating a gap in the form that our very soul strives to fill. When he brings about the resolution, we feel joy. The same thing happens on a math equation. 

A poet will adopt a form and find that he needs more content to fill in a verse. This will generate ideas that would not otherwise have been discovered. 

The intuitive (ie musical) teacher engages her class in a discussion, creating gaps in the students understanding. The students will strive to fill those gaps - until they have learned to despair. 

Now, you might be thinking, there could be other reasons why the student wouldn't strive to fill the gap. If so, you just strove to fill the gap that I had deliberately created by not expressing the whole thought. In my pathetic little way, I was playing the role of the artist. 

What is that role, you ask (since I just created another gap, which is another name for "question"). The artist's role is to create gaps in the mind and soul of the audience so as to move them to reflection and/or action. The shoddy artist wraps everything up and puts his own bow tie on it.  

But formality, ie love of harmony, enables anticipations that analysis misses

I think I'm on the seventh insight generating idea and this one is actually itself what I am going to clumsily call a meta-analogy, maybe The meta-analogy. I mean that this is possibly the analogy of analogies. It may well be the analogy that reveals the form of being, of the human soul,and of the relationship between soul, world, and God. I refer to the parable of the prodigal son and his older brother. I believe this analogy is the key to interpreting everything.

Back to an idea proper for #8: Things come in kinds. They have a nature. Aristotle called them genera, plural for genus. There are different kinds of knowing and different kinds of thing. Each has its own glory (cf I Cor 15) and each can only be known as what it is. 


If you are silly enough to still be reading this, I'll give you one more idea: that of degree. Knowledge and things come in degrees. When we try to know them more than they can be known, we create breakdowns and confusion in our thinking. We leave the path of wisdom. 

These nine ideas are not just things we think about, they are truths we think with. They generate insight because they correspond to reality. Following them, one insight leads to another, and always what we come to know is not merely the ideas in our minds, but the world they reveal to us. 

You might be thinking, "Oh great, another list of ideas I have to remember," or something academic like that. Be comforted. This is not a list for academic reflection, though it would benefit academics to reflect on them. These are the tools with which you think. You always have. I haven't introduced anything new to you except maybe some names. 

If anything, I hope this diatribe will help you feel more comfortable with your natural ability to see truth and live it. It's not easy and it's always in degrees (we see through a glass darkly), but are made to know truth and using these tools of truth-seeking, we can find it. 

I should also note the perhaps obvious truth that these nine are not all of the insight generating ideas available to us. For all I know, there are an infinite number of such ideas. Perhaps everything that exists is its own collection of insight generating ideas. Bird, for example, or sparrow, or man, or that man, or Odysseus. I've got rather general to make the point more simply. Now I'm getting too complicated, so I'll stop. 

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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