“In a remote monastery on the edge of the Syrian desert, in the stillness of an oasis, a Byzantine priest is bent over a sheet of parchment. The fragrance of jasmine comes in through the window with the breeze. His clear eyes, his mind, his spirit and his hands are concentrated and coordinated on the creative effort made to transcribe an ancient text. The tempo is that of the calm beat of his heart; he knows that it is also thanks to this cenobitic silence that the ancient culture will be passed on to future generations. The parchment sheets are then gathered together and will last for a very long time as they are not as fragile as those made of papyrus. He has learned from his Arab brothers that writing is not only conveyance of thought, but an art that speaks through symbols.” – Brunello Cucinelli
Even when depicted as symbols, writing is what allows us to convey and reveal ourselves as individuals. Poets from Shakespeare to inventors like Nicola Tesla were known for jotting down ideas – their intuitions – as they sprouted up in their mind throughout the day. By doing so they were not just conveying the ‘content’ of their minds, but were expressing their true self.
Many of us may know people who have ‘refined’ intuitions almost like a sixth sense. The great American suit tailor Frank Shattuck is a great example of this. To many, Frank is known as the legendary ‘boxing tailor’, who as you guessed is not only a boxer by trade, but also one of Americas finest suit tailors. To get to this level Frank worked alongside some of the greatest Italian suit tailors in New York or, as he says, “by marinating in it [tailoring] for over 15 years.” 10 years were dedicated to hemming and sewing and another 5 years learning to size people up. Day-in and day-out, the blood, sweat and tears that Frank shed was essential to developing a ‘refined’ tailoring intuition. As a result, Anthony Bourdain claims that wearing one of Frank’s suits makes you feel like a demigod. I don’t hear people saying that about a suit you buy at H&M. Rather than labeling such people as divinely gifted, what this reveals is that our model of how our mind comes to understand with the world is incomplete.
Universal vs. Practical Knowledge
Advances in technology and the internet have enabled 40% of the worlds population to be connected to the internet. That’s 3.5 BILLION people across the globe. The click of a button can give you access to every up-to-date journal on whatever topic you choose. Such interconnectedness forces us to adopt and adhere to a certain type of knowledge: universal (i.e., knowing that) rather than practical (i.e., knowing how). The latter being exclusively dependent on experience. If you claim to have universal knowledge, that is, to know that something is the case, then you can make that claim anywhere in the world and it will be true. What you are essentially stating is that you know the true nature of that thing and don’t need to take into account the context of the viewer. Such knowledge is not dependent on experience, but can be downloaded, bought or stolen. Jobs that are based on such universal knowledge are deemed more prestigious, but are also the jobs that face fierce competition from people all around the world, since they too have access to the same knowledge banks (websites) as you do. This is opposed to practical knowledge – know how – in which case you actually have to experience the thing first-hand and not searched on Google.
The picture above is The School of Athens by the famous Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. The two center figures are Plato and Aristotle. Plato, to the left, is seen as the bearded wise man. His right hand points to the sky signifying a central pillar in his philosophy – by looking to the heavens we suspend our minds in the air and can contemplate the ‘forms’ that give rise to the physical world. Standing to the right is the youthful Aristotle who is gesturing to the earth, representing an empiricist view of reality. If we behave like Plato and think that knowledge comes from looking up into the sky, contemplating the Theory of Forms, or confining everything to book knowledge we make the grave mistake of separating knowing from doing. The consequence is that we become brains in a vat. The increase in online courses from universities around the world gives us a sense that we can literally learn anything we want. All we have to do is find a website offering free classes (or in some cases paid), create an account, search for the course we want to learn and begin taking notes. Thereafter, we are bestowed with ‘knowledge’ of that subject. This process is captured by the picture below.
We take a partial view of knowledge when we accept this form of learning. To believe that universal knowledge represents the whole of knowledge means that we ignore the concept of ’embodiment’, i.e., the fact that people, at any given point in time, are in a particular situation. This ‘situated’ character of a person has ramifications for how we come to understand our surroundings and the world in general. Our perception of reality not only depends on how we are situated in the world but also on what we choose to focus on. Unless we are forced against our will, we do not focus on things that do not interest us. For instance, we don’t stare at the ugly girl or guy at the bar, hoping that they come over and talk to us like we would if they were highly attractive. In life we focus on the things that interest us.
We come to know things better the more we focus on and interact with them on a regular basis. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work on unconcealment helps shed light on this. Unconcealment is the idea that what an entity is depends on the conditions that allow it to manifest itself. The way we come to know a screwdriver is not by simply looking at it, but putting it in our hands and using it. An object does not present itself to us in reality without a context, but as equipment for action (screwdriver) within some specified context. So the Kantian idea of knowing the True nature of a thing was irrelevant to Heidegger. An age old debate in philosophy has been to figure out exactly how the mind represents the world, since the two are viewed as distinct (John McDowell’s Mind and World is a great introduction to this). Heidegger’s solution to this problem was the the world presents itself as something that we are already in and a part of.
If we are ‘in’ and ‘part of’ the world we have a situated character at any given point in time. This situated character gives meaning to the expert knowledge that people like Frank (the boxing tailor) possess. The famed economist Frank Levy in his latest book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market explains that some jobs are inherently situated and cannot be reduced to rule following. What this means is that no matter how many online classes we take or the countless books that we read on a subject, there are some jobs that can only be learned though actual experience.
The Benefits of Writing
The hardest question for many will be learning for the first time what type of work they enjoy doing that isn’t reduced to rule following (a job that can be written down in a manual labeled ‘standard operating procedure’ SOP). The type of job that can be in theory can be done by a computer. Although we exist ‘in’ the world, learning what we enjoy comes not come from things external to us, but from that which is within us and that means revealing ourselves to ourself and acting on that. Like the Byzantine priest in the opening paragraph, writing is what allows us to convey and reveal ourselves as individuals.
The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves. – Carl Jung
The task is to write longhand two full pages and stream of consciousness. Anything that coms to mind write it down. It does’t have to need to be logical or of a high standard. All that matters is that you put thoughts on paper. What you will begin to notice is that, like Cal Jung said, the creative mind plays with the objects it loves. You will slowly notice objects that your mind comes back to time-and-time again. These are the things that you should focus on.