On Noticing

On Noticing

Aristotle. Yes, the philosopher. He suggests (I can’t put philosophers in the past tense, when all their thinking bursts into life the moment you engage) that moderation is key. Knowing yourself, knowing how to react and to what and to whom in the right way. Whenever I start reading some work of a philosopher, I suddenly am both aggravated and curious. The endless speculations on what we know. The endlessness of it! And the curious recognition of the descriptions, the categories – you could read and study forever and know nothing. Or very little. Or be certain that you are uncertain about – everything. And so I am.

Not an expert, a lazy scholar – but to engage with these ideas seems all we have now. It’s even less satisfactory to say that everything is crazy (it is), or that people have become ruder (they have), while staring at figures that say the average automotive CEO’s salary has increased by 40 percent over the last 4 years. The COVID times, when cars skyrocketed in value as everyone realized how necessary it was to be able to just leave. Workers’ pay has increased by a very much smaller 6 percent. Turning to philosophy might provide some necessary astringent quality on the fall of nations and the abstract complications of the mind that allow one to accept these as facts, stemming from the nature of the market, or just nature. As when scientists said the male lion did the hunting. Indeed.

Apparently, Aristotle wrote about psychology in his work, De Anima. According to the excellent Stanford website on philosophy, psychology in his terms was about the soul – and therefore applied to all living beings, including plants and animals. It does make one – well, me – reflect on how some of Christian doctrine seems to give humans domain over everything and that plants and animals, not being at the same level, can be used and consumed ad infinitum. Obviously, a very simplified, unannotated statement. But what have we done with the earth? We haven’t noticed things. Humans use things up, gaslight – no – I’m sick of that word – deny the existence of certain causes and certain effects if it doesn’t produce the desired result, like CEO salary increases. With the resulting outcome of today’s disassociation and dissatisfaction. Hurricanes – like the one passing by me now – are larger. 300 miles from the center, and the ocean is in turmoil. Winds blow and pluck at trees and the boats drag and pull on their chains.

All the other terrible effects of climate change I won’t go into here.

Stanford continues on the website to talk about Aristotle’s work on psychology, but seem to be tied up in knots as to which branch of science it should belong to, and his work not adhering to modern day categories. Particularly as this age is obsessed with the mechanical and physical nature of the brain – add a chemical and all is revealed or made better. Except it isn’t.

Think about what it means if everything has a soul. I’m going to stagger under the weight of that thought, somewhat frightened, and take refuge in poetry. Poetry, if it has any meaning at all, would agree with that phrase, and add that perhaps poems themselves are little bursts of light, combining moments that souls can read and recognize.

This started out to be a page of thinking on noticing, but like noticing, if you are quiet enough, and patient enough, other elements come into view. Patterns on a tree. Hairs on a leaf. The endless variation of bugs and birds, feathers, and wings, gauzy enough to catch the air, strong enough to fly thousands of miles through storms and pollution and humankind’s disasters.

Everything humans create is not so variegated. We encourage women to dye their hair, with the result that there is either dark hair, or blondes on the train, getting off at their station after a productive day at work, not even aware that their heads at least are identical. Humans encourage conformity. At one age, you do this. At another age, you do that. Never mind that the idea of age has changed, there is still a law, damn it, and you’d do well to follow the signs. Supermarkets filled with processed, oddly colored food. Humans pushing carts in various shapes and sizes, all somewhat misshapen and fatigued. All processed, and odd.

Again, it’s a thing of noticing. I’d like to notice the good things too. There are many. Be sure to look up from your phone at least twice a day. You might catch a hawk circling over a city park, or the sun setting through the clouds that make a pointillism of red and yellow, peach and mauve, against the fading blue of approaching night.

Nietzsche, another philosopher of enormous impact, also considered the difficulties in noticing. I will not try to pretend to give an exhaustive view of his ideas – that would lead to disaster. I did notice that a person on Reddit said that “his image, and the stache lived up to the hype.” I am delighted that the hype was lived up to, as I am sure the man himself would be. Or would he.

Nietzsche doubts that there is a soul, but as he doubts there is a god, that is not surprising. His fight seems to be more with Christianity, than an Aristotelian view of life force and soul. But he said:

“But the way is now open for new versions and refinements of the soul hypothesis, [including] “mortal soul”, “soul as subjective multiplicity”, and “soul as social structure of the drives and affects”…

Again, these are thoughts and meanderings. While it would be interesting to discuss this with someone who had a deeper background in such matters, the idea of the battle fought between faculty members for their interpretation in order to gain tenure, in order to teach students who get more ideas from Reddit than books, in order to become an administrator, in order to suck up to the newest top of the food chain…

Well. I’ve drifted away from the main topic here, and allowed some dissatisfaction with the state of higher education to sneak in. Let me be clear – it’s not the idea of higher education that I object to. Reading about the Prime Minister of Britain posit the idea of caps on student numbers in the humanities…is dangerous and demands that all people who ever learned how to question, question this. Otherwise, it’s going to be them and us, and they will have the hedge funds and the computers, and we will have some books and rocks. I’ll stick with the books and rocks.

I’ll flatter myself (or enjoy) that noticing the links between things is worth doing, even if it is not then followed by its own proper essay. Nietzsche says,

“I approach deep problems like cold baths: quickly into them and quickly out again”.

So I had a dip into the very cold and murky bath of Rishi Sunak, and another into the lukewarm, nearly expired casserole of the American college. Now out.

I am not asking for your sheer delight. As Nietzsche teased,

A: “One is praised only by one’s peers.”

B: “Yes, and whoever praises you says: I am your peer”.

But noticing. Nietzsche again:

“…to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity”—the latter understood not as “disinterested contemplation” (which is a non-concept and absurdity), but rather as the capacity to have one’s Pro and Contra in one’s power, and to shift them in and out, so that one knows how to make precisely the difference in perspectives and affective interpretations useful for knowledge.”

A rejection of disinterested method leading to some pure, crystallized result. Noticing is to see differently. Noticing is the act of creating differences in perspective, absorbing any affect, and then either doing something – poetry! – or going about our business a slightly altered person. Soul. Life force thing.

Or maybe wanting to see differently is writing something that really started out from thinking about how a hurricane changes the air, the water, the birds, and what happens when you watch the waves, while talking to someone whom you haven’t seen in a year. So many perspectives shift as to leave one feeling quite unsettled. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Aristotle and Nietzsche – for different reasons – wouldn’t object to the feeling of shifting sands being a starting point, perhaps. But there are so many problems, and differences, so to be able to state something with some certainty, surely a PhD is needed, and some peers to agree. I see that Microsoft has objected to the Nietzschean translation and its word order, and that I shouldn’t say damn. Microsoft is not my peer, then. At least I’ve noticed where absolutes break in, quite innocently, like hair color, or age-appropriate activities, so forming us before we’ve even noticed.