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'Considering' the Forms of Feeling

Thomas Eakins, Child at Play, 1876, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Many years ago, I was playing with a child, then eighteen months old, when she suddenly tripped and fell flat on her face. Something completely unexpected had happened, and she didn’t know what. She looked up at me enquiringly. There was a micro-moment of emptiness. She was clearly expecting a cue from me, to help her know how to respond; my reaction would help her understand what had happened. I could have said: “oh silly girl, what a clown you are!” and she would have dissolved into smiles and laughter, or I could have said: “oh dear, that must hurt so much, poor you!” in which case she would have burst into tears. She really didn’t know what to think.

Actually, the real issue was not so much that she didn’t know what to think; it’s that she didn’t know how to think. Beyond instinct, the infrastructure of evaluating experience had not yet installed itself in her brain. It was up to me to demonstrate. Needless to say, I joked about the fall, and she laughed. If I had ‘sympathised’ and asked ‘where it hurt’, she would surely have been prompted to tell me; if I hadn’t done anything, she would probably have also grizzled, but not so much from pain (it was a slight accident) as from the confusion of not knowing what to do.

What this experience taught me was the way the forms of our ideas - the medium in which we express them - can influence their contents. We tend to assume that we can think whatever we like because we are ‘free’, and that our minds and identities are not limited by circumstances, but maybe this isn’t quite as certain as it seems; maybe we are more determined by our environments - mental as well as physical - than we think.

Obviously a key part of the means we use to create ideas is language. Language exists a vast repository of pre-existent references to meanings from which we can choose. It is like a huge supermarket into which we can ‘go’; its meanings are prêt à porter - ready to take. Just as the contents of a supermarket are pre-packed, so the words we use are pre-coined; and just as those contents are placed on shelves in thematic ways (drinks/refrigerated/vegetables etc), so are words coloured by their associations with other words. Thus when we express feelings of, say, happiness or sadness we have around ten key ready-made terms to choose from and, in the natural course of conversation, we are happy to rely on them. But to what extent do these terms do justice to the experience that we are actually having when we use them? Do they not generalise and standardise it? A further question then arises: because words pre-exist, ready-loaded with meanings and associations, do we not sometimes use them in accordance with the conventions of language-use rather than as present manifestations of the feelings we experience? And do these conventions not have their own trajectories which we surrender to when we use them (not to mention being dragged around by the seemingly self-perpetuating stream of words that drift, endlessly and of their own accord, through our heads)? The capacity of people who are born blind to develop a deep and rich ability to appreciate the significance of colour, based purely on their experience of its representation in language, clearly shows how language is able to generate meaning, and not just to represent it.

Ptolemy, Almagest, Venice, 1515. Astronomy Library of Vienna

We are so habituated to expressing ourselves in words, implicitly agreeing to adopt and perform the conventions they embody, that we often fail to notice the gap between them and the actual quality and texture of the experiences they aim to represent. We might not even really notice the details of the experiences; so established are the conventions of thought, speech and action that they are often triggered automatically. Most of our thoughts, words and actions are repetitions or modifications of previous thoughts, words and actions. To highlight the gap between these two realms, - expression and experience - it is fruitful to consider aspects of experience for which precise expressions do not already exist, and how we experience them. One can examine the very point at which language ceases to be effective, and way the mind addresses the shortfall, in oneself.

The way in which language falls short is particularly clear in relation to objects that can be seen visually. For instance, imagine focusing your attention on a particular leaf on a leafy tree and trying to describe to someone nearby which leaf you are looking at. Without giving a name to each leaf, or placing the whole tree in a grid with numbered co-ordinates, this could be a laborious process; one would have to identify an immediately identifiable aspect of the tree, to use as a starting point, and then inch one’s way towards the leaf, via other easily identifiable features: an extended network of references and sub-references would have to emerge. This is what must have happened when ancient civilisations first attempted to identify the stars: people must have grouped them according to the striking but otherwise arbitrary shapes that they seemed to make - constellations - and attached images and stories to them in order to render them memorable. Today each star has a numerical name - a co-ordinate - based on its overall location in the firmament, but for many years, individual stars were clumsily described in relation to their close neighbours and the constellated figures - for instance, ’in front of the previous one and just above the figure’s left arm’ (as evident in the 1515 Latin edition of Ptolemy’s star catalogue, the Almagest, reproduced above).*

It has been suggested that the word ‘consider’ originally signified ‘contemplating the stars’ - con (‘together’) + sidus (‘a star’, as in ‘sidereal’). Consider then what happens in the mind when one tries to objectify the shape of a jigsaw puzzle piece, as one searches for the piece that matches it. Perhaps one takes a ‘mental photograph’ of the piece and holds it intensely in one mind’s eye; but for how long could one retain this visual impression without words? I would be inclined to cobble together a vivid, but surely unwieldy, verbal description - something like ’with two prongs at the top with a slanting red cap, and a squashed prong on the left with a point that looks like an irate frog’. Without such a mental representation, it would be difficult to remember, or know, what one was looking for.

If it is difficult to objectify some visible objects, because there are too many of them or they are too random or amorphous, it is no wonder that it is difficult to objectify invisible feelings. Indeed given that feelings have no clear physical boundaries, on what grounds can one begin to identify them as phenomena worthy, or capable, of being named at all? How did words such as ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, ‘joy‘, ‘gladness’, ‘delight’, ‘elation’ first come into being and how would we differentiate - in ourselves - between the qualities of experience that they refer to, if they had not? Indeed do the differences actually exist or do they merely exist in thought and words? And what of the self that ‘has’ them? Is it too merely a ‘consideration’, emerging from the infinite emptiness of consciousness to burst into laughter or tears?

June 2022


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