Monday, 6 February 2017

Picture Post #21 Where Do Ideas Come From?

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t that what they seemed to be, neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Le lac El Mansour Eddahbi, Morocco Photo credit: Tessa den Uyl

An horizon, form, movement and colours softly scale to inspire the poet, incidentally but gently. Or is it the composer, the scientist, the choreographer, the sculptor - or the philosopher? The muse carries along inspiration naturally between the old and the new world.

To be inspired is of such subtlety, like a breath indeed, that we can hardly understand how it happens. In its place, we simply recognise the sensation when it comes to us, like a thin thread, solidly spun, that triggers a powerful, yet uncontrolled sensation and offers the mind an opportunity to float on the ribs of the river, to muse thereupon.

Innocent and timeless is that moment in which the muse breaks down the schism between the real and unreal and in this ‘lawless’ state of being she unfolds something unnoticed that is suddenly seen, felt, appreciated, related. The muse chains creativity like toppling dominoes, yet touches the one ahead, in the space of time.

To receive a vision is an experience of great excitement.

Originally, nine Greek goddesses protected the arts and the sciences and were called upon by their name to draw forth different pieces for the poets' verses. The name of Mnemosyne (the mother of the muses), like the word muse, both derive from the verb mnaomai, meaning to be mindful.

Seen through more modern eyes, the muse seems connected with something sensual, passive - perhaps like a model posing for the visual artist. The meaning of memory, in its juxtaposition to remembering (the verse) and becoming future reminiscence, it has been transformed. Within this certainty, it is this uncertainty, to not be certain:

How will the memory source for an artist’s inspiration, the muse, survive in a cybernetic world?


  1. “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” declared Albert Einstein. As your post notes, the muses visit people of assorted persuasions—including scientists. As the quintessential master of inventive ‘thought experiments’, Einstein knew well that vision, inspiration, intuition, imagination, innovation, daydreams, creativity, the mind’s eye, feelings, insightfulness, nonconformity, and simplicity are the muses’ stock in trade. More so, he believed, than a body of established knowledge. For Einstein, the mathematics, the logic, and the words followed: “I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without the use of symbols, and, furthermore, largely unconsciously.” In the case of Einstein, that’s how his monumental theory of relativity and other paradigm-altering breakthroughs in physics took root. In the same manner, the muses have inspired other transformatively minded people, scientists among them of course, disposed to contravene boundaries—with ‘masterpieces’ coming in sundry forms.

    1. Thank you Keith for this. I wonder if there is an ambiguity here about us not thnking with 'symbols'? It seems likely if symbols are formal things - but less likely if we take them ina more psychological sense. Perhaps you have views on this... be interested to hear more if so.

      As for the 'muses' of our Post - I always remember the story about Kant - who chose the number of guests for his leisurely lunches to be always more than three (the number of Graces) and never more than 9 (the number of Muses).

      He was clearly a man for whom symbolism was all.

    2. Your point is well taken, Martin. I think it’s hard to parse the differences among the types of symbols one might draw upon in the creative process. I view all symbols as having a ‘psychological’ component, even if they also happen to have ‘formal’ contours or overtones. So, for example, when Einstein talked about ‘thought experiments’ in which (my vastly oversimplifying) he imagined chasing after a beam of light, or plunging in a falling elevator, or being inside an accelerating space rocket, and so forth — contributing to his development of such blockbuster ideas as special and general relativity, and gravity in the context of space-time — he was still, arguably, resorting to symbols. They just happened to be his symbols — the variety that worked for him. Such ‘symbols’ — in one manner psychological, in another manner, formal — served Einstein’s purpose of arriving at his spectacular eureka moments. (His alpha brain waves must have rarely rested.) Hence his remarking, “I believe in intuition and inspiration. . . . Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

      One can think of all sorts of permutations on what amounts to ‘symbols’ — including, say, an entirely other brilliant scientist attempting to uncover reality as he or she scribbles flourishes of mathematical symbols on a blackboard, with chalk dust scattering in the air. Again, his or her ‘symbols’ of choice are, in one manner, psychological, and in another, formal. In such (endless) examples, perhaps symbols aren’t binary — in the sense of being demarcated as either psychological or formal — but rather both — in the important sense of being necessary, simultaneous, undifferentiated, and complementary. (Might the process, albeit it imperfectly, be less like stirring flour, eggs, and milk together to make pancakes, and more like fusing deuterium and tritium to make energy?) Even the story recounted about Kant and his lunchtime tradeoff between the number of Graces and Muses to invite — whether real or apocryphal — likewise represents, I would suggest, the undistinguishable ‘psychological’ and ‘formal’ aspects of symbols. (Not to mention that I find it hard to imagine lunch with Kant being ‘leisurely’.)

    3. Just picking up the Thought Experimetn aspect, if I may, Keith... weren't the experiments supposed to show something about the crucial logic of the issues, though?

      What you are saying seems to me to echo a common 'scientist/empiricist' misrepresentation and I assume misunderstanding of thought experiments, from Galileo's 'balls' one down history...?

    4. Yes, Martin, I would agree there’s at least an implied, suggested (and suggestive) logic to thought experiments, but it not uncommonly stays unrevealed or at least out of focus in the immediate term — the logic not being the primary objective of or immediate importance to thought experiments. In fact, any premature focus on analysis and logic would likely corrupt and interrupt the inspirational, creative process of many thought experiments. Rather, idealisation and conceptualization — that is, the image orientation and mind’s-eye aspects — are more fundamental and essential to thought experiments in conjuring new realities. The full realisation, appreciation, and articulation of the logic — the more analytical phase, if you will — are engaged in later, through an entirely different cognitive process and with an entirely different aim. As, eventually, does empirical confirmation. The epistemic value of thought experiments — idealised vision, trailed by the logic and, as fit, the empirical proof — is not only undiminished as such distinct scenarios play out, but is made all the more formidable. What I referred to above as the ‘masterpiece’ thereby emerges.

  2. Thank you, Tessa and Martin, for a rich and thoughtful post. Not easy at first to get inside and understand! Can you add anything about this man Tessa?

    1. Tricky question Thomas, for now I have to reveal that the man is fishing! He has just launched his fishing-rod. (Actually he holds a plastic water bottle with a wire attached that is launched into the water). In the picture one cannot understand this. Seen from this angle, the man seems to continue his dream-walk into the lake, or looks like a statue on a pedestal. In the picture the man seems to represent every man and made me somehow think of something classical (think of Pindar’s poetry) but also something more modern (which might be due to the hat), so there was this remembrance between old and new worlds, and how memory plays a part in our imagination, backward and forward. How in such an easy way we can let go of the identification we might have, to see within the fisherman, or the husband, or the king of England, something anew, which I suppose is life. The man in the picture seemed to fit something inspiring coming towards you or the being inspired that flows through you, a bit both ways.