A sigh is the sword of an angel king


Love, love... Valentine's Day.  The main legend (and it is only a legend) of the first St. Valentine portrays someone whom we would call a "prisoner of conscience".  Jailed, and eventually executed, for his religious activities by the Emperor Claudian, the hagiography tells how Valentine sent a note (or notes) to a loved one, signed "your Valentine".

We are quite familiar with prisoners of conscience these days.  Think of the young Iranian poet Hashem Shaabani, recently tortured and hanged for speaking out against abuses of power.  Just one example among thousands.  The globe today, a battlefield of exploitation, fanaticism, brutality and violence.

Sad thoughts on Valentine's Day.


I was never much for philosophy.  The teachers, textbooks put me in a drowse.   When you don't really study a subject, it's likely you'll produce banal travesties of ideas which have been stated (or refuted) with greater exactitude and force in years or ages past.  In other words you won't discover or relate anything new.

Have been playing catch-up, a little bit, reading a very absorbing book by Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.  Explores the changing notions of "imagination" through the history of Western philosophy, from ancient/classical Greek and Jewish thought, through the Middle Ages, into the modern age (Kant, Romanticism, Existentialism... to the present).

My knowledge of German idealist philosophy has not really been knowledge at all, just sketchy third-hand references (say, in texts on Coleridge's philosophical background).  Kearney's book puts aesthetic issues in the larger context. 

Kant was pivotal : the origin of Romanticism.  His theory of the imagination - so radical that he himself drew back from it (in the revised 2nd ed. of Critique of Pure Reason) - shifted the ground in a fundamental way.

Ancient philosophy was rooted in theology.  Plato's idealism was structured around the assertion of a universal Being, a first principle, the cosmic Logos, the source of reality in a divine realm of living Ideas, a transcendental Mind.  In similar (though not congruent) fashion, Jewish monotheism asserted a transcendental, invisible Creator- and Sustainer-God.  The imagination, for both cultures, was corroded by sin and revolt : for Judaism, the heart's turning away from its source led to destruction; for the Greeks, feeble mortals required the aid of a rebellious Titan, Prometheus (avatar and scapegoat for all human capability).

The Medieval era synthesized the legacy of Athens and Jerusalem, but the basic theocentric cosmic design remained.  The human imagination was a fallible instrument, a likely source of (moral and intellectual) error.

The Renaissance, followed by Reformation and Enlightenment eras, began the transposition from theocentric to anthropocentric worldviews.  Kant revolutionized philosophy by bringing this slow development to a theoretical summation.  The imagination was the vital center of human being, the root of both experience (perception and sensibility) and knowledge (intellect and understanding).  Moreover, the imagination was transcendental : not in a theocentric sense of divine, or heavenly, but in the sense of prior or formative.  Imagination shapes all human knowledge and experience : we, in this sense, make our world.  The "logocentrism" of a prior, exterior cosmos no longer holds : Man is the origin of his/her own reality.

Kant himself drew back from some of the epistemological consequences of his own critique.  But his most radical position was the basis for the entire Romantic movement. Human creative subjectivity was now the world-fashioning source of all experience; the ultimate order was rooted in the human mind.

The history of western philosophy since Kant is a tale of the shattering of Romantic idealism.  Naturalism, Existentialism and the various strains of Postmodernism express the belief that, although God is no longer relevant, and human consciousness is the center of experience (just as Kant asserted), nevertheless, that consciousness is faced with an external actuality, a real world of chance and meaninglessness, which is beyond human comprehension or control.  The mind's constructs are fictions, founded in nothingness (Nietzsche, Sartre).  Creative idealism is not a source of nobility, but rather of moral evasion and betrayal (Kierkegaard, Marcuse).  We may recognize God's presence only in the absurd, by an irrational leap of faith (Kierkegaard, again) - everything else is rationalization, complacency, bad faith.  There is only heroism and fellow-feeling in the stoic acceptance of our mutual fate, in a random, absurd cosmos (Camus).  Symbolism and Modernism attempted to salvage aesthetic experience by constructing an autotelic world of art; but the shadow (or the joke) of the actual world (of injustice, pain and absurdity) always impinged.

This then is my rough, amateurish travesty (courtesy of R. Kearney) of the philosophical background to our own time, the Postmodern era.  Maybe you can characterize Postmodernity as the absorption of both the lessons of 20th-century history, and of existentialist thought.  The autotelic engine of the modernist imagination broke down about 50 years ago.  The strongest intellectual trends which replaced it involve either various modes of historicism or historical materialism, or various forms of neo-Nietzschean thought.  Derridean deconstruction, for example, is a sort of parodic Platonism, a Plato in an inverted mirror.  The cosmic Logos of rationality is inverted by universal non-identity, by a rational structure of irrationalism (very Nietzschean in spirit).  Even the disillusioned heroism of Existentialism is rendered impossible, since the human imagination is no longer merely absurd or futile, it is not itself.

There are also distinct, perhaps more "positive" trends - the paradoxes of Lacanian psychology (desire grounded in the imaginary presence of another) or the tentative affirmations of Levinas (ethics grounded in an unknowable divine Interlocutor).  The landscape is appropriately confusing.  But the history of imagination seems to present a central plot.  The ethical/ontological fences around the imagination - whether Judaic, Platonic, or Christian - were knocked down.  The formative capacities of the rational comprehension of experience are faculties of human subjectivity.  Man assumed many of the ordering functions once assigned to God.  Then, in Acts Two through Four, the authority of that human subjectivity was thoroughly dismantled.  Relativity in all modes reigns supreme (block that metaphor!).


Professional philosophes & knowledgeable people must forgive the howlers embedded in the above.  It's my naive subjective take on a wonderful book (Wake of Imagination) which I haven't finished reading.  But what is my response to the basic plot, so rashly hammed together here?

I'm going to improvise.  It's Friday afternoon.  (There will be no rationally-secured syllogisms, unfortunately.)

The mind : is it a lamp or a mirror?  It's a lamp in a mirror (as in a lighthouse).

Kierkegaard's extremity seems rooted in the idea that God is strictly unfathomable, that the paradox of the God-Man is inherently absurd.  More than absurd : it is abjection, it is scandal.  He believes in God, but it requires a leap of faith to even begin to believe.  There is no synthesis of reason and faith.

Yet I can hear the distant trumpets of affirmation in both Kant's optimism and Kierkegaard's pessimism.  Kant affirms mankind's noble freedom and power; Kierkegaard sets a limit to human pride and self-delusion.

Kant's transcendental imagination, capable of fusing sensibility and understanding, and logically prior to experience, is like Aristotle's definition of the soul, but in a modern mode.  Kierkegaard's iconoclastic leap of faith, his anguish reaching out a hand, is an intuition of the ultimate ground beneath the scintillating, shuttling clay of Mind.

That ultimate ground (or firmament) is Love.  Under the aegis of love, we can comprehend the conjunction of logical opposites, the "absurd" incarnation of the God-Man.  And here is when we need to remember : the imagination is only a faculty, a power, a capability, of a more fundamental entity : the Person.  The imagination is not yet the "form of forms" - the person comprehends this form in an integral totality.

It is this assertion, combined with a recognition of the historical actuality of Jesus, the God-Man, which allows us to build a synthesis of experiential reality on solid ground.  How so?

The mind is both mirror and lamp.  We must apply the lamp, in order to see ourselves (less darkly) in the mirror.  What does Jesus himself, that historical individual, say about God?  Jesus suffuses the "concept" of God in personhood, relationship, love.  We cannot see God, we cannot understand divine infinity : yet, using the lamp, we can form a conjecture, construct an hypothesis.  This is beyond Kierkegaard's absurd leap in the dark.  Yet it's not merely abstract philosophizing.  We acknowledge the irreducible historical actuality of the particular human person; at the same time, we hypothesize the benevolent personal nature of the divine source of all experience.

Christianity proposes a Trinity.  In the Gospels, Jesus is "anointed" Son of God under the auspices of the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove, the ancient symbol of love).  Jesus, in his "official" role as Messiah and Son of God, posits a Father-Son relation of absolute authority.  But the Holy Spirit is a legitimate third Person in this design.  The Holy Ghost is designated as "the Spirit of Truth" in the Gospel of John.  And the Truth is made known to us only gradually.  What if we think of the "monarchical" design of monotheism as an imaginative projection, a partial figuration of something more complex?

I speculate that Judaism developed in a dialectical opposition to ancient monarchy (Egyptian, Babylonian).  The kingship of Yahweh is an anti-kingship.  The "royalty" of Jesus is another twist in the pattern.  Jesus is the anti-king : the servant of servants : the humble, the rejected one.  Jesus is the human being who overcomes all the violent powers of worldly kingdoms.  He is killed - and rises from the dead.  He is the ultimate sign of life defeating death : of the actual Power lurking in the human soul (and in the human imagination).  Everyman as spiritual hero : God as the author of divine tragicomedy.

How can God be personal?  Observe the vast dark cosmos of galaxies.  How can God be personal?  Use your imagination.

We think we know what "persons" are, don't we?  We depend on them : they are the most integral entities we know (starting with our own subjectivity, and that of all those persons who affect our lives).  Yet we see as in a glass, darkly.

Kant's imagination is transcendental, a priori, like Aristotle's soul.  Yet I'm saying the imagination is a faculty of a more integral entity (the Person, the "incarnate" soul).  Why is the soul incarnate?  Why do persons exist?  Because our life, our world, is caught up in a kind of obscure drama.

Imagination : Persons :: Faith : God

This is an imperfect diagram.  What I'm trying to suggest is that, just as the imagination is a transcendental faculty of persons, who are embodied, individual, existential actors - so faith is a transcendental act of such integral persons.  It's transcendental, in that this act of choice, of commitment to a hunch, cannot really be explained.  Not merely an absurd leap, however - but a reasonable hypothesis, grounded in gathered evidence, synthesized by the imagination's own sensibility & understanding.

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