The Experience Of An Idea


I was sitting outside enjoying an espresso when I found myself thinking a thought I’ve had before: all this — all this humanity with its fears and loves and desires; all this pavement and blue jeans and tequila and American Idol: all this is the great swirl of stuff continuous with the gyrations of the cosmos at every level — from solar flares and asteroid fields and black holes to viruses and cells and strands of DNA. We are not distinct from the cosmos, actors on the stage of the world. We are stuff, as viscous as lava and hard as granite and moving along and with EVERYTHING.

And then I thought of what a friend of mine might say: So what? What does thinking this do for you?

And so I considered what was happening as I thought my thought. What happens when you have an idea? I don’t mean how you came up with the idea or how the idea came to you. I mean: what is the experience of actually having that idea?

I believe an idea is a kind of image — an image of the world. When I sit there thinking about the continuous swirl of life, I see the world that way, I perceive it that way. And this particular idea — this particular image, this particular perceptive experience — thrills me. My heart pounds a little harder, my adrenaline pumps and my senses seethe. The experience of having this thought is exhilarating.

Is my thought, my idea, true? Well, it bears a strange relationship to the world. From an abstract perspective, this thought is of course part of the world. But it has a stranger relationship to the world than say, a mug, which is part of the world, too. An idea entails a kind of measuring up, an act of arranging and rearranging parts — history, human bodies, scientific knowledge, literature, all of civilization, astronomy, botany, biology, desire.

In this very act of having the thought — which is the very act of arranging and re-arranging parts — I am feeling for the thought’s coherence, its tenacity, and perhaps its efficacy: Does it work? Does it literally make sense? This is all to say that having an idea, a certain kind of idea, entails a truth experience: Yes! That’s it!

Do all thoughts demand or involve a kind of truth experience? When I try to make sense of someone else’s thought — let’s choose Descartes — do I size up the cogito to the world? I suppose I do and I suppose that involves a certain truth experience. I am not saying I believe or disbelieve in the veracity of the Cartesian cogito; I am saying that when I think that thought I can see — yes, see — how the world could be that way.

The difference between me thinking Decartes’ cogito and me thinking about the continuous swirl of life is that I experience them in very different ways — much as I experience Van Gogh differently than I experience Warhol.

One thing that becomes clear — sort of — is that an idea is not a structure per se but the act of structuring. It is an event — and a strange kind of event at that. It is palpable, somatic, yet invisible. It is an image that has some of its own texture but borrows most of its percepts from the world.

Of course, there are practical implications of an idea. That is, if we think there is a true self separate from the world we act differently than if we believe that the self is how it goes. Foucault shows how an entire medical-disciplinary regime turns on such thoughts.

Am I dodging the question of thoughts vs. beliefs? I don’t think so; I think — I think, yes — that I am trying to understand how a thought becomes a belief. A belief is a thought for which we have a truth experience that also feels good — which makes belief an aesthetic experience of an idea.

Am I too readily conflating ideas, thoughts, and concepts? Probably. I need to keep thinking.

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