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Invitation to a School for Thinking
The object of the school? Thinking itself!
The School of Thinking is an initiative I participated in establishing back in 2019/20 towards the end of my doctorate. They are accepting applications for the 4th official year of the program, for those outside Belgium, the deadline is August 29th.
I myself teach in the School of Thinking on the topic of “Dialectical Thinking”. This year I will be teaching dialectics as informed by both the Science of Logic course and the Écrits course (starting September 3rd) at Philosophy Portal.
This article is inspired by a conversation, Invitation to a School for Thinking, I held recently with three teachers in the School of Thinking: semiotician Marta Lenartowicz, psychologist Maciej Świeży, and philosopher Gerard de Zeeuw.
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Three Beautiful Minds
The School of Thinking has wild beginnings. I remember them well. I was heading towards the end of my doctorate in an interdisciplinary department at the Vrije (Free) Universiteit Brussel (VUB), and had been associated with many brilliant minds from wildly different backgrounds.
Marta Lenartowicz, a social theorist influenced by the sociological work of Niklas Luhmann, was one of those brilliant minds.2 Lenartowicz main focus was on social processes and epistemology as subjects of cognition. What does that mean, exactly? It means that throughout the history of knowledge, especially in the Age of Enlightenment rationality, we tend towards thinking about intelligence in an individualistic concept. However, what this concept misses is the intelligence which always-already transcends the individual, not for the non/pre-linguistic substance of the universe (e.g. evolution of life etc.), but rather for the transindividual domain of discourse or language as such.
When we pay attention to the transindividual domain of discourse/language as such, we are paying attention, not to a homogeneous undifferentiated soup of signifiers, but rather to a rich and diverse ecology of differentiating signifiers. One need only think for a moment of all of the different pathways of signification available to a subject interested in and open to religion (or alternatively, all of the ways in which those pathways of signification come calling for the subject). In this frame (combined with a little Hegelese), we can think about Christianity (for example) as a genus and its different denominations as species of signification. The subject can either explore this ecology searching for a home in the signifier, or this ecology of signifiers can (in a sense) “hunt the subject” looking to mortify it with its significations.3
What is the difference between a subject who needs to search for a permanent home in the signifier (qua worldview as species of a genus of signification) and a subject with a more flexible relation to the signifier? For Lenartowicz, this comes down to thinking about conditions of possibility for psychological safety in the very genesis or creation of a mind which stretches back to the first years of life (0-3 years). In this frame, a subject’s fate vis-a-vis the signifier is in some sense set during the education one receives on the level of the unconscious (i.e. we do not really remember the first 3 years of our life, and yet it already sets us up for how we might relate to signification as an adult). In short, for Lenartowicz, if one has the conditions for psychological safety met, there will be less of a temptation to become fixed on the level of the understanding. In other words, one will feel the capacity to move in language in a way that may often be called “fluid”. For Lenartowicz, one might suggest that fluid intelligence is a sign that one “sees the waters” in which we are “swimming”, and is capable of “navigating those waters” (ultimately the waters of signification) with grace or beauty.
In this sense, for Lenartowicz, categories like flexibility and rigidity on the level of an individual’s relation to the intelligence of social systems, comes down to being capable of a capacity for swimming in the oceans of language, in a way that prevents collapse into rigid attachment to one worldview. Lenartowicz emphasises that all worldviews are incoherent, inconsistent, internally contradictory, and for this reason, it makes no sense to search for or to make a home in such systems for life. However, this detachment from worldviews does not imply detachment as such, for Lenartowicz, but rather, perhaps a deeper capacity to really be in psychosocial touch with dispositions of discipline, commitment and beauty, that are not dependent on a worldview enclosure (which arguably opens the subject up to deeper or truer knowledge of discipline, commitment and beauty).
However, for Lenartowicz, this also brings us to fundamental political and economic questions about the ocean as such. Do we need a new social contract? A new socioeconomic system? So that all of the swimmers in this ocean feel the psychological safety we need to keep swimming or to improve our swimming without recourse to a fixed or even fascistic worldview? This is a theme that has emerged in her more recent work.4
If we cannot guarantee our knowledge in a worldview, but must rather encompass the skills giving us the capability of navigating the “ocean” of the transindividual signifier as such, what does it mean to really know something? Świeży, a trained psychologist and director of the School of Thinking, often approaches knowledge from this meta-perspective: from knowledge of something to asking how we know something? What is the standard (or measuring stick) for knowledge as such?
When we embody one worldview, the standard/measuring stick for knowledge is internal to the coherence, consistency and identity (or non-contradiction) of that knowledge. For example, if you are a Christian, its intellectual defence rests on the coherence, consistency and identity (or non-contradiction) of a few, if not one single presupposition: the reality of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, which guarantees humans immortal life. This axiom of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, is the “point” in the system in which the “extension” of the system turns and depends. If you remove this point, if there is a crack qua incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction of this point, then the extension of the system starts to fall and fade or collapse in on itself. In other words, the “standard” for the extended knowledge no longer holds.6
Świeży’s emphasis on metą-knowledge is not so much to point out all the cracks in the axioms of systemic worldviews (demonstrating their universal incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction), but rather to question the foundations of our knowledge so that we can return to the empty space in which we find our own subjective fire, curiosity and motivation as the thing we are really interested in. When we are young, passionate, and feel a deep thirst and hunger for knowledge, we can build a great big system of knowledge, often resting on a single axiom or point, which we assume is totally coherent, consistent and non-contradictory in its identity. We end up losing ourself in this systemic knowledge and end up defending it with a narrative of its absolute necessity.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, with our systemic knowledge as defence, we can lose ourself in the practicalities of adult life. Oftentimes, or even as a rule, the practicalities of our adult life impose themselves on us as external necessities that block us from the truth of our inner drive. We have to make compromise after compromise with the external world until we can no longer see or be in touch with that inner drive but only with the constraints not-of-our-own-chosing. Thus, we are left with the practical necessities of the world and our big system of knowledge which rests on an indeconstructible axiomatic point of reference.
While this psychosocial situation may help one adapt to institutional life in academia (X subject knows Y system of knowledge), it is not conducive to the type of learning environment that Świeży would like to construct as director of the School of Thinking. Świeży is thinking about the conditions of possibility for a different relationship between adult subjects and knowledge, one perhaps, that makes room for the child spirit.7 This relationship must balance the aforementioned need for psychological safety (which speaks to that unconscious part of the psyche), as well as the openness required to determine meaningful struggle or challenge. What we are looking for here are open subjects, subjects whose point is that they (A) either have no point (they are an empty point of reference), or (B) recognise that their point is incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory all the way down (as positive).8
From this starting point (or meta-perspective on knowledge), we can potentially learn new rules and play new games, that defines new struggles and challenges that are more true to the real of our present-future. Thus, for Świeży, there is less an emphasis on building worldviews at the School of Thinking, and more an emphasis on the subjective preconditions required to create a social intelligence “in the ocean of signifiers” that (dialectically) balances total confusion and chaos with total order and mechanism. In total confusion and chaos there is no possibility to feel psychological safety as flexibility is pushed towards its own dangerous extreme. And in total order and mechanism, rigidity is so high that there is no possibility to either transgress or influence the rules to get better or make a forward movement (in Hegelese: to sublate).
Gerard de Zeeuw9
Are there meta-rules or principles for subjects of meta-knowledge? Gerard de Zeeuw might have a few tricks up his (metaphorical) sleeve for this question. But first, let’s start with de Zeeuw’s basic starting point: the contemporary university teaches technical knowledge (for example, mathematics), but the contemporary university does not teach thinking about/with technical knowledge (for example, mathematics). In reference to our previous discussions on meta-knowledge, this switch of perspective might take us back to a deep analysis of axiomatic foundations (points from which our knowledge gains spatial extension), for an analysis of axiomatic foundations as such. Here we may be forced to think through the role of thought in the selection of such foundations (as well as the underlying unconscious feelings of safety/security that require us or compel us towards certain axioms).
For de Zeeuw, this distinction brings us to the distinction which makes all the difference when considering mechanistic thinking and thinking beauty (or the aesthetic dimension of thought). For example, a mathematician who does not know what it means to think with mathematics, s/he may fall into a certain rigid form of thinking in relationship to a certain “species” of mathematics.10 In other words, what is the underlying reason why the mathematician fell into the patterns of mathematical thought that s/he did? As is often the case in mathematics, there could be an underlying or unconscious thought pattern associated with the beauty of mathematics, or the aesthetic dimension of mathematics.11
Oftentimes, or even as a rule, when we think some form of thought is true or good, we fail to realise that the reason why we think some form of thought is true or good, is actually because we find it beautiful, we are mesmerised by the form of thinking, as if under a hypnotic spell which gives us direct access to the wellspring of the unconscious psyche as such.12
For de Zeeuw, if many thinkers are under such “aesthetic spells” (a wizardry of the unconscious mind), can we break it and become “wizards” of thought? His mind points in this direction with the question: what is freedom? How many people really understand what it means to think freely, today? Indeed, this is perhaps the perennial question for philosophy. de Zeeuw claims that 90% of contemporary or post-modern science and philosophy fails to situate systemics of thought in a model that can accommodate or work with true freedom (we either rigidify a system of well-ordered thought or oscillate in an anti-systemic chaos).
In a very general sense, de Zeeuw emphasises that there is an idea today that true freedom is the capacity to change boundary conditions at will, i.e. jumping from one field of maths to another, or jumping from one ideology to another, or jumping from one partner to another. Is this, what we might call the primacy or tyranny of “flexibility in multiplicity”, really freedom? de Zeeuw suspects it is not, but why has it come to predominate as a form of thinking? Let us go back to the point that runs through the thread of all three beautiful minds: that if you choose an axiom from which to build a system of knowledge, (1) either because of an unconscious need for safety, or (2) because of the pragmatic constraints of the world, or (3) because you do not know your own aesthetic preferences, then you are at risk of becoming stuck in a rigid and dogmatic, or inflexible, way of thinking. Consequently, a logical symptom of this tendency, would be the opposite: an unconscious flexibility that allows you to jump from one form of thought to another (very characteristic of the post-modern condition).
What is our way out of this conundrum of thought? For de Zeeuw, the answer is clear: freedom is not the freedom to change boundary constraints, but rather the freedom to consciously select boundary constraints and then work within the chosen constraints with a discipline and commitment towards the most beautiful possibilities of those chosen constraints. In other words, if you have become a certain type of mathematician, as opposed to being unconsciously governed by the aesthetics of the maths, perhaps the opposite would not be jumping from one form of maths to the other, but rather becoming the most beautiful mathematician that one can be.13 Or if one feels called to a religious life, this would not mean becoming governed by one systemic code of religious thought, nor jumping from one religious system of thought to another, but rather becoming the most beautiful religious subject that one can be (irrespective of the system one has chosen). Or if we apply this logic to the romantic field, this would not mean becoming governed by strict rules with one person (unconscious monogamy), nor jumping from one relationship to another (unconscious polyamory), but rather becoming the most beautiful partner that one can be.
This, for de Zeeuw, would be true freedom in thinking.
But back to our initial question: is there a meta-rule to this meta-knowledge? For de Zeeuw it would be the meta-rule of generosity that sublates (in Hegelese) the relation between flexibility and rigidity. In de Zeeuw’s perspective, the meta-rule of generosity is what allows deviations from strict rules. In other words, in the real of life, we need both flexibility and rigidity, we need both strict rules, as well as exceptions to those strict rules that allow growth and transgression. de Zeeuw calls this attention to the in-betweenness of duality (which is neither one or two). Perhaps we could call his focus on the in-betweenness the strange third of thinking, or even (to show my own bias): the dialectics of thinking.
When we strive to be a good mathematician, a good theologian, or a good lover/partner, we need to remind ourselves of de Zeeuw’s notion of generosity as what allows deviation from the rules (without abandoning rules as such). To be a generous thinker is to both consciously develop a system of rules from an intentional self-positing, but it is also to include within that system of rules, a constitutive exception, that allows us to break and deviate from those same rules.14 It is only in this way, perhaps, that we can navigate the transindividual ocean of signifiers as such, in freedom.
The School of Thinking emerged towards the end of my doctorate, in a situation where a number of bright and creative interdisciplinary minds were looking for a new home for teaching and research. What we found was not a permanent home, but rather a creative launchpad for many different minds, both teachers and students. Over the last four years, the School of Thinking has become a temporary resting place for those seekers who do find something magical disguised within the veil of normative institutional life. If you feel called to challenge your own forms of thinking, with those who have dedicated their life to such a path, consider applying:
Admissions to the School of Thinking (for those outside of Belgium), closes August 29th.
As mentioned, I will be again be teaching in the School of Thinking on dialectical thinking. The best way to get a basis in what I will bring to the School of Thinking, would be to familiarise yourself with the 2023 course schedule at Philosophy Portal:
Philosophy Portal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I remember one of the most powerful works by Marta was a paper titled “Creatures of the Semiosphere”, which proposed that human social systems, not individuals, are the most advanced intelligence currently operating on Earth.
For a brilliant example of Christianity as social system hunting for subjects through a single individual, see: The Bizarre Story of John Allen Chau and the Sentinelese Tribe.
This is why people who have built a very rigid or dogmatic set of rules for life, often suffer under the experience of this rule set suddenly collapsing in on itself due to the revelation of a fundamental contradiction.
This logic may remind us of some of the core lessons of Hegel’s Science of Logic, see: Philosophy Portal’s Science of Logic course.
Gerard de Zeeuw is a Dutch scientist with a focus on mathematical modelling of complex systems, see: Wikipedia.
For a particularly important book on this topic, see Sabina Hossenfelder’s Lost In Maths: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.
This may be one of the reasons why mathematicians and physicists privilege the concept of symmetry in relation to grand unified theories of everything, see: Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics.
This is actually what gave Freud a clue to the necessity of the method of free association in relation to early attempts to access the unconscious directly via hypnosis. When we access the unconscious directly via hypnosis we are actually unable to undo many of the discursive mechanisms that have solidified in place throughout our personal history. We can only undo these mechanisms by submitting to the arduous labour of free association. For an overview of the history of the Freudian discovery, see: Return to Freud. These topics will also be explored in the upcoming Philosophy Portal course on the Écrits, which starts September 3rd.
This involves thinking the Absolute as, not only systems, but also subjects, see: Systems and Subjects.
This way of thinking perhaps combines Lacan’s logic of the All (system of rules, masculine) and non-All (constitutive exception, feminine).