On insights gained from Sembl-style thinking

At the round earths imagin’d corners

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor’s score, complexity thinking ]
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About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.

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It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.

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I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…

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And then there’s Bob Milne.

I’ll let the Philosophy Compass take it from here:

Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.

Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.

But that’s not all Bob can do.

In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.

The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.

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This in turn takes us back to that point Edward Said made, which gave me the basic concept for my Said Sympohony (must get back to that soon):

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 447 — from the section titled “My Right of Return,” consisting of an interview with Ari Shavit from Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000.

I asked in a post yesterday how good we now are at modeling or simulating ideas in the “war of ideas” — just for a moment, suppose we could think through all complex geopolitical issues in this polyphonic, contrapuntal way…

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Okay, you deserve a reward for faithful reading if you’ve come this far with me. Here’s the incomparable Richard Burton reading Donne’s poem — the text is up above, if you want to follow along:

On stereo thinking

I was writing a post for Zenpundit a day or two ago about two topical interests of mine — religiously sanctioned violence and social media — which came together some while ago when a Taliban spokesperson began using Twitter to make press announcements, and a press officer of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began tweeting back.

I wandered a bit off topic in the middle of the post to discuss something I might as well call stereo thinking — which is certainly an aspect of Sembl thinking, so I thought it belonged here. Here, then, is an excerpt from that post, with a bit of the original context left in place so that the whole passage hopefully makes sense without requiring further editing.

From Zenpundit:

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A while back, on my way to make other points, I posted this:

I wasn’t the first or last to make the connection between A Balkhi and the Taliban, nor to note the Twitter-exchanges between Balkhi and the ISAF press office — but I happened to have this habit of juxtaposing similars and opposites, and had developed the “Specs” format used here, with the little binoculars inset, to suggest the idea of seeing parallel or opposite things in parallel or opposition — a sort of mental equivalent of stereoscopic vision or stereophonic sound — in the hope that something about the comparison and contrast would add a depth dimension to understanding.

As a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, I think the Necker Cube can add an interesting aspect to this business of stereoscopic thinking:

When two things are so much the same and so utterly different that, as with a Necker Cube (or the positive and negative of a photo rapidly alternating) the mind flashes rapidly from one view to its exact and opposite other, a metacognitive insight arises about what I can only term the two in one in twoness experienced.

File that under number theory, koans.

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That’s the excerpt from Zenpundit. What follows is a quote from Michael Polanyi which Critt Jarvis supplied me with in a comment on that post — food for thought:

The fusion of the two stereoscopic pictures to a single spatial image is not the outcome of an argument; and if its result is illusory, as it can well be, it will not be shaken by argument. The fusion of the clues to the image on which they bear is not a deduction but an integration.

You can find that and much more in his essay The Structure of Consciousness, also found in Polanyi’s book Knowing and Being, pp. 211-13.

Of orangutans and cathedrals

I don’t think you want to see me attempting to draw an orangutan – but if I was persuaded to try, I’d probably use a technique along the lines of DragonArt’s post on the topic, from which the two illustrations above are drawn.

I came across this site, by the way, while looking for a version of this puzzle diagram:

And I was looking for that not only because it’s the solution to a neat creative-thinking puzzle that my father showed me when I was a kid, but also because it’s a graph — and thus a potential board on which Sembl games could be played.

In fact I used an analogous device once, during a live intercontinental phone-feed HipBone game, to tilt and transform a 10-position WaterBird board which had already filled with moves into a 12-move board to continue the game, the excitement and the brainstorming just a little longer by popular request..

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Back to our orangutan board.

What interests me here is the intersection of the notion of graphs with that of Venn diagrams

Semiotic translation between verbal and visual elements is a fascinating creative challenge in its own right.

Indeed, one aspect of what’s up for grabs here is the possibility of an overall semiotics of conceptual mappings — which in turn would facilitate the development of a new style of world mapping, capable of crossing the (leaky) “cartesian divide” between mental and physical realms, while exploring the multiple links and dependencies in our complexly interwoven world.

That’s a topic I’m hoping to post on shortly…

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It would, for instance, be interesting to develop maps that can transition smoothly from Markov:

to PERT:

to Forrester-style visualizations:

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Back to the Sembl games, back to graphs as boards, back to fun.

One of the most creative aspects of developing the HipBone and Sembl family of games has been the discovery of potential boards in the most intriguing of places.

This board, for instance, is based on the design of the star-vaulted ceiling in a old British cathedral…

A Rembrandt resemblance?

When I was searching for illustrations for my piece on ancient Sembl boards, I was under the impression that Rembrandt had made an illustration of some old sage having a vision of a slightly unusual form of the Sephirotic Tree of Jewish Kabbalah.

I wasn’t able to find it: what I did find, however, was a different but similar Rembrandt etching, showing a wise old man having a diagrammatic vision – but not of the variant Sephirotic Tree that I recalled seeing…

And although I could also have used Athanasius Kircher‘s highly wrought version of the Tree…

in the end I opted for a simpler diagram, which I juxtaposed to a Christian diagram of the Trinity:

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Today, however, while browsing for something completely different – a map of Washington DC if you must know – I ran across the image I’d been thinking of – it’s on the title page of Paulus Ricius‘ Latin translation, Portae Lucis, of the Hebrew Kabbalistic text Shaarei Orah by Abraham Joseph Gikatilla, which concerns the Tetragrammaton or four-lettered Name of God:

Okay, I went back to check on the Rembrandt, and found it on the Rijksmuseum site dated “c. 1652″ with the comment:

Faust?

What the etching exactly represents is unclear. In the early eighteenth century, the print earned the title ‘Dr Faustus’ and in 1791 Goethe used it on the title page for his publication of Faust. However, it is just as possible that this has nothing at all to do with Faust, but is a portrait of a scholar. It may be the ‘practising alchemist’ to which references were made in the seventeenth century. The posture of this ‘Faust’ has much in common with that of a scholar in an earlier print of Rembrandt’s. Rembrandt did not portray alchemists in the traditional way – that is, with fire. The enigmatic text in the radiating light could be a magic spell.

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So here’s the business my unconscious seems to have had in mind during this whole process of searching in Rembrandt’s works for an image that resembled one of his etchings from around 1652.

I was conflating the Rembrandt with the image found on the title page of a book printed in Augsburg in 1516 — and that’s how the creative leap happens, in this case from a 1516 image in Augsburg to a 1652 image in Amsterdam.

At the point that I realize this, there’s an aha! in me, a Sembl move I can make linking the Portae Lucis title page to Rembrandt’s Faust etching – and a vista opening in the realm of art history, in which one could (and perhaps someone should) research the availability of the Ricius translation of Shaarei Orah to Rembrandt himself, and in the rabbinic libraries of his time in Amsterdam.

Because – and this is not art history but art historical hypothesis – the Ricius title page may well be a significant source of Rembrandt’s etching, of which the Rijksmuseum itself says:

What the etching exactly represents is unclear.

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I have no idea how original an idea this is, and others may well have considered the possibility and researched the matter before me.

I do know that Rembrandt’s Jewish connections have been examined in detail, and would love to have seen the ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt exhibit at the Joods Historisch Museum.

But there you have it.  The “unconscious” mind finds resemblances and in effect makes leaps, which the “conscious” mind then stumbles across – and on occasion those leaps deserve to be followed up, researched, confirmed or refuted.

In this case, I’m hoping my friend Michael Robinson will come to my rescue with some informed commentary – this is in his field, not mine.

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In the meantime, the central rosette or mandala in the Rembrandt prominently features the letters INRI for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), which was the title Pilate ordered nailed to the cross above Christ’s head in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (John 19.20).  So even if Rembrandt had seen the Ricius Kabbalistic Tree diagram in the collection of one of his Jewish neighbors and been influenced by it, his own version is explicitly Christian…

And INRI, if you think about it, it a sort of Christian variant on the Tetragrammaton: a four-lettered title for Christ.

But that would be another possible Sembl move, for another day.

Play as if your life depends on it

[ from the Glass Bead Game via the HipBone Games to Sembl — cross-posted with minor changes from

Play most assiduously is how Edgar Wind translates the motto of Marsilio Ficino — the man who more or less single-handed, built the Florentine Renaissance: studiossime ludere. Play most studiously.

Play as if your life depends on it.

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Hermann Hesse crowned his life-work with the great, boring, utterly riveting novel Das Glasperlenspiel, The Glass Bead Game, sometimes better known in the English-speaking world by the (Latin) title, Magister Ludi — which means both school-teacher and Master of the Game.

And game there is: the Glass Bead Game itself, or GBG for short.

The book centers around a game of ideas — a game in which the most profound conceptual systems of all human cultures are brought together in a grand architecture that Hesse calls “the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind”:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

Here Hesse mentions astronomical, musical and textual concepts — the game, like the digital world of the internet, allows mathematical, textual, musical and visual elements to be juxtaposed and combined, just as Sven Birkerts described in an interview with Cliff Becker:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

Birkerts was concerned that these “tremendous opportunities” might drown out “the old quiet pastime of reading mere words” — but Hesse’s great game is a contemplative one, in which Hesse proposes:

Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

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Play…

We play, we play games, we play music… we play wargames… all the world’s a stage, and we are (merely) players.

Consider: Play is what children do to learn, so brilliantly, language, languages, geography, mathematics, history, chess, go, music, politeness, discipline, excess, consequences, moderation… And play is what masters do to express their mastery — Picasso plays, Casals plays, Einstein plays… And the motto of Ficino, mentor to the Florentine Renaissance, is play most assiduously.

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The Glass Bead Game is a game, then, to compare with the greatest of games — Chess, Go, name your poison — indeed, with the greatest of intellectual endeavors — the Encyclopédie, the gesamtkunstwerk, the long-sought Theory of Everything…

All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

How can taking that idea and making it playable not be a worthy challenge, in this world that is daily more absorbed in digital play in its arcades and cinemas, on its consoles, tablets, phones, and computers?

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Just reading the book made me want to play the game, but I like to keep things simple. I needed to be able to play it with a pencil and paper napkin over a cup of coffee — or on an email list or in the online forums that were beginning to spring up while I was figuring out some early boards and rules. I took Hesse’s basic concept of juxtaposing ideas and applied it on simple graph-like boards, on which each circle represents an idea, and each line a resemblance. I called my playable variants the HipBone Games.

More recently, my friend and colleague Cath Styles has been working on the development of iPad and web-playable versions of the games. We call them Sembl, because they explore the resemblances between things, ideas — and at a deeper level, the patterning of the world itself.

But the game remains the same: to juxtapose one thing — an idea, an object, a work of art, song, person or event — with another, in a way that generates the aha! of creativity. And to do that repeatedly, weaving an architecture of related ideas, on our way to weaving Hesse’s cathedral of Mind.

Our world has never been in greater need of creativity and connectivity — our future depends on them — and in the Sembl game, every move you make is a further link in the pattern that connects, every move you make is a creative leap.

More on that in an earlier post, The crackling energy of a Sembl move.

image credit The Movie Poster Art Gallery / http://www.rock-explosion.com/catpage2.html

The crackling energy of a Sembl move

image credit The Movie Poster Art Gallery / http://www.rock-explosion.com/catpage2.html

I’m always looking around for ways to describe the leap between two ideas (concepts, people, events, things) that occurs when you make a move in a Sembl game. On the game board, the ideas are shown as circles and the links as lines between them.

In the case of the museum version, the “ideas” are objects in the Museum’s collection – but the same principle applies whether we’re talking objects, concepts, events or people: entities of whatever type go in the circles, the lines between them signify the exploration of their resemblances and differences.

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Okay.

In more technical terms, Arthur Koestler in his classic book about the conceptual structure of creativity, The Act of Creation, diagrammed the intersection of two conceptual frames as representing the place where the joyous aha! of discovery, the gasped ah! of tragedy or the delightful ha! of laughter is generated, and this more recent version of his diagram gets the essence:

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But wait!

There’s a lot going on here, there’s a distinct leap – think: creative leap, even perhaps leap of faith.

It was the leap between two ideas – electricity and magnetism – that gave Faraday his dynamo, Maxwell his equations, and the modern world almost its whole existence. It was the leap between two ideas – modular forms and elliptic equations – that gave Taniyama his conjecture and Wiles his proof of Fermat‘s Last Theorem.

The leap that intuits similarities, particularly between rich similarities between rich concepts in widely separated fields, is the most powerful tool of the thinking mind – and playing Sembl amounts to nothing more or less than a repeated, playful, delightful invitation to make leaps of exactly that kind.

So a Sembl leap of resemblance can be anything from training wheels for creativity to a prize-winning long-jump at the conceptual Olympics.

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Maria Popova at Brainpickings quotes Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things.

And she quotes James Webb Young, back in 1939:

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

This isn’t some hidden secret, but it’s not exactly common knowledge either, it’s not something many schools teach — which is why the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson famously told his fellow Regents at the University of California:

Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.

Which is also why Eliot Eisner, Stanford professor and former President of the American Educational Research Association, said of Sembl’s precursor HipBone Games, “the cognitive processes you are interested in developing are critical to a decent education”.

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And just what does this have to do with Van der Graaf Generators, you might wonder?

There’s a cracking sense of energy discharged when you connect two ideas in a Sembl game move – not unlike the discharge of energy between the spheres of two Van der Graaf Generators picture here:

Imagine the spheres as two ideas in place on a Sembl game board, and the electrical discharge as the excitement of seeing how they mesh together to create that ah!, aha! or ha!

Or watch the whole, ultra-short video from which that image was taken, courtesy of the folks at MIT:

Conceptual blending

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities gives us a fascinating look at the way the human mind weaves a world out of seemingly disparate elements — in a very similar manner to that in which the creative mind weaves an aha! out of seemingly disparate ideas. The book deals with the formation of perceptions as well as ideas, but it was a specifically conceptual blend that intrigued me the other day.

First, they note that when we use expressions like “I had reached the boiling point. I was fuming. He exploded.” we are making a metaphorical mapping in which “a heated container maps to an angry individual, heat maps to anger, smoke and steam (signs of heat) map to signs of anger, explosion maps to uncontrolled rage.” Then they add in the “folk theory of physiological effects of anger” including ” increased body heat, blood pressure, agitation, redness of face” – and thus we have a threefold scheme, in which physiology, emotions and the physics of heat are intricately cross-correlated, so that we can say without much thought “He was so mad I could see smoke coming out of his ears”.

Here Fauconnier and Turner describe the mechanics of this remarkable conceptual blending process – which can yield such a seemingly unremarkable phrase:

In addition to the metaphoric mapping between Heat and Emotions and the vital-relation connection between Emotions and Body, there is a third partial mapping between Heat and Body. In this mapping, steam as vapor that comes from a container connects to perspiration as liquid that comes from a container, the heat of a physical object connects to body heat, and the shaking of the container connects to the body’s trembling.

The three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat and a different single element that is exploding, reaching extreme anger, and beginning to shake. Once we have this blend, we can run it to develop further emergent structure and we can recruit other information to the inputs to facilitate its development.

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What interests me here is the phrase:

the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat

and what it reminds me of is CS Lewis writing in The Allegory of Love:

It must always be remembered … that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.

Thus the King James Version of the Bible, John 3.8, reads:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

In the Greek, the word here translated wind is pneuma, and the sentence accordingly means “the pneuma blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of pneuma“…

Recalling Lewis’ remark about the “various senses we take out of an ancient word”, this in turn means simultaneously and without separation:

the wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of wind…

the breath blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of breath…

and:

spirit blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of spirit…

Take this a step further, realize that spirit can be defined as what inspires us, and we have:

inspiration blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of inspiration…

Four meanings, all making good sense, and all present simultaneously and inseparably in the one gospel phrase…

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Now consider that Fauconnier and Turner are speaking of how “three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat” and compare it with Lewis’ “unity” from which we take out “the various senses” by “analysis”, as applied to the “ancient word” pneuma, with its meaning encompassing wind, breath, spirit… inspiration.

Are wind, breath and spirit or inspiration in fact three “primitives” that conceptual mapping in ancient Greek thought has brought together? What do we gain, and what do we lose if we view them this way?

And what do we lose, what do we gain if we view them as a single rich concept, now reduced to three or four separate — and separately less complexly interesting — ideas?

A glimpse of Sembl thinking: Virginia Woolf

What is the thing that lies behind the semblance of the thing?

Virginia Woolf poses that question in her 1931 novel The Waves. Here’s the passage surrounding the question:

‘An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; sound quivers within the bark. “Ah!” cried a woman to her lover, leaning from her window in Venice. “Ah, ah!” she cried, and again she cries “Ah!” She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what is a cry? Then the beetle-shaped men come with their violins; wait; count; nod; down come their bows. And there is ripple and laughter like the dance of olive trees and their myriad- tongued grey leaves when a seafarer, biting a twig between his lips where the many-backed steep hills come down, leaps on shore.

‘ “Like” and “like” and “like” — but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.

The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding.

— a glimpse of Sembl thinking, with thanks to Derek Robinson.

Oronce

Sembl thinking, ancient boards

One thing connects with another — one thing resembles another, or is distinctly different from it, or overlaps with it, leads to it, contains it.

There are many ways one thing and another can be connected, and people have been playing Sembl-like games, making connections on “boards” much like the Sembl boards that Cath illustrated in her post earlier today, for centuries.  In fact, graphical diagrams of linked concepts have long played a significant role at the intersection of art, thought and science.


The glorious board above is taken from a manuscript of the De Mundi Sphaera of Oronce Finé (French, 1494 – 1555) at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. It shows how the four “elements” of early science interact, fire being the opposite of water, cold and its opposite, heat, both being able to coexist with either dryness or humidity but not both at once, and so forth.

You can see more of Finé’s diagrams here.

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I’m particularly fond of this particular diagram by Robert Fludd (British, 1574 – 1637), because it shows that the connections can be between (a) objects outside us, brought to our attention by the senses, (b) ideas linking inside the mind to one another, and (c) insights gained by inspiration or vision.

The diagram comes from Fludd’s 1619 work Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris, and you can find other diagrams of his in a slideshow at this University of Oklahoma site.

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An even earlier image, reminiscent of today’s Venn diagrams and the earlier Borromean Rings, comes from the Abbot Joachim of Fiore (Italian, ca 1135 – 1202):


The good abbot’s diagram shows world history unfolding in three epochs, that of the Father (in Old Testament Times) with its multitude of commandments, that of the Son (from the New Testament to his own day) when only two commandments, to love God and one’s neighbor, were needed — and the gloriously anticipated age of the Spirit, to begin in 1260, in which no commandments would be required since the Spirit would speak in the hearts of humankind. Again, you can see more of his diagrams in this auto-downloading powerpoint presentation from the University of Virginia.

Joachim’s views were highly influential in the middle ages, and traces of them can be found more recently in the Third Reich of the Nazi’s and in Lenin’s concept of the Withering Away of the State — but that’s another story

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Two other diagrams of this sort worth considering are the Sephirotic Tree of Jewish Kabbalah (left) and the medieval diagram of the Christian Trinity (right):

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Finally, here’s a “fractal” board, with circles within circles within circles, from an illustration by Nicolas LeFevre in his translation (1579) of the Heptaplus (1489) of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Italian, 1463 – 1494):