Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the magnificent 1965 lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, by Eli Siegel. And we include here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting, from a recent seminar titled “How Can Selfishness & Generosity Make Sense in a Woman’s Life?”
In his lecture Mr. Siegel shows that the big battle going on in people’s lives every day is also the continuous conflict in a field that seems so different: the history of philosophy. This conflict is about fact and a notion of value, and it takes many forms in both philosophy and us. Centrally, it takes the form in us of the desire to see, to know, versus the desire to have things make us comfortable and important.
Reality: Definite & Illimitable
In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two opposites in thought: reality as definite, immediate, the objects right before one; and reality as indefinitely wide, expansive—as illimitable. In each of these opposites, the fight he has been describing is present: we can use each in behalf either of knowing or of making ourselves contemptuously comfortable. I am going to comment on them briefly in relation to a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson from A Child’s Garden of Verses, because this Aesthetic Realism principle is true about people of every age: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I love Eli Siegel’s seeing that the questions of children are philosophic all the way. And I love his showing that, at any age, the big interference with our lives, the corrupter of the philosophic opposites in us, is contempt: our desire “to be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
A boy of 5 wants to see widely. He’d like to say “Ooh!,” see mystery in things, feel there’s meaning he can’t run. Yet the same boy, Jonah, can also get mad if he meets something he doesn’t understand: he’d like to feel he’s in a world he can limit and manage. On the other hand, he can also use the “wide” contemptuously: he can like going into a world far away from the people he knows; he can close his eyes and get rid of everything, or be somewhere apart in his mind when people are talking. “Where are you, Jonah?” his mother asked last night at dinner, when he was right across the table from her.
In many of Stevenson’s poems, a child is going after one (or both) of those two things, the expansive or the definite—sometimes with respect, sometimes with contempt. The very fine poem “Foreign Lands” begins:
Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands.