News this week: Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet’s summer months.
Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/ University of Arizona/Reuters
Perhaps it would be fair to say that I am on an analog mission. Much like NASA’s efforts of the same name (“conducted on earth, in remote locations that have physical similarities to extreme space environments”), I am always on the look out for similarities to the experiences I have as an artist in other disparate fields of study.
I have struck analogous gold many times.There are the poets who write about creativity, including Jane Hirshfield, William Stafford and W. S. Piero; Transcendentalists, mystics and seekers of spiritual wisdom including Zen Buddhists, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton and Pema Chodron; and most recently, a rich vein was found in an unexpectedly lyrical book about wine by Terry Theise, Reading Between the Wines.
And now, evidence of water on Mars. That’s yet another turn on the concept of the analog mission—finding examples in space of our own planetary reality.
Here’s another analog mission deep dive, this one into the heart of philosophy. Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research and wrote a heartwarming piece in the New York Times about one of his teachers, Frank Cioffi (1928-2012). In addressing the lack of progress in philosophy, Critchley offers an explanation that closely mirrors a similar situation in the arts: In spite of the cult of the new and the “been there, done that” issue of repeatability, visual expression just keeps flowing out of us. There are more artists, more painters, more visual thinkers now on the planet than ever before.
People often wonder why there appears to be no progress in philosophy, unlike in natural science, and why it is that after some three millenniums of philosophical activity no dramatic changes seem to have been made to the questions philosophers ask. The reason is because people keep asking the same questions and perplexed by the same difficulties. Wittgenstein puts the point rather directly: “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress? If somebody scratches the spot where he has an itch, do we have to see some progress?” Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.
This is one way of approaching the question of life’s meaning. Human beings have been asking the same kinds of questions for millenniums and this is not an error. It testifies to the fact that human being are rightly perplexed by their lives. The mistake is to believe that there is an answer to the question of life’s meaning…
The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question. This is what Frank did in his life and teaching. David Ellis tells a story of when Frank was in hospital, and a friend came to visit him. When the friend could not find Frank’s room, he asked a nurse where he might find Professor Cioffi. “Oh,” the nurse replied, “you mean the patient that knows all the answers.” At which point, a voice was heard from under some nearby bedclothes, “No, I know all the questions.”
We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew…We might feel refreshed and illuminated, even slightly transformed, but it doesn’t mean we are going to stop scratching that itch. In 1948, Wittgenstein wrote, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”
What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. That line captures how it is that I can spend hours and hours looking at art, both new and old, and never feel satiated. How I can spend a lifetime in the studio, making.
And with due respect to Wittgenstein, I will offer this variation on his statement:
“When you are making art you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”