Idées Fixes of the Week

JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne – Sunrise


Edmund Husserl
Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology

First, anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher
must “once in his life” withdraw into himself and attempt,
within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences
that, up to then, he has been accepting. Philosophy — wisdom
(sagesse) — is the philosophized quite personal affair. It must
arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending
toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from
the beginning, and at each step, by virtue of his own absolute
insights. If I have decided to live with this as my aim — the
decision that alone can start me on the course of a philosophical
development — I have thereby chosen to begin in absolute
poverty, with an absolute lack of knowledge. Beginning thus,
obviously one of the first things I ought to do is reflect on how
I might find a method for going on, a method that promises to
lead to genuine knowing. Accordingly the Cartesian Meditations
are not intended to be a merely private concern of the philoso-
pher Descartes, to say nothing of their being merely an im-
pressive literary form in which to present the foundations of his
philosophy. Rather they draw the prototype for any beginning
philosopher’s necessary meditations, the meditations out of
which alone a philosophy can grow originally.


From Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals Vol. 1.

Day cold a warm shelter in the hollies, capriciously
bearing berries. Query : Are the male and female
flowers on separate trees ?

23rd. Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o’clock. The
sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by
the clouds, and tongues or points of sand ; on our
return of a gloomy red. The sun gone down. The
crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus. The sound of the
sea distinctly heard on the tops of the hills, which we
could never hear in summer. We attribute this partly
to the bareness of the trees, but chiefly to the absence of
the singing of birds, the hum of insects, that noiseless
noise which lives in the summer air. 1 The villages
marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading
into the mountain road. The scarlet flowers of the moss.

24th. Walked between half-past three and half-past
five. The evening cold and clear. The sea of a sober
grey, streaked by the deeper grey clouds. The half dead
sound of the near sheep-bell, in the hollow of the sloping
coombe, exquisitely soothing.

25th. Went to Poole’s after tea. The sky spread
over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of
the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did
not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth
with shadows. At once the clouds seemed to cleave
asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault.
She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small,
and bright, and sharp. Their brightness seemed con-
centrated, (half-moon).

26th. Walked upon the hill-tops ; followed the sheep
tracks till we overlooked the larger coombe. Sat in the
sunshine. The distant sheep-bells, the sound of the

1 Compare Keats, Miscellaneous Poems

There crept

A little noiseless noise amongst the leaves
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves. ED.

And Coleridge, The AEolian Harp

The stilly murmur of the distant sea

Tells us of silence. ED.


Rare footage of Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot.


Joseph Brodsky
Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of the pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler than what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.


A Phenomenological Initiation

Monkey mind: “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical” sums up my reading practise.

Last week I began Dylan Trigg’s The Memory of Place, which is intriguing, but I felt that my inadequate comprehension of phenomenology was restricting my grasp of the book’s depths. I decided to pause and fill in some gaps before reading further. I’m slowly reading Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, a benchmark phenomenology primer. Sokolowski, if one shrugs off infrequent religious allusions, (Sokolowski is a man of the cloth) opens up the subject with remarkable clarity.

To move into the phenomenological attitude is not to become a specialist in one form of knowledge or another, but to become a philosopher.

Though I understood the premise of phenomenology as ‘the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience,’ I had failed to fully appreciate phenomenology as an (the?) alternative to Descartes’ attempt to initiate ‘philosophy by making a “once in a lifetime” decision to doubt all the judgements’ he held as true. This understanding, and a dissatisfaction with the Cartesian approach, galvanises my wish to go deeper.

The following passage deals with the belief that we have in the world as a whole, the Ur-doxa. I hope it demonstrates the vitality of the writing.

We cannot start off in the egocentric predicament; our world belief is there from the start, even before we are born, as far back as we go. Even the most rudimentary sense of self could not arise except on the basis of world belief. Similarly, even if we discover that we were wrong about very many things, our world belief remains untouched and the world is still there, no matter how ragged and tattered, unless perhaps we lost our sense of self entirely and fell into a kind of autistic isolation; but even there, some sense of what there is would surely remain, if there is awareness at all. The suffering that must exist in autism is there precisely because the world belief is still at work; if it were not, there would be no awareness at all and no sense of self.

Since we live in the paradoxical condition of both having the world and yet being part of it, we know that when we die the world will still go on, since we are only part of the world, but in another sense the world that is there for me, behind all the things I know, will be extinguished when I am no longer part of it. Such an extinction is part of the loss we suffer when a close friend dies; it is not just that he is no longer there, but the way the world was for him has also been lost for us. The world has lost a way of being given, one that had been built over a lifetime.

Phenomenology is likely to remain an idée fixe for some time. I bought Dermot Moran’s comprehensive Introduction to Philosophy as a complement, principally because it delves deeper into the work of phenomenology’s most famous thinkers.