The Mind’s Ear

20 January 2010


Thinking Against the Grain

If the cultivation of ideas is to be anything more than a catalog of what others have already thought, one needs to seriously challenge oneself with difficult and unusual thoughts. I am sure that almost everyone today knows what it is like to get a really good physical workout, but I am afraid that very few people know what it is like to get a really good mental workout, to have one’s assumptions challenged, to think through alternatives, to achieve objective insight into matters usually distorted by emotion, to be open but critical of new ideas. The mind is exercised by unfamiliar thoughts, so let us attempt some unfamiliar thinking, however briefly and superficially.

Recently in Ideas: Blindness and Illusion I noted that, “in many contexts, to see means to know or to understand.” The idiom is so pervasive that we often fail to realize that it is not literal. The related privations of vision — blindness and illusion — are convenient perspectives on how understanding can be wrong in ways analogous to vision.

Seeing, however, is one paradigm of knowing. While the auditory idiom is not so common as the visual idiom, we can formulate a distinct paradigm of knowing by taking hearing rather than seeing as a metaphor for understanding. This idiom is not, of course, unknown, and in certain contexts is quite common, as when someone says, “I hear you” meaning, “I understand you,” or, “I know what you’re saying.” But in other contexts, hearing as a paradigm of knowing is sufficiently unfamiliar as to be a bit eccentric.

Plato formulated his allegory of the cave in terms of vision, not in terms of hearing, with the enlightened soul finally seeing the brilliant light of the Good last of all. We routinely hear of “the mind’s eye” but not “the mind’s ear.” It has even been said that to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees, but I have never heard it said that to hear is to forget the name of the thing one hears.

With sight, we can see things at a distance, but only if we are already looking, or, at very least, looking in that direction. Observing (which we usually think of as being synonymous with seeing) is particularly captive to this visual paradigm, and the idea of theory-laden observation, so central to themes in the philosophy of science that emerged in the twentieth century, is beholden to the visual need to already be looking for something before you can see it.

There is a passage from Husserl’s Ideas I that particularly brings out what we might call the directedness of sight (we could even call is the intentionality of sight, if you like) and of visual metaphors of understanding. This is a passage of some interest to me, and in an as-yet-unpublished manuscript I have taken this text as a springboard into other matters phenomenological, so it is something I think about often:

The arithmetical world is there for me only when I have studied arithmetic, when I have systematically formed arithmetical ideas, when I have looked into it and thereby acquired something permanent with a universal horizon.

This is the later version, amended by Husserl’s marginalia. The earlier, shorter version is more concise, though it lacks the explicit visual metaphor:

The arithmetical world is there for me only if, and as long as, I am in the arithmetical attitude.

One of the distinctive things about sound and listening and hearing is that it brings our attention to things even when our attention was not directed toward them. Hearing is, at best, omnidirectional. We are walking along a dark street, and we hear footsteps behind us. We try to look where the sound is coming from, practicing a casual appearance to the glance, in order to learn more. But it was our hearing that brought the presence to our attention. There seems to be some kind of relationship between hearing and attentiveness. When, in the arts, literary or visual, the artist wants to show attentiveness, he shows his figures listening. We can listen without knowing exactly that for which we are listening.

Another distinctive thing about listening is that it presents essentially temporal phenomena to us, whereas vision presents essentially spatial phenomena to us. The centrality of vision in epistemology has driven the spatialization not only of our concepts, but also of our ontologies. Philosophers since Plato have showed a hostility to time, routinely declaring it to be unreal or illusory. At least part of this dismissal of time and temporal phenomena is to be put to the construction of knowledge on the basis of visual, hence spatial, paradigms.

It would be a salutary intellectual exercise to try to think of one’s own understanding in terms of listening and attentiveness. We should try to think around corners in the way that we can listen around corners. We should seek for ideas that cannot be “seen” but which can be “heard.”

. . . . .

His master's voice: attentive listening is not confined exclusively to our species.

. . . . .


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5 Responses to “The Mind’s Ear”

  1. Love the concept. Hope you write about challenging the mind through the other senses as well. I am trying to get young people to challenge their brain by using guided imagery to develop mental health skills and thinking using the 5 senses is in the program Grand Ideas from Within. Thank you.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Ms. McDermott,

      Thanks for your comment, and for making me aware of your Grand Ideas from WithinTM program. I visited your website and read a little bit about it. I’m not surprised to see that your background is in social work, as you seem to be taking some of the methods (like coping skills) currently employed to assist the mentally ill and adapting them for use with those who are not actually mentally ill but perhaps “at risk.”

      Even if your target population is not even at risk, taking a systematic approach to improving thinking skills through guided imagery could be considered a quasi-Maslovian project focused on taking the self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid to a new level. And, of course, children need more help with self-actualization since they are still in the process of forming the habits by which they will live.

      Personally I think that these detailed formulations about thinking skills could be better formulated in the language of phenomenology (i.e., with greater precision and accuracy), but I am well aware that this is not the language that is used in contemporary educational theory and social work.

      Good luck with your enterprise!

      Best wishes,


  2. This is very interesting. Personally I have always found it more like critical music listening. With audio, there are numerous artifacts, missing notes, distortions, and ‘veilings’ that the untrained listener either does not perceive, or merely finds unpleasant without being able to express why.

    Vision is a surprisingly limited metaphor; we have all these words for things we see, but few for how.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Bilkovich,

      Your brief comments are very much to the point, and pregnant with meaning to boot!

      I have never thought to make a distinction between what we see and how we see, although I would observe that the phenomenological approach is very immersed in how we perceive, though it is not concerned to distinguish between the various senses — perhaps it ought to be so concerned.

      I know what you mean about the veiled qualities of perception, and I have personally experienced this both in relation to seeing and hearing.

      Thanks for such a wonderful comment. I will be thinking about this.

      Best wishes,


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