The Mind’s Singular Function

8 February 2010


The nine Muses - Callipoe, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia,Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania - embodied inspiration in classical antiquity.

Does the mind work solely on universals? Are all ideas essentially universal? Or does the mind have a unique relation to the singular (what the medieval scholastics called haeccietas)? What counter-examples can we cite to the mind’s native universalism?

The singular for the intellect is inspiration. Inspiration comes, when it does come, unbidden and outside the control of the mind so inspired. It is interesting to note at this point that from classical antiquity up to the present day inspiration has been personified in female form, viz. the Muses. That inspiration should be personified is nothing untoward, as classical antiquity personified almost everything, however abstract. But that the Muses are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and that inspiration is never personified (to my knowledge) in male form, is significant. Inspiration is wrapped up in, and perhaps confused and conflated with, what the feminine means for man.

I take inspiration to be a peculiar state of mind conducive to intellectual productivity. But that which is produced by the mind in a state of inspiration is in no sense identical to the inspiration or to that state of mind. And when inspiration comes again, if it does come, it will inspire new products of the intellect, again not identical with the episode of inspiration itself, and not identical with previous episodes of inspiration.

Inspiration is an intellectual condition that cannot be predicted and is not repeated. This would seem to me to adequately place it within the sphere of the singular. And the fact that the products derived from inspiration may be in no sense singular (do not most artists claim a certain universality for their work?) in no way alters the singular character of the inspiration that was the occasion of their production.

Inspiration remains as singular, as unpredictable, as unrepeatable, as ineffable, and as elusive as any chance event in the actual world. It leaves its trace, but the thing itself (or should I say “thing-in-itself”) disappears utterly. The absence of inspiration is as palpable as its presence. Thus the soul’s dark night.

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When inspiration has come and then departed, even in the case of secular, non-mystical inspiration, we experience the intellectual equivalent of the dark night of the soul.

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