Aletheia was a Greek Goddess. The word is often translated into English as truth – and Aletheia’s Roman counterpart is called Veritas. However, as Heidegger and others say, truth is really insufficient as a translation. Truth is a noun in Latin, but in Greek aletheia is an activity. This is not just an exercise in semantics. Heidegger understood the importance of language: it shapes our understanding of our world and constrains what we can say.
Etymologically aletheia means un-forgetting or un-concealing (a- lethe). In Greek mythology the river Lethe was one of the five rivers in Hades, and all those who drank from it forgot everything they knew. In “The Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger tells is that art opens up a clearing to disclose meaning – it helps us to un-forget. And further – art is not just a way that we can find out about ourselves and our world – it also creates meanings for us as a community. I might prefer to conceptualise this slightly differently and talk about art as opening up possibilities for different meanings, interpretations or understandings, but the idea is thought provoking.
Wittgenstein makes a similar point in his Tractatus (5.6) when he says that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” – if we can’t describe something in words then in a very real sense it does not exist for us (I am aware that Wittgenstein would have gone further with this thought at the time than I am doing now). And further, in a later work:
“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Philosophical Investigations, 115
Art helps us to give us the concepts that we need to understand our world in new ways – it reminds us that there is more than one way of looking at things. Aletheia is stronger than just remembering, it is making a conscious effort to act in a certain way – it is an attitude towards the world. I think that this might well describe the demeanour of a bricoleur. Our ‘what if?’ and ‘yes, and?’ attitudes to life help us to open up the world to ourselves in new ways and discover new ways of being in the world.
I think I’ve always been a bricoleur – it’s a family trait. But it’s not without danger. When I read this page by Austin Kleon, I remembered happy times messing around with my brother. We were big fans of seeing how things worked. Watches, clocks – anything that had moving parts. We’d prise them apart and put them back together again. Yet, somehow, there was always a small pile of springs and screws left on the floor afterwards.
And the watches and clocks ended up on Dad’s workbench …
In my earlier post I suggested that Heidegger thought of understanding as being an uncovering of meaning, and I further suggested that this is one of the things that we bricoleurs do when we mix and remix. In this post I want to continue with my interpretation of bricolage through a Heideggerian lens.
In his discussion of constructionism, Seymour Papert contrasts two type of problem solving – the analytical, which take a theoretical approach and the practical, which he calls bricolage. Simon Critchley makes a similar distinction in his book Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, sketching a brief history of philosophy and distinguishing between two types of Western traditions in philosophy: the Anglo-American and the Continental. The difference between these two schools of thought is not a geographical one, it is a difference in approach. The Anglo-American school of philosophy proceeds by logical analysis; the Continental school uses hermeneutics (interpretation) as its method (I am oversimplifying here of course). One way of drawing this distinction would be to think about it in terms of a scientific and a literary approach to understanding (human) nature; another would be to look at in terms of being theoretical on the one hand, and experiential on the other. This latter is the type of approach that I am characterising as bricolage.
My first two degrees in philosophy were taught in the Anglo-American (analytic) tradition, and I think it is fair to say that there was a mistrust of Continental Philosophy as lacking in rigour. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of the phenomenological approach. Phenomenology does not deny the scientific approach (or, it need not), but it does not believe that this is the only, or the best, way to understand the human experience. The analytic approach is theoretical; the phenomenological approach is grounded in the concrete. Critchley suggests that the former approach is looking for knowledge, while the latter hopes to find wisdom. In Being and Time Heidegger suggests that what we need is an existential understanding of science, and suggests that scientific explanation alone cannot explain our practices.1 Papert agrees, and suggests that we can find meaning by playing with concrete objects without the need to move beyond them to abstract truths. Both show ways of being in the world as bricoleur.
1 Merleau-Ponty describes phenomenology as ‘unveiling the pre-theoretical layer’ of human experience on which the theoretical conception of the world is based (in Critchley, p 113). It is something that people have to do, not to theorise about.
I’ve been thinking about Heidegger recently. I know that some people find him problematic because of his links with the Nazi party, but I think that it is possible to bracket this off (phenomenological reference intended) and talk about his philosophy without reference to that side of his thought. In any case, I can’t unlearn the influence that thought has had on my own philosophy, and it would be academically wrong for me to try to ignore it.
It was Heidegger who introduced me to the concept of aletheia – the Greek word for truth, or disclosure. He also gives us (somewhere – probably in Sein und Zeit, it’s been a while since I read that properly) a description of a person pushing through the woods and coming to a clearing. So I understand his theory of knowledge as saying that understanding is something that happens in a space where there is a clearing, or an openness – as a type of opening one’s eyes and coming to an understanding. This reminds me of the stanza that someone wrote in our collaborative DS106 poem:
Take this hammer, take this chisel
Take some time to work alone
Shatter the surface of intentions
Surface this collaborative poem
And this, I think, is one of the things that we do when we mix and remix – we chip away at concepts and uncover different senses of meaning (of truth?).
Two photos, taken a week apart, both of the same branch. Last week it was cold in the garden – bright, but not warm enough to sit and enjoy it. Today was a beautiful day – warm enough to sit out with a cuppa and read while the cats basked on the paving slabs. I think that spring is finally here.
Facebook reminded me that it’s been just over a year since I submitted my PhD thesis for examination. As I mentioned elsewhere, that feels like a thousand years ago and just the other day.
I love this postcard project – the decision to make a round of postcards – in this case prompted by our CLMOOC Postcards for Peace popup; the choice of design – this time blue and yellow with sunflowers for Ukraine; the scrolling through the Google Sheet to find names and addresses – I love this part as I get to imagine what all the different places are like, and to look them up on a Google Map as I write each one.
And then there’s the thrill as cards pop though my letter box – the serendipity of finding one from Kevin on the mat as I was addressing this batch.
Small things give me hope, and help me find peace.