Being open to the world

There’s a strange passage in Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life which left me ruminating on the expression ‘look before you leap’ which I heard endlessly as a child growing up in north-west England in the 80s and 90s. He talks about “a schizoid scaling of heights that do not stand in any productive relation to the narrowness of the experiential horizon”. He offers a therapeutic response to this ailment:

The therapy consists of a form of mountain rescue intervention: the aim is to bring the lost climber back to the valley and explain the terrain to them until they feel able to respect the circumstances on their next climb. Understanding those circumstances involves knowing the relation between the difficulty of the slope and the training level of the peak conqueror.

The point he’s making is that our commitments need to “respect the circumstances” in which we make them. This means reflecting on how well (or poorly) equipped we are for the ‘climb’ we are seeking to begin. This captures the folk wisdom of ‘look before you leap’ which is expressed in a range of ways across the dictionaries which I’ve looked at:

The significance of ‘schizoid’ in Sloterdijk’s formulation is the tendency for a withdrawal from the world to co-exist with “a rich and elaborate but exclusively internal fantasy world”. There’s a distance from the face of the mountain, the different kinds of topographical features which we can use to support different kinds of grip, coupled with an elaborate inner world which obscures and distracts from these points of purchase upon the world. This creates a mismatch between the “scaling of heights” and the “narrowness of the experiential horizon” by leading people to attempt things which a more nuanced and careful appraisal of reality would make clear were courses of action unlikely to succeed.

He’s using the metaphor of mountain climbing to make a subtle point about our reflexive engagements with the world. There is a romance which a leap of faith can have for those who experience themselves as out of joint with the world, disengaged and in some sense alienated from it, holding out the promise that one choice might bring resolution to a state of being which is experienced as lacking in some way. But this whole outlook is predicated on a certain distance from the world, an inability to face our place within it and the more sober paths forwards towards where we might want to go. This might seem like a conservative and depressing message but I suggest that attending to the world in the way I am basically advocating here can be something aesthetic and revelatory:

The trouble with you and what used to be the trouble with me is that you don’t use your goddamned senses; too much society crap and too much mentality and not enough tactile and color and sound stuff going on. So now if you’re like I was a year ago, you’ve got to coax the sight and sound back, carefully tease it to life again and it will fill you up.

C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings

Instead of seeking salvation through a heroic act of faith we would be better served by trying to coax the sight and sound back into our lives in order that we attend to the reality of our conjuncture, not out of some life-denying impulse to avoid taking risks but rather because what Hannah Arendt described as the “the sheer entertainment value of [the world’s] views, sounds, and smells” make it a deeply rewarding object of our attention. There is an ontological gap between the schizoid personality and the mountain face described by Sloterdijk. The way to bridge that gap is not through leaping but rather through carefully attending to what we see, hear, smell and feel; prioritising what we think about the the novelty which the world brings to us each day, rather than devoting our thought to the cognitive castles we have privately built in our own inner worlds.

In a short essay I wrote almost 15 years ago I described this in terms of ‘being open to the world‘, in a process which is hindered by the philosophical baggage we bring with us:

I’ve been fascinated recently by the idea of being open to the world. Methodological naturalism in ontology is a gross impediment to this: if we concieve of the world as a neutral collection of objects “out there” about which we form opinions “in here” then meaning, atmosphere, mood, morality, significance (etc) all become ideas in our heads. We come to see their ‘subjectivity’ as standing in contrast to the (neutral) ‘objectivity’ of the natural order. The further we proceed with such naturalism, the more disposed we are to regard the human subject as one natural object amongst others. The significance we accord to things comes to be an ephemeral and ultimately arbitrary response to an objectively meaningless world. This view is deeply flawed and leads to a paradoxical conclusion: in its self-concious striving for objectivity it entails a rampant subjectivism while simultaneous stripping away the features of the human subject that most profoundly define our humanity.

The point I was trying to make is that there is meaning in the world which we hear and see, or fail to. This is a theme which cuts through the work of the poet Kae Tempest:

  • Everything’s connected, right? Everything’s connected
    And even if I can’t read it right, everything’s a message
    (We Die)
  • I’m listening to every little whisper in the distance singing hymns
    And I can
    I can feel things
    (People’s Faces)
  • So hold your own
    Breathe deep on a freezing beach
    Taste the salt of friendship
    Notice the movement of a stranger
    Hold your own
    And let it be
    (Hold Your Own)

In that final song they write “Feel each decision that you make. Make it, hold it“. This is what links these two sets of ideas together for me. We need to be open to the world, cultivating an interest in its sights and sounds, in order to be sensitive to the guidance it offers us. It’s not possible to hold your decisions, let alone feel them, unless you are open to the world in this way. That at least is how it appears to me after a strange, difficult and deeply formative year of my life.

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