The Limits of Thought

Posted on April 11, 2013


Like all teachers, I busy myself with the questions specific to my discipline. In my case, these are questions like “Should my students have a regular broadcast show, or should they move their work exclusively online?” or “What are the limits of ‘news’ or ‘journalism’ as a cognitive frame for approaching and discussing the world and its problems?” or “Why is the light on this camera always blinking?” And other boring and idiosyncratic concerns of mine. When I taught other disciplines, I asked other questions.

The limits of thought, like light from a lamp, emanate outward from us.

The limits of thought, like light from a lamp, emanate outward from us.

I’ve gotten a passage stuck in my teeth. It’s from an early page of Susanne K. Langer’s Philosopy in a New Key (1941):

The limits of thought are not so much set from outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of formulative notions with which the mind meets experience. Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there. A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. A new science, a new art, or a young and vigorous system of philosophy, is generated by such a basic innovation. Such ideas as identity of matter and change of form, or as value validity, virtue, or as outer world and inner consciousness, are not theories; they are the terms in which theories are conceived; they give rise to specific questions, and articulated only in the form of these questions.

That’s good, right? I wrote it down in my notebook, and I read it almost daily trying to figure out what to do with it, and each time I revisit it, the passage continues to expand and fluff like rising bread dough in my mind.

Elsewhere in that work, she elaborates a visual metaphor: that our questions make a frame in which the “picture of facts” about the world is drawn. In fact, questions not only make the frame, they also determine the angle of perspective, the color palette, the style of the picture. In short, if questions are a medium of perception, questions dictate everything except the subject, the thing in the world, the object of your perception.

It’s clear that if we want to have new solutions, new perspectives–in short, new knowledge–we must get ourselves a whole world of new questions. But I sometimes feel as if we’re asking the same questions over and over and over again. We have lots of new answers, but no new questions.
photo credit: gb_packards via photopin cc