The Minute Particulars blog

Here you can find brief thoughts on various topics, updated occasionally. Comments are very welcome.


Blake contra Burke, part 1: Blurs


Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

In some ways the Burkean notion of the sublime may seem a good fit for Blake: the sublime is associated with the infinite; it is approached by the imagination and not by mere sense perception; it points beyond everyday mundane nature. But Blake (in his annotations to Reynolds’s discourses) decries Burke’s essay on the beautiful and sublime as a representative of the Lockean empricism that Blake opposes.

I think that understand the contrast between Blake and Burke may prove a good path to understand what we might call Blake’s ‘metaphysics’. There are three points to be made: the first, to be dealt with here, has to do with blurs. In subsequent posts I will talk about light, and then finally about fear.

According to Burke “a clear idea is a little idea.” His thought is that if we can see something clearly we can see its bounds. Infinity is not properly perceptible by us. Thus the closest we come to an experience of the infinite is for the bounds to be unclear. Blurred edges give us a visual suggestion of the infinite, thus giving rise to a feeling of the sublime.

Blake’s thought inverts Burke’s almost precisely. He writes (again in his annotations to Reynolds) that “Grandeur of Ideas is founded on Precision of Ideas”. Indefiniteness of experience can only give rise to confused thought; it limits rather than enables knowledge.

The root difference, it seems to me, is that for Burke the sublime never inheres in concrete particular things. Clear perception of particulars therefore does not yield sublime experience. Blake believes just the opposite: the imagination can see “Infinity in the palm of your hand / and Eternity in an hour.”

Metaphor and misunderstanding, part 2: Tolstoy and Wittgenstein


If metaphor – and in particular fresh and original metaphor rather than the tired and familiar – is central to literary writing, and the understanding of novel metaphor is as contingent and unteachable as I have suggested, then we might be particularly tolerant of failures to understand literature.

But there is a strain of thought which is remarkably tolerant of such failures (or at least of some of them). In his What is Art?, Tolstoy regards the failure to appreciate certain forms of literature as symptomatic of a sort of moral corruption brought about by modern civilisation. His particular targets are failures to understand the gospels, and folk songs and tales.

Wittgenstein, in notes published posthumously in the volume Culture and Value, offers what may seem a more tolerant approach. He agrees with Tolstoy that what is really important is essentially simple. But understanding can meet with more than one sort of obstacle. There can be obstacles of the will as well as of the intellect. If one does not want to see, “what is most obvious may be what is most difficult to understand.”

On Wittgenstein’s view, Simple artistic expressions can faze us because of our own conceptual confusions. One role for philosophy is in clearing up such confusions

The tone of moral censure in lighter in Wittgenstein than in Tolstoy. But their views are perhaps not so far apart. Herder’s “savage” lives in a different conceptual world from his uncomprehending peers or ancestors. They face obstacles in seeing what he does because of they way they think, not because it is inherently complex. What Tolstoy adds is just what the savage might come to add, as indeed we might: that to fail to see godhead or kingship in the tree is a moral failing.

Metaphor and misunderstanding, part 1: The sacred tree


Herder writes in his On the Origin of Language:

A certain savage sees a tree, with its majestic crown; the crown rustles! That is stirring godhead! The savage falls prostrate and worships! Behold the history of sensuous man … and the easiest transition to abstract thought.

The “savage” has, we might say, stumbled on a metaphor. The tree is a god or king; the swaying upper branches make a crown.

But Herder speaks of this event as a transition from the merely sensuous to the abstract. The tree is not compared to a pre-existing idea of kingship or godhead, since such a comparison would itself require abstract thought. Rather, the idea presents itself for the first time in the form of a tree: that our savage falls to his knees shows us that he responds to the tree as to king or god.

Herder’s approach chimes with the views of modern philosophical commentators on metaphor, like Ted Cohen and, before him, Nelson Goodman and Stanley Cavell. Metaphors are not elliptical forms of similes, nor can similes capture their content. We may not be able to paraphrase a metaphor in non-metaphorical terms: we may paraphrase “Juliet is the sun” by saying that Juliet is refulgent, or that the earth orbits her – but in neither case do we mean the paraphrase itself literally.

A corollary is that we may be unable to explain a metaphor to one who cannot see the point of it. Like Herder’s savage, we must be brought to see the metaphor whole; there is no non-figurative road to an understanding of it. The metaphor is a way of thinking that one finds oneself in, not one that is reasoned to.

Expression and empathy part 4: The appeal to empathy

In the last post I defended the notion of authentic expression, arguing that it can be maintained even within an ecological framework. As for authenticity, so for empathy. Or so I will argue now.

We saw in part one that subjects are more likely to smile in solitude if another agent is made salient. Strikingly, one is more likely to smile while watching a film alone if told that a friend is watching the same film in another room. I would bet (though it would be harder to prove) that merely thinking of another person’s experience would have the same effect.

This finding provides evidence that physiognomic expression has its origins in communicative function. But just as this doesn’t make authenticity, or the inner life, irrelevant to expression, it doesn’t make feelings of empathy irrelevant either. It doesn’t tell us what salience is for the communicating subject. If we ask ourselves what it is, it seems highly plausible that for a subject to find another person salient involves an appeal to empathy.

That last claim is ambiguous, however, so we had better make a distinction. It could mean that I actively think of another person’s experience or point of view when I smile in solitude. This is a strong claim, and one which would need further empirical support. But in any case I think it’s implausible, and stronger than we need. The other possibility is that salience presupposes awareness of co-experiencing others. Just as we needn’t intend to communicate our genuine feelings in order to count as authentic, we need not be consciously thinking of another’s feelings in order to find them salient.

This helps us to make sense of Fridlund’s idea of an imaginary interlocutor. The awareness I just mentioned could consist in knowledge of another’s experience. Or it could consist in a capacity to imagine another. The solitary smiler need not be making any sort of mistake – they need not have any beliefs about co-experiencing others.

Expression and empathy part 2: The jargon of inauthenticity

In the last post we looked at Fridlund’s “ecological” view of expressive behaviour like smiles. On this view, such behaviour is not at root the manifestation of inner states. Instead, its role is essentially communicative. The smile is not an upshot of feelings and emotions but rather a beneficial behaviour within a particular ecology, or at least the evolutionary vestige of a behaviour that once was beneficial.

Fridlund sometimes describes himself as countering a “romantic” view of expressive behaviour, associated with Rousseau and many after him, on which the norm is the authentic expression of genuine and deeply-held feelings. The romantic vision is deflated, the story goes, by an approach on which smiles, snarls and the like are moves in a game played to the subject’s advantage, and the inner life drops out as insignificant.

This is a striking way of putting things. Is it accurate? I see two problems. The first is that Fridlund’s view does not make expressive behaviour itself a means of communication, if by “means of communication” we mean a method for the intentional signalling of our thoughts and feelings. Fridlund’s theory explains why we feel like smiling, or find ourselves spontaneously smiling, in situations of a certain sort. Intentions are irrelevant. It’s therefore a mistake to think that the ecological view sees expressive behaviour as strategic in any sense that implies forethought or scheming.

A second point, related to the first. The ecological view only works as critique of romanticism if we see the inner life as developing independently of expressive behaviour. But this is surely wrong: the history of the development of expressive behaviour is part of the history of the development of human emotions. Thus my smile (here and now) says something about my inner life even if an evolutionary explanation of it appeals to ecology rather than emotion.

I’m reminded of something Wittgenstein said about Tolstoy. Tolstoy insists in What is Art? that genuine art consists in the expression of the authentic, really occurrent, feelings of the artist. Wittgensten (Culture and Value, p. 58) thinks this is a mistake: “the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.”

But more needs to be said about the point of view of the observer. Next post…

Expression and empathy part 1: Why the long face?

Some thoughts on facial expression and empathy. I want to start by talking about solitary smiling. I have particularly in mind the so-called Duchenne smile: the genuine grin of delight that moves the eyes as well as the mouth, and which, evidence suggests, is difficult or even impossible to produce voluntarily. But other sorts of smile will also be relevant. Why the interest? To explain, we can take a quick detour through some theory.

On what was apparently long the dominant view of emotional expression, facial expressions are the causal result of occurrent mental states. Smiling, for example, is a form of human behaviour which results from the occurrence of feelings of happiness and the like. This sort of view can be traced back at least to Darwin. He opposed the idea that expressive behaviour arose because it played a communicative role. Instead, he thought, it was either the vestige of some earlier beneficial behaviour, or else the incidental result of other physiological processes.

Alun Fridlund proposes an alternative “ecological” conception of expression. On this conception, what matters is not the internal states of animals, but rather the pragmatic function of their behaviour. An animal bares its teeth to avoid conflict. Another makes a defensive gesture indicating the willingness and ability to flee, for just the same reason. That these animals may simultaneously experience fear or feelings of aggression is essentially irrelevant.

This is not just a dispute about the evolutionary origins of expression, about history: it concerns also the nature of the phenomenon. To see the crux of the dispute, consider what the anomalous cases, the cases particularly in need of explanation, are for each side. For the dominant view, the anomalous case is that of false expression of emotions. The theorist must think of the dissembling animal as exploiting pre-existing natural (and perhaps also, in part, conventional) connections in order to dissemble.

For the ecological view, by contrast, the contrast between veracity and dissembling is relatively unimportant. The interestingly anomalous case is that of the solitary expression of the emotions. Why do we smile in private? Fridlund postulates that we are imagining an audience, or alternatively treating ourselves as interactants (as we frequently do in inner monologue). Not a problem for the dominant view: the smile bursts forth in states of solitary happiness just as it does in public.

Evidence gathered by Fridlund suggests that smiles depend more on the subject’s degree of sociability than on intensity of feeling. We tend to smile more in company; what’s more, even in solitude, we smile more when other people are pertinent. For example, solitary subjects are more likely to smile at a stimulus (a film, say), if told that a friend is watching the same film in another room. We also smile much more when talking on the telephone than we otherwise do while alone.

Supposing facial expression to be essentially communicative in function, what sort of equipment do we need to be sensitive to it? I’ll take this up in the next post.

Jung’s Blake part 4: Introduction to Zen Buddhism

The final reference to Blake in Jung’s published work occurs in his foreword to Suzuki’s book Introduction to Zen Buddhism, published in 1939. In this piece, Jung laments the backwardness of Western culture, which has failed to produce the conditions necessary for the “healing” or “making whole” of the self, which he takes to be the aim of Zen. Psychotherapy also aims for such a making whole, but its procedures take longer and face more resistance, precisely because of the adverse cultural conditions.

What are these adverse conditions? The root of the problem seem to lie in the lack of commitment to a deep transformation of the self, understood as a task which requires far-reaching sacrifice of time and energy. Such a commitment requires a “total experience”, but the most Western culture has attained in that direction has been either “magic” or “mystery cults” (among which Jung numbers Christianity), or purely intellectual efforts, including those of philosophers like Schopenhuaer.

More than religion or philosophy as conventionally understood, certain literary authors have come closer to expressing the “total experience” that Jung values. He mentions part two of Goethe’s Faust, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and, in a footnote, “the English mystic William Blake.” These are all also authors who fall within the category of “visionary literature” which we discussed in part two of this series.

Even these, however, are “overlaid” with the “materiality and obviousness” of our culture, so that we do not know what their longer-term significance may be. In the version reprinted in the collected works, the term “obviousness” is replaced by “concreteness”.

I certainly don’t want to comment on Zen. But it’s worth noting that for Blake there is nothing wrong with “materiality”. His vision of imagination is one in which objects are transformed by human creative effort: this means engraving and sculpting and painting as much as detached thought. (Note that Blake’s books of poetry are also art objects). The end of Jerusalem gives his vision:

All Human Forms identified, even Tree, Metal, Earth & Stone

Jung’s Blake part 3: Individual dream symbolism

In a text of 1936 entitled ‘Individual dream symbolism in relation to alchemy’, Jung uses some watercolours by Blake as illustrating common symbols that appear in dreams. His interest, though, appears to be in the subject matter and not Blake’s interpretation.

The first is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’: dreams of a female figure (the dreamer’s anima) ascending or descending the stairs represent an ascent or descent in the dreamer’s future.



The second is from Blake’s illustrations of Dante. The anima (Dante’s Beatrice) now appears as psychopomp or spiritual guide.

The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory 1824-7 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919


Jung’s Blake part 2: Psychology and literature

The second of Jung’s references to Blake appears in his 1929 essay ‘Psychology and literature’. In this essay, Jung distinguishes between two types of literature. The first is psychological, in the sense that the author is doing a sort of psychology – and, often enough, Jung thinks, doing it very well. In literature of this type, which includes what we would conventionally call the psychological novel, human behaviour and characteristics are elucidated and explained. The second type is visionary: here psychological phenomena are exhibited which call for psychological interpretation. It is this second type which is of particular interest to the practising psychologist: in the first, the psychologist’s work is, as it were, already done. A further difference is that the first type largely concerns the conscious mind; the second type reaches down into the unconscious.

Jung does not think of psychology as concerning itself with the visionary writer, but rather with the writing itself. This chimes with the way he spoke throughout his career of unconscious phenomena as having symbolic content. Such content is available to be expressed in literary work. Blake is twice mentioned, in this essay, as an example of a visionary writer.

Visionary writers express a “primordial experience” which is obscure, amorphous, and in itself imageless and wordless. They typically reach for mythological characters and situations in order to give literary form to what is, in itself, formless. In 1929 Jung says that “Blake invents for himself indescribable figures” in order to achieve this. In a 1950 expansion of the essay – which is what appears in Jung’s collected works – he recognises that Blake did not invent his mythology out of whole cloth. Instead he “presses into his service the phantasmagoric worlds of India, the Old Testament, and the Apocalypse.”

I think this is an interesting way of approaching Blake’s work. But it’s important to notice that it strays far from Blake’s own conception of his work. Blake always emphasises definiteness and precision as characteristics of visions and of good art: it is precisely here that we see clearly, and are able to delineate the true shapes of things. Blake’s visions, in his own conception, are very far from being amorphous or ineffable. This does not put Jung in the wrong: it may be that his conception of Blake’s work is more accurate than Blake’s own. But it does show an important gap between their ways of looking at things.

So far we have been looking only at Jung’s reaction to Blake as writer. In the next section we will glance at Blake the visual artist.