Friday, January 20, 2006

Word of the Day: Noumenon

I'm always challenging young reporters (and a few old ones) to tell me something I don't know. For me -- and probably for our readers -- an element of "discovery" is one of the things that make a story worth reading. And for newspaper reporters, what good is telling readers only things they already know? They wouldn't think their 50-cents was well spent without a little "gee-whiz," would they?

Gee whiz. Maybe it's an idea they hadn't ever considered, or a real-life situation they could never imagine on their own. Maybe it's the linkage of two distinctly different moments or notions into one, as if providing the missing link.

Or maybe it's just one perfect word.

While reading a novel into the wee hours last night, I had a moment of discovery. In this case, it was a single word.

Noumenon.

It's derived from Greek, meaning a “thing in itself” -- the opposite of phenomenon, the thing that appears to us. Noumena are basic realities that cannot be perceived by our usual senses. You can't touch, taste, smell, hear or see them, although you might sense phenomena they cause. According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, they aren't "knowable" but they must be "thinkable" because moral decision making and scientific investigation depend upon the assumption that they exist.

Like what?

Desire. Reason. Ambiguity. Jealousy. Pride. Evil. A soul.

OK, that's a poet's take on a word (and a philosophy) that's far too tangled for this blog and blogger. Poets suck at complex details. The eggheads over at Wikipedia can quibble endlessly about disambiguation and proto-existential phenomenology, but a poet just likes the way the word rolls around in the mouth ... and how it gives a name to a whole species of things he thinks about.

What else would be a noumenon?

21 comments:

Ranando said...

A tree falling in the forest with no one around, does it make a sound?

Is that a noumenon?

Ranando said...

How about God?

Ron Franscell said...

I think God works, certainly. Also maybe ... faith, spirituality, devotion, sanctity, loyalty, righteousness, divinity ... other "noumenon-ic" godliness.

geniemuse said...

Beauty, infinity, illusion, truth, complexity, validity, growth, eternity?

What about time, volume, relation... other "measuring" concepts?

I think I only half-understand the concept. Feels like there must be a bit more to it than I've grasped so far.

Fascinating stuff, though. I love to find new ways to categorize reality.

How about that one... reality?

Ivy said...

Poets suck at complex details. The eggheads over at Wikipedia can quibble endlessly about disambiguation and proto-existential phenomenology, but a poet just likes the way the word rolls around in the mouth ... and how it gives a name to a whole species of things he thinks about.


You must not be reading the right poets.. ;)

Reality.. yes I believe that would be a good one.. Like beauty. Only in the eye of the beholder. Ones reality may differ from everyone elses and whats reality to one is complete nonsense to another.

geniemuse said...

What about red?

Ron Franscell said...

Ivy -- My apologies. I should have said *THIS* poet. Me.

Reality (existence) might be a very good one! We see the phenomena that arise for reality and existence, but not those things in themselves. *Beauty* ... since beauty is technically undefinable (unlike, say, full lips, dark eyes, proportional form, etc.) you might be right.

Genie -- I think all those, except maybe red. Can we not see red?

Some things you can define, but where is Kant when you ... can't?

Anonymous said...

but a poet just likes the way the word rolls around in the mouth ... and how it gives a name to a whole species of things he thinks about.

As a poet, I rensent your implication that we choose words as though they were a dinner menu. Many of us create out of a gut wrenching compunction to do so.
Jung wrote of two types of poets.
#1
is wholly at one with the creative process, no matter whether he has deliberately made himself its spearhead, as it were, or whether it has made him its instrument so completely that he has lost all consciousness of this fact. In either case, the artist is so identified with his work that his intentions and his faculties are indistinguishable from the act of creation itself."
#2
is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it, as though he were a second person; or as though a person other than himself had fallen within the magic circle of an alien will.
Patricia Monk sums up the differences nicely:
In the writer of the first type, then, the shaping techniques available to the conscious mind will not distory or hamper, but facilitate the transmutation of the unconscious content into verbal form because, during composition, the conscious and unconscious levels of the psyche are completly integrated. Furthermore, in the transmutation by the shaping techniques, the unconscious will lose nothing of its energy.
But the other poet, who feels the creative force as something alien, is one who for various reasons cannot acquiesce and is thus caught unawares.
(http://www.lone-crow.com/PoetryBlog
/?p=8)
An excellent explanation of poetry as phenomenon and noumenon can be read at:http://www.tamilnation.org/literature/grammar/tolkappiyam.htm

geniemuse said...

About red...

It's in testing the fuzzy edges that a concept comes clear to me.

Here's what got me wondering which side of the line color falls on. From that Wilkipedia entry:

On Kant's view as expressed in his Critique of Pure Reason, reality is structured by "concepts of the understanding", or innate categories that the mind brings to make sense of raw unstructured experience. Since these categories include causality and number, it becomes problematic to say that many noumena exist that individually cause us to have perceptions of phenomena.

So... according to that analysis, number is noumenal. We can see two marbles, but the concept of "twoness" is a structure that the mind brings to the experience.

I started wondering what other categories that extends to. What defines "red?" How do we know this is actually red and not... orange? Do we all see the same thing when we define red anyway? (As we talked about with "beauty" -- isn't that something we can also see?)

Isn't red just the concept we've given to a particular way light reflects off some surfaces and is decoded by our eye structure and nervous system?

Do we all see the same thing when we see red, think the same thing when we hear the word red?

Or is this all beside the point and I don't grasp the concept yet?

And beyond these individual examples, is it in the definition (conceptualizing) of phenomena (that which we perceive) that we approach noumena? Is it a realm that extends well beyond what we can sense through observation of the phenomena it may cause? Seems so to me. I feel as if all of the examples I can come up with are ridiculously... small and finite.

I don't know. It's still percolating. Fun to wonder about.

Back to Wilkipedia:

In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a noumenon or thing in itself (German Ding an sich) is an unknowable, indescribable reality that in some way underlies observed phenomena.

I still don't grasp it. Where do we draw the line between what's knowable and describable and what's not?

I think I'm still feeling around in the dark for the edges of this.

Ivy said...

Thats an easy question really. No we do not all see the same thing. That is proven. My FIL is colorblind. He can't tell red from yellow, yellow from green.

But when you put the concept like that. You turn everything around. What is truth? Is it true because some one says it is? How do you know a dog is a dog and not a snake? Because one person just up and decided one day it was a dog? How do you know what you see is really there? What if its like the matrix and its not all real?

LOL We could do this all day.. What if its all just made up in our minds? And we see what we want to see?

geniemuse said...

OK, correcting myself. Trying to decode this thing on Wilkipedia has made me feel as if I have the reading comprehension of a grammar school kid. I used the word "cause."

Reading it AGAIN, I see this:

But if the noumenal does not cause the phenomenal, then what is the relationship? The suggested answer is that the noumenal and phenomenal coexist simultaneously; we cannot say that either causes the other.

How about phenomena illustrating noumena? illuminating? echoing? paralleling?

Whether we can even accurately use the plural noumena is at issue in that entry too.

I think I'll take a break from stirring this and just let this simmer before I get a headache.

Genie

Ron Franscell said...

I didn't think poets were insultable ... go figure.

(Anon: I was speaking of myself. I am not a writer of verse, but a "noumenon-ical" poet ... my country is words.)

twahl said...

i could hear an essay on this ron. maybe even with some of the blog responses. tracy

Ron Franscell said...

Tracy, you just want to hear me make a hash out of "disambiguation and proto-existential phenomenology" on national radio!

Anonymous said...

Ok, the apology would have been accepted and that would have been the end of it. Then you blunted the effect by baiting the issue further.
I become concerned when a person of your position, responsibility and influence makes a blanket statement about poets that might discourage young readers from persuing a creative outlet. Young people need more than Final Fantasy to act as a safety valve.
So, a little clarification is needed here. Are you implying that poets are insensitive, uncaring, unfeeling creatures that leave the rest of humanity in their dust when it comes to intellectual snobbery?

Ron Franscell said...

Anonymous ... ya gotta read more carefully, friend. Would I say "I am a poet" and then say they're "insensitive, uncaring, unfeeling creatures that leave the rest of humanity in their dust when it comes to intellectual snobbery"?

Sometimes, I think we all consider ourselves "victims-in-waiting," alert to the slightest slight, ready to pounce -- adrenalized -- without looking to see the precipice.

Let me clarify: The poet I referred to in the essay was ME. I should have written un-poetically:

"OK, that's my take (as a poet) on a word (and a philosophy) that's far too tangled for this blog and blogger. Poets (like me) suck at complex details. The eggheads over at Wikipedia can quibble endlessly about disambiguation and proto-existential phenomenology, but I (as a poet) just like the way the word rolls around in the mouth ... and how it gives a name to a whole species of things I (as a poet) think about."

I merely intended to say that, as a writer, I love the sound of words, and the tools they are, as much as the dissection of their complexities. I see a beautiful woman and I admire her beauty; I needn't dissect her to appreciate her fully.

Anonymous said...

Would you (as a poet) denegrate or bait another poet, the poet's writing process or poetry in general ? I could and would not know this (through your first comment) without asking.
Why not simply write "my apologies" and your clarification without the victim comment? Victims? Are there victims in blogging? Are there victims in the media or victims of the media?
Are the victims you referenced depressed little people with no idea who, what, when, where or how to direct their anger or are they simply relegated as "victims" for asking questions? Or perhaps you are now thinking of yourself as a victim of my queries?
If you are feeling victimized about now, dont. Remember, you chose ownership of my "resentment" and I chose to be resentful before asking for clarification. We were both mistaken, not victimized (grin).
Words are indeed a wonderful thing. I read somewhere once that language arose out of a need to share our nighttime dreams. Needs are defined as food, clothing, shelter and love.
Dreams are noumenon. Why would humans "need" to share their noumenon or their night time dreams for that matter?
I would think an answer would fall somewhere under the love catagory.*grin*

Ivy said...

Not to fuel the fire anymore than already. But I do believe he did clarify. In his response to my comment. He clearly states he was referring to himself.

Ron Franscell said...
Ivy -- My apologies. I should have said *THIS* poet. Me.

Ron Franscell said...

OK, so what we've discovered is ... a noumenon!

Sensitivity.

But it's also true that most of the communication in this Box is subject to easy misunderstanding because we lack the clues of body language, twinkling eyes and tone of voice ... all the things we know without hearing.

Ah, another noumenon: Intuition.

Anonymous said...

Yes Ivy, you are correct! He did clarify. Unfortunately, I did not see it. I was in the process of composing and posting my own response. Damm the limits of time, distance and space.

Anonymous said...

Some things you can define, but where is Kant when you ... can't?
You may find a suprising answer at
www.iep.utm.edu/k/kantaest.htm#SH2d
click on: Fine Art and Genius
I am also an artist. When I am unable to define something in words, I paint, draw, sculpt, build something or design something. When that doesn't work, I meditate or sleep on it. I find it is sometimes necessary to put the waking mind to rest and let the sleeping mind pick up the slack.