Life as It Is, Blinkers Removed

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From The Wall Street Journal:

As a young man, Christian Madsbjerg was poking around a library and came across a passage by Aristotle that struck him as ridiculous. In “Physics,” Aristotle explained that objects drop earthward because they want to return to the place where they belong. As Mr. Madsbjerg re-read the lines, he felt his derision give way to dizziness. “In [Aristotle’s] world, objects fell to the ground because they were homesick,” Mr. Madsbjerg writes in “Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World,” a provocative, sometimes elusive work of inquiry and instruction. That a philosopher two millennia ago knew nothing of gravity was not in itself surprising; what moved Mr. Madsbjerg was the realization that Aristotle must have really believed what he’d written.

“I have since encountered that vertigo of coalescing insight many, many times,” writes the Danish-born entrepreneur, who has built a career on the pursuit of perceptual breakthroughs. In “Look,” Mr. Madsbjerg attempts to impart the wisdom he has acquired from art and philosophy and from the practical experience of running a corporate consultancy and teaching a class on “human observation” at the New School in New York. His book is full of intriguing goodies: anecdotes and precepts originating in a wide array of sources, as well as summaries of the work of gestalt theorists and practitioners of phenomenology, a discipline he defines as “the study of how the human world works and everything that gives our life meaning.”

The breadth and vagueness of that definition bespeaks the book’s enthusiastic overreach. There’s a lot here, and a lot of it makes sense, but there are moments when the argument is so diffuse as to feel precarious. At times Mr. Madsbjerg teeters on the edge of banality, even incoherence. Yet he never tips over, for there is unmistakably truth in what he’s getting at. And, to be fair, the distinction between apparent understanding and deep understanding is difficult to draw. It is difficult even to describe. Mr. Madsbjerg does a heroic job of seeking to capture the experience of sudden insight.

The “richest reality,” he argues, is reached not by thinking but by looking—by which he means broadly using one’s perceptual apparatus. This dictum sounds simple to follow, but it is not. Looking takes time. Looking requires silencing the chattering mind. Looking means not only letting the eye follow the shiny bouncing object but also taking in the vast realm of context around the object and noticing what is not shiny and not bouncing. Perhaps most challengingly, it means surrendering the idea that we are necessarily seeing what we think we see. For, as Mr. Madsbjerg explains, “perception happens inside us; we change what we see to reflect who and where we are in the world.”

A rose may be a rose may be a rose, to mangle Gertrude Stein, but a rose is going to have very different meanings for a botanist, an interior designer or a love-struck suitor. When we glance at a rose—or any other thing—we see it amid the connotations it holds for us. This is the idea of gestalt, the recognizable “wholeness” of things. To take another example, few of us would stop to assess the color, size, shape and composition of a dining table and a set of chairs before drawing conclusions about their nature and purpose. The same is true with the gestalt of a picnic lunch or a museum gallery or a crowded bus stop: It’s easy to register a scene without noticing any of the details.

This capacity to make rapid sense of what we see equips us to get on with daily life, but it can also be an obstacle to clarity, fitting us with blinkers and causing us to miss important signals. “Look” is full of stories of people who have struggled to see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest, or the reason the forest is growing where it is and not some other place. One anecdote tells of an executive at an electronics company who was so intent on developing sophisticated big-screen televisions that he missed the cultural shift toward TV-viewing on laptops and smartphones. Another relates how the city-born biographer Robert Caro had to spend long hours in the open-skied isolation of rural Texas before he felt he could begin to understand his subject, Lyndon Johnson.

Looking through an ideological lens can also be blinding, as Mr. Madsbjerg knows firsthand, having grown up in a Marxist milieu on a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. “For a teenager, Communism was a totalizing, energetic, and angry faith,” he writes. “I was enraptured by fervor—furious about the class inequities in the world.” Only when his revolutionary ardor faded was he able to see how the ideology had distorted his perception of the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall became, in his telling, the impetus to begin a quest to understand how fashions in thinking advance and retreat; why people change their minds; and whether it is possible to anticipate social change, to “feel signs of a storm approaching.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal