"The mind is a compact, multiply connected thought mass with internal connections of the most intimate kind. It grows continuously as new thought masses enter it, and this is the means by which it continues to develop."

Bernhard Riemann On Psychology and Metaphysics ca. 1860

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Wilhelm von Humboldt on Creativity

As I was reading a rather tiresome report this morning on the naming of colors, it put me in mind by contrast of the great philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. This remarkable paragraph coheres with the thrust of what this blog has endeavored to represent. It speaks grandiloquently for itself:

Reality, that is, truth and nature itself, is certainly not less noble than art; it is rather the model of art. Its essence is so great and sublime that, in order for us to approach reality to any extent, the only way open to us is to forge a path as yet unknown, just as art does. The smallest object of reality is infused with the same essence; and it is absolutely wrong, that nature in its perfection could be found only in all its particular objects taken together, that the totality of the vital force could be found only in the sum of the particular moments of its being. Both may certainly appear this way, but one cannot think of space as being severed, or of time as being divided. Everything in the universe is one, and one all—otherwise there is no unity at all in the universe. The force pulsating in the plants is not simply a part of the force of nature, but all of it. Otherwise, an unbridgeable gap is opened between it and the rest of the world, and the harmony of organic forms is thereby irreparably destroyed. Every present moment contains all the past and future in itself, for there is nothing to which the fleetingness of the past can cling, as the perpetuity of living.

Further on in this same work Humboldt expresses in an understandingly diplomatic tone (for he was such) my precisely undiplomatic polemic against any false equivalence between the model of the Roman empire's evil imperialism (i.e, the "liberal democracy" of British imperialism) and the products of Plato and Aeschylus.

The test of modern nations is their feeling for antiquity, and the more they value the Greeks and Romans equally, or the Romans over the Greeks, the more those nations will fail to achieve their characteristic, specially set goal. For in as much as antiquity can be called ideal, the Romans participate therein only to the extent that it is impossible to separate them from the Greeks. 
(...) 
Life should stitch and create ideas by the fullness of its movement, by ideas superior to itself and to every activity. Man should possess a power, both by his own effort and the favor of fate, to produce spiritual phenomena which, measured by the past, are new, and measured by the future, are fertile. And, as art seeks out, or better, generates an ideal beauty in a pure and incorporeal idea, in the same way philosophy should be able to generate truth, and active life generate greatness of character. Everything should therefore constantly remain in activity—creative activity; everything should amount to the fathoming of the still unknown, and the birth of the not yet seen; everyone should believe himself now, to be standing at a point which he must leave far behind.

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