An Argument from Woolgathering

Okay, this was originally a letter to a friend, January '99, reprinted here by permission. Lots of woolgathering, woolgathering about woolgathering, even an argument for the reality of God which might be described as an argument from the logical structure of woolgathering! Sorry, argument not original with me-- don't I wish?!

Good to hear from you! And I was interested to see the bibliography for your research project. Would also be interested in seeing a copy of your paper whenever it's finished, if that isn't too much trouble.

Must confess I have no direct answer to your historical questions about the kabbalah. My interest in the kabbalah has been, as with Pico della Mirandola & Marsilio Ficino back during the Renaissance, more the interest of an amateur mystic and student of neoplatonism! Though I have picked up some historical leads, chiefly from the writings of Gershom Scholem.

Scholem's book Kabbalah, which I listed last time, has some historical background, though nothing I can find that would bear directly on the question you are asking. Ditto the more recent scholar Moshe Idel's Kabbalah: New Perspectives.

The kabbalah is indeed an otherworldly and speculative pursuit-- though moreso in some of its manifestations than in others. There is a kabbalistic strand which emphasizes the mystical underpinnings of the commandments, and which thus bears practical fruit: cf. Moses de Leon's Sepher Ha-Rimmon ("The Book of the Pomegranate"), which I have sitting on my bookshelf in gloriously unreadable unpointed Hebrew.

There is also a strand, less closely bound up with ethics, which stresses familiarizing yourself with the ten sephiroth until you can see them reflected in everything around you in your daily life: a sensibility captured so well in Halevi's "art book." This somehow reminds me of my days studying Charles Peirce's semiotic, when I would go out to the Kroger's on Hillsborough Road in Durham, and see Peirce's categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness reflected in the fruits and vegetables in the produce section!

This is a form of "practice" which seems to its practitioner to be bearing fruit, but (to borrow a term from Peirce's co-conspirator William James) I am not sure just what the pragmatic "cash value" of such fruit might be. It leads to deeper self-awareness and awareness of God (cf. Calvin, Inst. I.1.i), albeit an awareness mediated via external objects (cf., in general, the mystical practice of contemplation; and Proclan, as versus Plotinian, neoplatonism). But does it conduce to greater, or lesser, awareness of the passing parade of events?

This is a question not only of mysticism but also of semiotics. My guess here-- and it is only my educated guess as a buck semiotician!-- is that such mystical "practice" can lead to greater awareness of the happening scene, via two indirect paths. One is the diffuse, low-level impact of such practice on the organization of a person's intellectual and emotional "internal housekeeping": to use a nicely "Spinozan" metaphor, such practice would amount to grinding and polishing the "lenses" through which one views the external world! The other is the impact on how a person interprets texts and traditions of their faith community. In all this I am following Yale computer scientist(!) and cultural commentator David Gelernter, who develops both these points at length in his book, The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought.

Gelernter's key technical concepts here are "low-focus thinking" and "affective linking," elements he considers central to artificial as well as to human intelligence.

Modern Western thought has been, until recent generations, lopsidedly though not exclusively interested in the bright Cartesian noonday of "high-focus thinking," the thinking of engineer or logician seated at desk. Think of the 18th-century Enlightenment! Think of Bertrand Russell, who used to catch flack for this from his more "low-focus" friends such as George Santayana and Alfred North Whitehead! By contrast, "low-focus thinking," which is more closely bound up with feelings and bodily states, tends in the extreme limit toward those fuzzy, unfocused wisps that lazily drift like colored tissue paper across the back of your mind, pregnant with deep meaning although you can't for the life of you say quite what, or about whom.

"Affective linking" is the process, often quite arational, by which thoughts, including these low-focus thoughts, are associated with one another in a dense web on the basis of their "emotional charge": I will always associate the Three Wise Men with the giant wooden manger scene my father used to set up between the church and the manse; I called them the "Woodens," and took the bar of gold for a stick of butter, and the urns of frankincense and myrrh for a coffeepot and sugar bowl!

Meditation seems to involve a process of affective linking which operates primarily on extremely low-focus thoughts: those wisps of "colored tissue paper" which have customarily been beneath the notice of bright noonday Cartesians with their "clear and distinct ideas." (But consider post-Cartesian philosopher Peirce's practice of meditative "musement," which he makes the cornerstone of his "Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," a sort of "argument from the logical structure of woolgathering.")

Gelernter (who by coincidence, or perhaps not by coincidence, became one of the victims of the Unabomber) is not only a researcher in the field of AI, but also a very astute Jewish layman, and he applies these insights in an illuminating interpretation of a couple of otherwise difficult biblical passages. The results look somewhat like narrative criticism. The results also resemble what I have seen happen when I have introduced laypeople who are already well grounded in the scriptures (mostly older folks) to the practice of typological interpretation, to which they take like the proverbial duck taking to water.

Contrary to the received wisdom, this kind of interpretation is not at all arbitrary. Within Christianity, much of this rich lode-- the organic growth of centuries of affectively linked high- and low-focus thinking on the scriptures-- was dumped when the Protestant Reformers ditched the old mediaeval fourfold allegorical exegesis. And the suppression, at least among some of the mainline clergy, has been rendered well nigh complete by historical criticism, which does yield certain historical insights but has been a noonday Cartesian disaster for exegesis. (See David Steinmetz, "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.") Judaism, by contrast-- well, okay, if you except much of Reform Judaism-- has never lost touch with such ways of reading scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, etc. (See Jacob Neusner, The Formation of the Jewish Intellect: Making Connections and Drawing Conclusions in the Traditional System of Judaism.) And certainly some of Barth's appeal lies in his reclamation of the integrity of deeper, richer dimensions of exegesis.

I suspect certain kinds of contemplative meditation might facilitate deeper interpretive insight of this sort, not only in reading the book of scripture, but also in reading the book of nature. This is the crux of the German writer Goethe's approach to science, in his Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors), his intuiting of the Urpflanze, his invention of comparative morphology and his ensuing discovery of the intermaxillary bone in the human skull, etc. What Goethe was attempting is of considerable interest to some present-day philosophers of science, as it offers an approach to science in which (contra Descartes) the scientist is neither factored out of the equation, nor reduced to a "ghost in the machine." (See Seamon & Zajonc, eds., Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature.) And although I have not been able to pin down a direct connection, I believe Goethe was in his younger adulthood immersed in the kabbalah??? Or was it alchemy?

Could something of this sort, some greater or deeper alertness to the passing cavalcade, accrue also in everyday life via such meditative "practice"? My best guess-- and it is only a guess, although backed by considerable reading and some amateur personal experience-- is, yes it could, albeit indirectly and over a span of time. (Though note the phenomenon of the instantaneous "aha!" insight...)

But when one speaks of kabbalistic "practice," what is more usually meant is not ethical or contemplative but rather ritual and theurgic practice-- such as, "the mending of the vessels"-- the mystical work of tikkun, or restoration of the fallen creation. A typical exercise might involve running through lengthy and involved permutations of Hebrew letters in one's head, perhaps based on a passage from the scriptures or the liturgy, while also perhaps engaging in prescribed ritual physical movements. This may well have its benefits, not only along the more mundane, "horizontal" lines I've sketched, but also, for all I know, "vertically," i.e., metaphysically. (Yes, I can hear the religious studies faculty screaming in the background as I say this! Let them scream! It will be good for their lungs.)

That is, a kabbalist who is running through various orderings of all the two-letter Hebrew permutations of the "231 Gates" may well, by God's grace, be contributing to the apokatastasis or restoration of all things. This may sound strange to Protestant ears-- but not at all strange in the thinking of someone like Maximus the Confessor who, in his theological anthropology, viewed redeemed humanity as a microcosm playing a priestly role within the macrocosm of God's creation.

However, to return to the question of "alertness," I do have to confess that many of the present-day practicing kabbalists I read seem to be physicists, research psychologists, and other species of "absent-minded professor." (The one really down-to-earth kabbalist I've found-- a young Brazilian rabbi named Nilton Bonder-- seems to owe as much to Dr. Laura as to Isaac Luria.)

Is then a kabbalist likelier, or less likely, to read events "with the Zohar in one hand and the newspaper in the other"? Your question, as you see, just happens to touch on several of my current "thinking points." Though, as you also see, I am approaching it as a "systematician"-- in part because that is my bent, but in part because I cannot find any historical references which directly address the question.

With the research you've already done-- very impressive bibliography!-- I'm sure you are light years ahead of me on that front.

I don't know how much of this is of help to your project, and how much of it is simply my woolgathering. Hope something in here proves helpful, even if my "semiotic" approach is (I fear) too abstract and general. I have at least sketched, as a "systematician," the outlines of a reasonable argument for how mysticism can conduce to a sharper, rather than duller, alertness toward one's surroundings.

Further tangents... An anthropologist named Roy Rappaport has done some good work on the interplay and feedback between religious ritual and surrounding world. His books are entitled Pigs for the Ancestors, and Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Nothing kabbalistic-- his field work was in New Guinea-- but the latter volume contains some interesting applications of Peirce and Tillich.

Also, did you know the Australian aboriginal stories of the "dreaming time" encode, in narrative form, a detailed geographical map of the territory inhabited by a clan? See Napaljarri & Cataldi, Warlpiri Dreamings & Histories. Of course, the "dreaming time" is bound up not only with the lay of the land, but also with meditative states. Hmmmm...

"And so it goes." As you can see, this is a field on which my "systematician's" mind has already long been at work. (Whether to any effect, is another question!)

Once again, if it isn't too much bother to you, I'd be interested in seeing a copy of your paper once it's finished.

In Christ,

(s) Paul