Mental Types

November 24, 2009

Yesterday afternoon/evening I was hanging out with a few friends and we had a really long conversation (~5 hours) about philosophy, theology, literature, psychology… just about everything, really. It was one of the more productive such sessions I’ve had in a while, in terms of bringing together disparate ideas and synthesizing them, as well as coming up with new ways of looking at things; one of the easiest to explain results (though not at all the most important) was this idea of “mental types.”

The basic idea is, there are certain great writers (philosophers, writers of fiction, poets, etc) with whom each individual identifies more than other. So it is an interesting exercise for a person to identify them and then draw what conclusions may be drawn from that list about himself.

This approach has its dangers, of course. We don’t want to say person X is better than person Y for thinking in a certain way, but also, we don’t want to become relativists, saying all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. But, I think, if we realize this danger we have a good chance of avoiding it.

So what writers do I most identify with?

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, obviously, though perhaps less so than a few years ago.
  • Herman Melville, whose philosophy I disagree with in many ways but whose approach to the world feels very similar to mine.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry resonates with me in a way few others’ does.
  • Thomas Aquinas, whose dry, Q/A approach to theology I recognize as flawed, but whose systematic nature is very similar to my own.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I have not read much of but who I feel like I understand more than really any other modern philosopher.

What do these people have in common? I have a few theories:

  • They are interested in the self, and how the self relates to the world. Melville’s Moby-Dick is about, among many other things, how man attributes his own symbols and meaning to the world at large, and attempts to make himself omniscient and omnipotent; Hopkins’ most important poems all deal with both the self taking in all of creation and the self isolated, cut off from nature; and Aquinas and Wittgenstein, given their fields of study, are almost forced to address this question.
  • They are interested in the world itself, and do not approach the world purely phenomenologically; they give the world an independent existence, which they examine as interesting in its own right. Tolkien created an entire mythology; Melville spends pages upon pages in Moby-Dick describing whale skeletons and the history of whaling; Hopkins tried to understand the inscape of things by examining them until he almost became them; and Aquinas followed Aristotle in categorizing all of nature.
  • They have a  real sense of the divine in nature; as my German teacher told us  the Romantics said, “Natur ist sichtbare Geist, Geist ist unsichtbare Natur.” Tolkien has the concept of faerie, Melville has the Whale as a symbol for God; Hopkins’ entire worldview was based around the idea of sacramentality, and similarly for Aquinas; and Wittgenstein’s one statement about prayer, as I recall, involved a man walking in the woods pounding his walking stick.
  • They are fascinated by language, and the power of words, rather than passively using language without examining its nature. Tolkien was a linguist; Hopkins made up his own words and cared immensely about how words could carry meaning; and Wittgenstein said that “there is an entire mythology stored within our language.”

There are also a few writers who, although clearly great, I do not really identify with. The two most important, I think, are

  • Plato. Why? Because, I suppose, he is too much an idealist for me; he refuses to deal with the world. He skips straight to the isolated self.
  • And Dostoevsky. Why? Because he also refuses to take on the world, dealing only with people and God; his books are about morality and inter-personal relationships, but never about the larger world.

Well then. What does this tell us? If there is any conclusion to be drawn from it, it is that I am a realist; I refuse to allow people to ignore the world, and I identify most with writers who have the same preoccupation with the world itself, rather than ideas.

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