Spacing Out: How Being ‘Far Out’ Brings the World Nearer

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Classically, philosophers have a reputation for being a little spacey.  Thales, who is considered the first philosopher, fell into a well in the 6th century B.C. while staring up at the stars, only to discover that everything was water.  This ungrounded discovery of the ground of everything caused a number of slave girls nearby to giggle.

Socrates, too, was considered an airhead.  In Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, Socrates floats overhead in a balloon basket, getting high so he can elevate his thoughts.  At first this seems to mean his wisdom is not down-to-earth.  On the other hand, it is only from Socrates’ ivory tower (or basket) that he can put the earth into perspective.  Having his head in the clouds grounds him.

Head of Socrates, 1st c. A.D., Palazzo Massimo

Another prejudice against philosophers:  they are stereotypically ugly.  This is again particularly true of Socrates, who seems to evince all the unsavory aspects of an examined life.  In fact, Socrates’ nose was so pugged that Aristotle used it as an example of the concave and the convex.  Anyway, philosophers are not supposed to pay attention to appearances.  They are supposed to be deep.

This goes back to the famous “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, or, in modern terms, between literature and literary critics.  The philosopher seeks to expose the foundation of reality, while the poet wishes to preserve the veneer of appearance.

Yet, if the two are so separate, who is responsible for the prejudice against whom?  Prejudices by their very nature require a presumption based on how something looks, not how it is.  And, if it is supposed to be what is on the inside that counts, how can we ever get an inside without going through an outside?

To see how things are, we must look at them through their appearances.  This is the shallow way in which we access depth.  There is no neutral looking.  The high is linked to the low, as the shallow to the deep.

Aurora over Valkeakoski, Finland, September 15, 2000

Rather than lead us down a rabbit hole of relativity, this caveat on truth roots its ingenuity.   Philosophers must extra-spect in order to intro-spect.  To be a good looker you must be able to look at your own look.  To be sure, there is a certain vanity in self-denial (that is, looking at yourself as if you had a third eye), but it is the vanity of a space cadet—a metaphorical vanity—which is interesting in its absent-minded ground.

The very word “metaphor” means “carrying beyond.”  Metaphors carry us away from our subject under the auspices of pinpointing it.  Words can be knives and hearts can break, not just because we are carried away, but also to bring us closer to home.

So, the seemingly superficial appearance of the self pointing at itself must point beyond the self.  We can only look at ourselves by looking beyond ourselves.  Being “far out” brings the world nearer.  This is not so much vanity as a curiosity about how we look.