When Einstein met Tagore: Intro to Reality 101

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore (the luminary-est of many luminaries) met in 1930 in Berlin through a common friend, Dr Mendel (himself an eminent Neurologist and Psychiatrist).

There ensued between them a conversation meandering over the nature of Truth, Beauty, Divinity, Music and glancing upon the different facets of philosophy. There was Science, Spirituality, Poetry and Art. There was a discussion on the subjectivity and apparent illusion of our human perception, and our human penchant for trying to understand the consciousness of the ‘universe’ and describing its intricacies within the limits permitted by the human language.

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The endeavour of the coming article series for this week is to run through this conversational transcript recorded more than 80 years ago. It attempts elaboration of snippets and quotes from it against a philosophical background; for much of what they said very many years ago provides fodder even today for the basic study of Existentialism. This philosophy is of the view that all humans define their meaning in life, and seek to extract rationality from a universe that seems to be irrational.  Existentialism says that every individual matter and that there has to be an interpretation of our existence in this world to lay a foundation for our very thinking.

The concept of Existentialism is something we have all grappled with, irrespective of quantifiable intelligence, gender, age, sexual orientation and nationality. It tries to awaken us from the auto-pilot stupor created by us that we lie in more often than not, and attempt to break free from living our lives from a place of Pavlovian conditioning.

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To ask ‘What is philosophy?’ is in itself a philosophical question because it simply cannot be enunciated upon in a definitive matter. It has a very elusive self-definition, but in general, the study of Human philosophy, though vast, can be arguably distilled into the following streams:

  • Metaphysics: a study of the nature of being and existence, and the nature of perception of existence. It grapples with the very ‘structure’ of reality and is a term often melded with the discourse of spirituality
  • Epistemology ( a term Ayn Rand readers would be familiar with): seeks to answer the question, ‘ How do I know what I know is true?’. It concerns the very theory of acquiring knowledge and constructing moulds to retain knowledge
  • Ethics: the branch that seeks to define ‘moral values’ despite the meandering and alarmingly subjective nature of the same. This branch is considered to be a foundation for the establishment of any civilized society
  • Aesthetics: the study of Beauty and our varied perception of the same. This seeks to define the ‘standards’ of our taste in Art after attempting to question the very existence of Art

Philosophy’s aim, in my opinion: is to cultivate a mind that is insatiable enough to admit that ideas and theories are all very Protean, and thus recognizes the  imbibing of  a multitude of viewpoints to be  a pursuit meritorious in itself.

For example: consider this question that glances upon metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology at the same time.129existentialism

Is a flower beautiful if no one notices it?

Let’s start dissecting this:

  • How do I know a flower is a flower? How do I know what I know? (Epistemology)
  • What is my definition of beauty? Who ‘assigns’ the worth associated with this beauty? (Aesthetics)
  • Is an object of any value if unnoticed? What is the nature of reality that allows such an object to exist if it isn’t even noticed at all? (Metaphysics)

One of the beauties of philosophy is that it creates motifs that are relevant in a variety of sceneries.  It is like dipping a paintbrush dabbed with paint into a cup of water. It permeates all throughout, but blends in so well that you cannot pinpoint the exact distinct molecules. It is indiscernible. There is both: the cognitive and the emotional.

 So, let’s pick a scenario. If you happen to be indulging in something as normal as working a corporate job ( the assumption being that it has multiple layers of a hierarchy), you would have thought of what the above question denotes sooner or later without even realizing it. And yes, elaborate I will.

The above question about the flower can be morphed and presented in a number of ways:

  • Does my work(flower) have worth(beauty) if my boss doesn’t notice it in the first place?
  • Can I tell myself that I have worked if my work is assigned no value(beauty) by an external party?
  • Can I (the flower) be the one who notices the value of my own work (beauty)? Does that count?
  • What if someone who is not a supervisor of mine notices my work? Can he assign merit (beauty) to my work (flower)?
  • Does my work (flower) have any value at all if everyone claims it does not? Does a flower cease to exist at all if it cannot transcend the most basic and important qualification of being beautiful?

Once you notice how eye-opening it is to keep dissecting statements that seem so placid and concrete on the surface, you simply cannot escape the grip of asking philosophical questions. So, the next time you find yourself idle, pick a thought going through your head and dissect it, and inspect its very organs. I assure you, the process will be stimulating. So this week, go deep within yourself and question everything.

About Shibani Chattopadhyay

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