Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Standing Alone

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 03, 2005

I find myself standing alone a lot, lost in my own thoughts, and it from time to time crosses my mind: what do great thinkers think about when they stand alone?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example: a former prisoner of war, master logician and theorist of language (whose mere thoughts would likely have been themselves a masterpiece, were they to be captured and printed), possibly gay (and who would have witnessed the destruction of colleague Alan Turing from close range). What would go through his mind? When he stood alone and looked at a tree or a squirrel or the rowers on the canal, what questions would go through his mind?

Or in a similar vein, Albert Einstein, famous for his 'though experiments' regarding the nature of the speed of light - these most probably would have occupied him as we waited for the bus or taxi, or stood in line at the bank. While the rest of us think about what we're having for supper or whether the books will balance at the end of the week, what would einstein be thinking about?

Do they ponder their place in history? Run through mathematical equations? Write their forthcoming texts in their head? Or do they empty themselves of thought, achieving peace through satori? When Bertrand Russell went to the bathroom (presumably alone) did he review in his mind the great discussions of the past, did he ponder his next move in the interminable discussion with Whitehead?

Here's what I think: that they thought of all these things, and more, their personal thoughts a vivid mosaic of abstract expressionism, formulae and calculations, internal dialogues, topics randing from the abstruse to the mundane. That they were, first and foremost, human beings, and when alone with their thoughts must need have dealt with their very human condition.

And that there is a time when such minds, when they stand alone, speak to and are accountable only to themselves, when they think about what is good, and right, and important.

This I think accounts for the fact that the vast majority of these great thinkers - all of them, I think - eventually evolved into what is oft-times thought of as a 'radical' philosophy. Because when a great mind turns only to itself for counsel, certain things emerge as self-evident: the need for peace in the world, the imperative to reduce suffering, the fundamental humanity of all who walk this planet, the sameness that defines each of us, from the greatest thinker to the tiniest baby. Great thinkers understand best and most of all, I think, how little they differ from those assigned a more mundane place in history, and would be accutely aware of the accident and happenstance that put themselves in a position to be, in fact, great thinkers.

It is when you think that you are (or should be) special or privileged that you are willing to tolerate the inequities and inhumanities necessary to place you in such a position; but when you are special or privileged, through your own merit and through the twists and turns of history, you understand that the inequalities and inhumanities that create such privilege are intolerable.

Because, when you have only yourself to account for, when you see only yourself in the mirror, then awareness or tolerance of inequities or inhumanities cut like a knife. They diminish you, devalue everything you believe and have worked for, make you less of a person.

Standing alone, the only merit stems what what you've become, and none from what you have abased. And when this is the only standard that matters, the philosphies don't seem so radical any more, rather, the world merely more intolerable.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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