Friday, February 7, 2014

Richard Feynman and close reading

Richard Feynman speaking:

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. And he says, “You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is. But you as a scientist take this all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people, and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting: it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
I find in this passage a helpful argument for the value of close reading. Flower: poem. To look at a poem closely is to deepen its excitement, mystery, and capacity to inspire awe.

Here is Feynman speaking. I found my way to this clip via a Jason Kottke post unrelated to poetry. The transcription and punctuation are mine.

Related reading
All OCA poetry posts (Pinboard)
Richard Feynman on honors

comments: 2

JuliaR said...

There is real value to some close reading, I agree. I did a line by line reading of one section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and while it took me hours and hours, I know that part better than any other. Plus, you know Kant was sitting there writing it out by hand on a piece of paper with a pen he probably dipped, so that was the pace to read it at.

Anonymous said...

A careful listening to Feynman's talk yields this last quote. "When you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe." Given that in time since then the artificial intelligence community has begun to model belief as a part of the computational model, Feynman's concern about belief seems odd, especially when he uses the word, "soul," earlier in the talk. Soul is about as unscientific a notion as I can imagine in this context, and suggests that Feynman conflated doubt with an absence of belief, while I equate it from a later AI perspective with a sign of the belief "module" at work on unsupported propositions (ref. Dunlop and Fetzer on Cognitive Science, 1993). Feynman evidenced one obvious marker of belief by using the word "soul" as he did. But as to doubt, most classical theologians and philosophers have embedded in their work notions of doubt as related to belief, not a lack of belief. Would this be close listening, akin to close reading? Thanks for the post.