The Experience Of An Idea

I was sitting outside enjoying an espresso when I found myself thinking a thought I’ve had before: all this — all this humanity with its fears and loves and desires; all this pavement and blue jeans and tequila and American Idol: all this is the great swirl of stuff continuous with the gyrations of the cosmos at every level — from solar flares and asteroid fields and black holes to viruses and cells and strands of DNA. We are not distinct from the cosmos, actors on the stage of the world. We are stuff, as viscous as lava and hard as granite and moving along and with EVERYTHING.

And then I thought of what a friend of mine might say: So what? What does thinking this do for you?

And so I considered what was happening as I thought my thought. What happens when you have an idea? I don’t mean how you came up with the idea or how the idea came to you. I mean: what is the experience of actually having that idea?

I believe an idea is a kind of image — an image of the world. When I sit there thinking about the continuous swirl of life, I see the world that way, I perceive it that way. And this particular idea — this particular image, this particular perceptive experience — thrills me. My heart pounds a little harder, my adrenaline pumps and my senses seethe. The experience of having this thought is exhilarating.

Is my thought, my idea, true? Well, it bears a strange relationship to the world. From an abstract perspective, this thought is of course part of the world. But it has a stranger relationship to the world than say, a mug, which is part of the world, too. An idea entails a kind of measuring up, an act of arranging and rearranging parts — history, human bodies, scientific knowledge, literature, all of civilization, astronomy, botany, biology, desire.

In this very act of having the thought — which is the very act of arranging and re-arranging parts — I am feeling for the thought’s coherence, its tenacity, and perhaps its efficacy: Does it work? Does it literally make sense? This is all to say that having an idea, a certain kind of idea, entails a truth experience: Yes! That’s it!

Do all thoughts demand or involve a kind of truth experience? When I try to make sense of someone else’s thought — let’s choose Descartes — do I size up the cogito to the world? I suppose I do and I suppose that involves a certain truth experience. I am not saying I believe or disbelieve in the veracity of the Cartesian cogito; I am saying that when I think that thought I can see — yes, see — how the world could be that way.

The difference between me thinking Decartes’ cogito and me thinking about the continuous swirl of life is that I experience them in very different ways — much as I experience Van Gogh differently than I experience Warhol.

One thing that becomes clear — sort of — is that an idea is not a structure per se but the act of structuring. It is an event — and a strange kind of event at that. It is palpable, somatic, yet invisible. It is an image that has some of its own texture but borrows most of its percepts from the world.

Of course, there are practical implications of an idea. That is, if we think there is a true self separate from the world we act differently than if we believe that the self is how it goes. Foucault shows how an entire medical-disciplinary regime turns on such thoughts.

Am I dodging the question of thoughts vs. beliefs? I don’t think so; I think — I think, yes — that I am trying to understand how a thought becomes a belief. A belief is a thought for which we have a truth experience that also feels good — which makes belief an aesthetic experience of an idea.

Am I too readily conflating ideas, thoughts, and concepts? Probably. I need to keep thinking. TC mark


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  • JJ

    Great stuff, as usual Coffeen! 

  • guest

    you write thick prose without it getting bogged down.  nice

  • Ahmad Radheyyan

    this is beautiful. thanks.

  • Ahmad Radheyyan

    this is beautiful. thanks.

  • Jordan

    Still needs time to settle on my brain, but thank you for your thoughts.  And ideas.

  • Michael Lynch

    Some people will like this kind of ambiguity but I much prefer clarity.  This is too unorganized for my liking. It reads like a messy stream of consciousness without any sort of structure. As it stands, I feel that there are more words than there is meaning, which is often the case when you’re just spitting out ideas. I think I’d understand what your saying much better with some further editing.  For instance, it would be nice to get explanations of the theories you’ve referenced, even if brief. However, what I did gather from this after reading it through twice and picking out particular parts was:

    – Ideas are not objects but events.
    – Ideas are the arranging and re-arranging of parts.
    – Ideas are experienced in different ways.
    – Ideas have implications depending on how you define yourself.
    – Not all ideas are beliefs but all beliefs are ideas.

    Correct me if I’m wrong because quite frankly, I’m not even sure if the points I’ve listed are what you were getting at, which is why I mentioned some further editing could strengthen the piece.

    • Danie Coffeen

      The lack of clarity is, alas, a sign of success — for me at this juncture. I am trying hard to shed my academic training, to think through writing, to write true essays, tries, attempts, to let writing and experience and thinking marble and risk incoherence…..I wasn’t getting after anything other than the intersection of thinking and language.

      • Meursault

        Who is Danie Coffeen? Regardless, the comment of shedding academic training reminds me of my thoughts on the status of academic training in my life. I like Aristotle here: sure the really good life might be pure philosophical thought, there is a place for this, but we need also engage in action, in the practical life. To be capable of moving from one framework of existing to the other as the situation calls for is where I am at. Be lost in thought, in logos, then lost in making do, or persuading  and being persuaded. Perhaps a metaphor will help: thoughts and ways of thinking as tools: they have their specific uses and help us out when put to proper use, but they can also be fun and silly like when we use sledge to smash watermelons. Yes, that’s right, Gallagher follows from Aristotle.

  • Guest

    meh, fuck thinking, let’s go get drunk and punch each other in the dick

  • Dave P

    An event is something that happens in the actual world, producing effects that are visible and long-lasting. In this sense, an idea is like an event in the mind of the thinker who thinks it. But to say that it IS an event is, indeed, something of a conflation. Thoughts are not visible or perceptible to others; only actions are. It is probably more accurate to say that they are event precursors, structuring the field of possibility for action.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I see your point but I’m not sure an event must produce visible effects or be long-lasting (although perhaps you mean longer than the millisecond of the thought).  I like to think that affective flow, as well as thinking, are events — even if not visible to others. And that they are a kind of action. 

      In fact, I think events are always invisible; effects are not always invisible.  The jury says “Guilty” — an action — but the event of transforming the individual from civilian to prisoner is invisible — although there are obvious visible effects…..

      • Dave P

        Events are always invisible?

      • Daniel Coffeen

        In one model of the event, yes: it is the happening, the invisible transformation of bodies, not the transformation itself.  But, again, there are different models of the event — I wrestle with them…I present this as an idea, not an opinion….  I sometime use wind as an example: is the wind the rustling of leaves? Or is that the effect of the wind which is, in fact, invisible? 

      • Dave P

        I prefer Badiou’s model of the event to others, and that’s the standpoint from where I’m working. The notion of an event that’s invisible or imperceptible just doesn’t make sense to me. That said, I enjoyed your piece and appreciate your Deleuzian perspective. 

        Thoughts are different.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        I’m still trying to understand Badiou.  Gimme another year or two. 

  • Anonymous

    You’re trying to express an idea in words when honestly speaking, an idea has to be expressed in real life. From the exuberance of your explanation and the enthusiasm. Ideas are as you said “images”, you can describe them but you won’t ever be able to capture the real essence of it. Just a random thought. Btw my answer to “So what?” is probably just the fact that I enjoy thinking.

  • Guest

    I LOVE the idea for this article, but I’d love even more to see it progress.  Maybe write “The Experience of An Idea” once a month just to see how it progresses.  It would definitely be an interesting series to reflect on, but I always think it would be telling as a writer to revisit.  Just something to consider.

    • Guest

      *also not always. Dammit, I got too excited.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Totally agree…had the same thought…..thanks for the suggestion

  • Martin Heidegger


    • D. Coffeen

      Fuck Heidegger.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        While those are my sentiments, I didn’t write that. An impostor! On the interweb!

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