A Case For Philosophical Moonlighting

Light has often been used a metaphor for truth, knowledge and enlightenment. To take it to extreme, we can envision our sun as a representation of “the” Truth, the ultimate conceptualization of reality as we know it.

As humans with a limited perspective on the world around us we continue to search for scraps and clues about the sort of existence we are living. Developing or adopting a philosophy brings with it a road-map to help us make our way at night. When the light of truth isn’t apparent, then our philosophy is like the moon, reflecting the truth to us in the darkness.

Leveraging the wisdom of others we are able to see a path forward as well as some of the obstacles in the way. Philosophy, like the moon, comes to us from a fixed perspective. In order to utilize the knowledge and experience that are contained within, it must necessarily be grounded within a context and history. From this context we can extrapolate about our own lives, but will always come up against areas that our philosophy cannot illuminate.

If we could move the light around at will, we would be able to eventually see all that there is to see, but that just isn’t the way it works. True, with time, the experience of our lives acts as the turning of the earth, and our relationship with our chosen philosophy will naturally change. Over the course of our time in this world we will experience times when our philosophy is bright and clear, and times when it is obscured by clouds. Times when it is waxing and on the ascendance and times when it is waning and about to abandon us to the dark.

Unlike the moon we are not tied to the reflective properties of only one philosophy. We are free to sample from the broad range of human experience and perspective. A key point to keep in mind about life philosophy is that it is meant to be a lived an experienced tradition. The writing and thinking itself cannot provide the same perspective as will come when one takes the time to explore and experience some of the practices in daily life.

Much Western thinking has a problem with identity politics and the need to belong to a specified label in order to fit in. Many people may find it uncomfortable to read works from the thinkers who have come out of other traditions and to adopt practices that don’t easily fit in with how they see their current philosophical or religious identity. Ideas do not come with true labels, however, and the beauty of our situation now, with many people sheltering in place and maintaining their social distance, is that it is a perfect time to indulge in explorations that may not fit comfortably in with what others think of you. Just like the taking on of an extra job outside of your listed career, I encourage anyone to use this time for some philosophical moonlighting.

I, for one, have been thinking quite a lot about my own two poles of philosophy: stoicism and Taoism, chosen because of their strong resonances but also as a conscious split of the “West” and “East”. This, of course, if a false dichotomy. I am very interested in exploring philosophical traditions that have arisen in other cultures which do not have the developed social awareness here in the West, especially African thought. I will hopefully have some more experiences and resources to share as I dig in and see what new perspectives I can find.

Humans will continue to keep asking questions in order to understand the sort of life we are living. The questioning may be very different, but the answer will be the same for everyone. No matter how many moons you have hanging in your sky, then will all be reflecting the same light, and illuminating your path, and showing just a bit more of the landscape we are all wandering within.

I hope that you and yours are well and safe. If you are interested in learning some more about Stoicism or Taoism I can recommend a couple of good introductions for each. If you have a good introductory book for any other school of thought I would love to hear about it and add it to my list, and my collection of moons for this strange dim time.

Taoism Resources:

  • “Tao The Watercourse Way” by Alan Watts, Book.
  • “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, Book.
  • What’s This Tao All About“, Podcast.

Stoicism Resources:

Shared Vision: The work of Keld Helmer-Petersen

Making connections between disparate things, be they ideas or objects, has always had a special kind of fascination for me. Unlike comparing apples to apples, I think it can be much more enlightening seeing apples and oranges together.

In a previous post about the work of photographer Brett Wilson a generous reader clued me in to the work of another photography I had not yet encountered, a Dane named Keld Helmer-Petersen.

Keld took up a camera in the late 1930s and never put it down. He seemed to enjoy experimenting with a broad range of subject matter and technique. It seems from what I have yet explored of his images that his approach to photography was about a project much larger than the final result of any given image. He wasn’t trying to create a certain photograph at the end of the day, he was using photography itself as means to explore the world around him in all of its various forms.

His collected photographs are hosted online through the Royal Danish Library. In this time of social distancing and limited ability to get outside and make images of my own, I have found Keld’s images resonate quite deeply with the way I see the world.

There seems to be no organization to the online database of his photos, which highlights to me the eclectic and wide-ranging set of interests that grabbed Keld’s attention. The things that seemed to catch his attention weren’t the subjects of the scene so much as the relationships between various elements. He captured odd angles of buildings, light and angles, shadows of things as opposed to the things themselves, as well as a whole lot of experimentation with light and image made photographically without cameras.

The way he composes scenes showcases a way of seeing that calls to attention gestalt qualities occurring accidentally, unintentional forms arising out of unique arrangements of buildings and industrial forms.

For me, going through the back log of his work has been a surreal and striking experience. Like the interactions between abstract forms in his photographs, I find myself resonating and relating to his work quite strongly. The description that came to mind was described in a paper by Einstein in which he described “spooky action at a distance”, two particles sharing properties and influencing each other without any direct connection, often separated by vast amounts of space.

This is someone who shares a way of seeing that I can relate to. I can imagine myself taking the pictures that he has taken, and I can see what I think he was trying to capture in those same images.

The experience of making these sorts of connections is more than simply camaraderie, more than a knowing wink and a nod. To share this way of seeing with another artist is like being inside of them. It is an experience of deep sympathy and resonance. We are all ultimately looking to know that there are other people in the world who can relate to us in a meaningful way, and I am beginning to see the broad swath of art as the only real means of finding these visceral connections.

In this time while most of us are spending time sheltering in place and keeping our distance from one another. How vital to continue sharing work that can build these connections over great distance and even gulfs of time, so that we can find others that see how we see and let us know that we are never alone.

If nothing else I am about 2000 images into his collection, and there are more than 18,000 hosted to go through, which should keep me busy.


Keld Helmer-Peterson on Wikipedia

Collection of photographs hosted by the Royal Danish Library. This resource has an incredible amount of collected media beyond images including writing and visual arts. Though much of the site is in Danish, this is still a wonderful place to explore while sheltering in place.