Sensitivity

When done well, philosophy does two things: it shows how two similar things are actually rather different, and it shows how two different things are actually rather similar.

This is an essay about the second class of philosophy.

We generally think of cooking, gardening, dancing, painting, building, parenting, and writing as having nothing in common. Some are done sitting down, others standing up, some in the dirt, others on a canvas. Yet, when we strive to be good at any of them, we are nurturing a quality which applies to all of them. That particular quality is sensitivity.

Consider the case of cooking.

Being able to follow a recipe and even to make a delicious meal does not make me a goodcook. While it suggests I can follow instructions, copy examples, and perform simple measurements, it does not necessarily follow from this that I am good at cooking. For what makes one good at cooking – as opposed to being good at following instructions – is not only knowing how to chop thyme and braise chicken, but how these two flavours complement each other, about how certain flavours, textures, tastes, and smells balance and contradict, conflict and complement each other; and in the process, develop a deep appreciation for the harmony and internal coherence found in the sensual universe of tastes and textures. Following recipes may help me learn how to prepare sauces, season roasts, toss salads, and pickle & preserve, but only once I do these from the wellspring of my soul and with insight into the harmony of tastes, smells, sights and textures will I move from cooking good food, to being a good cook.

To take another example,

Painting a picture that is pleasing to the eye does not necessarily make one a good painter. After all, a good painter may create a painting considered offensive, while an elephant may slap paint on a whim over a canvas and make something ostensibly pleasing. A good painter is not judged by the outcome but instead by the process of their art. As such, what sets a good painter apart from a regular or even a bad painter is precisely this: an appreciation and sensitivity to the way different colours influence and blend; enhance and transmute – that is, sensitivity to the inner working relationships of the art.

Now, while the painter and cook (and parent, gardener, and writer) are sensitive to their own particular experiences – the cook to tastes and textures, the painter to colours and strokes – they are categorically sensitive to much the same thing. They are sensitive to the rhythms and relationships found within their art, and like the musician, they seek harmony, striving always for coherence and wholeness.

One cannot be sensitive from a distance (either emotional, psychological, and sensual). The essential relationship of an artist to their art is defined by such proximity, such intimacy, that the separation between cook and cooked, between painter and painted, disappears. The false duality between subject and object disappears and all that is left is process. Found here is a quality evocative of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He writes,

Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.

Here, to care is synonymous with being sensitive, and to be sensitive is merely the outward aspect of an internal quality. To the extent we are more sensitive, the quality of our art increases.

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh

The good parent is sensitive to their child’s thoughts and feelings, the good gardener is sensitive to their plants fluctuating needs, the good architect is sensitive to proportion and ratio in buildings, and the good writer is sensitive to the clear expression a thought demands.

In this light, sensitivity entails a proximity allowing one to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel that which otherwise goes unnoticed – a second rate synonym, a mismatched angle, a slightly too salty dish – by those for whom sensitivity to a certain practice is non-existent. Of course, sensitivity does not constitute being good at something; that also requires dedication, effort, and consistency. The point, rather, is that sensitivity is the precondition for good practice.

Being a good cook looks different to being a good musician, and both look different to being a good writer. However, on closer inspection, each artist (and here, everyone, from the musician, to the architect, to the parent, is an artist) is focused always on a sense of harmony and internal coherence which begins only and always, with being sensitive to the landscape and rhythms of their art.

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