Hermann Hesse, Narcissus & Goldmund (Visual vs. Pure Thinking)

“…there is one thing I still can’t get through my head: the thing you call ‘pure thinking.’ I mean your so-called thinking without images, and the use of words with which one cannot imagine anything.”

“Well, you’ll be able to understand it with an example. Think of mathematics. What kind of images do figures contain? Or the plus and minus signs? What kind of images does an equation contain? None. When you solve a problem in arithmetic or algebra, no image will help you solve it, you execute a formal task within the codes of thought that you have learned.”

“That’s right, Narcissus. If you give me a row of figures and symbols, I can work through them without using my imagination, I can let myself be guided by plus and minus, square roots, and so on… But I can’t imagine that solving such a formal problem can have any other value than exercising a student’s brain. It’s all right to learn how to count. But I’d find it meaningless and childish if a man spent his whole life counting and covering paper with rows of figures.”

“You are wrong, Goldmund. You assume that this zealous problem-solver continuously solves problems a teacher poses for him. But he can also ask himself questions; they can arise within him as compelling forces. A man must have measured and puzzled over much real and much fictitious space mathematically before he can risk facing the problem of space itself.”

“Well, yes. But attacking the problem of space with pure thought does not strike me as an occupation on which a man should waste his work and years. The word ‘space’ means nothing to me and is not worth thinking about unless I can imagine real space, say the space between stars; now, studying and measuring star space does not seem an unworthy task to me.”

Smilingly, Narcissus interrupted: “You are actually saying that you have a rather low opinion of thinking, but a rather high one of the application of thought to the practical, visible world. I can answer you: we lack no opportunities to apply our thinking, nor are we unwilling to do so. The thinker Narcissus has, for instance, applied the results of his thinking a hundred times to his friend Goldmund… and does so at every instant. But how would be be able to ‘apply’ something if he had not learned and practiced it before? And the artist also constantly exercises his eye and imagination, and we recognize this training, even if it finds realization only in a few good works. You cannot dismiss thinking as such and sanction only its ‘application’!… So let me go on thinking and judge my thoughts by their results, as I shall judge your art by your works…”

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