Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Building an important space

Professor Charlie Huenemann reading outside his
 Philosopher's Hut.
It probably isn't always true, but sometimes the shape of your workplace mirrors the shape and order of your mind. This makes sense. For the mind is in constant interaction with its environment. Mind raises a question, or is seized by a problem, and Eyes, Feet, Mouth, and Hands take their orders and spring into action.

Over time, pencils or computers or special books come to be arranged within reach, spaces are cleared for work, and the piles on desks begin to conform to your own mental categories. In a short while, your office becomes a portrait of your mind. Others might find it messy, but that's only because their minds follow a different organizational pattern. Indeed, some philosophers have gone so far as to write of "the extended mind," enlarging the domain of the mind to include laptops, chalkboards, cell phones, or anything that is just as readily employed in your intelligent actions as any lobe of your brain.

So when we sold our 1959 Airstream, I knew we would be building a Philosopher's Hut. It was into the Airstream that I would retreat precisely so that my extended mind would be cut off from some of its more distracting organs. In the Airstream I had a notebook, a pen, a pipe, and a troublesome book. That was it. Some might call it a monk's cell or a hermitage or an ashram, but in fact it was for me a portal through which I could escape the ring tones and shadow games of Plato's Cave and feel, for a little while, that I was part of a larger project: namely, that of crafting meaning out of an enduring human experience. (That probably also explains why I made the career choice I did.) Entering it was a way of changing my mind, in the sense of tuning it to a channel that runs deep.

That wasn't the only function of the Airstream. It also was a place for guys to congregate and smoke cigars and drink whisky and tell dirty jokes. This too was an occasion to enter into a different universe of thought, if you'll forgive me for over-thinking this a bit. When guys congregate in such circumstances, they tend to probe at the meaning of life, though of course the topic never comes up explicit discussion. (These are guys, after all.) They enter into a special environment, losing themselves in things that are roundly forbidden in this day and age, and they emerge in a condition dimly similar to that of an initiate into the rites at Eleusis. Well, okay: it's really not that big of a deal. Lives and rebirths tend to be smaller and more sensible these days.

I hired my friend Joe to build the Hut, and he patiently taught my son Ben and me to measure twice, cut once, and hammer straight. It was gratifying to see his enthusiasm for the project grow as he learned it was not to be a shed, nor a playhouse, but a Philosopher's Hut. He grasped the significance immediately. This was to be a place where Important Things would be Thought, though to all the world it would look just like a Guy in a Shed with a Book.

Soon after the last nail was driven I began to move in a desk, chalkboard, shelf, and my collection of 28 rotary dials. (Don't ask; nobody understands it.) As I settled in, the furniture gradually shifted into different places, and diagrams appeared on the chalkboard, until I felt I was in the right place. And now, as with the old Airstream, I can enter into it and rapidly lose parts of my mind, if you know what I mean.

No doubt some thinkers are less fragile. They can direct their attention wherever they want, whenever they want, and they don't need any kind of shed to do it. Bless them. For the rest of us, I recommend listening closely to those feelings you might have that vaguely suggest you need to be in a slightly different environment; that you need a rocking chair, or a standing desk; that, for some unknown reason, you would think more clearly if you had a yo-yo in your hand. The brain is an organic organ, and the mind is no less organic, and it's good to provide it with the right environment for its own pattern of growth. You never know what you might find in your Hut - an idea, a purpose, a meaning. Bon voyage.

- Charlie Huenemann
 USU professor of philosophy, associate dean of CHaSS

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