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Author Archives: kjirsten severson

kjirsten severson is from the magical Black Hills of South Dakota and currently resides in Portland. She began her official journey into philosophy in graduate school, first in Washington, DC and then in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh had a particularly undeniable impact on her. Studying philosophy within the environment of a stunned and stunning city proved a potent opportunity to feel her humanity rawly and with a sweet, sharp poignancy, so much so, she felt completely altered, and unpredictably, even to herself, dropped out of her PhD program after three years. Before leaving Pittsburgh for an extended road trip with no return date, she was given a Smith&Corona typewriter by Eileen Keelan. After three or four months on the road (she can’t remember), her van broke down in Portland, OR, land of the unemployed over-educated. She was home for the third time in her life. Without the demands of a regular job and thanks to generous friends, kjirsten began typing on the typewriter in her studio apartment overlooking NE 9th and Roselawn. First annoyed by the little “nothings” that seemed to be piling up, she gradually began to see what they were doing. Awed and humbled, she stopped resisting. The result is a 350 page manuscript she hopes to publish under the title, an unnarrated memoir. This art project is the first step to realizing that desire, along with her wish to create a “walking book” – an installation of the first chapter from an unnarrated memoir.

In last month’s post, we traced the circular relationship between experience and the first principles of logic (the fundamental principles of rational thinking that define its scope and provide the foundation from which all its further truths are formed).

In short, in our tracing, we discovered that we use reason to create knowledge about and from our experiences, but experience provides the first principles of logic which govern reasoning. We can see there is a closed, self-perpetuating “loop” within this story, limited to these variables. Rather than find this revelation to be disconcerting, I find it to be a powerful discovery:

Our awareness of this circular relationship shows us that the “truth” of our intellectual and sensual perceptions is dependent on what I make of it all, dependent on what you make of it all, dependent on what each person makes of it all . . . in other words, our intellectual and empirical “truths” are dependent upon what we imagine to be happening.

It shows us that imagination is necessarily a part of human understandings, truths, beliefs, perceptions and sensations. And for me this means that my imagination is a powerful contributor to the “reality” I live and to the world I co-create. My experiences are not “purely” themselves – they belong to me, and I am a rich field. My experiences are laden with what I make of them, sometimes before they even occur. Simply put by Ruth Benedict’s quote from last month, they are mostly imagination.

Imagination functions by reading symbols. Think of a child playing dolls. It doesn’t matter if these are GI Joe dolls or Barbie dolls. The child plays “stories” with these dolls. These stories are not perfect replications of the child’s own experiences, or even of experiences that children have witnessed on TV or in film. They are fabrications based on the symbolism found within their experiences/observations of a soldier, of a mother, of a teenager, of friendship, and so on. Children draw on those symbols via their imaginations and create experiences for their dolls in a story.

A more academic example could be our past discussion of taking our particular experiences and creating universal rules of guidance. We discussed how experience is necessarily “smaller” than a universal principle or rule. Yet, we are able to generate something greater from that meager piece of information. It is imagination that steps in and fills the gap. My experience becomes a symbol, becoming “bigger” than the experience. Or in a survey study, the selected participants become a symbol for an entire group. It is our imagination that allows them to become symbols (since never could a portion of the group represent the whole group with perfect accuracy).

Imagination is already at play in how we create knowledge, we simply don’t acknowledge it. This post is an invitation to engage in an active practice of how we are imagining. The first step is to acknowledge its presence. I’ve given two examples above from our everyday lives in the context of our current culture. However, we can see that our current culture doesn’t readily acknowledge the role of imagination in “knowing”. As a result, I must ask, in what other manners does our current “cultural perception” hide the activities of symbol and imagination from our awareness?

But, this post is already quite long! Which means, yes, you know it, there will be a Part III to Knowing and Imagination! In that entry we will take a time-traveling journey to see how imagination was once a heavily recognized and valued aspect of knowledge and watch as it becomes overshadowed to the point of dismissal. . . stay tuned!


Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.

-Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)


I found the above quote in the opening pages to Euphoria by Lily King. It inspired me to tell a story, too. But this story is too long to tell in one shot, so here is the first installment.

Any “big” story found in philosophy most likely needs an introduction to the terms, rationalism and empiricism. These terms are present in philosophy and in science. Empirical science (how most of us use the word “science”) has developed stringent methods to ensure that its sampling, surveying, questioning, observations, record-keeping , interpretations and applications are done well enough so its findings can be trusted.

At the other end of science, and in the broader sense of the term, science (systematic and formulated knowledge), are the sciences that deal only with ideas, not with any observation or experience, such as mathematics and the disciplines that use math to develop knowledge beyond our ability to observe. No matter who you are, when you are, or where you are, 2+3=5. This is an example of rationalist science.

In philosophy, rationalism is defined as the school of thought that believes true knowledge and understanding come from discerning pure principles of mind, and combining those pure principles (rules, equations, laws, etc.) in order to reveal further true knowledge and understanding.

Empiricism, in philosophy, is the school that believes we can create knowledge and understanding by carefully observing our experiences. We use those experiences to reveal principles, laws and formulas.

Hopefully you’ve noticed, that both rationalism and empiricism (whether in philosophy or science) must depend upon some sort of standard of truth against which we can measure our mind’s actions and the links it makes between principles, between experiences, and between them both. There is one science whose job it is to reveal that standard: the science of logic, one of the fundamental divisions of study in philosophy.

Logic studies “the correct principles of rational thinking”. It is considered a pure science, a science of formulae, and it is normally considered the heart of rationalism. Like mathematics, logic is a body of pure ideas, principles, laws and equations. From it we derive an understanding of what can be said and still be logically supported. And thus from it, we gain our categorizations of rational versus irrational. Sane versus crazy. True versus false. Real versus hallucination.

And yes, logic is the standard that empiricists use to determine how to survey, study, question, collect, interpret and apply their observations, in other words, what they can learn from their experiences. If, in our writings, our words, our statements, our claims and our conclusions do not hold together logically when reporting our experiences, then they are flawed and the knowledge they present is considered weak. This system of using logic to derive a standard of truthfulness is fabulously useful and has given us much. However, as we’ll see below, with our recklessness, we often take more than is given.

Briefly explained, experience is what we call “particular” information. It is small – and we use it to try to make “bigger” information or universal principles (or rules) that we can trust, or in other words, that are “true” and “right”. But, experience only ever comes from a sample, or a portion of the universal. And yet we use it to try to make universal statements. We’ve learned through the study of logic that such claims of absolute truths from empirical inquiry cannot be logically supported as a sure truth. “Stretching” a small piece into a larger piece, thins its strength. The particular experience(s) cannot logically stretch into something as big as a universal law, yet I (and most likely you, too) often speak as if they can.

At most, we can make “probable” conclusions from them. And if we are careful in our inquiry, we can hope that our conclusions are “highly probable”. But, according to the universal principles of logic, never are they or will they be absolute. Never will they contain absolute certitude.

And that’s the first part of what is going to turn out to look like a catch-22.

Here is the second. Like all sciences, logic is based on a set of “first principles” – statements that define its realm and also act as the foundation from which all its further findings (truths) are built. The trick behind “first principles,” though, is that they themselves cannot be proven with absolute certitude. They are considered “self-evident” or in other words, so evident, that no one can deny them. Logic has four first principles:

  1. Identity – A thing is what it is, and not something else.
  2. The Excluded Middle – Between being and non-being, there is no middle state. It either is, or it isn’t.
  3. Sufficient Reason – Everything can be rationally explained. . . eventually.
  4. Contradiction – A thing cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time and in the same respect. Logic cannot contain contradiction.


How is it that these statements are considered “self-evident”? So obvious, so consistent that no one can deny them? They were determined as self-evident through the experiences of those that chose them and were accepted by their peers. Which shows us that for as much as both rationalism and empiricism depend upon the standard of truth provided by logic, logic depends upon experience and thus contains the uncertainty of experience. Our standard is not absolute. And we frequently have treated it as if it is. And we frequently have treated our rational and empirical “truths” as if they were absolute as well.

Now is time to begin meditating on our quote, “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination” and await for next month’s post!


Images, imagination and imago

Our Western philosophical view often includes a hierarchal perspective. One such hierarchy includes our understanding of the different components of “mind”. Both imagination and intellect have received attention, typically with “intellect” being placed in a higher position than imagination. Imagination was fundamentally understood by the highly influential philosopher, Plato, (400ish BCE) as that part of the mind that communes with images and draws information from them in order to create a low level knowing or knowledge (we can see this in the root of the word “imagination” – it comes from “images”). Intellect came to be understood as the aspect of mind that can deal with pure ideas without any experience necessary.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) gives us an example. He asks us to imagine a triangle. Close your eyes and see if you can picture, in your “mind’s eye” (your imagination) an image of a triangle. . . Done?

Good. Most likely you experienced success. Descartes suggests we can see an image of a triangle because we have seen triangles previously. Now, he asks that you close your eyes and imagine, in your mind’s eye, a 1,000 sided figure (a chiliagon). Give it a whirl. . . Done?

Well, most likely your image was funky and unclear. Again, Descartes would suggest we cannot picture, or imagine, a chiliagon since we do not see chiliagons in our everyday living. He then attempts to demonstrate, though, that we intellectually understand a chiliagon quite precisely. Without ever having experienced a 1,000 sided figure, we still know that a chiliagon is not a 999 sided figure, we know it is not a 1,001 sided figure – we understand the pure idea that it is exactly a 1,000 sided figure. We intellectually understand it in spite of our inability to picture it. Descartes uses the above example to show us that our intellect “exceeds” or is greater than our imagination.

On the other hand we have an even later philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) who suggests that imagination is our “ability to think of what is not”. With this different angle of imagination, we can see that it may be empowered to generate change in a way that intellect may not be. Intellect demands that we stay within the realm of the rationally logical. Very useful. However, at times we may wish to imagine the world or the life we want to create, rather the one that we understand to exist. Perhaps, we have been heavy-handed as of late, with the intellectual, and a little light with the imaginative. I’m here to set a balance between the two. I’d like to offer another added angle to our current communion with the word “imagination” to do so.

Imagination, as pointed out earlier, comes from the word “image”. The word “image” comes from the Latin root word “imago” which means “an imitation, a copy, an image”. Imago also gains the scientific meaning of “the final, adult, reproductive stage in the development of an insect”. Keeping our original notion of image as a copy or an imitation that gives rise to a certain knowing (such as being able to picture a triangle without an actual triangle present) and wedding it to Sartre’s “ability to think of what is not” and then adding in this notion of an imago as an adult stage, I believe we have a powerful potion to augment beauty in our experiences of being human:

Imagination may be seen as a web of super highways, an aura of your inner-world going out and greeting your external presence in the world we share and vice versa. I drink in my experiences as a body-observer-experiencer in this external world (your house, the coffee shop, work, the sidewalk, the street). My imagination helps me to turn those experiences into nutrients to enrich my being (my being a body with a sense of self, and also my being a human in the world-hive of other humans, plants, animals, insects, things).

Likewise, my inner-world is delivered into the external world via my imagination. My imagination helps me shape that world into morsels that I believe may nourish and enrich that external world (you, the social institutions, the infrastructure, the technology) which we have a vested interested in nurturing since we drink in our environment daily.

Children are potent seeds in that environment. Children soak in their environment as their little bodyminds are crazy hungry for nourishment. They are growing. And they are tomorrow’s planet. I suggest it is through our imaginations that we can become the adults that children need us to be. I appreciate the world we’ve inherited – the infrastructure, the services, the community and the technology. I also know it comes with many sharp edges and blunt objects which cause harm to little bodyminds born into it. I believe balancing our rational edges with our imagination can bring a world that is consciously designed to nurture children’s development, emotional, spiritual and rational.

Imagination must have blank canvas in order to play. When we tightly construct “the world as it is” in our minds (and bodies and lives), we give ourselves very little wiggle room for imaginative play. This art project attempts to illuminate the blank canvas that is necessarily behind all of our constructions. Thus we always-already have access to the blank canvas required for imagination to come into greater action. All that is required is a willingness to believe that behind all our constructions (language, societal institutions, facts) there is canvas, an eternal stretch of canvas that invites us to play in, around, behind, beyond those constructions. With this tool, we can invite children into the world “as it is” with much more creative ability – an ability that will enrich how they experience their lives. We can “play” with a wisdom to be mindful that above all, we are guardians of children’s experiences.

Post note: Here, I have been talking about actual children-children, though I do see all of us as children, simply in different stages of development. However, as a 45 year old child, I am asking myself to acknowledge that I have access to this imago stage where I am empowered to step up and create a bridge for other “children” to be nourished by my presence, my words, my play. I believe exercising my imagination in order to create that bridge is the greatest tool I have found since embarking on this quest. I invite you, no matter your stage in child-imago-adult becoming, to step into your “adult” shoes, and to feel the honor of being entrusted with the development and nourishment of other children.



The last post (see below) discussed being and its presence in philosophy. In that post, I suggested that being is potent when it symbolizes the mystery of being alive and its wonderment. Here, I wish to offer up being as the canvas or paper upon which words depend in order to exist. On this canvas sound can become words. Out of my body, I can emit vocalizations, “Aaaa! Aaaa! Aaaa!” which, with the help of tongue and mouth can become “Lover! Forest! Running!” They can become, “Anguish! Ecstasy! Grief!” They can become words. In sign language, the hands become a tongue and mouth and words become visually heard. Words are a type of language. Language can be seen as a bridge – anything that expresses or communicates, connecting us to another. The design of a city is a language, the design of an art piece is a language. The design of a mathematical equation is a language. Gestures, facial expressions, touch, energy are language in action.

Simultaneously, language can refer more specifically to vocal communication. The word “language” comes from the Latin word for “tongue” – we can see this link more evidently in the Romantic languages more so than in English – tongue is “la lengua” in Spanish and “la langue” in French. The tongue shapes the sounds our vocal chords emit into different identities. And these sounds can hold meaning for the speaker and for those who hear. But from where does this meaning come? Do the sounds themselves carry a “meaning”? If we think of meaning as sensation and sensation as sentiment, yes! Fire. . . ffffffiiiiiiirrrrrre feels warm, hot, cozy, terrifying. The words can carry felt experiences. And when I say “fire,” I bring into my body the external experiences of witnessing fire. From within, I can say and/or think “fire” with no fire present, it multiply-exists as a concept, or an idea, as well as an event, as well as a word, as well as countless felt experiences.

Words can rest together in patterns and in relationships to each other. Noun, verb, adjective. Subject, verb, predicate. We paint these relationships onto canvas, onto being, and being holds them together. These relationships can go beyond the tidy relationships we have constructed as grammatically and logically correct, and the “meaning” can transcend the patterns, roles and definitions of the words that we have given them in rational discourse. This extravagance beyond the rules is being and is the work of poets and other writers who “smith” words to allow more sensations and often, paradoxical meanings to come through them.

Smithing can be playing with words and letters out of context, writing their irregularities, irreverently wedding them or maniacally repeating them or unpredictably dividing them – any act that allows words to include in their multi-tasking the allowance of a fleeting revelation, an elusive epiphany to be felt for a moment. Words, are after all, not only bridges to “understanding” but also bridges to the mysterious being of their canvas, as well as to each other. As well, they are bridges between humans and they are bridges forming (and at times wedding) my autobiographical selves living and dying in this body. We can fall into words, fall into being and swim and sink and rise to the top and float and swim and sink and rise to the top and float and swim and sink and rise to the top and float.

And through them, with them, we can feel alive miraculously.


Philosophy is an intimidating word for many, however, our culture and our perception are based on philosophical assumptions that once unveiled, can show us fascinating aspects of our beliefs about ourselves and the world.

Here, in the West, we inherit a certain assumption about humanity that is based on “being”. But, what is it “to be”? Most of us think of actual physical presence as being, but, philosophy asks, what is the foundation for our perceptions of this external world, and also of our internal, subjective experiences? How is it that we think we know what is going on with our existence?

Traditionally, here in the West, we believe we know what is going on when we “understand” something about it. Now we must ask, how do we create understanding? The short, traditional answer is mind. We have assumed that mind can commune with the foundation of our perceptions, and that the foundation of our perceptions is being. Tuning into being allows us to understand.

While being does have a long and varied philosophical history, over the centuries, it has taken on a certain identity of structure and order, an order that is mirrored by human understanding. This so-called “understanding” has been limited, largely, to mind and mind has been narrowed to intellect, and intellect is thought to be ruled best by “rational capacity” or by the principles that constitute Logic, the science of correct thinking.

Over the centuries, philosophy, which has the demonstrated potential to be much wider than “rational inquiry” has become restricted to it.

This project challenges this fundamental assumption about being and understanding. Logic and rational thinking are incredibly useful, and this project does not attempt to denounce them as useless. However, it advocates the notion that rational thinking can be aided by leaving room for and by valuing that which is outside our rational understanding – the unknown, the mystery, the beyond – as is. Philosophy, even here in the West, historically has been informed by such a view, even though now it is considered quite questionable.

Leaving room for the “beyond intellectual understanding” involves respecting a sort of seeing that is not derived through rational inquiry and explanation. This seeing is not synonymous with understanding. Instead, it is more of allowing “not knowing” to be the basis of our existence. Within this project, being becomes something more than logical order, or rational structure. While it may carry them as possibilities, it itself is always already “beyond intellect”.

Impressions of our existence, of being, can be sensed outside of our intellect. These impressions, if we allow them, can then impact our intellectual endeavors. This project delivers impressions I received after studying philosophy of the body and language, impressions that lost their information when formulated into rational explanation.