Philosophy from looking at a piece of paper

The Zen buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh once spoke of the impossibility of looking at a piece of paper seeing its front face and not presume that it has no back face. Most people will not argue that. Intuitively we will presume this, if we are of sound (without mental disabilities) and mature (old enough to have enough experience) mind.

Maurice Denis began a revolution in Western art with this insightful statement,

« Se rappeler qu’un tableau, avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote, est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées. »

“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

which led to (or summed up) pretty much all modern art. The Cubist paintings of Picasso are an expression of this idea. And Cezanne tried the same in his still-life works before Picasso.

In literature, Eliot, Woolf and Joyce are good examples of this approach and understanding. In linguistics, Saussure said as much about meaning in language. And in philosophy, Wittgenstein, after Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Derrida had pursued an understanding to the same end.

In Zen, all things are linked, and all things are empty. The back of the piece of paper can be safely presumed to be there even if we do not directly see it by virtue of the existence of the front of it. The back relies of the front for its meaning and existence, as does all language relies on all words for each other’s definitions. Nothingness only means what it does because of somethingness. The reverse is true as well.

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