In her spare, stunning poem “Optimism,” Jane Hirshfield reverences the “blind intelligence” by which a tree relentlessly orients toward the light to survive — a kind of unreasoning, life-hungry intuition distinctly different from the way we humans define and measure our intelligence, our measurements, and definitions mired in myriad cultural biases and blind spots. With its fixation on the logical-mathematical mind, the Western model of intelligence is in some deep sense the ultimate “blind intelligence,” dappled with blind spots that obscure so much of the raw, unmediated attentiveness to life that make it not only survivable but worth living.
That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a wonderful aside toward the end of On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the gauntlet he throws at our culturally inherited, unexamined ideas about love and what makes us who we are.
Lamenting the “minimal” number of knowledgeable people, Ortega hastens to anchor the lament in a definition of intelligence rooted not in the intellectual snobbery of high Western culture, which equates intelligence with erudition and understanding in the narrow domain of verbal-mathematical ability, but in something more akin to the Eastern notion of mindfulness — the sort of unclouded perception and clarity of consciousness at the heart of Buddha-nature and Zen-mind. In accordance with Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence that intelligence “is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself,” Ortega writes:
By intelligence I mean only that the mind react to happenings with a certain sharpness and precision, that the radish not be perpetually seized by its leaves, that the gray not be confused with brown and, above all, that objects in front of one be seen with a little exactness and accuracy, without supplanting sight by mechanically repeated words.
Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s observation that “most people remain all of their lives in a stupor,” Ortega rues that most people spend most of their lives with the radish fully engulfed by the leaves: