This week I underlined this sentence from Proust’s Finding Time Again. 

“Even at the moments when we are the most disinterested onlookers of nature, of society, of love, or art itself, since every impression comes in two parts, half of it contained within the object, and the other half, which we alone will understand, extending into us, we are quick to disregard this latter half, which ought to be the sole object of our attention, and take notice only of the first, which being external and therefore impossible to study in any depth, will not impose any strain on us: we find it too demanding a task to try to perceive the little furrow that the sight of a hawthorn or a church has made on us.”

Proust, M. (1927). Le Temps Retrouvé (Finding Time Again) (C. Prendergast (ed.); Ian Patterson tranlation). Penguin Classics.

This sentence comes in the middle of Proust’s revelation about what his work as a writer should be: to translate his inner world to the outside. He finds much greater richness in understanding the impression that the world makes on individuals than understanding the surface, objective qualities of what is being observed.

Things I take away:

  • It reminds me that it is so much richer to listen to and hear someone else’s impressions of the world than it is to talk about objective aspects. Crudely, ‘what’ is objective but ‘how’ reveals this inner world. What did you do versus how did it make you feel?
  • In teaching and learning, a positivist approach works with the first part in Proust’s formulation: a seemingly objective description of a subject is presented as the truth; whereas a constructivist approach works with this inner world: a constantly updating landscape shaped when sensory inputs crash against the contours of previous experience to create something new inside.
  • In design teaching this passage helps us in two ways. First, it reminds us, when interpreting a design brief, to ask if the brief is a genuine expression of the client’s inner world or if it is just an expression of surface requirements. Second, in develop a pitch for a new idea, it reminds us to pay attention to the audience’s inner world: how will this proposal extend into their inner world. It is a world that we can only begin to start understanding by asking questions and listening.