The Nature of Insight

While reading his introduction to The Prophets (my Amazon link), I came across this statement by Abraham J. Heschel (page x in the 1969 Harper & Row paperback edition):

Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present.
        Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight — upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight.

There are Aha! moments that seem to come with no effort. But insight of the sort that Heschel describes here, I think, is generally hard won. Even if it comes suddenly and unexpectedly — seemingly without effort — it is the result of deep reflection and struggle.

Here’s a question I have. What role can another person — a parent, teacher, or friend, for instance — play in one’s attainment of this sort of deep insight?


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, less than an hour from where I grew up. Heschel later said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

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