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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee

Platitudes, Philosophy and Commonplace Books


I am a note keeper. I keep all sorts of notes. Writing ideas, names for characters, events that make me laugh or cry, recipes, teaching approaches and quotations from poets, philosophers and shamans. My note books are an eclectic mix of things that would have little meaning to a reader other than myself; if at all accessible given they have little order or seeming inter-relatedness. The writing strays from ornate lettering to indecipherable scribbles interwoven with images that are either naïve scratchings or moderately well-rendered illustrations.

But lately I’ve become somewhat enamoured by the notion of the ‘commonplace book’ which is less like a diary and more a thinker’s journal. It is a place to record other writers’ thought provoking, inspiring or challenging ideas. For centuries commonplace books have served as inspirational tools for focused introspection and learning. But the written record of quotations has been superseded by tens of thousands of websites that have done the research and organisation for lazy philosophers. Want a quote about love, death, life, the human condition, then simply Google it. Don’t do any work to find the original text from which it was plucked, don’t think deeply about its social or historical context or its capacity to change your thinking, or how it might change your life. It’s the Hallmark card approach to philosophical engagement.

The commonplace book, however, is the hard graft version for the writer and learner. It is a didactic tool that requires analysis and application not just regurgitation. It is not the glib placement of inspiring words at the right time for a contrived action. It is all about the effect of the words to inspire the reader/learner to be better at thinking, interacting and generally able to critically evaluate the ‘noise’ around us. It can provide an ethical context for considered citizenship, both global and local. It can be a profound tool for artists, writers, creators, learners and those who have a desire to inspire with considered commentary.

The commonplace book should be a standard tool for all who want to understand the wisdom of writers and philosophers, creators and inventors. Often quotations are misused because Google-Guru does not examine or evaluate the context in which the idea was expressed. Here’s where the commonplace book can be of great value. As the act of writing the quotation can lead us to ask who the astute sage was who provided us with such wisdom and why they came to this conclusion. Does the quotation have greater or lesser meaning in the current context? How has does it apply to me, the reader? Is its meaning in the literal or metaphorical interpretation? Should these words be relegated to platitudes that are espoused willy-nilly or absorbed by the reader to a greater end? The clever words of others can make us wiser, more aware, kinder, alert, thoughtful and in turn make us better citizens who act in the best interests of others and our environment. It’s all in the thinking.

Now I’m not suggesting we should all stop memorising and verbalising our cleverness and those who can should espouse the odd good quotation. That’s good exercise for the brain. But the examination and application of wisdom is good for the soul. There’s way too much externalising today and perhaps the common place book, or thinking journal, might provide the opportunity to be more meditative and perhaps, think before speaking.

(Image by Pat Lee 2018)

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