Philosophy & Consciousness

2 07 2013

I have been thinking about philosophy a lot these days. The value of speculative philosophy has been at the forefront of that. I’ve talked a little around that topic with mention of a philosophy of error, but that only captures part of the thrust of speculative philosophy. Alongside the concern with error and its capacity to deepen our understanding, there is also a concern with consciousness.That concern with consciousness provides a counterpoint to the concern with error and, moreover, provides philosophy with a foundation and direction that error alone cannot. I want to talk toward and around that point a little.

Philosophy is famously (or infamously) amorphous. Sometimes it means little more than having to do with some folks we call philosophers; other times, it seems to be an opinion about the nature of this or that thing. I can be philosophical by reading Nietzsche, wondering if quarks really exist, talking about the virtues of capitalism or communism, explaining why I think a certain medical procedure is ethical or not, considering whether human nature is altruistic, and talking about what makes me happy or sad. Questions or statements of meaningfulness often find their way to the philosophical banner, whether they are about living a meaningful life or making sense of what a statement or idea means. Philosophy abuts both religion and science, sometimes in competition with them, sometimes cooperating with them, sometimes serving as the middleman negotiating between them. Go very far with this, it starts to seem like everything has to do with philosophy.

Of course, if something has to do with everything, there is a danger that it itself is nothing. After all, if it can be applied to any subject, doesn’t that imply that it, in fact, has no proper content of its own? Like the skeptical neuroscientist who suggests consciousness has no real effect on the world, that it is merely an epiphenomenon of strictly determined biological and chemical processes, might philosophy be just the epiphenomenon of ‘real’ knowledge? Or, perhaps, might we wonder if what we call ‘philosophy’ is nothing more than a too-big-for-its-britches word that refers to just thinking about stuff in a deliberately peculiar fashion?

Practically minded sorts have long assumed the epiphenomenal notion though not called it such. They have tended to assert that philosophy is the intellectual equivalent of idle hands at hands play. If you are thinking about something philosophically, you are wasting time when you could be doing something of value like building bridges or feeding the hungry. Why talk when you could just do?

Aristocratically minded sorts have, in a similar fashion, tacitly endorsed the too-big-for-its-britches notion. Here, it is not so much that philosophy is useless, but that it is a special sort of luxury. Thinking in a peculiar fashion is fun, lets you see things differently, but presumes in the end that there is nothing to really do with that. You engage in it because you can, as a sign of your own joie de vivre or, at the least, a sign of how little you have to do.

And there are philosophers who have, happily or unhappily, acceded to these positions. You find philosophers putting philosophical tools at the disposal of practical thought, who seek to teach people to think more critically and clearly so that they can be all the more effective in doing the important practical things like building bridges. There, too, are philosophers who are willing to put on a show and amuse the intellect at play with thought experiments galore, a sort of philosophical fiction to titillate and tickle.

These aren’t worthless things. Critical thinking and intellectual amusement both benefit individuals and society and make the world a little more humane. However, I don’t take these goods to be fundamentally philosophical ones. They are some of the products of philosophical work, but I do not take them to be the philosophical work proper. Seeing them as the basis of philosophical work strikes me as akin to seeing big muscles as the basis of good health. Focusing on them ends up undermining the substance of the work as the pursuit of bigger muscles can undermine the work of health.

I know, I’m begging questions. What is philosophy if not these things? And, if there are folks called philosophers doing just these things, how can I get off calling their work something other than philosophy? To the latter question, I’ll confess, you’ve got me. I can’t just call what they are doing unphilosophical. I don’t get to make words mean precisely what I want them to mean. However, in preserving the word ‘philosophy’ for what I plan to talk about, I am staking a claim about the relationship between what I am talking about and what they are talking about. More importantly, I am staking a claim that what I call philosophy possesses a degree of independence from critical thinking and intellectual amusement such that it better defines ‘philosophy’ as practice on its own terms.

So, what are these terms? Well, philosophical thought proper has to do with precisely nothing, with consciousness as a phenomenon distinct from, though embedded within, the world of which it is conscious. Philosophy is the work of understanding the difference between our sense of self and the world in which that sense operates.

There is absolutely nothing original about this. In saying this, I am repeating a strain of philosophical discourse that goes back to Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel by way of many tributaries. Kant and Hegel, while quite innovative, can themselves be positioned within a philosophical genealogy that connects them to Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. This mode of thought has parallels in many cosmopolitan imperial worlds. You find reflections of it in Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Neoplatonic thought. These parallels share some deep roots in history, but more fundamentally share a common object. That hardly makes them identical. They come to discover and explore consciousness differently. Still, it positions the philosophical object par excellance outside of any specific examination of it.

One of the peculiarities of this development in European philosophical thought, though, is that it took shape at a remove from religion and religious experience. While many traditions of studying consciousness developed around visionaries, Kant’s work divorces the study of consciousness from visionary experience early on in his work; “Dreams of a Spirit Seer” dismisses the philosophical value of visions such as those described by Emmanuel Swedenborg. Because this transcendent avenue of study was avoided, the European philosophers engaged in a much more intense study of consciousness as historically determined. While there were some idealist exceptions to this rule, more often than not their idealism remained externally directed toward the production of historical experience.

Arguably, this partially explains why European philosophies seem to reach their terminus in cultural or linguistic determinism after which they tend to become emptily relativist or give themselves over to playing ancilla to this or that discipline.  Unfortunately, the emphasis on both culture and language  conceals consciousness in its creativity and spontaneity. While culture and language are historical and objective, consciousness always returns us to the personal and contemporary.

At various point in its history, phenomenology and its philosophical relatives promised some escape from this trajectory. They shifted focus back toward intentionality, toward the study of consciousness in its reflexive state, consciousness as being always consciousness of something. Problematically, though, it tended to focus on consciousness in abstraction. As such, it tended to ‘discover’ a consciousness that just reaffirmed and doubled the world of culture and language in which the rest of philosophy was losing itself.

What happens, though, if we begin to consider these last few centuries of philosophical work to be really interesting errors? We could, of course, argue that the problem with the discourse is consciousness itself and if we do away with that we will find ourselves on new and more excting ground. There are folks doing just this and they definitely have produced some interesting ideas. However, I wonder what happens if we take a different approach and examine if it is not consciousness that needs to be jettisoned but our narrow conception of it. What if we return to that moment when consciousness and vision, consciousness and ecstasy, were severed, one from the other?

I suspect we can rediscover consciousness there, but with new appreciation for the way in which even ‘pure’ consciousness becomes entangled in the objective forms of culture, language, and history. If we do that, though, we’ll need philosophy to come face to face with its long disavowed bastard children, with the explorations of consciousness that transpired under the rubric of occultism, new age-ism, magic, and spiritualism. To do that, though, requires restraint. It is all too easy for a ‘philosophical’ eye to reduce these explorations to its past, seeing in each mere delusion rather than ferreting out the truth(s) concealed within the sometimes absurd-seeming objective forms through which they took shape.


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2 07 2013

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