the nature of consciousness and what to do about it, a dialogue

Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.

Fragments on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Below are a few reflections after teaching a module on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit this past week. My natural inclinations draw me to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, but every time I return to Hegel’s writing after some time apart I start to worry I’ve allowed myself to fall into a caricatured understanding of his trickster-like dialectical method.

I’m reminded of Foucault’s famous admission (Discourse on Language, 235):

…our age, whether through logic or epistemology, whether though Marx or through Nietzsche, is attempting to flee Hegel….But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him.  It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian.  We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.


Hegel offers something other than a “history of ideas.” Instead, he narrates an evolution of consciousness. A history of ideas usually presupposes that the same sort of self/subject apprehends the same sort of world/object, with the only change occurring when the self employs new ideas to represent the world to itself. In other words, only the conceptual content changes, i.e., what is thought about the world. Left unaccounted for by historians of ideas is the form of thinking, i.e., how experience is constellated in each epoch such that a certain kind of self comes into relation to a certain kind of world. It’s not just the ideas that shift in the course of history; the whole self-world Gestalt transforms itself. Hegel’s account is an evolution of consciousness rather than a history of ideas: the very essence of the way an object appears to a subject dialectically morphs through the course of history, until finally at the end of history, both the essence of the world and the way this essence appears to itself coincide in “Absolute Knowledge.” For Hegel, there is only one Idea: the identity of identity and difference, or the subject-object identity. The so-called “history of ideas” is just Spirit’s tragic comedy of errors, a laborious journey from childish naiveté to the rational recollection of ultimate reality.


Or so Hegel’s story goes. The next module of the course I’m teaching focuses on Schelling’s late philosophy of mythology and revelation. Schelling offered it as an alternative way forward for philosophy after Hegel. 

Diagramming German Idealism

I’m teaching an online graduate course called Mind and Nature in German Idealism this semester. Below I am sharing several diagrams that I’ve developed to depict Kant’s transcendental method as it evolves through the first three critiques, as well as Fichte’s radicalization of the Kantian project. I hope to continue developing this diagram to elucidate Schelling, Goethe, and Hegel’s approaches, but I’m not entirely sure what that will look like yet!

response to R. Scott Bakker on transcendental phenomenology and BBT

Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…What makes the question so pressing now is that their instrument, reflection, has finally found itself on the coroner’s table. -R. Scott Baker

There is nothing “outside” the natural order. In this sense, I am opposed to the transcendentalist’s move to remove Reason or the reflective understanding from physical reality. There is indeed a supernaturalist residue in much transcendental and phenomenological philosophy. This is why my project has always been to theorize “the natural order” as itself always already creative, aesthetic, interpretational, experiential (mine is a naturalized transcendental (Schelling’s “Nature is a priori”)). There is no “other” world from which the causal efficacy of our world derives. With our universe, the cause is internal to the effect, which is another way of saying our universe is primarily organic (with mechanism as a secondary appearance). This is why I follow Whitehead in the endeavor to construct an ontology of organism, wherein: 1) Physics is the study of the evolutionary development of particles, stars, galaxies, and other micro- and macro- organisms-in-ecologies; 2) Biology is the study of the evolutionary development of single cells, plants, and animals in their meso-cosmic ecologies; 3) Philosophy, anthropology, and theology are different aspects of the study of the evolutionary development of languages, myths, and ideas in their noetic ecologies. The organism-environment field becomes the metaphysical metaphor guiding our theorizing, rather than the machine.

Now, when I say “my project has always been to theorize…”, I should qualify that “theory” in the context of an open-ended, evolving cosmos such as ours can never pretend to certainty or finality. Theory is not the construction of a disinterested, reflective ego (at least, no valuable theory is). Theory always remains dependent on the speculative leap of some metaphor or another. Theory is imaginative construction requiring equal doses of aesthetic taste and logical clarity. Our theories are always as much science fiction as they are science fact.

I agree with Bakker than cognition of the real just isn’t possible. But we must distinguish between cognition on the one hand, and sensation, feeling, and intuition on the other. If an intuition of the real is our goal, using the reflective instrument is like shining a flashlight in search of darkness. Reflective cognition is like King Midas, turning everything it touches into noetic gold. It transforms everything not-I into food for itself, digesting the world and defecating whatever it can’t assimilate as waste. It does’t seem to me much of a stretch to say that modernity’s exclusive reliance on reflective cognition is one of the main factors leading to the ecological crisis.

Let me be clear that, while I defend transcendental phenomenology from Bakker’s eliminativist meta-critique, my own philosophical home base is process-relational ontology. I have major issues with transcendental phenomenology as a philosophical resting place. It remains too anthropocentric, too concerned with issues of human access and not attentive enough to solar nucleosynthesis, cellular mitosis, and atmospheric levels of CH4. But still, I just don’t understand how, having grasped the power of transcendental critique–as critique–one could fail to see eliminativist arguments like BBT as anything but dogmatic materialism (materialism has today become the new School Philosophy, though it pretends to be the ultimate critic of all metaphysics). Where I leave transcendentalism behind is in my pursuit of a constructive, cosmologically-rooted philosophy, something the phenomenological approach just cannot provide.

Earth-Moon-3

It is clear Bakker has done his philosophical homework. I don’t think it is fair of him to lump everyone into the same transcendentalist clown car, though. Phenomenology was born out of the intense debates between Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, all of whom accused Kant of not having cleared his vision of dogmatist residues. They all recognized the possibility and the fact of neglect, and even of the neglect of neglect. But for these post-Kantians (with the possible exception of Hegel), the transcendental project was an infinite one by definition, meaning there would never be a point when the a priori structures were finally reached and could be clearly and distinctly spelled out once and for all. Fichte grounded the transcendental historically in the ethical development of humankind, describing philosophy as an attempt to asymptotically approach absolute metacognition as an ideal while never in fact being able to reach it. Schelling went further and grounded the transcendental in the creative developmental arc of the cosmos itself. For Schelling (and here he converges with Whitehead), not even God knows the a priori conditions of experiential reality: the divine is just as caught in the chaotic turmoil of historical becoming as any creature is. None of these thinkers, with the possible exception of Fichte when he is sloppy, thought that impersonal natural systems could be cognized in terms of their own 1st person experience.

Here is Schelling mulling over this exact problem, for ex.:

“I could conceive of that being perhaps as something that, initially blind, struggles through every level of becoming toward consciousness, and humanity would then arise precisely at that moment, at that point in which the previously blind nature would reach self-consciousness. But this cannot be, since our self-consciousness is not at all the consciousness of that nature that permeates everything: it is just *our* consciousness and hardly encompasses within itself a science of becoming applicable to all things. This universal becoming remains just as foreign and opaque to us as if it had never had a bearing on us at all. Therefore, if this becoming has achieved any kind of purpose it is achieved only through humanity, but not for humanity; for the consciousness of humanity does not = equal the consciousness of nature” (The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 1841).

In other words, 1st person reflective ego consciousness is largely a sham. It can tell us little if anything about the unconscious natural ground from which it emerges. Of course, Schelling (like Whitehead) argued that the field of experience extends beyond mere 1st person ego consciousness. My argument with Bakker has always been: why reduce the experiential field that is open to us to 1st person ego consciousness? Most of our daily and nightly experience is not egoic! Most of the time we are flowing through other experiential states more akin to animals, plants, and even minerals. So in a sense mine is also a post-human manifesto. We have never been human, if you want.

Evan Thompson on the “Stream” of Consciousness

R. Scott Bakker and Evan Thompson recently debated the merits of neurophenomenology here: http://philosophyofbrains.com/2015/07/29/is-consciousness-a-stream.aspx. Check out Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s post, where another comment exchange is taking shape…

Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).