Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Epistemological Nature of Early Modern Idealism

Modern Idealism, as developed by Berkeley and Kant and their successors, was mainly epistemological in nature. That is to say: the arguments they used to establish the central Idealist thesis – that reality exists only in or for the mind – were mainly epistemological arguments, based on analyses of knowledge and sense experience. They reasoned basically as follows: Since we can know reality only insofar as it is sensed and conceptualised by us, we literally can have no evidence of any reality beyond our sensations and concepts, and thus beyond our consciousness. All that we are justified in postulating, therefore, is the reality internal to our consciousness, the organized whole of sensations and concepts we ordinarily call “reality”. This, arguably, is the master argument for modern Idealism.

Although I am greatly attracted by Idealism, I am critical of modern, i.e. epistemological Idealism. In my view, we should accept Idealism on ontological grounds, i.e. because it offers the best explanation of reality, and not primarily on epistemological grounds. As I intend to argue in a following post, epistemology alone can never provide a sufficient justification for the Idealist thesis. In particular, the master argument for modern Idealism remains vulnerable to skeptical attacks. For from the mere fact that knowledge of objects is only possible of objects within consciousness, it does not follow that all objects are within consciousness; there might still be unknown or even unknowable objects

To this skeptical retort, modern Idealism has no satisfactory answer, precisely because it rests its case on our epistemological confinement to consciousness. If we are indeed trapped within the circle of consciousness, then – as the epistemological Idealist emphasizes – we cannot prove the existence of a reality outside of consciousness; but then neither can we disprove that existence. This is the weak spot of modern Idealism, the point at which it remains vulnerable to skeptical counter-attacks. To prepare the way for this critique of epistemological Idealism, this post explains why the Idealisms of Berkeley, Kant, and their successors took this epistemological form.

The Way of Ideas and Its skepticism
To understand why modern Idealism took this epistemological form, we have to place it in the context of its origination, namely, the Way of Ideas developed by Descartes, Locke and their followers, and the radical epistemological skepticism to which it led. As explained in a
previous post on this blog, the Way of Ideas led to skepticism because it had ‘imprisoned’ the knowing subject within the “circle of consciousness”, hiding external reality behind a “veil of perception”. As the Cartesian philosopher Arnauld put it: “We have no knowledge of what is outside us except by mediation of the ideas within us.” (Arnauld 1964 [1662]: 31) Thus arose the skeptical question: If all we know directly are the ideas within our consciousness, how can we know if these ideas correspond to a reality outside our consciousness, indeed, how can we know there is an external reality at all? We cannot, after all, step outside our consciousness in order to inspect its correspondence, or lack thereof, with external reality. This threat of skepticism was sharply felt by Descartes, Locke, and their successors, some of whom – most famously Hume – went on to argue that skepticism was indeed inescapable.

It was to counter this threat of skepticism that Berkeley and Kant developed their respective versions of Idealism. As both of them pointed out, the skepticism induced by the Way of Ideas turned on the assumption of a reality external to consciousness; strike that assumption, they argued, and the threat of skepticism vanishes. If reality is ‘just’ a product of the mind itself, then surely its knowability can pose no problem for us?

George Berkeley (1685 - 1753)
Berkeley’s Idealist Rescue of Common Sense
Berkeley had designed his Idealism particularly with the intent to save common sense from skepticism. Common sense says that the objects we perceive by our senses are indeed as we perceive them: they have the colours, smells, tastes, auditory and tactile qualities we perceive in them. The Way of Ideas, however, had placed all such “secondary qualities” within consciousness, locating the real object outside the latter, as the external cause of those sensations. When we eat an apple, for example, we see its redness, taste its sweetness, feel its smooth skin, etc. But according to the Way of Ideas, all these sensations are not qualities of the apple itself; the real apple is just some material structure in space and time of which we know nothing except what physical science tells us (and even the truth of physics became doubtful after Hume’s critique of causality). For Berkeley, this skeptical doubt concerning common sense, induced by the Way of Ideas, was absurd: 

Upon the common principles of philosophers, we are not assured of the existence of things from their being perceived. And we are taught to distinguish their real nature from that which falls under our sense. Hence arises Scepticism and Paradoxes. It is not enough that we see and feel, that we taste and smell a thing. Its true nature, its absolute external entity, is still concealed.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 3)

It was therefore to redeem common sense that Berkeley argued for Idealism, which in his case amounted to the thesis that sensible objects do not exist unperceived: “Their esse is percipi,” as Berkeley famously put it (1995 [1710]: §3). Perceptible objects, he argued, are nothing but bundles of sensible qualities in consciousness. Thus, through his Idealism (or “Immaterialism” has he called it),
Berkeley could restore the common-sense belief that when we eat an apple, and see its redness, taste its sweetness, etc., we are eating, seeing and tasting the apple itself, not just its appearance as distinct from the real thing. The real apple, for Berkeley, is this bundle sensations; there is nothing beyond it. Berkeley made the same point by contemplating a cherry (fruit, apparently, lending itself very well for Idealist argumentation…):

“I see this cherry, I feel it, I taste it […]: it is therefore real. Take away the sensations of softness, moisture, redness, tartness, and you take away the cherry. Since it is not a being distinct from sensations; a cherry, I say, is nothing but a congeries of sensible impressions, or ideas perceived by various senses: which ideas are united into one thing (or have one name given them) by the mind; because they are observed together.” (Berkeley 1969[1713]: 117)

In his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley makes his alter-ego Philonous (Greek for “Lover of mind”) respond as follows to the insensible matter beyond sensory experience defended by Hylas (Greek for “matter”):

“I am of a vulgar cast, simple enough to believe my senses, and leave things as I find them. To be plain, it is my opinion that the real things are those very things I see and feel, and perceive by my senses… A piece of sensible bread, for instance, would stay my stomach better than ten thousand times as much of that insensible, unintelligible, real bread you speak of… Away then with all that Skepticism, all those ridiculous philosophical doubts. What a jest is it for a philosopher to question the existence of sensible things, till he hath proved it to him from the veracity of God1; or to pretend our knowledge in this point falls short of intuition or demonstration! I might as well doubt of my own being, as of the being of those things I actually see and feel.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 90-1)

As Berkeley admitted (see idem: 110), it is a bit strange to defend common sense by declaring that perceived objects exist only within the mind – a view that directly violates common sense, for which perceived objects ‘evidently’ exist outside the mind – but, according to Berkeley, it is the only way to save the reality of the sensible object within the context of the Way of Ideas. Idealism is the bitter medicine that common sense must take in order to cure it from the illness of skepticism.

Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)
Kant’s Idealist Rescue of Causality
For Kant, it was a different aspect of the skepticism induced by the Way of Ideas that brought him to accept Idealism. What worried him was not so much the affront to common sense as the affront to physical science presented by Hume’s skeptical attack on causality. As Kant noted in the Prolegomena, it was Hume’s attack on causality that first aroused him from his “dogmatic slumber” and stimulated the development of his “transcendental Idealism” (Kant 2001 [1772]: 5). Hume had shown, convincingly according to Kant, that our causal claims about reality are thoroughly unsupported by the sensations caused in us by external objects. We say, e.g., that fire causes smoke, but all the evidence we have is that sensations of smoke regularly follow sensations of fire. In the sensations themselves we find no reason why one should follow the other. Moreover, we cannot generalize from a finite number of past observations to universal claims: the fact that up till now sensations of smoke have followed sensations of fire does not guarantee that this will be so in the future as well (the problem of induction). As Hume put it:

Thus not only our reason fails us in the discovery of the ultimate connection of causes and effects, but even after experience has informed us of their constant conjunction, 'tis impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we should extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation.” (Hume 2003 [1739-40]: 66)

Kant was deeply disturbed by Hume’s attack on causality. His respect for the physical science developed by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton was so great that he simply could not stomach Hume’s dismissal of causal laws. The stunning success of the new science, especially Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion and gravitation, meant that Hume had to be wrong. And where he went wrong, according to Kant, was in his assumption that causality, if it exists at all, must be a feature of external reality, in other words, that causal connections must be connections between real objects, independent of our consciousness. But, as Kant argued, such external objects are “nothing to us”. Objects become something for us, i.e. they become accessible to us as experienceable and knowable objects, only if they conform to our forms of cognition, and causality is one such form. Raw sensations do not yet give us experiences of objects. The sensations have to be ordered by our forms of sensory intuition (space and time) and our forms of conceptual understanding (the categories, prime among which is causality); only then do we experience a single, ordered, integrated reality consisting of interconnected objects. This, according to Kant, explains our ability to make objective causal claims: because causality is not a feature of external reality but rather a cognitive form in our mind, a form to which objects must conform in order to become experienceable and knowable.

Kant’s Idealism, then, extends only to the forms of empirical reality, not to the sensory material structured by these forms. This is why Kant calls his philosophy “transcendental Idealism”, the term “transcendental” being his technical term for what pertains to the a priori forms of consciousness: “I call all cognition transcendental that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our a priori concepts of objects in general.” (CPR: A12) In extension, Kant speaks of the “transcendental subject” as the subject who applies the a priori forms of cognition to the sensory material.

Ultimately, the necessity of the object to conform to our forms of cognition has to do with the fundamental role Kant accords to self-consciousness in experience and knowledge. This point is often described, rightly, as the cornerstone of Kant’s Idealism. According to Kant, a process or state in my consciousness counts as an experience or belief only if I can be aware of it as my experience or my belief, thus only if it belongs to the unity of my consciousness (a consciousness that forms a unity precisely because it is mine, i.e. because all episodes and states in it are related to me as their underlying subject). For a mental episode or state to be mine, then, I must as it were be able to prefix it with the qualifier “I think…”. By prefixing “I think…” to a mental content, such as an impression of redness, thus by thinking “I think (or rather I see) redness”, I indicate that the content belongs to the unity of my consciousness. As Kant puts it:

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me… The thought that these representations […] all together belong to me means, accordingly, the same as that I unite them in a self-consciousness […].” (CPR: B132, B134) 

According to Kant, the ultimate function of the forms of space and time and the categories of the understanding is to effectuate this unity of self-consciousness (a unity that Kant therefore calls “transcendental”, since it underlies the application of the transcendental forms of cognition). Thus only by placing all my mental episodes and states within a unified spatiotemporal network of causal relations can I recognize those episodes and states as mine, as belonging to my (self-)consciousness. The resulting integrated unity of empirical reality, then, is for Kant only a reflection or projection of the transcendental unity of self-consciousness unto the unorganized manifold of raw impressions. The unity of the object, and thereby the object as such (because there is no object without unity), is really a manifestation of the unity of the subject’s self-consciousness. In this sense, as later German Idealists would put it, the principle of subject-object identity is the central principle of Kant’s Idealism.

The Epistemological Nature of Idealism after Kant and Berkeley
Although the Idealisms of Berkeley and Kant differ greatly, they have roughly the same goal – to counter the epistemological skepticism engendered by the Way of Ideas – and use roughly the same strategy to achieve that goal, namely: argue that we can only know objects which are in or for consciousness, such that supposedly external reality falls away as irrelevant and unknowable, in which case the skeptical threat, too, falls away. The only reality left standing, then, is the reality inside consciousness. This, to repeat, is the master argument for modern Idealism – an argument either explicitly repeated or at least implicitly accepted by later German and British Idealists. They all stood on the shoulders of Berkeley and Kant, striving to improve or complete their ground-breaking but still imperfect Idealist systems (for the Germans, of course, Kant was more important, but the British Idealists drew on both Berkeley and Kant). As such, the German and British Idealists took over the epistemological agenda of Berkeley and Kant and remained within their epistemological mode of reasoning. For all of them, epistemology remained the prima philosophia, the foundational “first philosophy” that had to precede and ground all other theoretical endeavours. And even if later Absolute Idealists (such as Schelling, Hegel, Green and Bradley) went on to draw more ontological and metaphysical conclusions concerning the mind-dependence of reality, they did so ultimately because Idealist epistemology demanded it. As Frederick Beiser notes: “Although absolute idealism is indeed metaphysics, and in the very sense prohibited by Kant […], its metaphysics is necessary to solve the outstanding problem of Kant’s philosophy according to its own guiding principle.” (Beiser 2002: 369)

1. An obvious reference to Descartes’ appeal to God as the guarantor of the veracity of our perceptions, PS.

-Arnauld, A. (1964 [1662]), The Art of Thinking. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

-Beiser, F. (2002), German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
-Berkeley, G. (1995 [1710]), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
-Berkeley, G. (1969 [1713]), Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Chicago: Open Court.
-Kant, I (1998 [1781-87]), Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Kant, I. (2001 [1772]), Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Problem of Skepticism in Early Modern Philosophy of Consciousness

This post is part of a larger project I am working on: a critique of the epistemologically motivated Idealisms of Berkeley, Kant, and the post-Kantians. I am greatly attracted to Idealism, but I think we should accept it primarily on ontological grounds, i.e. because Idealism gives the best explanation of why reality exists and why it is as it is. Hence my criticism of the Idealisms of Berkeley, Kant, et al., because for them Idealism was primarily epistemologically motivated, Idealism being their solution to the problem of epistemological skepticism as it arose within the early modern philosophy of consciousness advanced by Descartes, Locke, and their followers. As I will argue in a next post, modern Idealism, as an answer to this threat of skepticism, fails miserably (thus the only remaining reasons for accepting Idealism must be ontological). To prepare the way for this critique of epistemological Idealism, this post explains how the problem of skepticism arose in the early modern philosophy of consciousness, or the “Way of Ideas” as it was known to Descartes, Locke and their contemporaries. 

The Way of Ideas
There were two main, interconnected forces driving early modern philosophers towards the Way of Ideas and its epistemological centralization of consciousness. One of these forces was the desire for certain knowledge, which arose from the quarrels between the Church and the new natural science of Copernicus and Galileo, which rose all kinds of thorny issues concerning the authority of Faith and the powers of Reason. Here, famously, Descartes used the cogito ergo sum argument as a way to ground the certainty of knowledge on the self-evidence of consciousness’ knowledge of itself. Thus, the range of certain knowledge became limited to individual consciousness and its ‘contents’ (generically called “ideas” or “representations”; Kant spoke of “Vorstellungen”). According to the proponents of the Way of Ideas, then, the subject knows primarily what is inside the “circle” of his consciousness; only those contents are immediately present to it. All things outside consciousness are known mediately, by conjecture on the basis of what is inside consciousness (sensations, feelings, concepts, thoughts).

The other force that drove early modern philosophers to embrace the Way of Ideas was the atomism – or “corpuscular philosophy” – of the new natural science. Reviving (and transforming) the atomism of Democritus, the proponents of the new science advanced the hypothesis that all natural phenomena are explainable in terms of tiny particles of matter, “corpuscles”, interacting mechanically in space. This, however, led to the question of how to explain sensory qualities such as colour, smell, sound, and taste, which are notoriously subjective. What colour something appears to have or how it sounds, tastes or smells can differ from person to person, depending on one’s physical constitution and the surrounding environment (thus, a thing’s colour changes with the light falling on it; things can taste and smell differently when you are sick, etc.). However, like the atoms of Democritus, the corpuscles of the new science were supposed to exist objectively, independently of our consciousness of them. They were, moreover, supposed to be so small as to be imperceptible and thus as being in themselves without colour, taste, smell, etc. Hence, like Democritus, the corpuscularians – including Descartes and Locke – concluded that such sensory qualities were merely the effects in our minds of the collisions of corpuscles on our sense organs. Such sensory qualities, then, are only subjective and do not reveal the objective qualities of the corpuscles, which consist merely of solidity, spatial form and position, and motion. This distinction between subjective and objective qualities became known as the distinction between secondary and primary qualities. Whereas the primary qualities, such as spatial position and motion, are objective, measurable, and mathematizable, and thus are crucial to natural science, the secondary qualities convey no trustworthy information about the reality outside our consciousness.

The general picture that thus arose was of a knowing subject locked inside his “circle of consciousness”, with external objects impinging on it from the outside, causing perceptions within the circle. “We have no knowledge of what is outside us except by mediation of the ideas within us,” as the Cartesian philosopher Arnauld (1964 [1662]: 31) summarized it. Such was the overall conceptual framework within which the Way of Ideas operated. And although this focus on consciousness was partly motivated, notably in Descartes, to provide a secure foundation for knowledge, the irony of the situation was that the Way of Ideas ended up fostering a radical epistemological skepticism. For if certainty pertains only to what is inside consciousness, how then can we know what is outside consciousness, the external reality? If all we know with certainty are the contents of consciousness, how can we know that these contents correspond to external objects? After all, as the problem was frequently put, we cannot step outside our consciousness in order to inspect its correspondence, or lack thereof, with external reality. 

The Veil of Perception and the Cartesian Circle
The problem is sometimes put in terms of a veil-of-perception theory which has been attributed to Descartes, Locke, and other philosophers of the Way of Ideas. On this theory, our sensory experiences of external objects do not give us cognitive access to these objects but rather form a ‘veil’ or ‘screen’ hiding them from our view. So the medium we use to know external objects, our sensations and ideas, blocks our very access to them. Thus Barry Stroud describes Descartes’ sceptical conclusion in his First Meditation as “implying that we are permanently sealed off from a world we can never reach”: “We are restricted to the passing show on the veil of perception, with no possibility of extending our knowledge to the world beyond. We are confined to appearances we can never know to match or deviate from the imperceptible reality that is forever denied to us.” (Stroud 1984: 33-4) Similar veil-of-perception theories have been attributed to Locke, Berkeley and Hume (cf. Bennett 1971).

The radical nature of the epistemological problem created by this veil-of-perception theory is well illustrated by the desperate solution offered to it by Descartes. In his Meditations on First Philosophy he famously argued that the only way to ‘pierce through’ the veil of perception, in order to reach the objects in themselves, is by evoking God, whose goodness would guarantee the veracity of our perceptions, such that “all things which I perceive very clearly and distinctly are true” (Descartes 1996 [1641]: 24). But to this solution, of course, the skeptic can easily respond by asking how Descartes can know for sure that God exists. If our ideas form a screen between us and external reality, then surely they would also screen us from the true nature of God, if He exists at all. Descartes had an answer to this, but few would find it convincing. It could even be argued that it is downright circular. Descartes argued that we find within our minds an idea of an infinite being, thus an idea which we as finite beings cannot possibly have produced; thus, it can only have been put in our minds by our Creator, “like the mark of the workman imprinted on his work” (Descartes 1996 [1641]: 35). Descartes’ assumption, however, that a finite being cannot form any idea of infinity, is rather questionable. Therefore Descartes also had recourse to a version of the ontological proof of God’s existence. But, as was already pointed out by critics in Descartes’ time, this makes his argument for the veracity of clear and distinct ideas rather circular. For Descartes cannot know that this proof of God does not contain any error unless he assumes that his clear and distinct perception of the steps of his reasoning guarantees that the proof is correct. So Descartes has to presuppose the veracity of clear and distinct ideas in order to prove the existence of God, which he then invokes as the guarantee of this very veracity – a conundrum known as the “Cartesian circle”.

The Problem of Primary and Secondary Qualities in Democritus, Locke, and Berkeley
The Way of Ideas, then, fostered epistemological skepticism by imprisoning the knowing subject within the circle of his consciousness, hiding external reality behind a veil of perception. It is often said that this type of skepticism was exclusively modern and cannot be found in premodern times. This is by and large true, but not entirely. It is true that for Pyrrhonism, the dominant form of epistemological skepticism in antiquity, the gap between what is in consciousness and what outside it didn’t matter much (Pyrrhonism was mainly concerned with showing that we can have no definitive criterion of truth, since every proof of such a criterion must either be circular or presuppose another criterion of truth, for which then the same problem arises). Nevertheless, the problem of the gap between consciousness and external reality was not completely unknown in classical philosophy, as shown by the remarkable case of Democritus, the "laughing philosopher". Not only did Democritus, with his atomism, anticipate the modern scientific worldview, he also anticipated the modern distinction between primary and secondary sensory qualities, as well as the epistemological skepticism induced by this distinction. In one of the few surviving fragments of his work, Democritus stages a striking dialogue between the Intellect and the Senses:

“Intellect: By convention there is sweetness, by convention bitterness, by convention colour, in reality only atoms and the void.
 Senses: Foolish intellect! Do you seek to overthrow us, while it is from us that you take your evidence?” 

In other words: if the secondary qualities do not convey objective information about the atoms, how can we ever know about them? How, in particular, can we know their primary qualities, since we cannot experience a thing’s spatial position and motion apart from its colour, sound, etc. If we disregard all secondary qualities, external objects become utterly unobservable to us. This means, as Democritus realized, that the atomic theory undermines the very credibility of the empirical evidence on which it rests. Democritus’ point was later repeated by early modern philosophers, notably Berkeley in his critique of Locke. 

Locke conceded that secondary qualities give us no insight into the true nature of external objects, but like Descartes he remained steadfast that we can nevertheless know these objects by observing their primary qualities, e.g. spatial position and motion. Thus Locke claimed that “the ideas of primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves, but the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance to them at all” (Locke 1996 [1689]: 51). Berkeley objected – much as Democritus had argued some 2000 years earlier – that we can observe a thing’s primary qualities only through its secondary qualities, and thus that our beliefs about the primary qualities of external objects are as problematic as the secondary qualities we attribute to them. Thus, Berkeley writes: “In short, extension, figure, and motion, abstracted from all other qualities, are inconceivable. Where therefore the other sensible qualities are, there must these be also, to wit, in the mind and nowhere else.” (Berkeley 2003 [1710]: 35)

Locke and the Problem of the ‘Thing in Itself’
In this way, however, Berkeley only aggravated a skepticism that was already present in the inaugurators of the Way of Ideas. We have already seen how Descartes felt the sceptical challenge and how he attempted to meet it by invoking God as the guarantor of the veracity of his “clear and distinct ideas”. Locke, too, felt this challenge. Although Locke thought (pace Berkeley) that we can know an external thing’s primary qualities, he also thought that we could not know what that thing is in itself, independent from its relation to us and other objects. Primary qualities, after all, are thoroughly relational, pertaining to a thing’s position in space and motion relative to other things. But what is an external thing in itself, apart from those relations? This, as Locke conceded, we cannot know, since we are ‘locked’ (pun unintended) inside our consciousness and cannot inspect objects as they exist outside of consciousness. Thus, what a thing is in itself, what the Aristotelians called its “substance”, was for Locke merely a “supposed” something “I know not what” (Locke 1996 [1689]: 123). For Locke, therefore, even the new natural science, despite its huge empirical success in the work of Galileo and Newton, yielded only opinion, not knowledge. Such sceptical modesty concerning the success of the new physics was in fact widely shared in early modernity, even by those who were directly involved in the development of the new science, such as Mersenne and Gassendi in France and John Wilkins in England. For all of them, our ‘imprisonment’ in consciousness precluded any knowledge about the true nature of external reality. 

Hume’s Critique of Causality
The authority of epistemological skepticism was further cemented by David Hume, who specifically undermined the causal claims of natural science, i.e. the claim that the scientist’s “laws of nature” refer to real causal connections within external reality. Hume followed Locke in holding that all belief begins with “impressions”, i.e. sensations, passions, emotions, which are the primitive imprints of external objects on our passive sensibility. We then form “ideas” which are the recollections of these impressions, their “faint images” or “copies” in memory. Hume argued that what guides us in these recollections of impressions, and thus in the formation of ideas, is the associative law of similarity: impressions which are sufficiently similar to each other get mutually associated, and thus form an idea. For example, our sense impressions of particular fires start over time to evoke recollections of each other due to mutual association, and this gives us the general idea of fire. Finally, beliefs emerge because these ideas, too, get linked to each other on the basis of association. To give an obvious example: in the past we have often experienced one sort of impression, e.g. of smoke, as immediately following upon another kind of impression, e.g. of fire, and this causes the general idea of smoke to become associated with the general idea of fire. This, according to Hume, is the full extent of what we mean when we say “fire causes smoke”. There is nothing more to our concept of causality, according to Hume, than this regular, inductively based association of one idea with another:

“We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin’d together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction. We only observe the thing itself, and always find that from the constant conjunction the objects acquire an union in the imagination. When the impression of one becomes present to us, we immediately form an idea of its usual attendant […].” (Hume 2003 [1739-40]: 67)

For Hume, then, the necessity we associate with the laws of causality, i.e. the idea that if one thing happens then another thing must happen, is nothing but the strength of this association, the power exerted by habit over the workings of our minds. We project this feeling of necessity onto the world, seeing the connection between one object and another as a necessary link between cause and effect. But, according to Hume, this is just an illusion, albeit a very powerful one. If we analyse our ideas more closely, Hume argued, we find no intrinsic connection between them that could substantiate a causal claim, such as that fire causes smoke. Imprisoned as we are within the circle of consciousness, we cannot know the real causal connections between external objects, if there are any at all. All we can know, Hume concludes, are the impressions and ideas of those objects within consciousness, and the merely associative connections between those impressions and ideas. Thus the causal laws of natural science evaporate into subjective feelings of necessity as we have been habituated to associate one idea with another.

The Mind-Body Problem and the Crisis of the Causal Theory of Perception
In sum, the Way of Ideas fostered epistemological skepticism by imprisoning the knowing subject with the circle of consciousness, hiding external reality behind a veil of perception. But it fostered such skepticism also in another (though closely related) way, namely, by inviting the mind-body problem. For how can mind interact with the external and supposedly material world if they are so very different, as the Way of Ideas suggests? The external world, after all, insofar as we can know it, is knowable only through its primary qualities, such as solidity, spatial position, and motion. For all we know, therefore, external reality is nothing but solid bodies interacting mechanically in space. Hence, of course, Descartes’ definition of the external world in terms of “res extensa”. But consciousness is very different from this world of extension, since ideas appear to have no solidity, no weight, no well-defined spatial position (if ideas can be said to be in space at all, they must be somewhere in my head, but where exactly?), and they do not interact by bumping into each other as material bodies do. Moreover, the conscious subject appears to have the capacity for free will, but free will seems impossible in a material world governed by causal determinism (pace Hume). Thus, consciousness appears to be in an entirely different realm of being, the immaterial realm of “res cogitans” as Descartes put it. Locke, too, drew the conclusion that mind must be immaterial, and thus categorically different from the material world which we can know through its primary qualities.

But, to repeat, if mind and matter belong to ontologically distinct realms, how can they possibly interact? Descartes wavered on this question, sometimes allowing mind-body interaction in the pineal gland, at other times doubting the possibility of such interaction; to Princes Elisabeth of Bohemia, with whom Descartes corresponded extensively, he admitted that this problem vexed him greatly and that he had no good solution to it. Locke was more resolute in that he openly declared the problem insoluble, there being no possibility for mind and matter to interact, except through divine intervention. As Locke argued, all you can get from spatial form and motion are other spatial forms and motions, and since the contents of consciousness are neither spatial forms nor motions, they cannot be caused by matter; nor can they exert causal influence on matter. However, since mind and matter obviously do interact, Locke felt compelled – much like Descartes in his solution to the problem of skepticism – to invoke God, who must have “superadded” mysterious properties to material objects, over and above their essential primary qualities, rendering them capable to cause sensations and ideas. Thus in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke writes:

“[B]ody as far as we can conceive being only able to strike and affect body; and Motion according to the utmost reach of our Ideas, being able to produce nothing but Motion, so that when we allow it to produce pleasure or pain, or the Idea of a Colour, or Sound, we are fain to quit our Reason, go beyond our Ideas and attribute it wholly to the good pleasure of our Maker.” (Locke 1996 [1989]: 237)

Obviously, no skeptic will be persuaded by this appeal to God in order to explain mind-body interaction. That Locke feels compelled to invoke divine intervention in this context only goes to show the deepness of the problem. And apart from being an ontological problem concerning the place of mind in the material world, it is also an epistemological problem, and one that aggravates the skepticism already induced by the Way of Ideas. For insofar as the causal interaction between matter and mind becomes mysterious, it becomes equally mysterious how perceptions can convey information about external objects. For here the only possible theory seems to be some version of the causal theory of perception, such that perceptions carry information about external objects because they have been caused by these objects, i.e. by the impingements of material objects on our external sense organs. Locke accepted a causal theory of perception, and he used it to explain how we can know external objects. Although the secondary qualities caused in our minds by external objects do in no way resemble those objects, as Locke admits, the situation is different with the primary qualities, i.e. with our perceptions of solidity, spatial position, figure, motion, etc. Here, according to Locke, our perceptions do resemble the objects by which they have been caused. By causing perceptions in us, then, external objects convey to us information about their primary qualities. And, for Locke, this is the only way we can know external objects, since according to him all knowledge starts with sensory impressions, the mind being a tabula rasa prior to experience. Hence the dire consequences of the mind-body problem. If the causal interaction between mind and matter becomes mysterious, to such an extent even that we need to invoke divine interaction to explain it, then clearly the causal theory of perception is of little help in explaining the veracity of our perceptions. Due to the mind-body problem, then, the epistemic position of the subject under the Way of Ideas deteriorates even further: not only is the subject shielded from external objects by a veil of perception, imprisoned in the circle of consciousness; the only way for external objects to pierce through that veil – by causing perceptions in us that resemble their primary qualities – falls away by being a complete mystery. And even if we accept mind-body interaction as an unexplainable yet undeniable given, we still have the problem raised by Berkeley (following Democritus) that we really have no perception of primary qualities apart from secondary qualities… 

-Arnauld, A. (1964 [1662]), The Art of Thinking. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
-Bennett, J. (1971), Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-Berkeley, G. (2003 [1710]), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Mineola: Dover Publications.
-Descartes, R. (1996 [1641]), Meditations on First Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Hume, D. (2003 [1739-40]), A Treatise of Human Nature. Mineola: Dover Publications.
-Locke, J. (1996 [1689]), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
-Stroud, B. (1984), The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Absolute Idealism 2.0 and Plotinus

In various posts on this blog I have sketched the rough outlines of a contemporary version of Absolute Idealism – ‘Absolute Idealism 2.0’ – which is both ontological and mathematical in nature. It is ontological, not epistemological, in nature in that its main motivation is to explain reality rather than just our knowledge of reality. Its fundamental concept is the ontological self-grounding of self-consciousness, i.e. the idea that self-consciousness – due to its circular, self-referential nature – grounds its own existence and is in that sense causa sui. This makes possible, in my view, an Absolute-Idealist answer to the most fundamental question of ontology, namely, Leibniz’ question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Here Absolute Idealism can answer: there is something, rather than nothing, because self-consciousness is causa sui. In my view, this ontological prioritization of self-consciousness as the explanation of reality as a whole – including physical reality – is confirmed by recent developments in the philosophy of mind (notably the Hard Problem of Consciousness) and of physics (Russellian Monism, the role of observation in quantum mechanics, the anthropic principle, and Wheeler’s idea of the self-observing universe).

Metaphysics continuous with science
Obviously, this self-consciousness I appeal to in order to explain reality as a whole is not the individual, finite self-consciousness embodied in physical organisms. Rather, it is a universal, infinite, absolute self-consciousness that is ontologically prior to time and space. I consider this assumption of an absolute self-consciousness as a metaphysical hypothesis that is justified to the extent that it helps us to explain reality. It is, therefore, a form of metaphysics, but one that aims to be continuous with science. In my view, Absolute Idealism is justified only insofar as it accords with the scientific world view. This also explains the mathematical orientation of my approach to Absolute Idealism. Physics, after all, shows that mathematics is the deep structure of physical reality. Thus, the Absolute-Idealist explanation of reality as a whole in terms of absolute self-consciousness can only work if it also explains this ontologically fundamental role of mathematics.

Royce’s mathematical view of the Absolute
In my view, we find the required link between mathematics and absolute self-consciousness by focussing on the recursivity of the latter, i.e. on the fact that self-consciousness, in being its own object of awareness, is also aware of its self-awareness, and aware of that awareness of its self-awareness, and aware of the awareness of that awareness of its self-awareness, and so on ad infinitum. As the American Idealist Josiah Royce has pointed out, this infinite recursion of self-consciousness is isomorphic to the recursion that defines the natural number system
(i.e. the recursive successor function S(n)=n+1, which starting with n=0 generates 1, 2, 3 …). In this way, we can see the absolute self-consciousness, through its inner recursivity, as aware of all natural numbers. From here, as I have argued in different posts, it is only a small step to seeing the absolute self-consciousness as a ‘cosmic computer’, given the fact that computation is standardly understood in terms of mappings from to .

The Absolute as ‘cosmic computer’
Since physics shows the basic computability of all physical processes, we can view the physical universe as a privileged subset of all the computations going on in the absolute self-consciousness. But why is this subset privileged? Why does the absolute self-consciousness ‘think’ the computations that constitute this universe rather than any other universe? Two facts suggest an answer: (1) the anthropic principle in physics, which points out that the universe seems ‘just right’ for the evolution of life, and (2) the tautological fact that the aim of absolute self-consciousness is to attain complete knowledge of itself. Thus, it stands to reason that insofar as the absolute self-consciousness computes at all, it pays special attention to those computations that “simulate” intelligent, self-aware organisms. For by focusing its attention on those computations – e.g. the computational structure of the human brain – it sees its own essence reflected in the medium of mathematics. This gives us the following hypothesis: the universe is that proper subset of computations in which the absolute self-consciousness sees its own essence best reflected. It is, to repeat, only a hypothesis, which becomes acceptable only insofar as it enables us to explain reality, in conformity with the scientific world view.

Closeness to Neoplatonism
Looking for historical precedents of this approach to Absolute Idealism, we arrive first and foremost at Neoplatonism, especially as developed by Plotinus. Plotinus was unique among the Neoplatonists in that he accorded a fundamental role to self-consciousness in the self-causation of the Absolute, i.e. “the One” in his terminology. According to Plotinus, the One is the consciousness it has of itself and as such it exists because it is conscious of itself. Thus, Plotinus writes that the One "so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself […]." (Ennead VI.8.16, 19-23) In my view, this insight into the ontologically self-grounding nature of the absolute self-consciousness is precisely what we need to answer Leibniz’ question as to why there is something rather than nothing. In this respect, then, Plotinus is a major inspiration for my approach to Absolute Idealism.

The mathematical aspect of Neoplatonism
But not only that; the insight into the link between mathematics and absolute self-consciousness can also be found already in Plotinus. This is, perhaps, not so surprising, given the well-known influence of Pythagoreanism on (Neo-)Platonic thought. The Pythagorean idea that numerical relations and geometrical forms are constitutive of reality was already dear to Plato himself, and only gained importance with the further development of Platonism. Thus the “emanation” of reality from the One was for all Neoplatonists also a mathematical process, a multi-leveled unfolding of increasing multiplicity out of a primordial unity. Plotinus was not unique in this. Neither was he unique in his technical development of mathematical ideas (in this respect, in fact, Plotinus was rather weak). He was unique, however, in the connection he forged between the self-consciousness of the One and the mathematical unfolding of emanation. Here he virtually anticipated Royce’s insight into the infinite recursivity of absolute self-consciousness as the generative source of the natural number system.

Plotinus and Royce
This becomes clear when Plotinus writes about the second hypostasis, Intellect, which is the first self-image generated by the self-consciousness of the One: “[W]hen it sees itself it does so not as without intelligence but as thinking. So that in its primary thinking it would have also the thinking that it thinks […].” (Ennead II.9.1, 49-59) Plotinus then goes on, in the same passage, to argue that we should not stop here, we should rather add “another, third, distinction in addition to the second one which said that it thinks that it thinks,” namely, “one which says that it thinks that it thinks that it thinks”. And then Plotinus asks rhetorically: “And why should one not go on introducing distinctions in this way to infinity?” Thus Plotinus clearly indicates that the recursion involved in Intellect’s self-thinking is endless and as such generates infinite multiplicity. In this way, one can say, the self-thinking of Intellect amounts to an endless self-multiplication.

In this way, Plotinus clearly anticipated Royce’s insight into the link between the natural number system and the infinite recursivity of absolute self-consciousness. In fact, I think that Plotinus took this insight a great deal further than Royce did. For Royce, this insight remained something of an afterthought – quite literally, as his ideas about the mathematical nature of absolute self-consciousness were only expressed in the “Supplementary Essay” to his The World and the Individual. Royce never fully embraced a Neopythagorean, mathematical view of the universe. Plotinus, of course, did embrace such a view, given his Neopythagorean commitments. For this reason, too, my approach to Absolute Idealism owes more to Plotinus than to Royce (the other reason being Plotinus’ insight into the self-causing nature of absolute self-consciousness, which is more or less lacking in Royce).

The self-reflection of the Absolute in Neoplatonism
There is also a third reason why I like Plotinus. Earlier I said that we can, perhaps, explain the physical universe as the computational self-image of absolute self-consciousness, i.e. as its self-reflection in the medium of mathematics. The fact of the matter is that this emphasis on creation as a self-imaging or self-reflection of the Absolute is also thoroughly Neoplatonic in nature. Emanation is for Plotinus essentially a process of imaging and re-presentation, where a higher reality creates a lower reality as its own image (thus material Nature is the image of Soul, which in turn is the image of Intellect, which finally is the image of the One). In this way, of course, Plotinus takes over, and develops further, the Platonic theory of participation, where empirical particulars are seen as the images or shadows of ideal archetypes.

Plotinus systematizes the Platonic theory by seeing the One as the ultimate archetype that creates, in successive stages, its own images (Intellect, Soul, Nature). Although Plotinus remains frustratingly implicit about this, it seems clear to me that this theme of imaging is intimately related to the self-consciousness of the One. That is to say: because the One is essentially self-consciousness, it creates images of itself, images in which it reflects itself and through which it enhances its own self-awareness. This seems to me the most logical interpretation of Plotinus’ theory of emanation, where each lower hypostasis is the image of the preceding hypostasis: this entire sequence of images is nothing but the unfolding of the primordial self-consciousness which is the self-caused essence of the One.

Neoplatonism as Absolute Idealism
One possible misunderstanding should be avoided: Plotinus' claim that each hypostasis produces an image of itself should not be understood as meaning that this image exists independent or outside of its source. For Plotinus makes it quite clear that each later hypostasis exists only inside the preceding hypostasis. Thus, Nature exists inside Soul, which in turn exists inside Intellect, which finally exists inside the One. In this way Plotinus can say that “all things belong to It [i.e. the One, PS] and are in It” (Ennead, V.4.2). In this way, Plotinus transformed Platonism in a thoroughgoing monism where only the One really exists and all other levels of reality are somehow produced inside the One as the Hen Kai Pan (“All-In-One”). Thus it becomes clear that Plotinus’ Neoplatonism is essentially a form of Absolute Idealism, since the One is for Plotinus nothing but the consciousness it has of itself. The entire sequence of self-images produced by the One should be seen as a sequence internal to the One, an internal unfolding of the One's self-contemplation.

Monday, March 19, 2018

On the bicentennial of Caspar David Friedrich’s 'Wanderer above a Sea of Mist' (part I)

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (1818)
In 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painted his iconic Wanderer above a Sea of Mists. It expresses perfectly the philosophical vision of German Romanticism: Nature as the Art of the Absolute, the mirror in which The Subject sees its unfathomable depths reflected – just as Friedrich’s wanderer looks out over the cloud filled canyon, contemplating his own destiny in the vastness of the landscape.

We are celebrating, then, a birthday. But, so we might ask, what is there to celebrate? The painting is surely not without its merit (we, as public, can still imagine the wanderer’s state of mind, even if we no longer buy into its underlying idealist metaphysics). But, admittedly, Friedrich was not the best of painters. He was prone to clich
é and overstatement, as shown by such truly unpalatable paintings as The Cathedral and The Cross in the Mountains. Although perfectly executed, Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mists evokes a similar feeling of uneasiness, perhaps precisely because of its technical perfection. We find it too clean, too smooth a representation of a sentiment that we have come to distrust anyway: the idea – or rather, the inchoate feeling – of a fundamental kinship between the human soul and the creative power that has wrought this magnificent landscape. We no longer believe in perfection, just as we no longer believe in a kinship between soul and nature. Indeed, the word “soul” has lost its meaning for us entirely. We, late- or perhaps even post-modern Westerners, have become cynical. And to a cynic, Friedrich’s paintings must certainly appear as childish and naïve.

Detail from The Stages of Life (1835)
But is this something to boast about? We may hurl accusations at Friedrich’s painting – cliché, sentimental, outdated – but it hurls its own accusation right back at us: “Why are you so cynical? Is that a good thing? Does cynicism make you happy? Is cynicism truly necessary?” In that sense, the intended effect of Friedrich’s paintings – to arouse spiritual self-contemplation by reflection on (or in) a landscape – still works, but now it works more indirectly.

For already in Friedrich’s own time, his paintings worked indirectly, at one remove, since they typically involve a human figure – such as the wanderer staring over the sea of mists – who undergoes spiritual feelings and who, through sympathy, communicates them to us. We are supposed to have these feelings mediated by identification with the human figure as he or she is enclosed by the magnificence of the landscape. Sometimes Friedrich’s paintings show several people – often two, sometimes more, but five seems to be the maximum – whose feelings and thoughts occasioned by some landscape are communicated to us in a similar way (see e.g. Evening Landscape with Two Men, The Stages of Life and The Chalk Cliffs on R
ügen). But the effect arguably works best when there is just a single figure in the painting, one fragile human being whose solitude and powerless isolation heightens by contrast the overarching cosmic community and creative power inherent in nature – at least according to the Romantic imagination (and here, besides the Wanderer above a Sea of Mists, we should also mention The Monk by the Sea as a powerful example of this effect).

Detail from The Monk by the Sea (1810)
But we, as cynics, no longer share the Romantic imagination. Therefore, as I said earlier, the intended effect of Friedrich’s paintings works even more indirectly now, at double remove we might say. For as Friedrich’s paintings hurl their own accusation at us, questioning our complacent cynicism, we are still moved to self-contemplation by his landscapes. But now it is no longer our own soul, let alone some Absolute Ego deep within us, which is reflected back to us by Friedrich’s landscapes. What is reflected back to us is rather the abyss of our own emptiness, our own lack of soul, our loss of the Absolute, the ‘Death of God’ that we have endured “after Auschwitz”, after the derailment of Social Progress in Max Weber’s “golden cage” of capitalism (a cage, moreover, that for most people is not golden at all, but rather made of cold hard iron), after the scientific “disenchantment of the world” (Weber again), after the industrial and consumerist destabilization of nature, after the failure of liberal democracy to effectuate real change for the better, after the public loss of confidence in politics, after the loss of confidence in Truth...

Our global situation, then, is on all accounts dire. Let us therefore seize the opportunity presented to us by the bicentennial of Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mists – the opportunity to look deep within ourselves, in order to re-examine our late- / post-modern condition… 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Why I like Absolute Idealism but dislike Hegel (and love Plotinus)

Readers of this blog will probably know that I have a thing for Absolute Idealism. One of the things I like about it is the neat answer it gives to Leibniz’ famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences itself. Thus, the Absolute Mind constitutes its own existence by being conscious of itself, and should therefore be defined as Absolute Self-Consciousness. According to Absolute Idealism, then, there is something, rather than nothing, because Absolute Self-Consciousness is self-producing.

I think this answer to Leibniz’s question is attractive because (a) we know – with Cartesian certainty! – that self-consciousness exists, and thus that this theory latches on to a real phenomenon, and (b) because it fits the contemporary philosophical landscape rather well, a landscape which has changed dramatically as a result of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The latter has plunged scientific materialism / physicalism into a crisis, sparking a remarkable return of interest in consciousness oriented ontologies, such as Panpsychism, Russellian Monism, and different varieties of Idealist Monism, including Absolute Idealism (cf. Sprigge 1983; Hutto 2000; D'Oro 2005).

I also think, however, that if we are to make Absolute Idealism work, we have to get away from Hegel, for several reasons. One reason is – to put it bluntly – that Hegel just isn’t a very good philosopher (and now I am pissing off a lot of people). It is certainly not the case that Absolute Idealism “culminated” in Hegel, as is often said, as if his system were the be-all and end-all of the Idealist tradition. That, of course, is how Hegel likes to describe his own philosophy, as the ‘Closure of History’ no less, where the “Absolute Spirit” finally comes to complete self-consciousness – but really that is just self-mythologization. It is quite shocking to see how many people have been taken in by that myth and accept the view that Hegelianism is the culmination of the Idealist tradition.

Hegel’s notorious obscurity
I share the view, common in much of analytic philosophy, of Hegel as a very sloppy and unnecessarily obscure thinker, who opportunistically twists and turns his dialectical method and categories so as to smooth out the rather big wrinkles in his system.
The obscurity of Hegel's prose is well-known and has convinced many interpreters that the philosophical value of his work is questionable. I tend to agree with that view. Hegel’s obscurity, though suggestive of deep and difficult thoughts, functions in my estimation as a smoke screen behind which he hides the many unmotivated transitions and inferences in his system (notably in his Logic).

Robert Pippin sees a “puzzling irony” here: “Simply stated, Hegel seems to be in the impossible position of being both extraordinarily influential and almost completely inaccessible.” (Pippin 1989: 3) But, although surely ironic, there really is nothing puzzling about this. It seems clear that Hegel has been so influential precisely because of his obscurity, which allowed all different kinds of interpretations to be superimposed on his texts. Thus Hegel offers something for almost everyone: left-wing, right-wing, Christian, atheist, romantic, rationalist, postmodernist, neoconservative, metaphysical, anti-metaphysical… Now, of course, some multi-interpretability affects all the great philosophers. But in Hegel this multi-interpretability takes on such a massive scale that one starts to wonder if there is any coherent meaning to his thought at all. In this light, Hegel's claim regarding the scientific character of his system looks particularly ridiculous. As Pippin notes, there is nothing “remotely resembling a consensus about the basic position of Hegelian philosophy” (ibidem). But if any such consensus is lacking, I see no point in taking the Hegelian system seriously. For what, then, is this system, what does it say? This remains totally unclear.

Dialectics? No thanks, I prefer mathematics
I also have more theoretical reasons for rejecting Hegel, having to do with the inherent inadequacy of his thought. One reason is the fact that not dialectics but rather mathematics appears to be the basic structure that underlies the texture of empirical reality. Contemporary physics, after all, is thoroughly mathematical in nature. If Absolute Idealism is going to work, it must accord a fundamental role to mathematics. The Absolute Mind that ‘thinks up’ empirical reality, must do so according to mathematical principles. As the physicist James Jeans famously put it: “[F]rom the intrinsic evidence of his creation, the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician.” (Jeans 1937: 167)

It is well-known that Hegel’s attitude to mathematics was rather condescending and revealed a substantial misunderstanding of the nature and importance of mathematics (cf. Royce 1959: 526-7). That is partly why, in developing the outlines of a new Absolute Idealism, I am not looking to Hegel, but rather to Absolute-Idealist thinking prior to Hegel, notably the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who accorded a fundamental role to “Number” in the “emanation” of reality from the absolute self-consciousness of the One – as well as to Absolute-Idealist thinking after Hegel, notably John Wheeler’s theory of the Self-Observing Universe, which basically reconstructs the philosophy of Absolute Idealism in the medium of quantum physics and information theory.

Hegel’s basic mistake
Hegel’s dialectics fails especially with regard to the central principle of Absolute Idealism, namely, Absolute Self-consciousness and its self-creating capacity. The dialectic generalizes Spinoza’s dictum that omnis determinatio est negatio (“every determination is a negation”). Thus the dialectic maintains that everything is what it is by differing from what it is not, such that dependence on “otherness” is internal to every identity. Now, this may well be true for finite things, for the multitude of entities inside the universe. But it becomes illogical when applied to the Infinite, i.e. the Universe as a Whole, the Absolute. By definition, there is nothing outside that Whole, so what could its dialectical counterpart – its ‘Other’ – possibly be? This is Hegel’s fundamental mistake: the extension of the dialectic to the Absolute.

The dialectical conception of self-
consciousness: the self must first
become its own other in order to
become and know itself...
In this way, Hegel arrives at a dialectical conception of self-consciousness as the – illogical – foundation of his version of Absolute Idealism. On this conception, Absolute Self-Consciousness is only achieved through the mediating contrast with the Not-Self (the object), such that the Absolute Subject must first “posit” the Not-Self before it can “posit” itself as a determinate Self (via the negation of the Not-Self, the notorious “negation of the negation”). Hence Hegel’s claim that the Absolute must be understood, not as the ontologically first, but rather as the last, as the end result of the universal dialectical development, when all otherness has finally been “taken back” by the Absolute Spirit: “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is” (Hegel 1977: 11). For Hegel, then, the Infinite is ontologically later than the finite, as it can only come about through the negation or “sublation” of the finite.

But the Absolute, as that which explains all of reality, cannot be “essentially a result”, because result of what? By definition, nothing can precede the Absolute. So how could the finite possibly precede the Infinite? Moreover, if the reality of finite things could exist by itself, then the very need to postulate the Absolute as their ground would fall away, and we would be left, not with Absolute Idealism, but rather with empiricist positivism… So the cause producing the Absolute can only be the Absolute itself, such that the Absolute is both beginning and result, cause and effect, simultaneously. Furthermore, nothing can mediate that transition from cause to effect, because the Absolute must already be the Absolute right from the start; it must immediately be its own result. The self-causation of the Absolute, then, must be an immediate ‘event’, not mediated by otherness, and therefore fundamentally non-dialectical.

This also follows from reflection on the possibility of self-causation. It is clear that the self-causation, which timelessly ‘kick-starts’ reality, cannot in any way be mediated; it must take place immediately, ‘in one fell swoop’, or it doesn’t take place at all. Suppose, a contrario, that a hypothetical self-causing cause C first has to effectuate a mediating cause C’ which only then produces C itself. In that case self-causation would clearly be impossible. C only has causal power when it exists, but it exists only as soon as it has caused itself. This means that it can’t cause C’ prior to causing itself. Therefore C’ can’t be causally prior to the effectuation of C. Therefore self-causation is only possible at once: the self-causing cause must immediately be its own effect.

Neoplatonic Absolute Idealism
Rather than to Hegel, then, I think we should (re-)turn to Neoplatonic Absolute Idealism, as developed primarily by Plotinus. I already noted the positive role Plotinus accords to mathematics in his account of how reality flows from the One. But it is also with respect to the required immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness that Plotinus’ thought is superior to Hegel’s. Plotinus saw that the self-causation of the One could only be an immediate ‘event’ (outside of time) and therefore he also saw the self-constituting self-consciousness of the One as an immediate self-awareness, an undivided self-intuition, where the intuiting and the intuited are identical (for Plotinus’ view of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see here). For Plotinus, then, the One exists by itself, prior to and independent of the rest of reality – which, as we saw, is what is needed if a concept like “the One” (which is simply the Plotinian version of the Absolute) is to be able to ‘shut up Leibniz’. (Schelling’s vision of the Absolute, at the time of his Identity System, as the undivided unity of subject and object, is simply a repetition of the Plotinian One in the context of German Idealism.)

Exactly how the absolutely simple self-intuition of the One generates mathematics is, however, something that is left more or less unexplained by Plotinus – which, perhaps, is unsurprising in light of the still primitive state of much of mathematics in Plotinus’ time. I think, however, that the revolutionary developments in mathematics that took place in the early decades of the 20th century – notably the development of set theory and of the theory of computation – will enable us do what Plotinus failed to do, namely, explain mathematics and the mathematical nature of physical reality on the basis of Absolute Self-Consciousness. For some suggestions about how this could be done, see here, here and here.


-D’Oro, Giuseppina (2005), “Idealism and the philosophy of mind,” in: Inquiry 48 (5): 395-412.
-Hegel, G.W.F. (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
-Hutto, Daniel D. (2000), Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
-Jeans, J. (1937), The Mysterious Universe. London: Penguin Books.
-Pippin, R.B. (1989), Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Royce, J. (1959), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Sprigge, Timothy L.S. (1983), The Vindication of Absolute Idealism.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Prereflective Self-Consciousness: What’s it all about?

A central development in recent philosophy of mind is the increasing adherence to, and elaboration of, a distinction between reflective and prereflective self-consciousness. This development has gone hand in hand with a remarkable confluence and cross-pollination of different philosophical traditions, from phenomenology (notably the seminal contributions by Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre) and the Heidelberg School deriving from Henrich’s reading of Fichte, up to contemporary analytical philosophers of mind such as Levine, Kriegel, and Williford (for overviews, see Zahavi 1999; Kriegel & Williford 2006; Frank 2015). This degree of consensus between philosophers from very different theoretical backgrounds is remarkable and suggests that the concept of prereflective self-consciousness latches on to something real, a theory independent reality. In this post I explain the basic idea of prereflective self-consciousness, why we need to distinguish it from reflective self-consciousness, and the importance of this distinction to philosophy of mind at large.

M.C. Escher, Self-Portrait in a Spherical Mirror
The paradoxes of the reflection model
The easiest way to understand prereflective self-consciousness is by contrast with reflective self-consciousness, which is self-consciousness in the mode of ordinary object-consciousness. In reflective self-consciousness, the subject is aware of itself in much the same way it is aware of other objects in the world. The claim that object-consciousness suffices to explain self-consciousness is known as the “reflection model of self-consciousness”: it basically sees self-consciousness as resulting from a turning around (re-flection) of object-consciousness away from external objects and unto the subject itself. Despite its prominence in Western philosophy, notably in early modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant, the reflection model has come under increasing attack in philosophy since Kant. It has become increasingly clear that the reflection model suffers from a number of paradoxes, infinite regresses and vicious circles. To explain self-consciousness, then, reflection does not suffice: we must postulate a sui generis form of self-consciousness, different in kind from reflective object-consciousness. The adjective “prereflective” indicates this special type of self-consciousness.

Below I will discuss the paradoxes of the reflection model in more detail. For now, a few examples will suffice. To repeat: the reflection model explains self-consciousness as the redirection of object-consciousness away from external objects and unto the subject itself. But how does the subject know that its new object, of which it thus becomes aware, is indeed itself and not another external object? The difficulty is nicely illustrated by the example of Ernst Mach who, sitting in a Vienna bus, noticed “a shabby-looking school teacher” (“ein herabgekommener Schulmeister”) sitting across from him… until he realized he was looking in a mirror (Mach 1922: 3, n.1). The lesson is that mere object-consciousness, if it is accidentally turned towards the subject, does not intimate that the object one is aware of is indeed oneself – to achieve that self-awareness, a further act of the mind is required, a mental act irreducible to object-consciousness. Thus, the reflection model fails to explain self-consciousness.

The model can evade this difficulty only by claiming that the turning around of object-consciousness towards the subject happens by no means accidentally but with the intention to get the subject in view: the subject intends to know itself and therefore turns its object-consciousness towards itself. This solves the problem of failed self-recognition (as in the Mach example), since the object is intended as oneself from the start, but only at the price of circularity. For how can the subject intend to know itself by means of object-consciousness if it isn’t already aware of itself to some extent? If the subject were completely oblivious of itself, it could not even intend to know itself. As the analytical philosopher Sydney Shoemaker notes:

“[I]f one were aware of oneself as an object in such cases (as one is in fact aware of oneself as an object when one sees oneself in a mirror), this would not help to explain one’s self-knowledge. For awareness that the presented object was φ, would not tell one that one was oneself φ, unless one had identified the object as oneself; and one could not do this unless one already had some self-knowledge, namely the knowledge that one is the unique possessor of whatever set of properties of the presented object one took to show it to be oneself.” (Shoemaker 1984: 105)

The reflection model, then, can explain self-consciousness only by presupposing self-consciousness. Thus, the model either fails or is guilty of circularity. Of course, it is not to be denied that reflective self-consciousness is in fact possible: I can, and occasionally do, observe and think about myself as one object among the other objects that populate the world. The point is, however, that this reflective self-consciousness is facilitated by a pre-existing – and therefore pre-reflective – self-consciousness, in a mode different from object-consciousness. As Dan Zahavi notes: “[W]hen one does in fact succeed in taking oneself as an object, one is dealing with a self-objectification which in its turn presupposes a prior nonobjectifying self-awareness as its condition of possibility.” (Zahavi 1999: 6-7)

The self-registration view of consciousness
The primary motivation behind the notion of prereflective self-consciousness may be the correct understanding of self-consciousness as such, but it certainly is not the only motivation. The notion of prereflective self-consciousness is central to philosophy of mind in general because self-consciousness is taken to be crucial for consciousness as such. That is, even conscious states such as thinking about and perceiving an external object, say, a tree, although they are ostensibly not about the thinking and perceiving subject, nevertheless seem to presuppose self-consciousness. This claim, that all consciousness presupposes self-consciousness, and thus that self-consciousness is ubiquitous in all conscious states, is known as the Ubiquity Thesis (the term was coined by Kapitan 1999; following common usage, I will refer to this thesis as “Ubiquity”). If Ubiquity is correct, and if reflective self-consciousness presupposes prereflective self-consciousness, then the latter must be central to our understanding of consciousness in general. A closer look at Ubiquity supplies us with further evidence of the paradoxes ailing the reflection model and hence the need for a notion of prereflective self-consciousness.

Ubiquity is motivated by a particular view of consciousness which has been and still is fairly dominant in Western philosophy and cognitive science. We can call it the “self-registration view”. On this view, which has been elaborated in many different ways, consciousness is due to a special “internal monitoring” (Lycan 1997) or “self-registration mechanism” (Frank 2015) enabling the mind to register its own processes. On this view, then, a perception of an external object is conscious because not just the object is registered by the mind but also the perception itself. Likewise, a thought is conscious because not just the propositional content of the thought is registered but also the thought itself. Mental process that are not thus registered by the mind remain unconscious. Since self-registration of mental processes by the mind amounts to a form of self-consciousness, we can summarize this view by saying that self-consciousness underlies consciousness (= Ubiquity). In other words: a mental process becomes conscious because the mind is self-conscious with respect to that process, i.e. it is conscious of its own mental process, which thereby is a conscious process. As said, this view of consciousness has been and still is fairly dominant in philosophy and cognitive science. It can be traced back to Aristotle, who argues in different places of his work that mental processes are conscious because they have, besides their external objects, also themselves as objects (De Anima III, 2,425b, 12; Metaphysics Δ, 9). As Kenneth Williford notes: “Its distinguished history, prominence in careful descriptions of consciousness, and visible if disputed place in the philosophy of mind, AI, and neuroscience lend the claim substantial prima facie credibility.” (Williford 2006: 111)

Problems for the higher-order theory of consciousness
So how does the self-registration view of consciousness provide further evidence for the paradoxes of the reflection model and the subsequent need for a notion of prereflective self-consciousness? The point is that the self-registration view remains problematic as long as we operate within the reflection model of self-consciousness. On the reflection model, the mind’s awareness of a mental state, which lifts the latter into consciousness, is conceptualised as an additional mental state, separate from the first. Mental states are primarily aimed at external objects, and as such they are unconscious. They become conscious only insofar as the mind turns its attention away from those external objects and unto those mental states themselves. A mental state, then, is lifted into consciousness by an additional mental act of reflection. On closer inspection, however, this leads to several problems.

It leads, first of all, to the same problem of self-recognition that we first encountered in the Mach example: if one becomes aware of oneself as an object, how does one know that this object is oneself? One can recognize the object as oneself only if one already has self-awareness to some extent. Or, in terms of the self-registration view, how does the mind know that the mental state, of which it becomes aware through an additional reflection, is indeed its own mental state? Clearly, this already presupposes at least some minimal form of self-awareness, which must therefore be prereflective and in a mode different from object-consciousness. Secondly, the reflection model can be seen to lead to a vicious regress in the context of the self-registration view of consciousness. If a mental state becomes conscious only by becoming the object a further mental state, what then ensures that this second state is also conscious? On the reflection model, a third act would be required to lift the second act into consciousness, and a fourth act to lift the third into consciousness, and so on. It seems, then, that the self-registration view, when married to the reflection model of self-consciousness, can ‘explain’ consciousness only by accepting an infinite regress of higher-order mental states – which means, of course, that it cannot explain consciousness at all.

This regress argument against the reflection model in the context of Ubiquity – an argument first developed systematically by Fichte (1994: 111-12) and later by Brentano (1991: 153) – may well appear to be fatal. There is, however, a way out for the reflection model, although most philosophers would agree this is not an attractive solution. It is this: hold on to the claim that mental states are lifted into consciousness by higher-order states, but with the proviso that these higher-order states can themselves remain unconscious. A higher-order state can still become conscious by becoming the object of a still higher-order state, but the top (or, if you prefer, the bottom) of the hierarchy is by definition an unconscious state. With the above proviso in mind, this is no longer problematic. In this way, consciousness is grounded in the unconscious. This is the solution adopted by Higher-Order Representation (HOR) theories of consciousness, such as those proposed by Armstrong (1968) and Rosenthal (2005). HOR theorists, then, remain with the conceptual framework of the reflection model and work under the assumption that all the objections against this model can be defused theoretically.

As said, however, most philosophers find this solution to the regress problem questionable. It seems paradoxical to explain consciousness in terms of unconscious mental states. One objection that is often raised against the HOR explanation of consciousness in terms of unconscious mental states is that it violates Ubiquity. This thesis, after all, states that consciousness presupposes self-consciousness. But how can the unconscious registration of a mental state by a higher-order state be classified as self-consciousness? True, it is a form of self-registration, insofar as the mind registers its own mental states by means of higher-order states. But insofar as this self-registration remains unconscious, it is questionable whether it amounts to self-consciousness. The phrase “unconscious self-consciousness” is, after all, a clear contradiction in terms. Insofar as HOR theories aim to explicate Ubiquity, then, they seem to fail. As Williford writes: “Classic higher-order representation (HOR) theories do not really do justice to the phenomenology behind ubiquity… Such theories arguably push the self-representational aspect of consciousness into the unconscious and thus betray the likely original experiential motivation for their theories.” (Williford 2006: 111)

Is consciousness grounded in the unconscious?
One might come to the rescue of HOR theory by making a distinction between strong Ubiquity and weak Ubiquity. Whereas strong Ubiquity states that full-blown self-consciousness is necessary for consciousness, weak Ubiquity states that mere self-registration of mental states by the mind is required, where this self-registration can remain unconscious. There is something to be said for weak Ubiquity, and thus for HOR theory. Weak Ubiquity still conforms to the basic intuition behind the self-registration view of consciousness. Moreover, HOR theorists ask, what is the alternative? The only way to avoid both the regress of higher-order states and the grounding of consciousness in the unconscious is to accept the existence of mental states that are not just aware of other mental states (thereby lifting the latter into consciousness) but also of themselves. Only such mental states, that are aware of themselves, can do without higher-order states, as they lift themselves into consciousness by being self-conscious. But HOR theorists generally find this a paradoxical solution, and thus prefer their own solution of grounding consciousness in unconscious higher-order states, which they find – if not totally unparadoxical – at least less paradoxical. As David Armstrong puts it: “[I]
t is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state. A mental state cannot be aware of itself, any more than a man can eat himself up.” (Armstrong 1968: 324) I will say more about this issue below.

In the final analysis, however, HOR theory remains unsatisfactory, for two reasons at least. First of all, we do not just want to explain consciousness, we also want to explain self-consciousness. Even if HOR theory succeeds in explaining consciousness in terms of the mind’s self-registration of mental states by higher-order mental states, the fact remains that this self-registration occurs unconsciously and therefore falls short of self-consciousness, since – as noted earlier – “unconscious self-consciousness” is clearly paradoxical. Self-consciousness, then, seems definitely out of the range of HOR theory. It is, moreover, questionable whether HOR theory can even explain consciousness, given the Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). The HPC seems to show that reductionism vis-à-vis consciousness is a dead end: it suggests that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of something else, i.e. something without consciousness, e.g. the brain as a purely physical object. But such reduction of consciousness to something else is precisely what HOR theory amounts to, as it explains conscious states in terms of unconscious higher-order states. This should come as no surprise, since HOR theories are often explicitly designed to facilitate a naturalist (i.e. materialist, physicalist) explanation of consciousness (hence the title of Armstrong’s 1968 classic, A Materialist Theory of Mind).

David Chalmers coined the term
"Hard Problem of Consciousness"
The question, then, comes down to how one stands towards the HPC: is it merely an extremely difficult problem which in the end can nevertheless be solved, or is truly insoluble? Can consciousness be reduced to something else, or is it irreducible? If one takes consciousness to be reducible, then HOR theory is, perhaps, still a viable option (if it can find an explanation for self-consciousness as well). Opinions on this will no doubt continue to differ in the foreseeable future, although there seems to be a growing majority leaning towards irreducibility. I, too, incline to irreducibility, but to argue for it here would far exceed the bounds of this blog post. In the following, therefore, I will simply assume the irreducibility of consciousness and investigate the consequences. It follows, of course, that HOR theory is off the table.  

The unavoidability of prereflective self-consciousness
Let’s take stock. The self-registration view of consciousness explains the latter in terms of self-consciousness: a mental state aimed at an external object is conscious because the mind is not just aware of the external object but also of the state itself. We saw, however, that the reflection model of self-consciousness fails: the reflective turning around of object-consciousness towards the subject cannot lead to self-knowledge, unless this reflection is guided by a prior self-consciousness, which is therefore prereflective and in a mode different from object-consciousness. Prereflective self-consciousness, then, is what we need to explain consciousness as such, in line with the self-registration view.

This also became apparent from the failure of HOR theory, where the reflection model returns in the idea that mental states are lifted into consciousness by additional reflections, i.e. higher-order states. We saw that HOR theory faces the problem of self-recognition: how does the mind know that the mental state, of which it is aware through a higher-order state, is its own mental state? Doesn’t this already presuppose self-awareness? We also saw that HOR theory faces a dilemma: either accept an infinite regress of higher-order states or accept that consciousness is grounded in unconscious higher-order states. Both horns of the dilemma are undesirable. An actual infinity of higher-order states not only violates the phenomenology of consciousness, it is also mysterious how a finite object such as the human brain can contain such infinite complexity. As for the second horn, the grounding of consciousness in the unconsciousness, we noted that this ignores the HPC.

So, to avoid both the regress and the grounding of consciousness in the unconscious, we have to accept the existence of mental states that are not just aware of other mental states (thereby lifting the latter into consciousness) but also of themselves. Only such mental states, that are aware of themselves, can do without higher-order states, as they lift themselves into consciousness, by being self-conscious. This is therefore what prereflective self-consciousness amounts to: a state of consciousness that is immediately aware of itself, unmediated by reflections.

David Armstrong: "A mental state
cannot be aware of itself, anymore
than a man can eat himself up."
Is prereflective self-consciousness paradoxical?
But how, then, should we respond to the objection, raised by HOR theory, that the notion of a mental state being aware of itself is incoherent? To repeat the earlier quote from David Armstrong: “[I]
t is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state. A mental state cannot be aware of itself, any more than a man can eat himself up.” (Armstrong 1968: 324) Note, first of all, that this is just a dogmatic assertion, without real argumentation. Also, the comparison of a self-aware mental state with a man eating himself up goes limp. A man who would – per impossibile – eat himself up entirely would not only kill himself; he would disappear altogether. In that sense, eating oneself up is a form of total self-negation. But a self-aware mental state is not self-negating – on the contrary, it is rather self-affirming or even self-producing.

To be conscious of an object, after all, is judgmental in nature, in that (a) one is conscious of the object as existing, such that existence is – at least implicitly – affirmed of the object, and (b) one is aware of the object as having one or more properties, which are therefore also affirmed of the object. For example, when I take a walk in the countryside and I (veridically) see a tree, I see the tree as existing and as green, as leafy, as beautiful, etc. Likewise, then, when a mental state is self-aware, it is aware of itself as existing and as having certain properties (e.g. awareness of itself).

A self-aware mental state, then, is self-affirmative, i.e. the complete opposite of the self-negation inherent in eating oneself up. The latter is clearly paradoxical, but where is the paradox in self-affirmation? Whereas “I don’t exist” is obviously contradictory, “I exist” is a truism. Thus, I see no paradox in speaking of a self-aware mental state… unless, perhaps, one interprets the self-affirmation inherent in self-awareness in a strong ontological fashion as self-production, as Fichte notoriously did. But it is clear that the Fichtean concept of “self-positing” is not per se needed to understand the self-affirmation inherent in self-awareness. I will return to this issue at the end of this post.

Subject-object difference vs. subject-object identity
Is, then, Armstrong’s criticism of the notion of a self-aware mental state completely unfounded? No, but whatever plausibility it has at the same time makes clear why the reflection model of self-consciousness is inherently wrong. Let me explain. The intuitive plausibility of Armstrong’s criticism derives from the common idea that some kind of subject-object difference is intrinsic to all consciousness, such that the conscious subject is always different from the object of which it is conscious. Hence Armstrong’s bald statement that “it is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state”. But – and this is what Armstrong overlooks – it is precisely this idea that underlies the inadequacy of the reflection model of self-consciousness. In fact, we can use the idea of subject-object difference to clarify what object-consciousness really is – a concept we haven’t properly defined yet. Object-consciousness, we can say, is intentional consciousness and is as such inherently wedded to subject-object difference. In intentional consciousness, the subject is invariably aware of an object as different from itself.

Self-consciousness, however, is essentially characterized by subject-object identity. In self-consciousness, the subject is its own object; thus, subject and object coincide, they are numerically identical. Hence the inadequacy of the reflection model. Object-consciousness and self-consciousness pull in different directions: the first pulls towards subject-object difference, the second towards subject-object identity. The reflection model has to bring about an identity by means of conceptual tools that imply difference – an obvious impossibility. Hence the many paradoxes ailing the model. It constantly has to undo or supress the difference which its concepts equally constantly generate. Already on this abstract level, then, we see that the reflection model is in principle incapable of explaining self-consciousness: the aspect of subject-object identity keeps eluding the difference engendering conceptuality of reflection – like the tail eluding the self-chasing dog.

The non-intentional nature of prereflective self-consciousness
That the subject-object distinction is indeed the root of all trouble for the reflection model becomes clearer when we take a closer look at the phenomenological concept of intentionality. Intrinsic to that concept is the idea that intentional consciousness is inherently “thetic” or “positional”, such that consciousness essentially purports to be about an independent object, i.e. an object existing independently from the consciousness aimed at it. This, of course, harks back to what I said earlier about the affirmative nature of consciousness, albeit that the phenomenological view of the positional nature of consciousness is stronger. On the phenomenological view, consciousness not just affirms the existence its object, it affirms that existence as independent from itself. Thus, intentionality is seen to imply a strong subject-object distinction. Phenomenologists put this by saying that the object is intended by consciousness as transcending consciousness. Husserl referred to this positing of objects as transcending our consciousness of them as “the natural attitude”. As Sartre (1972: xxvii) put it: “All consciousness is positional in that it transcends itself in order to reach an object.” It should be noted that such a concept of consciousness as ‘intending beyond itself’ is by no means unique to phenomenologists; many analytic philosophers held similar ideas, notably (and influentially) Moore with his notion of the diaphanous nature of consciousness as an argument for realism.

The point is that the failure of the reflection model becomes all the more obvious if we understand object-consciousness in this strong sense as intending its object as existing independently. If self-consciousness were “self-transcending” in that sense, it would have to posit its object, a mysterious entity called “the self”, as existing independently. But then, immediately, a new regress would arise. For since self-consciousness is obviously a property of this self, self-consciousness would have to posit the self as independently being self-conscious. That is: self-consciousness would then have to presuppose a prior self-consciousness on the part of its object, the self. And this prior self-consciousness, since it too would posit its object as existing independently, would also have to presuppose an already self-conscious self as its object, and so on indefinitely (cf. Sartre 1972: xxvi-xxix; Frank 1991: 226). Again, then, we see that the reflection model leads to a regress. Hence the conclusion, explicitly drawn by Sartre in particular, that prereflective self-consciousness is non-intentional, i.e. not committed to a strong subject-object distinction. Rather, in prereflective self-consciousness, the subject is aware of itself as strictly identical with itself. Or in terms of mental states, prereflective self-consciousness is a mental state that is aware of itself as itself, not as something different.

Final considerations: Prereflective self-consciousness and Idealist Monism
Earlier we noted that Fichte interprets the self-positing inherent in self-consciousness in a strong ontological fashion as self-creation. We now begin to see the motivation behind that idea. If we cannot see prereflective self-consciousness as aimed at the self as an independently existing object, then the self becomes a function of prereflective self-consciousness, i.e. the self only exists as the object of this self-awareness. In other words: a self is that particular self only because it is aware of itself as that particular person: Socrates, for example, is Socrates only because he takes himself to be Socrates. As such, the self-creating aspect of prereflective self-consciousness underlies the radical autonomy of the self, as Fichte stressed. Hence his claims to the effect that the self is the prereflective self-consciousness it has of itself and is as such self-creating.
As Fichte put it: “What was I, then, before I came to self-consciousness? The natural answer to this question is: I did not exist at all, for I was not an I. The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself.” (Fichte 1991: 98) This bootstrapping of the self through self-consciousness Fichte called “self-positing” (“Selbstsetzung”), saying things like: “the self begins by an absolute positing of its own existence” (Fichte 1991: 99). Note, by the way, that Fichte was not the first to draw attention to the self-creating power of self-consciousness. Similar ideas can already be found in Plotinus: see the previous post on this blog.

Baron von Münchhausen pulling him-
self from the swamp by his own hair.
Can self-consciousnss do the same?
We may take the idea that prereflective self-awareness is self-creating as its own reductio ad absurdum. But note that the idea appears in different light when we take into account the Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). For it seems clear, at least to me, that the HPC implies Idealist Monism, which I define as the claim that all of reality – including the physical – is ultimately explained in terms of consciousness. The irreducibility of consciousness obviously rules out Physicalist Monism (the claim that “everything is physical”), but it is consistent with both Idealist Monism and Ontological Dualism (i.e. the claim that reality consists of two different and separate substances, consciousness and matter). But when we also take the undeniable fact of mind-body interaction into account, the situation changes: Ontological Dualism falls away, and Idealist Monism is left as the only viable option. For if consciousness and matter are two different and separate substances, as Dualism maintains, then it is utterly mysterious how they can nevertheless interact (cf. the embarrassment of Descartes’ pineal gland). On an Idealist Monist reading, however, mind-body interaction is ultimately understandable as a form of mind-mind interaction, since Idealist Monism takes matter to be a manifestation of consciousness. But if we take Idealist Monism seriously, how then should we respond to Leibniz’ famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Note that on an Idealist Monist reading, Leibniz’ question should be rephrased as: Why is there consciousness, rather than nothing? Why does consciousness exist? And now the idea of the self-creating power of prereflective self-consciousness is suddenly not so absurd anymore…


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