21 February 2012
Beyond Philosophical Zombies:
A Thought Experiment in Absolute Consciousness
One of the thought experiments in contemporary philosophy of mind that has a certain traction with popular culture is that of “philosophical zombies.” It is a little surprising that this interest in philosophical zombies should coincide with a popular culture zombie craze, but that seems to be the case — unless we posit a zombie conspiracy that seeks to acculturate and familiarize human beings with zombie being so that when the zombies take over we will be easy prey, so to speak (sort of like — but not exactly like — the plot in Aurthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).
Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D. (Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University) begins his Teaching Company lectures on philosophy of mind with an initial lecture on philosophical zombies. Dr. Robinson distinguishes at least three (3) species of philosophical zombie (a tripartite distinction that he credits to Güven Güzeldere):
● behavioral zombies such that the zombie is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being possessing consciousness
● functional zombies also apparently called a neurological zombie, which is physiologically indistinguishable from a conscious human being, and
● identical zombies such that the zombie is anatomically indistinguishable from a conscious human being; it is not clear to me exactly how a functional or neurological zombie is supposed to differ from an identical zombie unless we go a step further and, invoking theological language, assert that the identical zombie has no soul, while a conscious human being does have a soul (this qualification yields what is called a soulless zombie)
Given the pop-culture resonance of philosophical zombies an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the idea, and it is not my wish simply to add another discussion to an already burgeoning field of zombie studies. What I would like to do, however, is to use the idea of philosophical zombies in order to broach the possibility of a thought experiment antithetical to that of philosophical zombies.
Philosophical zombies are employed as a thought experiment in order to investigate the possibility of entities that are somehow less than full human beings. What about the possibility of entities that are somehow more than human beings? That is to say, what about superior beings, i.e., being superior to human being?
I would like to propose a thought experiment in what might be called absolute consciousness. If zombies lack all consciousness, the antithetical condition to that of a zombie would be that of greatly enhanced consciousness — i.e., consciousness enhanced or extended beyond ordinary human consciousness.
In order to consider the possibility of absolute consciousness, we must attempt to investigate the limitations, weaknesses, and constraints of human consciousness, and to attempt to imagine a consciousness from which these limitations, weaknesses, and constraints have been removed. This is not easy to do. As Dr. Robinson observes in his lectures, human beings experience consciousness in the way that fish experience water — it is so pervasive and so complete that it would be difficult to even identify it. But just as we learned to investigate the air we breathe and which surrounds us our entire life — and which we also took for granted in a pre-scientific stage of civilization — so too we can learn to investigate consciousness. And we have, in fact, done so in some degree of detail.
If we consider modern psychiatry and psychology since Freud — and I specifically appeal to the Freudian tradition since Freud was a physician who sought to treat specific pathologies — we are presented with a detailed account of all the ways in which a mind can “go wrong,” as it were. So, first of all, absolute consciousness would experience no mental illness. This is a highly problematic claim, since it implies a distinction between mental health and mental pathology that may be relatively clear from the clinical standpoint but which is difficult to justify from a philosophical perspective. Are mental pathologies limitations to human consciousness? They are in so far as the inhibit the activity of consciousness, but I suspect that absolute consciousness (were it possible) would probably appear profoundly alien and, yes, pathological.
One of the most obvious forms of limitation of human consciousness is memory. Human memory is highly imperfect in terms of recall and accuracy. Absolute consciousness would be characterized by perfect recall with perfect accuracy. Borges wrote a short story about this that I discussed in ¡Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo! The character of Ireneo Funes, whom Borges memorably describes as a “vernacular superman” (in other words, a provincial Nietzschean Übermensch), has a perfect memory with perfectly accurate recall of everything. This story is so singularly beautiful that it is an act of vandalism to quote only an excerpt, but here is the narrator’s description of his encounter with Funes:
“He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been — like any Christian — blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.”
Ireneo Funes, then, possessed the greater part of absolute consciousness — perfect memory and perfect perception. But these things are problematic also, as Borges begins to point out, when he shows Funes to be contemplating an absolute language and an absolute catalogue of memories, which the narrator realizes neither serve the essential function of language or thought. Funes is not overwhelmed by this absolute consciousness, but he is at least staggered by it, and in seeking so way to order the vast stores of memory and perception that he has at his command, descends to a level beneath that of which limited consciousness served by limited language and limited cognitive resources command.
Human calculating power is manifestly deficient. The simplest mechanical or electronic calculator can calculate with greater rapidity or accuracy than almost any human being. Similarly, logic and mathematics, though human creations, are difficult in the extreme. Many of us go our entire lives without mastering them, and those who spend their lives on logic and mathematics master only a portion, and that at the opportunity cost of many other human endeavors. Presumably absolute consciousness would be perfect in calculation. And this, too, is problematic, since anyone who has studied logic or mathematics and passed beyond the rudiments of these subjects knows that they are fascinating disciplines torn by internal controversies precisely because they are imbued with the spirit of philosophy. The further reaches of logic and set theory are, in fact, difficult to differentiate from philosophy proper.
And this brings us to philosophy proper, since absolute consciousness would presumably be philosophically perfect as well. At this point we have probably reached the reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of absolute consciousness, since it is almost ludicrous to speak of a philosophically perfect mind. Not that people haven’t entertained this idea. In the early modern period in Europe it was the tradition to maintain that Adam had a perfect knowledge of philosophy, that this knowledge was subsequently lost, and all philosophy since the time of Adam was simply the rediscovery of the philosophy that Adam knew in virtue of his proximity to the fons et origo of all being and knowledge. One might think of this as a Christian re-telling of the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection.
Absolute consciousness may well be impossible for reasons given above, but even if impossible is remains an interesting thought experiment. What I have written here is only a rough first sketch of what might be done with the idea. If certain conventions are observed — the sort of conventions implicit in Plato’s theory of knowledge as recollection, most famously presented in the dialogue Meno — one can arrive at an “absolute” formulation of anything, but if we acknowledge that human thought routinely transcends established conventions, it cannot be so easily maintained that there is any absolute or perfect form that consciousness could take. And what is the investigation of the limits of consciousness but the investigation of the transcendence of such limitations? On the other hand, even if absolute and perfect consciousness is not possible, it doesn’t take much effort to conceive of a consciousness that is markedly superior to that which we now possess.
Absolute consciousness, while it would radically outstrip the capabilities and capacities of ordinary human consciousness, still falls far short of the idea of omniscience. Indeed, we could define absolute consciousness as here sketched as personal omniscience, i.e., absolute knowledge of oneself, of one’s experiences, and of the contents of one’s own mind. Omniscience simpliciter, traditionally conceived as a divine attribute, would be absolute knowledge of everything, of all experiences, and of the contents of all minds. Thus while there is a yawning chasm between ordinary human consciousness and absolute consciousness, there is an equally yawning chasm between absolute consciousness and omniscience, and this in itself makes the thought experiment of absolute consciousness interesting, because it posits a degree of being between human being and divine being as traditionally understood. Absolute consciousness is, if you like, the consciousness of angels.
If absolute consciousness is problematic, as we have seen that it indeed is, then a fortiori the idea of omniscience itself is problematic. This is, of course, not a new idea. Radical Ockhamists like Richard Holcot and Adam Wodeham attempted to think through the logic of omniscience and came to some disturbing conclusions, but this is another story for another time.
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31 January 2012
A revaluation of agricultural civilization
In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).
The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.
The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:
1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death
2: dwelling on the gruesome
3: tending to produce horror in a beholder
All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.
The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?
Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)
Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:
“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”
While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.
Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.
It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:
“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48
The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.
Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.
Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.
Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.
Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.
We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.
I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.
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26 December 2011
One of the distinctive developments of twentieth century philosophy was a cultivation of the awareness of impure philosophical motives — that is to say, the discovery of extra-philosophical motives for philosophical claims. This had much to do with the “masters of suspicion” — Paul Ricouer’s collective name for Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — but even Anglo-American analytical philosophers got into the act. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives.”
While this would seem to be a healthy development, and a movement in the direction of greater honesty, the trend was inevitably hijacked, and there were subsequently a great many ideologically-inspired readings of philosophy that attributed impure motives to philosophers that had little or nothing to do with their work. Controversial public figures like Russell were often the target of such tendentious criticisms, and more recently Foucault noted that he had been criticized from almost every imaginable point of view, politically speaking:
“There have been Marxists who said I was a danger to Western democracy — that has been written; there was a socialist who wrote that the thinker who resembled me most closely was Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. I have been considered by liberals as a technocrat, an agent of the Gaullist government; I have been considered by people on the right, Gaullists or otherwise, as a dangerous left-wing anarchist; there was an American professor who asked why a crypto-Marxist like me, manifestly a KGB agent, was invited to American universities; and so on.”
Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, “Politics and Ethics: An Interview,” p. 376
Among the non-philosophical motives for philosophical claims, I think that there has been an insufficient recognition of fear. Throughout history fear has been a strong motive for dissimulation. There is an obvious explanation in evolutionary psychology for this: the ability to deceive others (i.e., not to be honest with them) is often crucial to survival and reproduction. When one’s ability to survive and reproduce is threatened, one feels fear. One response to this fear is to employ dissimulation to survive and reproduce. In civilized contexts, this fear for survival and response by way of dissimulation can become so sublimated that it can take the form of manipulating the most subtle concepts of metaphysics.
Let’s take the low-hanging fruit first. What classic philosopher could be more classic than Descartes? Descartes is remembered for his method of utterly radical doubt — the attempt to doubt absolutely anything that can be doubted — and his response to this doubt, which was proving his own existence by the incantation, Cogito, ergo sum. In his famous Discourse on Method (Part Two), Descartes lays down four precepts of his philosophical activity, the first of which is:
“…never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”
These four precepts are well known. Less well known are Descartes’ follow up to his four precepts in Part Three of the Discourse on Method. Descartes here very reasonably observes that:
“…it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations…”
And to this end he then lays down four moral precepts for himself, starting out with this:
“The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.”
Is it even possible to expose everything in one’s experience to radical doubt while clinging to one’s childhood religious beliefs? Like I said, this is low-hanging fruit. Later, things get much more sophisticated and subtle, and therefore much more difficult and elusive to discover.
Freud, one of Ricouer’s “masters of suspicion” wrote of the motivations of philosophers who say such things:
“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.”
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, section VI
And again in another book:
“…if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.”
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, section II
I have always thought these remarks of Freud to be inadequate, because they fail to distinguish between those who are consciously fearful and acting to protect themselves, those who are only unconsciously fearful and therefore unconsciously protecting themselves, and those who have gone so far into self-deception that they truly believe themselves to be acting in their own (intellectual) interest even while they are expressing how compromised their thinking is. A longish essay might be written by unraveling all the strands implicit in this tripartite distinction.
Of course, it was not only in religious matters that philosophers let their fear triumph over their philosophical reason. During the Cold War, Eastern Europe was dominated by political regimes that employed heavy-handed ideological coercion, and philosophy was perhaps the most compromised of all intellectual enterprises, since philosophy inevitably overlaps with any sphere of thought subject to ideological control.
In his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel described this ideological control by appeal to the example of a green grocer:
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer X, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
What Havel here expresses in terms of green grocers is no less true for philosophers. On the contrary, it is more true for philosophers. In other words, philosophy is far more compromised by ideology than the green grocer business.
The philosophy of fear is a deeply compromised philosophy. Today, when the vast majority of philosophy is the product of institutionalized scholars, the fear is every bit as existential as it was for Soviet Bloc philosophers during the Cold War. While non-conforming philosophers are not sent to gulags, they do lose their position within institutionalized philosophy, and when this happens one must earn one’s bread by some other method. In other words, one must go to work. In other words again, one is sentenced to hard labor. One’s labor may not be confined to an actual labor camp (i.e., a gulag) but it is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.
Institutions are organized along ideological lines, and ideologies, when “successful,” foster institutions that seek to put the ideology in question into practice. In other words, ideologies imply institutions and institutions imply ideologies. And, as Havel has said, “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
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8 November 2010
Plotinus is remembered as among the most otherworldly of philosophers, far more concerned with the eternal than the temporal. His biographer, Porphyry, famously said that he seemed embarrassed to have a body, and that, “So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace.” But Porphyry also relates an interesting story about Plotinus’ early years:
“Despite his general reluctance to talk of his own life, some few details he did often relate to us in the course of conversation. Thus he told how, at the age of eight, when he was already going to school, he still clung about his nurse and loved to bare her breasts and take suck: one day he was told he was a ‘perverted imp’, and so was shamed out of the trick.”
Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 3
So at the age of eight, Plotinus was still being breast fed. This is an odd detail to be preserved from a man who, “could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace,” but perhaps a telling detail.
Freud opened his famous essay Civilization and its Discontents with a discussion of his correspondence with Romain Rolland about what Rolland thought that Freud had missed in his The Future of an Illusion. Rolland agreed with Freud on religion, but he still thinks that Freud has missed the point. For Rolland, the point that Freud missed is a feeling that Rolland has that he called the oceanic feeling, which Rolland identified as the “true source” of religion. Freud responded to this: “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings.” (I discussed this previously in Algorithms of Ecstasy.)
Though Freud could not discover the oceanic feeling in himself, he made a brave effort at a psychoanalytical explanation of what Rolland described to him:
“An infant at the breast does not at yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time — among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast — and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object,’ in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action. A further incentive to a disengagement of the ego from the general mass of sensations — that is, to the recognition of an ‘outside,’ an external world — is provided by the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure the removal and avoidance of which is enjoined by the pleasure principle, in the exercise of its unrestricted domination.”
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, pp. 13-14
Freud goes on like this for a page and a half — it is well worth it to consult the original text and read it all for yourself, but I didn’t feel like typing it all out right now — and comes to this speculative conclusion:
“Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive — indeed, an all-embracing — feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it… the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe — the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling.”
Ibid., p. 15
Thus Freud makes a connection between an infantile experience of absolute union with the world and a vaguely religious feeling of union with the world. I am not endorsing this view of Freud, which I think continues to miss the point which Rolland was trying to make to Freud, but this was Freud’s typical manner of proceeding: psychodynamic, reductionist, and positivistic. I wouldn’t have expected anything more or anything less from Freud.
But even if I don’t find Freud’s explanation of the oceanic feeling (which I, like Freud, cannot find in myself) to be adequate, it certainly is compelling, and it becomes even more compelling when placed in the context of Plotinus’ rather late weaning. If Plotinus did in fact continue to suckle for a rather longer period of life than most infants, well beyond infancy into childhood, one might speculate either that he felt this bond with limitlessness in suckling and was attracted if not fascinated by the feeling, or that his being accustomed to this pleasure with its component of being intimately connected to the nurturing body of the world, and its continuation into later childhood and its subsequent deprivation within a time continuous with memory into adulthood, may have prompted Plotinus to seek an alternative source of the same feeling.
There is no question that, as a philosopher, Plotinus was preoccupied with eternity, and Freud relates that Rolland also called the oceanic feeling “a sensation of ‘eternity’.” Plotinus’ Enneads are filled with reflections upon and even exhortations upon eternity and the eternal. Whatever the etiology of Plotinus’ sensation of eternity, it seems clear that it was vividly felt, and an important component of his experience that he felt called for philosophical explication.
The Third Ennead, Seventh Tractate, is devoted to the question of time and eternity. Plotinus defines eternity thus:
“That which neither has been nor will be, but simply possesses being; that which enjoys stable existence as neither in process of change nor having ever changed — that is Eternity. Thus we come to the definition: the Life — instantaneously entire, complete, at no point broken into period or part — which belongs to the Authentic Existent by its very existence, this is the thing we were probing for — this is Eternity.”
Plotinus, Enneads, 3.7.3
This definition of eternity is deeply embedded in Plotinian metaphysics, and no small gloss would be needed to adequately explicate its elements. But immediately before this definition, in the same section, we find this somewhat less metaphysically embedded passage on eternity:
“We know it as a Life changelessly motionless and ever holding the Universal content (time, space, and phenomena) in actual presence; not this now and now that other, but always all; not existing now in one mode and now in another, but a consummation without part or interval. All its content is in immediate concentration as at one point; nothing in it ever knows development: all remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now since nothing of it has passed away or will come into being, but what it is now, that it is ever.
This passage has some affinities to Freud’s psychodynamic interpretation: clearly it evokes the limitlessness, that lack of barriers between self and world, that Plotinus, Rolland, and Freud alike sought to explain, after a fashion — consummation without part or interval. We may wonder if this “consummation,” which suggests other consummations of unions that are to become important later in life, but which Freud himself sought even in the earliest period of infancy, is the masculine counterpart of the penetrative mysticism that we find in Teresa of Avila.
A Freudian interpretation of Plotinus could be called a human, all-too-human form of eternity, except that I suspect that the experience that Freud describes is common to most large-brained mammals — in other words, this is something more than and beyond the human, all-too-human. It is animal, all-too-animal. That the human experience of eternity should be an expression of our animal nature coincides with the point that I attempted to argue in Nietzsche on Sexuality, that there is a unity of that which we have believed to be most bestial in our character and that which we have heretofore believed to be ideal and edifying, this tells us something about what we are. We are not divided between a bestial element and a celestial element; we are one and whole.
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6 August 2009
Freud has been variously quoted as saying that psychoanalysis could treat hysterical or neurotic misery, but that it could not treat ordinary human unhappiness. The most a patient of psychoanalytic therapy could hope for was deliverance from the neurotic misery; pscyhoanalysis, in the words of a famous novel, does not promise you a rose garden. This comes from the concluding paragraph of Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, which has been translated many times, hence the varying words of the quotation:
…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.
Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey
The DSM — the official go-to guide for mental disorders — has eliminated the classification of “neurosis”, and “hysteria” is a term held in even greater suspicion given its past usage. Both were crucial terms for Freud, but it is difficult to find an authoritative definition of terms no longer current in scientific usage.
Biology online gives the following definition of obsessional neurosis:
A psychological disorder with a pervasive pattern of inflexible perfectionism which begins by early adulthood as indicated by many of the following symptoms: an unattainable perfectionism with overly strict standards which often make it impossible to complete a task; preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or scheduling to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost; unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things; an unnecessary, excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships; rumination to the point of indecisiveness; overconscientiousness about matters of morality, ethics, or values; restricted expression of affection; lack of generosity in giving time, money, or gifts when no personal gain is likely to result; and an inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.
The same internet site gives the following definition of hysteria:
a nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits.
The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.
In the quote from Freud above, as well as in the definitions of neurosis and hysteria, it is individual mental illness that is the apparently exclusive concern, but these formulations are highly suggestive, pointing to formulations that would describe neuroses and hysteria unique to collections of individuals. We have all heard of the “madness of crowds” and of tulipomania in early modern Holland and the whole history of speculative bubbles since then. Freud himself suggests in passing the possibility of universal neuroses. In his famous essay, The Future of an Illusion, Freud wrote:
“…devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”
Confessional communities, each with their distinctive religious rituals, while not in any sense universal, clearly embody what Freud had in mind and constitute neurotic and hysterical socio-cultural practices. It could be argued (and I think that this is implicit in Freud) that the hysterical and neurotic misery of the universal neuroses of religion are pathological, and that we can reasonably hope for deliverance from this religious misery into ordinary human unhappiness.
Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness. What is needed for this is a psychoanalysis of culture that goes to the origins of that culture and all its hidden horrors in order to discover the initial traumas that provoked the neurotic response. We already have a name for this, and it is history. The practice of history — history that rigorously embodies methodological naturalism — is the treatment for religious pathology.
At the present moment of history all this sounds a bit incredible, and the reader may well think I am joking, but during the Enlightenment the English poet Christopher Smart was institutionalized in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for “religious mania” (notably not Bedlam, which was the only other asylum in England at this time). The confinement was controversial at the time, and Dr. Johnson defended Smart. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records the following conversation concerning the poet:
BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”
Was Kit Smart mad? No more nor less than Johnson, though Johnson himself might be institutionalized today, not for his religious observances but for his personal hygiene. In perhaps the most famous of Johnsonian apocrypha, there is a story that a lady said to Johnson that he smelled. Dr. Johnson is said to have replied, “Nay, madam. You smell; I stink.”
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