Cognitive Self-Sovereignty. A Personal Take on Heavy Duty Enlightenment.

APP Editors’ note: Abelard is a full-time lecturer in philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America. Other recent discussions of Heavy Duty Enlightenment on APP include:

From Enlightenment Lite to Nihilism: How Professional Philosophy Has Totally Let Everyone Down about the Real Purpose of an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education.

Beyond Enlightenment Lite.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

—Dr. Seuss

A man cannot see by another’s eye; nor hear by another’s ear, no more can a man conclude or infer the thing to be resolved by another’s understanding or reasoning.

—Chief Justice Vaughan (1670)

1. Human beings are conscious subjects. Your consciousness is a bounded entity. Your consciousness does not bleed into or ontologically overlap my consciousness; rather it retains absolute distinctness and separateness (ontologically speaking). My consciousness is external to yours. There is a difference between my consciousness and your consciousness, my mind and your mind. The domain of my consciousness has a unique property: it belongs to one and only one person, namely, me: the unique subject of consciousness.

2. Think of your mind as a kind of inner theatre (Descartes’ theatre of the mind). Being in possession of a mind means having an internal mental screen that things (= content-items) can appear on. Such images (or mental representations) can be very useful because they can contain vital information about the outside world. For these content-items often do represent things in the world – objects, events, and situations – of all sorts. Assume that the content-items, which exists only in your mind at a given time, are not the same thing as the object, event, or situation in the outside world that they purport to make known to you.

3. Human beings are not just conscious subjects; we are also cognitive agents. Up on your screen at any given time during waking life, you will find content-items that inform you, or purport to inform you, of what is going on in the world outside your mind, in your immediate social and natural environment. These are usually called sensory perceptions. You are not entirely passive in relation to what goes on the screen. The mental screen is agentically interactive. You have, or can exercise, direct causal control only over the content selection of your own mind, not other people’s minds. For instance, you can move content-items on and off this mental screen if you want. Or you can fix on a particular content-item and develop it in detail (increase its mental resolution). You can focus or dwell on a particular part or aspect of a given content-item for shorter or longer periods of time. Or if an unwanted content-item shows up on your mental screen, you can ignore or divert your attention from it, or replace it with different content-items.

4. All of these are just some of the ordinary ways you can (and do) causally interact with your internal psychic environment, your private mental world during waking life. Your consciousness, then, may be viewed as a domain in which acts of a mental kind may be staged and played out. Call the power to perform such mental acts cognitive agency. It is through the exercise of one’s cognitive agency that one makes things happen in one’s own consciousness.

5. In addition to causal control, you can exercise some normative control over the content-items that appear on your mental screen. To exert mere causal control is to make things happen in your own mind: for instance, you bring about a change in the object of attention by redirecting your mental focus. To exert normative control is, however, to make things happen in accordance with some idea of how things ought to be. We express this in ordinary language when we say, “You shouldn’t think that,” or “Don’t think of it that way” or “Look at it from this point of view, not that one.”

6. Imagine a naked manikin. You can dress the manikin in various ways. You can mentally dress the manikin under orders from some third party (cloth it in plaid or else!); or you can mentally dress the manikin in accordance with your own wishes or sense of style, i.e., in accordance with how you think the manikin ought to be dressed. To operate in the second way is to exercise both causal and normative control. So, when you exercise normative cognitive control, you exercise control over how things ought to be thought of, conceived, conceptualized, or represented. But when it is you (not someone else) who decides how things ought to be thought of, conceived, conceptualized, or represented, then the exercise of normative cognitive control takes on a new and vitally important dimension, which we will call cognitive self-sovereignty.

7. Analogously, both the world (objects, events, and situations) and various deep aspects of your personal identity (who and what you fundamentally are) may, like the manikin, become things over which you can (and do) exercise normative control. Some events or situations in the world may not allow for interpretation, but many do. So, in such cases, there is some cognitive lee-way in how things should be represented so as to still be in accordance with reality. In such cases, it is not so clear what is to count as reality. Or it may be that a person is himself very certain as to what his own reality is, but his self-acknowledgment may remain socially unsupported by significant others. This is not a concession to epistemic relativism; rather it is an epistemic acknowledgement that there is a reality, but that people may not have equal cognitive access to it.

8. In such cases, as when a person may feel tremendous pressure to submit and see himself through alien eyes, to submit, or to be subdued by such pressure, constitutes mental slavery, which is the incapacity to see oneself (and own one’s own reality) except in terms imposed and prescribed by some (often significant) third party (your parents, spouse, or fellow colleagues, say). Such mental slavery fosters one’s social (and self-) invisibility.

9. The antidote to mental slavery is the cultivation of personal authority, which entails the exercise of cognitive self-sovereignty. Self-sovereignty involves both the exercise of causal and normative cognitive control. It thus presupposes an act of self-acknowledgement the first-personal content of which is this: That I am the rightful judge of what’s mine and what’s not mine. The range over which I can authoritatively make personal boundary discriminations—i.e., mine/not-mine judgments—is large. It extends from all sorts of pedestrian concrete items such as one’s motorcycle boots to more abstract mental items as ways of looking at things.

10. When you exercise the power of self-definition, i.e., the judgment over who and what you are, you’re not just limiting your judgment to defining yourself in your own head. Your judgment has consequences for other people, also. You’re self-definition affects how other people will experience their social world, one that INCLUDES YOU. This is because you and they share the same World. THERE IS JUST ONE PLACE FOR YOU TO BE REAL: IN THE WORLD WHERE EVERYONE ELSE IS. When you say “This is who the fuck I am” you’re not limiting this declaration of self-acknowledgment to the private domain of your own mind. Fuck, no. It has wider scope. So, when you self-define, you’re in fact making a judgment about other people’s world, too. And so, when you say “This is who and what I am,” you’re putting yourself (according to your own definition) into that shared world, whether people like it or not. What’s more, insofar as the identity of the person you’re putting into this shared world, is non-negotiable and so not under other people’s (definitional) control, which is potentially threatening to them. Conflict is therefore not unlikely. And this is why being true to yourself and declaring “This is who and what I am” can be scary and takes real courage.

11. There are also other domains for which I am the highest authority when it comes to how something ought to be thought of, conceived, conceptualized or represented in my mind. These domains in relation to which I exercise self-sovereignty are however not limited to my personal feeling-states, or even my personal identity (who and what I am), as absolutely central domains as these are, but may extend also to third-personal domains such as philosophy, ethics, religion, science, or politics which bear on my worldview (or mental model of the world). E.g., Does God exist? Is US foreign policy in the Middle East largely motivated by U.S. oil interests? Ultimately, even if I accept the view and argumentation of the experts, it must be me and my thinking who evaluates their arguments and reasoning and finally endorses the view as my own.

12. In every individual’s mind there is a seat of cognitive judgment; furthermore, no one but that individual (that man) himself has the right to occupy that unique seat. Thus the right of occupancy to one’s mental throne is a unique first-personal right. It is from this seat that you (and you alone) patrol and self-regulate your psychological or subjective boundaries: I determine what judgments (ideations, feelings, perceptions, moods, etc.) are mine and what judgments are not mine and I do so with the highest authority. When acting from this seat, there is no one who can legitimately override your judgment. The ‘can’ here is however also causal. When one has internalized the self-acknowledgement, one then comes to have the in-hand cognitive agency to effectively and deftly dismiss (override) negative or otherwise toxic self-referent judgments as dysfunctional or untrue, whatever their origination, internal or external in some third party. The in-hand possession of this capacity is sufficient for the personal emancipation from mental slavery and an abiding source of personal freedom and joy.

13. The $64,000.00 Practical Question is therefore this: How does one undertake to put himself in possession of this cognitive capacity? How, in other words, does one undertake to cultivate cognitive self-sovereignty? So, suddenly and perhaps surprisingly, we can see how the enlightenment of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?,” and the Buddha’s life-task of enlightenment, might, at some deep level, be the very same kind of enlightenment–


Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded
But once mastered,
No one can help you as much,
Not even your father or your mother.
You are the source
Of all purity and impurity.
No one purifies another.


Happiness, <b>Kant</b>, <b>and Buddhism</b>