Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook (Second Series, Installment 3)
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS IN THE SECOND SERIES
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THE FIRST SERIES
15. Implications of non-conceptualism: the existential counterpunch. In the first installment of the second series of Thinking For A Living, “What is ‘the debate about non-conceptual content,’ and why does it matter so damned much?,” I wrote that
the fundamental philosophical question that is being asked in the so-called debate about non-conceptual content [is this one]:
Can we, do we, and must we, at least sometimes, and in a minimally basic way, cognitively encounter other things and ourselves directly and non-discursively, hence non-intellectually or sensibly (Non-Conceptualism), or must we always cognitively encounter them only within the framework of discursive rationality, hence only intellectually or discursively (Conceptualism)?,
the Non-Conceptualist position is also a Non-Intellectualist position that picks out a radical, revolutionary approach to human mindedness in general and to human cognition in particular… [a]nd in turn, this radical, revolutionary approach to human mindedness and human cognition, if adopted and internalized, introduces an existentially-loaded, affective and cognitive Gestalt-shift in our understanding of our own nature, as rational human animals,
and also that
that Non-Conceptualism is true, whereas Conceptualism is false; and correspondingly, that the Non-Intellectualist and “sensibility first” view of the rational human mind is correct, whereas the thoroughly intellectualist and “discursivity first” view of the rational human mind is incorrect,
and finally noted two profound negative implications of this conclusion, namely that
[f]irst, Conceptualism and Intellectualism systematically occlude the two most important things about us, namely
(i) that we’re essentially embodied minded animals who are directly connected to the world, to ourselves, and to each other by veridical, pre-reflectively conscious, essentially non-conceptual cognition, and
(ii) that our “human, all-too-human” capacity for rationality grows right on top of and out of this dynamic and organismic cognitive, affective, and practical essentially non-conceptual foundation, without in any way being reducible to it,
[s]econd, this Conceptualist and Intellectualist systematic occlusion of the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human nature carries an existential punch, namely that in hiding this fundamental dimension of our lives from ourselves, we’re in effect tragically refusing to face up to our own humanity.
In this set of notes I want to reformulate these two profound negative implications of Conceptualism as three positive theses about Non-Conceptualism, and then unpack each of them in turn a little more, as jointly constituting a single triadic set of positive implications with great existential force, the old 1-2-3.
16. Here are the three positive theses: If Non-Conceptualism is true, then—
(i) we’re essentially embodied minded animals who are directly connected to the world, to ourselves, and to each other by veridical, pre-reflectively conscious, essentially non-conceptual cognition (thesis I: essentially non-conceptual content and essential embodiment) ,
(ii) our “human, all-too-human” capacity for rationality grows right on top of and out of this dynamic and organismic cognitive, affective, and practical essentially non-conceptual foundation, without in any way being reducible to it (thesis II: the bottom-up foundations of human rationality), and
(iii) that in disclosing the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human nature to ourselves, we’re in effect authentically facing up to our own humanity in all its limitations and specificity, and thereby becoming capable of being in dynamic, rhythmic harmony with ourselves as the minded human animals we essentially are, freely and as needed, without any further Intellectualist demand for conceptualization, logical inference, theorizing, or self-conscious thinking more generally (thesis III: the existential counterpunch).
17. As to thesis I—
The essential embodiment thesis says that the conscious minds of animals are necessarily and completely embodied in those animals, and, more specifically, that a conscious mind of a human animal is the global dynamic immanent structure of the living organismic body of that very human animal—or as Aristotle might have put it, that a human mind is the actualizing, activating form of a human body that has life potentially.
Consciousness has two basic modes:
(i) pre-reflective or non-self-conscious consciousness, which, in being naturally directed towards cognitive or intentional targets other than itself, is immanently reflexive, or aware of itself egocentrically and internally, without implicitly or explicitly forming judgments or propositional thoughts about itself, and
(ii) reflective or self-conscious consciousness, which, in being naturally directed towards, or about, itself AS a cognitive or intentional target, is transcendently reflexive, or aware of itself allocentrically and externally, by implicitly or explicitly forming judgments or propositional thoughts about itself.
More simply put, pre-reflective or non-self-consciousness consciousness is just being a conscious mind that’s directed towards other animals or things; whereas reflective or self-conscious consciousness is thinking about itself AS a conscious mind that’s ALSO directed towards other animals or things.
In turn, essentially non-conceptual content is of two distinct kinds:
(i) material essentially non-conceptual content, which directly and veridically refers to worldly individuals (animals, things, objects of all kinds, states-of-affairs, events, etc.) in space and time, and
(ii) formal essentially non-conceptual content, which directly and veridically refers to spatiotemporal structures,
either (iia) on their own, as abstract structures per se,
or (iib) as immanent structures inherent in worldly individuals.
All worldly individuals whatsoever are complex dynamic systems, including of course living organisms like the human body.
Hence the pre-reflectively conscious human mind, via formal essentially non-conceptual content of type (iib), is immanently reflexively aware of just being the global dynamic immanent structure of its own living organismic body.
Indeed, the source of our natural-libertarian free will lies precisely in our being able spontaneously to re-structure or re-shape the complex dynamics of our own living organismic body, actualize potential energy, and perform basic acts, aka intentional body-movements.[i]
18. As to thesis II—
Human rationality consists in a conscious human animal’s being implicitly or explicitly reflectively or self-consciously guided in its cognition and action by normative principles, whether these principles are
(i) truth-oriented, logical normative principles governing conceptualization, judgment or thinking, inference, or theory-construction, or
(ii) practice-oriented, decision-making normative principles governing know-how or skill, instrumental deliberation about intentional performances of all kinds, non-instrumental deliberation about intentional performances of all kinds, individual-centered morality, or social life including politics.
In this way, human rationality naturally invokes a set of innate cognitive capacities that are importantly distinct from, and inherently more complex or “sophisticated” than, the innate cognitive capacities directly implied and invoked by essentially non-conceptual cognition.
Nevertheless, human rationality would have no purchase whatsoever on the natural or social world, whether for truth-oriented, logical purposes or for practice-oriented purposes, without the foundation supplied by the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human life.
At the same time, human rationality isn’t in any way reducible to the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human life.
This is because human minded animal life has a natural purposiveness or teleology towards human personhood, aka human free agency, which necessarily includes the actualization of the set of capacities jointly constitutive of human rationality (for better or worse!)—or otherwise put, human rationality is simply a specific form of human life.
Therefore, in the natural unfolding of normal human minded animal development, human rationality dynamically emerges in space and over time, as the various capacities of the minded human animal develop and mature, over the course of its own unique personal life.
19. And finally, as to thesis III—
As per the other two theses, we’re irreducibly rational, yet also essentially embodied minded human animals, and the essentially non-conceptual dimension of our nature connects us directly and veridically, via our essential embodiment, with the manifestly real natural and social world.
Rationality is, as it were, the jewel in the crown of human life; yet it is all-too-easy, systematically and self-deceivingly, to overestimate and overinflate our rationality, and correspondingly, systematically and self-deceivingly, to underestimate and undermine the very foundations of that “human, all-too-human” rationality, our essentially embodied, essentially non-conceptual nature—that’s the tragic Conceptualist, Intellectualist error.
And speaking of tragedy, one useful way of formulating this same point in more concrete and vivid terms, is by analogy with Nietzsche’s famous distinction, in The Birth of Tragedy, between the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of human existence.
Correspondingly, here’s what the quite-helpful, relevant Wikipedia article has to say about that distinction:
[In The Birth of Tragedy] Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered and undifferentiated by forms versus reality as ordered and differentiated by forms). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity. In Nietzsche’s words, “Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed…. wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever.” And yet neither side ever prevails due to each containing the other in an eternal, natural check or balance…. Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysian element was to be found in the music of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue which gave a concrete symbolism that balanced the Dionysian revelry…. In contrast to the typical Enlightenment view of ancient Greek culture as noble, simple, elegant and grandiose, Nietzsche believed the Greeks were grappling with pessimism. The universe in which we live is the product of great interacting forces; but we neither observe nor know these as such. What we put together as our conceptions of the world, Nietzsche thought, never actually addresses the underlying realities. It is human destiny to be controlled by the darkest universal realities and, at the same time, to live life in a human-dreamt world of illusions. The issue, then, or so Nietzsche thought, is how to experience and understand the Dionysian side of life without destroying the obvious values of the Apollonian side. It is not healthy for an individual, or for a whole society, to become entirely absorbed in the rule of one or the other. The soundest (healthiest) foothold is in both. Nietzsche’s theory of Athenian tragic drama suggests exactly how, before Euripides and Socrates, the Dionysian and Apollonian elements of life were artistically woven together. The Greek spectator became healthy through direct experience of the Dionysian within the protective spirit-of-tragedy on the Apollonian stage.
Here, for “Dionysian” you could substitute “Non-Conceptualist, Non-Intellectualist, Sensibility First,” and for “Apollonian” you could substitute “Conceptualist, Intellectualist, Discursivity First” and have a pretty good sense of what I’m driving at.
Rational human existence needs both the essentially non-conceptual dimension of its nature and also the essentially conceptual dimension of its nature to be together in a healthy, fruitful state of dialectical tension, but also and perhaps above all, properly ordered, so that the former is the non-reductive foundation of the latter, and so that we do not systematically and self-deceivingly overestimate and overinflate our rationality via Intellectualism, and, correspondingly, so that we do not systematically and self-deceivingly underestimate and undermine the very foundations of that “human, all-too-human” rationality, namely our essentially non-conceptual nature.
Indeed, Intellectualism is a constant personal, interpersonal, moral, sociocultural, and sociopolitical temptation; and, to put not too fine a point on it, when we succumb to this temptation, it existentially fucks us up, bigtime, not only personally, but also interpersonally, morally, socioculturally, and sociopolitically.
Nevertheless, when we manage to achieve a full recognition of the sinister power and tragedy of this constant Intellectualist temptation and of the upside-down disordering of ourselves that it introduces, by means of fully opposing and overcoming this temptation, it also discloses how we can authentically face up to our own humanity in all its limitations and specificity.
In turn, as Nietzsche teaches us, this disclosure is not fundamentally intellectual in nature, but instead is fundamentally aesthetic in the broadest sense of that term, which applies to our essentially embodied sensibility as a whole.
This disclosure is made manifest by means of a further innate capacity that we can activate and actualize, freely and as needed, whose basic purpose, imagistically speaking, is to re-learn how to engage in Dionysian dancing.
Let’s call this capacity the re-humanizing capacity.
Less imagistically put, in activating and actualizing the re-humanizing capacity, we become capable of being in dynamic, rhythmic harmony with ourselves as the minded human animals we essentially are, freely and as needed, without any further Intellectualist demand for conceptualization, logical inference, theorizing, or self-conscious thinking more generally.
In order to re-humanize ourselves, we have to be able, freely and as needed, to stop thinking, and just be an essentially embodied pre-reflectively or non-self-consciously conscious mind that’s directed towards other animals or things.
In other and even fewer words: not always, but freely and as needed, don’t think, just be.
20. Therefore the final perfection of all thinking, whether philosophical or otherwise, is to make yourself capable of stopping doing it when you want to.[ii], [iii]
[i] See R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), esp. chs. 3-8, PREVIEW; and R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. chs. 1-5, PREVIEW.
[ii] This of course echoes but also generalizes Wittgenstein’s famously deflationary metaphilosophical remark in the Philosophical Investigations:
The real discovery is one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. –The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.
L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953, para. §133, p. 51e.
[iii] I’m very grateful to Mark Anderson for encouraging me to say more about the positive implications of the “existential punch” of Non-Conceptualism, and for indirectly suggesting the Nietzschean parallel.
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