When we were recording the episode, we were all aware that we got hung up on unreflected consciousness and how consciousness of consciousness was not reflected consciousness or self-consciousness. As a result, I thought we gave short shrift to the latter half of the essay. If that sounds convoluted, listen to the episode. There's nothing wrong with the way the conversation went - that's the nature both of such dialogues and a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of our format which was recently discussed here.
Listening to the episode, we did actually hit on the major themes of reflected consciousness and the ego, but in very short order. I want to call out a few things to clarify.
- Sartre takes consciousness to be 'intentional' in the Husserlian sense. This means that consciousness is always consciousness of something - it always has an object (external to it).
- This does not mean that consciousness is a 'subject' - it is simply the unity of all of the moments of being conscious of something. If you like, you can think of it as the unity of experience or perception.
- Unreflective consciousness is the bare act of consciousness of external objects without awareness of being conscious. Sartre talks about being in the moment (looking at a landscape, chasing a bus) and we discussed maybe a sliding scale where some animals experience without any awareness of it. We referenced Nagel talking about what is was like to be a bat - there is nothing it would be like to be something that was strictly unreflective.
- People though, have an awareness of being conscious in unreflected consciousness, but it is not the awareness of self-reflection. It is not an awareness of 'self'. It is simply an awareness that consciousness is not the object that it is intending (apprehending, experiencing). At this point, awareness is "impersonal". Consciousness is not taking itself as an object.
- In reflected consciousness, consciousness takes itself as an object - or more precisely takes its states, etc. as objects. This gives rise to self-awareness and a concept of an "I" or an ego. At this point one can talk about a 'me' that has consciousness and it becomes personal. It's kind of like the birth of identity.
- In a similar way to that in which consciousness is the unity of intentionality (experience), the ego is the unity of reflected consciousness. It arises from the motion of consciousness rather than being a separate substance that grounds or makes possible consciousness.
There is some very cool stuff here. At the level of unreflective consciousness, consciousness doesn't belong to a subject. "Impersonal" here can be read as 'in common'. It's a restatement of the phenomenological thesis that our experience shows that we are all conscious of the same objects and that those objects are external. This counters skepticism about both the existence of the external world (or at least our epistemic access to it) as well as providing a way to bridge experience with others.
By making the ego a unity that arises from consciousness rather than an object, Sartre places limits on how we can know or experience the ego when we try and take it as an object - when we take an intentional stance towards it. Because the ego is the totality of consciousness, even though consciousness can take the ego as an object, it can't take it all in at once. He talks about the ego as being at the horizon of consciousness - always an object you can only see at the periphery, as it were.
This inversion of the traditional view of the ego is pretty unsettling: the ego no longer grounds your identity and experience, nor is it something to which you have privileged access. It is fluid and constantly being constituted by consciousness. You have access to the states that make up your reflected consciousness - and no access to other's reflected states - but this doesn't guarantee some kind of superior epistemic position. Rather, they are simply more 'intimate' than those of others.
I really like this because it suggests a fragility of identity that I think we experience often in our lives and which is in no way articulated by Cartesian subjectivism. I was drawn to the Phenomenological enterprise because of the prioritization of experience over substance-based subject/object dualism. For me, Heidegger made a heroic attempt to articulate an alternative way of thinking about human existence against this dualism while Husserl, even though he was the catalyst, ultimately couldn't escape it. Sartre does a nice job of providing a phenomenological view of consciousness and the ego that satisfies what I want out of the Husserlian enterprise without taking Heidegger's radical leap.
When I am given such an unexpected pleasure, I truly experience the joy of philosophy...
(P.S. the contents of this post were neither reviewed nor likely endorsed by Mark, Wes or Dylan)
Dylan Casey says
Thanks for posting this, Seth. Your clearly distilled summary helps me clarify one of the things that I was pining for during the episode.
For me, it was a pleasure to read Sartre for the first time. I’m very sympathetic to the ego as “fluid and constantly being constituted by consciousness” and I like the direction that this goes, particularly that it makes sense of the simultaneous activities of discovering oneself and making oneself. What I’d like to hear more about are the boundaries and internal contingencies of this fluidity. In particular, the ego as described by Sartre certainly has a history that is part of its constitution. (It’s one way that learning, memory, and experience matter at all.) This history wouldn’t be a revealing of its nature, but would mark the path of its constitution and this path has reflections and implications for its current state. This would imply that, on the one hand, our histories matter, but on the other hand, that they are not determinative — we are formed by our contingent history without necessarily being bound by it.
It’s this constrained/contingent yet dynamic character of ego and identity that I find particularly interesting. Maybe we’ll have the opportunity to explore this more in the future.
David Buchanan says
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sartre is not the Cartesian I thought he was. This misconception started to dissolve as I listened to the episode and Seth’s pity summary finished it off. I especially like one phrase in particular; “the prioritization of experience over substance-based subject/object dualism”. That phrase accurately describes the radical empiricism of my favorite thinkers, namely William James, John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, etc.. This priority effects a Copernican revolution of sorts because the self is a product of experience rather than the other way around. Subjects and objects are secondary and conceptual rather than the conditions that make experience possible.
This sort of thing doesn’t fit well into a chat box. That’s okay because I just wanted to express some excitement and otherwise say thanks .
“Subjects and objects are secondary and conceptual rather than the conditions that make experience possible.”
David, can you or anybody else reading this explain what this means?
Mark Linsenmayer says
It’s a matter of epistemic priority. For post-Heidegger phenomenology, our starting point is as a being seamlessly in the world, whereas scientific knowledge requires abstraction away from this stance: positing a difference between knower and known.
David Buchanan says
It’s like Mark says. Instead of making truth and knowledge a matter of correct correspondence between subjective beliefs and objective realities, we are always already in the world. It’s about rejecting the idea that reality is naturally divided into what’s really real and reality as it appears to us. This is a metaphysical stance and we fine it in Modern philosophy, science and common sense. The alternative view is going to seem very strange because it has to defy all that, in some sense,. Simply put, this alternative view says that experience comes first, that subject and object, inner and outer, are the ways we habitually sort experience. They are conceptual categories rather than ontological realities. They are abstracted from experience, derived from experience, not the causes of experience. Subject-object dualism is hereby exposed as a reification of these concepts. AS CONCEPTS they work quite well in tons of ordinary situations but when inner and outer are supposed to be the structure of reality itself, all kinds of fake philosophical problems are produced. All kinds of metaphysical entities have to be invented in order to overcome the epistemic gap between knower and known. Overcoming this dualism, then, is a way a sweeping away an infinite amount of philosophical nonsense. Radical empiricism was James’s attempt to lock the gates, to keep all those metaphysical fictions from leaking back into our philosophies.
See, it really doesn’t fit into a chat box.
Mark and David, your comments both seem to presume human mentality in this subject/object thing.
Forgive me if I seem otherwise, I am not trying to be difficult, but this material is vague. I thought Pirsig to be vague on subjects and objects when reading him some while back. I learned of Heidegger by taped lectures, and wonder if existing is passive or active.
Does a quark experience? A table? A tree? A string weed trimmer?
What precisely is experience – what does it entail?
What is capable of experiencing?
Is mere being = experience? What is not experience? Are there categories of experience?
Is my series of questions a sign of my misunderstanding something obvious?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Hi, this post I put up yesterday (http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2011/12/05/quassim-cassam-via-elucidations-on-skepticism/) was meant in part as a response to your question, which is not at all weird and I think requires a concerted effort on an episode to treat properly. The Merleau-Ponty one is in part about this, but I don’t know that you’ll find it satisfying.
The idea is that yes, because we can’t escape ourselves, we have to use human mentality as the starting point of philosophy. Imagining a world with no people in it is perfectly coherent, but it’s just that: imagination, so this personless world is by necessity imagined as being kind of like how people interpret things, yet everyone is dead or something. For post-Kantians, objectivity is itself a feature of experience. This is weird, and the best I can do is refer you to our William James episodes about truth (eps 20 and 22: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/?s=william+james). For James, truth is our process of figuring out stuff, taken to its logical conclusion: it’s this pole, this correlate that we have to posit to have something to aim at: we never know for sure if any given claim is true, but because we have this idea of a gradation, we have the tools to argue about it. Now, you can see this (like Plato) as something objective that we get in touch with, but James wants to further explain that: how do we get in touch with it, and what kind of thing must it be for us to get in touch with and use it in this way. His conclusion is, just like I was describing “good” as the ideal target that ethics (a human invention) is aiming at according to Smith/Hume, truth is the ideal target for inquiry.
If you can buy anything like that (and I’m honestly not sure if I can), then it’s only a small further step to say that the subject/object distinction itself is something we’ve created, or rather found in experience; and the whole point of phenomenology is that we can’t really make a meaningful distinction between the two: we can only say the degree to which something seems invented (like a fantasy that I consciously make up) vs. seems objective (nearly everything else). So, for instance, think about meditation: from the “natural” standpoint (that of natural science), this is pulling into yourself, and we can talk about what goes on with your brain and physiology and all that. From an experiential standpoint, meditation MAY be returning to some kind of primal, pre-analytic state, and this revealing more truth than this ordinary existence, conditioned as it is by the exigencies of culture. I personally don’t buy the latter interpretation in the case of meditation, but it’s a potential example. Merleau-Ponty talks about art in this way: impressionism, for instance, gets us to reflect on exactly how we see things, the act of seeing itself apart from the existential/scientific claims we’d make about what we see, and somehow this is more epistemically basic, and hence at least as legitimate in terms of conveying “truth” than ordinary seeing.
Your question about other beings experiencing things is right on target with our M-P discussion, so I’ll save comment on that part until that’s up for your consideration.
I sure do appreciate your kind, substantial, and timely response.
It is often that questions to commenters in these chat boxes are ignored just when an interesting point is made. This can cause all sorts of doubts.
I look forward to Merleau-P. I understand his emphasis is away from abstractions of the human intellect (concepts) and toward physicality (emotion, feeling).
I think experience is in great part about feelings of one’s surrounding. And by “one’s” I think I mean any active individual thing, like an atom or a dog, but not a conglomeration of active things, like a table or a human culture. I am in limbo on a tree!
I do not think like David on subjects and objects as concepts that arise in a blossoming postulation/awareness of a difference or distinction.
Experience entails some relationship that has an associated feeling. But the relata are independently existing in the relationship, not the result of the experience.
I would like to hear more on this, as it is the source of the vagueness that kept me from “getting” Robert Pirsig back when.
David Buchanan says
Concepts that arise in a blossoming postulation/awareness of a difference? I honestly don’t know what that means, Anonny. The “source of the vagueness” isn’t quite clear to me either. Maybe I won’t hit any bull’s eyes but a general sort of answer is better than nothing and then there’s always the chance for follow-up comments, questions, objections, etc.
Pirsig is far from being the only one to reject subject-obejct dualism, of course, and people can go in various directions after that rejection. He specifically identifies with James on this point but I won’t pretend to answer for anyone else.
The notion that subjects and objects are conceptual categories derived from experience might tend to baffle if this is conceived on the model of old school, sense-data empiricism, a model which is predicated on subject-object dualism. If you try to think of it in those terms, you end up with the subject being a concept derived from the experience of the individual subject. That doesn’t work.
Instead, these conceptual categories are derived from experience in a broader, collective, historical sense. They are highly evolved habits of thought that we all learn as we acquire the language of our culture. They are ways of sorting experience that were invented by remote ancestors and handed down to us by parents and teachers, etc. The “self” is a social category, literally. “Object permanence” is something we all learned as infants, etc, etc.
As Pirsig puts it, the culture hands us a pair of glasses through which we interpret experience and in our culture those glasses usually lead us to see things in terms of subjects and objects. He and James don’t want to trash the whole idea and they’ll point out that the distinctions between them are based in experience. But they want to remind us that these are invented concepts, not the structure of reality itself. They want to remind us that all of our concepts are derived from experience, they’re always secondary and derived from something more fundamental.
This more fundamental something has a lot of fancy philosophical names but it’s also just called “direct everyday experience” or “the immediate flux of life”. You could think of it in terms of Heidegger’s hammer, if you know that guy’s work. This is that other category of experience, the kind that doesn’t involve intellectual distinctions. This is called pre-reflective or pre-intellectual experience, which doesn’t necessarily refer to any kind of exotic state of consciousness. It’s just that un-selfconscious doing that we all know from garden work, wood-shop hobbies, skiing or whatever. The way we can open a door, enter a room and flip on a light switch without any deliberate thought about those actions. Sometimes it’s a cool “in the zone” kind of thing but usually this pre-refletive experience is just how we go through the ordinary unproblematic operations of daily life.
This pre-conceptual experience can be taken up as the centerpiece in a kind of philosophical mysticism. That’s where the Zen comes in, you might say, but that’s a whole nuther can of worms.
James and Pirsig both like to suggest that experience goes all the way down. They like this sort of pan-psychism because it allows evolution to go all the way down as well. But they but know this can only be a postulate, a working hypothesis, a way to take the data. A vision, really. It also makes things neat and unified and who doesn’t it tidy?
I think chat boxes are actually quite good at getting to a novel insight – for that reason, I wish they could garner a greater presence on websites. It seems like we are getting at an interesting point about the nature of ‘experience’ here.
Some highlight points in the comments above:
– Starting where Seth’s noting Sartre’s “prioritization of experience over substance-based subject/object dualism,” David appreciats this as consonant with James’ and Pirsig’s idea that the “self is a product of experience rather than the other way around. Subjects and objects are secondary and conceptual rather than the conditions that make experience possible.”
– Mark’s noting how M-P sees painted art as a way for us to see how experience feels
– Mark and David’s summary of how pre-intellectual experience (like meditation or flow) may be taken as primary experience.
– David’s conviction that experience is the primary existent, and subjects and objects “are abstracted from experience, derived from experience, not the causes of experience.”
– By “I do not think like David on subjects and objects as concepts that arise in a blossoming postulation/awareness of a difference or distinction,” I meant that the self’s growing intentional awareness of things in its surroundings is not what CREATES them.
– I said “I think experience is in great part about feelings of one’s surrounding. And by “one’s” I think I mean any active individual thing, like an atom or a dog, but not a conglomeration of active things, like a table or a human culture.
– And “Experience entails some relationship that has an associated feeling. But the relata are independently existing in the relationship, not the result of the experience.”
My summary on all this – and please provide feedback and comments.
Experience runs throughout all nature, but we can stick to animals w/ brains that create a psyche. Below all experience is existence of the stuff of reality. Pre-conscious experience may be likened to a meditative or in-the-flow state. This is one of Heidegger’s dazines (I forget which has to do with mindless, passive Being), and it is also what Pirsig calls pre-intellectual reality, or Quality (which he says is the source, the creator, of all things).
It seems to me that this mode of experience IS bare in-situ existence of the interrelated 10,000 things of Tao, and which your psyche is but one relata. What these relationships feel like is the stuff of experience.
In experiencing, a psyche feels the many contents of its surroundings, and valuates each feeling as desired or not. This is what grazing cows or sitting on a beach daydreaming without a care in the world feel like. But animal experience routinely includes an intentional awareness of something which forces a psyche to an alertness for discernment. This experience is what consciousness feels like. Of course, such conscious experience takes many tones: intense panic before a predator feels different than the headache deriving from analysis of a thermodynamics problem.
So, contra Pirsig, I do not see how the existents can be subordinated to their experiences. Experience cannot create the relata, it is instead the relationships among the relata that is experience.
Mark Linsenmayer says
It seems like you’re contrasting two theses: 1. Entities cause experience. 2. Experience causes entities. I think that what causality is for the phenomenologist makes this a misleading dichotomy. Once you’re abstracted from experience to discuss the world as objective, as the matter of study for natural science and the object of metaphysical speculation, then causal ascriptions apply in the usual way, and in fact there’s nothing incoherent at all about saying (I think; maybe Sartre doesn’t) that these material things like my brain and sense organs and light and objects in the world cause my experience. But what grounds this standpoint, for us ask knowers/talkers, in the first place? Phenomenology. In this supposedly epistemically basic position, we don’t yet have causality: we have the free play of consciousness, which creates ex nihilo and is not the emanation of some static self; the self is instead a constituted product of the action of consciousness. So it’s not the case for Sartre that “the psyche is but one relata.” The psyche, i.e. consciousness, is absolutely empty: it is nothing but this experience of the world and can’t even conceive of any other consciousness. It’s very hard not to respond by moving to the scientific standpoint, objectifying consciousness through reflection (i.e. creating the ego), and talking about each of us as a thing related to many other things, but Sartre thinks that for the purposes of ethics, at least, we need to keep such a move in perspective and realize that the more basic experience of consciousness overrules this falsifying abstraction. If that means that we live a universe of contradictions, where I am utterly free despite my facticity and where none of us can really understand each other (because we can’t conceive of each other’s consciousness), well, then that’s just the human condition (says Sartre).
Another way to say it is that this realm of phenomenological consciousness provides certainty, whereas once we move to a third-person/scientific perspective, we only get probabilities. We might be wrong, e.g. about universal causality or some particular theory of mind-brain relations, but we can’t be wrong about our own freedom.
I read and reread your last comment, reread Seth’s post, and looked into the Cofeen post on Bergson, M-P, and Deluze (all say a lot about emotion in experience).
I find phenomenology to be very imprecise w/ terms, such as Seth’s interchanging experience and consciousness, when consciousness is but one mode of experiencing. And it is not Sartre’s “no thing”; rather, consciousness is the tone of the feeling of a subject’s intentional awareness of something – what it feels like to be intentionally aware of something(s). And, it seems to me that it takes a subject to feel.
Mark, I am not so concerned with whether experience causes subjects and objects or vice-versa. My key concern is to point to the fact that experience is emotional interrelation of a subject with its objects. Note that my animate objects, like the dentist fitting my crown, are themselves subjects in their turn to have experience.
If, like Pirsig, you want to say an experience/relationship affectively shapes the subject by saying (phenomenologically) “The subject is CREATED in the pre-intellectual experience,” so be it. But this phraseology breaks down when you tell me that this same experience creates the keyboard I am banging on, my dog at my feet, or my feet themselves.
I’m afraid I’ve pissed off David by suggesting that Pirsig is in error on this point. As I said before, Pirsig claims that pre-intellectual experience (Seth’s unreflected concsiousness) is Quality, and this Quality is both the relationship between subject and object and the creator of them. How can emotion create things?
This really just seems bizarre. As if it takes my intentional awareness of the moon for the moon to exist. Had this been the case in ’69, and I got distracted by a knock at my door, would the lunar lander have lost orbit and zoomed out to deep space?
It seems clear to me that phenomenologists ignore physiology at their own risk of remaining muddled and vague.
David Buchanan says
Don’t worry about pissing me off, Anonny. After my first encounter with Zen and the Art I thought Pirsig was crazy. There was much I didn’t understand and the rest seemed impossible. I can certainly relate to your impression that it’s all too bizarre. That was the impression of James’s critics back in 1905 when he said that the Cartesian self doesn’t exist. This way of rejecting subject-object dualism has been freaking people out for over a hundred years.
The idea that subjects and objects are secondary conceptual products derived from experience, as opposed to being the causes or conditions of experience, doesn’t seems so bizarre when you remember that they lose their status and rank as substances, as ontological realities and instead become abstractions that stand for a complex bundle of sensations and desires, that work as short-hand for the phenomenal experience. In this way, subjects and objects are the categories into which we habitually and automatically sort experience.
As you know, when abstract ideas are mistaken for concrete realities it is called reification. That’s what James and Pirsig are saying about subjects and objects. They are ideas that have been reified. A functioning myth is one that isn’t seriously doubted or understood AS a myth. A functioning, living myth is one that is widely held as obviously true. This is a difficult thing to overcome and not just because comprehension is a challenge. It can also be hard to accept even when it is understood properly.
I’ve tried to imagine what James would say about the concept of intentionality. While he could certainly be considered a phenomenologist in a broad sense of the word, I think he would dispute that concept. Instead of saying that consciousness always has a content, James would say – in fact he DID say – “Consciousness is just a name for the fact that the content is known.” In other words, consciousness and content are not two different things. Consciousness or the self is not a thing, he said, but a process.
When we say, “it’s raining” we do not suppose that there is some kind of “it” apart from the rain. There is not a thing that preforms the task of raining. There is just the raining process itself. And so it is when we say, “I think”, except we do usually suppose there is some thing preforming the task. That “thing” is what Sartre wants to call “nothingness” and I think he wants to do that for very similar reasons. If you think of yourself as a thing, he’s says, that’s bad faith that’ll make yourself inauthentic and unfree.