I’m tempted to say that I feel a moral obligation to continue writing a short note on the 10 installments in the series The Power of Thought on the Danish DK 4 program hosted by my colleague at Roskilde U, Vincent F. Hendricks. I’ve started last week with a first comment which I can boil down to this: on the program: great, if you want to know some essential things about philosophy: on the first topic: a hassle, if you are not into moral philosophy. I endorse some views where morality is concerned, especially when I want to use morality to my own ends (as everyone else does, as established in my previous blog called uninspiringly on purpose Morality). Like right now. I want to defend my choice to comment on the show because Hendricks himself, the host of the program, has given me his blessing to say whatever crosses my mind. He doesn’t know what he had just bargained for when I last saw him, but as any good merchant, who is willing to play the game, he takes risks without hesitating. Smart move.

The topic this time around is consciousness and subjectivity. Dan Zahavi introduces us to some key notions and I like the premise from the beginning. Unlike in moral philosophy where the aim and research is directed towards understanding everything (and I’m suspicious of those that understand everything; just think of Bush), here the scope is more modest: if we can understand anything at all about the workings of the mind, that would already be more than enough. About consciousness: we know nothing. About subjectivity: we know nothing. In my opinion this is already much more interesting. I’m attracted to the way in which the ‘nothing’ conjures the ‘already’. It points to something Zahavi came around to quasi articulating towards the end of the show when he suggested that there is a relation of dependency in phenomenology that needs to concern us. In a system of relations we can start by looking at ourselves (1) not just inwardly, as if we were some ‘pure’ subjects whose condition of constitution depends on nothing but our own intelligence or some similarly idiotic idea, but also (2) in relation to the system of which we are part, and (3) in relation to others perceiving the system and ourselves in it. Says he, almost adopting a Derridean posture: there is always already a first person, second person, and third person point of view in the constitution of subjectivity. Here is a scenario: if Wittgenstein gives me a headache (here the enunciating subject 'I' is also the first person who has firsthand access to the pain), it doesn’t necessarily follow that somebody else, especially a scientist who happens to ask me to submit my head to a scanner, cannot have (some) access to that pain (thus offering objective second person enunciations that may constitute me and my pain; usually we can’t feel the pain of others, which judging by Hendricks’s reaction, is something that he and the rest of us are grateful for).

On the question about the relation of consciousness to language, Zahavi, again goes with the ‘nothing’. Smart move. Can a stone think? Good question. Implicitly he talks again about the relational aspect between the thinking subject and an object. Here is a second scenario: I ask the stone: stone, what is your opinion about subjectivity? The stone is silent. Insofar as it has no language, it cannot be aware of its own existence, we may, however fallaciously, conclude. The evidence is too weak for a contrary argument. So we dismiss it, and get on with the program (unless, we have to mend our pain, if a stone has just proved its existence by hitting us on our heads).

What I like about theories of consciousness is the implicit argument that we all play chess with each other. You are conscious of your existence or your thinking only to the extent that you can figure yourself as a relational self. What conditions your subjectivity is the extent to which you can calculate your opponent’s next move. Subjectivity is all about observing. And thank God for that – I can imagine how uninteresting life would be, if we were all to decide that we need no others, especially the strange ones, to tell us something about ourselves. In this relation it was interesting to note that when Hendricks asked Zahavi about the unconscious, he was quick to point out that when philosophers talk about the unconscious in theories of consciousness they don't refer to Freud's odd theories. Judging by Zahavi's body language, concentrating so that his tongue wouldn't slip, it looked to me like he was trying not to think of his mother. In phenomenology, the witch you dream about, is definitely not your mother.

On perception, can we have more fuzzy logic in it?


Bent said…
Your blog makes me realize that we don't give nearly enough attention to the thoughts and intentions of inanimate objects... Who ever inquires what emotions the stone may have had in Holberg's Erasmus Montanus when the protagonist abuses its mineral rights by comparing it so wrongfully and illogically to Morlille?? Why have the philosophers not spoken up on this issue before??? J'accuse!

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