A Philosophical Knot: Un/conscious Agent

Here’s a rather philosophical set of Morning Pages. I’m capping it off with a quote from Wittgenstein to pull out one subtle allusion.


I hear the hum of vents as I sit here in the office this morning and focus. One astounding thing about meditating for me is the regular realization of how much of my experience passes by unnoticed. There is so much sound, smell, sight, sensation that goes by without my conscious processing of it. Perhaps the word “conscious” here leads us in troublesome philosophical directions. The problem with the term, as I stop now and really think about its usage, is that it is attached to the concept of a unified “I” that is the agent of consciousness.

However, if I drive for a while and suddenly realize that “I” wasn’t present for the last few minutes, does this mean that I “unconsciously” drove? This forces the familiar dichotomy of the unconscious as a secondary or, perhaps better said, primary agent behind the actions of the conscious agent. Philosophy then struggles with identity: trying to untangle the relationship between the two–are they separate? One conjoined and twisted Siamese twin?

Yet, we’ve presupposed a uniform whole in this agent (whether the conscious or unconscious one). We’ve presupposed an answer to the question of what/who “I” am in the analysis of an activity, thereby creating our own philosophical knot.

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If “I” am a flux of several different multiplicities, assemblages, compilations, etc. coming together in this moment, “conscious” and “unconscious” become much more dynamic and engaged in the activity itself rather than unanalyzed concepts of agency and identity.


115. A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.

118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

119. The results of philosophy are the discovery of some plain piece of nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. They — these bumps — make us see the value of that discovery.

123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”

203. Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.

309. What is your aim in philosophy? — To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

–Selections from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte


I’m not trying to tear down “I” or “conscious” as meaningless. I do, however, hope to point toward how these words become laden with confusion and theory. My musings began on how many things are unexperienced in my experience: sounds and sensations simply do not register in the awareness of consciousness (whatever that may be), but some aspect of “me” is aware of them and acts upon them with skill, as per the driving example. The un/conscious “I” does not necessarily need some sort of soul in the driver’s seat, so to speak, a metaphysical subject who lies behind those actions and is aware of them or somehow pseudo-un-aware of them (and the Unconscious rises here as a problem because if it is the awareness in unawareness, the one who drives without being “conscious” as I, so to speak. Is it another soul? Another agent that shares this body?). “I” am some sort of combination of processes happening at once, a part of the world around me, acting and engaged in it. This is described perfectly well with “I drove to work, unaware”. It’s only in delving into those words, looking for some deeper meaning beyond the general meaning expressed in their usage that they become a knot of philosophical conundrums and issues of metaphysics.

 

 

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 2 – Love as a Word and as a Concept

Disclaimer: I wrote most of this section some time ago but have found it difficult to return to and post. It’s a continuation of the previous post with the same title Part 1. This post expands in a very philosophical direction – giving a terse analysis of our understanding of words and concepts and how these influence our experiences and understanding of them. In particular, this is about our concept/experience of Love. This will likely be my longest post thus far, and I plan to post more on the topic of Love in the near future. Please read through this post and write any comments or questions. Thank you, fellow negotiators of the Way. Deepest gratitude to you all!


In my discussion of Love, I’ve tried to emphasize the sense of “I”, ego or identity, that comes into play. Yet, I would argue that identity, who we “are“, if we really “are” anything (by this, I mean being something permanent. This is precisely what is at stake with much speak of “who I am” – being an entity: identity), is a conceptual core of what we understand of Love. It is hardly an open-ended experience; rather, in being involved in our own personal narratives and expression, it is a conceptually interpreted, filtered, and compiled experience. In fact, much of philosophy would question how it could be otherwise. We have a small conundrum here related to the philosophy of language. The concept of Love is hardly as clear or concrete as something like the concept of “chair”, so our understanding and usage of it allows for a lot of variance, slippage, and ambiguity. This may seem a contrived position, but with some observation and personal experience, such hesitation doesn’t hold. In recent times, I’ve read others’ writings about Love and its significance, but in trying to read into and understand what they were saying about life and Love from their statements, it was not clear at all beyond the initial knee-jerk of perceived understanding–of a preliminary, personal interpretation. Was it speaking of acceptance? Gratitude? Emotional support? Joy? Compassion? It really was unclear. All of these ideas and more can find their place in our concept of Love. However, in speaking with friends, it seems that one person to another varies in their understanding of what Love is based on their own experiences, upbringing, and likely, education. In a sense, we could all benefit from the investigations a The Symposium of our own. To return to the philosophy of language at this juncture, I take these immediately preceding comments and follow them with these snippets from Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. I quote them at length because of his deeper insight and mastery of this philosophical approach as well as the very human implications in his expression of these issues:

Consider an older child, one ignorant of, but ripe for a pumpkin (knows how to ask for a name, what a fruit is, etc.). When you say “That is a pumpkin,” we can comfortably say that this child learns what the word “pumpkin” means and what a pumpkin is. There may still be something different about the pumpkins in his world; they may, for example, have some unknown relation to pumps (the contrivances or the kind of shoe) and some intimate association with Mr. Popkin (who lives next door), since he obviously has the same name they do. But that probably won’t lead to trouble, and one day the person that was this child, may for some reason, remember that he believed these things had these associations when he was a child. (And does he then stop believing or having them?) And we can also say: When you “I love my love” the child learns the meaning of the word “love” and what love is. That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought. … To summarize what has been said about this: In “learning language” you learn not merely what the names of things are, but what a name is; not merely what the form of expression is for expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for “father” is, but what a father is; not merely the word for “love” is, but what love is. In learning language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds and their grammatical orders, but the “forms of life” which make those sounds the words they are, do what they do – e.g., name call, point, express a wish or affection, indicate a choice or an aversion, etc. And Wittgenstein sees the relations among these forms as “grammatical” also. Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. pp. 176-178

This passage gives a clear background of what happens in learning a language–we learn the usage of words in a very particular way, a very human way that resonates in our lives. We learn not just the word for love, but what love is. In other words, our understanding of it as a part of the world is shaped and imprinted in us. It is a conceptual-experiential background to our engagement with our lives and world. With this in mind, compare these ideas about learning forms of life in learning language to the following passage about another imagined child’s difficulty in learning “kitty”:

But although I didn’t tell her, and she didn’t learn, either what the word “kitty” means or what a kitty is, if she keeps leaping and I keep looking and smiling, she will learn both. I have wanted to say: Kittens–what we call “kittens–do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them. They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like “God exists” or “God is dead” or “I love you” or “I cannot do otherwise” or “Beauty is but the beginning of terror” bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us. We do not know the meaning of the words. We look away and leap around. pp. 172-173

The most complicated concepts/experiences/forms of life will always be somewhat ineffable or at least overflow the limits of our expression. We speak of Love as a self-evident word, but with a moment of pause, it is clearly anything but. We can throw out a whole barrage of related concepts such as acceptance, support, desire, compassion, concern, care, deep want, reverence, adoration, nurturing, gratitude… None of these alone, nor all of them together, exhaust the myriad complexity of Love. They clearly point the way to some shared notes, some of the core intricacy of one of the most sought and expressed human experiences. However, Love remains so familiar and powerful yet so impossible to express; it is like using words to express the most profound piece of artwork you’ve ever experienced. No matter how elaborate the expression, our concepts come up short, fragmented, and ultimately, without that pause to see this slippage or difficulty of reference in our language, we can get too wrapped up in our very words. We fall into holding on to our expression as Truth with certainty that we know precisely the full weight of our expressions, unlike the profoundly eye-opening statements of Cavell above. If we can’t see the fundamental inexpressibility of our most human, complex, what I might even call “sacred” (in a very Buddhist sense of the dynamically profound unfolding of the absolutely real in this moment) experiences, then we cling to concepts as definitions–as forms of certainty rather than as placeholders, as forms of wonder.

Such a deep word…

In overlooking this inexpressibility, we fall into the fragmentary forms of life that Cavell describes in the first quote: love as tinted with resentment and indignation due to the learning of a Word, that is: of a concept as certain. It takes little pause to realize that Love is not nearly as certain, in the sense of clearly definable, as “chair”, “rock”, or “book”. We haven’t quite learned its form of life. If you think about it, this explains a lot about the apparent oddities in others behavior and moreover reasoning related to Love. Here then, in closing a chapter, a proposition: we want to understand Love, and as such, we’re quick to use this word without hesitation, but ultimately, these expressions don’t “express all they could take from us” (Cavell). This isn’t meant to say that these words are pointless or that they refer to nothing. Rather, they refer to something that defies a ready conceptual understanding, a form of life that overflows with meaning. As such, speak carefully, and to really understand these aspects of existence, open yourself to surprise, wonder, and uncertainty. Meditate rather than declare. In order to know, be ready to learn rather than thinking that you’ve already got it in saying that “Love is X” (in this I mean that you can’t pin it down simply as one thing). So, we have another challenge to our myth of completion and identity; here we have an embrace of the hyper-abundance that can’t quite be pinned down. In returning to the premise of identity from the beginning, a challenge: what do such musings about words, concepts, and forms of life bring to bear on “I am X” or “I”?