Galen Strawson, Buddhist Philosophy, and Radical Self-Awareness

The recent intersection of analytic philosophy and philosophical Buddhism has been a very heartening sign for me. Not only does it move the discussion away from what I’ve always felt to be the dead-end of Kripkean essentialist metaphysics, but it’s also produced some serious thinking about logic and selfhood and mind that manages to respect the problems of language without being wholly overcome by them.

I take it that Nagarjuna, originator of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, was himself doing this almost 2000 years ago. This mindset is most useful in approaching questions about consciousness and the self, where appeals to intuition seem to break down and there seem to be a lack of first principles even by the usual standards of philosophical arguments.

Galen Strawson’s advocacy of panpsychism as well as a general interest in mental phenomenology places him close to those the constellation of people such as Georges Dreyfus, Jan Westerhoff, Mark Siderits, and Bronwyn Finnigan, who have all treated Buddhist philosophy in depth. His essay “Radical Self-Awareness,” included in the recent anthology Self No Self, continues the overlap. Siderits co-edited the anthology, which has a fair bit of Asian philosophy in many of the essays, but Strawson only touches on it briefly, which makes it more notable that the overlap is still quite visible.

First some background. I think of Strawson as fundamentally a monist as much as a panpsychist. The term “neutral monism” doesn’t seem to be in vogue, but my own sense has been that the term “materialism” loses a lot of its meaning when the material is simply that single type of stuff that makes up reality and that stuff happens to be called matter. I don’t have a problem with calling it materialism, but it’s distinctly different from a view that works up metaphysically from contemporary physics and biology.

When I say that the mental, and in particular the Experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that “experience is really just neurons firing,” I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don’t mean that all aspects of what is going on, in the case of conscious experience, can be described by current physics, or some nonrevolutionary extension of it. Such a view amounts to radical “eliminativism” with respect to consciousness, and is mad.

My claim is different. It is that the Experiential (considered just as such)—the feature of reality we have to do with when we consider experiences specifically and solely in respect of the Experiential character they have for those who have them as they have them—that “just is” physical.

Galen Strawson, quoted in SEP “Neutral Monism”

Onto consciousness and the self. Using the example of meditation, Strawson proposes that we can have a contentful, thetic experience of the “self” in the absence of any other experiential content.

The attainment of such self-awareness, for brief periods in the unpractised (and the incompetent, such as myself), seems to involve a state that has no particular content beyond the content that it has in so far as it’s correctly described as awareness or consciousness of the awareness or consciousness that it itself is, awareness that includes in itself awareness that it is awareness of the awareness that it itself is, but does so without involving anything remotely propositional (contrary to what the word ‘that’ suggests to many) or thetic in the narrow and apparently necessarily distance-involving, object-of-attention-posing way.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness

I take this to be akin to what Denis Diderot described as reverie, which he simply describes as experience in the absence of the limits given by sense experience:

There are no limits at all. I seem to exist as a single point, I almost cease to be material and am only conscious of thought. I have lost the sense of position, motion, body, distance and space. The universe is reduced to nothing and I am nothing to the universe.

Denis Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream

Strawson terms this a kind of sensory experience of its own: contentful thetic self-awareness in the absence of any other content. It is “a cognitive experiential modality.” Both Diderot and Strawson invoke a concept similar to what Miri Albahari has called, in the context of Theravadan Buddhism, the “two-tiered illusion of self,” first of the continuity of self, and second of the boundedness of self.

The second illusion, boundedness, is the important thing here. If experience requires that subjectivity be bounded in some way to distinguish itself from that which is not-itself, and whatever is left on the “itself” side must constitute both subject and experience both. In the case where the not-itself has been removed from the picture, I don’t see a way to distinguish subject from content. (Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, makes a similar point in arguing against solipsism.)

The term “thetic” is tricky because it implies an attention to experiential content, in the form of some actual activity. Yet the content and the awareness seem too deeply entwined here to be termed thetic or non-thetic. Or more properly, anything falling outside the traditionally thetic realm may not deserve even the term “non-thetic consciousness.” The point remains that this experience qualifies as experience. But as Husserl implied when he said that the relation between consciousness and the object of consciousness is not a real relation, this kind of experience leaves precious little room for a metaphysical dualism of subject and content.

Strawson continues:

But one can also go beyond this, I propose, into a state of direct thetic having-is-the-knowing acquaintance, a state of holding the sensation of blue in full attention, in which one’s experience ceases to have, as any part of its content, the structure of subject-attending-to-something. The Kantian conclusion is then triggered: ‘nothing which emerges from any affecting relation can count as knowledge or awareness of the affecting thing as it is in itself ’ that this awareness precisely is identical with the subject itself.

[and thus, after some argument]

[15] the subject of awareness (that which wholly constitutes the existence of the subject of awareness) isn’t ontically distinct from the awareness of which it is the subject

[16] the subject of awareness is identical with its awareness.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

So what you end up with is a metaphysical identity of a seeming process with a seeming object. (Or, likewise, the identity an object with the sum of its modalities and properties.) I think this is exactly right. The problem with traditional “Cartesian” views is that they seek to establish the existence of a distinct subject having the experiences, metaphysically separating the two and requiring the existence of the subject through either entailment or just as a pure free lunch.

And I think that it does reveal that a major part of the problem has been linguistic, or even grammatical, as nouns like “subject” and “self” have been used that we usually take to imply metaphysically autonomous entities rather than extremely loose linguistic concepts that do overlapping duty in metaphysical, epistemological, phenomenological, and socio-cultural contexts.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the abstract notion of “subjectivity.” “Subjectivity” has been a punching-bag for the continentals and even some of the analytics, and has meant so many different things from Descartes to Husserl and beyond that it’s simply become a very dangerous term to use. The classic “Cartesian” model (which may not actually be Cartesian) envisions a unary subject having experiential content “occur” to it.

This is, evidently, rather vague, and I think it’s because of the vagueness that the generally received notion of metaphysical “subjectivity” frequently amounts to nothing more than something/anything that is “experiential” or “conscious.” In this way subjectivity (a property) is more convincing than the self or the subject (both objects), which is why the term has been batted about more.

Ironically, that may not actually be so far off from the truth. The notion of the subject has been built up into a metaphysical tank, but the message which I take from Strawson is that the self and the subject can be deflated without much harm to subjectivity qua subjectivity. I think ultimately that this falls out from basic metaphysical principles, as Strawson hints:

Some like to think that there can be subjectivity or experience without a subject. That’s why it’s important to bring out the full import of the notion of subjectivity or experience by stressing the fundamental sense in which it can’t exist without a subject. But there’s a no less important point in the other direction. If all you need to know, to know that there is a subject, is that there is subjectivity or experience, then you can’t build more into the notion of a subject than you can know to exist if subjectivity or experience exists.

I think, in fact, that the object/property distinction is metaphysically superficial—that there is no ‘real distinction’ between (a) the being of an object, considered at a given time, and (b) the being of that object’s propertiedness, that is, its whole actual concrete qualitative being at that time, that is, everything in which its being the particular way it is at that time consists.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

I think that a lot of western metaphysical mistakes have come precisely from the need to establish concrete entities as “holders” for properties that go over and above being descriptive containers for them into being metaphysically distinct entities. But this is to make subjectivity itself into a metaphysically distinct entity rather than a property, and that very idea seems incoherent.

In a footnote, Strawson points out that Kant had already been here:

In his famous letter to Herz, Kant writes that ‘the thinking or the existence of the thought and the existence of my own self are one and the same’ (1772: 75). Although Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza often write as if the subject is ontically distinct from its states of experience or awareness, they’re all committed to the view that the concrete being of a substance (considered at any given time) is not ontically distinct from the concrete being of its attributes at that time (whatever modes of the attributes are currently instantiated).

This does have perplexing implications for ontology. D.M. Armstrong talks about the problems of the “thick particular,” the idea of a baseline object which has non-relational aspects in addition to its properties, and suggested a “thin particular” as a more viable alternative. As I understand it, the thin particular is that which concretizes its properties or attributes (which, at least for Armstrong, are universals). But I don’t see how either (a) the thin particular itself nor (b) the concrete instantiation on of attributes on top of a thin particular can rightly be called an object. I think it’s impossible that one can be called an object without the other also being an object, as it seems that the addition of a property to a particular could not yield objecthood, yet calling both objects requires too thick a particular.

I won’t defend that position further here. But I’m convinced that the razor-thinness of the sort of particular that Kant is talking about poses some serious questions about “objecthood.” Hence, I’m drawn to single-substance monism, which Strawson entertains but does not endorse:

This is not to say that reality contains anything that actually makes the grade as a thing or object or substance. The Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’ suggests that nothing does. An alternative view is that only one thing does—the universe. On this view, Parmenides and a number of leading present-day cosmologists are right. There’s really only one A-Grade thing or object or substance: the universe. (Nietzsche and Spinoza agree that nothing smaller will do.)

At least under a neutral monist standpoint, the Buddhist Madhyamaka view could also be said to be loosely in agreement with Spinoza, allowing that sunyata (emptiness) is the single “substance.” Whether or not it qualifies as a substances seems to be a terminological point rather than a metaphysical point, as long as sunyata is neither discrete nor quantifiable, which I take to be one of the implications of Madhyamaka’s focus on the emptiness of emptiness: i.e., it’s misleading and spurious to say that “nothing exists.”

That said, the Buddhist notion of substance, svabhava, is distinctly different from the western notion of substance, so I will leave that to the experts to resolve. Jan Westerhoff’s excellent book Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka provides the clearest explanation of svabhava that I have read.

At any rate, I find that the evaluations of the cultural and linguistic forms into which consciousness and subjectivity have been shunted offer a lot as far as undermining both metaphysical and ontological received ideas. The continuities between vastly different traditions point out both recurring conceptualizations and recurring problems.

This approach offers a more rigorous alternative to the much-ballyhooed Object Oriented Ontology movement, which, as far as I can tell, takes many of the above questions in precisely the wrong direction by proposing a steroidal essentialism and yielding a Kripke-Heidegger Frankenstein monster. When Graham Harman writes–

For an object is to be defined not by its external efficacy, but rather by its internal reality. To be real is not to have an effect on something outside oneself, but simply this–to unify notes.

To offer another metaphor, we need a kind of subatomic or nuclear metaphysics, but one that probes the interiors of all sizes of objects, not just minute physical atoms.

The universe resembles a massive complex made up of numerous caverns, outer walls, alleyways, ladders, and subway systems, each sealed off from the others and defining its own space, but with points of access or passage filled with candles and searchlights that cast shadows into the next. The cosmos is similar to a rave party in some abandoned warehouse along the Spree in East Berlin, where the individual rooms are each surprisingly isolated from all external sources of music, flashing lights, perfumed odors, and dominant moods-but in which it is quite possible to move from one space to the next, and in which the doorways are always flooded with faint premonitions and signals of what is to come.

Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics

–I feel the monster’s cold, Gnostic breath on my shoulders and retreat to reverie.

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