Waggish

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Heidegger’s Theology of Being

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being, Herman Philipse (Princeton, 1998) 

Herman Philipse makes very fine tombstones. Recently he published a book, God in the Age of Science?, criticizing much modern philosophical theology (e.g., purportedly rational arguments for being Christian) in far greater depth than atheist gadflies like Dawkins and Dennett have ever felt necessary. This particular tombstone is for Martin Heidegger: a very critical exegesis of his philosophy that ends with a damning verdict.

People have wondered for whom Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being was intended, since anyone willing to read this much about Heidegger is probably going to be favorably biased toward him. I suppose I am part of the target audience. I have an inclination toward what is evidently Philipse’s vice: getting inside of dubious systems and seeing how they collapse. I’m glad he has done the work on this one, though.

I take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher, unlike many of his scions. There’s no question that in terms of influence, he has wielded real substantive power over the 20th century, and there is certainly something compelling about his work. It is also very elusive and blatantly evasive. Philipse’s book is the first comprehensive synthesis of Heidegger’s work that I have read: all the other books I know of (almost all in English) either stick to Being and Time or else settle for summary overview or simple paraphrase. Philipse, having ingested as much of the literature as anyone, attempts to identify the driving motives behind all of Heidegger’s work and trace their course chronologically.

I think his attempt is for the most part convincing; where the details are debatable, the high level still seems broadly on the mark. Philipse takes Heidegger seriously. He scolds those who call Heidegger’s writing garbage, fascist, and/or pure nonsense. Heidegger’s work is obscure, probably needlessly so, but it’s not nonsense. Philipse criticizes Victor Farias and Tom Rockmore for calling Heidegger’s work intrinsically fascist, and he even chides Jürgen Habermas for condemning Heidegger too quickly. That Philipse nonetheless concludes with an extremely harsh assessment of Heidegger’s philosophy is a real problem for Heideggerians, one that cannot easily be dismissed. I have not seen a comprehensive competing account that contests Philipse’s book.

The estimable Taylor Carman, who has done some intriguing work on Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, took great issue with Philipse, but I think that Philipse easily came out the victor in the argument. William Blattner, another sharp Heidegger scholar, was more willing to recognize the difficulties posed:

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being presents significant challenges to the legitimacy of Heidegger’s ontological discussions. Unless we can justify Heidegger’s assumption that being must enjoy a form of unity that transcends its diversity into regions and epochs, and unless we can free his texts from their pseudo-religious, postmonotheist mythology, Heidegger’s celebrated Seinsfrage will collapse (as a piece of philosophy).

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

I think Philipse’s challenge still stands unanswered.

 

The Thesis

Central is Philipse’s thesis that Heidegger maintained a fundamentally religious tenor throughout all his work. Philipse is a staunch atheist and the association of Heidegger with religion is a dire sign, but it’s worth pausing to assess exactly what is meant by religious. Heidegger was raised Catholic and started in theology but rejected Catholicism utterly. The persistence of a religious framework in his writing is best expressed by his methodological appeal to a non-rational, ineffable fundamental and transcendent truth not subject to analysis or debate. (Note that I say “transcendent,” not “transcendental.”)

In this Heidegger follows Luther and Kierkegaard, as well as adopting Nietzsche’s methods and flipping them on their head to reject materialism instead of embracing it. Such claims are, of course, radically anti-pluralistic, anti-multicultural, anti-tolerant, and anti-liberal, and so Heidegger’s anti-humanistic positions follow from this method as much as they do from his philosophical ideas. Such values of rational assessment and debate would jeopardize the philosophy and so must be rejected.

It is this seizing of quasi-religious authority that bothers Philipse, and it bothers me as well. Philipse tries to evaluate the philosophy once removed from such self-puffery, and finds the remainder wanting. Heidegger indisputably cast a great spell over those he came into contact with, and over many who read his work. They included his teacher Husserl, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Karl Löwith, and many others. He was able to convince a great many people that he was wrestling with something primordial and essential. Just in changing the terminology from that of Husserl’s phenomenology to his own phenomenological ontology, he staked out a seemingly higher ground. This orientation to an authority about the fundamental is what underlies Philipse’s claim that a religious authority underpinned all of Heidegger’s work from beginning to end.

Ironically, Philipse’s conclusion is not so far from that of Heidegger scholar Theodore Kisiel. Chakira recommended Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time as one of the best works on Heidegger, and indeed Kisiel is extremely comprehensive and thoughtful about the development of Heidegger’s early thought. Kisiel’s conclusion is that the essential bits of Heidegger’s philosophy were in place by 1919, expressed most coherently in Being and Time in 1927, and remained fundamentally unchanged thereafter until his death in 1976:

Could it be that the hermeneutic breakthrough of 1919 already contains in ovo everything essential that came to light in the later Heidegger’s thought? Could it be that there is nothing essentially new in the later Heidegger after the turn, for all is to be found at least incipiently in that initial breakthrough of the early Heidegger? Could it be that not only B T but all of Heidegger can be reduced to this First Genesis, the hermeneutic breakthrough to the topic in KNS 1919? Heidegger seems to suggest as much by using Holderlin’s line, “For as you began, so will you remain” (US 9317) to place his entire career of thought under a single “guiding star.”

Theodore Kisiel, The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being in Time (Conclusion)

This is, to some extent, a problem for some Heidegger scholars who would like to treat Being and Time as uniquely belonging to an early period of thought and the later, far less systematic work as fundamentally different and far less significant. In addition, after Being and Time Heidegger’s work is haunted by the specter of his mid-1930s Nazism and apparent lack of repentance thereafter, and so this problem is also avoided by way of a dividing line placed before the Nazi period. After Being and Time, Philipse sees a change in approach and presentation, but not in substance.

 

The Five Leitmotifs

Philipse posits five “leitmotifs” present in Heidegger’s work, one ever-present, two dominant in the early work and two in the latter. Blattner summarizes them more concisely than Philipse does, so I quote him here:

Philipse argues that in place of a coherent ontological theory, Heidegger weaves together five “leitmotifs.” There is

(1) a meta-Aristotelian theme: philosophy aims at discovering the unity of being beyond its diversification into subordinate categories.

In the early thought, the diversity of being is spelled out in

(2) a phenomenological-hermeneutic leitmotif: we access being through a series of regional ontologies that expose the holistic patterns of unity within various domains of entity, such as nature and Dasein. This “diversity pole” is complemented by

(3) a transcendental “unity pole:” the unity of being is uncovered through a regional ontology of the human, which simultaneously serves as an investigation of the possibility of the understanding of being in general.

After Being and Time the transcendental unity for which Heidegger strove gets historicized, yielding

(4) a neo-Hegelian deep history: Western culture is grounded in a series of global epochs of being, each of which makes possible a distinctive, transcendental sort of being. This “diversity pole” is then itself complemented by

(5) a postmonotheist mythology: each epoch of being is a dispensation of Being as a transcendent, concealed non-phenomenon, from which Western culture has been falling away since the time of the presocratics and for a second coming of which we must prepare ourselves by way of a radical, non-rational form of “thinking.”

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

In addition, the change of method after Being and Time, as well as the switch from “being” (the gerund) to “Being” (the proper noun), stem from Heidegger’s failure to make the second and third leitmotifs work together in a systematic fashion. So all traces of phenomenology and phenomenological method get dropped, along with much of the philosophical framework that led up to them, in favor of a vigorously irrational and mystical theology that attempts to combine Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

I will not try to tackle the sufficiency or the accuracy of these leitmotifs here. Philipse works hard to close-read huge chunks of Heidegger’s corpus within this framework. Lacking such familiarity, I can only say that Philipse seems to conduct his analysis fairly and thoroughly. I was in the best place to judge with regard to Being and Time and some of the later work, and while many of his points seem debatable, Philipse never appeared to lose the plot in the way that Carman accuses him of doing.

Philipse emphasizes the purely negative approach of so much of Heidegger’s work, which consists of discarding or otherwise demoting methods of inquiry that could compete with his own ontological investigations. These are not incidental to Heidegger’s philosophy. They are a necessary component to it because, as Philipse repeatedly shows, treating Heidegger’s philosophy critically, from the outside, by nearly any alternative approach, exposes gaping chasms. Only from within does the edifice hold up, and even then….

 

Being and Time

Philipse’s treatment of Being and Time focuses on its methodology, which time and again shows up as deficient. The main problems are that Heidegger frequently begs the question, or else muddies the waters by drawing a distinction between what he is doing and what everyone else has done, which then does not stand up to scrutiny.

Philipse demystifies it piece by piece. I’ll focus on only one particular and significant problem here, which is Heidegger’s crucial yet unjustified claim to have access to the question and structure of being, independent of all particulars and all theory: one white European man has grasped the fundamental ontology of being without needing to so much as glance at another culture.

Dasein has understanding not only of its ontical possibilities, but also of its essential constitution of being (Seinsverstandnis). If this is the case, Heidegger assumes, Dasein will be able to articulate conceptually its understanding of its essential constitution of being, that is, to develop an ontology of itself, independently of empirical research on the varieties of human life and culture. Because we allegedly possess this possibility, Heidegger says that Dasein is ontological. Unfortunately, in giving this answer Heidegger assumes what is to be explained, to wit, how it is possible to understand the essence of being human without doing ample empirical research in anthropology.

This is a very old sin, yet far less justifiable in 1927 post-Sapir/Whorf, when the cracks in the universalist tendencies of Western Culture had long been on display for all to see. But leaving the problems of universalism itself aside, Heidegger is nonetheless depending on some kind of transcendental framework to justify his claim of access to ontological structures.

Assuming that the ontological interpretation of Dasein is based on a presupposed ontic ideal, will its results not be arbitrary, because the presupposed ideal is a matter of free choice? Will we not interpret the ontological structure of Dasein differently if we choose another ontic ideal of authentic existence? If this is the case, as it seems to be in view of the many different interpretations of human existence by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and others, should we not abandon the claim that the ontological analysis of Dasein yields knowledge? In section 63, Heidegger denies that this skeptical conclusion is justified. But his argument confronts him with a dilemma. He stresses that there are formal aspects of the ontological structure of Dasein as interpreted by him, such as the self-interpretative nature of Dasein in general, which do not depend on a particular ontical project. The problem is that this thesis conflicts with Heidegger’s theory of interpretation, according to which all features of Dasein’s ontological structure can be discerned only in the light of a specific existentiell project and its forestructure. As a consequence, Heidegger should either admit that he contradicts his theory of interpretation, or he should restrict the scope of this theory to applicative interpretations and leave room for other types of interpretation, such as objective or theoretical interpretations. In the latter case, he could draw a distinction within the analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit between purely ontological analyses, which are independent of any specific ontic ideal, except of course the ideal of seeing the ontological constitution of human life as it is, and ontically contaminated analyses, which presuppose a specific ontical ideal. I argue below that amending Sein und Zeit in the latter sense is mandatory.

In brief, Philipse here criticizes Heidegger for formulating a single ultimate notion of “authenticity.” Not only does Heidegger not justify his notion of authenticity, but the very framework he has embraced–the “phenomenological-hermeneutic” and “transcendental” leitmotifs, specifically–makes it impossible to privilege any particular notion of authenticity as being ultimate.

Philipse lays some of the blame at Husserl’s feet, saying that Heidegger simply brought to an extreme longstanding problems with the very notion of access to phenomenological structures of experience.

Husserl’s mature conception of phenomenology is characterized by four elements: (1) phenomenology is a purely descriptive discipline, which avoids all theorizing; (2) phenomenological description of the way in which entities are “given to” or “constituted in” transcendental consciousness is equivalent to an ontological elucidation of their mode of being (Seinsweise, Seinssinn), because (3) the “being” of entities is identical with their being constituted in transcendental consciousness. Finally, (4) transcendental phenomenology is possible as an “eidetic” discipline, which consists of synthetic a priori propositions about essential structures. Clearly, each of these four tenets is problematic. The principle of description (1) presupposes that theory-free description is possible. The idea of a phenomenological ontology (2) assumes that the manner of being of entities or their ontological constitution is identical to the manner in which they appear to us, and this, in its turn, presupposes Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3), that is, the view that the world, and all entities other than transcendental consciousness, are ontologically dependent on transcendental consciousness because they are constituted by it. Element (4), finally, will be rejected by the great majority of modern philosophers, for they repudiate the notion of a synthetic a priori discipline. In section 7 of Sein und Zeit, where he elucidates his notion of phenomenology, Heidegger at first endorses (1), (2), and (4), whereas he rejects Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3).

Now, the rejection of transcendental idealism is a major problem for Heidegger. Taylor Carman’s critique of Philipse insists that Heidegger’s modifications to Husserlian phenomenology in fact allow Heidegger to escape these charges. I am with Philipse, however, in thinking that Heidegger’s modifications simply result in rendering phenomenology incoherent. Husserl, who never begged off a difficult problem, knew that transcendental idealism was required if there was going to be any possible way of justifying the eidetic phenomenological method–mind, object structure, and world could not line up properly otherwise. (I’ve never seen an account that manages it, anyway.) By cavalierly ignoring the problem and appealing to some sort of basic realism, Heidegger has devoured a supersized transcendental free lunch. His postulation of moods as more fundamental than intentions is interesting, but in no way logically coherent in the way that he claims. Jumping to the assumption of privileged access, of course, makes Heidegger’s work more immediately appealing and less leaden than Husserl’s, at the cost of its internal coherence.

Philipse puts it as follows:

We must conclude that in this intuitive sense of the term “category” Heidegger was wrong in claiming that the same categories cannot apply both to inanimate things or tools and to Dasein, whereas we did not succeed in finding another sense of “category” that would make Heidegger’s claim plausible. As a consequence, there simply is no interesting philosophical program of constructing specific categories for human life. A philosopher might explore a great number of concepts in which human beings express their understanding of life. But it is not fruitful to claim that some of these concepts are categories or “existentialia,” whereas others are not. In other words, there is no distinction left between the ontological and the ontical if Heidegger’s theory of essential structures is discarded.

Another way of phrasing this point would be: categories require theory and theory requires categories. There are no pre-theoretical categories.

Given that the methodology of Being and Time is fatally compromised and its authority cosmically self-inflated, what remains? A fair bit of stuff about everyday practices, how we engage with the world, how we conceive of ourselves vis-a-vis death, and other talk about the human condition. Much of this forms the basis of the quasi-pragmatic interpretation of Heidegger formulated most famously by Hubert Dreyfus in Being-in-the-World, a book which Philipse cites approvingly as a rigorous and critical engagement with Being and Time. This effectively gives up the transcendental pole and renders much of Being and Time irrelevant, preserving only certain epistemological aspects. One could argue that Sartre rescues other aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy in Being and Nothingness through a somewhat similar mechanism, as Sartre simply argues that authenticity is simply something that we can’t reach.

So some of Heidegger’s concepts, extracted and reprocessed, partly survive their faulty surroundings. The methodology and the system do not, however. The methodology, it seems, also failed for Heidegger, since he never even attempted such a systematic philosophical project again.

 

The Turn and the Later Work

Heidegger abandons systematic philosophy completely after Being and Time and turns to a historical and essayistic approach with more overt mythologizing. (“Only a god can save us now,” etc.) Philipse’s most intriguing analogy here is that Heidegger was posturing himself as a post-Nietzschean Martin Luther, trying to wipe away the human and social crud separating us from God (or whatever is left of him). Since Heidegger wished to save religion in the absence of a god, his attempt was fundamentally doomed, and so his later work is at odds with itself substantively in a way that the earlier work is not.

The core of the postmonotheist leitmotif is the idea that traditional monotheism died because Being was misinterpreted as a being, God. The postmonotheist strategy purports to destroy monotheism and to rescue religion by arguing that monotheist faith, which died, is not the true religion. True and authentic faith is the thinking of Being. This strategy faces a dilemma. On the one hand, postmonotheology should resemble traditional monotheism sufficiently for satisfying similar religious cravings. Indeed, we saw that the meaning of Heidegger’s postmonotheist thought is parasitic on the Christian tradition. On the other hand, postmonotheism should not resemble traditional monotheism too closely. For in that case, it could be interpreted as just another variety of the deceased monotheist tradition, as a watered-down and more abstract version of Christianity, a substitute religion, and the postmonotheist strategy will fail altogether.

Philipse maintains, however, that the religion was present in Heidegger’s work all along, and perhaps the central piece of evidence here is Heidegger’s assessment of his philosophical development from 1938:

But who would want to deny that on this entire road up to the present day the discussion [Auseinandersetzung] with Christianity went along secretly and discreetly [verschwiegen]—a discussion which was and is not a “problem” that I picked up, but both the way to safeguard my ownmost origin—parental home, native region [Heimat], and youth— and painful separation from it, both in one. Only someone who has similar roots in a real and lived catholic world may guess something of the necessities that were operative like subterranean seismic shocks [unterirdische Erdstöβe] on the way of my questioning up to the present day …

It is not proper to talk about these most inner confrontations [innersten Auseinandersetzungen], which are not concerned with questions of Church doctrine and articles of faith, but only with the Unique Question, whether God is fleeing from us or not and whether we still experience this truly, that is, as creators [als Schaffende]…

What is at stake is not a mere “religious” background of philosophy either, but the Unique Question regarding the truth of Being, which alone decides about the “time” and the “place” which is kept open for us historically within the history of the Occident and its gods …

But because the most inner experiences and decisions remain the essential thing, for that very reason they have to be kept out of the public sphere [öffentlichkeit].

Heidegger, My Way Up to This Moment (1937-1938)

Religion, at least in the broadest sense of the term, has been on Heidegger’s mind the whole time.

And so Philipse tells a story stressing the continuity of Heidegger’s thought despite the change in approach. What remains after the systems and methods of Being and Time are discarded are the same fundamental elements: privileged access to the essence of being/Being, and the dismissal of all other methodologies and disciplines (politics, science, technology, materialism) as superficial, incomplete, or irrelevant. His work, if anything, becomes more solipsistic, as engagement with any other thought would be enough to threaten the unjustified seizure of authority upon which it relies.

His aggressive misreading of Nietzsche is his last sustained engagement with philosophy, which then gives way to short quotes from writers and philosophers and generalizations about culture and history. (And puns.) There is always the insistence that humanity is ignoring some “more original” and “more primordial” truth that Heidegger, naturally, is trying to illuminate. (I take those phrases from what must be Heidegger’s most overrated work, “The Question Concerning Technology.”)

Taking the lead from Nietzsche, his method of of interpretation becomes explicitly violent and presumptuous:

The authentic interpretation [eigentliche Auslegung] should show that which is not stated in words anymore but which yet is said. In doing so, the interpretation must necessarily use violence. The proper sense [das Eigentliche] should be looked for where a scholarly [wissenschaftliche] interpretation does not find anything anymore, although the latter stigmatizes as unscholarly [unwissenschaftlich] everything that transcends its domain.

Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (1935)

Yet whatever subversive cool hovers around such violent and authentic interpretation should not disguise what this method is and has remained from Heidegger through Derrida, de Man, and Fish: the assumption of privilege. Here it is undisguised, in Philipse’s words:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation.

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

Philipse points out that the unwarranted, rhetorical assumption of privilege weaves its way through all of Heidegger, as when Heidegger disregards plain old empirical “vulgar” history in favor of his own practice of “real history.”  Once again, the empirical and methodological legwork usually required in such disciplines is trumped by Heidegger’s claim to have made an end-run around them to the very depths of being.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Which is not to say that Heidegger is not capable of insight, only that the insights are repeatedly and terminally dressed up in almost unforgivable pomposity and presumption.

 

The Assessment

The latter, critical parts of Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being are less effective than the analysis because Philipse has already done the heavy lifting just in uncovering the structure of Heidegger’s thought. The five leitmotifs, if truly present and central, are already so damning that when Philipse later slices and dices Heidegger’s language to show that it’s slippery and bad philosophy, his arguments follow very easily from his earlier analytic interpretation.

Philipse has a great fondness for the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Ryle, but his methodological application of it to Heidegger’s thought yields its most fruitful results in his structural analysis, before Philipse critiques Heidegger and explicitly contrasts these thinkers favorably with Heidegger. Philipse’s comprehensive structural organization and presentation of Heidegger’s thought is the major achievement here, in itself enough to relay much of the criticism he subsequently makes.

Despite Philipse finding methodological failings in Habermas’ assessment of Heidegger, their accounts dovetail in certain important respects, particularly how Heidegger’s methodological failures make his results arbitrary:

The language of Being and Time had suggested the decisionism of empty resoluteness; the later philosophy suggests the sub­missiveness of an equally empty readiness for subjugation. To be sure, the empty formula of “thoughtful remembrance” can also be filled in with a different attitudinal syndrome, for ex­ample with the anarchist demand for a subversive stance of refusal, which corresponds more to present moods than does blind submission to something superior. But the arbitrariness with which the same thought-figure can be given contemporary actualization remains irritating.

Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Being and Time inspired far less self-contradictory work by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but the roots of their work are arguably more in Husserl more than Heidegger. Heidegger’s work, however, may have provided a rhetorical force for some of Husserl’s observations that the brilliant but chronically leaden Husserl never managed. Heidegger, patricidal to the end, played down his debts to Husserl as much as possible, but it is unclear both to me and to Philipse what Being and Time added to phenomenology, substantively. Ernst Tugendhat put the point this way:

What Heidegger obtained through his argumentation is only the position of Husserl. The decisive step beyond Husserl is no longer substantiated through argumentation; indeed, it is not even recognizable as an independent step.

Ernst Tugendhat, “Heidegger’s Idea of Truth” (1984)

What remains then? Metaphors, or, as Carnap would say, poetry. And while Carnap called it bad poetry, I’d say some of it is fairly good poetry. “The Origin of the Work of Art” remains a forceful and evocative essay, and especially in light of the collapse of Being and Time‘s foundations, I’m nearly ready to rank it over Being and Time.

Of the Nazism, I broadly agree with Philipse. Heidegger’s philosophy does not necessarily imply Nazism, but following it does make it more likely that one will embrace of something like Nazism: a blunt, irrational, cult of tribalism uniting people around a charismatic leader. There is no question that Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism gained strength from his philosophical convictions, but those convictions did not mandate Nazism per se. Heidegger was unlucky in having the particular cult to which he was attracted turn out to be one of the most virulent of all time. This excuses him in no way, but it does remove the stigma from the work itself. Such is not the case for Carl Schmitt or Ludwig Klages, whose philosophy contains far more inherently fascist elements rather than merely cultic or irrationalist ones. Nonetheless, you’d have to be nuts to use Heidegger’s work as political philosophy; likewise, I’m mildly horrified whenever someone like Avital Ronell praises Heidegger’s personal choices in his life.

Likewise, I think that Heidegger’s philosophy is not coincidentally the product of his being a generally horrible person. Leaving aside the Nazi issue, his treatment of basically everyone he ever came into contact with, from Husserl to Hannah Arendt to his colleagues and students, tended toward the selfish, callous, and profoundly exploitative. Few philosophers seemed to treat people as means to an end as exclusively as Heidegger did. Both of the Heidegger biographies by Hugo Ott and Rüdiger Safranski paint the man as frighteningly charismatic but devoid of warmth and loyalty. I may write a follow-up post about Heidegger’s life to talk further about his personality traits, but for now I will just say that I draw a connection between such callousness and Heidegger’s conviction that he was dealing with a realm of truth greater than that which any other human being had touched in millennia.

I think that Philipse does, however, give an impression of there being too much calculated intention behind Heidegger’s philosophy. I believe that the unity he observes is present, but I think Philipse somewhat overstates the degree to which Heidegger’s philosophy was a conscious attempt to instill a new religion of Being. I think Heidegger was too disorganized and confused to pull something like that off. Philipse, quite organized and systematic himself, may have read too much of those traits into Heidegger. This is a small point, but I think it does result in Philipse giving Heidegger a bit too much credit.

Yet Philipse has a second interpretation to unify Heidegger’s work which bears mentioning, tracing the problem of authenticity as Heidegger himself might have faced it:

Now I want to suggest that the burden of authentic resoluteness as Heidegger sees it is in principle unbearable. It is simply impossible to be resolute without relying somehow and to some extent on preexisting cultural roles and norms. This is why Heidegger’s individualistic notion of authenticity, according to which Dasein has to liberate itself from common moral rules in order to choose one’s hero freely, tends to collapse into a collectivist notion, according to which the choice is not made by an individual at all, but is predetermined by the destiny of the Volk to which one belongs. Once Dasein has become authentic by liberating itself from standard morality, life becomes unbearable, and the liberated individual will seek to shake off the burden of radical individuation (vereinzelung) by joining a collectivist mob.

If this interpretation is acceptable, there is no direct relationship between the ideal of authenticity in Sein und Zeit and Heidegger’s turn to Nazism. The unbearable burden of authentic life can be relieved in two ways: by a leap to faith and by a totalitarian commitment. Only when the first solution seemed to be ruled out did Heidegger jump to the second. Nietzsche’s thesis of God’s death explained why the first solution was not available, and the metaphysics of the will to power paved the way to a second solution: Nazism.

I want to look at this psychologically and biographically. As depicted in biographies, the unempathetic and selfish Heidegger never seems to possess any sense of belonging to a group of peers. Lacking human compassion and solidarity, his search for authenticity had no choice but to take theological and tribal forms. His relations to others were those of power: he was a student (of Christ, of Husserl, of Hitler), or more often he was a teacher, or rather a leader, since “teaching” is not quite the word for what Heidegger intended to do. His dictum to his students was always, “I don’t want you to think. I want you to see.”

Milton set about to “justify the ways of God to man.” Once God is in the business of needing justification, He is doomed. Heidegger’s project was to disassemble that need, for God and for himself.

 

Appendix: Heidegger’s Sophistry of Being

If nothing else, Heidegger was a brilliant rhetorician, and though not as important to the book’s thesis as the points above, Philipse’s list of his authoritarian rhetorical stratagems is quite handy, if only to see how they too have woven their way through so much philosophy before and since. I have abbreviated this section heavily and excluded two more specialized stratagems. Philipse counts them as characteristic of the later work in particular.

1. The Stratagem of the Fall. If the Neo-Hegelian and postmonotheist doctrines were true, modern man would be fated to err. Heidegger erred grandly, because he erred in accordance with the present fundamental stance of the will to power. His opponents, however, err in petty ways, because, disagreeing with Heidegger, they do not acknowledge what is in our times, even though they are unwittingly determined by the present fundamental stance. Heidegger holds that logic is bound up with a false metaphysics that conceals Being, and that language in its ordinary uses blinds us to the light of Being as well. For this reason, opponents of Heidegger’s philosophy who try to state their objections clearly and pay heed to the principles of logic, need not be refuted: the very medium of their thought is condemned beforehand, because they have fallen from the House of Being. Christians sometimes held that everything, from language to inanimate matter, had been corrupted by the Fall. Similarly, Heideggerians suggest that all ways of philosophizing other than their own are contaminated, and that one does not need to show this in detail. These ways of philosophizing simply belong to the “reign of technology” (das Wesen der Technik), or to the “era of information,” to “logocentrism,” or to whatever other pejoratively labeled comprehensive category Heideggerians may invent. All philosophers are in Plato’s cave, except the Heideggerians.

2. The Stratagem of the Radical Alternative. If everything that human beings do or think is contaminated by the Fall, redemption must consist in an alternative that is radically different from anything we are able to conceive of: an entirely new Beginning. The conjunction of stratagems (1) and (2) puts the Heideggerian in a comfortable, because unassailable, “position”: he may condemn all other philosophical doctrines and movements in the name of an alternative that is ineffable because it is radically different: the Saving Event.

3. The Stratagem of Undifferentiating Abstraction. Heidegger tries to characterize the fundamental stance of the present epoch by stretching indefinitely the extension of nouns such as “technology” and “information.” We have seen that these nouns become meaningless by such an abstraction, even though Heidegger pretends that he is still using them meaningfully. I call this type of abstraction undifferentiating because Heidegger suggests that differences between items within the extension of these empty terms do not really matter and are indifferent. In 1935 he said that Russia and the United States are “metaphysically the same”; in 1945 he contended that communism, fascism, and democracy belong to one and the same metaphysical reality of the will to power; and in 1949 he ventured the opinion (which I quoted already) that “agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.”

4. The Stratagem of Persuasive Redefinition. Theologians are masters of persuasive redefinition. It used to be the case that believing Christians were not allowed to doubt religious dogmas, but as soon as doubting the literal truth of the New Testament became widespread, theologians such as Paul Tillich were quick to point out that “real” faith does not exclude doubt. One has “faith” as long as one has an “ultimate concern” in life. Nearly all core concepts of Christianity have been redefined in the course of Western history, because religious dogmas had become unacceptable in their original sense. Heidegger often uses this strategy of persuasive redefinition, and he applies it not only in the later works.

5. Strategies of Immunization. Heidegger’s notion of thinking as questioning is one strategy of immunization among others. Heideggerians often claim that criticism of what Heidegger says must be due to misunderstandings. This is a time-honored theological strategy: if the Bible is God’s word and if God is infallible, we will never criticize the Bible as long as we understand it well. Similarly, if what Heidegger says is in fact what Being gives us to understand, and if Being is the only source of Truth, as Heidegger suggests, then we should not criticize Heidegger’s later writings. I do not want to deny that criticisms may be unfair; surely they might be due to misunderstandings. But this cannot be the a priori predicament of all possible criticisms, unless Heidegger’s postmonotheist doctrine of being is true and unless Heidegger is infallible. It is at this very doctrine that my criticisms are aimed.

8. Stratagem of the Elect. One will wonder how Heidegger could claim that he was able to raise and understand the question of Being, if Being is concealed and the Fall has been completed. How could he gain access to the impenetrable and hidden place from where he was able to experience the Truth of Being, if this truth remains concealed to ordinary mortals? Heidegger lectured repeatedly on Plato’s simile of the cave, and Plato’s simile provided him with the solution to this problem. Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again. Perhaps it had to overcompensate for Heidegger’s isolation and lack of success in the Nazi movement.

Philipse links these stratagems to religion. While the links are obvious, I would not say they originate with religion nor are they necessarily indicative of religious thinking per se–certainly secular politics and science have made use of them as well. They are so ubiquitous that Heidegger stands out mostly for the force and skill with which he deployed them, which would do Grover Norquist proud. Likewise, I think that many of the people who have been attracted to Heidegger’s philosophy and methodology have done so not because of its religious revivalist content (though some, such as Levinas, clearly were attracted to it for precisely this reason) but because of the authoritarian rhetoric it offers.

Burton Pike on Robert Musil: To Analyze and Order Experience Without Reducing It

Robert Musil is difficult to write about. He outsmarts most of his commentators. Burton Pike’s “Robert Musil: Literature as Experience” is one of the better essays I’ve read on him, trying to link Musil’s hard-to-pin-down process in The Man Without Qualities to Husserlian phenomenology, and also with Susanne Langer’s theories of art that draw heavily on Ernst Cassirer’s theories of symbolic forms.

Musil attended the University of Berlin from 1903-1905, while Stumpf, Dilthey, and Simmel were teaching there, and he read and remarked on Husserl. I haven’t seen that much criticism exploring these connections (I haven’t looked too deeply), but they certainly merit it.

Pike’s essay focuses on Musil’s attempt to bridge the gap between lived experience and language through the host of characters and emotions and ideologies he meticulously dissects in The Man Without Qualities. My response is to ask whether the problem is made more difficult by thinking of it as a gap.

Can Musil’s project be better served, and saved, by reformulating it in a more language-centric way? Rather than bemoaning a myopic focus on language, should those following the spirit of Musil appropriate its study?

Robert Musil: Literature as Experience

Burton Pike, Studies  in  Twentieth-Century  Literature 18,  no.  2  (Summer  1994)

My general argument is that writers of the early modernist generation, and certainly Musil, were not blocked by language’s presumed inability to represent experience, but on the contrary were struggling to develop a new kind of literary language that would adequately represent experience as a cognitive process as it was then coming to be understood.

It might also be said of modernist literature generally that it resists the attempts of theory to reduce literary expression to the problem of language alone. This kind of literature uses language to project images that incorporate action in an envelope of sensory experience rather than using it descriptively or discursively. The senses, emotions, affects, moods, and subliminal effects involved in perception and experience are considered essential. It is too reductive, as some critics would have it, to consider literary language as merely a doomed attempt at some kind of rational discourse that eludes both writer and reader, a fruitless butting one’s head against the walls of the “prison-house of language.”

I would extend this to say that it is a trap to separate language and experience as though they are separate or as though one is a subset of the other. They are inextricable, each possessed of certain aspects that the other cannot make fully manifest (it is important that this be bidirectional and that we recognize that language has capacities beyond one person’s experience).

The simultaneous disdain of both experience (via attacks on “Cartesianism,” “subjectivity,” and the like) and language (by blocking it off from thought, experience, and the world) demarcates a desiccated zone for linguistic exploration that turns solipsistic all too easily. Derrida may well be the sine qua non of this approach, but one can argue that people from Quine to Brett Bourbon also fall prey to this temptation. It is ubiquitous.

The anchoring of modernist literature in perceptual and sensory images possibly illustrates what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote in the Philosophical Investigations that “a picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (Wittgenstein 48, ¶115). Suzanne Langer expressed something similar when she said that the artist’s way of knowing feelings and emotions “is not expressible in ordinary discourse [because] … the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language” (Langer 91).

On the other hand, Langer presupposes that literal language is an unproblematic concept. Husserl’s epoche (ἐποχή for you Greek readers)his method of bracketing off mental experience from our presuppositions–assumed an ability to get at pure experience that seems a bit optimistic. But the apparent failure of that project does not result in a conception of two worlds–one of feeling and emotion, one of language–that are incommensurable.

Rather, the perceptual and sensorial accompany both domains, but in heterogenous ways. The challenge which faces any serious writer is in getting language and conceptual experience partly to line up, through a monumental force of will and organization.

In fact, this task is really easy if you line them up in the conventional, contemporary ways which we receive from our birth on. But then you have written something of no importance whatsoever.

The burden of language as Musil understands it is not to mystify, but to analyze and order experience without reducing it. He makes his characters, within their immediate fictional situations, attempt to relate to each other and the world through their changing perceptual and sensory envelopes in terms of the experiences he tries out on them. What we can know, according to Husserl, is not the actual physical world but only our experience of it. Unlike Husserl, Musil is quite rigorous in making this process experimental and in developing a literary language that can express it with great precision. He puts all his major characters in this same experimental stance.

This is a tough enterprise for a writer, for not only is representing the complexity of experience thus understood a boundless task, but it rejects as impossibly artificial (not “true to life”) the traditional literary notions of plot, dramatic action, and characterization that normally provide a guiding structure for readers as well as writers. The results are contradictory and paradoxical: self and world, as Musil treats them, dissolve into a flow of endless “possibilities,” of the kind so lovingly developed in The Man without Qualities. The only way to temporarily arrest this flow, Musil postulates, is for an individual to attain an attenuated, tentative, ineffable, and quite transitory mystical state that he calls the “other condition,” an ecstatic state of heightened awareness similar to that advocated by Walter Pater.

This is a very modernist move, and I think it is a valuable and not-common-enough move to link it to Husserl. (Thomas Harrison talks a fair bit about this in his book Essayism.) Pike is a bit off-base on Husserl but the description of Musil’s method as being one of exploring the objects of thought does link Musil to Husserl, and their methodologies are not so different, though Musil is far more empirical.

This postulation of an ideal state of awareness and reception is most vulnerable if we think of it as an emancipatory suspension of all conditions on our thinking and our self. That’s a pretty high bar. If considered more modestly as either

  1. a suspension of some core prejudices and predispositions, or
  2. a framework-destroying entertaining of contradictory, coextant, and willfully foreign concepts;

–then there is still the possibility for something genuinely innovative to arise. Musil’s method can survive the attack better than Husserl’s original conception of the epoche. I tend to believe that any genuine epoche would require cessation of thought altogether, making it not terribly useful for present purposes.

The problem with regarding thoughts and sensations as a stream or flow with intermittent stases is, to quote William James, “introspectively, to see the transitive parts for what they really are. If they are but flights to conclusions, stopping them to look at them before a conclusion is reached is really annihilating them…. Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see now difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tract is…. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself…. The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like … trying to turn up the light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks” (quoted in Holton 124).

Musil, who was quite familiar with James’s work, understood this dilemma very well: throughout his diaries, essays, and interviews he worries endlessly about the technical problems this posed for him as a writer. Rejecting narrative in the traditional sense, he relies on a narrator external to the action to frame and control the experimental process as it unfolds. But since each scene is limited to representing the envelope of perceptions, sensations, actions, and experiences of the characters who are perceiving, sensing, acting, and experiencing within it, each scene tends to become a hermetic unit and mise-en-abyme. No extended dramatic narrative (for which characters must be defined as consistent types or counters) is possible. Musil’s “non-narrative narrative” consists of a sequence of quasi-independent micro-narratives, each of which could be extended at will in any direction or interspersed with other micro-narratives. Like Husserl, Musil believed in building up and analyzing all the data that hypothetically constitute experience. He did not, like Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch, for example, begin with an a priori set of values or literary notions.

This might explain why Musil had trouble finishing anything, notably The Man without Qualities and his essays: the experimental path he set up, “the path of the smallest steps” as he called it, that would ultimately reconcile the potential of probability with the reality of what actually happens, can never end. This is a negative consequence of his dedication to a hypothetical approach that gives primacy to “a scale of degrees of probability,” and that defines certainty as only the closest approach to the greatest achievable degree of probability—a kind of Zeno’s arrow of probability suspended in its flight toward certainty.

It’s worth noting that a significant change does take place between the two published mammoth parts of The Man Without Qualities. The appeal to the mystical experience only really kicks in with the arrival of Agathe, when it seems clear that Musil is trying to get beyond the critical approach that dominated Pseudoreality Prevails and move tentatively toward a more constructive approach in Into the Millennium (The Criminals). The critical approach remains and it does not sit easily with the constructive project, something for which Musil has suffered criticism. I think it is here that the unfinished nature of the book makes it hardest to judge the role of the constituent approaches.

The conflicts and paradoxes inherent in this approach to fiction are set out at the very beginning of The Man without Qualities. A scientist and mathematician, Ulrich is unable to fix any actual or potential moment in the flow of experience as definitive, or to fashion a language that could mediate the flow of experience in any reliable fashion, such as empirical science demands. In his very first appearance in the novel, Ulrich is standing behind a window in his house with a stopwatch in his hand, trying without success to freeze the flow of traffic and pedestrians on the street outside in a statistical measurement.

Representation, and the language that is its vehicle, can only be valid in Musil’s view if rendered with the utmost precision. The Man without Qualities contains a veritable catalog of the ways people talk, write, and interact in their lives, and these ways are considered unsatisfactory and insufficient. Each social class, profession, and individual in the novel is given his/her/its/their own hermetic vocabularies and grammars. Musil included mystic, philosophical, and scientific language, as well as the everyday conversational idiolects of each of the characters in the novel. (Each character speaks in his or her own style, idiom, vocabulary, and syntax, crossing but rarely intersecting with the others.) Musil even includes body language, as well as the inner, unrealized language of the inarticulate and the insane! The problem, as he saw it, lay in somehow fashioning a language that would overcome these obstacles and permit objective communication of the whole complex flow of experience from person to person and within society as a whole, and thus make true communication possible.

This is awfully close to Habermas’ fabled Ideal Speech Situation, though I’m not sure if Pike means to invoke it here. I do not think that “objective communication” is necessarily the goal. I believe Musil would have backed the distinction between the natural sciences and human sciences that Dilthey drew, and thus would have asked different things of the science he was constructing for The Man Without Qualities than he would have asked of physics.

I’d have to look carefully at Musil’s language to figure out what he thought. He criticizes contemporary literature for Gegenstandslosigkeit, a lack of objectivism, an embrace of abstractions that make it solipsistic and inward-turning, no longer attuned to present-day reality. But to include this in literature is not to embrace objectivity per se but to extend the warrant of literature to contain all these unsatisfactory means in the hopes of realizing satisfactory communication. The critical project is a necessary part of the constructive project.

There would seem to have been in the early phenomenologists and in Musil an underlying idealism that has since been lost, a belief that in spite of the increasing solipsism and dehumanizing specialization of modern life there is some sphere or some level—one hardly knows what to call it—in or on which all the conflicting and apparently unrelated fragments, self and world, feeling and intellect, science and society, skepticism and belief, could somehow be melded into a coherent, ethical whole. This might explain why the phenomenological basis is no longer fashionable in literary criticism and theory, and why language-based criticism, with its entrenched skepticism about idealist assumptions, has become dominant—it suits the temper of our time, which is disillusioned about any form of larger unity in the world. In the tradition of idealistic philosophy, phenomenology conceived experience as the experience of an individual person, but underlying the phenomenological enterprise was the intention of bringing about moral and ethical reform on the level of the larger community, and the belief that this could be done through an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world. Our time, however—as Musil himself trenchantly observed many times in his essays and in The Man without Qualities—has moved instead to a collectivist mode of thinking in which political, ideological, ethnic, and tribal thought and behavior rather than the individual’s subjectivity have become the framework for social thought, and in which literary characters, no longer the anchoring centers of the world they had been since Romanticism, have become in extreme cases cartoon characters. In collectivist fashion the contemporary human sciences, psychology, medicine, and sociology approach the individual only as a statistical manifestation of generalized and abstracted characteristics. (Thus the disease is more important than the patient, who represents for the medical profession only a manifestation of it, a “case.”)

Pike’s point is that the recent dominant trends of art and literature have echoed and reinforced the instrumentalization and taxonomizing of human experience rather than challenging it. This seems hard to deny, although bad literature has always done this to some extent.

But Pike paints the picture as rather dire by phrasing it in a somewhat transcendental way: by saying that we must construct a unity and understanding that seems ever more difficult to reach as the world gets bigger, faster, and more complicated. If Musil couldn’t build this unity, what chance do we have?

What Pike calls “an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world” seems unlikely when phrased that way. Better to think of it as latent possibilities in language and action (in which subjectivity participates), beaten-down and ignored by the dominant forces of the world, to which we can attune ourselves through open-mindedness and study.

I think this is what Musil was after in the first place, hence why he needed to spend such great time dissecting unsatisfactory languages. Not an awakened subjectivity, but an expanded world. All our experience is already in our language, if language can only be wrangled into sufficiently compelling conceptual forms. Faced with the richness of language’s conceptual possibilities, many writers and scholars have sought to reduce and contain it. Destroying this reduction of language would be enough to avoid the reduction and ignorance of experience.

Benny Shanon: The Antipodes of the Mind

Benny Shanon is an Israeli cognitive psychologist who has taken the psychoactive hallucinogen ayahuasca well over one hundred times. His book The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience is a scholarly attempt to describe its effects both through a survey of participants and through descriptions of his own extensive experiences.

The book is a mine of information about how the mind processes information, sense data, and concepts under abnormal conditions. Shanon does not disguise his enthusiasm for ayahuasca, but he attempts to maintain a disinterested and naturalistic stance. (Psychiatrist Charles Grob talks more about the specific neurological effects of DMT, ayahuasca’s active ingredient, in this interview.)

I have not taken ayahuasca. It does not sound terribly appealing. The one extensive description of an ayahuasca experience I’d previously read was by Kira Salak, who claimed that it cured her lifelong suicidal depression overnight. Her description of the experience, however, is enough to scare you off the stuff for life.

Shanon, however, comes off as a remarkably equanimous guy of good humor and patience, so his accounts do not dwell so much on the dark side of ayahuasca. (He attributes much of his poise to ayahuasca, but I suspect he was fairly upbeat and fearless going in.) We are 60 pages in before we come to this blithe passage:

Usually, the harshest symptoms of the Ayahuasca inebriation occur during the first 90 minutes following the onset of the effect. During this time, visions can be very strong and the entire experience may be tough and even frightening. Often the feeling is that the drinker has little or no control over what is happening. Thus, the initial phase of the inebriation is likely to present drinkers with moments of intense struggle. At times, the person who partakes of Ayahuasca feels he or she is losing his or her senses and even going mad. Quite commonly, people feel that they are about to die. Furthermore, it often seems that what is happening is irreversible and that one will never return to one’s normal self. With this, thoughts like ‘Why, for heaven’s sake, did I make the mistake of partaking of this drink?’ often cross drinkers’ minds. Naturally, all this is likely to generate great trepidation. With experience, however, the fear can be better managed and the Ayahuasca drinker learns to gain more control over the intoxication.

Fortunately, Shanon’s enviable nonchalance allowed him to continue chronicling ayahuasca’s effects despite the occasional remarks that ayahuasca frequently produces experiences I would consider horrifying and unbearable. Most of the visions he describes are generally rather benevolent, possibly because people who have repeatedly horrific ones stop drinking ayahuasca rather quickly. Grob, who also seems rather enthusiastic about ayahuasca’s possibilities, still remarks, “It can be an eternity in a Hell-realm.”

I will quote and comment on passages that struck me as particularly interesting philosophically. A good chunk of the experiences fall in line with what’s expected from corrupted sensory modalities: distorted vision, time-dilation, dream-like visions, etc. The exceptions, however, are fascinating, and Shanon’s dutiful chronicling makes the material worthwhile.

Shanon divides the material by subject matter and thematic analysis. I’ve sorted the excerpts into my own set of broad categories.

Confusion of the Sensuous and the Conceptual

Many of the hallucinations involve confusions of the (supposed) duality of concept and sense data, and make more intuitive sense if thought of as conceptual manipulation rather than raw internal experience, whatever that may be, as in these two examples:

In still another Daime session the madrinha stepped aside and a man passed a vessel of incense back and forth in front of her. The smoke lifted up and it became perfectly clear to me: It was an act of cleansing, of protecting the woman from potential dangers that may be inflicted by evil spirits. There were no visual hallucinations as such, yet, I would not say that the act was merely symbolic. What I experienced was literally this—seeing the casting of a shield against evil powers. It all seemed to have a very serious and sombre allure, and manifestly, it was all invested with magic. If I were to define what made it all so mysterious I would say that it was the fact that on the one hand everything pertained to another reality, while yet at the very same time it was all real. Again, no hallucination as such was experienced—technically what I was seeing was real, and none the less it was all utterly non-ordinary, and enchanted.

Another pattern of interpreting-as is one I shall characterize as seeing the particular as generic, or rather, seeing the generic in the particular. I have experi­ enced this on a number of occasions. The first, which for me was very striking, occurred during the daytime. It was in a village and I, intoxicated, was sitting on a small verandah overlooking the meadows. A farmer (a real one) was passing by, and I saw The Farmer, the universal prototype of all farmers. Again, as in the previous example, the standard perception and the non-ordinary one are related. After all, I saw The Farmer, not The Fisherman or The King. Yet, while normally I would have seen just a farmer, this time I saw The Farmer. While semantically linked, experientially these two perceptions are totally different. I have heard accounts of the very same phenomenon from my informants.

In both these cases, ordinary sense data is framed by conceptual interpretation that ordinarily kicks in only at a layer of remove from seemingly immanent experience, revealing that conceptual interpretation was there all along.

Similarly, invocation of Platonic forms occurs repeatedly:

The real figure (the trees) and the visualized one (the people) were related, but not by means of any overlapping of lines. In other words, the relationship was primarily semantic. Other instances of this kind I have experienced were seeing an (imaginary) jaguar resting on the branch of a (real) tree and an (imaginary) cow standing on a (real) truck.

Abstract entities may be seen as well. One informant told me he had a grand vision of perfect geometric bodies. Another reported a scene in which he spontan­eously came to the appreciation that the physical world is harmoniously governed by mathematical laws. Three informants reported grand visions in which the manifold of all forms was seen. Several informants, all with an academic education, explicitly commented that Ayahuasca brought them to the world of Platonic Ideas.

Finally, there are visions in which one feels one is encountering the Supreme Good. A major impression these visions had on me is the (Platonic) conclusion that ultimately, the ethical and the aesthetical as well as the true are the same. I have heard similar assessments made by many other people.

A better way to read these perceptions of universals is to interpret them as the conceptual being applied and/or interpreted at a different level than usual. Even in the perception of a particular instance of an abstract concept, we already have the abstract concept in mind. We just don’t believe ourselves to perceive it.

To put it another way: does Shanon have an experience of seeing The Farmer, or does he merely think that he has had an experience of seeing The Farmer? This is a nonsensical question: there is no difference between the two.

The meaninglessness of this question, I believe, points to the effect that ayahuasca is having on him. There is not some raw layer of true/veridical empirical perception that is then getting corrupted by a process of cognition. Classically Cartesian and empiricist accounts are misleading in this regard. The conceptual objects of perception (what I think of as Husserl’s noemata) are themselves corrupted.

Shanon pretty much agrees on this point:

Should we say that what is seen in Ayahuasca visions is to be divided into two: that which is ‘really’ seen, and that which is the product of interpretation? While there might be instances where interpretation may be relegated to a separate, secondary process, I am reluctant to regard this as the paradigmatic, general case. Because of my previous work in both psychology and semantics, I have difficulty accepting the two-stage analysis dividing perception and interpret­ation. My general theoretical stance in cognition is that there is no demarcation line between ‘raw’ perception, on the one hand, and semantic, meaningful interpret­ation, on the other hand. Following the philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the psychologist Gibson (1979), I believe that it is impossible to draw a clear-cut line dividing between naked, interpretation-free sensory inputs and interpretative processes that are subsequently applied to them so as to render these inputs into meaningful percepts. In the spirit of Heidegger (1962), I maintain that cognition is always ‘laden with meaning’. Applied to the example cited, this view implies that, from a cognitive-psychological point of view, if the figure seen was identified as being Jesus, then phenomenologically this is indeed who was seen.

Does this deflate the claims that Shanon is making of profound, sublime experience? As long as we maintain that any thought has some phenomenological content, it doesn’t have to. That said, prefacing every ayahuasca experience with “I thought [I saw Jesus, e.g.]” certainly makes things sound less impressive. If I were to take ayahuasca and have an experience in which I knew that 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5, I can’t say that would seem very remarkable in retrospect.

Likewise, Shanon repeatedly has experiences in which he does not hallucinate per se so much as undergo experience that is perceptually impossible by ordinary standards, dealing with the cross-wiring of the “sensuous” with the “conceptual.” A “thought” is not as distinct from a “sensing” as it normally seems. This is not to say that there are no distinctions–there seem to be multiple levels involved–but that concepts play some part at all levels.

Shanon invokes Heidegger, not without reason, as the experience is more or less a fundamental corruption of one’s normal being-in-the-world.

At times, the experience vacillates between one that is primarily visual and one in which the visual is, as ordinary reality, just one facet of one’s being-in-the-world. A scene may begin as one of the former kind, gain strength and reach the characteristics of the latter, and then it may perhaps dissipate and turn into an experience that is again primarily visual. What characterizes very powerful experiences of virtual reality is that they involve no progressive process of immersion.

Except, pace Heidegger, what is produced is not alienation but a sense of integration. I think that this is not because we are being brought down to the level of the world, which normally seems free of conceptual manipulation. It is more because the normally “objective” world is being brought up to our level.

Dubious Reactions and Causal Breakage

While the experiential nature of the content still stands, we nonetheless have good reason to question the exact constitution of the experiences. As an example, consider this grand vision Shanon gives:

I had the vision, recounted in Chs. 8 and 9, of an exhibition presenting what appeared to be an entire, unknown culture. I was thinking to myself: ‘If this is not real, if my mind is creating all this, then the human mind must be much more amazing, much more mysterious than standardly assumed by psychologists. Indeed, if my mind is creating all this,’ my thinking went on, ‘then cognitive psychologists just know nothing about the mind.’ Thus, to the suggestion that the effect of psychoactive substances is, as Merkur (1998) claims, just ‘intense fantasying’ I retort: Perhaps, indeed, this is all that is happening, but this should not be taken in a dismissive, half-derogatory fashion. It may very well be that it is the creative ability of the mind but, if so, the mind’s ability to create surpasses anything we cognitive scientists ever think of.

Here I think Shanon slips. It is the old Wittgenstein beetle in the box problem. The mind, while amazing, is also amazingly good at tricking itself. Shanon had some kind of vision, but he also was in a state in which he was clearly disposed to think of his vision experience as amazing. His brain was probably (we don’t know for sure) putting together all sorts of concepts and sense data in bizarre and creative ways, creating the “all this,” but we have no way of establishing how awesome that assemblage was beyond the descriptions he gives. Here is a representative excerpt:

On many occasions I saw corridors, one hall opening into another, marvellous wall-paintings, sculptures, and reliefs. Architectural details that espe­cially impressed me included sculpted marble colonnades in the form of white elephants, staircases adorned with golden lions, and finely carved gilded wooden ceilings. Several times, I saw most beautiful painted tiles. In the reports of my informants mosaics appear frequently; an example was described in Ch. 6 when serial images were discussed.

No doubt these are remarkable things to imagine, but we fall into a fallacy if we think that he “saw” these things in full detail to the extent we would have to imagine them in ordinary life to feel such an expanse of detail. More likely, the details were all that existed as isolated conceptual objects, and his brain drew a vivid but incomplete implication of an entire landscape of awesomeness, generating individual awesome details on demand, not all at once.

In order to have a reaction to an imagined stimulus X, what was required of that imagined stimulus X? I could have a vision in which I had just read a profound book containing the secrets of life and am left awestruck.  The book need not have existed as a conceptual entity in my mind beyond having loose book-like qualities. Since we already know that ayahuasca throws logic out the window, there is no need to think that there was some causal chain in which an actual, fully-fleshed-out conceptual object caused the reactions he was having, or that the reactions were rationally justified.

I am sure that in Shanon’s vision, many details were generated, far more than in the normal course of imagination, and that these details were experienced more vividly, but that there were still nowhere near enough details to qualify as a fleshed-out “world” by everyday standards.

Consider a more prosaic example. I have a decent auditory memory and can “replay” music that I know well in my head and “hear” with the right timbre, sound density, etc. On the other hand, I do not hear it in any sort of complete way (though I can “replay” it and pay attention to one instrument over another, for example), nor do I have any knowledge about the innards of the music. All I have is some pieces of the audio that are what were salient to me. They are fairly vivid, but they are drastically incomplete, and the same would apply to any vision or hallucination I might have. (My visual sense, however, is in fact much poorer and I have a much harder time summoning up vivid images; this seems to be the reverse of the norm.)

Ultimately, one’s reactions in ayahuasca cannot be trusted any more than they can be externally verified through verbal (or other) reports. One case of such verification is described in the Idealistic Holism section below, but obviously, verification is the exception, not the rule, at least until we invent brain-reading machines that depict what we’re thinking…which, given the overlapping of the conceptual and the sensuous, is seemingly impossible.

When Shanon says:

The philosopher of language Austin (1962) claimed that we do not just say things with words— rather we do things with them (saying being one of these things). My work on ordinary consciousness has led me to posit that with the silent mentations in our minds (i.e. thought sequences) we do not entertain thoughts but rather do things and act in the theatre of our minds (see Shanon, 1998*). I have further argued that what consciousness affords is a kind of virtual reality whereby human beings can act even when actual action in the external world is not possible. My claim has been made on the basis of ordinary consciousness. In the case of nonordinary consciousness the case is even more extreme. I would like to propose that with Ayahuasca the human propensity of world creation is increased manifoldly.

I think he is right to a point, but the other side of the coin is that the criteria for world creation may be drastically lowered. As Wittgenstein repeatedly stressed, we have no way of knowing. By invoking the “theatre of our minds,” Shanon has fallen back into a false specator-spectacle dualism, assuming that what he is experiencing has some kind of existence outside of the experience itself. Ironically, it’s quite similar to the cognition/perception dualism he’s trying to break down.

Specific Neurological Manipulations

Notably, the manipulations involved seem to map onto forms of cognition that are associated with isolated aspects of cognition. For example, face-related experiences seem to relate rather clearly to the neurological disorder prosopagnosia, which is the failure to be able to remember and recognize people’s faces. (It affects Oliver Sacks, Hubert Dreyfus, and, either aptly or ironically, Chuck Close.)

The first small detail I would like to mention is disembodied eyes. These are eyes seen floating in the visual space without there being either a face or a body of which they are part. The eyes may be those of human beings, of felines, or without any particular identity. Often, a great multitude of such eyes is seen. These are reported very commonly. Notably, they are also encountered in the most spectacu­ lar vision reported in the Bible—the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with the Divine (see, in particular, Ezekiel 1: 18; for a discussion of the motif of disembodied eyes in the context of pre-Columbian Mexican culture, the reader is referred to Ott, 1986). Also commonly reported are detached faces, that is, faces without bodies; bodies without faces are also reported.

If, as prosopagnosia suggests, facial perception is handled by a specific mechanism in the brain (the fusiform gyrus, also possibly associated with synaesthesia), then the commonality of face-related hallucinations would suggest that ayahuasca is hitting that part quite reliably.

Another mechanism Shanon identifies as being crucially affected is iconic (“flash”) memory:

A specific manifestation of the salience of the medium as it pertains to the temporal dimension is the increase in the time span of iconic memory, which consists of the retaining in memory of information in a quasi-perceptual manner, as if a copy of the external perceptual stimulus is maintained. Normally, the span of iconic memory is very brief—it is estimated to be between 350 and 500 milliseconds (see Coltheart, 1983; Baddeley, 1990). With Ayahuasca, the time-span of iconic memory is sign­ificantly lengthened. One closes one’s eyes and an image of what one has just actually seen is retained. The time of retention is much longer than normal. A related phenomenon is that of afterimages (see Ch. 17). These, too, are very pronounced when, during the inebriation, one closes one’s eyes. Both phenomena result in a lengthening of the time that perceptual stimuli (or their derivatives, such as afterimages) are amenable to mental inspection. As a consequence, the scope of the mental transformations that these stimuli can generate is increased.

This indeed seems to fit with the nature of the mental chaos that ayahuasca generates.

Metaphoricity

Since we have eliminated the “rawness” of perception, it follows that we would see metaphors impact the most basic level of perception, and that indeed is what happens. One example of this outside of ayahuasca is synaesthesia, which clearly involves some layer of semantic data.

In a discussion of Thomas Hardy’s synaesthesia four years ago, a synaesthete described an experience of “the concept Wednesday with the experience blue…it’s like my color-seeing bits are being activated but not quite seeing.” Ayahuasca experiences suggest the extension (or derailing) of this kind of process on many levels:

In Shanon (1992) and (1993a) I argue against this common view and suggest that for a metaphor to obtain it is not at all necessary that the semantic features or distinctions encountered in the metaphorical expression be given and fully defined prior to the articulation of that expression. Furthermore, on the basis of both empirical data and conceptual analysis, I claim that rather than being secondary, metaphorical processing is primary and non-derivative. This claim is supported by considerations of speed of processing in normal adults, ontogenetic patterns (it appears that metaphors are very common in the speech of young children), and the so-called primary (sic) processes encountered in dreams (these, note, are highly metaphorical; see Freud, 1900/1953). As I see it, the very essence of metaphoricity is the creation of new features. In other words, when producing or receiving a metaphor, cognitive agents draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things. In this process, features are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made and new semantic features are generated. It is precisely this that makes metaphor cognitively so important—it is one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition.

The foregoing observations highlight the intrinsic affinity between synaesthesia and metaphoricity. As indicated above, in cognitive-psychological discourse, the latter is generally linked primarily with language, whereas the former is regarded as sensory. I propose, rather, that they are to be regarded as the two manifestations of what is essentially the same basic cognitive phenomenon, namely, functioning in a mode that does not differentiate between domains that, from the perspective of normal mature adult cognition, are totally distinct. In metaphor these domains are semantic fields, while in synaesthesia they are sensory modalities, but otherwise these two cognitive phenomena are the same. Together, both may be regarded as manifestations of an enhanced degree of latitude with respect to priorly given, standardly established distinctions; this effect may be referred to as ‘nonfixedness’.

This perhaps is the most important point of Shanon’s book, underscoring the integration of the conceptual and the sensuous while emphasizing the collective nature of those metaphors. What Shanon has in mind here does bear some resemblance to Hans Blumenberg‘s idea of absolute metaphors. To underscore this, Shanon invokes one of Blumenberg’s core metaphors–hell, one of society’s core metaphors–light.

Significantly, language reflects (sic) the special status of light. It is no accident that in English—as in many other languages—words such as those ending the previous paragraph but one are derived from the term ‘light’ (cf. ‘enlightened’, ‘illumination’). In Hebrew, a language not at all related to English, the noun V is light, the noun ora is one of the terms for joy, the adjective mu’ar is illuminated, na’or is enlightened, me’or panim denotes happy welcomingness, and so on and so forth.

Since metaphors are shared and most are collectively generated (some may be native, I believe), it does render the social a core aspect of neuropsychology. I heartily endorse Shanon’s statement to this effect, drawing from Vygotsky:

Against dominant views in contem­porary cognitive science, my own is that the basic capability of the human cognitive system is not to process information but rather, to be and act in the world. Even our most private, most subjective experiences attest to this fundamental state of affairs (see Shanon, 1998*). This being the case, the internal and the external are inter­twined and there cannot be a sharp divide between the two. Specifically, the mental is embodied in the corporeal and individual cognition is embedded in the matrix of social interrelationships. As the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky and his disciples argued, mind is in society (see Vygotsky, 1978). Hence, in a very fundamental fashion, even the most individualistic psychologist cannot ignore the societal.

I don’t have much to add here. This seems to be an obvious point but I don’t feel it’s one often considered in lay presentations (or even technical presentations) in cognitive science and psychology. (It seems that Francisco Varela‘s “embodied mind” approach is one well-known, recent move in this direction.) There is a very long tradition here, probably best exemplified by Merleau-Ponty. But I think Shanon’s specific focus on metaphoricity is accurate and merits application in even the most quotidian studies of “being-in-the-world.” This would then constitute a rejection of Heidegger’s ontological approach, which makes these structures of “being-in-the-world” more fundamental than socially-conditioned metaphors.

There remains the issue of shared content across cultures. I don’t think Shanon provides a huge amount of evidence here to suggest too many universal concepts and metaphors genuinely innate to the mind. Light could well be one of them, but when it comes to snakes and cats, both extremely common in ayahuasca visions, I’m more wary. Snakes I think can be explained fairly easily: snakes are a very simple shape (that is, a line), and so if you’re going to see an animal (which may indeed be something more innate to the mind), a snake is a likely one, just like clouds are likely to look like marshmallows. Cats are trickier, but I’m not quite ready to assign them some innate presence in the brain just yet.

Idealistic Holism

In some ways it makes sense that the breakdown of our reality-processing software would result in a general feeling of holism:

Overall, Ayahuasca induces a comprehensive metaphysical view of things. I would characterize it as idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones. By this view, reality is conceived as constituted by one, non-material substance which is identified as Cosmic Consciousness, the Godhead, the ground of all Being, or the Fountain of Life. Coupled with this is the assessment that all things are interconnected and that in their totality they constitute one harmonious whole. This, in turn, entails an experienced realization that there is sense and reason to all things and that reality is invested with deep, heretofore unappreciated, meaningfulness. By and large, it seems that the metaphysical perspective induced by Ayahuasca is most similar to views entertained in classical Hindu philosophy (see, for instance, Phillips, 1995) 2 as well as by Plato, Plotinus, and Hegel. Remarkably, this view is essentially the same as that characterized by Huxley as the ‘perennial philosophy’ (Huxley, 1944; see also James, 1882); similar observations were also made in the context of LSD (see Grof, 1972, 1998).

Shanon doesn’t make any metaphysical claims for this experience, though he implies them rather strongly.

Thus, many informants have reported to me that the brew made them appreciate that ‘everything is interconnected’, ‘all is one’, ‘every­thing is spirit’, and ‘all is consciousness’. Other recurring expressions are ‘this world is an illusion’, ‘everything has meaning’, ‘the different levels and aspects of reality exhibit the same essential structure’, and ‘I and the world are united’.

It is difficult to know how to interpret these reports. Semantically, these are not impressive statements, but they reflect what must be a very powerful inner experience.

My question is: what other sort of conceptual experience would one expect to have in such a state other than holistic monism? I do not mean this rhetorically, but I want to ask if there may be a causal implication here in which ayahuasca does only part of the work and traditional cognitive functions do the rest.

To explain: What’s happening in such ayahuasca moments is a shutdown of traditional constraints (or categories) the brain imposes on our experience, accompanied by what is presumably cognitive attempts to produce something resembling coherent experience out of what remains. Broadly speaking, I would expect this to produce a sense of non-differentiation and lack of identity. The specifics of the experience may or may not be baked into the brain. At this point third-person accounts seem less helpful than they did with reports of more sensuous experiences.

Accompanied by such experiences is the collapse of time itself, which seems (a) phenomenologically remarkable, but (b) actually not too unlikely, given the other corruptions that are going on.

In front of me I saw the space of all possibilities, that is, all states of affairs that can possibly happen. They were lying in front of me there like objects in physical space. Choosing, I realized, is tantamount to the taking of a particular path in this space. It does not, however, consist in the generation of intrinsically new states of affairs. All possibilities are already there, I saw, but one has the option of choosing different paths amongst them, just as when travelling through a terrain in real space. Further, while travelling in the space of possibil­ities takes time, the possibilities themselves are there, given in an ever-present atemporal space. Thus, I concluded, there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. With this, for the first time I felt I understood the Jewish sages in the Mishna—’Everything is laid out in advance yet freedom of choice is given.’

Shanon reflects on the afterthoughts many drinkers have:

Ayahuasca causes many drinkers to reflect upon conscious­ness and its nature. This is true also of individuals without any prior intellectual interest in this topic. Moreover, in general, the specific ideas that different drinkers entertain with regard to consciousness fall into one consistent picture. As indicated earlier, consciousness is conceived of as the basic constituent of reality and the ground of all Being. Many further say they experience, and consequently conceive of, consciousness as a supra-human and non-individuated phenomenon of which human consciousness is a derivative. Obviously, that different people have and share these ideas proves nothing. Yet, perhaps this has some bearing on the topic being entertained? In other words, perhaps the similarity of these insights does indicate something with regard to the nature of consciousness? I leave this as an open question.

I think that, indeed, there is a shared set of concepts and experiential data that is cross-cultural, but that it falls under the broadly naturalistic rubric of “being human.” The supra-human, non-individuated state is one that could well naturally emerge from the brain when its moorings are loosened, just like in dreaming or schizophrenia. (Louis Sass describes somewhat analogous experiences in The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Again, this isn’t to deflate Shanon’s claim, as consciousness is one damn weird creature, and the fact that our normal state of mind allows us to process reality in a more functional way does not mean that our normal state of mind is somehow more essentially reflective of the nature of consciousness.

Given these changes to the nature of experience, one would expect ayahuasca to generate certain questions about consciousness and experience with some uniformity. There is much room for cultural variation, but I think it’s unavoidable that there are certain basic conceptual areas of human experience that really are universal. (Maybe it’s time to revise Kant’s Categories once more.)

Things get trickier but also a bit more verifiable when Shanon describes experiences that overlap with reality that seem to extend consciousness extra-locally outside of his body:

The non-individuation of consciousness may also be manifested in the blurring of the distinction between the individual and his or her fellow human beings. As a consequence, one may feel that one’s identity is defined not individually but rather in group terms. Thus, strong identification with the other persons who participate in the Ayahuasca session is common. One clear manifestation of this is the communal singing in the rituals of the Santo Daime Church. Many times I have observed how sessions begin—the leading persons start to sing and the others in the hall readily join in, as if tied to them by hidden strings. Furthermore, the singing may be extremely co-ordinated, both with respect to tempo and rhythm and as far as immediate adjustments in tune are concerned. On such occasions, the group becomes a kind of a single organism that acts in a precise and highly concentrated fashion. Once I gave a cassette recording I had made of such singing for inspection to a musical laboratory equipped with high-tech measurement instruments. The experts were astonished at the perfect degree of synchrony between the people singing. In a direct, non-technical manner I have felt this many times as well. As recounted earlier, once I also had a vision that made the notion of group-consciousness even more apparent to me. In the vision I found myself in the midst of an ant colony. I felt the relationship between each ant, as a biological organism, and the colony as a whole. Consciousness was the property of the latter, not the former.

The cassette recording is the key piece of evidence here. The explanation, I gather, is a sub-conscious (a term I mean in a general, generic sense, not a specific one) ability of the body to process and act without the general level of conscious awareness that one lends to such activities, an abandonment of “thought” for “instinct,” but an “instinct” laden with much more cognition than is generally thought possible. (Perhaps this is akin to blindsight, in which there is clear conceptual processing going on despite a seeming lack of cognitive awareness.)

This sort of coordination is possible in everyday life between people as well, though it is often not noticed. One example would be the conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are able to coordinate activities such as typing and driving, clearly without time for conscious reflection, despite each side of the body being controlled by an absolutely discrete brain. It’s not ESP, but it’s still rather remarkable. Presumably there are plenty of other studies of such sub-aware coordination going on.

Thus it is a question of terminology whether one then says that consciousness extends outside of the brain, or that human unconscious behavior is far more sophisticated and capable of coordination with others than we usually think. Shanon’s interpetation seems to go toward the former, as he ultimately denies the existence of the unconscious in any sense. Instead, he thinks of consciousness as having multiple states:

It could be suggested that human beings have the ability to operate, and exist, in two different states. Metaphorically, these may be conceived in terms of the shifting of gears. The first state is the ordinary one, and it is fully grounded in time. The other, non-ordinary state consists in the freeing of the mind from the ordinary temporal constraints. That such freeing is possible is a major feat of the human psyche. The study of the dynamics of the shift between the two states is, I think, a cognitive-psychological topic of utmost significance. A theoretical frame­work that accounts for it will encompass both ordinary consciousness and nonordinary consciousness and view them as specific cases obtained by means of variations in a common, general structure. Thus, the enterprise in question is, in essence, the development of what may be regarded as a general theory of con­sciousness.

Shanon seems to identify temporality as the distinguishing criterion between regular and non-regular consciousness. I’m not sure why this should necessarily be, or why there would only be two states as opposed to many, or a continuum. Most of us have experienced “bullet time,” the slowing down of perceived time when in some sort of crisis situation (I’ve experienced it in auto accident close-calls), and that seems to fall somewhere in between the two poles. But he’s the one who has taken ayahuasca a hundred times, so if his personal experience strongly suggests that there are just two modes, that’s a point to consider.

Spiritual Experience

People hypothesize some sort of “God module” in the brain that produces mystical experiences. This seems plausible to a point, but isolating a native spiritual aspect to the ayahuasca proceedings is very difficult. These experiences are obviously heavily culturally conditioned and conditioned by empirical experience, both culturally-dependent and universal. Regardless, the spiritual/mystical aspect of ayahuasca is obviously very strong.

As for the general euphoria, well-being, and sense of peace, it seems to be in some ways a coping mechanism. The spiritual side of the experience may indeed constitute a cognitive aspect of this coping mechanism:

I learn to use dissociation as an advantage[,] as a way of escaping from the horror. I am not the person got at; rather I am the disembodied face-presence calmly peering in and watching this other and unimportant me. I watch my other self, safely now. But then this second me, this objective and detached observer, succumbs too, and I have to dissociate into a third and then a fourth as the relation between my-selves breaks, creating an almost infinite series of fluttering mirrors of watching selves and feeling others.

But at this level of complexity and abstraction, comfort is far from the only thing produced. I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts about these aspects of the visions, as they seem the hardest to pin down and describe. I quote these two experiences of Shanon’s more for their vivid portrayals rather than for any philosophical insight I was able to derive from them.

First, a vision that is perhaps an allegory of ayahuasca itself:

I found myself engulfed in infinite blue. [Later I referred to it as ‘the blue place’.] There were beings there. I did not see them but I had communication with them. They offered to reveal the mysteries of the universe to me. There was no question about it, they were benevolent and their offer was genuine and sincere. However, there was a condition involved with it—a payment on my part was to be made. I had to relinquish any further contact with this world. In other words, I would never return. I opened my eyes and I looked around. I saw my living room, my piano, my friend who was supposed to watch over me but who was tucked up in the large armchair sound asleep. I thought of my family and friends, my teaching and writing. I looked through the large window and saw the trees outside. I thought of my sanity. No, I did not want to lose all these! Nor, I reflected, did I wish to lose my regular self, the way I am, the way I think and feel. I sat up straight and spontaneously got my hands moving and energetically slapped my lap. Again and again I slapped so as to break myself free from the spell. Thus, I had forsaken the opportunity to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Afterwards I regretted my decision. Later, I reflected a lot on this episode and have drawn many lessons from it. I shall not dwell further on them here.

Second, a vision about the last king of Judaea, Zedekiah, which Shanon cites as being one of the most significant he ever had:

King Zedekiah was chained and unable to move. He was positioned in front of a large furnace. The fire was ablaze and one by one his sons were consigned to the flames. Then his eyes were plucked out. I was standing on the side, witnessing the scene. What could poor Zedekiah do? He could not help his children and could do nothing to change their awful lot. He could neither resist nor fight. He could, of course, curse and blaspheme but that would have done him no good. The only thing that he could do, really, was praise the Lord. This, I saw, is what he did. The blind man who had just lost both his kingdom and his sons was singing a great Hallelujah. With this, he was both gaining strength to go on living and maintaining his dignity. And as he was singing he also understood. Powerful as the Babylonian tyrant was, he was just a player in a play that was of a still much larger scope. For Nebuchadnezzar was not at the top of the pyramid—still above was the creator of the universe and the ruler of the world. Nebuchadnezzar was playing a role allotted to him and one day his fate too was sure to come.

There is one other, more abstract spiritual experience that Shanon describes many people as having had under ayahuasca, involving visual webs:

Many times, invariably towards the end of sessions and when I was stepping outside into the natural surroundings, there were lines and webs of light that interlaced everything. In time I came to learn that this experience is very common. Indeed, of the many people I have interviewed, only very few have not seen these patterns.

Even more common are visions that reveal what is felt to be the anima mundi—the cosmic energy that permeates all Existence and sustains everything that is. As noted in earlier chapters, this is often associated with the seeing of webs of translucent fibres that embrace the whole of Existence.

Personally, I have come to ideas of the kind just noted in conjunction with seeing the ‘web’ I described in Chs. 5 and 8, that is, a matrix of translucent strings that seem to tie everything together. I have experienced this many times and have heard of the same experience from many of my informants. The description of the visual effect was invariably the same and many persons used the identical phrase—’a web’—to describe it. For instance, one of the independent drinkers told me that the most important teaching she has received from Ayahuasca was the appreciation that the Divine does indeed exist. Asking her how she had arrived at this conclusion she answered by presenting a description of the tran­slucent web that interlinks everything and sustains all existence.

These three passages were striking to me because I’ve had something like this experience twice, years apart, both times fully sober. I was asleep on both occasions, but the force of the experience woke me up. I immediately associated the webs with the Heraclitan logos, but obviously that’s pretty close to the other descriptions Shanon gives.

Upon waking, the “vision” was nothing more than a very strong visual conception of webs in my head; there was no hallucination. But it was also accompanied by an ongoing, immense, unique feeling of ebullience and well-being that I have only experienced on those occasions. I was possessed by the overwhelming, reassuring, and no doubt irrational conviction that the universe as a whole made sense. It was a very visceral experience, unlike any other dream I have ever had or any other state I have ever been in, and bereft of concrete content.

I think of these experiences as having invoked a particular piece of neurological machinery different from those in normal use. I wouldn’t mind invoking it again, but I’m not about to drink ayahuasca to get there.

Conclusions

Shanon’s ultimate methodological conclusion in The Antipodes of the Mind seems to be a plea for a psychological functionalism:

But then, if explanation in psychology consists not in the modelling of mind by means of underlying computational operations, what else can it be? The answer I have come up with is that what is left for the psychologist to do is the systematic study of the surface, so to speak, and the establishment of lawful regularities in it. This is tantamount to saying that for me, the domain of the psychological coincides with that of conscious experience. In this domain, the unconscious does not exist. Like William James (1890/1950), I maintain that mental activities and processes are conscious, and they cannot be achieved outside of consciousness. It is in the light of this fundamental theoretical conclusion that I try to understand the Ayahuasca experience.

I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, yet it may come as a bit of a disappointment after his explorations of the inner. Alas, reality can be disappointing. Since whatever internal percepts we have must always be translated into the public language and tested against the collective rationality which we share, we are indeed stuck with the world as most of us perceive it. Any possible uplift will have to be collective. At that point, it won’t even seem that special since by definition it will have become ordinary.

Shanon postulates that the states ayahuasca creates are related to fundamental aspects of consciousness not normally in use:

Thus, significantly, the new types of consciousness discovered with Ayahuasca are not just two new types. Rather, they integrate coherently into the system of consciousness that I have constructed independently on the basis of the phenom­enological inspection of ordinary consciousness. The Ayahuasca experience also introduces one new distinction into the system, namely, mental contents of which the cognitive agent is directly aware but which are experienced as being independ­ent of his or her own mental processes. However, the extension pertaining to nonordinary consciousness does not alter the system of consciousness as such.

Any such construction seems highly speculative to me and requires actual neurological explanation in order to see if the model is tenable. What is notable is the ability to bring on an “egoless” or “agentless” state, one in which the division between self and world is greatly corrupted. Evolutionarily speaking, this function seems maladaptive  on the surface.

Yet I could also believe that conviction of purposefulness, at-home-ness, universal empathy, and integration with the world could be a great booster to a sentient organism. If so, it’s rather ironic that such a condition requires entering a mental and physical state in which one is rendered nearly nonfunctional and completely vulnerable. But in that it’s not so different from many of the best moments in life.

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.

9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

These nine ideas are all wrong. (I believed many of these, whether explicitly or as an unstated assumption, at some point or another, so this post is directed at my past self as much as anyone.)

  1. The Greeks (Athens specifically) had a free direct democracy with open discussion, free of tyranny.
  2. Descartes formulated the fundamental concepts of rational subjectivity and selfhood under which we all still operate today, thus originating modernity.
  3. Enlightenment thinkers shared a rationalist, Panglossian optimism about controlling humanity and the state.
  4. The French Revolution was a seminal, epochal event that drastically and uniquely changed attitudes toward humanity, history, and politics.
  5. American religious fanaticism originates with the Puritans and associated peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  6. Hegel’s dialectic is of the form “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
  7. Prior to the 20th century (or prior to Schleiermacher, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc.), language was taken to have determinate, definite meaning that directly referred to reality.
  8. Universal laws of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, hard-wired into the brain, have been discovered, which apply to all known languages.
  9. A two part slippage of political terms (note how one term appears in both lists):
    1. Capitalism = libetarianism = free markets = laissez-faire = trickle-down = globalization = free trade = neoliberalism = liberalism = supply-side = mercantilism = etc.
    2. Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.

These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)

These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.

Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.

While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)

But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.

I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification  from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:

This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.

Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?

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