Crisis of Consciousness

Posted: September 26, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

I’ve used this phrase — crisis of consciousness — and seen it used numerous times. Still, I doubt that most folks know what it means even as a proposition (assuming some agreement or consensus can be reached). Consciousness is recursive, folding onto itself like a hall of mirrors or an infinite regress, which makes it impenetrable to the average thinker who experiences consciousness first-hand but cannot describe it without resorting to meaningless soundbites and platitudes, usually religious, or worse (among more subtle thinkers), concluding that consciousness may not even exist. For those of us determined to make some sense out of the subject, often coming at it through an interdisciplinary approach rather than the favored neurobiological explanation, the crisis occurred when we stopped being in or of the world, experiencing reality through an integrated identification and empathy with the rest of creation, and began to be on the world, holding it at a conceptual distance and learning to manipulate ideas, processes, and materials. This may be more readily recognizable as the subject-object problem, a longstanding philosophical conundrum, or the related mind-body problem.

When did the onset of this crisis occur, and why is it a crisis? It’s a little tough to place accurately in time, but modern consciousness is thought to have coalesced somewhat after and in response to the worst mistake in the history of the human race: the transition away from hunting/gathering (HG) and adoption of agriculture as our basic style of social organization, which gave rise to specialization and civilization. The subject-object problem appeared several thousand years later in Classical Greece, so it’s probably fair to say that historical processes then were exceedingly slow in their development, unlike the lightning-fast trends we experience today that destabilize everything repeatedly within a single lifetime. And it’s that very instability that has put human civilization in crisis. The dinosaurs reigned for 60 million years, HG tribes persisted for at least 200,000 years, but modern man will likely have burned out after only 6–10 thousand years, depending on how one counts, destroying most of nature in his omnicidal fury in the process. If one accepts that the remnants of an older, participatory style of consciousness persisted into at least the Middle Ages, then the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution (commencing only 600 years ago) are the developments that represent the most striking discontinuity, especially as they radiated out of Western Europe and extinguished alternatives still operating elsewhere on the globe, which had not yet been absorbed into the so-called Western mind many erroneously believe is normative for all men everywhere and throughout time.

I have been feebly exploring the problem for most of my adulthood, though without the benefit of a mentor or formal course of study. I was pleased to discover that Iain McGilchrist sheds light on the subject in his discussion of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy on pp. 141–161 of his book The Master and His Emissary (contrary to the contention by fellow blogger Hal Smith, who is blogging his way through the book well ahead of me, that the author is “mysteriously silent about philosophy”). I can’t do justice to McGilchrist’s 20-pp. discussion, so let me mention just one worthy item: Husserl’s concept of intersubjectivity.

Though Husserl brought a background in Cartesian philosophy and the methodology of science to bear on mental phenomena, he came to realize that this philosophy and this methodology failed to account for the nature of experience. According to Husserl, the roots of the European crisis of modernism lay in ‘verirrenden Rationalismus‘ and ‘Blindheit für Transzendentale‘: a sort of mad rationalism and a blindness to the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism, that had so troubled philosophy since Plato … He came to the conclusion that there was an objective reality, but that it was constituted by what he called intersubjectivity. This comes about through shared experience, which is made possible for us by our embodied existence alongside other other embodied individuals.

The notion of an embodied existence makes little sense to most of us in the West, especially affluent, educated people, who are prone to living in their heads, as it were, rather than in their bodies. Walling ourselves in with screens (computers, iPads, e-readers, smartphones, etc.) with 24/7 connectivity may not strike most folks as a crisis of consciousness, but the path we’re on is pretty clear: we are becoming the devices we so admire. I will probably have more to say about this as I develop my ideas, but for now I judge this long overdue post (percolating already for over a month) already too long.

  1. halsmith says:

    Thank you for clarifying what you mean by Crisis of Consciousness – until now, I wasn’t sure what you meant.

    We are both followers of McGilchrist, and so we have a lot in common that way. I followed his lead and spent some time reading Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin. He also does a lot to clarify how the modern world began. I was not so impressed by his account of how it ended.

    Keep up the Good Work.

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