Archive for August, 2013

Returning at last to Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the first chapter, following several prefaces and an introduction, begins with several terms helpfully defined, or more properly, redefined, as they differ subtly or substantially from their standard meanings. The definitions appear to be an interpolation for somewhere in the original 2-vol. German work other than the start of Chap. 1. The preface (can’t recall which one) indicates that to condense the larger work into one volume, many passages were dropped and some were shifted, moved material typically being shown using either brackets or italics.

Some philosophies distinguish between being and becoming, whereas Spengler prefers Goethe’s terms: become and becoming. Several of Spengler’s ideas thus far hinge on temporal distinctions between past, present, and future, which was the germ behind my preliminary book-blogging post on Decline called “Past and Prospect.” I observe that the fleetingness of the momentary present, always shifting forward, inevitably yields to both the (relative) fixity of the past and the unboundedness of the future. Spengler doesn’t really say it manifestly, but I sense his awareness that human experience and thus philosophy is hopelessly time-bound, which he calls at different points directedness and extensibility. Spengler also uses proper and alien to distinguish between inner life (or inwardness) as opposed to perception (or outer life). I’ve yet to read far enough beyond these definitions to see them deployed consistently, but the subtleties are not lost on me.

Spengler also discusses the world as history as distinct from the world as nature, where historical understanding is intuitive and inward but an understanding according to nature is mechanistic,  cognized, and reduced to a system, meaning abstracted in thought. These categories are perhaps familiar to readers of this blog from my previous book-blogging on The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. The main difference is that McGilchrist finds that the intuitive and inward form into a Gestalt or whole. It’s worth mentioning, too, that the world as nature carries a meaning nearly opposite from what eco-warriors and doomers might suspect.

Curiously, considering my primary interest with this blog, Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity .

This compact paragraph hits upon several of the features of consciousness I have brought forward and discussed at admittedly modest length. For instance, I have referred repeatedly to the subject-object distinction as being one of the primary attributes of modern consciousness, which began to coalesce sometime around the third century BCE. It’s not something I want to revisit here, but it is curious that this particular understanding of modern consciousness follows Spengler by some 50 years, initially in the work of Julian Jaynes, the latter of whom seems to have launched a psychological-anthropological-philosophical subscience called historical consciousness. To the uninitiated, the bullet is that we humans did not always think the way we do now with respect to time, place, identity, ego boundaries, etc. Consciousness adapts, and it took time for the mind and culture to develop to where we now are.

Dissatisfaction with my provisional definition of consciousness — provided under challenge — in the comments to this post are echoed by Spengler when he asserts that subject and object are indivisible and lie beyond analysis. While this is probably true, it seems pointless to first assert that “consciousness is identical with …” and then punt, handily placing the subject beyond further inquiry. This rhetorical trick is familiar in other contexts, such as where hope and faith substitute for real understanding at the same time that concentrated study is endlessly fascinating and can award considerable expertise. To abjure, placing some of the most interesting areas of intellectual inquiry beyond approach considering our present infantile state of understanding, might seem judicious, but then we would never develop our understand of anything. Perhaps that is ultimately better, since we’ve used our meticulous (though still partial and woefully short-sighted) understanding of material processes rather unwisely (to say the least). But understanding history, culture, philosophy, or consciousness invites far less unscrupulous manipulation than with, say, fossil fuels or fiat currencies.

Many traditional cultures regard the heart, situated at the center of the torso, as the body’s principal organ, having special processing powers directed to emotion. A heart-felt sensation is regarded as irreducible truth because emotions can’t be wrong. Indeed, the passions, as emotions are also called in their extremity, are something to be harnessed as motivation, at least until they run afoul and have to be restrained. For instance, a charismatic can inspire or inflame the passions and lead people along unwise paths.

In the modern industrial world, however, the eye and the perceptual faculty it provides has usurped the heart as the principal organ, at least in terms of cognition (ignoring the fact that the brain is the actual processor). The primacy of vision can even be seen (read: understood) in terms used to describe two major eras in Western history: The Dark Ages and The Enlightenment. Such visual metaphors stretch much further back in time, but the emergence from darkness into the light — the overarching story of modernity, religious salvation, and techno-utopianism — is clearly a central feature of Western thinking. For example, in the late 18th century, the U.S. incorporated symbology tracing back to Egyptian antiquity, namely, The Eye of Providence, into the Great Seal of the United States, which even now is displayed on currency shown at left (detail from the one dollar bill). It is noteworthy that, similar to emotional emanations of the heart, the eye is depicted with rays or beams shooting out in all directions, suggesting its other name, The All-Seeing Eye, its view being omnidirectional. That the function of the eye could be understood as both a receiver/processor and projector was apparently well-known long before modern physics revealed that the observer influences the observed by the mere act of observation.

Another version, one of many, actually, can be seen at right. Think of the eye’s function as the light on a miner’s hat, illuminating whatever the wearer brings into view. Much more than the heart, which is responsive and far less prone to intentional direction, the eye can cast its view upon whatever one elects at any moment, bringing the observed into awareness, into the mind, and into focus. (It’s no surprise then that poor eyesight — poor focus — makes for fuzzy thinking. Those who can’t see well uncorrected have diminished powers of observation.) This metaphor may be more accurate than the all-seeing eye for an important reason: a large percentage of information gathered by the eye is discarded. The eye’s narrow point of focus is a relatively small portion of the entire visual field; the rest is peripheral. If this were not so, conscious awareness would be subject to stimulus overload from just one perceptual channel. Other senses compete for attention (especially kinethesia), further limiting what can be brought into conscious awareness at any one time. This limitation is sometimes called the bandwidth of consciousness, a sort of built-in bottleneck.