Redefined Terms

Posted: August 30, 2013 in Consciousness, Culture, Philosophy
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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.

  1. ulvfugl says:

    Something a bit odd, surely consciousness is attached to the human individual, so that at any one time in history, it’s going to vary greatly in it’s conceptual quality across the population, so I don’t understand the idea of ‘historical consciousness’.

    I have not read Spengler. From reading many different authors and sources, and studying my own subjective experiences, I have built up a mental model as to how I conceive of consciousness and my epistemological structures, although that of course, that is not the same thing as consciousness itself.

    There are many ways to map attempts to comprehend or apprehend consciousness – not talking about the intellectual analytical route, Chalmer’s Hard Problem, but subjectively – and the best I know is the Jhanas, often translated as Absorptions, in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

    This involves going into deep meditation by calming and concentrating the mind, then progressively removing all sensation and objects from consciousness, until finally only consciousness itself remains.

    You can imagine it a bit like putting the body, the metabolism, the physiology, into hibernation mode, or deep sleep mode, whilst keeping the mental observer wide awake and attentive but without any thought activity, only attention or awareness, which is intensely focussed and concentrated into a feedback loop upon itself. Consciousness conscious of consciousness.

    The idea is to see how far this can be taken, the limit of human exploration of the psychic domain. It would seem from the records, that this was found to be the limit, at least 2,500 years ago, quite likely long before that.

    The penultimate stage is the experience of absolute nothingness. There is no perception or knowing or sensation of anything at all, its just absolute void-ness, which can only be described in negative terms as absence of anything.
    The ultimate stage, even that vanishes, so there is no consciousness, as such, to even know that there is nothing.

    The earlier stages – there are 9 traditionally described, although the steps are slightly blurry in practice, and the number may be meant more as a mnemonic than a precise descriptor – I shan’t bother with here.

    Exactly what this experience means, in modern terms, is hard to say. In traditional religious terms it is seen as an exploration of the realms of the Otherworld, so to speak. It does not fit into any conventional orthodox paradigm. For a start, people who follow these practices, – which are extremely demanding, you can’t just want to do them, you have to spent a long time training to develop the required degree of concentration and self-control – have measurably different brains, both form and function, and develop a range of what are usually called paranormal abilities, which orthodox science does not accept and cannot explain.

    All of these properties, quite naturally, lead in earlier times, to the whole area being assigned to the ‘realm of the gods’ so to speak, because that’s where everything inexplicable was assigned by all pre-modern cultures. What does this mean ? What does it mean for us, now ? I don’t think anybody knows. Regaining lost powers ? Evolving new ones ?

    I’ve ransacked the literature, the internet, nobody has a clue. They either cling to the old traditional buddhist and hindu or similar orthodoxies and dogmas, or they go off into all kinds of crackpot New Age fanciful nonsense without any rhyme or reason, or they go the quantum physics route into entanglement and all that stuff and nobody can agree what sort of Universe we actually inhabit, all depends which quantum physicist you ask, and they make up anything they like, and the evidence changes every week…

    Western psychology is still in the, well, maybe not the stone age, maybe the Victorian ers, philosophy is all over the place, mad hatters like Zizek, neuroscience thinks that by taking the brain to pieces and looking at all the bits we’ll understand the ghost in the machinery…

    ( Btw, you sent me a comment, I emailed you a reply, don’t know if you got it ?)

    • gardenwell says:

      ‘The ultimate stage, even that vanishes, so there is no consciousness, as such, to even know that there is nothing’

      the ultimate stage — instead of lack of consciousness could be complete consciousness, full knowing.

      who knows?

      • ulvfugl says:

        You have to learn to do the meditation, then you discover for yourself. Then you know. It’s as I described. It’s a technique, like learning to swim, hard to explain in words, but anybody who is determined and persists can learn how to do it.

  2. gardenwell says:

    what i wonder; ‘our’ power supply, mitochondria and could the lube job it requires be joy…..

    • ulvfugl says:

      I think you’re talking about a different level. Mitochondria is cellular biology. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes on to keep the physical organism alive.

      What we actually experience, is something else, isn’t it. What we perceive, directly, as conscious beings, isn’t cell function. We wouldn’t even know about that stuff if microscopes hadn’t been invented and a couple of centuries of scientific investigation.

  3. Eric says:

    I wanted to leave a note here to encourage you to continue your comments on McGilchrist, his book being one I am also tackling in fits and spurts. I have very much enjoyed reading your posts on the book so far, only now finding them but very glad that I did.

    Another book to tackle if you haven’t already–incredibly dense (I take you like this type of book, as do I lol) but fascinating and pertinent to the topic of consciousness, is Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon.

    And if you haven’t already, you might enjoy listening to parts of this seminar, although I often found myself shouting at my computer in frustration at some of the discussion, but still worthwhile.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment and encouragement. It’s ironic that you’re commenting on McGilchrist in a blog primarily about Spengler, the subject of my second series of book blogs. My final entry in McGilchrist is forthcoming, but I have no timeline for finishing it.

      I sometimes allow myself to be led into other areas or modes of inquiry by others, sometimes not. I undoubtedly won’t watch the seminar, but I may keep the Deacon book in the back of my mind for future reading. However, considering that my (few) commentators are mostly pointing me away from materialism and Deacons purports to explain how the mind/body problem works within that context, I’m hesitant to pick it up due. To do so would be obvious confirmation bias on my part.

  4. Eric says:

    Lol the seminar will only more strongly encourage you to explore alternatives to the narrow materialism that serves as the religious foundation of too many at the seminar. Or at least that was how it affected me, and I’m as hostile to woowoo as anyone from a religious background–and who left it–can be. If the best materialism offers is on display by the Big Personalities at this seminar, than it is no wonder fundamentalism is so so so very much more successful in these times.

    Deacon actually wants to talk about teleology, which is sacrilege, and he’s not afraid to use materialist language to do it, that’s why I so enjoyed his book and think it will be provocative for a long time to come.

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