The Subject of Consciousness by Andy Blunden, May 2006

For Blunden, emergence of consciousness from the brain is an insufficient explanatory approach. Instead, an analytical approach should be centered about the concept of the subject, which in philosophy is also designated as subjectivity. This is both a scientific and an ethical approach.

Blunden distinguishes consciousness, which is likely shared with other animals, from subjectivity, which appears to be unique to humans. Blunden reviews the problem inherited from Cartesian dualism and the innovations of Fichte and Hegel, including the origins of the concept of recognition (in Fichte). Hegel’s conception of the relation between subject and object is outlined.

There is also an ethical and political dimension of methodology. A purely individualistic account of mental and psychological functioning effectively censors the interdependency of individual and social environment, and thus biases intervention in human problems by way of the pharmacological medication of individuals.

We have severe problems of social justice today, and yet we have the means to solve them. These are all problems of the mind, for there is very little of significance which happens in the world that does not go through the mind. It is my contention that the concept of ‘subject’ makes it possible to theorise both individual consciousness and social activity together, without reducing social and political issues to psychology, or reducing the psyche to social relations. Concepts are both individual and social from the beginning, with the material culture mediating between consciousness and activity.

Before I move on to the crucial question of the organization of scientific disciplines, I want to backtrack for some details.

While it is almost self-evident that only human beings can be subjects in human society, being a subject is by no means limited to individuals. On the contrary, most knowing, self-conscious agents in the world are institutions, social movements, corporations, governments and other social groups. Although modernity encourages the idea of the individual as agent, this still remains only an ideal which may one day in the future be realised here on Earth. But it is not the case today. Individuals only know and feel and act and see themselves through participation in social subjects, that is to say, through collaborative, purposive activity with other people.

While I accept the general thrust of the argument, I balk at the characterization of institutions as “knowing, self-conscious agents”.

Fichte made the ‘substance’, or basic concept of his philosophy, activity (Fichte 2000). The point about activity is that it is both subjective and objective. As the subjective activity constituting a subject, but at the same time a material process constrained by objective limits, it is simultaneously subjective and objective. Fichte aimed to overcome the dichotomy of his predecessor, Kant, by beginning with subjective-objective activity. Against Descartes, Fichte denied that the existence of an ‘I’ could be deduced from the fact of cogito; first there was just pure activity, not the activity of an already-existing ‘I’. Self-consciousness was a construct of that activity.

There is a difference between an approach and an ontological basis. Activity, or the subject, is not the basis for a proper ontology, though it may be legitimate as a basis for tackling a certain kind of problem. As Blunden moves on to Hegel, it appears that Hegel too rejected Fichte’s subjectivism as well as what we would today call methodological individualism. The treatment of Hegel is quite attractive, but:

This idea of a spirit animating history is rightly regarded as problematic today, but that is beside the point at the moment; his solution to the problem of the Idea as the yet-to-be-made unity of intuition and concept, is an excellent pointer to an approach for solving the problem of consciousness, a ‘relational’ definition.

It is only beside the point for a moment; it is the point of the objective idealist distortion of the categorial structure of the world.

So there is no dichotomy, but a continual interplay between subject and object, a relation; nowhere in his writing did Hegel get involved in a mind-matter dichotomy. He talked about subject and object, but always as aspects of a single process. Consciousness likewise was not something in the head; individual consciousness was part of historically developing social consciousness.

This is highly advanced thinking, especially for Hegel’s time. However, the mind-matter issue has to be factored in at some point. Parenthetically, I don’t think Marx troubled himself about the mind-matter question per se as he too was primarily interested in the nature of activity.

Putting aside the mind-matter ontological question for the moment, the conception of subjectivity is the crux for understanding socially mediated mental activity. There are other traditions I think that move in this direction also, but none of them seem very prevalent in the Anglo-American mainstream.

Subjectivity involves not only the needs and capacities of human individuals, but also the content and form of their collaboration and the meaningful objects mediating that collaboration.

The primary structure of the subject as identified by Hegel is three-fold: individual, universal and particular (Hegel 1975). Broadly, we can understand individual in the sense of the mortal individual person, inclusive of their desires and their activity; the universal is the products of culture – words, scientific ideas and technique, art forms, myths and customs and beliefs, which are more or less eternal, so long as they are recorded or remembered by someone, and the material forms of culture – crops, books, buildings, works of art, etc. The particular is the collaborative activities – institutions, discourse, etc., the performance of the universals, through which individuals come to know them. Particulars are extended in time in contrast to the mortality of individuals, while universals are eternal. Concepts can exist and have reality only through the active coordination of these three moments. A universal, such as ‘Christianity’ or ‘trade union’, can be known to an individual person only thanks to the activity of actual churches or unions in which individuals participate.

This seems to be the prototype for an individual-culture-world ontology anticipating 20th century developments, including the three-worlds theory of Hegel-hating Popper.

And now we come to the crucial interface between ontology and the politics of knowledge.

For all kinds of social constructivism, there is always the question of the limits nature imposes on the individual organism. By observing what’s going on in our brain while we are participating in this or that activity, and measuring changes in the brain as we pass through different phases of personal development, we get clues about associations between activities and development, and hints as to what is given by nature rather than constructed, or disorders whose etiology may be biological rather than social.

At the same time, like any pure science, neuroscience asks and answers its own questions – the identification of the various tissue types, the biochemistry, and the association of various disorders with disturbance of the various parts of the organism, and so on.

Relief of suffering is the bottom line, but it seems to me there is an important difference between, on the one hand, a science which is providing answers to questions arising from efforts to resolve problems of social justice, and on the other hand, a science which is predicated on surgical and pharmacological intervention in the organism, and the effect of stimuli on the organism. Such a science easily forms part of a larger practice of the control and manipulation of human beings. Be under no illusions; what is learnt by the cognitive sciences may be implemented as technology by the advertising, public relations, marketing, military and pharmaceutical industries long before it will reach any nursery or public school classroom.

Excellent. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

I think the problem which we have discussed about the unsatisfactory nature of the concept of ‘levels’ is the same question which arises from the ethical consideration of the place of neuroscience: it is not ‘levels’ inscribed in objective reality which separate the sciences, but rather the limits to the efficacy of the forms of practice which characterise each of the sciences. We ascribe the laws inherent in these forms of practice to the nature of the specific kind of things which we cognise through these forms of practice.

I don’t quite grasp Blunden’s point. Are the levels postulated in objective reality a fiction, irrelevant?

People are not born epistemological relativists or constructivists, we are born realists. But Fichte had a point; in the beginning there is just activity and the constraints that the world places on that activity. We learn to recognise these limits on our own activity as other people and objects. But the kind of things populating our world depend on how we ‘operationalise’ the concepts and questions presented to us within the terms of our own discipline. However, what happens is that rather than operationalising a concept to give it a precise meaning within a given system of activity, we reify our activity as objectively existing things. So to any given form of practice there corresponds a class of objectively existing things of which the world is deemed to be composed. So long as we recall that practice (activity) is both objective and subjective, individual and social, then there is nothing subjectivist or relativist in this observation.

Blunden is suggesting that we impose our categories on the world and mistake them for independently existing. But I need to know more about to what extent that is true in this case to be able to evaluate the contention. Blunden is building toward a critical reflection on scientific practice.

As ordinary human beings we share most of our activity and agree on the identity and nature of most of the objectively existing things that populate our world. However, the division of labour, such as the division of the sciences, reflects itself as belief in different kinds of things populating the world.

We rationalise this disagreement about the nature of the things populating our world by means of the concept of ‘levels’, and the correlative concept of ‘emergence’. The underlying objective basis for this division of the world into different levels is the division of labour. This does not negate the fact that emergence is a valid concept, but it is a concept which can mislead; like God, emergence may act as a cover for lacunas in our understanding. Consciousness is not an ‘emergent property’ of neuronal networks, but arises on separate bases, only one precondition for which is a functioning human brain.

If we are interested in overcoming this rupture of our shared world into mutually exclusive ‘levels’, with an inexplicable ‘emergence’ covering over the gaps, then we have to go to the underlying division of labour and the opportunities for practical collaboration across its boundaries.

Division of labor–now this is the nut!

I am still not clear on how the division of scientific labor institutes mystifications about levels of the organization of matter. I will query the author for clarification.

The upshot though is that a purely abstract version of emergent properties won’t do unless those emergent psychophysiological properties are related to bodily activity in nature and socially coordinated activity of all kinds.

I don’t see why this vew should not be consistent with a general emergentist view, though I am cognizant of the de facto conservatism of specialists locked into an entirely embourgeoified division of labor.

The brain does not provide a sufficient explanatory basis for the emergence of conscioiusness.

If we consider a system from the point of view of how a given possibility can be realised, we hypothetically insert ourselves into the system in question, asking what intervention is needed to realise the relevant possibility. ‘Cause’ can be understood in a practical way only by this kind of thought-experiment. To say that something is a cause is to point to how a given possibility could be realised by a hypothetical intervention in a system. To say that consciousness is caused by the brain is to say that an intervention in the nervous system can bring consciousness into being. As John Searle has pointed out, such interventions can be shown only to change consciousness, but not to bring it into being.

From the phylogenetic point of view, Merlin Donald and others before him have shown convincingly that it was development of culture and behaviour, which introduced consciousness into a pre-human hominid species, not the other way around.

The ontogenetic evidence is that under all but the most adverse conditions, human infants with healthy brains will develop language and consciousness. However, no answer has yet been given as to how consciousness could be introduced into living tissue which was not already capable of consciousness. Thus, the ‘cause’ of consciousness has no coherent meaning in the ontogenetic context. Further, if consciousness is a feature of the brain, an organ like any other, “a system-level, biological feature in much the same way that digestion, or growth” (Searle 2004), then the origin of free will remains a mystery.

This is very very interesting. As for the development of culture and behavior introducing consciousness, I think this might have to be rephrased, because really the development is so interconnected, the biology would have to develop coterminously with culture. Other primates presumably lack subjectivitity, though they do not lack consciousness–do they have “culture”? If consciousness is emergent from culture and behavior, still one has to account for the evolutionary mutations that make this possible.

The issue here is the relation between ontology and epistemology. It matters not that the higher functions of thought all pass through neurons, if it is only the concepts of practical activity and the cultural domain which allow us to know about them, understand them and cure defects in them. If we can learn little or nothing about the higher functions of thought from neurons it makes no sense to simply insist that these higher functions are executed by neurons. Epistemology obliges us to abandon neurons in favour of collaborative activity and cultural artefacts if we want to understand thinking. A neuronal ontology can take us only to the limits of the medical practices it underpins.

From the individual subject in the lab to society, I get that. Certainly the division of labor in relation to medical practice and ideology is the moral of the story to be underlined. However, I sense a glitch in the flow of argument from the neuronal basis of thought to medical practices.

Blunden’s conclusion:

Further, as I have said already, epistemology also arrives at a certain limit. Any given kind of knowledge arises out of and informs a certain kind of activity; at a certain point we must ask ourselves how we should live; how we should live determines the type of knowledge we seek and consequently, the kind of things that our world is composed of. If we choose to live in a world of surgical and pharmacological solutions to social problems, then we live in a world governed by neurons, drugs and policemen; if we live in an ethical, cooperative world, then we live in a world composed of subjects.

How we should live is the crucial political point, for it shows up the ideological skewing of scientific research. If pharmacology is to substitute for political consciousness and social reform, the danger of a limited scientific paradigm is evident.

But there’s more to say about the basic ontological questions as well as the bourgeois division of labor. It is impossible to understand society, culture, and thought-content in physicalist terms. We could wire ourselves up to machines and see which parts of our brains are firing when we think, but there is an ineluctable gap between the two perspectives of measuring conscious activity with instruments and experiencing it (inter)subjectively. This epistemic gap is conveniently exploited within the bourgeois division of (scientific) labor with all of the attendant dichotomous tug-of-war between reductionism and spiritualism. The bourgeois organization of the science establishment cannot address the fundamental issue because its whole funding, political, and ideological structure is organized to prevent the needed socially conscious, synthetic perspective from breaking out. Instead we are subject to the ideological zigzags between positivism and supernaturalism. Positivism, pace Marcuse, is not fascist, but liberal. Supernaturalism, however, portends the descent into fascism, even when it is facilitated by the philosophy of social democrats like Whitehead.

See also:

Overview of a dialogue between scientists and humanists, Les Treilles, France, May 2006

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