We all recognize the differentiation between the “I” in my conscious identity – that separate being who speaks thoughts silently in the privacy of one’s mind; the one who “sees” the external world, and decides upon acts and restraints of acts; then, there is the “self” which is seen by the reactions of “others” we encounter: a friend who, upon seeing, smiles and greets with familiarity; the wife who responds differently and with intimacy; the child who treats the person who is the “I” as seen by others, in a manner differently than other adults; and through the myopic perspective of reactions – raised eyebrows; a smile; a frown; a “look” of recognition; we consciously recognize that there is an “external” world which “sees” the “I” in a manner different from the self-recognition of the “I” in my internal world of thoughts, ideas, desires and language-games.
This is not an attempt to revisit the controversy as expounded in Gilbert Ryle’s ‘logical behaviorism’ in his major work, The Concept of Mind; I do not want to get bogged down in whether there is the infamous “Ghost in the machine,” or revisit the problem of Cartesian dualism, the pendulum of historical philosophical debates between Descartes and Hobbes. Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, le Penseur, is indeed thinking; whether by words, strings of words, or in a wordless suspension of meditative cogitation, we can certainly say that, with his right hand raised to his chin area representing a universally recognizable posture, he is in a classical stance of deeply contemplative public persona. Now, were we to ask The Thinker, “What are you doing?” The limitless potential responses may alter our initial presumptuous view of the matter:
“I was thinking about murdering my mother.” Though we may be somewhat taken aback by the contemplated action (the classical posture may be deemed to be somewhat incommensurate with thoughts of pre-meditative murder), the fact that he is conceptually mapping out the plan certainly verifies a man who is “thinking” — Freudian implications aside (concerning thoughts of murdering one’s mother, which might complicate things further by bringing up the concept of a “subconscious”. This, we will have to set aside for the time being).
“I had no particular thoughts at the moment.” This might surprise the questioner, because the public posture taken would seem inconsistent with the statement, but we would generally not consider this to be shockingly disjointed; for, we might excuse the person as attempting to hide his true thoughts; perhaps the interruption of our question resulted in a dismissive response because le Penseur wanted to return to his deep state of contemplation; and, finally, the statement itself, “I had no particular thoughts at the moment” is a reflective response of self-awareness on the state of his immediately-preceding mental state, which shows a certain degree of thoughtfulness, nevertheless.
“A bee stung me just below my lip, and I paused, sat down, and placed pressure on my injured area with my right hand.” Here, an apparent inconsistency develops between the acknowledged posture of meditative thoughtfulness, our assumption that one who postures in that manner reflects a depth of contemplation, and the statement by le Penseur. One’s disapproving reaction to such a statement might, of course, be somewhat mitigated if we detected an expression of sheepishness or an apologetic tone in his voice; and some other reactions might include: for the cynic, it would reinforce the view that very few humans actually engage in much contemplative thought; for the naïve onlooker, it might scar one for future encounters; and so it goes.
And, of course, there may be limitless other possible responses, all of which underscore the view that there is a difference between you and I; there is a “you” that I see, and I interpret based upon an “I” which is you; and there is the “I” which is me, which I distinguish from the you which is your “me”.
For, whichever statement The Thinker were to make, and whatever the reaction of the onlooker, the encounter between le Penseur and “the other” only reinforces the acknowledgment of the reality: there is a difference between you and I. In this world of “I”, the focus in recent decades has been the increasing emphasis upon self, satisfaction of self, self-esteem, the importance of self, and the penultimate focus upon the betterment of self. The Copernican Revolution of the philosophical stature and status of the I; the reversal of identifying the “other” as an objective being in an objective world, and recognizing a commonality of definition: that man is a ‘rational’ animal; and with it, a fixed coordinate that all can agree upon; to the Existentialist abandonment of a recognized objective cosmos with meaning, and instead to posit that we simply are, and that there is no fixed coordinate of our essence – that the “I” of the “self” can strive to create an essence. And so it goes, where you and I are essentially left without coordinates in common. We have come to a point where we believe, and “feel”, an estrangement with the world. The compass which guides the subjective being in an objective world no longer can be depended upon, because the coordinates no longer provide the level of certainty necessary for effective guidance. And so we are left with a subjectivity within which we must find our own personal meanings. But since most of us are not bright enough to attain a satisfactory level of meaning, we despair of the meaninglessness of our personal ventures.
The “I” possesses what we ascribe as a “personality” – a uniqueness which is, at its most basic level, distinct and distinguishable from someone else. Now, one could argue that the difference is of no consequence; go into any Steiff Bear store and the appearance of each stuffed bear distinguishes each from the other. Add a sequence of recorded sounds and exclamations and growls and whistles, and we have a distinctive “personality” different from one Steiff bear from another. And, indeed, each Steiff bear has a distinctive look; each has an outward appearance of a “personality” different from another. As the universe of words and concepts is limited by the convention of each age at any given moment in history, so the difference between one personality from another is merely the difference of sequence and groupings of words, delivered by a changed pitch, executed by an appearance distinct from another. There is no “ghost in the machine”; merely a machine.
Yet, few of us accept such a conclusion. Between you and I, we wink at such nonsense. We know better. The “common man” believes that there is more to the “I” than merely an automaton with the ability to mix and remix sentence structures. A lifetime of individuals who have known me, know me as a distinctive personality; I have accumulated a lifetime of experiences which somehow makes me unique – “uniqueness” being defined merely as that which is unable to be recreated by a clever compositing of aspects which are commonplace in their independent parts.
“I” have a context
Of course, one can always designate Descartes as the bogeyman. The cogito encompasses the “I”, because it is the self-referential coordinate which does the thinking; the ‘therefore’ embracing the conclusory existential beingness of the I referring back to the thought process which entails the self-referential I. But what could this mean than to merely state in tautological absurdity: the self-referential I is nothing more than the identity learned through the learned use of language.
Thus the frog which croaks, does the croaking identify the existence of the frog anymore than the assertion that the “I” pre-exists a thinking process, resulting in a conclusion that existence is ascertainable?
Consider #257 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What would it be like if human beings shewed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘tooth-ache.” — Well, let’s assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! – But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word. — So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? — But what does it mean to say that he has ‘named his pain’? — How has he done this naming of pain? And whatever he did, what was its purpose? — When one says “He gave a name to his sensation” one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word “pain”; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.”
Indeed, what Wittgenstein is attacking is the utter lack of contextual memory in the very assertion of the “I” in Descartes’ so-called proof of certitude. Look at it this way: when a child first learns to maneuver through the object-filled universe, he is taught to identify those objects in his path which, in a very elementary sense, are everything but his “I”. Thus, he learns that “x is a sofa”, “y is a table”; “spoon”, “fork”, “doggy”, and so on. We don’t begin to teach a child our language by pointing to him and saying, “Now this is who you are,” and proceeding to identify the wonderful essences which make up the child, precisely because, as a young, malleable and not-as-yet uniquely identifiable personhood, there is not much to work with, at this stage in the game. But by identifying the object-filled world around him, the very negation of the world – of identifying those things-in-the-world surrounding a being-in-the-world, which are “things” which are not the person seeing the “things” – in that life-long act of identifying everything that is not “I”, one begins to formulate an identity of the “I”. For the relationship between the objects which are not I, gets connected to the person who identifies those objects, as in, “I want that piece of candy.” Concurrently, in the normal course of learning about the world of objects, it becomes clear that other object-subjects who can be identified as another “I” treat the “I” who is the me as a subject-object, as in, “I love you.” Thus, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, a great deal of stage-setting has been forgotten by Descartes. For, in order to get to the “I”, it necessarily presupposes a lifetime of identifying, with certitude (or as certain as one could be), an object-filled world.
Where does this leave us? This analysis does not prove any “ghost in the machine” – that very concept which was deliberately intended to be avoided at all costs in this essay. It does not undermine the precepts of materialism. It does not threaten the post-modern reductionism of the world into innocuous language games which have no correspondence to an external, noumenal world. Instead, where this leaves us is to the point of discussing the concept of shame.
But first, let us look at the reversal of the process of witnessing the exciting, mysterious blossoming of the “person”. In George Orwell’s 1984, Syme describes the process of reducing the “I” to Winston: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak.” Language is the foundation of thought. Language has life and vibrancy within a context of a community of language-sharing. To have a “private language” where a sole person is the only person who understands a “language” would be an absurdity; for the meaning of language is found in its very sharing in order to communicate. Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying in its implications: that a dictionary (the irony, of course, is that a dictionary is supposed to be a compendium of an ever-growing vocabulary reflecting the richness of a society’s language) is now a deliberate tool of reducing the vocabulary of a totalitarian society, thereby reducing the ability to formulate concepts.
Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. The process of reduction leads to a shrinking of the range of consciousness; concepts disappear; thoughts become limited, constricted, coerced into a range of repetitive slogans and meaninglessness. But, you say, there will always be rebels. And the rebels will always be able to expand individuality; look at the fall of Communism; totalitarianism is everywhere being shattered and broken; the range of consciousness is ever expanding because the capacity of human rebellion, emanating from man’s inherent creativity and uniqueness, will forever be successful in preventing such a diabolical attempt to delimit man. Ah, but if only such an idealism of man’s capacity reflected reality – and so it goes.
What does it mean “to think”?
Let us digress for a moment. Sometimes, a tangential pathway leads to the terminal of a maze; while a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points, a circuitous route is often the solution to a problem presented by a maze. For the very same capacity inherent in a human being – of creativity leading to rebellion leading to an ever expanding range of consciousness – is that same capacity which creates the possibility of a totalitarian state. While 1984 recognized the diabolical nature of reductionism of consciousness, what would be the result of its very opposite – the infinite exponential explosion of the range of consciousness?
Our digression must first investigate: “What does it mean ‘to think'”?
Between you and I, we both acknowledge that we engage in the process, in various ways, of this thing called Thinking. If you disagree with such an assertion, we are probably unable to engage in a Rorty-like¹ “conversation”, because we cannot even agree upon a basic, fundamental activity. When we speak about “thinking”, do we agree on the common thread of such an activity? Consider the following different modalities of thinking (and this compendium is by no means exhaustive):
To ponder: perhaps some semblance of complete sentence structures; periods and intervals of silence; perhaps some confirmation of an underlying, non-conscious (subconscious?) mechanism of problem-solving. To ponder often involves silence without complete sentences; incomplete concepts.
Problem-solving: Intense and sustained focus and attention; sequential thought-process; silent paragraphs; images of advanced steps many steps ahead and anticipating a maze of possible problems.
Meditate: long periods of silence; peaceful blanks of focusing upon a word, a concept, a psalm or a touch of God.
To worry: repetitive statements of doom; of potentially disastrous consequences and results; of often irrational thoughts and impending images of dire events and occurrences.
Playing Chess: moves; anticipated moves; mental images of moves and potential counter-moves; fatigue and surrender.
To reflect: quality and depth, as opposed to a scattering of thoughts without structure; a time to focus upon narrow foundational issues.
Making a list: conscious and deliberate; constructing word sequence; recalling information for careful annotation.
Remembering while grocery shopping: attempts at jogging one’s memory; looking at various food items and aisle signs to try and recollect; mental imagery of one’s refrigerator, cupboard, to pick out needs; an attempt to re-imagine the list one left at home.
Shame: an image of self; an image of friends, family, associates and how they view me; a coordinate of statements about one’s self; a collection of public statements, memories, recollections, images, from those other than I; a coordinate, and the reflection to reality.
See also: Between You and I (Part II of II)
¹ Richard Rorty, whom I had the privilege of studying under while a graduate student at the University of Virginia during the mid-80s, was a very kind and thoughtful philosopher. The irony was that, with all of his encouragement of inter-disciplinary conversations, the Philosophy Department (of which I was a student) looked upon Mr. Rorty with some contempt. Though considered a “Philosopher”, he was the professor emeritus of the Humanities Department – meaning, the Department of Philosophy, Lite. Human envy and egocentricities were common roadblocks to such Rorty-like conversations, even between departments in the same University. But I digress from the digression.