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Reflections on Consciousness, Transcendence, Immanence and the Self Reflections on Consciousness, Transcendence, Immanence and the Self
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-08-18 12:21:36
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“The secret of humanity is also our own secret”

One could conceivably interpret the whole history of Western philosophy as nothing short of the history of human consciousness: an attempt to understand how does the self know anything and what exactly is the self. One could go back to Plato’s Republic and more specifically the myth of the cave, then proceed to St. Augustine who talks about the riddle of the self (“what is closer to me and most distant from me than my self?”) all the way to Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” and from there to Berkeley’s “to be is to be observed,” to modern and post-modern metaphysics. It would not take long to realize that the question persists unabated today. What is the self? Of course, each great philosopher who dealt with the issue opined that he had found the solution as rigorously proven in his philosophical or religious scheme. This phenomenon of self-deception is what makes the teaching of philosophy so fascinating.

It never ceases to astonish me in reading current reflections on this problem how this millenarian history of the problem of the self as reflected in philosophical and theological tomes is simply ignored and how the wheel gets reinvented, so to speak. The rationalization usually is that one has to indeed reinvent the wheel for oneself and not trust that which has been proclaimed in the name of authority and orthodoxy. That is to say, one needs to do one’s own thinking or one is not a genuine philosopher.

Usually those articles are written by those who have philosophical and contemplative leanings. In fact the combination of the two is what may very well lead to what is considered the “solution” to the problem, a solution which has somehow evaded one’s predecessors, no matter their intellectual reputation. In a nutshell, this is how the reasoning goes: to solve this problem one has to engage in meditation which quiets thought and reasoning. All judgments are suspended in this state of meditation, including of course the judgment of what exactly is the self. In this state of meditation, for which one needs a natural landscape actually observed or imagined and preferably with no other interfering humans in it, one is no longer the divided observer of the mind searching for the essence and the nature of the mind; a unity is achieved and paradoxically one ends up observing thought but without the separation between observed and observer. All the mystics of Christianity understand that much: that the ego, or the self, or the I simply dissolves thereby. One finds oneself out of the stream of time and space. One is back to a sort of pre-conscious state of being. And here is a second paradox: consciousness is thus awakened as one obliterates the self. The phenomenon is considered something new and undiscovered and then dubbed “a kind of agnosia.”

What I find intriguing in reading these reinventions of the solution to the problem of the self, is that invariably they are expressed by a self, often enough endowed with a very robust ego; a self who is indeed judging the value of different meditative techniques or traditions (that of the West and that of the East, for example) and often enough discrediting one to privilege another with which he/she has more affinity. Moreover, these solutions will invariably bring back this “mystical” meditative experience, not to the “collective unconscious” of a Jung, but to a very personal individual self. The very personal subject pronoun “I” may slip in at the very end of their elucidation on the problem of the self. In literary terms this would be equivalent to a practitioner of literary realism who insists that the author’s hand is never discerned in his narrations, that is to say that the narration narrates itself, all of sudden and inadvertently slips in an “I”, thus invalidating the whole theory of realism. One is tempted to ask: and who pray is this I which you compare by analogy and by symbol to a falcon or a horse or a bull?

In what follows I’d like to suggest that this kind of novel “kind of agnosia” may  ultimately prove to be a pseudo solution already tried and found wanting, not so much because it ignores more than 2000 years of philosophical tradition but more importantly because it simply overlooks a middle step, a detour so to speak, that needs to be taken before arriving at the insight that the secret of humanity is also our own secret.   

Despite periodic authoritative pronouncement as to the final demise of the Church seen as moribund (something that happens periodically within Christianity as Chesterton points out in The Everlasting Man) Christianity is psychologically much more sophisticated in its insistence that paradoxically one finds one-self when one loses one-self, and that narcissism inevitably leads to selfish egotism. Those who would like to see a more “spiritual Church” are the same that want to see a Church that is a ghost; just as those who would like to see the ghost of Christ and are then scandalized to see him arrive alive with a body. How can that be? It is not natural…The nuns on the bus are attempting to have an interview with Paul Ryan, to teach him that basic premise of the Christian message. He has read Ayn Rand but has probably not read one single social encyclical of any Pope in the last one hundred years.

As I encounter others, they become mirrors for me in which I may more clearly see myself. Medieval and Renaissance Man had no problem understanding that we know ourselves only in humanity, much more than in a romantic contemplation of nature,  and life teaches us what that is. Action is needed to affect the world and in turn let the world affect us. In other words, we can never know ourselves directly by contemplating our navel in India or in California in a lotus position. The process of self-knowledge begins with a detour, via and encounter with history. The basic reason for this detour is that we are never “objects” of knowledge, not even of self-knowledge.

Only free beings can understand other free beings. We understand ourselves only in as much as we attempt to understand others. Which is to say, the world is a macrocosmic reflection of me and I am a microcosmic reflection of the world; the inner and the outer are analogous. I receive self-awareness by encounter with the world. This is particularly true of the world of history which as the human sphere is my direct analogue. Even more simply expressed, my life-history reflects the history of human-kind. Only thus can the Bible or others’ autobiographies have anything to say to me personally. Vico for one wrote his autobiography with such a hermeneutical principle in mind.

It should be stressed here that this Vichian understanding of one’s humanity as grounded in historical reality is very important in the writing of a human history, i.e., in the writing of what Man has achieved in the world, be it the history of science, or of art, or of law, or of any other cultural artifact. In other words, when an author writes such a history he has to keep in mind that in relation to history Man cannot document himself as a mere object. As an historical being I am constantly included in my understanding of history.

We experience our selves only by the detour of encounter with history, but the opposite is also true: we experience history only by the detour of self-understanding. That is the Vichian hermeneutical circle. As Vico himself aptly puts it: while it is true that Man makes history, it is also true that history makes Man. The way I see myself is influenced by the course of history. Such a course may produce a Hegel with the vision of Man as a spiritual being, or a Marx with the vision of Man as constituted by economics. These pre-judgments are practically inevitable for they are directed by Man’s understanding of himself.

The understanding of history can never be “pre-suppositionless.” When the historian claims that he has broken free from the presuppositions of his self-awareness, especially when he invokes spiritual techniques to achieve this, he is no longer viewing human history but a degenerated form of pseudo-nature. Only as a bearer of freedom can the historian understand history as the sphere of freedom. But that freedom ought not be understood as an abstract kind of “choice.” “Pro choice” by itself is a meaningless statement, for choice always implies commitment to something. Choice without responsibility and commitment transforms freedom into license. Confusion about this important distinction abounds in so called free democratic societies, but calling ourselves free ought to mean an ability to pursue a goal, to actualize ourselves by grasping our destiny as humans, for in the final analysis, what we know or don’t know of our nature and the goals of such a nature inevitably affects the way we view and interpret other people and even history as a whole.

As an historical being the author of a human history has to bring himself to the understanding of history. Many scientists find this kind of Vichian hermeneutics uncongenial. They shun it since their pride and joy is Cartesian rationalism in tandem with a condescending attitude toward what is alleged to be a “retrograde and primitive” mytho-poetic mentality steeped in magic (usually understood as mere superstition) and religion, especially as it applies to the Catholic Church. They have no use for authors such as Nikolai Berdyaev who always keep in mind the non-objectifiable element of freedom in history and present myth as a deeper reconstruction of life; for indeed myth grasps a dimension of human life that is simply inaccessible to an objective scientific study.

An exclusively objective kind of history is inconceivable, for there will always be a need for mystification, a longing for worlds beyond that secretively direct things. That longing derives from the fact that the subjects are included in the history they seek to know and, unless they are mere robots with no feelings and emotions, they are bound to feel and disclose the historical in themselves. Berdyaev for one points out that penetrating the depths of the ages means to penetrate the depths of the self.

As Vico has well taught us, history presents itself from within by recollection of the origin, goal and meaning of our existence. He was the very first philosopher in the West to understand, way ahead of Cassirer, that myth forms an element in all historical interpretation, and that it a nefarious intellectual habit to pose the dichotomy of poetic myth and “objective” history. It is that false dichotomy that renders many modern history textbooks distasteful to most young students. They have intuited that those texts which present themselves as “scientific” fail to grasp the understanding subjects share non-objectively in historical understanding; that the author and the students of history too are integral part of history; that behind the illusion of complete unbiased documentation there is a human being who is also concerned at some level with actualizing meaning of some kind. The mere writing of a history text points to it. And meaning relates to the totality of being.

Indeed, in all historical understanding of details a preliminary attempt is made to grasp the whole of history and its meaning. Willy nilly, these subjects who choose what they deem important out of the millennial vortex of history, are involved in an “act of faith” which cannot be objectively explained as is the case in science. In other words, from Vico on human existence has to be disclosed by way of understanding rather than by way of explanation. It is here that historicism touches the circle of science. Science, on the other hand, in touching the circle of history has to grasp that we can understand humanity and its history only in a venture. Individually, this courage for venturing on a journey of self-knowledge and actualization of meaning can be drawn from the basic realization that the secret of humanity is also our own secret.

To repeat: unfortunately the cart has been put before the horse; before obliterating the self in meditation one has to place the self in the context of history. Not to do so is to become a 19th century Romantic who substitutes the cult of the sacredness of an immanent nature for that or the sacredness of Being transcendent and outside of time and space and then deludes himself that somehow he (representing mankind) has finally solved the riddle of the self.


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