In response to an earlier post, the outstanding blog Attempts at Living writes:
Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.
Here’s the problem. The claim is not that we don’t experience effects of our bodies or that consciousness isn’t embodied. That’s all taken for granted. The thesis is that consciousness gives us no reliable guide to causes of our lived states. Let’s recall that phenomenology is a foundationalist discourse that more or less argues that all claims need to be grounded in the evidences of consciousness and experience. If we find that consciousness is a pretty unreliable guide to its causes, this is a pretty serious problem for it as a methodology. Before getting to that, I’ll note a couple things:
- The value and importance of phenomenological descriptions is not here being contested. Phenomenology has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves, our own experience, and so on. None of that should be abandoned.
- Nor am I disputing the thesis that we can’t have good cognitive science or neurology without good phenomenology. A lot of cognitive science is nonsense on stilts because it has a thoroughly mistaken view of experience and mind arising out of a failure to engage in careful descriptive analysis.
- What is being disputed is the sovereign and foundationalist role that phenomenology tries to claim for itself. Phenomenology might give us insight into what needs to be explained, but it does not explain.
Now back to the issue. My thesis is that conscious states give no reliable insight into their causes and that therefore we risk completely misconstruing our mental life if we take phenomenological description at face value. Let’s take an example I discussed on facebook this morning: Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety. Heidegger argues that anxiety arises out of our “being-in-the-world”, meaning, being-towards-death, and authenticity. My state of anxiety, he argues, arises from awareness that only I can die my own death, that no one can die it for me, and leads to an awareness that all of our decisions are our own. Above all, Heidegger argues that anxiety is a special attunement or affect pertaining to meaning.
Now, I don’t dispute that the experience of anxiety certainly seems to be as Heidegger describes it (i.e., when we’re in the throws of anxiety, this is how it feels). I don’t even dispute that in some cases this might even be the source of a person’s anxiety (I’ll get to that in a moment). What I do dispute is the thesis that consciousness is a reliable guide to deciding causation in these situations. Before getting to that, let’s remind ourselves of Husserl’s “principle of principles”, which is more or less the guiding principle for all subsequent phenomenology:
No conceivable theory can make us err with respect to the principle of all principles: that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing sources of cognition, that everything originarily (so to speak, in its “personal” actuality) offered to us in “intuition” is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there. (Ideas I, 44).
While there will be many subsequent critiques of Husserl among the other phenomenologists, they’ll all more or less share this principle. It is this thesis, not the intentional structure of consciousness, that is the core idea of all phenomenology. And in a lot of ways I think we can all agree with Husserl somewhat on this point. As Descartes might say, “when I am in the grips of anxiety, I cannot doubt a) that I am having this experience, and b) that this experience seems to be structured in this way (i.e., that it seems to pertain to meaning, my relation to my death, whether or not I’ve tried to flee from the abyss of my freedom and responsibility, etc.).
The problem is that all of this could be mistaken. We can imagine a Husserlian suffering from pervasive and omnipresent anxiety going to Dusquesne to get treatment from an existential psychotherapist. He spends years discussing his being-towards-death, the way in which meaning is structured in his life, and so on. Yet nothing budges or changing. Why not? One possible reason is that our Husserlians anxiety never had anything to do with being-towards-death, meaning, responsibility, freedom, and so on; but that these were just confused ways a lived body tried to make sense of enigmatic affects arising from within it. In this case, the anxiety this person had nothing to do with meaning or being-towards-death, but was the result of the Husserlian’s neurons soaking up serotonin too quickly. As a result, his brain isn’t marinated in the neurotransmitters it requires to function in particular ways and this generates the terrifying experience of anxiety. The appropriate treatment in this case was an SSRI, not years of existential psychotherapy. However, because of a premise such as “the principle of all principles”, this latter possibility is foreclosed a priori.
Recognizing that affects are opaque and that we don’t experience our bodies doesn’t mean that we somehow suddenly cease experiencing those affects, nor does it mean that our conscious life is somehow not embodied (of course it is!). It means that our consciousness is not a reliable guide to what’s going on in us. We know that we’re experiencing this, but not why. Recognition of this opens the way to theoretical caution. It could be the domain of meaning that causes these things as in the case of the existential psychotherapist or the Lacanian, or it could be purely physiological. Consciousness doesn’t allow us to decide.
Notice that things work in the opposite direction as well. In the case of psychiatry, there’s a tendency to jump the gun and assume that the cause of an affective state is organic. Here a person can suffer from profound anxiety for semiotic reasons such as those described by a Lacanian or an existential psychotherapist, yet the psychiatrist immediately assumes that all anxiety is merely a matter of neurotransmitters or brain lesions and prescribes an SSRI when the appropriate treatment would be some sort of talking cure. Don Draper is a good example. In the season 4, episode 10, Don Draper has a massive panic attack that leaves him gasping, sweating, and thinking that he’s dying. A dogmatic physicalist might assume that something is just awry with his neurochemistry, when in fact the origin of his panic attack is semiotic: The FBI is doing a background check on him because he needs security clearance for an ad campaign on weapons he’s about to undertake for the Security Department. Draper’s malady pertains to the universe of meaning in his life, not simply neurotransmitters. Failure to recognize circumstances such as this can lead to some pretty barbarous treatments.
I recall reading an article about a turn of the century woman who had been defiant to her parents. Psychiatrists diagnosed her as suffering from an organic form of hysteria, sent her to an institution, and she lived the remainder of her life dead in a cocktail of psychotropics, shock treatments, and a partial frontal lobotomy. When you read the biography of this woman, it’s pretty clear that her problem was the “worldhood of her world”, the universe of meaning and being-with she inhabited, not an organic problem. Here a semiotic condition was naturalized, destroying this woman’s life.
This is the point behind the borromean critical theory I’ve been talking about. The knot of borromean critical theory (not to be confused with Lacan’s knot), is meant to emphasize that the three orders simultaneously overlap and interpenetrate and are autonomous. It is a logic of the both/and, not the either/or. What it tries to reject is any of the three orders as being treated as foundational to the others. The order of the symbolic (S) is the order of signs, signifiers, language, meaning, and the Lacanian real. The order of the imaginary (I) is the order of phenomenological lived experience. The order of the real (R) is the order of the physical, natural, or material investigated by biology, physics, chemistry, and neurology (there’s no room for this kind of real in Lacan, which is why the bonehead analyst I referred to above could refer to cystic fibrosis as a symptom of psychosis).
The three orders are interrelated to one another. In the case of our Husserlian suffering from an anxiety disorder, we had the order of the real dominating the order of the imaginary and symbolic. This Husserlians anxiety had nothing to do with meaning or the signifier, but was purely organic in origin. Nonetheless, it produced effects (very distorted ones) on the order of the symbolic. Our Husserlian thought his anxiety arose from not resolutely embracing his being-towards-death and existential life project, when he simply suffered from a chemical imbalance that had nothing to do with things as exalted as resolutely encountering ones “ownness” (his interpretation of the extremely unpleasant anxiety had about as much validity as a schizophrenic’s belief that aliens are stealing his thoughts). On the other end of the spectrum we get the reverse. In the case of Don Draper, the symbolic dominates the imaginary and the real. Don Draper’s panic attack results from a crisis of meaning in his life, from how the universe of the signifier is threatened by the FBI finding out his true identity and sending him off to prison for deserting. This produces the experience of panic he suffers (the imaginary), and has real somatic effects: heart palpitations, profuse sweating, inability to breath. This semiotic crisis can have real physiological effects: he could have a heart attack.
Here I’m tempted to side with Spinoza’s parallelism in some sort of modified form (him and Lucretius have been on my mind a lot lately as I go through my divorce). Spinoza writes, “[t]he order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection” (E2p7). He continues, “[c]onsequently, thinking substance (the imaginary, consciousness, the signifier) and extended substance (physical bodies) are one and the same substance, comprehended now under this attribute, now under that. So, too, a mode of Extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, expressed in two ways” (ibid.). For every affect we experience (“idea”) there’s a corresponding bodily event and for every bodily event, there’s a corresponding affective experience. Nonetheless, the two domains differ in kind and we can’t infer affects from bodily events we observe in, for example, an fMRI (which is why subjects have to tell us what they’re experiencing when we scan their brains) and from our affective experiences we can’t infer bodily events (which is why fMRI’s can be illuminating and why medicine and psychology has such an abysmal history theorizing these things). Causation can move in both directions. The domain of “ideas” can produce bodily states and the converse. The question is one of thinking the complex relations between these divergent series.