One of the great beauties of postmodern culture is the recognition that the Euroamerican intellectual landscape is littered to over-flowing with artificial boundaries. One set of these artifices, concerning individual versus cultural mental capabilities, has happily undergone very welcome changes during the last two centuries. I am speaking of the artificial boundaries of race, nationality, caste, tribe, or gender as indicators of intelligence or mental capacities. The fact that individuals of any nationality, ethnic group, or gender can succeed in contemporary Euroamerican culture is surely evidence enough, as Al points out in his discussion of Boas' influence, of "the similarity of mental processes in all present day cultures." Al reminds us of a number of very important issues than need to be kept in mind as one thinks about culture, mind, and consciousness.
- Perhaps the most important is the point that Boas made, namely that "there is no fundamental difference in the ways of thinking of primitive and civilized man." In my opinion, the future of western civilization and our contemporary modes of consciousness depend on whether or not one is able to assent to Boas' insight, to take it to heart, so to speak.
- Another point, beautifully articulated by Benedict, is the presence in the mechanisms that account for conscious awareness of powerful Apollonian (roughly, divide & conquer) and Dionysian (roughly, participate & conquer) attractors that structure each individual's approach to the world. These are oppositely directed capacities which each and every individual possesses.
- Yet another point, addressed by Benedict with regard to ethnology in 1947, but just as applicable to consciousness studies today, is the disutility of "a debilitating...competition for dominance between the intuition of the historical approach and the factual orientation of the scientific approach." What is needed is "a more flexible attitude: a higher order of scientific activity that melds scientific and historical approaches, taking from each what each can best provide."
So a major problem is keeping things together while not succumbing to all-or-none thinking, by which I mean mistaking Apollonian and Dionysian strains of thought to be opposites rather than complements. The "hard problem" of consciousness is widely touted to be a question of understanding consciousness' essential mechanism. The "really hard problem" may actually be to learn how, in the long term, to use consciousness for the uses of life. Granted that we feel that we are doing that now, but the force of illusion is strong and all the data is not in so perhaps we should not be too presumptuous. The truth is that we need both modes of conscious contact with the world. The trick is to appreciate that complementary strains of thought must be entertained alternately, that they each have limitations, that they each are subject to particular excesses, and that each is most appropriate under one or another particular set of conditions. I consider the difference between opposites and complements as being the following: opposites combined annihilate; complements combined make the whole. At any given moment, two complements are both true, even though they may appear to be mutually exclusive. In contrast, two opposites cannot be simultaneously true. Examples of complements are the complementary colors of light, which together make white light, and light as wave and particle. Examples of opposites are true & false, 0 & 1, and + & -. However, coming to grips with the issue of combining Apollonian and Dionysian strains of thought will not be best served by the approach of abstract categories and logic. Instead, the joining together of the scientific and historical approaches requires a focus on a real world problem, this is one sure way that the oppositely directed strains of thought can be brought together, harnessed to the same chariot, so to speak, so that their respective forces can work together.
With today's commentary, I propose a practice exercise: taking a look at Euroamerican consciousness in light of the pending global climate crisis. I presume that most individuals are by now aware of the spike in global warming that is occurring and the real chance that the disruption of ocean currents could trigger a rapid (decade time scale) return to a glacial temperature regime for those living in northern lattitudes. If not see Iced Neuron. In order to talk sensibly about climate, culture and consciousness we must first adopt a working definition of human consciousness. Again I believe that most individuals, in practice if not verbally, can assent to consciousness involving "a critical awareness of one's own identity and situation." This definition points to several dimensions of consciousness. There can surely be little doubt that any definition of human consciousness should include self-awareness, the figure of self standing out against the ground of the world. The invention of self, which may actually be quite a modern, and unfortunately temporary achievement is an Apollonian success story for which every person reading this commentary should feel grateful. For example,
"Mind can never be free of matter. Yet only by mind imagining itself free can culture advance...Everything great in western civilization has come from struggle against our origins...Apollonian order, harmony, and light make a clear space in nature where the individual voice can be heard...Personality is inauthentic in the east, which identifies self with group." (Paglia, Sexual Personae, pgs. 40, 104, 32)
The subject-object dichotomy is fundamental to most modern approaches to consciousness. That being the case, I would argue that alienation, the interaction with a world of exploitable things, a world as a resource object (a thing) for oneself as subject, oneself being a bag of genes and chemicals, must also be taken as a necessary, fundamental dimension of modern consciousness. Indeed, the apparent contradiction between what people assert about consciousness and its strict neural dependence and how they live their lives, i.e., what they seem to believe in practice, e.g., participating with a real world as emotionally aware human beings with values, is proof positive of the alienation that haunts the modern worldview. At the extremes of the Apollonian outlook, the self is an illusion generated by the activity of neurons, which being the sole proprietors of reality, present us with a picture of the world and self that may or may not match what is actually there. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, describes it thusly:
"The western mind makes definitions. That is, it draws lines. This is the heart of Apollonianism."
Is this all there is to human consciousness, however? Of course not, this particular "reality," which can be summarized as existence in the interval between zero on the left and infinity on the right (see Figure below), is just the Apollonian outlook .
The Dionysian outlook recognizes the reality of dynamic systems that transcend the artificial boundaries upon whose presumed existence the Apollonian outlook rests. As Andy Clark says in Being There,
"Mind is a leaky organ, forever escaping its natural confines and mingling shamelessly with body and with world."
In fact, from a process philosophical perspective the mind is recognized as coextensive with the brain, body and the world. In this outlook, which I believe is more Dionysian, the human mind is considered to be the dominant occasion of experience in prehension with and overlapping all the lesser occasions of experience that constitute the compound, high grade organism called self (or subject). Because of its coextensitivity with the body, human consciousness is appropriately referred to as embodied. This is what provides for the bodily locus of conscious awareness, what allows us to see with the cells of our eyes, hear with the cells of our ears, taste with the cells of our tongues, smell with primary olfactory neurons, and feel with the cells of our skin. The Figure below illustrates my attempts to diagram the messy, Dionysian interaction that accounts for mind (A) and to represent the coextensiveness of mind and body in terms of the virtual body (B).
Recognition that mind is a joint product of brain, body, world, and society allows a fuller appreciation of the history of human consciousness. Of signal importance is the fact that recognizing mind as immersed in culture allows proper emphasis to be placed on the significance of meaning and the search for meaning in human affairs. Meaning is at the heart of human happiness and contentment. Bradd Shore (1996), in Culture in Mind, describes this aspect of being human:
"...humans are opportunistic constructors of meaning...[we have] a desire for wholeness...and a coherence in the face of anomaly."
In particular, it allows us to better recognize and consciously own the fact that, because we are meaning seeking creatures, our modes of embodied human consciousness have not always been exactly as they are today. Notwithstanding the empirically established equalities of the modern mind, the Apollonian strains so prominent in the Euroamerican mind have not always been so strong. As Boas (1938, 202-03) says in The Mind of Primitive Man,
"It is somewhat difficult for us to recognize that the value which we attribute to our own civilization is due to the fact that we participate in this civilization, and that it has been controlling all our actions since the time of our birth; but it is certainly conceivable that there may be other civilization's, based perhaps on different traditions and on a different equilibrium of emotion and reason which are of no less value than ours, although it may be impossible for us to appreciate their values without having grown up under their influence."
(bold italics added) I suggest that another dimension needs to be added to the scheme of embodied consciousness to take into account the human capacity for emotion and the fact that, historically, the "equilibrium of emotion and reason" has not always been the same. I propose that the term "participation" be used to characterize an axis relating to a person's felt sense of interaction with self, world, and others. This dimension, which acknowledges the brain's right hemisphere (at least for those of us who are right handed and left hemisphere dominant for speech), is a qualitative rather than a quantitative dimension like self-awareness and alienation. Participation's strongest - and probably most controversial interpretation was by Levy-Bruhl in How Natives Think. There he notes that Kruijt, author of Animism in the Indian Archipelago, suggests two stages in the development of the ancestral mind. In the first, individualization has not taken place and "there is a diffused principle capable of penetrating everywhere, a kind of universal and widespread force which seems to animate persons and things, to act in them an endow them with life." At this stage, "the individual consciousness of every member of the group is and remains strictly solidary with the collective consciousness. It does not distinctly break away from it; it does not even contradict itself in uniting with it; that which does dominate it is the uninterrupted feeling of participation." The second stage occurs later, when "...the human individual becomes clearly conscious of himself as an individual, when he explicitly differentiates himself from the group of which he feels himself a member." Only then "...do beings and objects outside himself begin to appear to him as provided with individual minds or spirits during this life and after death." (pg. 365) Without necessarily accepting Levy-Bruhl's extreme position, I expect that many can accept the idea that it is unlikely that the modern mind, complete with its strong Apollonian strains, sprang into existence de novoi.e., without a gradual emergence from its simian and early hominid pasts. Such a view would seem to smack of creationism, which does not necessarily make it wrong. In any case, there is a real possibility that our earliest modes of consciousness were much more Dionysian, more poetic, more participatory and interconnected with nature, but less invested with self-awareness and less subject to alienation. And this is a very important point. I believe that it is of critical importance to appreciate the relative recent development and possibly precarious position of the Apollonian mode of embodied human consciousness (Barfield, 1988; Havelock, Jaynes). Barfield (1973, 206, 207), in Poetic Diction , addresses the inadequacy of trying to understand consciousness just from the point of view of subject-object dichotomy:
" the distinction of objective from subjective is a relatively late arrival in human consciousness This is why, in order to form a conception of the consciousness of primitive man, we have really as it were, to 'unthink', not merely our now half-instinctive logical processes, but even the seemingly fundamental distinction between self and world. And with this, the distinction between thinking and perceiving begins to vanish too in thinking about thinking, if we are determined to make no assumptions at the outset, we dare not start with the distinction of self and not-self; for that distinction actually disappears every time we think Thinking transcends the distinction of subject and object."
This is not to say that the Apollonian mode, or as I would call it, alienated consciousness, which dominates the contemporary Euroamerican mind, is not stable; it is and probably will continue to be providing that the societal framework supporting it is continuously present. Take away the societal scaffolding, however, and all bets may be off. Participatory consciousness is the more common, conservative, persistent, and meaning-satisfying mode of embodied human consciousness. This mode is, it appears, more closely associated with an involuntary servitude to nature, a more emotional attachment to and reactivity to all aspects of life, and a sense of interconnection with the whole that is, I believe, very satisfying of a human being's need for meaning. Isn't the satisfying aspect of tribal life the fact that it provides for a satisfaction of meaning and isn't it this aspect that accounts for the persistence of the participatory mode of embodied human consciousness during the very great majority of the time since the human brain achieved its current size 50,000 to 200,000 years ago? This suggests the real possibility that embodied human consciousness, depending on the societal framework and availability of resources, may oscillate between the extremes of Apollonian individuation, detachment and control and Dionysian participation, immersion, and ecstatic unity.
With the addition of a participation axis, embodied human consciousness can be represented as a point in a multi-dimensional (qualitative & quantitative dimensions) space defined by self-awareness, alienation, and participation (see below). It seems natural and desirable that the overall trajectory for an individual be arc-shaped, beginning at birth and ending at death. In fact, each point on the arc will be a vector, the magnitude of the different components of which will depend on one's actions and intentions. A variety of trajectories are possible in such a space, depending on one's desires. The upward going trajectory that quickly achieves high levels of self-awareness and alienation is, of course, the "idealized" masculine one. The lower trajectory that remains closer to the participation axis and achieves less alienation and (initially) less self-awareness is the "idealized" feminine trajectory. The feminine trajectory is meant to reflect a choice of (or a societally forced) role of a child rearing by the female; alternative trajectories are available. The space in front of the vertical arc is a space of madness, where one partakes of original participation in the presence of a high level of ego consciousness and pays the price.
The end point of the trajectories is, borrowing concepts from Barfield (1988) and Polanyi, a state of post-critical participation and post-critical mind. This goal-state involves a state of awareness where ego awareness is recognized as a transition state, a state to be transcended with the realization that Atman = Brahman, that "Self" (or soul?) is different than "self." This is a state of high Self awareness combined with conscious awareness of participation, of one's interconnection with the universe. It is a state that recognizes the futility of separating the knower, the object of knowledge, and the act of knowledge. This is the state that helps one appreciate that "understanding is the recognition of the I in the thou." It is the state that follows from unitive knowledge, however brief, of the ultimate ground of being (Huxley). It is a state that allows us to gaze with some equanimity on the horrors of life, including the reality of abrupt global climate change. In the absence of such grace that allows one to become aware about the truth of the world, the ego-threat of such disquieting knowledge makes it practically impossible to hold thoughts about it in mind. Then the trajectory of embodied human consciousness heads toward further attempts to satisfy the need for meaning by means of things, power, control, and isolation, i.e., by increasing levels of alienation. This is the way to a posthuman world (Hayles).
The degree of existential tension between knowledge felt and knowledge known is, in the absence of conscious awareness of the actual threat, perceived as dread or fear. Dread manifests as a more-or-less certain knowledge that things are very badly out of control, about to fall apart. Fear manifests as more-or-less certain knowledge that to step outside the bounds of reality as defined by religion or by science is to risk chaos, madness or death. I believe that bringing knowledge of impending global climate change to a conscious level can, in principle, serve as a "cognitive capstone" for transforming the upward trajectory towards a posthuman world into a more natural arced trajectory towards a post-critical mind. However, fear and success are likely to keep many of us distracted. If we fail to act, then the contemporary mind and all the achievements of modern science may be in jeopardy.
Well, as I said, this was to be an exercise in melding science and history in the service of understanding human consciousness. Judging from its scope and its capability of interdigitating with the real world it can, I suppose, be considered a success. It may also be considered a success in comparison to Abraham Lincoln's wise remark:
"If we could first know where we are, and wither we are trending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it."
However, judging from its lack of prescriptive remedies for the potential problems of consciousness thus discovered, it is less than satisfactory. First things first. One thing, if nothing else, that knowledge of the growing possibility of abrupt global climate change can contribute is a sort of standard for discussions of consciousness. Theories of (Euroamerican) mind that do not address the possible impacts of past and future abrupt global climate changes may be seen as taking a too Apollonian point of view. I will end with a comment on the Geothe quotation from Boas' book that Al translated for us:
"One who would know a living thing
Tries first to drive its spirit out,
Then with the pieces in his hand,
He lacks the unifying bond,"
Is it possible that the appreciation of a common peril could be a component of a "unifying bond" that would allow for cooperative action at all levels of Euroamerican culture? Perhaps, on the other hand, we shall go the route described by Camille Paglia (1990, 1):
"Human life began in flight and fear Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature let nature shrug and all is in ruin..Civilized life requires a state of illusion Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair."
As always, take what you like and leave the rest and
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 1988.
Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 1973.
Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, 1997.
Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1963.
Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Huxley, A. The Perennial Philosophy, New York: Harper & Row, 1945.
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Abraham Lincoln cited in Davies, T.C. Medical education today, S.C. Med. Assoc. J. 73:421-4.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, 1990.
Bradd Shore, Culture in Mind, 1996.