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Re: [xmca] Consciousness

A quick thought while I am reading the exchanges on consciousness. I think consciousness is matter (brain cells) which become organized as a consequence of activity, and once organized (never fully, finally, until the moment of death) they facilitate (and that,too is an activity)certain kinds and speeds of activity. My consciousness of the act of writing is multi-layered, it runs ahead of the text while it also monitors what is written, these are activities that are facilitated by the consequences of previous, repeated, experience I now write in English, my monitoring a text written in Hungarian is slower, I have less current practice and thus the conscious focus required to write in my mother tongue is differently organized, it may require a shifting back and forth between planning and monitoring rather than the simultaneous activities called forth if the task is in English. The example is to serve us to think developmentally of matter,of differently structured matter, rather than dichotomously.
Thanks for the stimulating exchanges,
----- Original Message ----- From: "Andy Blunden" <ablunden@mira.net>
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Sent: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 9:16 AM
Subject: Re: [xmca] Consciousness

THis is indeed a tricky question which inevitably generates seemingly contradictory positions. Please recall the context. Mike raised the problem of multiple definitions of "consciousness" among us - we who share a lot of agreement on these questions. I responded that I didn't think we *should* tie Cs down to a single, well-defined meaning. Then realizing that it was unsatisfactory, to leave us in such an open-ended, undefined position, I thought about it, and realized that what unified all these multiplicity of legitimate definitions and concepts of Cs was Cs as a philosophical category.

Descartes introduced us to the philosophical catgory of Cs, but he did not at all solve the problem of the scientific study of consciouness. Only Vygotsky solved this, but quite specifically he built on Hegel and Marx.

If I ask you to accept that the dollar you think is in your pocket and the dollar which is actually in your pocket (or not) are categorically different, this is asking you to state the bleeding obvious, and does not give you a program for the scientific study of consciousness. But nor can a program for the scientific study of consciousness forget or turn its back on this categorical difference between Cs and matter.

The big step that Hegel took in fact was to lay to the side the whole issue of an absolute difference between thought and thing, between subject and object, and to look instead at the movement of (subject/object), with the whole idea of objectified thoughts and internalised artifacts.

So here we have these two (as you say) completely *opposite* proposals about how to proceed, and I am advocating *both* of them. But we can't go all the way with Hegel. Hegel basically elided the mind/matter distinction and this proved to be very productive. But it couldn't be maintained, could it? Feuerbach called his bluff, and Marx agreed.

On science: I am saying that science is one of a number of possible ways of apprehending the world (quoting Marx in the Grundrisse). It is good for certain tasks up to a certain point. And what Kuhn means by "ontological assumptions" is not necessarily really ontological. Natural science does assume the existence of a material world, outside of, independent of, and prior to consciousness. This ontology got a bump c. 1905, but it was soon restored. But natural science is not the only way. I don't think psychology can proceed on the same set of ontological assumptions. If we make "Activity" a fundamental category, we depart from natural science. And I don't believe we can proceed by acting as if we can study the psyche on the basis of the same metaphysical assumptions as natural science. We are part of it; we cannot objectify the object of study.


Martin Packer wrote:

I am familiar with what seems to be your general line of argument. It runs, indeed, through the philosophers you have highlighted: Descartes, Kant, and Husserl (whose 'Cartesian mediations' was both a criticism of Kant for being too mystical and an affirmation of the continuity of his project with Descartes). But I am surprised that you would follow this line for, in my reading at least, Marx and Vygotsky took a different line, prompted in my view by Hegel's critique of Kant.

But first, it seems to me there is a central contradiction in what you have written, and I take this to mean that perhaps I'm not correctly identifying your position, since you seem to affirming and denying the same point. You write critically of natural science:

"Natural science is based on the assumption that outside of consciousness there is a natural world, which exists independently of consciousness and prior to consciousness"

But when you cited Lenin you explained: "Consciousness is what is given to us; matter is what exists outside and independently of consciousness."

Perhaps your point is that science is not *critical* of this central assumption, which was indeed what Kant and Husserl argued? (I think this is actually an inaccurate claim: Kuhn's work showed us that scientists constantly question their ontological assumptions, and also made the important point that these assumptions are embedded in the shared, social practices of a scientific paradigm, not in the thoughts of individual scientists.)

Where should I begin with a response to this D-K-H line? Perhaps here: you write: "The reality is: you open your eyes, you see things, and *then* you question whether what really exists out there (matter) corresponds to what you think exists out there (consciousness)."

...for this is precisely the move that Descartes, Kant and Husserl made. They each engaged in a reflective attitude of doubt, questioning the correspondence of (inner) thought and (external) matter, and even the existence of the latter. The problem is that this epistemological scepticism (Is my knowledge valid?) is *always* a sign of an underlying ontological dualism (My thoughts are inner; matter is outer). If one starts there, it does indeed seem that only a God's eye view would be able to resolve the problem. And with this dualism it seems that each individual can form only mental representations of a reality that they can never in fact be sure they know. Precisely the representational model of human beings that cognitive science has accepted, at least until recently.

But there is a different line of thinking about human being, knowledge and consciousness. I first learned of it from studying Heidegger, but it has been explored by Merleau-Ponty, Garfinkel, and as I read them, Marx and Vygotsky. It is a line that gives priority to practical activity rather than reflective thinking. (You can see why I am puzzled that you would follow the former line, and why, for example, you would write that post Heisenberg, "not concsciousness but *activity* had to step in to provide a rational foundation for even natural science." That seems to imply that for you consciousness and activity are distinct.)

The central thrust of Heidegger's Being and Time was that the typical and traditional philosophical move is mistaken and unnatural. People in their everyday activity do *not* "question what really exists out there." If I am digging in my garden, see a strange object and have a question about it, I don't reflect on the adequacy of my thought categories, I get down on my knees to take a closer look at the object. I poke it, I pick it up. Heidegger distinguished three modes of engagement (Tony mentioned them recently). These philosophers operated in what Heidegger called the present-at-hand mode, in which practical activity is completely suspended. But the more fundamental mode is the ready-to-hand, in which we are engaged in practical activity with artifacts, and there is no separation between subject and object, mind and matter. For Heidegger, *this* is consciousness. In this mode, Cs is not separate from matter.

I find it particularly helpful to think in terms of children's development, because infants have a practical engagement in the world without the capacity for reflective thought.

There is obviously much more I could and should say to develop the point I'm trying to make. But if I send this message now it might reach you before night falls.



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Andy Blunden http://www.erythrospress.com/
Classics in Activity Theory: Hegel, Leontyev, Meshcheryakov, Ilyenkov $20 ea

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