Andy Blunden May 2006

The Subject of Consciousness

The key concept which I want to introduce into the discussion of consciousness is the concept of ‘subject’. This is the concept which philosophers have used to frame those problems which arise uniquely from the formation of human societies. In certain contexts, ‘subject’, or subjectivity, can be a synonym for consciousness, but it goes beyond what is commonly understood by the term ‘consciousness’. If we are concerned with human beings, rather than pieces of living tissue, and helping people free themselves from suffering rather than controlling them, then subject is the key concept.

Consciousness, Behaviour and Awareness

I believe that we must approach consciousness as an aspect or part of subjectivity, of being a subject, rather than as the state of a brain or even of a whole organism. This is necessary because consciousness cannot be meaningfully understood as a thing-in-itself, but only as an aspect of a subject. The subject must therefore be our basic unit of analysis.

It is necessary to make our start with the activity of which consciousness is a part, rather than beginning from mind-body conundrums along the lines of the Cartesian subject. It turns out that beginning from the subject is both the only scientific approach, as well as the only ethical way to understand consciousness.

This approach rules out taking as ‘consciousness’ something which human beings have in common with the entire animal kingdom, and therefore discounts the possibility of reliance on animal experimentation, though such experimentation contributes to our understanding of the biology. Behavioural psychology for decades tried to build a theory of human consciousness on the basis of experimentation on mice and experiments on human beings which essentially treated human beings as if they were mice; but the whole science of consciousness as it is practiced today is based on a rejection of this methodology. The science of consciousness assumes that consciousness exists and that it is a legitimate object of scientific study, whereas behaviourism was presaged on the thesis that subjectivity was accessible only to introspection and was therefore not a legitimate object for science.

The behaviourists got around this by regarding sentient creatures as input-output devices, the inner workings of which were eliminated in favour of stimuli-response matrices. Not only did this place the entire science on an appallingly unethical foundation, but after almost a century of work, little was learnt about human beings, for whom consciousness is the only avenue to understanding behaviour.

Consciousness is capable of being the legitimate object of science, without recourse to introspection, because just as with quarks, cosmic bodies and dinosaurs, one can make legitimate surmises about the properties of an entity through observation and experiment without immediate sensual perception of the object of investigation. As is now well understood, all sensuous perception is mediated and theory-laden, and the whole concept of direct sensuous perception of scientific objects is misconceived.

Nevertheless, the caution of the behaviourists was not misplaced. While I can deduce from another person’s interaction with me that they have consciousness just as I have, it is far from clear I can impute consciousness in the same sense to animals.

John Searle makes consciousness a state of awareness shared by all animals:

By ‘consciousness’ I simply mean those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one awakes in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one would say, ‘unconscious’. (Searle 1992)

But it remains to be proven that a cockroach has ‘awareness’ in the sense we humans know it. According to Katherine Nelson, even new-born infants appear to have awareness only fleetingly[1]. Human beings are capable of performing quite complex operations without any awareness of what they are doing, and I see no reason to doubt that animals can perform the most impressive feats without awareness as we know it. Merlin Donald posits several distinct strata of consciousness that separate us from primates, who in turn enjoy a kind of consciousness distinct from that of other mammals. The only awareness we know about and can objectively demonstrate and distinguish from biological reflexes, is that connected with human subjectivity, or something very much like it; all the rest is speculation. When John Searle remarked jokingly: “Anyone who doubts that dogs are conscious should talk to my dog Gilbert,” [2] I am not convinced. Either we abandon all claims to science and ascribe thoughts to animals, or we ascribe to them awareness without thoughts, something a Buddhist master takes a lifetime to achieve (Kyabgon 2003, 55), something which surely cannot be assumed in the absence of experimental evidence. I agree with Steven Rose when he says that it is impossible to separate consciousness from its content: “There can be no consciousness without content; indeed it is constituted by its content ... it exists in sets of relationships, between the person and the surrounding world, irreducible to a mere neural mechanism ...” (Rose 2005, 167)

Educational psychology and the study of child development and human evolution allow us to study the emergence of consciousness as we know it, but unless we begin by recognising consciousness as something that comes into being, we have no possibility of studying it, by the methods of neuroscience or any other method.

The Subject

Let me first explain what I mean by ‘subject’. A subject is the coincidence of three entities: cogito, agency and identity. [3] By cogito, I mean consciousness, that which knows and perceives (Descartes 1637); by agency I mean that which does things and bears moral responsibility for its actions, rather than just being the carrier of effects (Kant 1996); and by identity I mean self-consciousness, the answer given to the question ‘who am I?’ (Hegel 1910).

A moment’s reflection will show that any form of life which lacks one of these components is not a true subject. An organism passively reflecting its environment does not qualify and nor does a bundle of conditioned reflexes. A subject has to be human (or something similar to human), and a sane and conscious human being at that. A person cannot be morally responsible for their actions if they don’t know what they’re doing; an entity cannot be said to have consciousness if there is in principle nothing it can do in respect to its perception (temporary paralysis is a different question); and consciousness cannot arise in something which cannot recognise itself in its actions. A computer, for example, contains knowledge but it is not a morally responsible agent, and there is no sense in talking of a computer having consciousness; animals and small children cannot be said to be morally responsible for their actions, and therefore cannot be regarded as subjects either.

It is being the consciousness of an individual subject which is what distinguishes human consciousness from such phenomena as irritability in living tissue, nervous activity of some kind, inanimate information carriers, automatons, etc. – the coincidence of consciousness, with moral responsibility and self-consciousness as part of some human system of activity, of suffering, striving and self-conscious human activity.

On the other hand, reflection will demonstrate that these three sides of subjectivity rarely coincide perfectly. People do things with imperfect knowledge or with knowledge acquired unreflectively from the culture into which they were born. It is by defining the subject in this way, as a whole whose unity is contingent and unstable, which makes it possible to understand the subject (and therefore consciousness) as a process, not a given fact or entity. It is necessary to have the same relational approach to the definition of consciousness. The alternative of a minimal, normative definition of consciousness (such as ‘awareness’), will lead only to an empty space, rather than any insight into the human condition.

There are two contrasting methods of definition of the object of investigation: normative and relational. Normative definitions rely on whether or not an entity has the specified normative properties; the archetypal example of this approach is the Linnaean typology of species as it was prior to Darwin. Barely adequate for sorting species, it came into contradiction with the natural, evolutionary relationship between species. A classical example of the relational approach to definition, first introduced by Hegel, is Vygotsky’s definition of word-meaning as the unit of analysis for the study of rational speech. Vygotsky pointed out that thought and speech have separate ontogenetic roots and develop in the child along separate paths, but meet at a certain point, “whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational.” (Vygotsky 1962, 44) This approach allows the investigator to trace the separate paths and their interconnection and reconstruct the genesis of the object under investigation.

The effort to provide a normative definition of consciousness has led to the minimal definition discussed above, because the only qualitative distinction that the normative approach allows is some or none; the threshold is pushed down towards the ‘irritability’ which animals share with molluscs and carnivorous plants.

But of what use to science is a definition which cannot distinguish between a bundle of reflexes and human consciousness, which ultimately defines consciousness as what brains do? Even if it were to be proved that an adequate definition of ‘consciousness’ in this sense could be made, on what basis could we believe that only quantitative, and not qualitative, distinctions separate the awareness of a fish from that of a normal, thinking, human being? The result is that consciousness appears as ‘magic ingredient’ whose concrete nature escapes empirical description.

If, on the contrary, consciousness is seen as an aspect of subjectivity, for which a number of different conditions are necessary, then it is possible to trace the formation of consciousness objectively and scientifically.

While it is almost self-evident that only human beings can be subjects in human society, being a subject is by no means limited to individuals. On the contrary, most knowing, self-conscious agents in the world are institutions, social movements, corporations, governments and other social groups. Although modernity encourages the idea of the individual as agent, this still remains only an ideal which may one day in the future be realised here on Earth. But it is not the case today. Individuals only know and feel and act and see themselves through participation in social subjects, that is to say, through collaborative, purposive activity with other people. Although children are bearers of rights, and suffer, they are not understood to be legal subjects, morally responsible for their actions; they are subjects in the process of becoming. This relational approach to the definition of consciousness does not exclude the elucidation of the neural basis for consciousness, but is intended to properly frame the problem so that neurological investigation can be directed towards the right questions. Most likely we are not looking for a single process, but rather the coincidence of a number of distinct processes.

I define the subject as a self-conscious system of activity.[4] Once again, you will see that this definition is applicable to an individual or a social movement of some kind, but not to any part of the person, such a single organ like the brain.

Historical Development

The problem of the subject stretches back to the beginnings of western philosophical speculation in ancient Greece, but it was Descartes who gave the Latin word subjectum the first sense in which we know the subject (Descartes 1637), as the implied subject of cogito. As every student of philosophy knows, this brought with it the much-maligned Cartesian dichotomy, though I hasten to add that Descartes should by no means be blamed for this dichotomy, as all the mystics, Kabbalists, Cathars, Gnostics and heretics of the middle ages up to the Enlightenment also promoted some kind of dualism in opposition to the monism of the Church. But Descartes gave this dualism its peculiarly modern form. The epistemology and philosophy generally of the 150 years or so after Descartes hinged around the problems presented by this dualism. But I want to take as my setting off point the high point of the French Revolution.

As Robespierre was shipping victims off to the guillotine in batches of 50, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution in Jena, Johann Fichte, published his ‘doctrine of science’ or Wissenschaftslehre.

Fichte made the ‘substance’, or basic concept of his philosophy, activity (Fichte 2000). The point about activity is that it is both subjective and objective. As the subjective activity constituting a subject, but at the same time a material process constrained by objective limits, it is simultaneously subjective and objective. Fichte aimed to overcome the dichotomy of his predecessor, Kant, by beginning with subjective-objective activity. Against Descartes, Fichte denied that the existence of an ‘I’ could be deduced from the fact of cogito; first there was just pure activity, not the activity of an already-existing ‘I’. Self-consciousness was a construct of that activity. [5]

To prove this, Fichte conducted an experiment with his listeners: he told his listeners to look at that wall over there! Now where is your ‘I’ when you are looking at that wall? Fichte said that his students were dumbfounded by this question. If you’re a normal, mentally healthy person, then all that exists for you at the moment your attention goes to that wall, is the wall. Your ‘I’ doesn’t exist for you. It’s only in the next moment when I draw your attention to your ‘I’ by asking you about it, that your attention, your activity, turns upon itself and there is the ‘I’. Fichte says that the ‘I’ is activity turned upon itself. The activity is not initially the activity of an ‘I’, it just is pure activity, and self-consciousness is a product of that activity when it is turned upon itself.

Fichte asked: How does an ‘I’ become a free person? – and we can take Fichte’s idea of the ‘free person’ as synonymous with what I mean by ‘subject’. An ‘I’ can only find in its internal world, what it first finds in the external world, he claimed, but surely a person who is not already a free person will not be able to recognise a free person when it sees one, since it does not know freedom. Only when summoned, said Fichte, by another free person who recognises them as a free person, summoned to exercise their freedom, is there the possibility that the ‘I’ may recognise itself as a free person. A person’s recognition of themselves, their self-consciousness, therefore, comes from outside, from their recognition by others.

This is the origin of the concept of ‘recognition’, by means of which people get to know themselves as free agents, and acquire rights and obligations in society. The basic idea is that self-consciousness and free will is kindled from outside, from being recognised as a member of society, not from inside.

This may appear to be an obscure and antique philosophical curiosity, but it is far from that. So long as, with Descartes, we take as the starting point of our epistemology and our ontology, an objectively existing, material world out of which consciousness arises, while consciousness is taken to be the site of cognition and moral responsibility, then the only alternative to Descartes’ dualism – a universe composed of two mutually exclusive substances, thought and matter – is the solution proposed by Fichte. [6]

Hegel agreed with Fichte’s definition of the ‘I’ (Hegel 1952), but he criticised Fichte for having deduced society from the individual. According to Hegel this was back to front. The individual was a product of society, not the other way around (Hegel 1955). Hegel also rejected Kant’s presumption of a ‘transcendental’ subject underlying the historically and culturally determined subject found in actuality. For Hegel, the subject was a real product of cultural-historical development, not its presupposition. So Hegel proposed a different approach to overcoming the dichotomy: he took the whole culturally determined agent as subject, rather than the ahistorical transcendental subject of Kant. (Kant 1996)

Following Kant (Kant 1929), Hegel said that there were two kinds of knowledge: immediate, intuitive knowledge on one side, and mediated, conceptual knowledge, gained through language and reason, on the other (Hegel 1979). Intuitive knowledge is bottom-up, based on introspection and immediate, sensuous activity using the objects of day-to-day life; conceptual knowledge is top-down knowledge, mediated by language, cultural activity, law enforcement, religious rituals and so on. The point is that at any given point in history, these two forms of consciousness are at odds with one another; the intuitive feeling of what is true and right is at odds with science, law, religion and the whole way the world is run, at any given time. Thus, the unsatisfactory nature of society is present in the consciousness of every individual member of society, in the internal conflicts manifested in the various forms of activity, the contradictions of which are the driving force of history, as Hegel saw it.

Hegel called the unity of Intuition and Concept, the Idea, a unity which does not actually exist, or rather a unity which is imperfect at any given time. Later he gave the word Spirit to this process. [7] Everything human beings do then is the work of Spirit, the working out of this internal contradiction which arises as soon as people begin to create objective forms of reason, make tools, language, myths, laws, artworks and so on. This idea of a spirit animating history is rightly regarded as problematic today, but that is beside the point at the moment; his solution to the problem of the Idea as the yet-to-be-made unity of intuition and concept, is an excellent pointer to an approach for solving the problem of consciousness, a ‘relational’ definition.

What is striking about the way that Hegel describes this process is that he used the word ‘subjective’ to describe things, such as tools or crops or buildings, ‘subjective’ because they are bearers of thoughts, and at other times used the word ‘objective’ for things like institutions, symbols and artworks because they exist in reality with a substance of their own, independently of the act of their creation. So there is no dichotomy, but a continual interplay between subject and object, a relation; nowhere in his writing did Hegel get involved in a mind-matter dichotomy. He talked about subject and object, but always as aspects of a single process. Consciousness likewise was not something in the head; individual consciousness was part of historically developing social consciousness.

My contention is that it is the subject rather than the individual organism, let alone a brain, which has to be the starting point for an understanding of consciousness; consciousness arises and is comprehensible only as an aspect of subjectivity. Aside from illness and physical damage, all the important questions concern the problem of subjectivity, rather than ‘mental states’. So long as the biological mechanisms are working properly, individual consciousness is just the individual component of the activity through which people engage with and perform the universal culture of their community.

Subjectivity involves not only the needs and capacities of human individuals, but also the content and form of their collaboration and the meaningful objects mediating that collaboration.

The primary structure of the subject as identified by Hegel is three-fold: individual, universal and particular (Hegel 1975). Broadly, we can understand individual in the sense of the mortal individual person, inclusive of their desires and their activity; the universal is the products of culture – words, scientific ideas and technique, art forms, myths and customs and beliefs, which are more or less eternal, so long as they are recorded or remembered by someone, and the material forms of culture – crops, books, buildings, works of art, etc. The particular is the collaborative activities – institutions, discourse, etc., the performance of the universals, through which individuals come to know them. Particulars are extended in time in contrast to the mortality of individuals, while universals are eternal. Concepts can exist and have reality only through the active coordination of these three moments. A universal, such as ‘Christianity’ or ‘trade union’, can be known to an individual person only thanks to the activity of actual churches or unions in which individuals participate.

By casting the subject in this way, Hegel was able to demonstrate how the day-to-day activities in which individuals are involved follow a kind of ‘logic’ which, like mathematics, has an extramundane existence, with the same kind of objectivity as logic, but it is infinitely more concrete and dynamic, and manifests itself in social and historical activity. Hegel saw this as the work of some kind of Spirit, like the ‘invisible hand’ Adam Smith saw as guiding the voluntary actions of agents in the market.

Hegel described the process of evolution of consciousness of human beings in his Subjective Spirit (Hegel 1971). In the dialectic of labour, human beings use parts of the objective world as tools or ‘handles’ by which to grasp things and work with them according to norms encoded in the artefacts, so to speak, by earlier generations of people – tools as well as word, used to control not only external objects, but also one’s own inner nature. Thus, while accommodating themself to the world, the subject also objectifies themself by assimilating their subjectivity to the world. In the very process of satisfying needs in a labour process, the subject generates new needs (for example, the need for tools and materials for production); as needs change, the senses change and become attuned to use of the various tools and artefacts in the mastery of the outer world, as well as new kinds of products. The stone axe is an objectification of the powers of the hand, and the hand a product of using stone axes. Hegel knew nothing of Darwin however, believing that Nature varied only in space but not in time! It is now clear though, that while producing culture, pre-humans also produced the human body and the human brain (Donald 1991). The basic forms of mediation which Hegel saw as the foundation for human culture were the means of production, language and the raising of children.

These processes are completed by the dialectic of recognition, in which a person’s identity is negotiated with others acting as a kind of mirror for the individual as she becomes accepted as part of some human community (Hegel 1910).

In the Objective Spirit (Hegel 1952), Hegel described the evolution of modern society, the economy, law, the state and so on. Here the cultural products which are mediating interaction between subjects are not immediately perceptible artefacts, but rather institutions such as the family, the market, the state and so on. The point is that the artefacts that are mediating the formation of subjective consciousness are evolving on the broad social and historical plane, beyond of the reach of these individuals, and yet it is these cultural products – laws, governments, economies, technologies, art – which are the content of people’s activity and of what people think. Yet as I remarked earlier, this content is at odds with the form of immediate human consciousness, shared in their day-to-day activity at work, raising children and talking with one another.

Hegel saw the process of development of consciousness as a response to this dissonance between subjective and objective consciousness, between the cultural and political life of society and people’s immediate experience with people changing both themselves and the institutions in which they live.

Problems of Social Justice

We have severe problems of social justice today, and yet we have the means to solve them. These are all problems of the mind, for there is very little of significance which happens in the world that does not go through the mind. It is my contention that the concept of ‘subject’ makes it possible to theorise both individual consciousness and social activity together, without reducing social and political issues to psychology, or reducing the psyche to social relations. Concepts are both individual and social from the beginning, with the material culture mediating between consciousness and activity.

Nowadays, social problems are frequently conceived of as medical or even psychological conditions affecting individuals, and resolved by individualised interventions. That’s the spirit of our times. Marginalised people are seen as suffering from a psychological disorder called dependency, teenagers are given Valium for the angst normally associated with adolescence and naughty children diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin; ethical life is just a matter of individual preferences and ‘values’, etc.

But first of all, we have to understand our own thinking as essentially connected to the system of practical activity in which it arises, both the broader society in which we live, and the particular institutions within which we each work. Focusing on ‘cognition’ as something taking place within an individual organism has dangers. Although the sciences built around medical and pharmacological intervention are problematic, neuroscience can, in my opinion, contribute to solving human problems to the extent that it addresses itself to problems arising out of the need for subjectivity.[8] The neurosciences need to be part of a practice which begins from the social conditions in which problems of subjectivity arise and the participation of the individual in resolving those problems.

For all kinds of social constructivism, there is always the question of the limits nature imposes on the individual organism. By observing what’s going on in our brain while we are participating in this or that activity, and measuring changes in the brain as we pass through different phases of personal development, we get clues about associations between activities and development, and hints as to what is given by nature rather than constructed, or disorders whose etiology may be biological rather than social.

At the same time, like any pure science, neuroscience asks and answers its own questions – the identification of the various tissue types, the biochemistry, and the association of various disorders with disturbance of the various parts of the organism, and so on.

Relief of suffering is the bottom line, but it seems to me there is an important difference between, on the one hand, a science which is providing answers to questions arising from efforts to resolve problems of social justice, and on the other hand, a science which is predicated on surgical and pharmacological intervention in the organism, and the effect of stimuli on the organism. Such a science easily forms part of a larger practice of the control and manipulation of human beings. Be under no illusions; what is learnt by the cognitive sciences may be implemented as technology by the advertising, public relations, marketing, military and pharmaceutical industries long before it will reach any nursery or public school classroom.

Epistemological Problems of Consciousness

In conclusion, I shall address some problems which have arisen in the discussion between neuroscientists, cultural psychologists and humanists.

1. I think the problem which we have discussed about the unsatisfactory nature of the concept of ‘levels’ is the same question which arises from the ethical consideration of the place of neuroscience: it is not ‘levels’ inscribed in objective reality which separate the sciences, but rather the limits to the efficacy of the forms of practice which characterise each of the sciences. We ascribe the laws inherent in these forms of practice to the nature of the specific kind of things which we cognise through these forms of practice.

It seems that human beings all have a healthy disposition to regard the objects of experience as objectively existing things or entities. People are not born epistemological relativists or constructivists, we are born realists. But Fichte had a point; in the beginning there is just activity and the constraints that the world places on that activity. We learn to recognise these limits on our own activity as other people and objects. But the kind of things populating our world depend on how we ‘operationalise’ the concepts and questions presented to us within the terms of our own discipline. However, what happens is that rather than operationalising a concept to give it a precise meaning within a given system of activity, we reify our activity as objectively existing things. So to any given form of practice there corresponds a class of objectively existing things of which the world is deemed to be composed. So long as we recall that practice (activity) is both objective and subjective, individual and social, then there is nothing subjectivist or relativist in this observation.

We are all human beings and we talk to one another, we breath the same air and rely on each other in the same world economy; so our worlds are not mutually exclusive like in some relativist nightmare. As ordinary human beings we share most of our activity and agree on the identity and nature of most of the objectively existing things that populate our world. However, the division of labour, such as the division of the sciences, reflects itself as belief in different kinds of things populating the world.

We rationalise this disagreement about the nature of the things populating our world by means of the concept of ‘levels’, and the correlative concept of ‘emergence’. The underlying objective basis for this division of the world into different levels is the division of labour. This does not negate the fact that emergence is a valid concept, but it is a concept which can mislead; like God, emergence may act as a cover for lacunas in our understanding. Consciousness is not an ‘emergent property’ of neuronal networks, but arises on separate bases, only one precondition for which is a functioning human brain.

If we are interested in overcoming this rupture of our shared world into mutually exclusive ‘levels’, with an inexplicable ‘emergence’ covering over the gaps, then we have to go to the underlying division of labour and the opportunities for practical collaboration across its boundaries.

2. In particular, the idea that consciousness is an emergent property that arises out of the increasing complexity of a nervous system may, I believe, lead to mistaken conceptions.

It has been clearly established that the human body, and in particular the human brain, has properties which allow for the development of language, self-consciousness and moral responsibility, properties which cannot be ascribed to any other species. This is despite the fact that the human brain appears to differ only quantitatively from the brains of other primates. As Merlin Donald (Donald 1991) has pointed out, more than 4 million years of evolution separate us from our nearest extant primate relatives, during much of which hominids adapted to an ecological niche of which their own culture was the predominant feature. This is a huge discontinuity.

Consciousness arises, I would contend, in and through the construction of a material culture, without which there can be no consciousness. Thus, the idea of consciousness arising in the single organism, as an emergent property of the complexity of its nervous system, leaps over the critical mediating process, a unique achievement of human phylogenetic evolution, of the modification of the entire body in and for the production of a material culture, without which the individual human organism cannot survive. This position, argued for so strongly by Merlin Donald (Donald 1991), is implicit in the work of the cultural psychologists (Cole 1990). Rather than emergence of the kind which has a rational basis in chaos and complexity theory, we have an already-completed process of phylogenetic development which brought about a qualitative change in the organism and its behaviour.

3. The brain does not ‘cause’ consciousness. A working brain is the essential pre-condition for consciousness, but how do we move from possibility to realised possibility?

If we consider a system from the point of view of how a given possibility can be realised, we hypothetically insert ourselves into the system in question, asking what intervention is needed to realise the relevant possibility. ‘Cause’ can be understood in a practical way only by this kind of thought-experiment. To say that something is a cause is to point to how a given possibility could be realised by a hypothetical intervention in a system. To say that consciousness is caused by the brain is to say that an intervention in the nervous system can bring consciousness into being. As John Searle has pointed out, such interventions can be shown only to change consciousness, but not to bring it into being.

From the phylogenetic point of view, Merlin Donald and others before him have shown convincingly that it was development of culture and behaviour, which introduced consciousness into a pre-human hominid species, not the other way around.

The ontogenetic evidence is that under all but the most adverse conditions, human infants with healthy brains will develop language and consciousness. However, no answer has yet been given as to how consciousness could be introduced into living tissue which was not already capable of consciousness. Thus, the ‘cause’ of consciousness has no coherent meaning in the ontogenetic context. Further, if consciousness is a feature of the brain, an organ like any other, “a system-level, biological feature in much the same way that digestion, or growth” (Searle 2004), then the origin of free will remains a mystery.

4. It is said that even though everything that exists in the brain is a product of culture and activity, it is still the case that everything that we know or feel has passed through the nervous system to be reflected in the activity of neurons in the brain. Further, that since much brain activity is not mirroring anything real in the external world, the only legitimate and comprehensive basis for understanding thought is brain activity.

The issue here is the relation between ontology and epistemology. It matters not that the higher functions of thought all pass through neurons, if it is only the concepts of practical activity and the cultural domain which allow us to know about them, understand them and cure defects in them. If we can learn little or nothing about the higher functions of thought from neurons it makes no sense to simply insist that these higher functions are executed by neurons. Epistemology obliges us to abandon neurons in favour of collaborative activity and cultural artefacts if we want to understand thinking. A neuronal ontology can take us only to the limits of the medical practices it underpins.

5. Further, as I have said already, epistemology also arrives at a certain limit. Any given kind of knowledge arises out of and informs a certain kind of activity; at a certain point we must ask ourselves how we should live; how we should live determines the type of knowledge we seek and consequently, the kind of things that our world is composed of. If we choose to live in a world of surgical and pharmacological solutions to social problems, then we live in a world governed by neurons, drugs and policemen; if we live in an ethical, cooperative world, then we live in a world composed of subjects.

The point is that it is dialogue and collaboration, being able to ask each other questions and provide answers for each other, which makes us into a human community.


Andy Blunden


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1. From a private conversation with Katherine Nelson at Les Treilles.

2. From the discussion at Les Treilles.

3. This definition is abstracted from various definitions of ‘subject’ given in the history of philosophy, and is in agreement with the definition of the ‘self’ given by John Searle (Searle 2004).

4. This definition summarises the view of Fichte, Hegel and Marx, as well as C S Peirce and others in the Pragmatist tradition and is consistent with the views of cultural psychologists.

5. Nowadays, thanks to Piaget, Vygotsky and others, everyone knows that self-consciousness is achieved by an infant only at a certain stage of its development; prior to that time we have precisely that situation - there is thinking, but there can be no ‘I think’.

6. The other alternative offered in the history of philosophy is that thought is a property of matter, Spinoza’s solution. It would take us too far afield to go into this, but I think this solution is compatible with Fichte, but without Fichte, Spinoza fails to provide an adequate research program to elucidate the nature of consciousness, and leads to exactly the kind of conundrum I am arguing against.

Fichte’s is also the only solution which allows the results of relativity and quantum physics to be rationally understood. Einstein’s operational definition of distance and elapsed time, for example, define these entities in terms of specific forms of activity, and so escapes from the contradictions inherent in reifying space and time as in themselves objectively existing entities. The same approach was necessary to escape from the subjectivist implications of Heisenberg’s so-called Uncertainty Principle.

7. The formulation of Idea as the unity of Concept and Intuition is found in the 1802/3 System of Ethical Life. By 1805-6 this had become the Philosophy of Spirit.

8. This definition of the problems of social justice is supported by sociological studies of ‘social capital’ and ‘social cohesion’ and studies of the development of subjectivity among troubled youth, as well as concepts of ‘self-determination’ particularly used in connection with marginalised or persecuted social groups.