Monday, 8 January 2007

The Unconditional (3/8)

The name of the protagonist, =x., may come from Kant: “We can lay at the foundation of psychology nothing but the simple & in itself perfectly contentless presentation I, which cannot even be called a conception, but merely a consciousness which accompanies all conceptions. But of this I, or he, or it, who or which thinks, nothing more is presented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognised only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates, & of which, apart from these, we cannot form the least conception” (Critique of Pure Reason, B404).

Yeah, Kant-nap, scholars. Kant sought to transcend a futile stand-off between Rationalism (e.g. Leibniz) & Empiricism (e.g. Hume, Locke). “Leibniz intellectualised appearances, just as Locke […] sensualised all concepts of the understanding”. Kant proposed that neither the innate structures of the mind, nor a sensuous manifold, is alone sufficient for us to gain knowledge of the world. The first can supply form, the second can supply content, but only in their conjunction is knowledge of the world possible.

(Where does the =x. paragraph fit into Kant’s philosophy? Kant warns against trying to gain knowledge of conditions of possibility as though they were ordinary objects. However he does allow a form of familiarity with the conditions of possibility which he does not count as knowledge. I think. Kant does not in fact treat “the simple & in itself perfectly contentless presentation I” as one such condition of possible experience, although he quite easily could have done. The paragraph quoted above is part of a sustained account of why he does not. Anybody want to explain this to me? Simon, Keston, Josh, Drew, David, Tim, are you out there? For now anyway I'll ignore the broader Kantian context, and fix only on the paragraph itself).

If =x. “cannot be called a conception, but merely a consciousness which accompanies all conceptions” (q.v.), he could be the thing which interferes with efforts to translate first-person facts into third-person facts. Let’s say you bang your shin – could a complete account of your experience ever be made in terms of its constitutive somatic and neurological processes? Or would such an account necessarily overlook what it’s like to bang your shin?

This overlooked ‘mark of the mental’ is roughly what Brentano meant by intentional inexistence. “Every mental phenomenon is characterised by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, & what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself” (Brentano, Psychology, p. 88). (Inexistence here does not mean ‘not existing’; it’s more like ‘existence-in’). In the spirit of Brentano’s use, intentionality has come to denote the ‘aboutness’ or ‘directedness’ of mental states. A desire is a desire for something, a belief is a belief that something, a sensation is a sensation of something. Rocks and trees aren’t about, towards, for, that, of, etc., in quite the same way.

So perhaps =x. is ‘intentionality,’ the ‘aboutness’ of mental states which discriminates them from physical states. Keep in mind that, in himself, =x. would be “perfectly contentless”: not bound up with any particular content; more like the fact of consciousness’s being bound up with various particular contents. In other words, =x. might be connected with, even identical with, the “Unconditional” of the poem’s title.

No comments: