Archive for the ‘Mind-body’ Category

Camus and the absurd

Albert-Camus-7Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French-Algerian writer and Nobel Laureate. Camus began his career as a journalist and playwright in his native Algeria. He would go on to write several novels, plays and essays that would gain him international recognition – the most notable being The Stranger and The Myth of Sissyphus.

Camus was neither a philosopher by training or profession, yet his works are full of insight and are heavily influenced by the burgeoning Existentialist philosophy in Europe. Camus’ greatest philosophical contribution is his idea of the absurd.

In the work of Sartre, one finds the particular legacy of Phenomenology; that while human consciousness is intentional (“of something else”), the external world has no such teleology. It is this tension of meaningful man against an indifferent world that gives rise to Camus’ absurdity.

This tension is particularly evident in the final chapter of The Stranger, where Meursault (imprisoned for murder) laments being trapped in what he feels is an inadequate justice system. Meursault writes that “what interests me at this moment is to escape the mechanism.” He conjures the image of a guillotine, a machine of death that gives its victim no chance of survival, and compares it unfavorably to taking a drug that would kill 90 % of it’s victims (i.e. the chance of survival). After this flight of fancy, Meursault writes “But all things considered, nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mechanism took hold again.”

For Camus, affected by the Cartesian and Newtonian modern mechanistic view of the world, the absurd arises because man is a kind of Unmeant Meaner – desperately seeking order and significance that can never exist outside of his own mind.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

sartreJean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher and playwright. His philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1943) is widely regarded as the most important work in the school of 20th century existentialism.

While a prisoner of war in 1940-41, Sartre read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sartre was fascinated with Heidegger’s ontological investigation using Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Sartre was however skeptical of the Heideggerian imperative of Dasein. Sartre rather turned his own phenomenological inquiry inward, to describe what it is to be ontologically human.

Sartre begins with the Kantian idea of the “thing in itself”, that is the objects of human consciousness. According to Sartre, these objects have a real existence and are not mind dependent. However, following the phenomenological tradition consciousness is always intentional i.e. it is always “of something else” rather than “in itself”. Because of this, it is impossible to fully grasp the essence of consciousness – consciousness is being “for itself”.

Sartre’s existentialism arises out of the individuals desire to ground itself in being through the execution of tasks and jobs. This leads to Sartre’s views on ethics, which I will explore in the next post.


Edmund Husserl: phenomenology and intentionality

husserlEdmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) was an Austrian philosopher best known as the founder of the school of phenomenology. At university, Husserl studied mathematics, physics and astronomy – he would eventually go on to obtain a PhD for his thesis in mathematics “Contributions to the Calculus of Variations”. During this time, Husserl would be mentored by a former philosophy student of Franz Brentano.

Husserl travelled to Berlin in order to pursue his career in mathematics but would become more interested in philosophy. After his superior fell ill, Husserl returned to Vienna and started attending the lectures of Brentano. It was at this point Husserl started to become interested in the intentionality of the mental aspects of reality.

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards 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, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.
— Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by Linda L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 88–89.

One can see in the above quote the clear influence of Aristotle’s four causes, particularly final causality. However, Brentano stops short of Aristotle or Aquinas, who insist that all natural things have immanent teleology – for Brentano this exists only in mental phenomena.

Husserl continues naturally from Brentano in developing an apparatus for the study of these intentional mental phenomena, which he calls phenomenology – a science of consciousness. Phenomenology drives the study of the mind away from the hard sciences, which for Husserl was the study of physical phenomena that lack intentionality, because the methods of hard science are simply inappropriate. The phenomenological method is rather to examine examples of mental activity without the rigorous sets of presuppositions that methodological naturalism brings, and to determine what is the structure of conscious acts. In this way, phenomenology is fully an abandonment of the Cartesian method of seeing the world as objects interacting with each other.

Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis

MemoryLearningSigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was a neurologist whose work in the field of psychology gave birth to the contemporary psychiatric apparatus of psychoanalysis. Freud initially worked as a medical doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, where he undertook research into conditions such as cerebral palsy. The publications of his research would later see him offered a position as a university lecturer specialising in neuropathology.

The intellectual climate in which Freud formulated his theories was shaped largely by the titanic influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of common descent and natural selection. Previously, under the Aristotelian and Platonic hierarchies, man was differentiated from animals by his possession of an immaterial intellect or soul i.e. man was a rational animal. One of the consequences of Darwin’s theory was that while man was indeed different from the animals this difference was only in complexity; quantitative rather than qualitative.

Freud was also largely influenced by the development of the physical theory of the conservation of energy. Brücke, a supervisor of Freud in his early career, published a work contending that all living organisms were also governed by the law of energy conservation. Freud’s novelty was to flesh out what Brücke’s theory meant for the human mind; that the human psyche is also a mechanistic system and its various outputs are governed by the laws of physics.

Thus arises psychoanalysis, where mental disorders are treated as physical problems and their symptoms are to be elucidated through an interrogation of the patient by a psychoanalyst. It was Freud’s revolutionary idea to apply the principles of modern science to the treatment of mental disorder, and his legacy looms large over our contemporary intellectual landscape.

Hegel and the Zeitgeist

Hegel4I have written previously of Hegel’s dialectical view of history. According to Hegel reality progresses through a triad of phases (that can be referred to as being-nothingness-becoming) leading to a more complex and fuller understanding of the world.

In his theory of transcendental idealism, Immanuel Kant contends that to know an external object one must understand oneself as a distinct subject to which the external object is represented as known. Hegel departs from Kant in that the requirement of knowing an external object requires the recognition of other distinct subjects (i.e. other self-consciousnesses). Hegel further develops this recognition as the substrate in which an individual consciousness exists. In this way Hegel moves from the “subjective spirit” of Kant to his own “objective spirit” – a type of communal consciousness or collection of cultural ideas, norms and practices. Whereas for Kant the conditions of knowing are found within the individual subject’s mind (i.e. are transcendental), for Hegel it is the objective spirit that orders our experiences.

This Hegelian idea is often called Zeitgeist (translated as “the spirit of the time”), though Hegel did not call it that himself. Per Hegel the Zeitgeist was the primary influence on the individual – and following from that, the art and philosophy created within a certain era could only be understood as a product of that particular time’s zeitgeist. This is due to the intertwining of a man’s spirit with the zeitgeist, or as Hegel states “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit”.

Hegel’s theories were largely influential on anti-individualist continental thinkers, such as Marx, that would arise in the 19th century.


Zombies and modernism

zombie-brainsThe zombie trope is ubiquitous in modern film and literature. The typical plot involves a form of chemical or virus that infects a human being and mysteriously removes their humanness while leaving them more or less physically intact. The zombie will engage in any means that will meet its physical needs, with no regard for morality and reasoning.

The zombie theme is an archetypal example of the influence of modern philosophy on modern art. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, theorised that animals were a type of zombie i.e. their behaviour could be thoroughly explicated through physical interactions. Descartes differentiated animals from humans by saying that a human being had an immaterial mind that interacted with their brain.

It is not difficult to see how the idea of the zombie arises. If what makes the man wholly man is a separate and distinct thinking substance, what would happen if this substance, or access to it, were lost? Per Descartes, man would be reduced to the state of an animal i.e. a zombie.

While a symbol of popular culture, the zombie is also an important metaphysical tool. Modern philosophers like Locke and Hume, who sought to explain conscious activity purely in physical terms, are faced with a “zombie problem”. Either mental facts such as secondary qualities and qualia can be explained wholly in physical terms, in which case a man is a zombie; or they cannot in which case the existence of zombies is not possible and the materialist account of mind faces a serious problem.

David Hume and personal identity

bundlesI have discussed previously the manner in which Hume’s theory of causality leads to skepticism of universals. In order for his theory to stand, Hume faces the challenging question of personal identity. For if personal identity persists through change, then an argument for the existence of universals (i.e. the human soul) can be made.

Hume’s attack on the soul relies on his unique empirical epistemology and his theory of causation. Hume argues that whenever he thinks, he can only recall a particular perception of sensation. For example, he can recall the sight of an elephant or the smell of steak. He then states then he cannot perceive anytime of himself apart from any perception. Hume then contends that the self consists in the association between these perceptions. In other words, the perceptions are primary and the self is secondary at best (if it can be said to be real at all). This interpretation of Hume is called the “bundle theory”.

It is interesting to trace the progression of ideas that leads to Hume’s theory. At first, there was Aquinas who held that the intellect was an immaterial power of the soul, while phantasms (i.e perceptions) and imagination were bodily. Descartes follows with his trans-location of the intellect from the human body as a separate immaterial substance. Locke then relocates “consciousness” as a bodily activity inside the physical body of a human being. Finally, Hume denies the intellect altogether in saying that a man is nothing but a loosely connected series of phantasms. In this way, Hume would lay the foundation for modern philosophies of mind such as functionalism and eliminative materialism.