Speaker: Yuko Ishihara
Title: Consciousness: not a “thing” but a “place”.
We Work, 110 E 28th Street NYC, NY.
Abstract: Modern western thought has given consciousness a special place in the understanding of human beings. According to Descartes, it is the fact that we are "thinking things" that sets us apart from unconscious things like a desk or a pen. While scientists and philosophers today disagree with Descartes on what constitutes the nature of the thinking thing, most people agree on the basic Cartesian assumption: that consciousness is a kind of "thing."
But can we not question this assumption? Putting aside all theories, our direct experience teaches us that consciousness does not primarily appear as a thing. Rather, it appears more as a ground or "place" wherein our experience occurs. Drawing on insights from twentieth-century philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Nishida Kitaro who developed a philosophy of place, let us think together about what it really means to understand consciousness not as a "thing" but as a "place." Perhaps such ideas can open doors towards a better understanding on the nature of consciousness.
Following an introduction by Sean Sakamoto, Yuko began saying she will speak about something she has experienced. If we put aside all our beliefs and assumptions, we are left with experience.
For René Descartes (1596-1650) consciousness was a “thing.” For the phenomenologists, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and the modern Japanese philosopher, Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), consciousness was a “place.” She will skip Heidegger for today. An interesting fact is that none of these philosophers, not even Descartes, were primarily interested in providing an account of consciousness. Their goal was to provide an account of reality.
They used reflection as their tool. Reflection is a way to give enough distance in order to see something in a clearer way. She will today focus on two specific methods of reflection that we find in the phenomenological tradition: epoché and reduction. ‘Epoché,’ a Greek term, means the suspension of judgement or what Husserl called the “bracketing” of our beliefs. ‘Reduction’ doesn’t mean making something smaller in size and it also has nothing to do with the philosophical position of reductionism. Rather, here, it refers to the Latin word ‘reducere’ which means ‘to lead back to.’ Reduction is therefore the leading back of our gaze to whatever is left after the epoche.
Descartes’ aim was to provide a firm, indubitable basis for the sciences. In order to accomplish this aim, Descartes doubted, i.e. bracketed, everything that could be doubted (methodological doubt). Perhaps I am not really here in this room but I’m merely dreaming. Perhaps an evil Demon is deceiving all of us to make us think in a certain way. But no matter what I doubt, there is always a doubter. “Cogito ergo sum” means I exist so long as I am thinking. In this way, Descartes was left with the ‘thinking thing’ after the epoche. Or to put it another way, the epoche of everything that can be doubted led him back to (reduction) the thinking thing. Thus for Descartes, consciousness was a thing.
Husserl’s aim too was to provide a basis for sciences, but he wanted to do this by appealing to experience and experience alone. This exclusive appeal to experience is what characterizes phenomenology. The phenomenological epoché brackets our belief in the existence of the world. The reduction brings us back to the appearance of the world as we experience it (e.g. in the below picture, “my perception of…”, “my imagination of…”, etc.).
My perception of (the world)
But Husserl soon realized that the “My” (I), which is the Cartesian idea of a me as a “thing,” is also an assumption that needs to be bracketed since we do not witness the “my” (I) in our experience. So he executes a further epoche called, the transcendental epoché which brackets the “my” (I). What is left, after the transcendental reduction, is what Husserl calls “pure phenomena” (e.g. in the below picture, “perception of…”, “imagination of…”, etc.). Now consciousness is understood, not as a “thing” but the “place” wherein phenomena occur.
(My) perception of (the world)
Nishida’s aim was to understand reality as it is in itself by appealing to direct experience. This appeal to experience is what makes him in line with the phenomenological tradition. And again, like others, the primary goal was to understand reality. Understanding consciousness was a secondary goal. Nishida is more radical in his bracketing. He believed that Descartes and Husserl, along with most Western philosophers before him, assumed the mind/world duality as well as the subject/object duality. Nishida goes on to bracket this. So in the above picture, together with the “world” and the “my,” he also brackets the “of.” Then after the reduction, we are left with what he calls “pure experience.” Accordingly, for Nishida, consciousness is nothing but the place of reality (in fact Nishida talks about consciousness as “nothingness” since it is nothing in itself but a place of reality to manifest). To illustrate Nishida’s view, Yuko suggested the experience of looking at the moon in the sky. Once we bracket the existence of the “moon” and “I” who is looking at the moon, what is left is the “shining,” not even of the moon (since this again assumes a subject/object duality), but purely the shining. Consciousness, for Nishida, is the place wherein this shining occurs.
In answer to the first question to open the discussion, Yuko repeated we must bracket everything except the experience.
Q: Don’t all perceptions depend on life?
A: The words are problematic. When we speak of perception, we are used to thinking that there must be someone that has the perception. But we must return to whatever experience we are immersed in and ask whether there really is a “someone” there.
Q: Can you discount the experience from the prior preconceptions?
A: Pure experience occurs when you can forget all that. I did not talk about Heidegger today, but he was very critical of this move. He believed that we cannot really bracket the existence of the world since we are always already immersed in the world. This is a valid criticism. But I believe that even though we are usually immersed in the world, we can do bracket our belief in the existence of the world if we really try. It’s certainly not easy and unnatural for us but it is possible.
Q: A blind or deaf person has different reality so different consciousness, but they still have perception, memory, emotion, and a reality.
A: We still live under Descartes’ influence. For Descartes, not even animals have consciousness, only humans do. But if we simply look at our experience and try to bracket all our beliefs, and we see that consciousness doesn’t assume a person or even the subject/object duality, then this opens up the possibility that consciousness is a feature of reality and not a feature of us.
Q: We’re not talking about physical space when you say “place”.
A: What I mean by “place” here is the “wherein” of our experience.
Q: Someone suggested, “Where is the internet?” It is a place but not a location.
A: That is a good analogy.
Q: Michael referred to the prior question about experience for blind or deaf people, saying that Nishida wrote about “Seeing without a Seer, and hearing without a hearer”. He is eliminating the duality and leaving only the interaction itself. The experience precedes the subject experiencing it.
Michael asked to clarify the Japanese word Jikaku, that Nishida uses. A distinction has been made between this word in Japanese meaning self-awareness, while there seems to be no Japanese word for the English word awareness (without the self).
A: Jikaku is a Buddhist term for “self-awakening”. Today, it means to become aware of oneself in a particular place. So, someone who has jikaku of a philosopher has awareness of her role as a philosopher in a specific community, say the philosophical community. The self in the word “jikaku” is not like an enclosed self but is necessarily open to the surroundings.
Q: Can consciousness act or be acted on by something else? The questioner is thinking about Epicurus’ concept of the soul: “impossible to conceive anything incorporeal except empty space. Empty space cannot act or be acted upon.” According to Buddhist doctrine, phenomena come and go within empty space.
A: Nishida talks about absolute nothingness (zettai mu). Consciousness is the place of nothingness. It is not anything, but is the negation of a thing. As soon as we conceptualize consciousness we get into the subject/object duality so we can’t do that.
Q: What do you mean by place? If it’s not spatial then what does it mean?
A: As in Buddhist thought: Emptiness. Maybe the “wherein” is a better word than “place”. Philosophers give names to concepts, but that’s not the point. We should focus on the experience.
Q: What if we bracket experience? Where are we then?
A: If by “experience” you mean, “my experience”, then once you bracket the “my” you are left with pure experience of simply, reality. But we cannot bracket this pure experience since that would leave us nowhere.
Q: Michael referred to Nishida speaking about the place as a circle with infinite circumference whose center is everywhere. This is not a physical location but the locus for experience and ultimately is nothingness (mu). Nishida says, “Absolute nothingness transcends all that is, but at the same time, all that is arises through it.” Consciousness is that which makes manifest or illuminates, but is grounded in nothingness. The concept is reminiscent of Gödel’s theorem that all systems contain undecidable propositions, often those that are self-referential. Perhaps you cannot reflect on yourself and reach verifiable conclusions.
Q: Do we bracket time? Is time linear or not?
A: We can distinguish linear time (which is the past, present, future time) and the temporal aspect of reality that is present when we have bracketed everything. When we bracket the “my”, we are also bracketing the linear time. When we further bracket the subject/object duality, we are left with a sense of presence. This sense of presence is not the “present” of the linear time.
Q: Piet: It is the Appearance of the flow. If you exclude anything you cannot access, then you must eliminate flow. What is the Experience? You cannot access the past or future, and cannot dwell in the present as it keeps moving. Timelessness is like “seeing the world in a grain of sand”, in the words of William Blake. Living with concepts is like going into a showroom where all the furniture is covered with plastic to keep it clean. The Experience is removing the plastic.
Q: In Japanese Dance there is a moment when you are not aware of yourself.
A: You can call that experience oneness, in unity or non-dual. We’re so used to thinking in terms of the subject/object. But whenever that dual framework collapses, we get a sense of this pure experience. In dance, there is a moment when there is no you, just the dancing.
Q: In Neuroscience we talk about Phenomenal awareness and Actual awareness.
A: I’m cautious about that. Most people still think consciousness is a thing. It’s not in the brain. I am talking with neuroscientists and computer scientists and encouraging them to not think of consciousness as a “thing” but rather as “place”.
This concluded a stimulating presentation and discussion.
Michael Solomon, MD