Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Prereflective Self-Consciousness: What’s it all about?

A central development in recent philosophy of mind is the increasing adherence to, and elaboration of, a distinction between reflective and prereflective self-consciousness. This development has gone hand in hand with a remarkable confluence and cross-pollination of different philosophical traditions, from phenomenology (notably the seminal contributions by Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre) and the Heidelberg School deriving from Henrich’s reading of Fichte, up to contemporary analytical philosophers of mind such as Levine, Kriegel, and Williford (for overviews, see Zahavi 1999; Kriegel & Williford 2006; Frank 2015). This degree of consensus between philosophers from very different theoretical backgrounds is remarkable and suggests that the concept of prereflective self-consciousness latches on to something real, a theory independent reality. In this post I explain the basic idea of prereflective self-consciousness, why we need to distinguish it from reflective self-consciousness, and the importance of this distinction to philosophy of mind at large.

M.C. Escher, Self-Portrait in a Spherical Mirror
The paradoxes of the reflection model
The easiest way to understand prereflective self-consciousness is by contrast with reflective self-consciousness, which is self-consciousness in the mode of ordinary object-consciousness. In reflective self-consciousness, the subject is aware of itself in much the same way it is aware of other objects in the world. The claim that object-consciousness suffices to explain self-consciousness is known as the “reflection model of self-consciousness”: it basically sees self-consciousness as resulting from a turning around (re-flection) of object-consciousness away from external objects and unto the subject itself. Despite its prominence in Western philosophy, notably in early modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant, the reflection model has come under increasing attack in philosophy since Kant. It has become increasingly clear that the reflection model suffers from a number of paradoxes, infinite regresses and vicious circles. To explain self-consciousness, then, reflection does not suffice: we must postulate a sui generis form of self-consciousness, different in kind from reflective object-consciousness. The adjective “prereflective” indicates this special type of self-consciousness.

Below I will discuss the paradoxes of the reflection model in more detail. For now, a few examples will suffice. To repeat: the reflection model explains self-consciousness as the redirection of object-consciousness away from external objects and unto the subject itself. But how does the subject know that its new object, of which it thus becomes aware, is indeed itself and not another external object? The difficulty is nicely illustrated by the example of Ernst Mach who, sitting in a Vienna bus, noticed “a shabby-looking school teacher” (“ein herabgekommener Schulmeister”) sitting across from him… until he realized he was looking in a mirror (Mach 1922: 3, n.1). The lesson is that mere object-consciousness, if it is accidentally turned towards the subject, does not intimate that the object one is aware of is indeed oneself – to achieve that self-awareness, a further act of the mind is required, a mental act irreducible to object-consciousness. Thus, the reflection model fails to explain self-consciousness.

The model can evade this difficulty only by claiming that the turning around of object-consciousness towards the subject happens by no means accidentally but with the intention to get the subject in view: the subject intends to know itself and therefore turns its object-consciousness towards itself. This solves the problem of failed self-recognition (as in the Mach example), since the object is intended as oneself from the start, but only at the price of circularity. For how can the subject intend to know itself by means of object-consciousness if it isn’t already aware of itself to some extent? If the subject were completely oblivious of itself, it could not even intend to know itself. As the analytical philosopher Sydney Shoemaker notes:

“[I]f one were aware of oneself as an object in such cases (as one is in fact aware of oneself as an object when one sees oneself in a mirror), this would not help to explain one’s self-knowledge. For awareness that the presented object was φ, would not tell one that one was oneself φ, unless one had identified the object as oneself; and one could not do this unless one already had some self-knowledge, namely the knowledge that one is the unique possessor of whatever set of properties of the presented object one took to show it to be oneself.” (Shoemaker 1984: 105)

The reflection model, then, can explain self-consciousness only by presupposing self-consciousness. Thus, the model either fails or is guilty of circularity. Of course, it is not to be denied that reflective self-consciousness is in fact possible: I can, and occasionally do, observe and think about myself as one object among the other objects that populate the world. The point is, however, that this reflective self-consciousness is facilitated by a pre-existing – and therefore pre-reflective – self-consciousness, in a mode different from object-consciousness. As Dan Zahavi notes: “[W]hen one does in fact succeed in taking oneself as an object, one is dealing with a self-objectification which in its turn presupposes a prior nonobjectifying self-awareness as its condition of possibility.” (Zahavi 1999: 6-7)

The self-registration view of consciousness
The primary motivation behind the notion of prereflective self-consciousness may be the correct understanding of self-consciousness as such, but it certainly is not the only motivation. The notion of prereflective self-consciousness is central to philosophy of mind in general because self-consciousness is taken to be crucial for consciousness as such. That is, even conscious states such as thinking about and perceiving an external object, say, a tree, although they are ostensibly not about the thinking and perceiving subject, nevertheless seem to presuppose self-consciousness. This claim, that all consciousness presupposes self-consciousness, and thus that self-consciousness is ubiquitous in all conscious states, is known as the Ubiquity Thesis (the term was coined by Kapitan 1999; following common usage, I will refer to this thesis as “Ubiquity”). If Ubiquity is correct, and if reflective self-consciousness presupposes prereflective self-consciousness, then the latter must be central to our understanding of consciousness in general. A closer look at Ubiquity supplies us with further evidence of the paradoxes ailing the reflection model and hence the need for a notion of prereflective self-consciousness.

Ubiquity is motivated by a particular view of consciousness which has been and still is fairly dominant in Western philosophy and cognitive science. We can call it the “self-registration view”. On this view, which has been elaborated in many different ways, consciousness is due to a special “internal monitoring” (Lycan 1997) or “self-registration mechanism” (Frank 2015) enabling the mind to register its own processes. On this view, then, a perception of an external object is conscious because not just the object is registered by the mind but also the perception itself. Likewise, a thought is conscious because not just the propositional content of the thought is registered but also the thought itself. Mental process that are not thus registered by the mind remain unconscious. Since self-registration of mental processes by the mind amounts to a form of self-consciousness, we can summarize this view by saying that self-consciousness underlies consciousness (= Ubiquity). In other words: a mental process becomes conscious because the mind is self-conscious with respect to that process, i.e. it is conscious of its own mental process, which thereby is a conscious process. As said, this view of consciousness has been and still is fairly dominant in philosophy and cognitive science. It can be traced back to Aristotle, who argues in different places of his work that mental processes are conscious because they have, besides their external objects, also themselves as objects (De Anima III, 2,425b, 12; Metaphysics Δ, 9). As Kenneth Williford notes: “Its distinguished history, prominence in careful descriptions of consciousness, and visible if disputed place in the philosophy of mind, AI, and neuroscience lend the claim substantial prima facie credibility.” (Williford 2006: 111)

Problems for the higher-order theory of consciousness
So how does the self-registration view of consciousness provide further evidence for the paradoxes of the reflection model and the subsequent need for a notion of prereflective self-consciousness? The point is that the self-registration view remains problematic as long as we operate within the reflection model of self-consciousness. On the reflection model, the mind’s awareness of a mental state, which lifts the latter into consciousness, is conceptualised as an additional mental state, separate from the first. Mental states are primarily aimed at external objects, and as such they are unconscious. They become conscious only insofar as the mind turns its attention away from those external objects and unto those mental states themselves. A mental state, then, is lifted into consciousness by an additional mental act of reflection. On closer inspection, however, this leads to several problems.

It leads, first of all, to the same problem of self-recognition that we first encountered in the Mach example: if one becomes aware of oneself as an object, how does one know that this object is oneself? One can recognize the object as oneself only if one already has self-awareness to some extent. Or, in terms of the self-registration view, how does the mind know that the mental state, of which it becomes aware through an additional reflection, is indeed its own mental state? Clearly, this already presupposes at least some minimal form of self-awareness, which must therefore be prereflective and in a mode different from object-consciousness. Secondly, the reflection model can be seen to lead to a vicious regress in the context of the self-registration view of consciousness. If a mental state becomes conscious only by becoming the object a further mental state, what then ensures that this second state is also conscious? On the reflection model, a third act would be required to lift the second act into consciousness, and a fourth act to lift the third into consciousness, and so on. It seems, then, that the self-registration view, when married to the reflection model of self-consciousness, can ‘explain’ consciousness only by accepting an infinite regress of higher-order mental states – which means, of course, that it cannot explain consciousness at all.

This regress argument against the reflection model in the context of Ubiquity – an argument first developed systematically by Fichte (1994: 111-12) and later by Brentano (1991: 153) – may well appear to be fatal. There is, however, a way out for the reflection model, although most philosophers would agree this is not an attractive solution. It is this: hold on to the claim that mental states are lifted into consciousness by higher-order states, but with the proviso that these higher-order states can themselves remain unconscious. A higher-order state can still become conscious by becoming the object of a still higher-order state, but the top (or, if you prefer, the bottom) of the hierarchy is by definition an unconscious state. With the above proviso in mind, this is no longer problematic. In this way, consciousness is grounded in the unconscious. This is the solution adopted by Higher-Order Representation (HOR) theories of consciousness, such as those proposed by Armstrong (1968) and Rosenthal (2005). HOR theorists, then, remain with the conceptual framework of the reflection model and work under the assumption that all the objections against this model can be defused theoretically.

As said, however, most philosophers find this solution to the regress problem questionable. It seems paradoxical to explain consciousness in terms of unconscious mental states. One objection that is often raised against the HOR explanation of consciousness in terms of unconscious mental states is that it violates Ubiquity. This thesis, after all, states that consciousness presupposes self-consciousness. But how can the unconscious registration of a mental state by a higher-order state be classified as self-consciousness? True, it is a form of self-registration, insofar as the mind registers its own mental states by means of higher-order states. But insofar as this self-registration remains unconscious, it is questionable whether it amounts to self-consciousness. The phrase “unconscious self-consciousness” is, after all, a clear contradiction in terms. Insofar as HOR theories aim to explicate Ubiquity, then, they seem to fail. As Williford writes: “Classic higher-order representation (HOR) theories do not really do justice to the phenomenology behind ubiquity… Such theories arguably push the self-representational aspect of consciousness into the unconscious and thus betray the likely original experiential motivation for their theories.” (Williford 2006: 111)

Is consciousness grounded in the unconscious?
One might come to the rescue of HOR theory by making a distinction between strong Ubiquity and weak Ubiquity. Whereas strong Ubiquity states that full-blown self-consciousness is necessary for consciousness, weak Ubiquity states that mere self-registration of mental states by the mind is required, where this self-registration can remain unconscious. There is something to be said for weak Ubiquity, and thus for HOR theory. Weak Ubiquity still conforms to the basic intuition behind the self-registration view of consciousness. Moreover, HOR theorists ask, what is the alternative? The only way to avoid both the regress of higher-order states and the grounding of consciousness in the unconscious is to accept the existence of mental states that are not just aware of other mental states (thereby lifting the latter into consciousness) but also of themselves. Only such mental states, that are aware of themselves, can do without higher-order states, as they lift themselves into consciousness by being self-conscious. But HOR theorists generally find this a paradoxical solution, and thus prefer their own solution of grounding consciousness in unconscious higher-order states, which they find – if not totally unparadoxical – at least less paradoxical. As David Armstrong puts it: “[I]
t is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state. A mental state cannot be aware of itself, any more than a man can eat himself up.” (Armstrong 1968: 324) I will say more about this issue below.

In the final analysis, however, HOR theory remains unsatisfactory, for two reasons at least. First of all, we do not just want to explain consciousness, we also want to explain self-consciousness. Even if HOR theory succeeds in explaining consciousness in terms of the mind’s self-registration of mental states by higher-order mental states, the fact remains that this self-registration occurs unconsciously and therefore falls short of self-consciousness, since – as noted earlier – “unconscious self-consciousness” is clearly paradoxical. Self-consciousness, then, seems definitely out of the range of HOR theory. It is, moreover, questionable whether HOR theory can even explain consciousness, given the Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). The HPC seems to show that reductionism vis-à-vis consciousness is a dead end: it suggests that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of something else, i.e. something without consciousness, e.g. the brain as a purely physical object. But such reduction of consciousness to something else is precisely what HOR theory amounts to, as it explains conscious states in terms of unconscious higher-order states. This should come as no surprise, since HOR theories are often explicitly designed to facilitate a naturalist (i.e. materialist, physicalist) explanation of consciousness (hence the title of Armstrong’s 1968 classic, A Materialist Theory of Mind).

David Chalmers coined the term
"Hard Problem of Consciousness"
The question, then, comes down to how one stands towards the HPC: is it merely an extremely difficult problem which in the end can nevertheless be solved, or is truly insoluble? Can consciousness be reduced to something else, or is it irreducible? If one takes consciousness to be reducible, then HOR theory is, perhaps, still a viable option (if it can find an explanation for self-consciousness as well). Opinions on this will no doubt continue to differ in the foreseeable future, although there seems to be a growing majority leaning towards irreducibility. I, too, incline to irreducibility, but to argue for it here would far exceed the bounds of this blog post. In the following, therefore, I will simply assume the irreducibility of consciousness and investigate the consequences. It follows, of course, that HOR theory is off the table.  

The unavoidability of prereflective self-consciousness
Let’s take stock. The self-registration view of consciousness explains the latter in terms of self-consciousness: a mental state aimed at an external object is conscious because the mind is not just aware of the external object but also of the state itself. We saw, however, that the reflection model of self-consciousness fails: the reflective turning around of object-consciousness towards the subject cannot lead to self-knowledge, unless this reflection is guided by a prior self-consciousness, which is therefore prereflective and in a mode different from object-consciousness. Prereflective self-consciousness, then, is what we need to explain consciousness as such, in line with the self-registration view.

This also became apparent from the failure of HOR theory, where the reflection model returns in the idea that mental states are lifted into consciousness by additional reflections, i.e. higher-order states. We saw that HOR theory faces the problem of self-recognition: how does the mind know that the mental state, of which it is aware through a higher-order state, is its own mental state? Doesn’t this already presuppose self-awareness? We also saw that HOR theory faces a dilemma: either accept an infinite regress of higher-order states or accept that consciousness is grounded in unconscious higher-order states. Both horns of the dilemma are undesirable. An actual infinity of higher-order states not only violates the phenomenology of consciousness, it is also mysterious how a finite object such as the human brain can contain such infinite complexity. As for the second horn, the grounding of consciousness in the unconsciousness, we noted that this ignores the HPC.

So, to avoid both the regress and the grounding of consciousness in the unconscious, we have to accept the existence of mental states that are not just aware of other mental states (thereby lifting the latter into consciousness) but also of themselves. Only such mental states, that are aware of themselves, can do without higher-order states, as they lift themselves into consciousness, by being self-conscious. This is therefore what prereflective self-consciousness amounts to: a state of consciousness that is immediately aware of itself, unmediated by reflections.

David Armstrong: "A mental state
cannot be aware of itself, anymore
than a man can eat himself up."
Is prereflective self-consciousness paradoxical?
But how, then, should we respond to the objection, raised by HOR theory, that the notion of a mental state being aware of itself is incoherent? To repeat the earlier quote from David Armstrong: “[I]
t is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state. A mental state cannot be aware of itself, any more than a man can eat himself up.” (Armstrong 1968: 324) Note, first of all, that this is just a dogmatic assertion, without real argumentation. Also, the comparison of a self-aware mental state with a man eating himself up goes limp. A man who would – per impossibile – eat himself up entirely would not only kill himself; he would disappear altogether. In that sense, eating oneself up is a form of total self-negation. But a self-aware mental state is not self-negating – on the contrary, it is rather self-affirming or even self-producing.

To be conscious of an object, after all, is judgmental in nature, in that (a) one is conscious of the object as existing, such that existence is – at least implicitly – affirmed of the object, and (b) one is aware of the object as having one or more properties, which are therefore also affirmed of the object. For example, when I take a walk in the countryside and I (veridically) see a tree, I see the tree as existing and as green, as leafy, as beautiful, etc. Likewise, then, when a mental state is self-aware, it is aware of itself as existing and as having certain properties (e.g. awareness of itself).

A self-aware mental state, then, is self-affirmative, i.e. the complete opposite of the self-negation inherent in eating oneself up. The latter is clearly paradoxical, but where is the paradox in self-affirmation? Whereas “I don’t exist” is obviously contradictory, “I exist” is a truism. Thus, I see no paradox in speaking of a self-aware mental state… unless, perhaps, one interprets the self-affirmation inherent in self-awareness in a strong ontological fashion as self-production, as Fichte notoriously did. But it is clear that the Fichtean concept of “self-positing” is not per se needed to understand the self-affirmation inherent in self-awareness. I will return to this issue at the end of this post.

Subject-object difference vs. subject-object identity
Is, then, Armstrong’s criticism of the notion of a self-aware mental state completely unfounded? No, but whatever plausibility it has at the same time makes clear why the reflection model of self-consciousness is inherently wrong. Let me explain. The intuitive plausibility of Armstrong’s criticism derives from the common idea that some kind of subject-object difference is intrinsic to all consciousness, such that the conscious subject is always different from the object of which it is conscious. Hence Armstrong’s bald statement that “it is impossible that the introspecting and the thing introspected should be one and the same mental state”. But – and this is what Armstrong overlooks – it is precisely this idea that underlies the inadequacy of the reflection model of self-consciousness. In fact, we can use the idea of subject-object difference to clarify what object-consciousness really is – a concept we haven’t properly defined yet. Object-consciousness, we can say, is intentional consciousness and is as such inherently wedded to subject-object difference. In intentional consciousness, the subject is invariably aware of an object as different from itself.

Self-consciousness, however, is essentially characterized by subject-object identity. In self-consciousness, the subject is its own object; thus, subject and object coincide, they are numerically identical. Hence the inadequacy of the reflection model. Object-consciousness and self-consciousness pull in different directions: the first pulls towards subject-object difference, the second towards subject-object identity. The reflection model has to bring about an identity by means of conceptual tools that imply difference – an obvious impossibility. Hence the many paradoxes ailing the model. It constantly has to undo or supress the difference which its concepts equally constantly generate. Already on this abstract level, then, we see that the reflection model is in principle incapable of explaining self-consciousness: the aspect of subject-object identity keeps eluding the difference engendering conceptuality of reflection – like the tail eluding the self-chasing dog.

The non-intentional nature of prereflective self-consciousness
That the subject-object distinction is indeed the root of all trouble for the reflection model becomes clearer when we take a closer look at the phenomenological concept of intentionality. Intrinsic to that concept is the idea that intentional consciousness is inherently “thetic” or “positional”, such that consciousness essentially purports to be about an independent object, i.e. an object existing independently from the consciousness aimed at it. This, of course, harks back to what I said earlier about the affirmative nature of consciousness, albeit that the phenomenological view of the positional nature of consciousness is stronger. On the phenomenological view, consciousness not just affirms the existence its object, it affirms that existence as independent from itself. Thus, intentionality is seen to imply a strong subject-object distinction. Phenomenologists put this by saying that the object is intended by consciousness as transcending consciousness. Husserl referred to this positing of objects as transcending our consciousness of them as “the natural attitude”. As Sartre (1972: xxvii) put it: “All consciousness is positional in that it transcends itself in order to reach an object.” It should be noted that such a concept of consciousness as ‘intending beyond itself’ is by no means unique to phenomenologists; many analytic philosophers held similar ideas, notably (and influentially) Moore with his notion of the diaphanous nature of consciousness as an argument for realism.

The point is that the failure of the reflection model becomes all the more obvious if we understand object-consciousness in this strong sense as intending its object as existing independently. If self-consciousness were “self-transcending” in that sense, it would have to posit its object, a mysterious entity called “the self”, as existing independently. But then, immediately, a new regress would arise. For since self-consciousness is obviously a property of this self, self-consciousness would have to posit the self as independently being self-conscious. That is: self-consciousness would then have to presuppose a prior self-consciousness on the part of its object, the self. And this prior self-consciousness, since it too would posit its object as existing independently, would also have to presuppose an already self-conscious self as its object, and so on indefinitely (cf. Sartre 1972: xxvi-xxix; Frank 1991: 226). Again, then, we see that the reflection model leads to a regress. Hence the conclusion, explicitly drawn by Sartre in particular, that prereflective self-consciousness is non-intentional, i.e. not committed to a strong subject-object distinction. Rather, in prereflective self-consciousness, the subject is aware of itself as strictly identical with itself. Or in terms of mental states, prereflective self-consciousness is a mental state that is aware of itself as itself, not as something different.

Final considerations: Prereflective self-consciousness and Idealist Monism
Earlier we noted that Fichte interprets the self-positing inherent in self-consciousness in a strong ontological fashion as self-creation. We now begin to see the motivation behind that idea. If we cannot see prereflective self-consciousness as aimed at the self as an independently existing object, then the self becomes a function of prereflective self-consciousness, i.e. the self only exists as the object of this self-awareness. In other words: a self is that particular self only because it is aware of itself as that particular person: Socrates, for example, is Socrates only because he takes himself to be Socrates. As such, the self-creating aspect of prereflective self-consciousness underlies the radical autonomy of the self, as Fichte stressed. Hence his claims to the effect that the self is the prereflective self-consciousness it has of itself and is as such self-creating.
As Fichte put it: “What was I, then, before I came to self-consciousness? The natural answer to this question is: I did not exist at all, for I was not an I. The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself.” (Fichte 1991: 98) This bootstrapping of the self through self-consciousness Fichte called “self-positing” (“Selbstsetzung”), saying things like: “the self begins by an absolute positing of its own existence” (Fichte 1991: 99). Note, by the way, that Fichte was not the first to draw attention to the self-creating power of self-consciousness. Similar ideas can already be found in Plotinus: see the previous post on this blog.

Baron von Münchhausen pulling him-
self from the swamp by his own hair.
Can self-consciousnss do the same?
We may take the idea that prereflective self-awareness is self-creating as its own reductio ad absurdum. But note that the idea appears in different light when we take into account the Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). For it seems clear, at least to me, that the HPC implies Idealist Monism, which I define as the claim that all of reality – including the physical – is ultimately explained in terms of consciousness. The irreducibility of consciousness obviously rules out Physicalist Monism (the claim that “everything is physical”), but it is consistent with both Idealist Monism and Ontological Dualism (i.e. the claim that reality consists of two different and separate substances, consciousness and matter). But when we also take the undeniable fact of mind-body interaction into account, the situation changes: Ontological Dualism falls away, and Idealist Monism is left as the only viable option. For if consciousness and matter are two different and separate substances, as Dualism maintains, then it is utterly mysterious how they can nevertheless interact (cf. the embarrassment of Descartes’ pineal gland). On an Idealist Monist reading, however, mind-body interaction is ultimately understandable as a form of mind-mind interaction, since Idealist Monism takes matter to be a manifestation of consciousness. But if we take Idealist Monism seriously, how then should we respond to Leibniz’ famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Note that on an Idealist Monist reading, Leibniz’ question should be rephrased as: Why is there consciousness, rather than nothing? Why does consciousness exist? And now the idea of the self-creating power of prereflective self-consciousness is suddenly not so absurd anymore…

References

-Armstrong, D.M. (1969), A Materialist Theory of Mind. Humanities Press: London & New York.
-Brentano, F. (1991), “Vom inneren Bewusstsein”, in: Frank 1991, 131-168.
-Fichte, J.G. (1991), Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Fichte, J.G. (1994), “An Attempt at a New Presentation of the Wissenschaftslehre (1797/98)”, in: Fichte, J.G. (1994), Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre, translated and edited by Daniel Breazeale. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis/Cambridge.
-Frank, M. (ed.)
(1991), Selbstbewußtseinstheorien von Fichte bis Sartre. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main.
-Frank, M. (2015), Präreflexives Selbstbewusstsein: Vier Vorlesungen. Reclam: Stuttgart.
-Kapitan, T. (1999), “The Ubiquity of Self-Awareness”, in: Grazer Philosophische Studien 57, pp. 17-44.
-Kriegel, U. & Williford, K. (2006), Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness. MIT Press: Cambridge Mass. & London.
-Lycan, W.G. (1997), “Consciousness as Internal Monitoring”, in: Block, N. & Flanagan, O. & Güzeldere, G. (eds.), The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates, pp. 755-71.
MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.
-Mach, E. (1922),
Die Analyse der Empfindungen und das Verhältnis des Physischen zum Psychischen. Gustav Fischer: Jena.
-Rosenthal, D. M. (2005), Consciousness and Mind. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
-Sartre, J.-P (1972), Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology (transl. H.E. Barnes). Methuen & Co: London.
-Shoemaker, S. (1984), “Personal Identity: A Materialist’s Account”, in: Shoemaker, S. & Swinburne, R. (1984), Personal Identity. Blackwell: Oxford.
-Williford, K. (2006), “The Self-Representational Structure of Consciousness”, in: Kriegel & Williford (2006), pp. 111-42.
-Zahavi, D. (1999), Self-Awareness and Alterity: A Phenomenological Investigation. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, Illinois.



Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Plotinus and the Problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness

Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because it thinks/experiences itself. By being conscious of itself, then, the Absolute constitutes its own existence and should thus be understood as Absolute Self-Consciousness. Despite Absolute Idealism’s near universal rejection by contemporary philosophers, I personally think this philosophical position deserves a second chance, mainly because it provides such a neat answer to Leibniz’ famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”: there is something, rather than nothing, because (absolute) self-consciousness is self-creating. I think this position is attractive because (a) we know – with Cartesian certainty – that self-consciousness exists, and thus that this theory latches on to a real phenomenon, and (b) because it fits the contemporary philosophical landscape rather well, a landscape which has changed considerably due to the well-known Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). The HPC has plunged scientific materialism / physicalism into a deep crisis, sparking a remarkable return of interest in consciousness oriented ontologies, such as Panpsychism, Russellian Monism, and different varieties of Idealist Monism, including Absolute Idealism (cf. Sprigge 1983; Hutto 2000; D'Oro 2005).

The problem, however, is that most contemporary philosophers have very scanty knowledge of the rich philosophical tradition of Absolute Idealism. Usually this tradition is seen as limited to the post-Kantian German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel); sometimes their Anglo-American successors (such as Bradley, McTaggart, Royce) are included as well. However, Absolute Idealism is a much,
much broader tradition, stretching back to the beginnings of philosophy in both ancient India and Greece. As shown in a previous post on this blog, Absolute Idealism first arose as a recognizable philosophical position in India, notably in the Upanishads, where the famous identification of Brahman (the ultimate essence of reality) with Atman (the Self) was first made. In classical Greece, the first hints of Absolute-Idealist thinking are found in pre-Socratic philosophy, notably in Parmenides of Elea. His notorious claims that “thinking and being are the same” and that “all things are one, and this one is Being” are sometimes interpreted along Absolute-Idealist lines (see e.g. Dunham, Grant & Watson 2011: 10-18). But the few surviving fragments of Parmenides’ writings are too scanty to warrant any definite conclusions about what his philosophy amounted to. For the first clear case of Absolute-Idealist thinking in Greek philosophy, we have to wait until the third century CE, for the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Although Plotinus saw himself as first and most a disciple of Plato, it is clear that he was a highly original thinker who transformed Platonism into something radically new, indeed, into the West’s first full-blown system of Absolute Idealism.

The Absolute Idealism of Plotinus
Plotinus conceives of reality as a hierarchy of levels called “Hypostases”. At the top stands the first Hypostasis, a self-sufficient principle called “the One”, which somehow produces or “emanates” a lower level reality called “Intellect”, which in turn emanates the still lower level of Soul, which finally produces the lowest level of all, physical Nature, where the creative power of the One is all but spend and lost in the non-being of Matter, the principle of all evil
in the Plotinian system. Although Plotinus intended his “One” to capture the essence of Plato’s highest principle, the Idea of the Good, it is clear that Plotinus turned it into something radically new and in the process invented Absolute Idealism. In an unprecedented move, Plotinus conceived of the One as self-causing self-consciousness. The One, for Plotinus, is the consciousness it has of itself, and as such it only exists because it is conscious of itself. By being self-conscious, then, the Ones “makes itself”. Thus, Plotinus writes that the One “so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23). This “self-vision” is the essence of the One, the “internal activity” in virtue of which it exists. It is from this essence that we must explain its “secondary activity”, the production of the lower Hypostases, beginning with Intellect. Here we should note that for Plotinus each Hypothesis exists internal to the preceding one, with the exception, of course, of the highest Hypostasis, the One, which exists in nothing beyond itself. Thus, Nature exists inside Soul, which exists inside Intellect, which exists inside the One (cf. Wallis 1995: 51). All of reality, then, exists internal to – and as an unfolding of – the Absolute Self-Consciousness which is the One: all things belong to It and are in It (V.4.2). This is Absolute Idealism if anything is!

This fact, however, that the Plotinian system amounts to Absolute Idealism, is usually not acknowledged – apart from some notable exceptions (Bréhier 1958; Beierwaltes 2004). Partly this is due to the sad state of current knowledge about the tradition of Absolute Idealism, which has become something of a ‘forgotten tradition’. Partly, however, this is also due to Plotinus himself. The fact of the matter is that Plotinus was highly ambivalent concerning the ascription of self-consciousness to the One. Thus, the Absolute-Idealist picture I painted above of the Plotinian system, where reality is conceived as a hierarchical unfolding of the One’s self-consciousness, is really an
idealizing interpretation, which smooths away many of the wrinkles in Plotinus’ thought. I’m not saying this interpretation is false. But its correctness is certainly not immediately obvious from the letter of the Enneads. For, as has been noted before (cf. Armstrong 1962: 29-30), Plotinus both ascribes and denies self-consciousness to the One. As we have seen, he ascribes self-consciousness to the One in order to account for its self-causation. Elsewhere in the Enneads, however, Plotinus emphatically denies self-consciousness to the One. The crucial point is that consciousness, according to Plotinus, requires multiplicity, both in the form a duality between subject and object, and in the form of diversity within the object (since an absolutely simple object, lacking all internal differentiation, cannot be grasped by consciousness). The One, however, is supposed to be an absolutely simple unity, indeed it is unity as such, lacking all internal multiplicity, which is precisely why Plotinus calls it “the One”. As such, however, the One is incapable of self-consciousness. Thus, referring to the One, Plotinus says: [I]f anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple. (V.3.13, 34-36)

The problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness in Schelling, Hegel and Plotinus
Plotinus, then, appears enmeshed in a contradiction: he both ascribes and denies self-consciousness to the One. For a proper understanding of his philosophy, however, it is important to note that this is not – or not just – the result of sloppy thinking. The (apparent) contradiction follows from a fundamental tenet of his thought, namely, his conception of the One as self-causing. To repeat: Plotinus tries to account for this self-causation by ascribing self-consciousness to the One. But the absolute simplicity of the One, too, is motivated by the idea of self-causation. In an influential argument, which prefigures similar arguments in later scholastic theology (cf. Dolezal 2011: 1-2; Duby 2016: 130), Plotinus argues that if the One were multiple, it could not be understood as the first, self-causing principle of all reality: “[T]he first must be not in any way multiple: for its multiplicity then would depend on another again before it.” (VI.7.17, 39-42) The basic argument is that if the One were composed of parts, it would
depend on those parts, since they would be indispensable to the explanation of its essence and existence. The parts would then be ontologically prior to the One, which would then not be the Absolute, the wholly self-causing and first principle of all reality.

Thus, the fundamental idea of the One’s self-causation – which was revolutionary in the tradition of Greek philosophy to which Plotinus still belonged – pulls his thought into different and seemingly irreconcilable directions. On the one hand, the self-causation of the One invites the ascription of self-consciousness to the One, since it is by seeing the One as the consciousness it has of itself that Plotinus can describe the One as ‘making itself’. On the other, the self-causation of the One requires its absolute simplicity, which rules out all consciousness, including self-consciousness. We may see this as a weakness of his thought, but at the same time we may wonder whether the same problem does not affect all Absolute-Idealist thinking. For it is difficult to see how the Absolute could be anything else but an absolutely simple unity. Here Plotinus’ influential argument, that any multiplicity in the One would detract from its status as the first principle of reality, seems quite convincing. But if this is so, then the core idea of Absolute Idealism – that the Absolute is a self-creating self-consciousness – becomes problematic. Plotinus’ claim that consciousness requires multiplicity (namely, subject-object duality and diversity within the object) is, after all, quite reasonable and has been re-asserted by many later philosophers. How, then, can the Absolute be defined in terms of self-consciousness if it lacks all internal complexity?

This is indeed a basic problem for all Absolute-Idealist thinking. The conflict between Schelling and Hegel turns on it. Schelling, sensitive to the idea that the Absolute must be absolutely simple, conceived of Absolute Self-Consciousness as a simple, immediate intuition without any distinction between subject and object. Hegel, however, ridiculed this absolute, seamless identity as
the night in which [...] all cows are black (Hegel 1977: 9) and argued that Absolute Self-Consciousness must essentially be mediated by otherness, so that – as he put it – the infinite can only be understood as resulting from the negation or sublation of the finite: “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is; ; and herein lies its nature of being actual and subject: becoming itself.” (Hegel 1977: 11) But the Absolute, as that which explains all of reality, cannot be “essentially result”, because result of what? By definition nothing can precede the Absolute. So the cause producing the Absolute can only be the Absolute itself, such that the Absolute is both beginning and result at the same time. And, moreover, nothing can mediate that transition from beginning to result, because the Absolute must already be the Absolute right from the start, i.e. it must immediately be its own result. By giving up the immediacy and simplicity of the Absolute, therefore, Hegel may be in a better position to understand the Absolute as self-consciousness, insofar as all consciousness requires multiplicity, but at the same time he loses what we might call the “ontological firstness” of the Absolute, which means that in a way he loses the Absolute altogether. That Hegel, in this way, also loses the ability to answer Leibniz’s question has been noted before, first of all by Schelling himself (cf. Halper 2011). We now see that this problem really originated in Plotinus. Let us therefore take a closer look at the problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness in Plotinus and see what we can learn from him with a view to a possible solution.

Why should Absolute Self-Consciousness be self-causing?
Let’s start with Plotinus’ view that the One’s self-consciousness accounts for its self-causation.1 This is a truly revolutionary aspect of his thinking, which had tremendous impact on subsequent theology and philosophy. It was revolutionary for several reasons. To begin with, Plotinus is the first philosopher, at least in the Western tradition, to speak of self-causation at all (cf. Gerson 2011: 34). Plotinus, indeed, is the first Western philosopher to feel the need for a total explanation of reality, with no ontological danglers (cf. Gatti 1999: 28). For Plotinus, the ultimate principle that explains why everything exists must itself also be explained, and as such it can only be explained by itself – otherwise an infinite explanatory regress would ensue where we continually have to invoke a ‘still more ultimate’ principle in order to explain the previous one. Hence Plotinus’ description of the One as self-caused, to prevent the explanatory regress threatening any total explanation of reality.

This was highly innovative in the context of Greek philosophy, where the existence of ultimate reality had always been taken for granted as unproblematic, as something that needed and indeed allowed no explanation. For Plato and Aristotle, first principles were precisely first because they explained everything else but could not themselves be explained. To ask for their explanation would have been seen by them as an inversion of the proper order of explanation (cf. Gatti 1999: 28). This may have been due to the fact that the ancient Greeks had no conception of absolute nothingness, just as they had no concept of zero, and therefore could not imagine that reality might not have existed. Leibniz's famous question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", then, could not have occurred to them. But somehow this changed with Plotinus. He was the first, at least in the West, to realize that not only the things in reality require explanation but also reality itself. In this way Plotinus was remarkably modern. In a sense he anticipated Leibniz's rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason, which obligates us to explain everything. As Leibniz argues, it is the Principle of Sufficient Reason that directly motivates the question why there is something rather than nothing. Plotinus’ vision of the self-caused One is his attempt to give such an all-inclusive explanation.

The second way in which Plotinus’ thought about the One’s self-causation was revolutionary lies in how he conceived this self-causation, namely, as essentially bound up with the One’s self-consciousness. According to Plotinus, the One is the consciousness it has of itself and as such the One only exists because it is conscious of itself (I explain this more fully below). By being conscious of itself, the One makes itself exist. The One "so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself […]." (VI.8.16, 19-23; cf. V.4.2, 13-19) To be sure, the identification of the Divine Being with self-consciousness was not new in Greek philosophy: it can already be found in Aristotle’s conception of the Unmoved Mover as self-thinking thought, which greatly influenced Plotinus. But, given the absence of any idea of self-causation up to Plotinus, the idea that the Divine Being could bring itself into existence through self-consciousness was of course alien to Aristotle and indeed to any other philosopher prior to Plotinus. He was completely original in this respect, so much so that we do not find anything like it in Western philosophy until we reach post-Kantian German Idealism. The closest analogon to Plotinus’ conception of the One as self-causing self-consciousness is Fichte’s notion of the self-positing I and Schelling’s absolute-idealist development of that notion, where the self-positing I becomes the origin of all reality. Hence the fact that this aspect of Plotinus’ thought is sometimes elucidated in language that sounds surprisingly close to the Fichtean terminology of self-positing (cf. Gatti 1999: 29).

It should be noted that Plotinus does not conceive this self-causing self-consciousness of the One in purely epistemic terms, as a neutral registration of itself, without any evaluative aspect. Rather, the self-consciousness of the One is just as much volitional and emotional. Thus, Plotinus says that the One wills itself, loves itself and desires itself. Presumably, given the absolute simplicity of the One, the self-consciousness of the One is identical with its self-willing and self-desire. This is also corroborated by the fact that not only the self-consciousness but also the self-willing and self-loving of the One are seen by Plotinus to explain its self-causation: "[T]he nature of the Good [...] is its freely willed substance which comes to it in accordance with its will and is one and the same thing as is its will and is established in existence through its will." (VI.8.13, 15-20) In the case of the One, “desiring is one with the object of desire”: “But if this is so, again it is he himself who makes himself […].” (VI.8.15, 1-11)

Exactly why does Plotinus think that the One’s (volitional and emotional) self-consciousness explains its self-causation? The crucial point, repeated several times by Plotinus, seems to be that the One is the consciousness it has of itself: “this so-called being of his is his looking to himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23), “its thinking of itself is itself” (V.4.2, 13-19), “his being what he is is his self-directed activity” (VI.8.16, 27). Plotinus makes the same point in terms of will and desire, such that the One is its will and love for itself: “the nature of the Good [...] is one and the same thing as is its will” (VI.8.13, 15-20), the One “is lovable and love and love of himself” (VI.8.15, 1). The One, then, is the (willing, loving, desiring) consciousness it has of itself. But this means that the One has no essence or identity apart from how it conceives of itself. The One is as it conceives of itself. As it grasps itself, so it is. Or in volitional terms: as the One wills / desires itself, so it is. In this way Plotinus is able to account for the absolute, self-determining freedom of the One: “[T]he nature of the Good [...] is its freely willed substance which comes to it in accordance with its will and is one and the same thing as is its will and is established in existence through its will.” (VI.8.13, 15-20) Thus, the One is absolutely free because it is only as it wills itself to be, simply because it is its own will for (i.e. volitional consciousness of) itself.

But if the nature (essence) of the One follows completely from how the One conceives itself, doesn’t this imply that its existence, too, follows completely from this self-conception? The One has no properties apart from how it conceives itself. Thus, apart from its self-consciousness, it is nothing and has no existence. The One only exists insofar as it is conscious of itself. It exists, then, because of its self-consciousness. By being conscious of itself, it brings itself into existence. Such seems to be Plotinus’ account of the self-causing power of the One’s self-consciousness. The most direct statement of this explanation appears in the following passage: “[H]is being what he is is his self-directed activity; but these are one thing and himself. He therefore brought himself into existence, since his activity was brought out into existence along with himself.” (VI.8.16, 27-30) Here Plotinus says that the self-directed activity by which the One determines its own essence – namely, the willing and loving consciousness it has of itself – is not something that ontologically precedes the One. Rather, the One essentially is that self-directed activity. And so this self-directed activity, as it gives being to the One, also gives being to itself (“his activity was brought out into existence along with himself”). As such, the self-directed activity of the One is a self-causing activity.

The absolute simplicity of the One
At the same time, however, the self-causation of the One pulls Plotinus’ thought into another direction as well, namely, towards the absolute simplicity of the One, which contradicts the ascription of consciousness to it. Let us therefore take a closer look at Plotinus’ reasons for seeing the One as absolutely simple. As has already been noted, his arguments to this effect have been very influential, notably in later scholastic theology. Plotinus, in short, argues that if the One were multiple, it could not be understood as the first, self-causing principle of all reality: “[T]he first must be not in any way multiple: for its multiplicity then would depend on another again before it.” (VI.7.17, 39-42) “[F]or […] what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence.” (V.4.1, 5-15) Here Plotinus argues that if the One were composed of parts, the One would in some sense depend upon those parts, since they would be indispensable to the explanation of his essence and existence. The parts would then be ontologically prior to the One, in which case the One would not be the absolute, wholly self-causing and first principle of reality. One cannot circumvent this problem by saying that the One is somehow prior to the parts of which he is essentially composed – for in that case the parts would not be essential to the One and the One would really be simple.

Another way to make this argument would be to depart from the premise that nothing composite is what it is until it is composed. Parts, after all, do no assemble themselves: they require an external agent or force to put them together. So, if the One were composed of parts, it would presuppose a prior composer and then the One would not be first and self-caused. Again, one cannot circumvent this problem by saying that the One itself is the efficient cause assembling its own parts, for that would imply that the One already exists prior to the assemblage of its parts and thus that this assemblage is not essential to the One.

For Plotinus, this argument gains special force from the Platonic theory of participation, which he, of course, takes over. On that theory, what composes a being – what holds its parts together – is the Form in which it participates. Thus, what makes this collection of arms, legs, hair, nose, bones, ears, and so on, a unity is the Form of Man in which these elements participate; without the Form, they would just be a heap of disconnected body parts. But each Form is in itself also multiple, since each Form comprehends a complex being different from other complex beings falling under different Forms. The Forms themselves, therefore, presuppose a further principle of unification, a Form of Forms, in which each Form participates and which as such guarantees its unity. This partly explains why Plotinus places the One at the top of the ontological hierarchy, directly above the realm of Forms: the One is the ultimate unifying principle, in which each Form participates and by virtue of which each is a unified Form. “It is by the One that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings [i.e. the Forms, PS] and those which are in any sense said to be among beings. For what could anything be if it was not one?” (VI.9.1, 1-5)

Plotinus, then, subscribes to the view that to be a being is to be a being, i.e. to be one. Since a being is one only by participating in the One, it follows that beings are beings only because of the One. By conferring unity to a being, the One turns it into a being. This is also why Plotinus says, following Plato’s statement about the Good in the Republic, that the One itself is “beyond being”, which should be understood as meaning that the One is prior to every being qua unified being. This indicates that Plotinus’ view of the One as the highest Form, the Form of Forms, had good Platonic credentials. Although we do not find the identification of the Good with the highest principle of unity directly in the Platonic dialogues, we do find hints of it in Plato’s so-called “unwritten doctrines”. Aristotle indicates that Plato in his oral teaching in the Academy equated the Form of the Good with a first principle called “the One” which generates the lower Forms by conferring unity on indefinite multiplicity (cf. Wallis 1995: 48; Dillon & Gerson 2004: xx-xxi).

Be that as it may. What matters here is how in Plotinus’ thought this aspect of the One, its being the ultimate principle of unification, relates to the One’s absolute simplicity. As the principle of unity, the One cannot itself be multiple, for then it would presuppose a further principle of unification to guarantee its unity, and then it would no longer be the principle of unity. This is simply Plotinus’ argument for the absolute simplicity of the One couched in the language of Plato’s theory of participation. As the ultimate principle of unity, the One must be absolutely simple. The One is unity as such, without any inner multiplicity unified.

Multiplicity, consciousness, and the ineffability of the One
The One, then, must be absolutely simple, and as such it can in no way be conscious, since all consciousness requires multiplicity. As Plotinus makes clear, consciousness requires multiplicity in two ways: (a) duality between the conscious subject and the object of consciousness, and (b) diversity within the object of consciousness. I will discuss the requirement of subject-object duality first. Plotinus appears to be on firm footing here. Without any distinction between a subject’s consciousness and what it is conscious of, the object, it seems to make little sense to speak of consciousness at all. Thus, phenomenologists like Brentano and Husserl argue that consciousness is essentially intentional, i.e. directed at or about something. Consciousness, then, is a relation between one relatum and another. It is crucial to see that this relationality even holds in the case of self-consciousness, where there is arguably only one ‘thing’ being conscious of itself. In self-consciousness, the subject is its own object, so in a sense there is no difference between them, they are numerically identical. In another sense, however, subject and object must still be distinguished as different aspects of self-consciousness. The self-conscious subject must distinguish itself qua subject from itself qua object; the knower is distinguished from the known, even if the known is ultimately the knower itself. Otherwise there is no point in talking about (self-)knowledge at all. The thing that stands in the relation of self-consciousness to itself must allow this distinction within itself. Thus, Plotinus writes: "[T]hat which thinks is double, even if it thinks itself […]." (III.9.7, 4-5)

Given the utterly undifferentiated nature of the One, however, even this minimal distinction between knowing subject and known object gets no grip on it. Thus, referring to the One, Plotinus says: "[I]f anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple." (V.3.13, 34-36) Plotinus draws the same conclusion from the second requirement mentioned above: that the object of consciousness must be internally differentiated. An object without inner diversity is an object without any properties and aspects: it cannot be determined at all, and is as such a mere nothing. Such an ‘object that isn’t an object’ cannot be known, simply because there is nothing to be known about it. In a sense, however, this is precisely the situation with the One, which because of its absolute simplicity cannot be conceptually determined as a normal object of thought. As such, the One is literally unthinkable and indeed ineffable, as Plotinus emphasizes. Plotinus, after all, is generally seen as the founding father of negative theology, where one can characterize God only negatively, by saying what He (or rather It) is not.

Hence, also, Plotinus’ repetition of Plato’s characterization of the highest Form, the Good, as “beyond being”. The One, for Plotinus, is “beyond being” because it is not a proper being at all, since any being must be conceptually determinable and delimitable. At the same time, however, Plotinus stresses that the One is not nothing – on the contrary: it is rather everything, the superabundant source of all existence. The One is nothing only for thought, since it cannot be conceptually determined. We can say nothing about it, we can only say what it is not: thus e.g. we must say the One is not conscious. Crucially, this ineffability of the One also holds for the One itself. Even if the One were somehow able to become conscious of itself as object (which, as we have already noted, is strictly impossible given the utter lack of duality within the One), it would be confronted with a completely empty object, a conceptual void, about which there is nothing to be known. Thus, in being conscious of itself, it would be conscious of nothing, and as such it would really not be conscious at all: "[I]t is not then absurd if he does not know himself; for he has nothing in himself which he can learn about, since he is one." (V.6.6, 30-35)

The self-thinking of Intellect and its relation to the One
The official place of self-consciousness in the Plotinian system is therefore not the One but rather its first product, Intellect, which Plotinus defines as “thought thinking itself”. It is well-known that Plotinus’ conception of Intellect synthesizes the Platonic realm of Forms with the Aristotelian view of the Unmoved Mover as self-thinking thought. According to Plotinus, the Intellect, in thinking itself, also thinks all the Forms. Indeed, it is by thinking itself that Intellect generates the Forms, and the subject-object duality plays a crucial role in this generation. Plotinus repeatedly notes that Intellect, by thinking itself, splits itself into subject and object: "[T]he thinker must not itself remain simple, especially in so far as it thinks itself: for it will duplicate itself [...]." (V.3.10, 45-47). And this means, since the object is Intellect itself, that the object, too, becomes internally duplicated and thus differentiated. As Emilsson (2007: 83) notes: “[T]he multiplicity on the object side is something that comes about in or through Intellect's vision of itself.” In this way, Plotinus meets – in a nifty way – the second requirement mentioned above: that the object must have internal diversity in order to be thinkable. By thinking itself, the Intellect differentiates itself and thus simultaneously becomes a thinkable object for itself. And since the Intellect’s object is the realm of Forms, this means that the Forms are generated by the self-thinking of Intellect, although how this happens is never fully explained by Plotinus.

Plotinus does makes it clear, however, that this inner complexity of Intellect and its object increases insofar as Intellect progresses to higher-order levels of self-thinking, such that Intellect not only thinks itself but also thinks that it thinks itself, and thinks that it thinks that it thinks itself, and so on. Thus, writing about Intellect, Plotinus says: “[W]hen it sees itself it does so not as without intelligence but as thinking. So that in its primary thinking it would have also the thinking that it thinks […].” (II.9.1, 49-59) Plotinus then goes on in the same passage to argue that we should not stop here, we should rather add “another, third, distinction in addition to the second one which said that it thinks that it thinks,” namely, “one which says that it thinks that it thinks that it thinks”. And then Plotinus asks rhetorically: “And why should one not go on introducing distinctions in this way to infinity?”, clearly indicating that the recursion involved in Intellect’s self-thinking is endless and as such generates infinite multiplicity. In this way, one can say, the self-thinking of Intellect amounts to an endless self-multiplication.2 And this underscores the reason why Plotinus must deny self-thinking to the One, which is after all supposed to be – and to remain – absolutely simple.

At the same time, however, this view of Intellect creates a problem for Plotinus – a problem that deepens the tension involved in Plotinus’ thinking about self-consciousness in relation to the One. For the fact of the matter is that Intellect is the One’s first product, and as such Intellect stands to the One as image stands to archetype. Emanation, after all, is for Plotinus essentially a process of imaging and re-presentation, where a higher reality creates a lower reality as its own image (thus material Nature is the image of Soul, which in turn is the image of Intellect, which finally is the image of the One). In this way Plotinus takes over, and develops further, the Platonic theory of participation. But if Intellect essentially is the image of the One, then Intellect should up to a point be like the One and should as such convey something of the One’s supposedly ineffable nature. Admittedly, emanation is for Plotinus also always a fall away from the higher reality, and as such the lower reality can only be an imperfect image of the higher reality. Thus, the nature of the One can never be fully captured by Intellect. Still, something of the One must be mirrored in Intellect, otherwise there is no point in calling it the image of the One. As Emilsson (2007: 71) notes: “It is no accident that the next stage after the One is Intellect, and this fact may actually give us an inkling about what sort of thing the One is […].” But what, then, is it about the One that is represented by Intellect?

First of all, this is the unity of the One, which is represented by the Intellect’s unity-in-diversity. By thinking itself, the Intellect indeed splits itself into subject and object, but at the same time this duality remains unity, since the object ultimately is the subject as it becomes conscious of itself: “It becomes a pair, therefore, while remaining one.” (V.6.1, 6) By thinking itself, the Intellect creates multiplicity, but at the same time holds this multiplicity together in the unity of its self-consciousness. This simultaneous unity and difference of subject and object in self-consciousness is the primal form of the unity-in-diversity exemplified by Intellect. This unity-in-difference enables Intellect, up to a point, to think the absolute unity of the One. Intellect cannot think this unity directly, since – as we have seen – any object must be internally differentiated in order to be thinkable. It is only as unity-in-diversity, therefore, that the unity of the One becomes thinkable for Intellect (cf. Armstrong 1962: 33). At the same time, however, the diversity in Intellect implies that the latter will never fully succeed in grasping the One. The diversity, although necessary, keeps spoiling Intellect’s vision of the One: “Therefore this multiple Intellect, when it wishes to think that which is beyond, [thinks] that itself which is one, but in wishing to attain to it in its simplicity comes out continually apprehending something else made many in itself [...].” (V.3.11, 1-5)

But is the unity of the One all that the Intellect is capable of representing, albeit imperfectly? How about the self-thinking of Intellect? Doesn’t that represent something of the One as well, a corresponding self-consciousness in the One? Self-thinking belongs to Intellect just as essentially as unity-in-diversity does (indeed, we have just seen that the self-thinking of Intellect explains is unity-in-diversity). Shouldn’t we expect that what is most essential about a lower reality is precisely that aspect in which it mirrors or captures something of the higher reality which it represents? This seems reasonable enough. So, the fact that Intellect is essentially self-thinking seems to say something of importance about the One: that its ‘ineffable’ nature includes something like self-thinking, but without any multiplicity, thus some absolutely simple form of self-consciousness. Plotinus in fact acknowledges this explicitly. Discussing the archetype-image relation that obtains between the One and Intellect, Plotinus concludes that the latter “is, by its own intelligent nature, evidence of something like Intellect in the One which is not Intellect; for it is one” (VI.8.18, 21-2; cf. Bussanich 1999: 58-9).

The perfection of the One implies self-consciousness
The same problem emerges when we consider a third argument used by Plotinus for denying self-consciousness to the One. The first two arguments, as we have seen, depart from the premise that consciousness always involves multiplicity. The third argument follows a different track and pivots on the absolute self-sufficiency and perfection of the One. This argument, however, is highly ambiguous and can be seen to establish exactly the opposite of what Plotinus wants to establish, namely, that the One eternally does have complete self-knowledge. Plotinus’ argument, in short, is that the One cannot be said to know it itself, because knowing is always an actualization of some prior potentiality where, although knowledge was already possible, it was not yet attained. Thus ascribing (self-)knowledge to the One would imply that the One was previously lacking in such knowledge, which would detract from its absolute omnipotence and ontological plenitude. As Plotinus writes: “But the Good will not be conscious of itself… That which is conscious of itself and thinks itself comes second, for it is conscious of itself in order that in this actuality of consciousness it may understand itself. Therefore, if it becomes acquainted with itself, it must have been unacquainted with itself and deficient in its own nature, and is completed by its thinking. So, then, thinking must be excluded from the Good, for the addition causes diminution and defect.” (III.9.9, 13-24)

This is, for different reasons, a rather weak argument. First of all, Plotinus presupposes that we can ascribe self-consciousness to the One only as the result of a process of becoming self-conscious. At different points in the Enneads Plotinus makes it abundantly clear that the One can in no way be said to become: it eternally is what it is, timelessly, and in pure actuality (cf. VI.8.20, 23-27, 43-44). But does this imply we cannot ascribe self-consciousness to the One? Must all consciousness, including self-consciousness, necessarily be conceived in temporal terms, as the actualization of a prior potentiality? Why can’t the One be said to be eternally (“always already”) self-conscious? That consciousness always presupposes a prior state of unconsciousness, which it repairs, may indeed be true for us human beings, finite and temporal as we are. But to assume that this eo ipso holds for the One is to be guilty of anthropomorphizing the One, as if It were a temporal being just like us. This argument for the claim that the One cannot be said to have consciousness is therefore not a particularly strong one.

This is all the more so because, as noted above, the argument in fact establishes the opposite conclusion, namely, that the One does have complete self-consciousness. Remember: Plotinus argues we cannot ascribe self-consciousness to the One, because that would imply that the One was previously ignorant about itself, and thus deficient, and this is inadmissible: “if it becomes acquainted with itself, it must have been unacquainted with itself and deficient in its own nature” (III.9.9, 13-24). But if we are not allowed to say that the One was in any way unacquainted with itself, shouldn’t we then conclude that the One is “always already” fully acquainted with itself? The same difficulty emerges in another passage where Plotinus denies we can attribute self-thinking to the One because that would imply that “before his thinking he will be ignorant, and will need thinking in order to know himself, he who suffices for himself” (VI.9.6, 42-46). But, again, if we are not allowed to say that the One is or was in any way ignorant about itself, aren’t we then compelled to say that the One always has complete self-knowledge? What is absolute lack of ignorance about oneself if not absolute self-knowledge?

Thus, from the reasonable claim that the One cannot be said to become self-consciousness, since that would imply prior ignorance, we can draw only one consistent conclusion: that the One is timelessly and completely conscious of itself. This is also in line with the fact that the One is the paradigm to which Intellect orients itself. Of the Intellect it is indeed correct to say that in a way it becomes3 self-conscious, for the Intellect begins its existence as “inchoate Intellect” and only becomes fully actualized as self-thinking Intellect in its it attempts to think the One. But what the image has only imperfectly, the paradigm must have perfectly: “For something like what is in Intellect, in many ways greater, is in that One […].” (VI.8.18, 32-3) Thus, corresponding to the developing and initially incomplete self-consciousness of the Intellect, we must posit an eternally completed self-consciousness in the One as the paradigm to which Intellect aspires.

The immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness
But it is not just eternal completion that we must attribute to the One’s self-consciousness as a result of its being the paradigm to which Intellect aspires; paradoxically, the absolute simplicity of the One’s self-consciousness, too, follows from this fact. For the self-thinking of Intellect is, in Plotinus’ view, imperfect precisely because it involves multiplicity. As the perfect paradigm of Intellect, then, the One must have (or, rather, be) an absolutely simple self-consciousness, lacking all internal differentiation. This is the reason why Plotinus insists on the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness: “its thinking of itself is itself, and exists by a kind of immediate self-consciousness, in everlasting rest and in a manner of thinking different from the thinking of Intellect" (V.4.2, 13-19).

Clearly, the “everlasting rest” indicates that there is no development in the self-consciousness of the One. It is “always already” completely transparent to itself, in contrast to Intellect which is essentially developing, from inchoate Intellect towards the complete vision of the One (a vision that ultimately remains unattainable, given the Intellect’s ineluctable multiplicity). The absolute simplicity of the One’s self-consciousness comes out in Plotinus’ description of it as “immediate”, which indicates that the subject immediately is its own object, such that there is no difference or separation between them. This seamless identity of subject and object is also suggested by the preceding clause, “its thinking of itself is itself”, which implies that the One essentially is its own object. Plotinus makes the same point when he writes that the One “will have a simple concentration of attention on itself” [my emphasis], immediately followed by the question: “But since there is no distance or difference in regard to itself, what could its attention be other than itself?” (VI.7.39, 2-5) The question is clearly rhetorical and indicates that, for Plotinus, the One is essentially its own object of attention, so that again subject and object are asserted to be identical. There is no difference – no duality – between them, which is also indicated by the prior clause that “there is no distance or difference in regard to itself”. The One, then, somehow manages to be self-conscious without subject-object duality.

To express this immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness, Plotinus sometimes resorts to metaphor by comparing it to a “self-touching” rather than a conceptual self-thinking. In the One, he writes, “there will not be a thought of it, but only a touching, and a sort of contact without speech or thought, prethinking because Intellect has not yet come into being and that which touches does not think” (V.3.10, 40-3). But, like all metaphors, the image of touch does both justice and injustice to what it describes. According to the concepts of Greek antiquity, the sensation of touch is both the most immediate and the most obscure (cf. Bréhier 1958: 157). It was thought of as the most immediate because there must be a direct contact between toucher and touched, with virtually no space between them. It was also thought of as the least conceptual sensation, the least mediated by thought (as Plotinus says: “that which touches does not think”). In these ways the metaphor of touch expresses the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness rather well.

At the same time, however, it is clear that the metaphor remains just a metaphor and should not be taken too seriously. The concept of touch, after all, is based on experience in Nature, the material world, and clearly it cannot be the case for Plotinus that the One is describable in terms taken from a lower – indeed, the lowest – reality. Although there is direct contact between toucher and touched, they remain spatially separated, occupying contiguous but still different positions in space, even in the case of self-touching. But the One exists ‘outside’ of space (and time), and thus an essentially spatial concept such as touching is inapplicable to it. Even if we abstract from this spatial dimension, it is clear that the concept of touching retains a duality between subject (toucher) and object (touched), even in the case of self-touching. But the self-consciousness of the One is supposed to be immediate, without subject-object duality.4

Clearly, the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness poses a problem for Plotinus, given his official position that multiplicity is necessary for all consciousness. But note that Plotinus also needs to describe the self-consciousness of the One as lacking all subject-object duality in order to account for its self-causing capacity. As we have seen earlier, the One can be understood as self-causing because it is the consciousness it has of itself. For as such, the One only is as it conceives itself to be, and thus, by being conscious of itself, it constitutes its own being. Thus, to repeat an earlier quote, the One “so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23). But to say that the One is “his looking to himself” is precisely to say that the subject immediately is its own object, and that the consciousness is numerically identical with what it is conscious of.

It is, by the way, crucial to note that the term “subject” here does not denote a subject in the usual philosophical sense, namely, a pre-existing self or agent underlying and performing the act of consciousness. For it is precisely not the case that the One precedes the consciousness it has of itself. Rather, the One is only through this consciousness. In a sense, then, the One’s self-consciousness is a state of consciousness that somehow produces, or rather is itself, the subject ‘having’ that consciousness. It is a state of consciousness that is its own object and which as such exists only because it is conscious of itself. The self-consciousness of the One is therefore better described as “consciousness-consciousness”, i.e. a consciousness that is its own object of consciousness. This also avoids the connotation of a self preceding and underlying the consciousness it has of itself. Since, however, the terminology of self-consciousness is so well-entrenched, and the expression “consciousness-consciousness” sounds a bit awkward, I will continue to speak of the self-consciousness of the One, but with the proviso that here the reflexive pronoun “self-” does not refer to a pre-existing self underlying the consciousness but rather to this consciousness itself, indicating that it is this consciousness itself which is conscious of itself and which as such causes itself. The One, for Plotinus, is this self-relating, self-causing consciousness. Insofar, then, as consciousness involves a relation (namely, between it and its object), we can say that the One is a self-relating relation, i.e. a relation that is its own relatum. This seems to be what Plotinus has in mind when he calls the One “altogether self-related” (VI.8.17, 25-27).

But this description of the One as “self-related” immediately makes clear the problem facing Plotinus (cf. Bussanich 1999: 45). For how can the One be described as “self-related” if it is absolutely simple? Normally, after all, a relation implies a multiplicity of relata: one thing is related to another or several others. Admittedly, this is not the case in self-relation, where there is only one relatum, relating to itself, as in the relation of self-identity, where a thing is (numerically) identical to itself. But even then we have a distinction, namely, between the relatum and the relation; each thing stands in the relation of identity to itself, but clearly the relation is something different from the thing standing in that relation. So, if we say that the One is “self-related”, we seem at least to be importing the difference between relatum and relation into the One, thus denying its seamless simplicity. One might object that in the case of the One not even this distinction holds, since the One is – as we said above – a self-relating relation, i.e. a relation that is its own relatum. But does this make sense? Can we, in the face of such thoroughgoing unity, without any distinction between relatum and relation, still speak meaningfully of relation at all? The upshot remains that where there are no differences, the language of relationality is meaningless. The problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness, then, remains intractable…

Notes
1.
To make the idea of self-causation a bit more palatable right from the start, we should note that Plotinus views the self-causation of the One as ‘taking place’ outside of time and space altogether. Indeed, for Plotinus, time and space are among the (indirect) products of the One. Indicating this timelessness of the One’s self-causation, Plotinus speaks of it as an “eternal generation”. (VI.8.20, 27). In this way Plotinus avoids the objection that the One, in order to cause itself, must exist earlier than itself, which would be absurd. The point is that temporal distinctions, like before and after, do not apply to the One.
2. Though this is not often noted, Plotinus is here to be remarkably close to Josiah Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, where the latter’s recursion (i.e. its awareness of itself, and its awareness of that awareness, and its awareness of its awareness of that awareness, and so on) generates a sequence that is isomorphic to the infinite set of natural numbers ℕ = {0, 1, 2, 3, …}. See the famous “Supplementary Essay” on the One-Many problem in Royce 1959. For a mathematically up to date interpretation and evaluation of Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see Steinhart 2012. Of course, we should not expect to find exactly the same theory in Plotinus, simply because the mathematics of his time had not yet progressed to the level of sophistication reached by Cantor and Dedekind, on whose work Royce builds. But the fact that the generation of Intellect by the One and the inner unfolding of Intellect towards increasing multiplicity were intended by Plotinus to be mathematical processes is nevertheless clear from the Neopythagorean background to much of his thought. Thus the ‘emanation’ of reality by the One is for Plotinus also a mathematical process, in which number and increasing multiplicity are somehow generated by the primordial unity of the One and the duality of its first product, the self-thinking Intellect. In this way the Pythagorean creed that “All is number” also held for Plotinus: “Is not being, then, unified number, and beings number unfolded, and Intellect number moving in itself, and the living creature [i.e. the World Soul, PS] number embracing everything?” (VI.6.4.29-31)
3. Though this is not often noted, Plotinus is here remarkably close to Josiah Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, where the latter’s recursion (i.e. its awareness of itself, and its awareness of that awareness, and its awareness of its awareness of that awareness, and so on) generates a sequence that is isomorphic to the infinite set of natural numbers ℕ = {0, 1, 2, 3, …}. See the famous “Supplementary Essay” on the One-Many problem in Royce 1959. For a mathematically up to date interpretation and evaluation of Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see Steinhart 2012. Of course, we should not expect to find exactly the same theory in Plotinus, simply because the mathematics of his time had not yet progressed to the level of sophistication reached by Cantor and Dedekind, on whose work Royce builds. But the fact that the generation of Intellect by the One and the inner unfolding of Intellect towards increasing multiplicity were intended by Plotinus to be mathematical processes is nevertheless clear from the Neopythagorean background to much of his thought. Thus the ‘emanation’ of reality by the One is for Plotinus also a mathematical process, in which number and increasing multiplicity are somehow generated by the primordial unity of the One and the duality of its first product, the self-thinking Intellect. In this way the Pythagorean creed that “All is number” also held for Plotinus: “Is not being, then, unified number, and beings number unfolded, and Intellect number moving in itself, and the living creature [i.e. the World Soul, PS] number embracing everything?” (VI.6.4.29-31)
4. In addition, the non-conceptual nature of touch, its obscurity, causes the wrong impression when applied to the One, as if it were dumb, only half conscious of itself, less perfect than conceptual self-knowledge. But this is not what Plotinus means. In fact, he means precisely the opposite, namely, that the One’s self-consciousness is perfect precisely because of its absolute simplicity, and stands as such far above the self-thinking of Intellect, which is imperfect because of its ineluctable multiplicity. Thus, Plotinus describes the self-consciousness of the One as “a thought transcending thought” (VI.816, 32-3). This is precisely why the One is the paradigm of Intellect, the ideal to which the self-thinking of Intellect eternally aspires.

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