Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

Essential Goodness

By essential goodness I mean a kind of multiple potential that is always there. With Aristotle, I don’t assume there is a single Platonic form of the Good. I also don’t assume that the potential for goodness is evenly distributed, but it seems to be plentiful. As befits its potential status, it is simultaneously over- and underdetermined. There is more than one way for a situation to turn out well. This is not automatic, and usually requires our cooperation and active participation.

Part of what makes meanings meaningful to us is their involvement with contingency. Contingency means that what we do matters, but it also means there will always be things beyond our control that we passively experience.

A few of these may be terrible. We lose loved ones. After seeing horrors like the Nazi concentration camps, some people lost their faith, because God did not prevent those things from occurring. This was based on a wrong expectation of a universally present guiding hand in events. Enough wonders do come to us in life that metaphors of providence speak to us, and hope is a good thing. But providence does not necessitate anything, because goodness is a potential that typically requires a cooperating agent(s) for its realization.

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

Practice

Some people have argued that a fundamentally ethical notion of practice is not sufficient to ground a full, well-rounded account of the varieties of human activity. I used to be one of them, but no longer.

Judgments of utility may on the surface seem mainly to involve various sorts of calculation, but ultimately they involve considerations of what is better or worse for the realization of some purpose.

Judgments of fact may also appear on the surface to be value-neutral, but ultimately they involve questions of what it is reasonable to believe, which also involves judgments of value.

What about physical operations? Physical operations always implicitly involve questions of how to proceed, and answers to these questions involve judgments of utility and judgments of fact, both of which involve judgments of value. (See also Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness; Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy; Normative Monism.)

Self-Consciousness vs Identity

In the development being pursued here, reason, self-consciousness, agency, and responsibility all end up being trans-individual and social things. My emotions are basically mine, but my thoughts, commitments, and actions and their consequences involve more than just me. At the same time, though, as I put it once before, these things that involve more than just me actually say more about who “I” am than my inner state says about “me”. Who we are as ethical beings involves much more than personal identity and what is strictly ours. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Apperception, Identity; Expansive Agency; The Ambiguity of “Self”; Essentially Self-Conscious?; Ego.)

Expansive Agency

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, self-conscious individuals (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e. with everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism. (See also Essentially Self-Conscious?)

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.

Agency

Agency is not causality or causal power in the modern sense. Acting and doing are distinct from mere occurrence of an event by virtue of their meaning or interpretation.

The modern notion of causal power is something blind, mechanical, taken over from mathematical physics. Events follow one another in accordance with mathematical law. Even physical causality, though — insofar as we seek to understand it — is more about mathematical form than about the operation of raw power.

Talk about agency belongs in the register of semantics rather than physics in the modern sense. This takes us even further away from considerations of raw power.

Greek mathematics was really just getting started in Aristotle’s time. Aristotle correctly judged that that mathematics did not begin to address interesting problems of the intelligibility of becoming. Accordingly, he developed a discourse about the intelligibility of becoming in other — we could say, more semantic — ways. For Aristotle, even physics is fundamentally a semantic investigation. As Leibniz saw, there need be no contradiction between Aristotle’s semantic physics and modern mathematical physics. They simply investigate different things.

Aristotle originally introduced talk about agents, and did so in the context of his semantically oriented physics. From early modern times, physics moved to a mathematical approach that was immensely fruitful. At the same time, the Aristotelian semantic-physical notion of agents was (badly) translated into a register of mathematical-physical causes. (See also Aristotelian Matter.)

Because of its fundamentally semantic character, the semantic-physical notion of agency was well suited to be extended to social and ethical contexts. Its mathematical-physical analogue is not nearly so well suited. It took the monumental achievements of Kant and Hegel to begin to restore a semantic notion of agency. (See also Expansive Agency.)