Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

Animal Imagination

We talking animals have a unique perspective on what it means to be sentient. For us, any nonverbal awareness is always already implicitly informed by our linguistic abilities. We don’t have to mentally say words to ourselves; language-based understanding unconsciously permeates our elementary perceptions of things.

Nonetheless we share nonlinguistic perception with all animals, and also share emotion and Aristotelian “imagination” with many of them. This kind of “imagination” is an organic production and experiencing of “images” that can play a role somewhat analogous to that of thought based on language in shaping responses to things. I won’t worry for now exactly what an “image” is. Animals clearly anticipate events and consequences that are not immediately present to sensation, based on some kind of experiential learning. This seems to be related to what some of the Latin scholastics tried to explain in terms “natural signification”.

The most obvious interpretation of this kind of imagination is by a kind of analogy with sensation. We and other animals remember sensations that are no longer present, and imaginatively anticipate sensations in advance. This seems to imply somehow imagining certain things to be true, but without any explicit discursive reasoning. What is truth for my puppy?

I think emotion may be a big part of the answer. Emotion is in part a kind of spontaneous valuation of things. Specialists in human social psychology have found that simple emotional valuations of different things are surprisingly good statistical predictors of what ways of combining them people will regard as realistic or unrealistic, or true or false. I’m inclined to speculate that many animals live mainly by this kind of emotionally based valuation and classification (see also Ethos, Hexis; Parts of the Soul; Reasonableness; Feeling; Emotional Intelligence; Aristotle on the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited; Vibrant Matter).


The talking or potentially rational animal is an ethical distinction, not a biological species in the sense of Linnaeus. The talking animal is one that could potentially join with us in ethical deliberation, but all animals at least are considered sentient, as having some kind of living awareness. Even our word “animal” comes from anima, which the Romans used to translate the Greek psyche or “soul”. The latter had its origins among the poets, and was developed by Aristotle into a key concept of his hermeneutic biology.

Prolonged meditation on what this living awareness really is seems to me to lead in directions more poetic than discursively philosophical. (I mean neither to denigrate poetry in the way commonly attributed to Plato, nor to assert its superiority in the manner of Heidegger’s later works, just to recognize it as something different from what I am mainly doing here.)

Be that as it may, beyond the community of ethical or sapient beings is the larger community of sentient beings, with whom we ought to feel some kinship. This relation between the ethical community and a larger community to which it belongs is something that itself has ethical significance. So even if we can’t really explain what life is or what awareness is, as ethical beings we ought to respect that broader kinship.

Soul, Self

At the risk of some repetition, and putting it very simply this time, my own view is that common-sense personal identity is centered in the emotions, and in what Brandom would call our sentience, and Aristotle and Averroes would have called our soul. Reason, on the other hand, while it does in one aspect get secondarily folded back into the individuality of our Aristotelian soul, is at root trans-individual and social. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Parts of the Soul; What Is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism; Ego.)

Kantian Intuition

Kant discussed intuition (Anschauung) mainly in the Critique of Pure Reason. Its meaning has been extensively debated in the secondary literature. Part of the difficulty is that Kant does not directly discuss “psychological” matters in any detail, except for the very informal treatment in the Anthropology.

I had been used to considering intuition and thought in Kant as an inseparable hylomorphic unity, like matter and form in Aristotle. This would mean that when we speak of Kantian intuition, it is always as an abstracted partial aspect of a larger whole of experience. (See also Figurative Synthesis.) Recent reading has raised a question about this, though.

Most famously, Kant speaks of the intuition of a sensible manifold. This resembles Aristotle’s account of sensation as mainly passive, but complemented by and interwoven with more active processes (see Passive Synthesis, Active Sense). Kant developed this quite a bit more extensively than Aristotle did. Aristotle hinted at something like passive synthesis, but mainly used its tentative results (common-sense objects) as a provisional starting point. Kant tried to reach back further into the preconscious generative process. My favorite discussion of this is Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge. (See also Kantian Synthesis.)

According to Kant, mathematical construction, which produces an object and not just a theorem, operates on the basis of a kind of pure intuition not tied to sensory perception. This was the original inspiration for Brouwer’s mathematical “intuitionism”.

More broadly, I think Kantian intuition corresponds to the element of immediacy in experience, including what I have called feeling, as well as a kind of holistic summation of previous experience preconsciously associated with patterns preconsciously discerned in the current manifold. There seems to be a complex reverberation and mutual determination between immediate and mediate elements in experience. This appears both in the Kantian transcendental deduction (see Longuenesse, cited above) and in the Hegelian idea that immediacy is always “mediated immediacy” and thus never purely immediate. It also again reflects the fundamental hylomorphism of intuition and thought.

Something like Hegelian ethical Spirit or the Kantian transcendental is all mediation, in contrast to traditional views of spiritual or mystical experience as something immediate and unanalyzable. I take Kantian intuition, Brandomian sentience, and the main import of Aristotelian soul to be on the immediate side, but subject to the reverberation and mutual determination mentioned above. (See also What is “I”?; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

In contrast to Descartes and Locke, Kant famously rejected the idea of intellectual intuition, or passive reception of thought contents, just as he rejected the medieval notion of the intellectual soul. Anything “intellectual” would be on the side of thought rather than intuition for Kant, and thought for Kant always involved explicit, active development rather than passive reception. Hegel, Sellars, and Brandom take this as a starting point, and I think Aristotle would concur. (See also Subject.)