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”.

Everyday Belief

In ordinary life we are guided by well-founded beliefs about many things of which, strictly speaking, we do not have knowledge. Our beliefs are still well-founded in the sense that if asked, we can give reasons for them, and plausibly respond to questions about those reasons. We ought to continue to hold those beliefs, unless and until we are confronted with better reasons for a different conclusion.

Brandom would remind us that we have an implicit ethical obligation to keep our beliefs in good repair. We have a responsibility for the consequences of applying our beliefs. We have a responsibility not to hypocritically pretend to hold incompatible beliefs. In general, we have a responsibility to take our explicit and implicit commitments seriously. This entails a willingness to participate in dialogue, to explain our reasons and answer questions about them.

Commitment to Commitment

A commitment to the practices associated with commitment is more fundamental than any particular commitment we may have. To say it another way, taking our committedness seriously is more important than the exact content of our particular commitments as to what is good and true, or to what we will do.

A high level of seriousness about commitments does not mean sticking to our guns at all cost. If we truly take our commitments seriously, that ought to mean that we also want to improve them when we have the opportunity, and to fix them when they are broken.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) famously made the remark that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do”. One might hope that he really meant to distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise one — between a kind of rigid adherence to mere formalisms, and what I might call consistency in substance or essence or deep meaning. The latter would be more akin to personal integrity.

Emerson himself was a bit intemperate in the passage that followed (“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today”). He further confuses the matter by connecting this message with the theme that “great souls are always misunderstood”. This is all in his essay “Self-Reliance”. The rhetoric is quite memorable and there is a sense in which each of these sayings has validity, but they are both what Hegel would call “one-sided” formulations that are highly vulnerable to misuse. Their combination suggests the dangerous implication that it must be our fault if we don’t understand the one who says contradictory things. This clearly goes too far.

In the course of arguing that it is actually possible for a human to have a kind of general knowledge of being, Aristotle in Metaphysics book IV chapter 3 famously defends a principle of noncontradiction that is not merely formal.

He says in part, “For that which is necessary for one who understands any of the beings whatever to have is not a hypothesis” (Sachs translation, p. 58).

“[W]hat it is, after this prelude, let us state. It is not possible for the same thing at the same time both to belong and not to belong to the same thing in the same respect (and as many other things as we ought to specify in addition for the sake of logical difficulties, let them have been specified in addition). And this is the most certain of principles” (p. 59).

“[T]he starting point… is not the demand that one say something either to be or not to be (for perhaps one might suppose that this would require from the outset the things to be shown), but that what he says must mean something to both himself and someone else; for this is necessary, if he is going to say anything” (p. 60).

Robert Brandom argues that all the most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception. This process is not a sequence of events that happen in the world; it is an ethical task for which we are responsible.

No truths follow from the principle of noncontradiction alone. In particular, it is not a deductive source of metaphysical conclusions.

On the other hand, it is what in Kantian language might be called a moral imperative. To be committed to commitment, I would argue, is to embrace that imperative. Stubborn persistence in self-contradiction destroys the possibility of shareable meaning and dialogue. In real life, self-contradiction happens to good people, but that should be an occasion for learning and humility, never something to proudly affirm.

As soon as we acknowledge piecemeal responsibility for the integrity of our commitments, we implicitly have responsibility for the integrity of the whole constituted by all our commitments. Commitment to commitment is an implicit condition of all our particular commitments, and it involves a responsibility for safeguarding and improving the integrity of the whole of our commitments. However fallible it may be, by its very nature it involves at least the germ of the crucial ability to learn, to improve itself and to correct itself.

This also has important consequences for what Kantian respect for others and the related notion of Hegelian mutual recognition look like in practice. First and foremost, respect for others takes the form of recognition of their implicit commitment to commitment, even when we do not endorse all the others’ particular commitments. (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Capacity to Judge

I’ve previously referred several times to Beatrice Longuenesse’s superb Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993; English ed. 1998). Here I’d like to offer a few quotations from the summary in her conclusion.

“The transcendental unity of apperception was first introduced in the [deduction of the categories in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, referred to by scholars as the] A Deduction, in the exposition of the ‘synthesis of recognition in the concept’. There Kant argued that we could not recognize singular representations under common concepts unless they were taken up in one and the same act of combination and comparison, and unless we were (however dimly) conscious of the numerical identity of this act of combining our representations. This consciousness is what confers ‘logical form’ upon our representations. And it ‘presupposes’ or ‘includes’ a synthesis of imagination. In the [second edition] B Deduction, Kant specified that the ‘logical form’ thus given to our representations is that of judgment. The synthesis of imagination it presupposes is figurative synthesis (synthesis speciosa) or ‘affection of inner sense’ by the understanding. I argued that this meant affection of inner sense not by categorial understanding (i.e., understanding already equipped with categories as full-fledged concepts), but by understanding as the mere capacity to form judgments, Vermögen zu urteilen. Thus, the ‘I think’, or ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, has no other meaning or status than that of being the unified activity of combination and reflection on the sensible given. There is no unity of self-consciousness or ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ apart from this effort, or conatus toward judgment, ceaselessly affirmed and ceaselessly threatened with dissolution in the ‘welter of appearances'” (p. 394).

“Kant’s view is rather that unity of consciousness is always both ‘my own’ and, insofar as it is ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’ whose form is that of judgment, so constituted that it is capable of transcending the point of view of ‘myself, in the present state of my perception’ to the point of view of ‘everybody, always’.”

“Kant further maintains that the conscious effort toward judgment, that is, transcendental unity of self-consciousness, is what makes possible consciousness of an objective temporal order. We have such consciousness only insofar as our perceptions are related to realities, to permanent or changing properties of singular things reciprocally determining each other’s location in space and time” (p. 395).

“The capacity to represent discursively (thought) and the capacity to locate things, ourselves included, in time are thus one and the same. The ‘unity of self-consciousness’ as the unity of the discursive conatus, and the unity of self-consciousness as the consciousness of an individuality located in time, are one and the same” (p. 396).

“For behind the deceptively rigid parallelism between logical forms of judgment and categories, what emerges is the cognitive effort of discursive beings confronting what is given to them in sensibility. This effort, conatus of the Vermögen zu urteilen, is according to Kant what essentially defines the kind of beings we are. It is also what generates the universal forms in which we think our world” (ibid).

“Kant argues that things (singular objects thought under concepts) are substitutional instances for ‘x’ in the logical form of categorical judgments only if they are also substitutional instances for ‘x’ in hypothetical judgments (whereby we are able to recognize their alterations)…. The ‘simple’ judgments (categorical judgments) by means of which we cognize things under concepts reflecting their essence, are thus possible only under the condition that we also generate ‘composite’ or ‘complex’ judgments (hypothetical or disjunctive judgments), by means of which we cognize a thing under its accidental marks, in universal correlation with all other things cognized in space and time” (p. 397).

“For Kant’s table of logical functions of judgment turns out to be, according to it author, an exposition of the minimal norms of discursive thinking necessary for us to be able to recognize and reidentify objects under concepts. And the infamous ‘transcendental synthesis of imagination’ turns out to be the complex web of perceptual combinations by means of which we take up sensible data into what we, in present times, have come to term ‘the space of reasons’” (p. 398).

Nexus

If what we are in the most comprehensive sense is the aimed-at realization of an ethos within the context of an organic life, then even though who we distinctively are is mainly a matter of ethos, the aimed-at ethical “self” will not be just a currently actualized ethos or unity of apperception, but a fully rounded practical being involved in all sorts of doings, which will also continue to be a work in progress as long as we live. Such a “self” will not have a strict logical identity, but rather something like what Ricoeur called narrative identity. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Two Kinds of Character; Personhood; Self, Infinity; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Kantian Intentionality

Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel.  He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.  

The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant.  According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something.  Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.  

“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving.  What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for….  Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment….  This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).

For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”.  The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts.  Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.

Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.

What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs.  Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment.  (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)

In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be.  Judgments are supposed to be about how things are.  To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.

What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.

Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.

Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception.  Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).  

“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons….  [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).

Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception.  And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).

“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid).  Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).

A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense).  As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41).  Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.

All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity.  “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).

The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said.  This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance.  As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.

Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said.  “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).

The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.

Judgments

I usually think of judgment as a process of interpretation or a related kind of wisdom, but at least since early modern reformulations of Aristotelian logic, “a” judgment has also traditionally meant a logical proposition, or an assertion of a proposition.

An older, but still post-Aristotelian notion is that what the early moderns called a judgment “A is B” should be understood (on the model of its surface grammar) as the potentially arbitrary predication “A is B”. Such a potentially arbitrary predication by itself does not contain enough information for us to assess whether it is good or bad. The predication model was associated with a non-Aristotelian notion of truth as simple correspondence to supposed fact.

L. M. De Rijk, arguably the 20th century’s leading scholar on medieval Latin logic, developed a very detailed textual argument that the understanding of logical “judgments” in such grammatical terms is actually an unhistorical misreading of Aristotle. In the first volume of his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology, De Rijk concluded that Aristotle’s own logical or semantic use of “is” or “is not” should be understood not in the traditionally accepted way as a “copula” or binary operator of predication, but rather as a unary operator of assertion on a compound expression — i.e., on the pair (A, B), as opposed to its two elements A and B.

I also want to emphasize that Aristotle himself did not admit simple, potentially arbitrary predications as “judgments”. The special form of Aristotelian propositions makes them express not arbitrary atomic claims as is the case with propositions in the standard modern sense, but two specific ways of compounding subclaims. Aristotle’s two truth-value-forming operations of combination and separation (expressed by “is” and “is not”) limit the scope of what qualifies as a proper Aristotelian “judgment” to cases that are effectively equivalent to what Brandom would call judgments of material consequence or material incompatibility (see Aristotelian Propositions). What the moderns would call Aristotelian “judgments” thus end up more specifically reflecting judgments of what Brandom would call goodness of material inference.

Proper Aristotelian “judgments” thus turn out to express not just arbitrary predications constructed without regard to meaning, but particular kinds of compound claims that can in principle be rationally evaluated for material well-formedness as compound thoughts, based on the actual content of the claims being compounded. (Non-compound claims are just claims, and do not have enough content to be subject to such intrinsic rational evaluation, but as soon as there is some compounding, internal criteria for well-formedness come into play.)

So, fortuitously, modern use of the term “judgment” for these ends up having more substance than it would for arbitrary predications. For Aristotle, truth and falsity only apply to what are actually compound thoughts, because truth and falsity express assessments of material well-formedness, and only compound thoughts can be assessed for such well-formedness. The case for the fundamental role of concerns of normativity rather than simple surface-level predication in Aristotelian truth-valued propositions is further supported by the ways Aristotle uses “said of” relations.

Independent of this sort of better reading of Aristotle, Brandom in the first of his 2007 Woodbridge lectures points out that Kant also strongly rejected the traditional analysis of judgment in terms of predication. Brandom goes on to argue that for Kant, “what makes an act or episode a judging in the first place is just its being subject to the normative demand that it be integrated” [emphasis in original] into a unity of apperception. This holistic, integrative view of Kantian judgment seems to me to be strongly supported by Kant’s discussion of unities of apperception in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, as well as by the broad thrust of the Critique of Judgment.

Thus, a Kantian judgment also has more substance than the standard logical notion, but while an Aristotelian “judgment” gets its substantive, rational character from intra-propositional structure, a Kantian judgment gets it from inter-propositional structure.

Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.

Apperception, Identity

If personal identity is mainly emotional, while reason is at root trans-individual, it should make perfect sense that a Kantian unity of apperception or rational “I” would be quite different from a personal identity. In my view, there is no such thing as rational personal identity. There is emotional personal identity, there is rational coherence of thoughts, and there are various ways in which these may be interwoven. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Soul, Self; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Ego; What Is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation; Mind Without Mentalism; Subject.)

Desire, Coherence

We experience all sorts of passing and possibly conflicting impulses or wishes upon which we don’t necessarily act, and to which we never commit ourselves. It would not be appropriate to call these things that we “really” want.

Really wanting something implies what Aristotle would call a choice. This does involve a kind of ethical commitment. As Aristotle and Brandom might jointly remind us, to choose something is also inherently to choose whatever the realization of that thing requires; to choose what follows from the realization of that thing; and not to choose anything else that is incompatible with any of these. That is why Aristotle associates choice with deliberation. Just as emotion and reason interpenetrate in feeling, really wanting something implicitly has a rational and normative component as well as a desiring component.

Of course the possibility remains open that in particular cases, we may be unclear on what we want. In this case, we are back in the territory of wish and impulse. There is still some responsibility even here, but it is shared with others, and generally also matter for forgiveness. But as talking animals, if we explicitly say to someone that we want something, we are in the realm of choice and commitment, and we are responsible to be able to explain ourselves. Our participation in the universal community of ethical reason lifts organic desire into a defeasible rational desire. (See also Unity of Apperception; Dialogue; Scorekeeping.)