Arendt on thinking and speaking

Huzeyfe asked:

I came across this in Hannah Arendt’s book: Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy:

“Thinking, as Kant agreed with Plato, is the silent dialogue of myself with myself, and that thinking is a ‘solitary business’ (as Hegel once remarked) is one of the few things on which all thinkers were agreed. Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even hear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear.”

I could not quite understand what is signaled in the last sentence. What does “this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear”? Can you elaborate? Also, can you add your thoughts on this thinking?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Something might have got lost in translation. Try this instead:

“When you are deep in thought, you might hardly take notice of anyone in your company; you might ignore them when they speak, perhaps not even hearing them. On the other hand, if you cannot communicate your solitary thoughts to them, either in speech or in writing, and thereby give others the opportunity to weigh them up, the exertion of your faculties in those moments of solitude will vanish when you are finished, as if it never happened.”

I think the plain meaning of this passage is that thinking is a solitary activity; two people thinking are also solitary, even sitting side by side, each with their own thoughts. But the thinking faculty is helpless in bringing thoughts “into the world”, sooner or later you must speak. Then they will not vanish without a trace; they will be considered by others. Then they will either make their way or be sidelined. But communication is the key for any thoughts that do not wish to be soliloquistic.

Does a hidden object exist?

Xavier asked:

I’m trying to explain to my friends about things existing. I gave them this question: if you place a pencil in an opaque box and close the box, does the pencil exist? They say yes and I ask how do they know and why. All they come up with is “because I put the pencil in there”. I’m having a tough time explaining why the pencil ceases to exist once you close the box.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m not surprised that you’re having a “tough time”. You’ve done nothing other than hide the object. Meanwhile everyone of your interlocutors is in a position to demonstrate that your assertion of non-existence is nonsense.

All I can say by way of slight remedy is this: That someone coming into the room later and seeing the box, would not know there is a pencil in it. But again this says nothing about existence or non-existence. I think you’ve muddled up a dictum you might have read somewhere, that certifying existence is a privilege of living creatures. This has no relevance to your context, and especially so when plain concealment is your only argument. In short, you have to do better than this!

Where do my words come from?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control – something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad – can you enlighten me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You are quite right in sensing that you are “not in control”, but the other part (something is living my life) does not follow. Your brain is still your brain-the core of your persona. You need to understand that this organ has to work at speeds which are unimaginable to us and therefore simply inaccessible to consciousness.

But the answer to your question of “Where do the words come from?” is relatively simple. Learning to speak involves amassing words, phrases, adages, synonyms, slang and their semantics in memory, together with pronunciation, idioms, syntax, grammar. This is your resource. It is activated when you speak, your thoughts passing through the speech cortex into the appropriate motor cortices (throat, tongue, lips, jaws, sometimes nose too). But the same rules apply here, as with other faculties of the brain. All this happens so fast that “you” are barely conscious of either thinking or speaking, which is one reason why we often say things we didn’t mean or grab the wrong words. – You should ask yourself how much thinking you do during a rapid-fire debate or argument. Mostly minimal, sometimes none at all. The secret, if I may call it that, lies with your intentions: as long as they are translatable into speech, your cortices will do that work for you.

The crux of this matter is, accordingly, your intentions. The brain and its faculties exist to facilitate them. The speed at which they operate does not exclude you from control or your sense of selfhood. To grasp this, consider anaesthetised people. Their body and brain are still alive and functioning, but for some time they cannot exert their intentionality.

So you’ll also find an answer here to the endless debate about whether we think in or with words. My answer is “no”, because it’s possible only in circumstances of quiet and deliberate concentration. This is the slow train to the goal of finding a good or the best articulation of what you wish to express, which you can then memorise or write down. It is obviously impossible in any animated or excited environment, such as mentioned above. The redeeming factor is that a rich verbal resource makes it easier for the relevant cortices to extract the most suitable means of expression for your verbal intentions.

In sum: “You”, as a person, are always in the driver’s seat. This does not necessarily entail consciousness-no more than you are conscious of the activity of kidneys, liver, pancreas etc. They purr along all by themselves, and only rise into consciousness when something goes wrong. Likewise your brain does all the hard slog of finding the words and phrases you wish to speak in a matter of microseconds, that otherwise you would have no hope of dredging up from your verbal memory.

The real mystery is, of course, caught by the word ‘intention’. We still don’t know what it is, how it works, nor how many of our body processes are entangled in it. So I would risk a variant on Kant’s “Unity of apperceptions” for the proposition that a person is the “Unity of intentional faculties”. Hope this goes some way to answering your question.

Is metaphysics still a valid philosophy?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

With all due respects to prevailing opinions on metaphysics, I’m going to be so brash as to say that most post-Aristotelian metaphysics is not metaphysics at all, but merely a philosophical veneer for theology, mysticism, spiritualism and other pursuits of this ilk. Under those terms it is easy to agree with anyone who calls it a waste of time (starting, incidentally, with Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan).

Let us therefore consider the meaning of the word! What is meta and what is physics, and how come they were compounded?

Well now: We all know what physics is, i.e. study of the physical world with a view to framing theories of “What is?”. Hence matter, energy, thermodynamics etc., some of which is amenable to being turned into technology. No issues.

What about “meta”? It means “with”, “after”, “around”, “belonging to” in some ways. Take note now: as combined, these words spell out that metaphysics is something that is in some way copulated with physics, but is not physics in itself.

So much for meaning. I think you (or anyone) would now have difficulty puzzling out where gods and angels, ghosts and witches fit in! Even for those believe(d) in them, they are exactly the opposite of what physics is concerned with.

But then, what is “meta”-physics really?

Answer: They are items that belong to physics, but are not existents. Such as: Cause, beginning, end, force, fundamental principle, element, necessity, contingency, substance, being, identity, difference, potential, quality, relation, limit etc etc. All these can be found in Aristotle’s “Philosophical Lexicon”, that is part of his book on Metaphysics. Today, this kind of research is called “Theoretical Physics”; but as you can see, it is metaphysics – the real metaphysics.

The philosophical discipline which goes under the same name is simply a hangover from the scholastic era when everyone, including theologians, firmly believed in the actual existence of spirit beings of all kinds; they believed moreover that earthly existence is not real and that physical existents were mere phenomena. Yet it is on these terms that the word “metaphysics” is still misconstrued, although for philosophers, even academics, there was certainly no warrant to persist with it for at least the last 200 years.

After this explanation, you might usefully approach your question from a different angle. Metaphysics is neither theology nor mysticism; therefore the pseudo-metaphysics targeted by your question has no place in modern philosophy. But the genuine article still has relevance, because its agenda is wider than theoretical physics alone; and you would not wish to dismiss the idea that Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Adorno, even Whitehead still made significant contributions to it. They are indeed heirs of the great metaphysical systems of the 19th century (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer et al.), which finally linked up again with the authentic metaphysics of the men from Thales to Aristotle, and Descartes to Leibniz.

My hope is, that you may now feel an urge to correct your inadvertent misuse of a philosophical nomenclature and seriously involve yourself with some of the finest and most far-reaching accomplishments of the human mind in history, to which the title ‘metaphysics’ is attached with full justice.

What is metaphysics?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

Metaphysics is the same subject that it was on the day it was named and always will be. Among contemporary philosophers there are two schools of thought.

For the professional academic metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time. This renders the whole of professional academic philosophy incomprehensible and a waste of time. This is made clear in the current edition of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics where metaphysics is described as unscientific, inconclusive and absent any decision-making procedure. Most philosophers of the Academy ignore metaphysics and form their opinions on philosophical issues as suits them.

For philosophers who take it seriously metaphysics is not merely a valid field of enquiry but the most important and valuable of all fields, If we do not understand metaphysics then for us philosophy must be a muddle of competing unworkable theories and inadequate conjectures. Thus Kant calls academic metaphysics an ‘arena for mock fights’.

The second school of thought would say that metaphysics is comprehensible and has an excellent system for making decisions and arriving at firm conclusions. This school is called the Perennial philosophy. It explains metaphysics and claims it is comprehensible. This school would include Plotinus, Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu, Francis Bradley, D. E. Harding, George Spencer Brown, Sri Aurobindo and a long list of others who are ignored in the philosophy department. As it would also include me I’ll offer as link to my writings on this topic. You might like the essay ‘Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?’

To the question of whether metaphysics is considered a valid field of enquiry, then, there will be different answers depending on who you ask. Russell and Carnap would say not and it is difficult to think of any contemporary scientists who believe otherwise. It is not much easier to think of contemporary scholastic philosophers who believe otherwise. The Blackwell Guide states clearly that it is not a valid field.

The reason for this is that metaphysics is incomprehensible unless we assume that mysticism, specifically non-dualism,  is its correct solution. As a consequence, all philosophers who reject mysticism find metaphysics a hopeless and inconclusive area of study and so they often reject metaphysics as well. Meanwhile all metaphysical problems are solved by Nagarjuna in the second century in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a position known as the ‘Middle Way’, non-dualism, advaita, the perennial philosophy or mysticism. Those who endorse this view would argue that metaphysics is the way to unlock the secrets of the Cosmos. It’s your choice who to believe, but logic is on the side of Nagarjuna and Lao Tsu.

Thus we have two distinct global traditions of philosophy, one for which metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time and one for which it is a path to truth and understanding. This means an uncontroversial answer to your question is not possible, It has to be you who decides which is the correct view.

Who is doing the talking?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control — something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad — can you enlighten me?

Answer by Peter Jones

As you seem to have already surmised, you ask a question that leads you straight into the depths of Yoga and meditation. Stilling the inner voice is a goal and a benefit. You say that when it is stilled you see pictures and have feelings, but the meditator will want to transcend these as well.

Fear not, you are not mad, or not obviously so, for thinking that someone else is living your life and you are just observing. The topic is too extensive for a simple answer but here’s an extract from The Ultimate Understanding by Ramesh Balsekar.  It may not make immediate sense but you’ll see the connection.

“Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing — the positive doing and the negative not-doing — are both aspects of ‘doing’.  How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life — and everyone else’s life — is being lived.”

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ — who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?”

I hope the connection with your question will be apparent. For a deeper understanding of this view and the meaning of this feeling you have that your life is being lived while ‘you’ simply observe  you would need to study mysticism.

For the full story you could try Krishna Prem’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. This would be diving in at the deep end. To just get your toes wet you could try any introduction to Buddhist doctrine. If you search on YouTube for teachers of non-dualism  there are many relevant talks.and interviews. Rupert Spira, Mooji and Sadhguru would be three good examples and all talk about the issue you are asking about. For a gentle introduction you could try Carlos Castenada’s entertaining series of stories about his meetings with his teacher Don Juan, who spends much time persuading Carlos to still his inner voice and learn to live without it.

The only way you’ll get to the bottom of this issue is to study it by way of meditation since being told about it is not really much help, but there is a vast literature explaining that what we usually think of as ‘me’ is not ‘me’ at all but a fiction, while it is the observer who is non-fictional. This is the Perennial philosophy, and the Enneads of Plotinus would be as good a place to start as any.

It’s a fascinating, exciting and life-changing area of research. Good luck with it.

Was Fichte a solipsist? (contd.)

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Lucy, I entirely sympathise with your question!! It is entirely understandable to read Fichte as proffering a variant of solipsism. I often used to struggle with the same issue.

Confusingly, in the first section of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Theoretical Knowledge’, Fichte frequently uses the terms ‘Absolute Self’ and ‘Consciousness’. This concerns the synthesis of the Transcendental Categories to empirical Intuitions. This is achieved by a dialectic between the Absolute Self and Non-Self. This occurs unconsciously. It is how our perception of the world happens and it is happening now, as you read this answer.

In the second part of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Knowledge of the Practical’, the ‘Intelligent Self’ is discussed. This is how the Self becomes aware of itself. The infinite striving of the Absolute Self encounters opposition with the Not-Self. The latter limits the former. Instead of striving outwards, the Absolute Self now strives inwards, concentrating on the finite Self. The intermediation with the Non-Self furnishes knowledge of it and importantly, knowledge of the finite Self itself.

On this basis, a conclusion of solipsism could be drawn.

However, an aspect of the Non-Self that limits the finite Self is of course, another Self or selves. Admittedly, this is not discussed in the ‘Science’ but, is discussed at greater length in Fichte’s later work ‘Foundations of Natural Right’. (1797). Here, the Second Theorem states:

“The finite, rational being cannot ascribe to itself a free efficacy in the sensible world without ascribing itself to others and thus, without also presupposing the existence of other finite rational beings outside of itself.” (P. 29 ibid)

In other words, the finite self can only become self-conscious of itself in the presence of other, finite selves. Any awareness of a self presupposes other selves, the social ‘We’ precedes the individual ‘I’. This obviously rules out allegations of Solipsism.

Fichte’s account of self-consciousness and others is elaborated upon and developed in the second section of FWJ Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) and both chapters on ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Self-Consciousness’ in GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

Hope this is of use Lucy.