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Western Subjectivism

Western subjectivism can be defined as any view that takes thought to be what grounds all accounts of reality. From a Western subjectivist perspective, you might say, is there any other possibility? How could it be the case that any account of reality was not grounded in thought? The answer is that, as we have seen, there is the possibility of the formless and of consciousness as having an experiential dimension and a key for understanding reality as something that thought can only point to. The formless cannot be understood by thought. Western subjectivism denies this possibility. It says that everything must revolve around the conscious, thinking mind. Western subjectivism has led to:

  • 1. A Misunderstanding of Consciousness: From the perspective of Western subjectivism, consciousness has no reality other than in terms of what can be grasped by thought. But from an Eastern meditative perspective, you are grounded in a conscious universe through consciousness and that is your fundamental reality. The misunderstanding is to think (as Einstein might have put it), as if blinded by optical illusions of consciousness, that you have no deep connection to a conscious universe other than in its manifest material form.
  • 2. A Misunderstanding of Metaphysics: Western subjectivism neglects to consider the fact that you are grounded in a conscious universe through consciousness. Instead it paints a picture of ourselves in terms of our own subjectivity in relation to objective reality. In many cases, the objective reality can never be known or even meaningfully posited, yet it is discussed as unobtainable and turned into a problem or something that falls by the wayside, leaving the subject dangling uncomfortably ungrounded. This latter case is true for schools that follow the poststructuralist path of analysis. In other cases, reality is deemed know- able. This is the case for the materialists of science and philosophy, who claim that the mind can be understood through theories of functionalism, physicalism, or behaviorism, or through other materialist theories as an objective entity without any transcendent dimension of consciousness. The part that is missing in metaphysics is consciousness as the formless. As long as this element is missing, metaphysics will always be grounded in form or the thought processes of a thinking subject.
  • 3. Identification with Thought and Ego: Western subjectivism has led to an unfortunate identification with thought and ego. This identification is strong in the work of Descartes, Husserl, and Freud, but it is also strong in the work of Sartre, and it is very much present in the work of the late Heidegger, who attempted to escape it. Heidegger—having abandoned philosophy because it, as he thought, was grounded in the Nietzschean will to power—nevertheless sought a new way to understand being in terms of thought through a radically new way of thinking. What if he had instead come to affirm the formless—consciousness as that which grounded him to reality beyond the reach of thought? Perhaps then he could have avoided becoming trapped in the thought structures of Nazism and the superiority of a particular culture.
  • 4. Alienation: Western subjectivism leads to an estrangement and isolation from what has sometimes been called core consciousness, or what we have described as the formless or simply consciousness. The Western subjectivist is so identified with mind and form that he or she comes to live a life of searching for a sense of identity without ever finding it. As the world revolves around creating some kind of sense of a form-based identity, the Western subjectivist comes to see himself or herself in the strangest of terms. The materialist sees himself or herself as a random collocation of particles. The materialist believes there is no other way to view himself or herself, and the rest of the universe, other than in such terms, because he or she understands all of reality in terms of thought structures that he or she understands as objective and capable of articulating reality without leaving anything essential out. The radical postmodernist comes to engage in a dialectic with symbols and signs in an effort to rule out what is not objective, i.e., the stories of foundationalist philosophy and science. For the radical postmodernist, this dance of subjectivism leaves the postmodernist to be a vehicle of form driven by the network of signs and cultural symbols in which he or she exists both synchronically and diachronically. In such a world, the radical postmodernist has no fixed identity, but all the world, and whatever identity the postmodernist has, become a matter of form—of the forms through which he or she understands himself and “reality” as always being mediated.
  • 5. A Loss of Consciousness: Form identification has become adopted at the cost of the formless. Add to this the (historically speaking) new phenomenon of information technology and our modern, online ways of being, and it is easy to see how the identification with form has accelerated since the 1960s, when Heidegger came to remark that “cybernetics” (Sheehan 1981, p. 59)—his word for what we call information technology—was the realization of Plato’s philosophy. We live in a world of information, an online world that we can manipulate in much the same way as Plato manipulated his own thoughts.

Within that online world, we have become much like Clark and Chalmers suggested (Clark and Chalmers 1998): extended minds. We use information technology as extensions of our minds. We humans have for decades been extending our minds in this way, essentially along the lines delineated by interactive computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart in his work Augmenting the Human Intellect in the 1960s (Engelbart 1962). The whole field of interactive computing evolved as an effort to extend the human intellect. The pioneers of this approach thought that augmenting the human intellect would give us more powerful minds, that we would form systems together with computers that could think as total systems, unlike either of its parts alone. As the approach was pioneered in the 1960s by Engelbart and his team of researchers, it brought about the invention of the mouse and most modern interaction techniques, and also the idea of online interaction. What it did not bring about, however, was an understanding of what would happen to us as interactive computing became commonplace. The pioneers of interactive computing focused on the engineering necessary to bring about augmentation of the human intellect, but they assumed that the human intellect would not change in itself as a result of that augmentation. Of course we can use the terms “extended” and “augmented” synonymously here. Then we can see better that the whole extended-mind approach has been one of either creating conditions for the extended mind to be realized—as in the case of the pioneers of interactive computing—or to articulate what extended minds would mean in terms of cognitive operations. We now need to consider also how the human mind, as unextended, changes through being intermittently extended. There is, in the notion of extension, an assumption of mechanical or systematic contingencies between brain and machine. Thus, the brain stands in a relation of conditioning to that which extends it. What does this conditioning mean for ourselves as human beings? What does it mean for our thought patterns and for consciousness? The contingencies of the extended mind allow not only for empowered minds, as Engelbart envisioned, but also for minds that thrive on thought processes as being extended over bits and bytes—hyperactive, always online, always-thinking minds. And those minds will lose consciousness—will lose contact with the formless—the stronger the conditioning gets.

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr (2010) does not go much into the history of interactive computing or the literature on the extended mind, yet his work complements the tradition of research on the extended mind with an important dimension—namely, what happens to the nature of human thought on the whole, not just in terms of how it becomes extended into a larger informationprocessing system, but also in terms of qualitative changes. Carr stresses how we have replaced deep with shallow thinking, but more importantly, it seems to me that we have replaced consciousness with incessant thinking. Thus, the shallow thinking Carr describes would, from an Eastern meditative perspective, be seen as a loss of consciousness in a replacement for conditioned states of mind. One could say that it is, in a sense, Western subjectivism that has led to the development of shallow minds. For it is minds that unwittingly seek identification with information processes that seemingly promise a way of stabilizing their existence, and their sense of who they are, that have become shallow.

6. Dangerous Unconsciousness: The terrorist comes to identify with thought structures that purport to represent his or her identity, enmeshed within a doctrinal complex of stories. Terrorist networks operate in terms of recruiting practices that work through stories of who they and their recruits are. Their goal is for the potential recruit to identify with a picture of him or herself as being mistreated by the entire society around them. The only ones who are not mistreating the potential recruit are supposedly the terrorists that are trying to recruit him. According to anthropologist Dounia Bouzar from the Council of Europe (Bouzar 2016), the most common strategy follows these steps: (1) isolating the recruit from their social environment. This is done through stories about how the recruit is mistreated by their social environment and culture. Once this is done, (2) the recruit is asked to consider the possibility that he is living in the Matrix or some other world of illusion (often with direct reference to the Matrix), an environment where most people are like unconscious drones, and only the recruit and his newfound terrorist friends are fully conscious. The recruit will now have to make a choice: to either go on living unconsciously, like all of the drones around him, or wake up. (3) The recruit chooses to “wake up” and now is in a state of total rejection of friends, family, and other people in his environment. At this point, the recruit breaks with his family, friends, and all other people in his now considered deadened, somnambulistic prior life. The truth, of course, is that the recruit has not woken up at all. The recruit has—from an Eastern meditative perspective—lost consciousness through an identification with form. The recruit believes he or she knows who he or she is through such identification. The only thing that can bring him or her back now, according to Bouzar, is the evocation of emotionally loaded past memories. They seemingly have the power to wake the recruit up, but it may take months or even years before that happens. From an Eastern meditative perspective, this would be a matter of gaining consciousness through compassion, which can happen only from within conscious awareness. Think of the love felt by a parent looking into the eyes of his or her newborn; there is a connection there that is one of consciousness without identification with form. There is a sense of compassionate love and a sense of shared consciousness. From an Eastern meditative perspective, it is this connection that is the most fundamental between people—not connections based on form or shared ideologies. Deprogramming a terrorist can thus be seen as not really an act but patient waiting for consciousness to be rekindled in an atmosphere of nonopposition and conscious compassion. It is the opposite approach to that of the terrorist organization that indoctrinated the recruit with form.

The school shooter or other mass shooter comes to identify with a structure of aggression and destruction in relation to stories, crafted over time, of how the subject has been treated by others and the status of the entire world, including himself and others, as valueless. The process is much the same as for the recruited terrorist, only the school shooter manages to go through the indoctrination process by himself. Moreover, the school shooter may also end up in a place without any ideologies at all. It may be that the story of how the school shooter has been mistreated is sufficient. The school shooter can then find himself (so far, female school shooters are rare) in a situation of wanting total destruction of his enemies and also himself. The newspapers have worked hard during the past two decades on stories about what has driven various school shooters, but from an Eastern meditative perspective, the common thread is a loss of consciousness and a subsequent identification with thought forms. The school shooter has managed to produce stories about himself, the world, and other people, and those stories ultimately drive the school shooter into deep unconsciousness to the point where other people and often he himself lack value. The school shooter can stand neither himself nor other people as form takes over and he loses consciousness. To bring someone back from such unconscious?ness would—from an Eastern meditative perspective—be to an important extent (as with the terrorist) a matter of conscious compassionate waiting for a rekindling of consciousness.

There is much to be said for Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of fascism in terms of emptying our cultural lives of ideals and values. Yet what they miss is one important component. They miss the identification of the self with thought structures at the cost of the formless. So, for example, when Heidegger campaigns in favor of the fascists during the Second World War, he has come to identify with thought structures that blind him to the values of people—both himself and others. All fascists during the Second World War had ideas about themselves that took them over and thereby engaged them in unconscious processes of conditioned thought. There was not enough consciousness to break the conditioning. According to the analysis provided here, the fascist is really someone who is entirely caught up in conditioned thought structures that blind him. As far as one can tell, Heidegger remained unconscious for the rest of his life, conditioned by such thought structures. He remained a Nazi Party member until the very end and failed to express any regrets about his campaigning for the Nazis during the war. The fact that he sought to look for being in terms of a new kind of thinking, like no one had thought before, resonates with an overall thought process that sees himself as a new kind of person—one who can think in new ways at the end of philosophy, and one who thereby transcends effectively the rest of humanity. That Heidegger criticizes Nietzsche for having been all interested in power, with philosophy as an egoic process of seeking power is, in this light, ironic. For Heidegger—with his sophisticated, etymological, and poetic language—managed only to cover up and thereby strengthen the view that we have here termed “Western subjectivism.” Heidegger remained fettered to the idea that being could only be grasped by heroic thought processes of a new super thinker, presumably himself or someone who could understand him. It was this new “super thinker” or “harbinger” of a super thinker who was disappointed with the Nazis because they failed to live up to his expectations, and who felt that Hitler owed him an apology (Kitchen 2006, p. 10).

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