Monday, May 01, 2006

First-Person, Third-Person

I've been thinking lately about the various uses of "Dynamic" and "static" in Pirsig's philosophy, or rather Pirsigian philosophy, and one of those uses is to differentiate two "stances" towards experience. The static stance towards experience gives us things, whereas the Dynamic stance gives us fluid. Being in the static stance gives one demarcations between "this" and "that", but in the Dynamic stance you have a pond of undifferentiated singleness.

In fighting Dennett and Rorty's battle against the Cartesian Model of the Mind, one of the things they give us is a sense in which to have a "mind" is to speak in a particular way. This way is basically the first-person stance: "I think", "I see", "I seem to have", etc. The move Dennett and Rorty want to make, after realizing that "mind" and "consciousness" is created by a language game, is to say that we can have the stance, we just don't need the hypostatization, we don't need to think of the mind as a seperate essence from the body or the physical.

One of the responses to Dennettian/Rortyan philosophy of mind is that they are getting rid of a fundamental feature of reality, a fundamental feature of us, namely that of lived experience. We aren't just speaking in a certain way, we are enunciating what it is like to be us. These critics don't think Dennett is explaining what the mind is, they think he's explaining it away.

So it goes. One of the things that has got me thinking is Rorty's long-time puzzlement over Donald Davidson's sharp distinction between the mental and the physical. It wasn't until Bjorn Ramberg (a wonderful expositer of both Rorty and Davidson) wrote a paper for Rorty and His Critics that Rorty began to see what was going on and what the utility of it was. The gist of what I understand it to be is that Davidson is restating in his way the fundamental entwinement of the mental with the physical, the normative with the descriptive, the triangulated nature of person-community-world.

This is related in its way to the fact that there is a fundamental entwinement of what we can call the first-person and the third-person stance to phenomena. The accusation towards Dennettian philosophy of mind is roughly that his is getting rid of the first-person point of view, what it is like to be me, in favor of a thoroughly third-person stance. This is supposed because of his rendering of qualia, those irreducible elements of sensation that make up the bottom of the mind. Dennett, rather than explaining what qualia are, explains why we think we have qualia and then offers an alternative picture of what we have.

Against Dennett's sometimes scientism (whereby Dennett sometimes likes to think that he's getting at what we really do have instead of qulia), we have Rorty's sense of conversational efficacy. It doesn't pay to speak of qualia because the notion is the latest of a long line of Cartesian metaphors that simply reconstitute the Cartesian problematic of two essences: mind and matter. Instead, we should substitute different metaphors, like Dennett's Multiple Drafts Model. Rorty doesn't think Dennett's way of speaking gets at reality or our mind better, but he does think it may pay to speak that way when talking about what we have that other things, like rocks, do not.

The substitution of metaphors are for the first-person point of view, the way we look out into the world. I think there is another way of looking at this which suggests the same thing and goes on to suggest that the first-person and third-person point of view are entwined. The first-person point of view is typified by James' notion of the stream of consciousness. With Pirsig, it is roughly the Dynamic point of view, the undifferentiated soup of experience. The third-person point of view is typified by objects, things, differentiations of all kinds. In ZMM, the divorce of subject (first-person) from object (third-person) is given well by Pirsig's diagnostic of the parts of a motorcycle. He says one of the things to notice is that "the observer is missing." (ZMM, 75) And so comes Pirsig's distinction between romantic (first-person) and classic (third-person) to remedy the situation.

What I want to suggest is that the Cartesian problematic is due to a kind of confusion of modes. I don't often want to speak of "confusion," but I take this line of thinking to be a heuristic for thinking about it. So, we have the first-person stance, our stream of consciousness, lived experience, our subjectivity. And we also have the third-person stance, the objects of consciousness, a detached differentiation of things. Both stances are important and we can kinda' differentiate between them. We can think of the Cartesian problematic as arising because of a second tier of distinctions occuring under each half of the first first-person/third-person distinction. This second tier of distinctions is exactly the same as the first: first-person/third-person. This creates, then, four stances: first-person-first, first-person-third, third-person-first, and third-person-third.

Why would I create such a bewildering display? Because one of the things that is often parroted by philosophers of mind when they discuss what their subject is about is that humans are unique in having something that can be turned back on itself: having a mind allows us to reflect and we can turn it back on itself and reflect on our mind, be conscious of consciousness. This is the mistake (I think I have even read Dennett saying something to that effect). The entire point of the first-person stance is that it gives you undifferentiatedness. By turning that stance back on itself, you're reifying and differentiating the undifferentiated experience of consciousness. You are producing an essence of mind, as differentiated from the differentiated "things," i.e. (in Descartes' time) matter. In its latter day form, this is what gives us the problem of qualia. The first-person-first stance is just the undifferentiated soup of experience, but the first-person-third treats the undifferentiated soup as a thing. The mistake is in then denying that you are taking the third-person point of view.

This is what creates the problems. The paramount fact of the (pure) third-person stance is that of differentiation. As Pirsig tells us to notice about the motorcycle diagnostic, "there is a knife moving here. ... You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently and organized quite differently depending on how the knife moves." (75-6) This is Pirsig's renunciation of essentialism, of the view that there are any essences, including a Cartesian one named "mind." What realists of the mind (those who take the first-person-third stance, those who defend qualia against Dennett) want to suggest is that there is something fundamental about the mind that cannot be cut away by slicing the knife differently. Qualia will always be there for us to explain, you cannot explain it away. It is a fundamental fact of existence. But once you've admitted Pirsig is right about the intellectual knife, you don't get "fundamental facts of existence." All facts are contingent of the movement of the knife, and so by different moves we can get different facts. This is the point of Dennettian/Rortyan philosophy of mind: they are suggesting different knife movements.

The first-person-third tries to differentiate the undifferentiatedness, thus creating the problem of consciousness (Descartes' cogito, our contemporaries' qualia). The other conjoined quarter, the third-person-first, I weakly suggest, can be thought of as that other great Cartesian problem: the Problem of Other Minds. (The heuristic starts to look a little silly now, but the first point is the main one.) Instead of accidently differentiating the undifferentiated like the first-person-third, the third-person-first stance starts in differentiation mode and then tries to explain the existence of undifferentiatedness. It's roughly the attempt to deny neo-verificationism (of the kind Dennett and Rorty espouse, not the kind Carnap and Ayer devoted themselves to). So, roughly goes the heuristic, we know we have a consciousness (because I can look back at myself, take the first-person-third stance), but how do we know others have a consciousness? How do we know they can take a first-person stance? They are an object of my consciousness (third-person stance indicative), but how can their consciousness by an object of my consciousness (third-person-first)?

Alright, that's the end of that. It's just a (somewhat unwieldy) heuristic. The point of all this is that we shouldn't be trying to differentiate the undifferentiatedness of the first-person stance. If you want the first-person stance, take the God damn first-person stance and stop muddying it up with differentiations. Another way of putting this is reflecting on the Buddhist idea of Nothingness. I don't claim to understand it much, but I take it to be something of a statement of antiessentialism. There are no essences. Sartre went in this direction (and made the fundamental first-person-third mistake by being a something of a Cartesian/Husserlian) by saying that the arrow of consciousness that points out of our "self", our ego, is not, in fact, buoyed by a dot demarcating a self, an ego. It's just an arrow pointing in some direction. That's how Sartre differentiated himself from Descartes (by denying the essence of mind), but that's how he was still, somewhat, caught in the picture (by roughly taking this whole heuristic I developed too seriously).

Another way to put all this is to go back to the idea of the mind turning back on itself as the key mistake of realist philosophers of mind. Identifying that as a mistake turns up an unusual chorus of similar statements about other similar subjects. For instance, what about language turning back on itself, or reason, or (in Derridean flavor) the text? The chorus of the pragmatists, that the Buddhists join in, is captured by Donald Davidson: "There is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what philosophers, at least, have supposed." ("A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs") Davidson said this in similar circumstances as Dennett is uttering "there is no such thing as a mind, not if a mind is anything like what Cartesian philosophers, at least, have supposed," and both similar to when Bloom roughly utters "there is no such thing as a text, not if a text is anything like what traditional lit-crits, or Derrideans, for that matter, have supposed" (see the earlier "Bloom and Criticism") and all them in similar circumstances as when the Buddha roughly says, "there is no such thing as a 'thing,' not if a thing is anything like what unenlightened people, at least, have supposed." I take them all to be ringing antiessentiatlistic notes, for their allotted subjects of interest.

I want to end by briefly taking up the idea of the entwinement of the first- and third-person stances. What I mean by that is that, much like Putnam's entwinement of fact and value and Davidson's entwinement of person-community-world, both stances are entwined because both are inescapable. We do have points of view, an experience of life that is from our point of view, and not some shared point of view (which is kinda' what objectivity aspires to). We don't share what's going on in our head. But the advent of Wittgenstein suggests that we do, in a fashion, share what's going on in our head, that we do have a shared point of view--that's the shared nature of language. This is far too much to go into in detail, but I think the essential notion I'd like to drive at is the entwinement of Dynamic and static.

There are many, many ways to put this (just because there are many, many ways to describe and use Dynamic/static), but one of them is as this formula: without Dynamic there is no static, but without static there is no Dynamic. I think that second half has been missing far too long in Pirsigian philosophy and it is hindering some of its exposition. It's paradoxical, but without differentiation, there is no undifferentiation (no first-person stance without a distinction between first- and third-person), and without undifferentiation, there is no differentiation (there's nothing to differentiate without experience, life). We should not coutenance any notion of something being Given to us in experience, either with cuts premade (ala realism) or without any cuts at all (ala Kantian-bred antirealism). Part of what it is to experience, as Pirsig teaches us with Quality, is to experience differentiations, but these differentiations of value are partly constituted by the differentiations that make us up, our ego, our self as a set of static patterns of value. Reality neither has joints, nor do we apply a cookie-cutter to the formless dough. We are all in this together.

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