Friday, November 23, 2007

Pre-reflective Consciousness: A Fichtean Intervention

Lately, I have been doing some research on the I, self-reference, and pre-reflective consciousness. This research, as you might guess, is for my dissertation on Fichte and self-consciousness. I want to make a Fichtean intervention into some debates about the I, self-reference and pre-reflective consciousness. In that spirit, here are some thoughts and remarks about the troubles I find in the way some phenomenologists are handling things.

There seems to be a false dichotomy operative in the way in which some philosophers talk about the role of the I in reflective consciousness and pre-reflective consciousness, and I think the dichotomy has been put forward primarily by phenomenologists like Sartre and Dreyfus.

Here is what I take the dichotomy to be. On the one hand, there is a form of consciousness that involves no ego, I, or reflective subject. Dreyfus, following primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, calls this absorbed coping. Sartre, depending on the translation, calls it pre-reflective consciousness or unreflective consciousness (I prefer pre-reflective consciousness, in part because it appears to have become somewhat standard). On the other hand, there is reflective consciousness, the form of consciousness where the I appears or is operative.

The dichotomy straight out is: pre-reflective/no-I OR reflective/I.

About the egoless or I-less form of consciousness, Sartre famously writes, “When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I” [1]. In his recent debate with McDowell, Dreyfus concurs with Sartre by first quoting the same passage from Sartre and then concluding, “In general, when one is totally absorbed in one’s activity, one ceases to be a subject” [2].

One might say what they really means is that the I is implicit in pre-reflective consciousness or absorbed coping. Sartre sometimes speaks of the I as appearing, which might lead one to believe there is an implicit I that only appears in some instance where it is made explicit or is reflected out of its implicit state. Sartre writes for instance, “the I never appears except on the occasion of a reflective act” [3]. At least for Dreyfus, the I is not even implicit in absorbed coping, and I suspect the same goes for Sartre. Dreyfus writes, “Samuel Todes adds in Body and World, that we not only have to face things to deal with them, but, as we do so, our body is led to balance itself in the gravitational field. According to Todes, in this and many other ways perception can be seen to be a skilled bodily accomplishment that goes on without an explicit or implicit sense of an ‘I’ who is doing it” [4].

I grant that there are two distinct phenomena, pre-reflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. I also accept that we can learn a good bit about each form of consciousness phenomenologically. I don’t however think we can conclude from a phenomenology of pre-reflective consciousness that it is egoless or I-less simply because it does not appear to us phenomenologically. I think there is some kind of descriptive fallacy in such a move. If something does not appear in order to be described, then it is not operative in the phenomenon. Dreyfus seems to commit such a move when he writes, “There is no place in the phenomenology of fully absorbed coping for mindfulness. In flow, as Sartre sees, there are only attractive and repulsive forces drawing appropriate activity out of an active body” [5]. Mindfulness I take to be McDowell's notion for a kind of minimal I-hood. What McDowell might mean by this is not my concern here.

So why the false dichotomy? Here might be a counter-example of sorts. Imagine you are in an argument with a lover. The argument has gotten so heated that you are both yelling at each other. Throughout most of the argument you are carefully reflecting on what your partner says, and thinking about how you will respond. You say things like, “That’s not exactly what I meant”, or “I never did that.” There is a moment in which you become so fed up you lose control of your reflective capacities, and upon becoming completely absorbed in the argument you begin to rant. Your rant continues for, say, 2 minutes without you even realizing it or being completely aware of what you are saying or doing. You just act, simply speak (or yell). After your rant, everything is silent and you think, “What the hell did I just say?” Your partner is fully aware of what you said. During your rant you said things like “I hate fighting with you” and “I’m so tired of this” etc.

In this example of absorbed coping, the I does not disappear. You begin in reflective consciousness, your anger throws you into pre-reflective consciousness, and then the silence kicks you back into a reflective state. If this is right, then the dichotomy between pre-reflective/no-I OR reflective/I is troubling.

You might respond to my example by noting that it involves utterances of ‘I’ and in some way cooks the books. You might think that because it requires speaking or utterances it’s not truly a form of pre-reflective consciousness. True, it does involve ‘I’ but, I think in a pre-reflective way. The examples phenomenologists often use to analyze pre-reflective consciousness or absorbed coping involve merely actions or bodily movements, e.g., running after a street car, opening a door, former Yankee Chuck Knoblauch throwing the ball to first base. These examples involve skills and expertise of different kinds. Sartre, however, mentions the example of contemplating a painting, which would plausibly involve some form of thinking and linguistic competence. Furthermore, we could imagine singers entering absorbed coping in the same way Knoblauch does or actors for that matter. So I don’t think the charge that the example involves language and not merely bodily movement is cause for alarm.

In a future post I will attempt to provide other reasons why the dichotomy is troubling, but I’m curious whether people find this counter-example compelling.

I say this is somewhat of a Fichtean-intervention because I think the Sartrean view is too strong, if it actually denies that there is some, perhaps minimal role of the I in pre-reflective consciousness. In other words, I think Fichte would find Sartre’s denial of the I in pre-reflective consciousness incoherent, since every form of consciousness involves the I. If we better understand the structure of pre-reflective consciousness, we might find that it resembles in fundamental ways reflective consciousness. Sartre would reply, “The error consists in confusing the essential structure of reflective acts with the essential structure of unreflected acts” [6]. What seems magical on the Sartrean view is how in reflective consciousness one can self-ascribe or claim ownership over acts and thoughts that occurred pre-reflectively.

[1] Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, (trans.) Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick (New York: Noonday Press, 1957) pp. 48-9.
[2] Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2007) "Response to McDowell", Inquiry, 50:4, 371-377, p. 373.
[3] Dreyfus, p. 375
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., p. 374
[6] Sartre, p. 55.


Daniel Lindquist said...

Dreyfus is in no position to make the objection you consider, at least. From his "Reply to McDowell", immediately before he quotes the Sartre bit you mentioned, p. 373:
"But absorbed coping is not just another name for involved coping. It is involved coping at its best. Experts experience periods of performance, variously called ‘‘flow’’, ‘‘in the groove’’ and ‘‘in the zone’’, when everything becomes easier, confidence rises, time slows down, and the mind, which usually monitors performance, is quieted. Yet performance is at its peak. Something similar happens to each of us when any activity from taking a walk, to being absorbed in a conversation, to giving a lecture is going really well. That is, whenever we are successfully and effortlessly finding our way around in the world. Athletes in such situations say they are playing out of their heads, and in much of our everyday coping, so are we." (emphasis mine)

I recall thinking at the time that the suggestion that having a conversation or delivering a lecture needn't involve "the ego" was pretty strange. Noting that one could say "I think X" in the conversation or lecture certainly doesn't help matters.

So, your counter-example looks like it has teeth, to me.

Nice blog.

Gabriel Gottlieb said...

Daniel, Thanks for reading, and for the comment.

I don't quite follow what you're saying in the first sentence, "Dreyfus is in no position to make the objection you consider, at least."

Hope I'm not being obtuse here.

Do you mean he can't "meet" the objection I raise with the counter-example, since he himself provides similar examples, e.g., lecturing, in which. as he sees it, we are supposedly ego-less? If Dreyfus thinks we are ego-less when 'in the flow' of lecturing, then he would likely take my counter example to be ego-less too. But if that is the case then we are left without an account of the role the I has in the counter-example.

Given that Dreyfus provides lecturing as a kind of ego-less absorbed coping, I assume he would not want to "make" the objection I'm putting forward.

Thanks for highlighting the Dreyfus example of conversation and lecturing. It is strange that he does not consider that these examples, given the pervasive role of the 'I think' in such activities, might not be forms of absorption, at least not the kind of absorption he means to get at with the Knoblauch example. All I mean to suggest at this point is that there is a middle ground between reflection and absorption and that this middle ground is a kind of absorption in which an I is operative.

The next step would be to suggest that in all forms of absorbed coping the I is minimally operative.

Michael Macomber said...

Gabe, I am interested in your counter-example. Of course I'm thinking of it in terms of the difference between Artistic creation and Aesthetic reflection. I wonder if what you are getting at is a type of oscillation between different registers of the mind of the same "I." (Sorry if that is a crude way to put it, I'm not currently engaged with your specific terminology.) What I'm thinking of here is an oscillation between artistic production and aesthetic reflection within the same "I." My focus has shifted of late toward the dichotomy between artist and spectator (audience, critic, or philosopher) and your post has piqued my interest. Can't do more now, but I would like to talk to you about it further in the future. p.s. I might be able to cover for you Friday, I'll let you know by Monday.

Gabriel Gottlieb said...

Michael, The example of artistic production is an interesting one. I would suspect, much like you do, there to be within an individual a kind of absorbed coping in certain moments and moments of reflection (both aesthetic and non-aesthetic, e.g. "I think that that looks elegant", or "I'm tired of painting"), and if you want we can, as you suggest, say there is some oscillation between the two by the subject. That seems right. The point about aesthetic reflection is mentioned by Sartre. In the aesthetic case of absorbed coping, no I seems necessary, so Sartre and Dreyfus would argue.

The counter-example, if it is one, is meant to show there are cases of absorbed coping in which an I is present, at least minimally. Articulating what is meant by such a minimal presence would be a next step.

Daniel Lindquist said...

You mentioned Sartre & contemplating a painting; I just wanted to point out that Dreyfus is more obviously willing to claim that speaking/thinking can be "egoless". So he couldn't accuse you of "cooking the books" by using an example that included speech.

The modesty of your current stage of argument is noted.

(I had a longer comment, but Blogger ate it. Razzin' frazzin'....)

Unknown said...

Hey Gabe

I really enjoyed reading your assessment of the possible dichotomy in phenomenological descriptions of absorbed coping/prereflective intentionality and reflection.

I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you. In one of the first paragraphs you quote Dreyfus, who says "when one is totally absorbed in one’s activity, one ceases to be a subject”. I agree that this raises the problem of that dichotomy you were speaking of. I am not sure what the context was in which he was saying this, but could it be that he meant that phenomenologically speaking one ceases to experience oneself as a subject in that very activity? This would be a different claim from stating that I cease to be a subject altogether. You think it is problematic that Dreyfus & Todes state that "skilled bodily accomplishment[s]" go on "without an explicit or implicit sense of an 'I' 'who is doing it'. I am not sure If I agree with you that this indicates that "At least for Dreyfus, the I is not even implicit in absorbed coping", because I think there is a difference between not having a sense of an I in a certain activity and the I having disappeared completely. You rightfully point out at the end of your piece that it would be "magical on the Sartrean view ... how in reflective consciousness one can self-ascribe or claim ownership over acts and thoughts that occurred pre-reflectively." There are parts in Dreyfus' discussion with McDowell on freedom that indicate that Dreyfus would agree with you and with that, that he would also have to hold the view that the I never fully disappears. If I remember correctly he mentions that the ability to step back and reflect shows that we are able to take responsibility for our actions, and that the action is always ours. This would always require that there was an implicit I to whom this action can be ascribed in reflection. I would think that Dreyfus recognizes this condition, but maybe I am wrong. I should really get updated on his latest articles.
About your example with which you want to raise the dichotomy as problematic: You conclude that "in this example of absorbed coping, the I does not disappear." However, I think the example that you give could have been an example that Dreyfus could have given himself. As such, maybe the example itself doesn't counter Dreyfus' depiction of absorbed coping and, for example, retreating from this in cases of breakdown. But maybe an interesting question for Dreyfus could be how exactly we should envision the phenomenology of the 'disappearing subject/I'. The way I always tried to imagine absorbed coping was not as a total experience, isolated from more reflective activity going on, but as the 'body-subject's' ability to cope with a certain situation or certain elements in its environment in a pre-reflective way. The 'I' that I am is still there in that situation, but it is not concerned with those 'elements' in the situation that are being attended to pre-reflectively. Do you think that would make the 'dichotomy' less problematic or disappear?
On the example itself: I definitely agree with you that the fact that your example of unreflective coping was linguistic is unproblematic. I would think that what Dreyfus calls flow can easily be applied to the flow of everyday verbal exchange: saying 'sorry' when you bump into someone on the street, but also giving a response to someone's question based on the intonation in their voice while reflecting on something entirely different, I would think, are also pre-reflective coping activities.
I feel like I just wrote a very long and unorganized reaction, but I hope its useful. Im curious to hear what you think.

Gabriel Gottlieb said...


Thanks for your comment and reflections. You are right to challenge me when I claim that Sartre/Dreyfus take there to be no I operative in absorption or pre-reflective consciousness. When I quoted Dreyfus on Todes above I took him to deny that there was an I operative. Dreyfus denies that there is an explicit or implicit "sense" of an I doing anything. I think there are many ambiguities at work here. We might take sense to mean awareness, as in there is no implicit or explicit awareness of an I. There may be an I operative but we are not phenomenologically aware of it. There might be for example concepts operative in experience, but again we are not explicitly aware of them. This view, you seem to suggest, we should attribute to Dreyfus. Maybe. I don't think we can say it holds of Sartre. For one reason, Sartre, thinks, at least in the Transcendence of the Ego that the I is superfluous. On his view, consciousness is self-constituting, does not need an I or ego (his position is influence by Husserl Time-consciousness lectures). The I then appears through consciousness through explicit reflection, and its appearance is as an object of sorts. So in absorption, for Sartre we are really egoless, without an I in it seems any sense. I think, given the way Dreyfus situates himself within this Sartrean line of thinking, at least in the McDowell debate, I took him to be articulating a similar position.

Need to think more about it.