Tag Archives: philosophy

On Consciousness

This is number 5 in my “On” series. Others include On Capitalism, On Privilege, On Freedom and On Constitutionalism. Forthcoming: On Fear and On Democracy.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett tells a funny story: he says when he’s at a party and someone asks him what he does, and he says he’s a professor, their eyes glaze over. When he’s at a party of professors and one asks him what his field is and he says “philosophy,” their eyes glaze over. And when he’s at a party of philosophers, and one asks him what he studies and he says “consciousness,” their eyes glaze over. So the philosophy of consciousness is not something that inspires excitement in even the most scholarly among us, but I argue here that it is precisely where we’ve gone astray and is the solution to most of the problems we – the modern world – face.

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Daniel Dennett

I’ve written at some length about the idea of development, that is, that we change and grow over time. This is an idea about which most modern societies have some ambiguity; we both know and do not know that it is going on. We all know that children develop – that phases of development are natural and normal, and it is normal for your two year old to be self-centered in a way that would make an adult appear like a psychopath. But then we have the idea that development somehow stops at some magical age – between 18 and 21 – after which we are “all equal.” And yet we also know that this is not true, which is why you have to be 35 to be president of the United States, and no undergrads are tapped to be university presidents. What I’m saying is not new agery, but standard developmental psychology: development continues on throughout adulthood and most never come anywhere near the “end” point.

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Graham Hancock

But what I want to address here is not so much the level of consciousness, but the state of consciousness prevalent in the modern West (and increasingly, the East). I was prompted to this by a “banned” TED talk by Graham Hancock, who makes a strong case that there is something like a conspiracy against certain states of consciousness. Now Hancock holds that these preferable states are accessible through certain psychotropic plants – he is not the first I’ve heard say that it is highly likely that the substances used in the ancient mystery schools (of which Plato was probably a member) were psychotropic. I don’t condone the use of these substances, in fact I’m fairly neutral on them, but Hancock also argues persuasively that the societally approved drugs – particularly ones like caffeine and ritalin – promote a state that, while good for problem-solving, is not conducive to examining the moral questions we face. This may be why the “best and the brightest” of our societies have brought us the nuclear bomb, GMOs and a generally more dangerous world. They know “what” to do but not “why” it should be done – it shouldn’t.* This “rational” state that we are encouraged to remain in makes us good cogs in the gigantic machines we are all part of, thoughtlessly commuting to jobs that generally make the world worse.

It is my view that these preferred states are accessible without any substances; through introspection and perhaps meditation, though they probably do require the elimination of the “approved” substances and daily stresses. Hancock is quite compelling in his argument that the prevalent state of consciousness has created most of the problems we see around us and that they cannot be solved from that same state of consciousness, but require another.

  • For those who would accuse me of being anti-science: I’m not recommending going back to what was before science, but going beyond it – putting science into a larger framework which factors in moral considerations.
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Foucault

Many philosophers had scattered interests and wrote on diverse topics, but Foucault, despite his massive erudition, really had only one interest: power. His work forms one of the most systematic explorations of a topic that any philosopher has produced. He looked at the power of norms, in other words, what is considered normal and abnormal – as a gay man, he had a particular interest in the latter. By examining forms of abnormality – criminality, insanity, sexual deviance, ill health – and how they changed over time, he theorized they ways in which power functions as a form of control over populations and individuals.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the prestigious College de France, where he was not required to teach, but only to do research and give a series of public lectures each year.

Michel Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France, the son of a doctor. His father wanted him to become a doctor as well, and their somewhat strained relationship seems to have left traces in his work and life. He sat for the entrance exam to the prestigious Ecole Normal Superior, and at first failed to gain acceptance (he was 101st – only 100 were admitted!). He studied for one more year and placed fourth on the exam (placing first was the feminist philosopher Simone de Bouvior). At the Ecole Normal Superior, he was influenced by Freidrich Nietzsche, who remained influential throughout Foucault’s career. Foucault said that Nietzsche had gotten right the centrality of power in human affairs.

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Locke and Property

This post, along with the one on Rousseau, Plato and many to follow, are part of an upcoming project – stay tuned.

The United States incorporated a Lockean notion of relation of individual to state, a notion that was “dominant at the time when the [US] Constitution was adopted.” In common parlance, the term property is used as a noun. One is said to own “property,” i.e., a piece of property, an object. Locke’s time used property as a right, as in “I have a property in that land.” This shift occurred sometime in the seventeenth century [see Appleby] in Europe, and was present at the founding of the US, but in Hawaiʻi, it was more visible, occurring in the time period in question, the 1840s and 1850s. So in addressing the question of the transition from property as a right to property as an object, some of the associated trauma can be attributed to the fact that the shift was both later and more rapid in Hawaiʻi than in Europe.

John Locke

Locke expounded his notion of property in his Two Treatises of Government, Second Treatise (1690):

… every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body had any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

Sec. 43. . . . . ‘Tis Labour then which puts the greatest part of Value upon Land, without which it would scarcely be worth any thing . . . . For ’tis not barely the Plough-man’s Pains, the Reaper’s and Thresher’s Toil, and the Bakers [sic.] Sweat, is to be counted into the Bread we eat …

Sec. 45. Thus Labour, in the Beginning, gave a Right of Property, where-ever any one was pleased to imploy it, upon what was common, which remained, a long while, the far greater part, and is yet more than Mankind makes use of.

The application of Lockean ideals in Hawaiʻi was premised on a particular psychology subcribed to by missionaries:

In some ways the missionaries … were equipped with a full-fledged theory of the human mind and society … Their psychology started with the empiricist idea od the mind as filled with custom, hence subject to outside influence and change. The follies and whims of the human mind, perpetuated by custom, as Locke and the enlightenment thinkers would say, are a result of insufficient use of the reason due to social circumstances (Mykkänen, 2003, 80).

Responding to Hobbes’ more radical notion that “everyman” has a right to everything, Locke held that it was a “ridiculous trifling to call that power a Right, which should we attempt to exercise, all other Men have an equal Right to obstruct or prevent us” (Tully, 1980, 74). This separation of rights represented a building of consensus over rights in property that the state was being encouraged to protect.

The foundation of the debate rested on the notion of natural rights, on the existence of which there was considerable agreement. The debate centered, instead, on the manifestation of natural rights in the actual world of property ownership. The interpretation of these rights rested, in turn, on the idea of the social contract. Pufendorf held, in response to Hobbes, that “rights of property have no higher sanction than the laws which men consent to in entering political society” (Tully, 1980, 75).

            Ivison, Patton and Sanders summarize the larger picture of interaction between “Western” political thought and Indigenous societies, values and systems of property:

Western political thought has often embodied a series of culturally specific assumptions and judgments about the relative worth of other cultures, ways of life, value systems, social and political institutions, and ways of organizing property. As a result, egalitarian political theory has often ended up justifying inegalitarian institutions and practices” (Ivison, Patton and Sanders, 2).

They contend that “finding appropriate political expression for a just relationship with colonised indigenous peoples is one of the most important issues confronting political theory today” (Ivison, Patton and Sanders, 2).

Defining “rights” as that “securing or protecting fundamental human interests, for example, those to do with property or bodily integrity,” they note that recognition of Indigenous rights will entail a fundamental alteration of those rights. Further, the note the failure of western political theory to enter into dialog with Indigenous peoples over the issue of rights in general, and, I would add, property rights in particular.

Ivison, Patton and Sanders also address the issue of indigenous title, and hold that it is “more about the continual definition and redefinition of relationships rather than the simple vindication of a property right.” This notion suggests the primacy of communal title and further its contrast with individual title. In fact, New Zealand’s Maori Land Court had as its primary task the “individualisation” of Maori title – a practice viewed as facilitating alienation of Maori lands.

Tully (99) notes that, for Locke, “it is never the case that … property is independent of a social function.” He distinguishes between property as a natural right and “political property,” which succeeds it and is only then private property. Locke opposes Filmer, Grotius and Pufendorf on this point. He holds that the natural property rights in the state of nature precede “the systems of property that arise later with the introduction of money and the creation of government.”

This, of course, is subject to critique, as the notion of a state of nature prior to government was what facilitated the doctrine of terra nullius. Thus the notion of a state of nature itself is contingent on one’s ability to see a government – which settlers in Australia claimed not to be able to do. Locke had a similar blind spot when it came to the “new world.” Locke worked as an aide to the Lord Proprietor for the Carolina colonies. His work justified slavery in the Carolinas and he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which was involved in the African slave trade. Locke clearly believed in property, but his belief in liberty was more constrained. Farr (2008), however, holds that Locke forwarded a just-war model justifying slavery, but one that did not apply in the Americas, but only in Stuart England.

Between Locke’s Eurocentric notions of property and government and inconsistent position on slavery, the implementation of a Lockean private property regime in Hawai’i was indeed problematic.

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