« Gods, whose empire is that of souls, silent shadows,
And Chaos, and Phlegeton, silent in the night and unlimited places,
May I be allowed to say what I heard,
May I, with your consent, reveal the secrets
Buried in the dark depths of the earth. »
Consciousness is capable of grasping immaterial ideas (e.g. the principle of non-contradiction or the idea of universal attraction). Is this enough to infer that she is herself immaterial?
If consciousness is not immaterial, is she only a material emanation of a body that is material?
But then how to explain that material entities are capable of conceiving supreme abstractions, pure essences, without any link with the material world?
And how do consciousness relate or interact with the various beings that make up the world, and that surround her?
What is the nature of her connections with these various beings?
In particular, how do consciousness interact with other consciousnesses, other spirits? Is it conceivable that consciousness can link with yet other kinds of ‘intelligible’ beings existing in act or in potency throughout the world ?
These delicate issues were addressed by Kant in a short, witty book, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits.ii
Kant affirmed that consciousness (he called her ‘the soul’) is immaterial, – just as what he called the ‘intelligible world’ (mundus intelligibilis), the world of ideas and thoughts, immaterial.
This ‘intelligible world’ is the proper ‘place’ of the thinking self, because consciousness can go there at will, detaching herself from the material, sensitive world.
Kant also affirmed that consciousness, although immaterial, is necessary linked to a body, the body of the self, a body from which she receives impressions and material sensations from the organs that compose it.
Consciousness thus participates in two worlds, the material and sensitive world and the immaterial and intelligible world, – the world of the visible, and the world of the invisible.
The representation that consciousness has of herself, by an immaterial intuition, when she considers herself in her relations with other consciousnesses, or beings of the same nature as herself, is quite different from that which takes place when she represents herself as being attached to a body.
In both cases, it is undoubtedly the same subject who belongs at the same time to the sensitive world and the intelligible world; but it is not the same person, because the representations of the sensible world have nothing in common with the representations of the intelligible world.
What I think of myself, as a living human, has nothing to do with the representation of myself as a (pure) consciousness.
Moreover, the representations that I may have of the intelligible world, however clear and intuitive they may be for me, are not at all indicative of the representation I have of myself as a consciousness.
On the other hand, the representation of myself as a consciousness may be somewhat acquired through reasoning or induction, but it is not a naturally intuitive notioniii.
Consciousness belongs indeed to a « subject », and as such is both participating to the « sensitive world » and to the « intelligible world », but she is not the same when she represents herself as a pure consciousness or when she represents herself as attached to a human body.
Not being the same implies an inherent and profound duality of consciousness.
It is Kant who first introduced the expression « duality of the person » (or « duality of the soul in relation to the body »), in a small note supplementing Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits.iv
This duality was induced from the following observation.
Many philosophers often refer to the state of deep sleep when they want to prove the reality of obscure representations, although nothing can be affirmed in this respect, except that on waking we do not clearly remember any of those ‘obscure representations’ we may have had in the deepest sleep.
We can only observe that they are not clearly represented on waking, but not that they were really ‘obscure’ when we were asleep.
For instance, one could readily assume that these representations were much clearer and more extensive than even the clearest ones in the waking state, – because ‘clarity’ is what can be expected from consciousness, in the perfect rest of the outer senses.
Hannah Arendt abruptly qualified these remarks from Kant as « bizarre »v without making her judgment explicit.
Why « bizarre »?
Several conjectures are possible.
Perhaps she thought that it was « bizarre » to present the soul as thinking more clearly and extensively in deep sleep, and as revealing more of herself in this state than in the waking state?
Or did it seem « bizarre » to Arendt that Kant presented the soul not as ‘one’ but as ‘dual’, this duality implying a contradiction with Arendt’s own idea of her nature?
On the one hand, the soul may feel the intrinsic unity she possesses as a ‘subject’, and on the other hand, she may feel herself as a ‘person’, endowed with a double perspective. It might then seem « bizarre » that the soul thinks of herself as both one and dual, – ‘one’ (as a subject) and ‘dual’ (as a person).
This intrinsic duality introduces a distance of the soul to herself, an inner gap in the consciousness herself, – a gap between the state of ‘waking’ (where her duality is somehow revealed) and the state of ‘deep sleep’ (where the feeling of duality evaporates, revealing then (perhaps) the true nature of the soul (or the consciousness)?
Hannah Arendt made only a brief paraphrase of Kant’s note:
« Kant compares the state of the thinking self to a deep sleep where the senses are at complete rest. It seems to him that during sleep the ideas ‘may have been clearer and more extensive than in the waking state’, precisely because ‘the sensation of the human body has not been included’. And when we wake up, we have none of these ideas left. » vi
What seems « bizarre » then, one may conjecture, is that after being exposed to « clear and extended » ideas, none of this remains, and the awakening erases all traces of the activity of the soul in the deep sleep of the body.
But if there is nothing left, at least there remains the memory of an immaterial activity, which, unlike activities in the material world, does not encounter any resistance, any inertia. There also remains the obscure memory of what were then clear and intense ideas… There remains the memory of having experienced a feeling of total freedom of thought, freed from all contingencies.
All this cannot be forgotten, even if the ideas themselves seem to escape us.
It is also possible that the accumulation of these kinds of memories, these kinds of experiences, may end up reinforcing the very idea of the existence of an independent soul (a consciousness independent from the body). By extension, and by analogy, all this constitutes an experience of ‘pure consciousness’ as such, and reinforces the idea of a world of spirits, an ‘intelligible’ world, separate from the material world.
The soul (the consciousness) that becomes aware of her power to think ‘clearly’ (during the deep sleep of the body) begins to think at a distance from the world around her, and from the matter that constitutes it.
This power to think ‘clearly’ at a distance does not however allow her to go out of this world, nor to transcend it (since always the awakening occurs, – and with it the forgetting of what were then ‘clear’ thoughts).
What then does this distance from the world bring to the consciousness ?
The consciousness sees that reality is woven of appearances (woven of ‘illusions’). However, in spite of the profusion of these ‘illusions’, reality remains stable, it is unceasingly prolonged, it lasts in any case long enough for us to be led to recognize it not just as an illusion, but as an object, the object par excellence, offered to our gaze, and consideration, as long as we are conscious subjects.
If one does not feel able to consider reality as an object, one can at least be inclined to consider it as a state, lasting, imposing its obviousness, unlike the other world, the ‘intelligible world’, – whose existence always raises doubts, and suspicions of improbability (since its kingdom is only reached in the night of deep sleep).
And, as subjects, we demand real objects in front of us, not chimeras, or conjectures, – hence the great advantage given to the sensitive world.
Phenomenology, in fact, also teaches that the existence of a subject necessarily implies that of an object. The two are linked. The object is what embodies the subject’s intention, will and consciousness.
The object (of the intention) nourishes the consciousness, more than the consciousness alone can nourish herself, – the object constitutes in the end the very subjectivity of the consciousness, presenting itself to her attention, and instituting itself as her intention.
If there is no consciousness, then there can be no project and no object. If there is no object, then there can be no consciousness.
All subjects (i.e. all beings with a consciousness) carry intentions that are fixed on objects; similarly, objects (or ‘phenomena’) that appear in the world reveal the existence of subjects with intentions, by and for which the objects make sense.
From this we may draw a profound consequence.
We are subjects, and we ‘appear’, from the beginning of our lives, in a world of phenomena. Some of these phenomena also happen to be subjects. We learn to distinguish between phenomena that are only phenomena (i.e. requiring subjects to appear), and phenomena that end up revealing themselves to us as being not only phenomena, of which we would be the spectators, but as other subjects, other consciousnesses.
The reality of the world of phenomena is thus linked to the subjectivity of multiple subjects, and countless forms of consciousness, which are both at once phenomena and subjects.
The total world is itself a ‘phenomenon’, whose existence requires at least one Subject, which is not a phenomenon, but a pure Consciousness.
To put it another way, – if, as a thought experience, one could suppose the absolute absence of any consciousness, the inexistence of any subject, for instance during originary states of the world, should one then necessarily conclude, in such circumstances, to the inexistence of the ‘phenomenal’ world in those early times?
The ‘phenomenal’ world would not then exist as a phenomenon, since no subject would be able to observe it, no consciousness would be conscious of it.
But another hypothesis would still be possible.
Perhaps might there exist subjects who are part of another world, a world that is not phenomenal, but ‘noumenal’, a.k.a. the « intelligible world » evoked by Kant?
Since there can be no doubt that the world and reality began to exist long before any human subject appeared on earth, one must conclude that other kinds of consciousness, other kinds of ‘subjects’ really existed then, for whom the world in the state of an inchoate phenomenon already already constituted an ‘object’ and an ‘intention’.
Then, we may infer that the world, at all time, has always been an object of ‘subjectivity’, of ‘intentionality’, of ‘desire’, for some sorts of consciousness.
It cannot be otherwise. We just have to try to figure out for which subjects, for which consciousnesses, this then nascent world could have been revealed as an object, as a phenomenon.
One can hypothesize that a primal subjectivity, intentionality, desire, pre-existed the appearance of the world of phenomena, in the form of a potential ‘aptitude to want, to desire, to think’.
« For the philosopher, who expresses himself on the experience of the thinking self, man is, quite naturally, not only the verb, but the thought made flesh; the always mysterious, never fully elucidated incarnation of the ability to think.»vii
Why ‘always mysterious’?
Because no one knows where thought comes from, and even less may guess the extent of all the forms that thought has taken in this universe, – from the ancient days of its beginning, to date, — and may still take. in the future.
Since we have no other guide in all this research than our own consciousness, we must get back to her again.
Every thought is singular, because with each she recreates (in her own symbolic way) the conditions of the original freedom of the spirit, even before ‘thought was made flesh’.
« While a man lets himself go to simply think, to think about anything, he lives totally in the singular, that is to say in complete solitude, as if the Earth was populated by one Man and not by men. »viii
The lone thinker recreates the absolute solitude of the first Thinker.
Who was this first Thinker? The mythical Adam? A Spirit who originally thought, and by this very fact, created the object of His thought?
Among the ‘first thinkers’ of whom we still have a trace, Parmenides and Plato evoked and pinned to the pinnacle the small number of those who live ‘the life of intelligence and wisdom’.
« The life of intelligence and wisdom » is the life of the spirit (noos), the life of thought herself, in her highest freedom, in her infinite potency. Like Intelligence, she was from the outset the « queen of heaven and earth »ix.
i Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes
and Chaos and Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,
Sit mihi fas audita loqui, sit numine vestro,
pandere res alta terra and caligine mersas.
Aeneid VI, 264-7
ii Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863
iiiCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
ivCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
v H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translation by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vi H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vii H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.72
ixPlato. Philebus. 28c