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Fr. 661

August 18, 2015

We earlier asked whether it was possible to take seriously the findings of cognitive science without explaining away or otherwise diminishing them. In this instance, the question is more precisely whether we can admit all that is right in Carruthers’ position and yet still improve upon it.

For the sake of argument, we will grant that the “conscious self” to which Carruthers amounts to little more than an illusion. We will still further grant the work in cognitive science to which Carruthers refers. Yet there remain two possible avenues of, if not objection, corrective to this position. These lie in a.) limitations in emotivism and, more generally, reductionism and b.) limitations in the kinds of self here under consideration.

A.) There have been numerous efforts in this century and those before to dissolve, to render illusory or otherwise to dispense with self and rationalist views of consciousness. Sometimes, these take the form of the subject’s dissolution in objective economic states (Adorno), in the fluxes of experience (Deleuze) or in communication (Luhmann). At others, philosophical pessimism as well as science have sought to restrict the kinds of rational control we impute to self under ordinary circumstances. A related strand is much older, that of emotivism and doctrines of the passions.

Taking different forms over the centuries, emotivism and the passions find one of their more definitive formulations in the work of David Hume for whom that which initially moves humanity to judgment or action is not reason over which the person exercises control but, instead, emotion for which the person can only partially account. In this way, we find again the long-running theme that the thinking person proves but a slave to the passions. Support for emotivist claims in line with the Humean variety can be found in the empirical sciences, as well.

This is notably the case in studies concerning the relevant differences between ordinary and sociopathic persons when making “moral” judgments and prescribing courses of action. For in the latter, studies have shown that the rational pathways of the brain are intact. In contrast with their ordinary counterparts, the sociopaths’ emotional pathways are, in some way or sense, damaged. Insofar as this coincides with an inability to formulate moral judgments, this would seem to suggest that moral judgments share a close link with the person’s emotional rather than rational capacities. This amounts, when correctly applied, to indirect proof for emotivism.

Persuasive though these cases are, we can still ask whether they make their point too well. For, were the mental economy so tightly bound to unconscious processes and emotional capacities, it no longer seems as clear whether we can speak of rational inquiry or philosophy, more particularly, in quite the same way. Specifically, if mental economy is limited as above and capacity for independent rational initiative hindered, then what gives rise to reflection on unconscious processes in the first place? Specifically, do unconscious mental processes eventually lead the person to posit their existence? Do the particular cognitions leading to the posit of emotivism stem uniquely from emotion? In sum, we may wonder whether it is possible to apply the full force of the conclusions reached above and yet still leave room for independent rational activity or, instead, whether we need posit a limiting instance on those conclusions’ force. Can any system be so closed, so total as that?

Admittedly, this may seem mere flailing on our part, an appeal to pathos in the face of empirical, reductive logic. With that in mind, we turn to the second of our corrective measures, B.).

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