For more information, contact:
Gary Schouborg, PhD
Schouborg, Gary (1999). "Three Approaches to Consciousness:
Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, System-Cybernetics".
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (10), 105-111.
Here are three books, each congenial to one constituency of this journal. As a group, they address three issues: (1) the nature of pure consciousness and (2) its role in reducing human suffering (3) while remaining involved in everyday living. Notably, none of the books is anti-intellectual, since each emphasizes the crucial role played by rigorous and sophisticated thought in developing pure consciousness. In the spirit of this interdisciplinary journal, we will see how each book contributes something not only for its natural constituency but for other constituencies as well. Finally, we will note how each book falls short because it fails to address pure consciousness as embodied.
The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedanta Phenomenology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998, xx + 236 pp., $24.95, ISBN 0-8101-1565-4 (pbk: alk. paper)
Dale S. Wright
Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, xv + 227 pp., $43.96, ISBN 0-521-59010-8 (hbk)
Reasoning into Reality: A System-Cybernetics Model and Therapeutic Interpretation of Buddhist Middle Path Analysis. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995, xxi + 264 pp., $18.00, ISBN 0-86171-060-6 (pbk)
The Disinterested Witness (DW) is a philosophical study of "witness-consciousness" (saksin) as understood by the school of Advaita Vedanta based on the writings of Samkara (8th century CE) its pre-eminent philosopher. DW has two goals: to show how saksin is relevant to Advaita Vedanta phenomenology and essential for any sound epistemology. There are six chapters. The first, the Introduction, provides the overview. Chapter Two explores the adumbration of saksin in the Upanishads. Chapter Three shows how Samkara introduces saksin to mediate between the non-dual reality of pure consciousness (cit) and the world of multiple appearances. Chapter Four explains how Advaitins developed a systematic epistemology from Samkara's sketchy beginning. Chapter Five explores three different Advaitin metaphysical theories of saksin and discusses why none is clear. Finally, Chapter Six compares saksin to related concepts in Kant, Husserl, Freud, and Sartre.
Though DW is impressively scholarly in its exegetical detail and nuance, when it moves to its real goal of systematic philosophy, it often fails to liberate itself from the convolutions of the Upanishad and Advaita text. Thus, in trying to show how saksin mediates between pure consciousness (cit) and appearance, DW sometimes identifies saksin with cit, and in turn identifies cit with self (atman), ultimate reality (brahman), God (Isvara), and seer (drsta). At other times DW identifies saksin with cit as "limited by the inner sense" (antahkaran), which includes cognitive, affective, and conative functions. These multiple attributes allow saksin to provide a vague middle ground between cit and appearance by being associated at different times with one or the other. Unfortunately, this ambiguity also leaves unclear the precise nature of the mediation.
Hermeneuticists will like DW's faithfulness to exegetical complexities in refusing to reduce the richly variegated Upanishad and Advaita teachings to a consistent, systematic doctrine. They will rightly insist that the ancient text weaves a unique experience in the reader that cannot be replaced by systematic philosophy; that the text is not a primitive, confused attempt at systematic philosophy but religious literature. On the other hand, they should be challenged by DW's insistence that, "The task of philosophy is … to show how … some truth … appears to be something different. If someone holds the view that consciousness is one, indivisible, universal, and all-pervasive, etc., then she is under the obligation to provide a satisfactory explanation of why consciousness appears to be individualized." Phenomenologists and cognitive theorists alike can welcome that challenge as insisting on the value of systematic inquiry. At the same time, hermeneuticists can help them avoid reductionism by showing how systematic inquiry can grow out of the text, just as science can grow from human experience, without reductively replacing it.
However, neither phenomenologists nor cognitive theorists
will be happy with many of DW's specific philosophical arguments.
"During the state of deep sleep, one experiences the self as
devoid of all distinctions. … Upon waking up, an individual affirms that she
was not aware of anything during the deep sleep state."
Cognitive theorists in particular will be disappointed with DW's meager acquaintance with anything other than continental philosophy. Thus, in explaining the Advaitin theory of perception as "the inner sense goes out and assumes the form of the object", DW mentions the basic facts of physiological psychology in only one seven-line paragraph, while devoting several pages to the Naiyayikas (rivals to the Advaitins), Plato, Aristotle, Berkeley, Kant, and even Aquinas' agent intellect. DW never mentions the similarity between "going out" and cognitive modeling.
Any reader will appreciate DW's clarification of the distinction between reality and appearance as an Advaitin heuristic device for distinguishing what has been corrected (unreal) with what has not (real). A rigorous analysis reveals that everything that can be conceptualized is correctable and therefore unreal, in contrast with cit or reality. Paradoxically, therefore, all knowledge ("the distinction between the knower and the known") is ignorance or "nescience" (avidya). That is, all assertions are revisional, having to do with appearance. This puts the distinction between reality and appearance in tangible, operational terms instead of the vague dichotomy that commonly feeds mystifying speculations.
DW is helpful in directing any reader to an understanding, even a possible experience, of pure consciousness. (The help is limited, since DW focuses on philosophical issues to the exclusion of spiritual or psychological application.) The preceding reflection on the revisional nature of human knowledge can lead one's attention to focus on the consciousness within which human knowledge takes place. Another method is to reflect on the fact that the body is subjective relative to outside objects. The body in turn is object relative to (subjective) mind, whose mental functions are in turn object relative to (subjective) saksin, which is object relative to cit (subjective, and most inward – i.e., cannot be object relative to anything else). This progressive awakening "is not akin to abstracting colorlessness from a color, but amounts to attending what was previously unattended".
Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism (PM) provides a hermeneutical perspective on Buddhism leveraging off the writings of John Blofeld, who traveled to China in 1934 where he studied texts related to the teaching of Huang Po (9th century ce), one of the central figures of the "golden age of Zen" and a forefather of the Rinzai school. PM emphasizes that Zen has always involved a serious, scholarly study of texts, including abstruse philosophical argument, which raises a contemporary debate between those who would study those texts "objectively" and those who would do so "romantically" (to experience consciousness "directly without mediation through any particular culture").
The objectivists accuse the romantics of projecting contemporary perspectives onto ancient texts, whereas the romantics accuse the objectivists of missing the whole point of applying Zen to their lives to alleviate suffering. PM employs hermeneutics to resolve this debate, arguing that both sides err in thinking they can access data independently of any presuppositions, where data for objectivists is the text and for romantics pure consciousness. However, PM does not merely cast a pox on both houses. Rather, it argues that focusing on text points away from both pure text and pure consciousness to the reader, who must apply the text to herself.
PM identifies the issue between objectivism and romanticism in the Introduction. Chapter 1: Textuality ties the complex history of texts related to Huang Po to the Buddhist notion of "dependent origination", the idea that everything is interrelated. PM argues that the history is so complex that we can never determine the original teaching. Besides the vicissitudes of the physical text itself, there is the testimony of subsequent editors that they frankly altered the text to update the teaching as they understood it; furthermore, in China "Huang Po" never did refer simply to an individual but to a tradition related to him.
Chapter 2: Reading turns to the romantics, arguing that no reading of the text leads to an experience of pure consciousness that is independent of any conceptual framework. Rather, enlightened reading reveals the framework within which the reader does her reading and every other activity, thereby liberating her from the illusion that her specific perception mirrors reality. Thus, Buddhist texts that are anti-reading are only reminding the reader that any text is not an end in itself, but refers to a reality beyond itself. However, the reader never grasps that reality separately from some conceptual framework. PM notes that the very Zen masters who made the anti-reading comments were also voracious readers till they died, continually awakening to the complex conceptual framework within which they lived.
This basic dialectic between objectivism and romanticism finding resolution in hermeneutics continues in the remaining chapters. Chapter 3: Understanding explores tacit knowledge, or our relationship to our environment, resolving the dichotomy between individualism and collectivism: it is the individual who seeks liberation, but inevitably in the context of her own society. The fact that this context is constantly shifting is expressed by the notion of emptiness (sunyata), that everything is interrelated and nothing is stable. PM argues that emptiness here provides the non-dual resolution of the subject/object dichotomy, not by the experience of a pure consciousness cut off from ordinary thinking, but by the conscious focus on the interplay between reality and our mental modeling of it.
Subsequent chapters apply the foregoing dialectic to 4: Language, 5: Rhetoric, 6: History, 7: Freedom, 8: Transcendence, 9: Mind, and 10: Enlightenment.
The Achilles heel of PM's hermeneutical thesis is: "Anything not experienced as something in particular is simply not experienced," the "as" necessarily implicating language as an ineluctable part of experience. This categorical assertion suffers logically and empirically.
Logically, the thesis is self-referentially inconsistent. If every experience is context-dependent, then all the more is the linguistically asserted thesis. PM shows that Blofeld repeatedly projects his own romantic world view on Zen texts. By the same token, PM offers us only another world view, having no way by its own principles to argue that its view is superior to any other.
By PM's own methodology, therefore, there can be no context-free position from which we can assert that experience must involve language. Their relationship is an empirical issue. Although PM can display to all readers the rich linguistic context of Zen enlightenment, it can also reveal hermeneuticists' dependence on phenomenologists to determine what Zen experiences are in fact. However, hermeneuticists and cognitive theorists alike can legitimately ask how we know that phenomenological reports of pure consciousness have not just overlooked some dim linguistic presence within awareness. As we become increasingly able to identify neural processes that are associated with language and those associated with consciousness, perhaps we will be able to determine empirically the reliability of phenomenological reports by determining whether or not language-associated processes are present during the report of pure consciousness.
Reasoning into Reality (RR) has four chapters. Chapter One explains the nature and usefulness of systemically modeling Buddhist Middle Path (Madhyamika) Analysis (MPA). Chapter Two explains MPA as taught by Nagarjuna (2d century ce) and Candrakirti (7th century ce). Though the other chapters read straightforwardly, this one is difficult. RR frequently introduces new terms without explanation until a page or two later; many explanations are convoluted, crying out for specific examples. If you get into trouble, you might skip to Chapters Three and Four, whose greater specificity may help in understanding concepts introduced in Chapter Two. Chapter Three provides a clear and useful simulation model of MPA. Chapter Four applies the model to Albert Ellis' Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET), drawing helpful distinctions between MPA and Western therapeutic goals and methods.
RR's purpose in modeling is to provide a useful idealization of the MPA process that is systematic, unambiguous, culturally invariant, theory- and topic-neutral, better able to capture the nature of process than is any natural language, and able to render claims about MPA testable. RR does not intend the model to capture every detail of MPA, and notes that even if it did other models would be possible. The intent is therefore not reductionist and is transcultural only in the sense that use of the model is compatible with any culture, not in the sense that the model could replace other conceptualizations of MPA.
MPA is "an integral and essential technique" within the practice of insight (vipasyana) meditation, used to help the individual achieve openness (sunyata) or consciousness purification (vyavadana). It does not purify consciousness of all thinking, but only from "ontologizing" – i.e., from making any claim that is "univocal, existential … definite, absolute, and certain". In this sense, MPA purifies consciousness of similar phenomenologizing. It is a rigorous form of conceptual analysis (as opposed to perceptual investigation) that purports to show that any definite claim inevitably leads to paradox: ultimately, one is led either to a common sense realism that is incompatible with the world of change or to a nihilism that denies anything exists at all. MPA, on the other hand, induces the analyst (the practitioner of MPA) to focus consciously on both realistic and nihilistic positions at the same time while refusing to commit to either, thereby pushing the analyst psychologically beyond them to openness or "an unmediated cognition of reality (tattva)" underlying them.
RR's model of MPA is not designed to provide an exhaustive map of what actually occurs in practicing MPA, but a useful idealization. The first step of a model might be:
The model allows RR clearly and economically to display four variables at a particular time in my analytical process: the concept I am analyzing (A, B, etc.), whether I affirm (+) or deny (-) it, cathexis or the intensity with which I affirm or deny (from 1 to 9, displayed as length along the vertical axis), and attention (the more conscious I am of the concept, the closer it is to the horizontal axis). For example, if E refers to a putative enemy, the above graph would indicate that I both affirm (E) and deny (-E) that E is an enemy. My denial is almost twice as strong as my affirmation (7 > 4), and in this case happens to be more conscious, as indicated by being closer to the horizontal. The model is not exhaustive, since my cognitive state usually involves an unwieldy number of concepts more than the eight depicted.
Using MPA I work to liberate my feelings about my enemy by bringing both 4E and -7E as close to the horizontal as possible – i.e., by consciously focusing on them together. In actual practice, outside the limited space of this review, I identify subsequent conceptual rearrangements by adding verticals successively to the right. At the limit of openness, there would be a vertical at the far right containing only 1E and -1E, meaning that I am focusing completely on my putative enemy (no other concepts along the vertical) with equanimity, neither affirming or denying the object in question is an enemy.
The openness or insight I achieve varies in depth and transformative power depending on how extensively E is linked to other concepts in my mind. To promote depth, it helps before applying MPA to develop serenity (samatha) and mental integration (samadhi), which increase my ability to choose a concept that is significant (affecting many others) and to focus intensely on it.
RR concludes by applying the model to contemporary psychotherapy, noting that issues there tend to be more specific and superficial than those dealt with in traditional MPA practice, which aims to transform one's life radically. Thus, whereas RET aims only to eradicate irrational or exaggerated desires, MPA aims to eradicate all desires as illusory because based on "ontological blindness" (avidya), the mistake of taking any conceptualization of reality as absolute.
By refraining from reductionism, RR's cognitive theory approach can be useful to both hermeneuticists and phenomenologists. Its end state of 1E and -1E is open to further research as to whether it is devoid of all mental content or has only radically reduced it. At the same time, the model's clarity and economy provides a possible means whereby the two hypotheses can be formulated and tested.
Unresolved Issues. None of our books settles the issue of whether pure consciousness is possible; together, however, they suggest how we might find out: by creating a testable model of the development of pure consciousness that takes into account the subjective experience of the subject and the linguistic context within which the investigation takes place.
DW explicitly avoids the question of how pure consciousness alleviates suffering. PM says that it does (or at least a conceptually minimized state of openness does), but never explains how. RR comes closest by modeling an end state where one neither affirms or denies a proposition that might cause suffering. However, RR's model then seems to make everyday living impossible. For if I reduce my thinking about an object to 1E and -1E, do I passively not respond if E tries to kill me, concluding that being killed is an illusory harm? Certainly achieving such passivity would eliminate my suffering, but how is it consistent with RR's claim that openness enables me to live everyday life more fully?
A related puzzle is RR's passing remark that MPA does not refute values. Why could not my strong value for defending myself (D) be reduced by MPA to 1D and -1D? Perhaps the idea is that values are reduced indirectly, by showing the illusory nature of the object of valuation. Thus, if I strongly value my life, I can use MPA to reduce my (M) or life (L) to 1M and -1M or 1L and -1L, respectively. With those concepts reduced to illusions, the value attached to them withers away as irrelevant. However, such a solution still seems to leave everyday living impossible, making practical decisions inexplicable. Tellingly, PM notes that Huang Po's influence has declined in contemporary China because, "Neither Huang Po nor other Zen masters ever had much to say about ethical and moral issues, about political issues, about artistic and other cultural practices …"
May I quickly suggest that cause of this lack of resolution is the fact that none of these books considers the embodied nature of consciousness. What gives us our values and grounds our decisions is our psychosomatic nature. Pure consciousness, whether literally pure or not, addresses the fact that our conceptual apparatus (in common parlance, "our head") easily becomes overextended, so that we lose touch with our basic psychosomatic processes ("our heart" or "our gut"). "Pure" consciousness restores those basic processes to our awareness while constraining but not eliminating the conceptual apparatus, which is then seen as a prosthetic device for survival rather than a tool for spying out absolute reality and value.