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Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Newly Elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the Future Europe Deserves

What Does Europe Want?

“The experience of previous years leads to one conclusion: there is one morality in politics and another for economy. In the years since 1989, the morality of the economy has fully prevailed over the ethics of politics and democracy.” — Alexis Tsipras

Alexis Tsipras was just sworn in as Prime Minister of Greece, after his Syriza party and the Independent Greeks party came to an agreement resulting in a coalition government. The focus of Tsipras’s campaign was his pledge to oppose the austerity program imposed on Greece by European creditors. In “The Destruction of Greece as a Model for All of Europe: Is This the Future That Europe Deserves?,” his foreword to Slavoj Žižek and Srecko Horvat’s What Does Europe Want? which we have excerpted below, Tsipras explains his stance against austerity and looks to alternative visions of the future to provide hope for Greek citizens.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

An interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of “Film Worlds”

Film Worlds

The following is an interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema:

Q: How would you situate Film Worlds within film theory and the expanding field of film and philosophy?

A: Over the past few decades there has been a notable turn towards philosophy in disciplinary film studies. One example is the influence of Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema (indebted to Henri Bergson and C.S. Peirce), which film theorists have found productive to engage with; another is the widespread interest in phenomenology – particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s version of it – in relation to perceptual, affective, and ‘embodied’ aspects of films and film viewing. More or less simultaneously, within Anglophone academic philosophy there has been a renewed interest in how some films dramatize philosophical issues and problems, in the question of whether cinema can serve as a medium for philosophical thought and argument, and the relation between films and their experience and issues in the philosophy of perception, cognition, and emotion (as overlapping with cognitive film theory).

In relation to all of the above it is important to distinguish between philosophy in film and the philosophy of film. My interests have been mainly in the latter, and it is here that the long and fascinating tradition of aesthetics and the philosophy of art can be fruitfully brought to bear on certain topics in modern and contemporary film theory. Curiously, in the midst of the aforementioned philosophical turn in film theory and the growing ‘film-philosophy’ movement this is a tradition that many theorists and philosophers alike have tended to bypass, even when discussing cinematic representation, expression, authorship, and other issues that it may illuminate (there are of course notable exceptions). In its exploration of the world-like nature of films and their experience, Film Worlds attempts to show the continued relevance of insights drawn from general aesthetics and the philosophy of art to cinema and to contemporary film theory and the philosophy of film. (more…)

Friday, January 9th, 2015

The Evolution of Signals

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s post, the final post of the book’s feature, we have an excerpt from the third chapter of The Domestication of Language, in which Cloud looks at different accounts of how meaning and language conventions remain stable in human communities over time, and wonders why more animals don’t have similarly complex communication systems.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

But if I try to explain it…

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s post, Daniel Cloud explains how the meanings of words in ordinary language come about, and why it’s worth paying attention to the ordinary, everyday meanings of words.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

But if I try to explain it…
By Daniel Cloud

“What, then, is time?” Saint Augustine asks in the Confessions. “If no one asks me, I know, but if I try to explain it, I don’t know.” It’s a keen observation, because we’ve all had this experience. Still, it’s a rather peculiar state of affairs that’s being described. Did Augustine know what time is, or didn’t he? If he did know, why couldn’t he say what it is? If he didn’t, how could he go around using the word?

But the oddest thing of all is that Augustine then does go on to produce a philosophical analysis of his own concept of time that’s incredibly revealing, one that has been very influential ever since. If he knew all that just by knowing the meaning of the word, why couldn’t he say it in the beginning, why did he have to do so much work to know what he’d meant by the word all along? How can this procedure, the careful analysis of our own culturally acquired notions about the meaning of some word in ordinary language, possibly produce knowledge about the real universe, about a physical thing like time?

And yet… the process of lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps had to start somewhere. Historically, it really does look as if the philosophical analysis of ordinary language and ordinary ideas about time and space and causation and chance and knowledge and logic and evidence has played a role. It really looks as if Empedocles and Plato and Aristotle made some sort of contribution to making the existence of Euclid and Ptolemy and Newton and Darwin possible, though it’s very unclear what that contribution was. (more…)

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Two interviews with Daniel Cloud on “The Domestication of Language”

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. Today, we are happy to present two podcast interviews with Daniel Cloud, one from the New Books In network and one from the Smart People Podcast.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

First, Cloud spoke with the New Books in Big Ideas podcast about the puzzles raised by looking at prehistoric linguistics through an evolutionary eye, in particular: “why is human language and culture so astoundingly complex?” (more…)

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Humans Aren’t Influenced by Culture–We Create It

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. Today, we have excerpted parts of “Humans Aren’t Influenced by Culture–We Create It,” an interview with Daniel Cloud that appeared in Quartz. You can read the interview in its entirety here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

Quartz: The first chapter of your book discusses the origin of words. If we were to ask the average person, “Where do words come from?” what do you think would be the most common answer?

Daniel Cloud: They’ll think about it carefully for a minute or two and they’ll report out some version of behaviorism. They’ll say, “Well, there must have been two monkeys sitting around, one of the monkeys made a noise every time it did some action, other monkeys came to associate that noise with the action, and then we went on from there.” I think that’s the cultural myth about this. That’s the image of the origin of language that’s been dominant since the Greeks.

Quartz: So according to this idea, the development of language is completely out of our control.

Cloud: Well, that’s one thing that’s wrong with it. It’s not faithful to psychological reality or everyday life. I guess I would call it science fiction. It’s a theory about some events that happened in the distant past, which nobody ever observed, but that seem plausible. Things like that are inevitably just some old bit of philosophy that somebody dredged up. (more…)

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud

The Domestication of Language

“A superbly original book and an exciting piece of philosophy. Cloud builds a serious account of the evolution of language that recognizes the long and complex process that links the prior state (nothing like language at all) to the end state (language of the kinds now in existence) and that responds to the points of greatest difficulty in that process.” — Philip Kitcher

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Domestication of Language. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 9th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being reviewed in the New York Times

Waking, Dreaming, Being

In today’s post, we are happy to present excerpts from astrophysicist Adam Frank’s recent New York Times book review of Evan Thompson’s excellent new comprehensive look at cognitive science, Buddhism, and the self, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy:

In the endless public wars between science and religion, Buddhism has mostly been given a pass. The genesis of this cultural tolerance began with the idea, popular in the 1970s, that Buddhism was somehow in harmony with the frontiers of quantum physics. While the silliness of “quantum spirituality” is apparent enough these days, the possibility that Eastern traditions might have something to say to science did not disappear. Instead, a more natural locus for that encounter was found in the study of the mind. Spurred by the Dalai Lama’s remarkable engagement with scientists, interest in Buddhist attitudes toward the study of the mind has grown steadily.

But within the Dalai Lama’s cheerful embrace lies a quandary whose resolution could shake either tradition to its core: the true relationship between our material brains and our decidedly nonmaterial minds. More than evolution, more than inexhaustible arguments over God’s existence, the real fault line between science and religion runs through the nature of consciousness. Carefully unpacking that contentious question, and exploring what Buddhism offers its investigation, is the subject of Evan Thompson’s new book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being.” (more…)

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Video: Slavoj Žižek and Srecko Horvat on What Europe Wants

The following is a public debate from earlier this year between Slavoj Žižek and Srecko Horvat that considers the issues raised in their just-published book What Does Europe Want?: The Union and Its Discontents

In the book, Žižek and Srecko Horvat argue that instead of being a peace-project, the European Union is increasingly turning into a warzone: whether it be the expulsion of immigrants or riots in Paris and London, or European interventions to bring “more democracy” to Libya or Syria. But instead of leaving Europe to the enemies, Žižek and Horvat reflect on the fight for a different Idea of Europe.

For more on the book you can also read the chapter “Breaking Our Eggs Without the Omlette, From Cyprus to Greece,” by Slavoj Žižek:

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Mathilde Roussel’s drawings for The Philosopher’s Plant, by Michael Marder

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Today, for the feature’s final post, we would like to share a Pinterest board displaying Mathilde Roussel’s elegant drawings that accompany each chapter in The Philosopher’s Plant, along with a brief quote from the book explaining how each respective drawing refers to a philosopher that Marder discusses.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Follow Columbia University Press’s board Mathilde Roussel's drawings for The Philosopher's Plant, by Michael Marder on Pinterest.

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Affective Habitus, Seeds: Michael Marder on “The Sense of Seeds”

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Today, the final day of the feature, we are happy to share video of a lecture in which Marder “approaches the spatial and temporal meaning of seeds as the vehicles for preserving and augmenting life.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Affective Habitus, Seeds: Michael Marder on “The Sense of Seeds” from History of Emotions on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Michael Marder talks to BOMB Magazine

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from an interview BOMB Magazine conducted with Michael Marder and artist Heidi Norton. We were only able to excerpt sections from Marder’s responses here, but be sure to head over to the BOMB Magazine website to read the interview in its entirety!

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Monica Westin: I’d like to ask more about plants as a formal problem in each of your work. Michael, is there a way in which using an alternative hybrid form of writing about plants and philosophy is a deliberate choice to rethink plants as subjects, as living beings? Could there exist, whether or not you’re doing it here, a sort of “new writing” that can speak about plants better than those that we have? (I’m thinking about Irigaray’s famous work on women’s writing.) And Heidi, in describing that moment when you knew that plants were going to be central materials for you, you listed their formal properties: their adaptability, their strength, their simplicity. Can you say more about how they have posed formal issues to in your practice?

Michael Marder: Indeed, plant-thinking had to free itself from a purely theoretical approach to plants in order to explore the intersecting trajectories of living, growing beings, both human and vegetal. Some of these changes happened as I was working on The Philosopher’s Plant, where I re-narrate the history of Western philosophy through plants. In that book, each of the twelve thinkers I discuss, from Greek antiquity to the twenty-first century, is represented by a tree, flower, cereal, and so on, which was in one way or another featured in her or his thought. Each chapter begins with a biographical anecdote that puts plants on the center-stage and continues in a more theoretical key, explaining the key concepts and notions of that philosopher through vegetal processes, images, and metaphors. The idea is that plants play a much more important role in the formation of our thinking, “personality,” and life story than we realize. (more…)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Nietzsche’s Jungle

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. In The Philosopher’s Plant, Marder takes a close look at how different forms of plant life played important roles in the work of philosophers throughout history. Today, we are happy to present a blog post crossposted from Marder’s LARB Channel adapted from Marder’s chapter on Nietzsche in The Philosopher’s Plant.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Nietzsche’s Jungle
Michael Marder

Rumor has it that Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown, from which he never recovered, began on January 3, 1889, when in broad daylight he embraced a horse that was being whipped on a street in Turin, Italy. It is, of course, tempting to see in this “mad” gesture a kind of cross-species identification of a beleaguered philosopher with an abused animal. We will never know with any degree of certainty what Nietzsche felt or thought at that precise moment. But we might surmise from his writings the common foundation of life, shared by humans, animals, and even plants. The name of this foundation is the will to power.

For Nietzsche, an attempt to understand life in all its manifestations could not afford to exclude either animals or plants from the general formula that only philosophy, rather than biology, could get at. Human, animal, and vegetal vitalities had to be viewed as variations on the same theme, namely a striving for existence. That is why roughly one year prior to his collapse in Turin, Nietzsche jotted down a question in his notebook: “For what do the trees in a jungle fight each other? For ‘happiness’?” And immediately responded: “—For power!—”[1]. Plato and his followers deduced the fact of vegetal desire from the wilting of plants that were deprived of water and therefore experienced something like thirst. Nietzsche goes further than that. His implicit conclusion is that, beneath a physical craving in all kinds of living creatures, we find a metaphysical longing for power. Or, to put it differently, for being. (more…)

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Plant Lessons, by Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Today, we are happy to present an article by Michael Marder and Luce Irigaray, in which they discuss the need for an “environmental pedagogy” and explain some of the lessons that plant life can teach us. The post can also be found on Michael Marder’s Los Angeles Review of Books Channel

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Plant Lessons
Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder

One crucial measure of human maturity is the way we treat our environment. A careless and destructive approach toward the world, which is usually conceived as a kind of playground for the enactment of our phantasies, is irresponsible and childish. It shows no respect for other forms of life, a lack of concern with the future, and the inability to think and to grow beyond the demands of sheer physical survival.

Historically, there has been little change in the direction of a more adult behavior toward the environment. Among other living beings, plants have been particularly mistreated as a result of this attitude because they have been thought of as infinitely malleable matter, on which human form could be stamped or imposed, generally to the detriment of their own biological life. Indeed, Aristotle, who was the first to come up with the notion matter in the West, derived it from the common Greek word for “wood.” Like plants, matter was supposed to be a passive receptacle for the form that was, in many cases, alien to vegetal life. Although Aristotle was still attentive to living forms, after him, a tree converted into a table or a bed became the preferred example of formed matter, while the self-formation of the tree itself, amenable to patient cultivation and care, was dismissed.

When it comes to respect for the environment we are still children, or even infants. More than that, we are terrible, unruly children because, for the most part, we are not open to being educated on the subject. Only punishments, in the shape of natural disasters attributable to global warming, have had some effect on human behavior, awakening in us a consciousness of the negative consequences that accompany immature environmental conduct. Still, a genuine change of attitudes is unlikely as a result of threats and punishments alone. What is sorely needed is an environmental pedagogy—not one formulated by our fellow humans, but one imparted by parts of the world we inhabit. (more…)

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Herbarium Philosophicum, by Michael Marder

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. In his prologue, Marder explains his goals in writing The Philosopher’s Plant, and briefly looks at the important role plants have played in the history of philosophical thought.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder

The Philosopher's Plant

“From the conversation of Socrates and Phaedrus in the shade of the plane tree to Irigaray’s meditation on the water lily, The Philosopher’s Plant takes us outside city walls, across gardens of letters and vegetables, grassy slopes and vineyards, to the dimly lit sources of philosophy’s vitality. With distinctive depth and clarity, Marder reminds us that, far from walled in, the human community communes with nature and is itself inhabited by nature.” — Claudia Baracchi, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Philosopher’s Plant. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, November 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Francisco Varela and Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In today’s post on the final day of our feature, we are happy to post an excerpt from a fascinating interview of Thompson conducted by Joy Stocke at the Wild River Review. In the interview, Stocke and Thompson discuss the importance of his upbringing to his work, the influence of Francisco Varela, and the Dalai Lama, among many other topics, though we’ve chosen to focus on the discussion of Francisco Varela for this excerpt.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

WRR: Your book, ultimately, is a meditation on consciousness. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain

Thompson: That’s the fundamental question of the book. I felt compelled to write about it because it kept coming up for me in different ways, some of which were personal and some intellectual. On a personal level I thought about the question a lot when I was working intensely with my friend and mentor, Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, just before he died. He was terminally ill and we knew that at some point soon he was going to die.

I write about the last real conversation I had with him, how it centered on consciousness and the question of its transcendence. It was fall of 2000 and Cisco and I were in my dad’s apartment in New York on the Upper West Side, writing a scientific article about consciousness and the brain. We weren’t raising that question at all in the article but we were talking about it a lot when we weren’t working. Cisco was a Buddhist, and knew that he was going to die soon, so transcendence was something he was contemplating. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, consciousness is the most fundamental luminous nature of awareness, underlying more ordinary cognitive forms of the mind, and it’s not considered to be brain dependent. Cisco took this perspective very seriously, but he was a neuroscientist, so he was also skeptical and doubtful.

The experience of talking to Cisco about this and watching him die and feel the loss intensified the question for me. It was a question that I had always thought about, having studied Asian and Western philosophy, but also having grown up in the New Age and yoga world where it was just taken for granted that people had multiple lives and that consciousness carried on after physical death. (more…)

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Dreaming is one of the key parts of the human experience that Thompson examines in his book (it’s right there in the title, after all), and in today’s post, crossposted from the Huffington Post Blog, Thompson discusses the importance of dreaming to his work as a scholar, and to understanding what the concept of a “self” actually means.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Waking, Dreaming, Being
Evan Thompson

Dreaming and waking up have puzzled and fascinated humanity since prehistoric times. Paleolithic cave paintings, according to some art historians, depict mental images from dreams and the borderland between sleep and wakefulness. The ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads describe three states of the self — waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The early Chinese Daoist philosopher, Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu, 369-298 B.C.E.), wrote that only after one is “greatly awakened” does one realize that it was all a “great dream,” while the fool thinks that he is awake. The word “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Lucid dreaming — being aware of dreaming while you’re dreaming — is a vivid way to experience waking up and dreaming at the same time. You wake up within the dream without waking up from the dream. In the 1980s scientists showed that lucid dreaming is a real and unique state of consciousness in sleep. In the past four years, brain-imaging experiments have been done with lucid dreamers. Instead of cave art depicting the dream world, we now have images of the dreaming brain. (more…)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Evan Thompson talks to Tricycle Magazine

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Recently, Thompson spoke to Tricycle Magazine about his book, his view of the mind, and mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny. We’ve excerpted parts of this interview below.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it?
We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.

What’s your alternative view of the mind?
The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”

In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning. (more…)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Thompson’s prologue was recently excerpted at the Mind & Life institute, and we are happy to present the final section of that excerpt here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Staying with the Open Question
Evan Thompson

Shortly before his death, Francisco Varela talked about the Tibetan Buddhist notion of “subtle consciousness” in an interview with Swiss filmmaker Franz Reichle (see Reichle’s film, Montegrande: What Is Life?, and also the Mind & Life Institute). Subtle consciousness isn’t an individual consciousness; it’s not an ordinary “me” or “I” consciousness. It’s sheer luminous and knowing awareness beyond any sensory or mental content. It’s rarely seen by the ordinary mind, except occasionally in special dreams, intense meditation, and at the very moment of death, when one’s ordinary “I” or “me” consciousness falls apart. It’s the foundation for every other type of consciousness, and it’s believed to be independent of the brain. Neuroscience can’t conceive of this possibility, while for Tibetan Buddhists it’s unthinkable to dismiss their accumulated experience testifying to the reality of this primary consciousness.

Varela’s position is to suspend judgment. Don’t neglect the Buddhist observations and don’t dismiss what we know from science. Instead of trying to seek a resolution or an answer, contemplate the question and let it sit there. Have the patience and forbearance to stay with the open question. (more…)