Revolutions in Philosophy

In the 18th century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant caused a big shift in philosophical thinking – so much so that people have called it a “philosophical revolution.”

Philosophers before Kant were  trying to find the truth either by analysis of experience with the rational mind (empiricists) or by logical deduction with the mind (rationalists), assuming reality was, somehow, intrinsically rational.

One way of telling the history of Western philosophy is to say that Kant took the middle road. Our experience is already affected by the mind, he said, before we do any analysis. Our perception is affected by a ‘mind filter,’ if you will, such that we see things as happening in sequence and such that the world has a spatial layout. Space and time, in other words, are not “out there” but rather ‘projected’ by the mind onto experience – the mind “in here.”

[ Unfiltered world “mind filter” → Your Experience ]

Kant’s logic makes a lot of sense. Would anyone deny that their mind is absent for any experience? Would anyone deny that they constantly perceive space and time? So it’s quite possible that the (ever-present) mind ‘projects’ (ever-present) space and time.

. . . Yet I don’t present Kant’s philosophy to argue for it, but to contrast it with other perspectives that are appealing for very different reasons.

What’s really fascinating about all the Western philosophical canon—pretty much from Ancient Greece to the present day—is that you’ll hardly ever find a firm distinction between witness-awareness and the (thinking) mind which is so crucial to Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, for example, and so often implied in contemporary ‘non-dual’ talks.

This is bizarre, considering how important that distinction is in the philosophies (or just “teachings”) where it’s found. Yet it’s absent in most of Western philosophy. It’s there for some of the ancient philosophers, and maybe for Hegel and a few others, but for the most part it’s missing.

Another way of putting the point is to say that most of the Western philosophers weren’t (& aren’t) familiar with mindfulness. (Ironic, since they talk about the mind so much!) If being mindful involves watching thought from the point of view of a silent, witnessing awareness, then most of the thinkers in the West weren’t  being mindful, it seems, but were experiencing thoughts from the point of view of… other thoughts. Hence the phrase, “lost in thought.”

It just doesn’t seem plausible, to me, that many of these philosophers could’ve invested so much time in writing their tomes of philosophy, if they had previously made this distinction in their experience; that is, forayed into mindfulness. . . . Why? Because thought seems generally less important from the point of view of witness-awareness. It’s like, for the Western philosophers, thoughts were arbiters of truth. For them, you could say what’s true in a sentence! However, from the point of view of witness-awareness, a thought is just something that happens. It comes and goes like a bird chirps.

To introduce mindfulness to philosophy changes the whole game. It changes the game because with mindfulness comes the possibility of experiencing amazingly different states of consciousness. Such an introduction could be the beginning of a whole new field of inquiry, where what state of consciousness we’re talking about is of chief importance, and the specific concepts and language we use are secondary.

It’s a wild claim, but someday, perhaps, we’ll look back on the Western philosophical tradition, and someone will say, “Ah, yes, so many of them were taking as their starting point a primarily rational state of consciousness; hence their confusions and difficulties. Now we can see that that is one particular manifestation of consciousness, yet there are so many more to talk about, to take as a starting point!” (William James may have been hinting at this in his Varieties of Religious Experience.)

Moreover, to make mindfulness and states of consciousness more of a factor—much more—in contemporary philosophy, would be to, simultaneously, align philosophy more with the ancient conception of “philosophy as a way of life,” rather than the current notion of philosophy in the popular mind, where it’s impractical, boring, and irrelevant.

For the ancients, philosophy was something lived. It had to do with action, experience, aspiration… transformation of the soul. That was real philosophy. And by my stars the version we’ve inherited is, in large part, an empty shell of what it once was.

What if philosophy was, once again, an art form? Something with which you co-created, by the powers within you, a much deeper and richer experience of reality?—full of wonder, wisdom, love, fulfillment, peace, connectivity, magnanimity, true enthusiasm?—everything we yearn for in our heart of hearts?

That idea of philosophy has been lost, for the most part. We owe it to ourselves to reclaim it.

. . . So, to circle back, Kant’s problem was that he was too much in his head. (We philosophers can sense this about ourselves, but we try to ignore it.) His philosophy’s logical structure is exquisite, yet, it only serves rational consciousness, in the end.

A new philosophical revolution would ‘go beyond’ rationality altogether. Thus, it would be a re-invention of philosophy, drawing on the inspiration of the ancients, but not being limited by them, either. . . If Kant’s logic was to infer how a mind, present for all experience, filters and synthesizes experiences, then this new philosophy would notice how experience is filtered and synthesized by the state which consciousness inhabits—even the experience of a “mind.” (Not to mention space and time.)

Philosophy’s field of inquiry would become, not merely the bodies of information uncovered by science and logical analysis, but all experiential information available to consciousness in the different states and “worlds” (realms & planes) it can enter. Once again, all our truth claims would be called into question, as no perspective can be ultimate, so long as there are more experiences available to consciousness.

The invitation, then, is to lay down one’s identity as a thinker and opt, instead, to be an explorer of consciousness. The words of the poet Rumi come to mind:

Out beyond ideas of wrong and right,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

17 thoughts on “Revolutions in Philosophy

  1. You may wish to note that, those whom promote mystical forms of consciousness, have yet to solve the world’s problems. Perhaps there is nothing to be found there but comforting fantasies, as is common among all superstitions.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Louis. Looks like you’re right- no one, mystics included, has solved the world’s problems. For me it’s a bit hasty to dismiss all they say as superstitious, though. Even if their metaphysical claims are difficult to verify in our own experience, we can at least appreciate some of the more “earthly” wisdom. Compassionate values or practical ways to alleviate suffering, for example.

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      1. Those values are in no way exclusive to their perceptions. Infact, consider the very purpose of government and law. Few people like to admit to the harsh necessities of maintaining order, but chances are, without the steadfast men and women who’ve willing faced life’s unpleasantries, you wouldn’t have the luxury of promoting your, possibly insane, views.

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      2. PeterJ

        Many or even most of their metaphysical claims can be verified in formal metaphysics, and have been. As for the world’s problems, it’s not their fault if folks won’t take the medicine.

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  2. PeterJ

    Nice post, Grant. I’d very much agree with your point about awareness/mind and the confusion that comes from eliding them as one phenomenon. But maybe Kant was onto this as well. He did say that the intellect reduces to a state or phenomenon that is ‘not an instance of a category’, and this is close to the idea that mind does not go all the way down.

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    1. Thanks for your intelligent comment, Peter. I didn’t know Kant had said that! …Yes, this article really is about mind not going all the way down, or more specifically intellectual mind. But there must be other, important factors that come in between recognizing that fact, and jumping to mysticism (so called), else Kant and other like him might read more like Swedonborg or Emerson. Feeling the “spiritual impulse” is something that lies outside the experience of many philosophers, it seems.

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  3. PeterJ

    Yes, but Kant showed that logic can take you nearly all the way, even it cannot bring the truth to life as a reality. That is, logic shows that it would be necessary to ‘jump to mysticism’ for a fundamental or general theory. (As Nagarjuna proved many moons ago).

    It’s interesting that Kant concluded that the mind does not go all the way down, and odd that almost nobody in consciousness studies bothers to examine the implications of his idea. , .

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      1. Enjoying life. Enjoying thought. Enjoying my existence.

        I don’t know, it’s a good question. I think what arises after is a desire for connection to “the thing in itself,” to cite Kant: that is, a more integrated essence and being to all that exists. During, there is a strong desire for clarity and connection. And before, I’d say I’m searching hard for truth …

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    1. Ah, sounds like a spiritual impulse. Now is there anything that’s the same before, during and after a thought comes? Is there anything not coming and going, not arising and passing away? Listen with your heart.

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    2. That’s great. The mind is really open to new info when it knows that it doesn’t know. So my guess is that if you stay with the not-knowing, insight will be welcomed.
      Also, Adyashanti gives great pointers in this area, just in case you wanted to check out his stuff on YouTube.

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  4. PeterJ

    Phoenix – Nobody can predict what methods and practices will suit you right now but I’d recommend a study of Zen, where ‘just sitting’ is all anyone would need to do. To get beyond the ordinary mind requires shutting it up now and again. It would be a question of revealing what is there but is veiled, not of finding something that is elsewhere.

    There would be nothing ‘irrational’ about this but rather ‘meta-rational’ or trans-rational’. A suspension of thought for the sake of clear vision rather than the abandonment of good sense. Logic and experience coincide but one is map-reading and the other is going on the journey.

    I fear that Grant’s hopes for philosophy are bound to be dashed. After many years of talking to professional philosophers I hold out no hope at all. The lack of scholarship in the profession is breathtaking and so the rate of progress is not. .

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