I’ve been on “spring break” the past week, which has featured many delights, including a trip with my daughter to Preston, ID (where we dined on Arctic Circle burgers and then drove back home).
A separate delight has been reading Galen Strawson’s Selves. His aim is to understand what selves would be, and whether any exist. He whittles down the notion of a self to just this: a single subject of experience which regards itself as a single mental thing. It is fundamentally what Descartes affirms with his cogito, ergo sum. That’s not to say anything else: it’s not to say it’s a soul, or a thing existing over years or eons, or immaterial, or material, or free in its choices, or morally responsible, or even able to make choices, and so on. It is just a “subject of experience-as-single-mental-thing” — or “sesmet”, as he decides to call it.
I’m at the part where, having defined sesmets, he’s about to argue that there are some. But the book has been a delight because of the questions it raises about one’s own consciousness. So, for example, I have been trying to pay closer attention to my thoughts, and separating any pure sense of self from the contents of my thoughts — in other words, separating awareness itself from that of which I am aware. A useful metaphor (for me) has been that of carrying luggage. We carry luggage with us wherever we go, meaning that we have our clothes, belongings, toothbrushes, but also our beliefs, our names, our feelings, our plans, our self-conceits, and basically everything that we have only in virtue of remembering that we have it. But we are not our luggage; our awareness can be distinguished from all the stuff we have to remember that we are/have. Bearing this in mind has already made me a more patient person.
This basic awareness, Strawson suspects, exists as an entity for maybe three seconds (and maybe less) before being displaced by a new awareness which inherits the beliefs (etc) of the old one. Our consciousness is always on the move, always on the make, shifting and crashing and running away before being recaptured and pulled back to new tasks.
Strawson beautifully describes the phenomenal feel of this movement in a discussion of whether the so-called stream of consciousness is much like a stream (no, it isn’t), and invokes Harold Brodkey’s assessment:
Our sense of presentness usually proceeds in waves, with our minds tumbling off into wandering. Usually, we return and ride the wave and tumble and resume the ride and tumble … this falling off and return is what we are.
This still sounds watery and surflike, though, and consciousness also features sharp-edged, darting breaks and thumpy collisions. Anyhow, it’s fun to think about thinking in this way; it’s phenomenology but without the obscure, pretentious jargon. Alternatively, it’s analytic philosophy, but by someone who actually has subjective experience.
It’s also a delight to read Strawson’s footnotes, and see how he connects his introspective philosophy with what he’s found in Joyce, Woolf, Buddhism, Hume, Kant, etc.
As I see it, there are two big events within professorhood (that is, after getting hired in the first place, and before giving it up). The first is getting tenure, when the threat of being fired is removed. The second is receiving a final promotion to full professor, where the threat of not getting promoted is removed. The overall effect is one of surprising liberation. Or, as I’ve repeated a few times now: when the carrot and stick are taken away, the ass will freely roam.
The relatively new tradition at Utah State is for recently promoted full professors to give an “inaugural lecture” (inaugurating their newfound liberation, I guess). It is supposed to be an occasion on which one reflects over one’s career and says something personal and meaningful. But, in my case, these two objectives are sort of at odds with one another, so I had to come up with something a little different.
It was a grand occasion, with family, colleagues, friends, students, waiters, kitchen help, administrators, etc., held at the presidential residence. I really had fun, and it was a delight to address this audience and to amuse them (at least so far as my meager talents allow). My only disappointment is that I won’t be asked to do it again, on a monthly basis.
I wanted to somehow offer my lecture on this blog, as an audio file coupled with the Powerpoint presentation, since the overall effect turned out pretty nicely (it was a Lawrence-Lessig style presentation, with my lecture punctuated with images and phrases on the screen). But I wasn’t able to pull it off. So, for anyone interested, here’s a pdf of the lecture.
If the only thing holding you back from ordering a copy of Interpreting Spinoza is that it isn’t in Portuguese, then take heart: I’ve been informed that a translated edition is in the works.
Now the book will be in a language Spinoza himself could have read!