Old World Mind, New World Machine
Yet anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Thus meditative thinking need by no means be ‘high-flown’. It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 1959, page 47).
For many of us, thinking is itself a practical matter. It dwells upon the matters at hand, it lives only for a specific purpose. This because our society provides such ready-mades, the stuff of the collective perception that constitutes a worldview, that in fact we are seldom called upon to think at all. At the same time, perhaps most of us consider thinking to be the province of the scientist or the philosopher alone. For the preeminent thinker of the twentieth century to remind us that this is not at all the case is of great import. It is also quite correct. What the species-essence of humanity is, is thought, made manifest through consciousness. It was once only sentience, billions of years ago, as organic life separated itself from the inorganic fabric of the cosmos. It was once only instinct, when enough complexity accrued through evolutionary organicity to enact the senses protean and proprioceptive. And most recently, it was once only habit; whatever appeared to work was repeated, honed, made second nature.
But in this very process of experiment and experience, thinking presently arose. It was, as it mostly is today, originally geared into the eminent practicality of how to practice a uniquely human life within an anonymous nature. Humans are generalists, we belong to no ecological niche, we adapt to any variable, we shun the specialization of our once closer kindred animals. Even so, thought was itself not yet present. Thinking was a thinking through, a thinking about, attending to a process or an object problem, and not a thinking-in-itself, thought for the sake of thought alone. This final aspect of consciousness as we know it is what can be called ‘meditative’ thinking. It differs from Eastern forms of meditation, wherein thinking in the Western sense is to be temporarily expunged. This more well known definition of meditation remains a healthy exercise for the mind and body alike, but it serves the futurity of our species-being only insofar as it sets up a contrast between what consciousness is when it becomes less active; outwardly more like a lower form of life – a sensory apparatus that only reacts – and inwardly perhaps more like one higher – the Gods have no need of thought as all is already known to them.
But meditating upon an abstract problem, including the perennial ‘problem of consciousness’, an ontological puzzle, or even the ‘problem of knowledge’, an epistemological issue, is quite different than ‘meditation’ in the spiritual sense, transcendental or otherwise. It is the idea that one can have an idea that prompts the sense that I as a human being am capable of thought. Not that ‘my idea’ is prone to any singular possession. Anything we do is automatically the proof property of the species at large. Even if we tell no one, it influences our acts, our further thoughts. In a word, I am altered in my very being by having this thought, as I am created as a thrown project by having thought itself.
Yet if thinking is not the province of the philosopher alone, why then do we have so many occasions to note its relative absence in the world? If anyone can participate, why then do we not see more interest in this regard? The most authentic challenge to thinking comes from our need to think about the world. We imagine that our ‘patch of home ground’ is indeed what is ‘closest to us’. The exhortation to ‘act locally but think globally’ is a noble one, nonetheless, it simply substitutes a smaller concern in the world for the world as a concern. Both are objects in this sense, and thus even if their scale differs, they remain quantities, things, about which we attempt to negotiate or ‘figure out’. The sense that something either works or it does not promotes a thinking that is sustainable only within the context of work, and increasingly, simple labor. Let me use the obvious contraption ‘thing-king’ to designate this kind of thought process. In thing-king, there is a beginning and an end, and both are precise enough to ingratiate a practice that may, over time, become a personal habit or yet a cultural habitus. We notice a problem, issue, challenge, or mistake. This is the start of practical thought, thinking about a thing. ‘Fixing’ the issue is the only goal. Many means may be necessary, certainly, but the end is defined at the beginning and as Heidegger’s student Arendt has cautioned, we cannot ‘justify’ separating ends and means in the trite manner of the moral chestnut simply because the ends have already delineated the means and therefore have by definition ‘justified’ them ahead of time.
Not that this is necessarily an ethical problem pending the ends. By far most everyday challenges require no revolutionary means to achieve a desired outcome. They neither demand the radical nor the novel. They are simply part and parcel of ordinary existence and remain within a logistics of worldliness. It is in this way, even though they are deemed to be necessities of human life, that such practicalities prevent thinking from arising. That this is an authentic bracketing of thought is evidenced by the lifeworld’s insistence upon its own reproduction. We cannot think in a void. But practice – the fixing of logistical issues, the enactment of means tending toward finite goals which can be known or at least observed from a short distance – and even praxis – the sense that practical theory is itself a means to world-historical action – do not suffice, and can never suffice, for thought itself. For thinking, as opposed to thing-king, is encountered, not enacted. Its goals are undefined ahead of time, its means are diffuse and seemingly have a life of their own. Thinking is, in a word, about nothing other than thoughts and thus takes place only within the history of consciousness.
So while it is reasonable to exclaim at this juncture that, ‘I have no time to meditate on abstractions, things that aren’t really things at all. I have to get on with it’, we must ask the question, ‘what, exactly, does getting on with things mean, suggest, imply?’ At once we have our genuine response: human life is composed chiefly of activities that from time to time need to be adjusted to practical purpose and to finite ends. Even so, the truth of this statement is only the case within a wider understanding of existence, one that includes, and indeed is originated by, our species-essential ability to think at all. Practice and praxis alike represent means only, and whatever ‘ends’ that are contained within this or that process of such thing-king are themselves but further means.
But means to what? Meditative or contemplative thinking is its own end insofar as it is a means to itself. This may sound circular as well as pompous, but consider thinking with the understanding that thought is neither a subject alone – our thoughts are historical, factual, mythical, as well as being biographical; but then again, what is so much of our biography if not habitus made into habit? – nor is it an object – thinking is very much not a thing in the physical sense, and attempts to reduce thought to neurochemical combinations and synaptic structures only serve to place the process by which thought arises into some more precise locales. Given our human success is due to our ability to ‘think things through’, the sense that we should try to locate thought as if it were itself a thing seems counterintuitive, for our thinking mimics our wider heritage as evolutionary generalists. We are potentially unlimited as a species, even if I as an individual must meditate ‘within my limits’. This is the more profound meaning of the near and the far to be found in sudden declamations to ‘think globally, act locally’ and so on. I act and think within certain limits, many of them not my own in any individuated sense, yet I can also at least imagine thinking, if not truly acting, in a much wider way. It is that single act of imagination which allows us to encounter the essence of thinking-as-it-is.
Yet if there is an uneasy, even somewhat suspicious relationship between practice and thought, the one still admits to the other that its practices originate in contemplative thinking. It is otherwise with the inauthentic barriers to meditative thought that our everyday world has constructed. These include the distractions of the newer lifeworld of the idolatrous thing, the fetishized commodity, but as well, the delusions of the older lifeworld’s customs and rituals, what is defined as habitus and heresy alike. Between the machine of the new and the mind of the old, human thinking is confined to a space stenochoric to the future and at once reduced to peering at a thin slice of the past. Custom represents only the most common elements of culture, no matter if this or that ritual comes once in an individual lifetime. And the technology of a culture in turn represents what is most commonly practiced by those same individuals. Both rely upon repetition, and only challenge us when the outcomes expected from them do not automatically materialize.
Even when this is the case, ‘fixing it’ immediately becomes the end to which the means at hand are harnessed. There can be no thought outside of these circles, whether sacred or secular, whether customary or technological. But meditative thinking is neither sacred nor secular, it engages no loyalty to religion revealed or ‘civil’, and in this lies the key to our encounter with it: thinking is itself revolutionary. By this I mean that in order to engage in thinking as a species-essential gift and task, one must needs shed all loyalties to both custom and craft. One must begin to understand means and ends as artificial boundaries that impede the act of thought by reducing it to a specific point-to-point process. There is no ‘there’ to thinking, as Heidegger has implied. It is a here and now encounter with the new and with my ownmost being which is ever new. This is what is closest to us; our own being in the world as I breathe and as I am. Yes, this existence precedes an understanding of essence but it does not negate it, in the same manner as though we have historically given ourselves credit for the death of the Gods and the shattering of the illusory otherworld, does not then mean that otherness no longer exists.
For thinking is itself other. It is other to life as we have known it, to history as it has been, to myself as I know myself and what I expect from myself. It is other to what is customary, but also to what is technical and of technique alone. It is other to the generalized otherness of the social fabric and it thus gifts us with the ongoing task of being more than we have taken ourselves to be and to once have been. The old world mind is an unthought vice of tradition alone, unchallenged and too well known to aid the human future, while the new world machine is an unthinking device which cannot know itself and thus has no future. Only human thought, meditative and contemplative, abruptly present and yet in the ever-closing presence of the future, opening us to the possibilities of consciousness in its relationship with the cosmos from which it has perhaps unexpectedly sprung, marks us as worthy of a continued existence.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics, and health as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.