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The knight move: two steps forward, one step away from Descartes

Date:08 March 2019
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo

In a previous post, I suggested that it may be helpful to look at Descartes’s Meditations as actual meditations. Over the past three weeks, I’ve been teaching the Meditations to first year students. I learned a lot from this experience. This post is an attempt to share some of the most important points I came across.

 Disclaimer: this post is not a historical reconstruction nor an interpretation of Descartes’s own arguments.

 I summarize the main points in three steps. To understand what I’m talking about, it’s advisable to do the little exercises at the beginning of each step. Anything between 3 minutes and 3 hours would do. The comments labelled ‘insight’ are reflections upon the experience cultivated in the meditation exercise. I don’t make explicit references to Descartes or anybody else. You can figure out your favourite references as you wish.

 Step 1. The nature of awareness

 Meditation Exercise: take any object that appears in your field of experience. Observe that object carefully. Observe what it means to observe an object carefully. How does it feel to be aware of that object?

 Insight: the fundamental structure of awareness can be captured by the formula awareness of (x). In this formula, x is a placeholder for any content that arises in the field of experience (x can be as complex as one wishes, ça va sans dire).

 The awareness of (x) formula may suggest a dualistic structure of the aware experience in which awareness is one thing and the content is another. This is not what emerges from a careful observation of “aware experience”. The content of awareness cannot arise outside of the awareness of that content. As soon as one recognizes the content as the content of awareness, that content exists only qua content of awareness. Being a content of awareness means just that: appearing within the aware experience. Careful observation here teaches more than words could.

 The further question one may raise is whether the content of awareness is caused by something that exists outside, or independently of awareness itself. For instance, if one sees a table one may wonder if the awareness of the table is caused by the existence of a table that exists independently of one’s awareness of it. This question implicitly builds on a number of assumptions. Before addressing it, two further steps need to be taken.

 Step 2. The reflexive nature of awareness

 Meditation Exercise: take any object that appears in your field of experience. Observe it carefully. Become aware of the fact that you’re aware of that object. Observe how this happens. What does it take to become aware of the awareness of any given object? How does it feel? How does it differ from the simple awareness of the object itself?

 Insight: one may think that the reflexivity experienced in becoming aware of being aware of something entails an extra level of awareness. This may be captured by the formula ‘awareness of (awareness of [x])’. However, this is not what emerges from a careful observation of reflexive aware experience. In becoming aware of one’s awareness of something, there is a shift in perspective in the way in which the object is kept in focus. The object itself somehow recedes and by receding it allows the awareness itself to become part of its own content. To use a formula, this can be captured by ‘awareness of (-x)’. The expression ‘-x’ is meant to capture the fact that the content recedes. This recession means that the content fades away to some extent and that the awareness of the content takes the place that was previously occupied by the content. Like the low tide that shows the sands previously covered by water.

 In actual practice, this recession of the content can be experienced as an enhanced concentration on the content itself. The content appears more vivid, but what is more vivid is just the fact of being aware of that object. The actual content of awareness may indeed have become thinner (with background elements fading away and the object of observation being somehow ‘simplified’ by the observation itself). Concentration is just the effect of an increase reflexivity in one’s awareness.

 The reflexivity of awareness cannot be based on a second (or higher) order of awareness. If one is just aware of x (as may be the case), one is not also aware of being aware of x. In order to be aware of x, it is not needed to be aware of being aware of x (as is often not the case). But if one is aware of x, and in that awareness there is not (yet) awareness of being aware of x, then it is impossible that that ‘first order’ awareness leads to the reflexive awareness of being aware of x. That ‘second order’ awareness is simply not present (yet), and there seems to be no bridge between first and second order awareness. However, it is factually possible to become aware of one’s awareness of x (you just did, if you practiced the exercise above). Hence, the reflexive nature of awareness should be explained in another way. By observing carefully, one can realize that reflexivity arises from the content of awareness, not from the awareness itself. Reflexivity is the spill over of awareness within its own content, due to the fact that any content, by itself, naturally tends to fade away. Unless something happens and the awareness of the content is renewed, awareness itself takes the place left by the fading away of the content.  

 Corollary 1: the reflexive nature of awareness entails that reflexivity arises naturally by letting a content (any content) fade away. This is what happens in sustained meditation: by simplifying experience, reducing the amounts of external stimuli, and focusing on simple(r) objects, one can experience their progressive fading away until the awareness of being aware prevails as the main content of awareness (surprisingly, the awareness of being aware can by itself generate a number of quite subtle – and most often very blissful – states and feelings; it takes very long to actually get to the point in which the content of awareness is completely empty...).

 Corollary 2: the opposite of reflexive awareness happens often in daily life. By constantly seeking new contents of awareness and quickly running from one to the other, awareness is constantly filled by contents. Although contents inevitably change, the fullness of content is sustained and then the reflexivity of awareness is concealed behind this fullness. When this happens, one feels a complete identification with the flow of experience without any awareness of being aware of it. Awareness is the horizon of experience and that horizon is completely concealed by what happens within it.

 Step 3. The impersonal nature of awareness

 Meditation Exercise: take any object that appears in your field of experience and observe it carefully. Bring your attention to the sense (i.e. the feeling, the sentiment) of you being the ‘I’ who does the observing. Become fully aware of how does it feel to be this ‘I’. Can you locate this ‘I’ somewhere?

 Insight: the sense of the ‘I’ can only be a content of awareness, not a subject of awareness. In order to experience the sense of the ‘I’, one needs to be aware of it. Hence, the sense of the ‘I’ is a content of awareness. But in order for the ‘I’ to see its own awareness (i.e. be a subject of awareness and not just an object), the awareness itself should be an object. Is this possible?

 It can happen that one feels as if one is the ‘observer’ of one’s own aware experience. However, this feeling is clearly an illusion (like a stick that looks broken in water, the ‘I’ looks as the real subject of awareness). It does not make any sense for the ‘I’ (if it is the subject of awareness) to see its own awareness as an object in front of it. This would mean that the ‘I’ is independent of its own awareness, which would entail that the ‘I’ cannot be aware as such, because it is different from its own awareness (and this is not what one experiences). Alternatively, the ‘I’ may be a constitutive feature of awareness itself– the ‘I’ may be built into the awareness. And yet, that would make it impossible for the ‘I’ to experience itself as the ‘observer’ of awareness, since, if this were the case, no distance should appear between the ‘I’ and the awareness (but this distance does appear when one feels like the ‘observer’ of one’s own awareness).

 Since the ‘I’ cannot be the subject of awareness, it has to be one of its contents. Insofar as this content is sustained over time and is never allowed to fade away, one is not aware of the fact that the sense of ‘I’ is just another content of awareness. One remains aware only of the content of awareness (the sense of being an ‘I’, which is the illusory content of this experience) and not of the awareness of it. When the reflexivity of awareness (step 2) is properly applied to the sense of the ‘I’, the sense of the ‘I’ appears for what it is, namely, as just another content of awareness. The more this reflexivity grows, the more it becomes clear that the awareness of the sense of the ‘I’ is not a real ‘I’ itself. Awareness is nobody. It is purely impersonal. There is only the activity of cogitare. The Ego cogito is an illusion within the cogitare phenomenon.

 Corollary 1: the question (raised at the step 1) about whether there is an external world outside of the awareness of any given object is built on the sense of the ‘I’ and on the boundary that this traces between an ‘inside me’ and an ‘outside of me’. Since the sense of the ‘I’ is an illusion, the ‘I–world’ distinction is an illusion. If there is no ‘I’, there is no ‘external world’ either. These expressions do not mean anything real.

  Corollary 2: if there is no ‘I’, there is also no ‘other’. The idea of an ‘other’ separate from ‘me’ presupposes and it is built within the sense of the ‘I’. The idea of self-identity entails the exclusion of the other (‘I’ cannot be ‘my-self’ if ‘I’ am not other from what is not ‘me’). But this ‘I–other’ distinction is meaningful only within the illusion created by the sense of the ‘I’. Outside of it (in the impersonal awareness that can become reflexively aware of being deluded) there is no ‘I’ and thus no ‘other’. This means that the dichotomy between ‘this’ and ‘not-this’ (and any dichotomy of this kind) cannot grasp anything real. The contents of awareness, observed within reflexive awareness, are neither identical nor different.

 Objection 1: if awareness is impersonal, and there is no real ‘I’, who does experience this impersonal character of awareness? How can you have experience without an experiencer?

 Reply: The objection presupposes what should be proved. If one assumes that awareness is necessarily the activity of a subject, of course it makes sense to claim that if you drop the subject there cannot be any awareness. But the point raised in step 3 is that awareness does not have to be conceived as the activity of the subject (this assumption is precisely what is at stake here).

 From an experiential point of view, the impersonal nature of awareness does not entail that there is no awareness or no experience, but simply that awareness does not come with the marks of any particular ‘I’ (there is no ‘sense of the I’, this content is not included in awareness anymore). One can realize: ‘There was this aware experience, but there was no ‘I’’. Like in ‘it rains’: there is nobody behind ‘it’. But you get wet nonetheless.

 Objection 2: The notion of a subject of awareness is necessary in order to account for the unity that one finds in experience. My experience of the world is not a stream of raw sensory data, but a well-organized whole: it’s my experience. This unity and wholeness are the proof that there is a real ‘I’ who unifies sensory data into a coherent picture.

 Reply: The unity at stake in the objection is the glue that connects different bits of experience and refers them to the same (alleged) subject of that experience. But carefully observed, this unity is nothing more than the sense that certain contents are ‘mine’ or ‘belong to me’. If one observes even more carefully this ‘mine-ness’ it can be seen that it is nothing but a form of grasping, attachment, appropriation (taken roughly as synonyms). These are affective, conative, desiderative states (roughly synonyms again), hardly purely cognitive or epistemic. Moreover, these are all contents of awareness itself, they presuppose awareness while awareness does not necessarily presuppose them (e.g. one can be aware of something without desiring it, while one cannot experience one’s own desire without becoming to some extent aware of it). Hence, the unity of experience, the glue of experience, is this attachment. But attachment is clearly not an ‘I’ itself, it's just another content of experience, not a subject of it.



 A few further consequences that may follow (up for discovery and for personal inquiry):

1. awareness is momentary; it is a flow of moments of awareness– it is not a thing, a substance, a transcendental entity. The unfolding of this flow of moments of awareness is the natural unfolding of reality.

2. if there is no ‘I’, there is nobody ‘in control’, there is no ‘freedom of will’, there is no ‘self-determination’.

3. the reason why not everything is included in just the same moment of awareness is that insofar as one content is present, it limits what can be present in that same moment of awareness (and this is consistent with step 3, corollary 2, because the difference between the contents appears within the contents themselves, it does not entail an ontological real difference). If there is a moment of awareness with absolute reflexivity (x-x=0), that would entail all content and no content at all.

4. the content of awareness tends constantly to fade away: it is impermanent (anicca). In order to sustain the illusion of the sense of the ‘I’, this content needs to be constantly renewed. This creates a situation of ‘stress’ (suffering, dukkha). Reflexivity releases this stress, by letting the sense of the ‘I’ go (anatta). When this happens, first joy and pleasure emerge as a result of the relief from stress (first jhana), then joy and pleasure arise from the absence of stress (second jhana), hence there remains only satisfaction and equanimity for whatever is present in pure awareness (third and fourth jhana).

About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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