Tuesday, August 3, 2010

If Only We Would Stop Thinking

The apparent prejudice many of those thought to be great figures in our intellectual history have against the "real world" and our interaction with it continues to baffle me.  I wonder, though, if any such figure can be a more impressive example of the problems which result from this prejudice than Henri Bergson.  There is something amazing about Bergson.  He is a thinker who wants us to stop thinking.

He seems to recognize that we think, normally, very much in the way that a Deweyian Pragmatist would maintain that we do.  In other words, when we think, we do so with a purpose in mind; we wish to solve a problem or attain some other end.  When we think well, critically and analytically, we achieve practical results, and this is good in a way, he admits.  But this seems an admission he makes only grudgingly.  This is the way we proceed on a common sense basis, and also when we're doing science.  We obtain great benefits as a consequence.  But this simply is not good enough.

If I understand him correctly (and it is sometimes difficult to believe he's being serious) thinking prevents us from truly knowing anything.  Our thoughts, and particularly our language, prevent us from discerning what is truly "real."  In thinking, we interpose constructs in place of the real.  Worse, we focus on certain things to the exclusion of others.  By focusing on one thing in particular, we fail to acknowledge other things (we fail to know them).  And, as we focus on things for a purpose, we can never know even that thing.  We must stop this business of thinking if we're going to really know.  Philosophers should know what is truly real.  So, philosophers should stop thinking.

We can only know what is truly real by intuiting it, in some fashion that is not described, and probably can't be described, as that would involve the use of language and that troublesome tendency to think we indulge in all too often.  Bergson is reduced to employing analogy as a means to communicate what cannot be communicated.  It's all rather Zen, in a way.

He apparently maintains that the way in which memory functions supports his view.  His view of memory seems rather antiquated, however.  Specifically, references to the fact that we can, under hypnosis or otherwise, recall past events in minute detail may not be as persuasive as intended given the phenomenon of "false memory."

What I find marvelous about this (not in a good way) is the extent to which it divorces what we are and what we do from what is claimed to be true, and ultimately worthy.  The fact that we are a "thinking animal" becomes for Bergson a problem.  It prevents us from knowing.  We can't even console ourselves by lauding scientific achievements.  Presumably, as these result from extended thought and analysis, they merely emphasize the fact that we fail to know what is real.  It seems the more we achieve, the more we think, the less we know.

What can Bergson mean?  Let's acknowledge that one can, through meditation and mindfulness, for example, experience oneself and the rest of reality in a manner different from the manner we normally do when we're golfing or working on a project of some kind.  When we focus on a particular task, it certainly can legitimately be argued we ignore other things, people, occurrences.  Is this all he means?  If so, why infer from such commonplaces some dramatic theory that we cannot know what is truly real?

There is something dangerous about this view.  It encourages thoughtlessness.  It seems to encourage mysticism, and the irrational.  If we can't know what is true by thinking, particularly analytic or critical thinking, how is it possible to make judgments regarding what is true or what we know?  On what basis would we distinguish between the intuitions of person X or those of person Y, and indeed, why would we want to do so?

I'm simplifying, of course.  Bergson seems to believe philosophers will be able to communicate with each other in some fashion regarding the real and true.  And he thinks, and analyzes, and reasons, and does all those things we shouldn't do, he claims, to truly know what is real.  He was a human being, after all, and that is what we do, very naturally, though sometimes we do it well and sometimes we don't.  Why does he and why do others feel we shouldn't do what humans do, quite naturally, and--worse yet?--do it well?

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