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Philosophical Reflections

Henry Flynt

1996. This essay was published in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization along with the rest of my early philosophy. The importance of of its comments in my syllabus should be obvious. So it is that I include it in this selection of my writings; and do not want to tamper with it. On the other hand, it is striking how much better-aimed my research program has become in the twenty-five or so years since I wrote this. For that reason, I provide some afterthoughts at the end.

A. If language is nonsense, why do we seem to have it? How do these intricate pseudo-significant structures arise? If beliefs are self-deceiving, why are they there? Why are we so skilled in the self-deceptive reflex that I find in language and belief? Why are we so fluent in thinking in self-vitiating concepts? Granting that language and belief are mistakes, are mistakes of this degree of complexity made for nothing? Is not the very ability to concoct an apparently significant, self-vitiating and self-deceiving structure a transcendent ability, one that points to something non-immediate? Do not these conceptual gymnastics, even if self-vitiating, make us superior to the mindless animals?

Such questions tempt one to engage in a sort of philosophical anthropology, using in part the method of introspection. Beliefs could be explained as arising in an attempt to deal with experienced frustrations by denying them in thought. The origin of Christian Science and magic would thereby be explained. Further, we could postulate a primal anxiety-reaction to raw experience. This anxiety would be lessened by mythologies and explanatory beliefs. The frustration and the anxiety-reaction would be primal non-cognitive needs for beliefs.

Going even farther, we could suppose that a being which could apprehend the whole universe through direct experience would have no need of beliefs. Beliefs would be a rickety method of coping with the limited range of our perception, a method by which our imperfect brains cope with the world. There would be an analogy with the physicist's use of phantom models to make experimental observations easier to comprehend.

However, there are two overwhelming objections to this philosophical anthropology. First, it purports to study the human mind as a derivative phenomenon, to study it from a God-like perspective. The philosophical anthropology thus consists of beliefs which are subject to the same objections as any other beliefs. It is on a par with any other beliefs; it has no privileged position. Specifically, it is is in competition not only with my philosophy but with other accounts of the mind-reality relation, such as behaviorism, Platonism, and Thomism. And my philosophy provides me with no basis to defend my philosophical anthropology against their philosophical anthropologies. My philosophy doesn't even provide me with a basis to defend my philosophical anthropology against its own negation.

In short, the paradoxes which my philosophy uncovers must remain unexplained and unresolved.

The other objection to my philosophical anthropology is that its implications are unnecessarily conservative. An explanation of why people do something wrong can become an assertion that it is necessary to do wrong and finally a justification for doing wrong. But just because I tend, for example, to construe my perceptions as confirmations of propositions about phenomena beyond my experience does not mean that I must think in this way. To explain the modern cognitive orientation by philosophical anthropology tends to absolutize it and to conceal its depensability.

B. There are more legitimate tasks for the introspective "anthropology" of beliefs than trying to find primal non-cognitive needs for beliefs. Presupposing the analysis of beliefs as mental acts and self-deception which I have made elsewhere, we need to examine closely the boundary line between beliefs and non-credulous mental activity.

Is my fear of jumping out of the window a belief? Strictly speaking, no. In psychological terms, a conditioned reflex does not require propositional thought.

Is my identification of an object in different spatial orientations (relative to my field of vision) as "the same object" a belief? Apparently, but this is very ambiguous.

Is my identification of tactile and visual "pencil-perceptions" as aspects of a single object (identity of the object as it is experienced through different senses) a belief? Yes.

It is possible to subjectively classify bodily movements according to whether they are intentional, because drunken awkwardness, adolescent awkwardness, and movements under Electrical Stimulation of the Brain[1] are clearly unintentional. Then does intentional movement of my hand require a belief that I can move my hand? Definitely not, although in rare cases some belief will accompany or precede the movement of my hand. But believing itself will not get the hand moved!

Is there any belief involved in identifying my leg, but not the leg of the table at which I am sitting, as part of my body? Maybe--another ambiguous case.

Are my emotions of longing and dread beliefs in future time? Is my emotion of regret belief in past time? Philosophical anthropology: these temporal feelings precede and give rise to temporal beliefs. (?)

How can I introspectively analyze my dread as dread of future injury if my belief in the existence of the future is invalid to begin with? Easily--the object of the fear is a belief or has a belief associated with it.

C. At one point[2] Alten claimed that his dialectical approach does not take any evidence as being more immediate, more primary, than any other evidence. Our "immediate experience" is mediated; it is a derived phenomenon which only subsists in an objective reality that is outside our subjective standpoint.

1. But Alten does not seriously defend the claim that he does not distinguish between immediate and non-immediate. The claim that there is no distinction would be regarded as demented in every human culture. Every culture supposes that I may be tricked or cheated; there is a realm, the non-immediate or non-experience, which provides an arena for surreptitious hostility to me. Every culture supposes that it is easier for me to tell what I am thinking that what you are thinking. Every culture supposes that I will hear things which I should not accept before I go and see for myself. Alten is simply not iconoclastic enough to reject these common-places. What he apparently does is, like the perceptual psychologist, to accept the distinction between immediate and non-immediate, and to accept the former as the only way of confirming a model, but to construct a model of the relation between the two in which the former is analyzed as a derivative phenomenon.

2. Alten proposes to analyze his own awareness as a derivative phenomenon, to take a stance outside all human awareness. But this is the pretense of the God-like perspective. He postulates both his own limitedness and his ability to step outside it! This is an overt contradiction. Indeed, it is the archetype of the overt self-deception in beliefs which my philosophy exposes. "I can tell the Empire State building exists now even though I cannot now perceive it."

D. In my technical philosophical writings, I call attention to certain self-vitiating "nodes" in the logic of common sense. These nodes include the concept of non-experience and the assertion that there is language. I often find that others dismiss these examples as jokes that can be isolated from cognition or the logic of common sense, rather than acknowledging that they are self-vitiating nodes in the logic of common sense. As a result, I have concluded that it is probably futile to debate the abstract validity of my analysis of these nodes. It does indeed appear as if I am debating over an abstract joke, and it is not apparent why I would attribute such great importance to a joke.

"Philosophical Aspects of Walking Through Walls" represents my present approach. The advantage of this approach is that it makes unmistakable the reason why I attribute so much importance to these philosophical studies. I am not merely debating the abstract validity of a few isolated linguistic jokes; I seek to overthrow the life-world. The only significance of my technical philosophical writings is to offer an explanation of why the life-world is subject to being undermined.

When I speak of walking through walls, the mistake is often made of trying to understand this reference within the framework of present-day scientific common sense. Walking through walls is understood as it would be pictured in a comic-book episode. But such an understanding is quite beside the point. What I am advocating--to skip over the intermediate details and go directly to the end result--is a restructuring of the whole modern cognitive orientation such that one doesn't even engage in scientific hypothesizing or have "object perceptions," and thus wouldn't know whether one was walking through a wall or not.

At first this suggestion may seem like another joke, a triviality. But my genius consists in recognizing that it is not, that there is a residue of non-vacuity and non-triviality in the proposal. There may be only a hair's-breadth of difference between the state I propose and mental incompetence or death--but still, there is all of a hair's-breadth. I magnify this hair's-breadth many times, and use it as a lever to overturn civilization.

E. I am often asked in philosophical discussion how it is that we are now talking if language is vitiated. Let me comment that merely pointing over and over to one of the two circumstances which creates a paradox does not resolve the paradox. Indeed, a paradox arises when there are two circumstances in conflict. The "fact" that we are talking is one of the two circumstances which conjoin in the paradox of language; the other circumstance being the self-vitiating "nodes" I have mentioned. To repeat over and over that we are now talking does not resolve any paradoxes.

Contrary to what the question of how it is that we are now talking suggests, we do not "see" language. (That is, we do not experience an objective relation between words and things.) The language we "see" is a shell whose "transcendental reference" is provided by self-deception.

F. Does the theory of amcons [3] show that the contradiction exposed in the "The Flaws Underlying Beliefs" is admissible and thus loses its philosophical force? No. An amcon is between two things that you see, e.g. stationary motion. It is between two sensed qualities, the simultaneous experiencing of contradictory qualities. (But "He left an hour ago" begins to be a borderline case. Here the point is the ease with which we swallow an expression which violates logical rules. Also expansion of an arc: a case even more difficult to classify.[4]) The contradiction in "The Flaws Underlying Beliefs" has to do first with the logic of common sense, with the logical rules of language. It has to do, secondly, with the circumstance that you don't see something, yet act as if you do. Amcons should not be used to justify self-deception in the latter sense, to rescue every superstition.

published 1975


(D) It was limiting to insist on common sense here. The unspecialized medium is natural language. Common sense is dogmatic.

By the early seventies, I was on the defensive for forcing the question of the existence of language in general. A series of academically-trained acquaintances, including one of my N.Y.U. professors, had told me that I was a fool. In the eighties, the topic came to furnish many publication credits to professional philosophers.

The question of the existence of language in general may seem abstract, and my result may seem an absurd extinction. Meta-technology forces the recognition that this "mad" insight will have to be reckoned with.

In the beginning, I had only the faintest hints of the approach--I spoke of being only a hair's-breadth away from worthlessness. But I was confident of the uncanniness that the pursuit of this avenue could attain.

It is with immense gratification that I can say that "Philosophical Aspects of Walking Through Walls"--a primitive anticipation of the evaluational processing of experience--has long since ceased to be an emblem of my program. The work of the last fifteen years labelled "meta-technology" and "person-world analysis" is vastly superior in exhibiting the direction.

"Philosophical Aspects of Walking Through Walls" is of lesser quality than my other early writings--I would say now, because it doesn't know where to position meta-technology. For the level of dissolution it wants, walking through a wall would be a trivial, unrepresentative feat.

What I called for in conjunction with "Walking Through Walls" was not abstruse results or pinpoint techniques, but the total dissolution of the inherited world at the level of everyday life. Whatever one thinks of personhood theory or the research on higher civilization (or my invocation of Lukács), the demand in question cannot even be given a content without such mediations.