Embedding Consciousness Back Into The World
It seems to me that one of the great philosophical projects of our age is the effort to re-embed human consciousness into nature. This would be the antidote to some negative ramifications of another great philosophical project – the effort to extract human consciousness out of nature. Through that earlier magnificent project we objectified the world and grew to understand it in ways we never had before. Through that same process of objectification we also inadvertently removed ourselves from the world and took up a position looking back at it – albeit with ever more clarity and precision.
In short we created an objective world or at least an objective perspective on the world, with enormous benefit for humankind. Early in human history consciousness was embedded in nature. We were one of the elements of nature being blown around like leaves in the wind. There were hosts of gods, demons and spirits that were acting on us and making us act in certain ways as a direct result of their influence. Everything that happened in the world including our own actions was the result of supernatural forces at play.
The awakening of humanity– seen most vividly during the time of the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment – was in part an awakening to human agency. Human beings began to see themselves as independent agents acting in a wider world. We separated ourselves from nature and adopted a position of being outside of the world looking out at it…objectively. In so doing we sat ourselves free of a much more superstitious understanding of reality and loosened ourselves from the whim of outside forces that we must appeal to for everything. We became masters of our own destiny – the living conscious agents of the universe.
As we objectified the world we also pushed reality further and further away. We created a universe of empty space that was filled with objects. And these objects began to be seen as reality and so reality became something that we were looking at and not something that we were a part of.
One of the ways that we managed this objectification of the world is through the creative use of speech acts. We labeled everything. We defined things and gave them names. We named the natural world. This is a rock. This is dirt. That is the sun. We named ourselves. This is John. This is Mary. We named activities. This is running. This is crying. And we built things and then named them too. This is a house. This is a hammer. This is road. We also named things that were more complex and subtle. This is a feeling. This is a moral value. This is right. This is wrong.
We named and named and named. We pointed at everything and named it. We combined names. This is tea and this is a house and this is a teahouse. We used names to describe other names. This is anger. This is a man. And this is an angry man. Each name identified something that could then be seen as separate from all other things. We created hard edges in the world. We created distinctions and we believed in our distinctions and we became one of the things in the universe that existed separate from all other things.
Perhaps the next great philosophical project needs to be the effort to re-embed ourselves into the universe –not by going back to our earlier embedded form – but by recognizing that our names and our naming of things is also all part of the universe. It is one of the ways that the universe grows. It grows in distinction and in understanding. The American Pragmatists were among the earlier pioneers exploring the possibility of re-embedding consciousness back into the universe. All of our growth of understanding about the universe, they believed, is not something that exists outside of the universe – it is all intimately part of the universe. Our thoughts are not ours separated from the universe; our thoughts are happening in the universe, they are the universe’s thoughts that just happen to emerge through us. It is ultimately not us who are making distinctions and naming things. It is the universe that is learning and seeing more about itself through us.