Saturday, May 28, 2011

Of What Mind Can There Be Knowledge?

I wrote a post earlier today on Speculum Mentis where I discussed Collingwood's claim that the only true object of knowledge could be the mind itself. I've been reflecting on that idea and I came up with a question that I had to ask myself. What precisely do we mean by the mind? How to explain this?

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that we can only be sure of our minds knowledge if we assume a historical perspective on our own thoughts. If we were to approach our minds phenomenologically we might not be able to be certain of our knowledge.

I was thinking of Foucault and his work in The Order Of Things. I was thinking of Johanna Oksala's analysis of Foucault in Foucault On Freedom. She says that Foucault's work in TOT is an attempt to find a way to get beyond phenomenological claims to knowledge. She claims that Foucault was working against Edmund Husserl, trying to show that the subject's experience cannot be the basis for knowledge. TOT was thus an attempt to use history to find a basis for knowledge.

I think that this is the direction Collingwood is going in at the end of Speculum Mentis. He discusses what he calls 'The Absolute Mind'. He asks, what mind are we talking about when we talk about when we say that the mind alone can be known? He says that we are speaking of concrete, real, historical minds. Not some abstract mind.

Then he goes into detail about this idea of the absolute mind. Strangely, it sounds much like Foucualt's notion of an episteme. He says that "The absolute mind, then, unites the differences of my mind and other people's, but not as the abstract universal unites: rather as the conrete universal of history unites. The absolute mind is an historical whole of which mine is a part. (299). So we see that knowledge of individual mind has to be historically situated within an understanding of the larger absolute mind of which our mind is a part. The absolute mind "lives in its entirety in every individual and every act of every individual, yet not indifferently, as triangularity is indifferent present in every triangle, but expressing itself in every individual uniquely and irreplaceably" (299). Ummm. So, to have knowledge of mind is to have historical knowledge of your mind and other minds. Just like Foucault's notion of the episteme. Foucault seemed to think that we couldn't ground our own personal knowledge unless we knew the historical conditions of our knowledge. Similar thing. Collingwood then goes into some stuff on finitude and infinity that I don't understand. Foucault also discusses finitude. I have a lot more reading to do of Speculum Mentis.

Collingwood, however, takes this notion further. He discusses what he calls 'Absolute Ethics'. Because when I read Foucault I always think that it carries some kind of ethical implications. In particular, it reminds me of something I used to talk about by saying 'forgive everyone for everything'. In fact, I discussed that idea in this essay. Collingwood actually draws similar implications. He says that because everyone is part of this absolute mind, individual and society are in many ways one thing. And when we realize this we have to accept that, "The agent is now conscious of himself as absolute mind, and of every other agent, whether in agreement with himself or not, as coequal with himself. This means that he ceases to regard himself or his country or his party as in the right and everybody else in the wrong, but he regards all actions as manifestations of a will which is always and necessarily rational even when 'in the wrong', and therefore never wholly in the wrong. He thus sympathizes even with his opponents, and in proportion as he becomes truly rational he ceases to regard any one as an unmitigated opponent, but sees in every one a fellow-worker with himself in the cause of the good.... In absolute ethics the agent identifies himself with the entire world of fact, and in coming to understand this world prepares himself for the action appropriate to the unique situation" (304-5, my italics). In short, if everyone's thoughts and actions are governed by the same absolute mind or episteme then in some ways we cannot hold people in full blame. We have to have some kind of sympathy, because every action has a point of reference in the absolute mind of our age.

But anyways, the lesson to take from this writing is this: I can only have knowledge of my own mind if I recognize it as part of a larger historical absolute mind. The subject can only have knowledge of itself (and therefore at all) if it historicizes itself.

I don't know where most of this leaves me. I feel confused. I know that I am going to have a lot of work to do with Foucault and Collingwood. Both of them want to ground knowledge in a historicized mind, and both of them see it as leading towards ethics. I don't know what else to say right now.

But I feel as both of them are pushing me in the direction of developing a historically oriented ethics of compassion. What a great thing that would be.

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