Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On The Historical Collision Of Thought, Or, On Thinking What You Think While Thinking What I Think

There is one problem I consistently encounter: The problem of other minds and how I understand them. When you meet another person how do you really know what they are thinking. When you first meet someone authenticity can be a problem. I don’t know if you are joking, lying, expressing, or are nervous and not sure how to talk to me. People can be difficult to read. What to do, then, about this type of uncertainty in relationships. 

Collingwood argues that the relationship to the not-self is a critical one for all people. In The New Leviathan he argues that our understanding of ourselves is inseparable from the existence of a not-self, and that many of our deepest emotions emerge from these relationships to others: “To be a self of such a kind as to be frightened or annoyed by the action of other things upon it is to have the vice of cowardice or irascibility; the opposite is to have the virtue of courage or temperance.... To be a self of such a kind that the not-self can frighten or annoy it is to be at the mercy of the not-self: to lack power in relation to the not-self” (85). Kanye, too, accepts this conclusion when he says “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” If this is indeed the case, then we need to focus our mental effort on discovering the best way to manage our relationships with others.  

Collingwood implies that the study of history might be a valuable way to improving one’s ability to deal with a mind that thinks differently than yours. As Collingwood says, “whenever he finds certain historical matters unintelligible, he has discovered a limitation of his own mind; he has discovered that there are certain ways in which he is not, or no longer, or not yet, able to think" (The Idea Of History, 218). He affirms this idea again in An Essay On Metaphysics, saying that “It is only when a man’s historical consciousness has reached a certain point of maturity that he realizes how very different have been the ways in which different sets of people have thought” (56).  It is in history that we will truly encounter forms of thought different enough from our owns that can shock us into thinking differently. 

For that is what I really want to explain in this brief piece of writing. I want to tell you that the encounter with a radically different type of mind than your own will change your mind in the process. What would be going on in your mind during an encounter with another mind that would result in a change in your own mind? The answer to these questions is contained in Collingwood’s notion of reenactment. 

When thinking about an encounter with a not-self, whether your evidence of that self is written or spoken, we have to ask ourselves how we understand the thoughts that this other mind is expressing. Collingwood says that whenever we have evidence of thought, we understand it by re-creating it in our own minds, by thinking the same thoughts that were expressed by another: when “the evidence of what these men thought is in our hands,” and when we interpret that evidence what we are doing is “re-creating these thoughts in our own minds” (296). This is what Collingwood refers to as the ‘re-enactment of thought’. It is a process where by we use evidence to rethink someone’s thoughts in the context of our own mind. To successfully rethink someone’s thoughts is to ‘encapsulate’ them in the context of your own mind. 

This background context of the re-enactment, however, is no simple fact. It is the crucial element that allows re-enactment to become a challenge to your own thoughts. Because the context of one person’s thought “cannot ever be the context which it has in the critic’s experience ; and if an act of thought is what it is only in relation to its context, the doctrine he criticizes can never be the doctrine taught by his opponent. And this not owing to any defects in exposition or comprehension, but owing to the self-frustrating character of the attempt to understand another’s thought, or indeed to think at all” (299). The task of recreating another person’s thought for yourself is a constant problem when trying to understand another person. We all have different experiences that serve as the background of our thinking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand someone. Collingwood insists that the re-enactment of thought applies to all knowledge of mind. “If it is by historical thinking that we re-think and so rediscover the thought of Hammurabi or Solon, it is in the same way that we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter, or a stranger who crosses the street” ( 219). All knowledge of mind, therefore, involves the re-enactment of another person’s thoughts. It means bringing someone’s thoughts to life in the context of your own mind, simultaneously understanding their thoughts and your own. Simulationist theorists seem in agreement with Collingwood. Thus all knowledge of mind is historical, and the the goal of reenactment is therefore “the critical study of one’s own thought, not the mere awareness of that thought as one’s own” (292). Because the only way to study your own thoughts is to expose them to thoughts different from your own.

All of this is what I mean by the phrase ‘the historical collision of thought’: to take historical thinking seriously is to take the other seriously. It is to bring your mind into intimate contact with another mind. And in that space your mind collides with another, revealing the details and assumptions of your mind more clearly than reflection could have. Because when I try to think what you think I can only do it while thinking what I always think. I can only re-enact your thoughts in the context of my own thoughts. This introduction of your thoughts into the context of my mind is what I’m calling the collision of thought. Because this should be a violent event. It should shake things up. To really think what you are thinking while thinking what I’m already thinking should fuck your head up. How radically can this be done? How does it possess political relevance? These are the questions I’m trying to chase down in the final sections of AZI. This is what I want out of Collingwood: a way to conceptualize the transformation of thought that can be brought about by historical thinking, by genuinely trying think the way that other people think or thought.

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