Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Civil-Aesthetic-Zen Attitude in Collingwood and Foucault, Or, How I Want To Live

A few weeks ago I sent myself a series of text messages. I was working and had no way to take notes. My thoughts were revolving around Collingwood and Foucault. Specifically, about Collingwood’s definition of civilization in The New Leviathan. The four messages I sent myself said: 

1.“Foucault is really after Collingwoodian civility. The reduction of domination.” 

2. “Civility and Power in Collingwood and Foucault”

3. “Just state Collingwood’s definition of civility, ask the necessary series of questions, then discuss Foucault in that interview”

4. “Novel thought, appreciation, taste, simulation, dialectics, and Foucault at the end of that essay in Power/Knowledge where he talks about the uncertainty of his own thought”

By the second text I had come up with the tentative title of the essay and was mulling it all over in the 3rd and 4th texts. So now I intend to write that essay. I want to show that Collingwood and Foucault agreed that power relations were an ineluctable element of social life, and that the task of civilized folks, therefore, is not the dissolution of power relations, but the cultivation of an attitude that minimizes the amount of force in our relationships. Both of their definitions of civility are grounded primarily in history, philosophy, and aesthetics, but I also want to ask if they are related to zen. I’ll begin with Collingwood’s work on civilization, and will then make some quick comparisons to Foucault. Finally, I’ll try to reflect on the ways in which these author’s ideas at the intersection of history, philosophy, aesthetics, and zen. 

In The New Leviathan Collingwood claims that the word ‘civilization’ means several things. I would like to highlight three of the major points: That civilization is a process of reducing the amount of force in our relationships, that it is a mental process that a community undertakes, and that this process is undertaken through dialectical forms of thought. I’ll explore these three points in turn.

Collingwood is explicit that there will always be an element of force in both individual and political life. The role of force, however, is complicated by his assertion that political force is always “ ‘moral force’ or mental strength” (TNL, 142). Further, force only exists in relationships between individuals, so “When A is said to exercise force upon B, what is meant is that A is strong relatively to B, and uses this superiority to make B do what he wants” (Ibid.). Collingwood believes that this moral force, the swirl of emotions that come from political interaction, is the essence of political force. I know Clausewitz also believes that war and politics are primarily a matter of wills. But I find it surprising how little Collingwood discusses concrete violence in The New Leviathan, there is no index for it, I’m not sure what to think. I’m a bit confused by Collingwood’s discussion of force. I’ll have to read it more carefully. Collingwood’s major claims about civilization, however, are still comprehensible even if the definition of force is less than ideal. He argues that civilization essentially means that people learn to “behave ‘civilly’ to one another” (The New Leviathan, 291, author’s emphasis). This means that individuals “become less addicted to force in their dealings with one another”, and actively strive to refrain “from the use of force towards them” (TNL., 292). This is the ideal that a civilization pursues, the reduction of force.

This reduction of force, Collingwood claims, is a mental process that a community willfully undertakes. People must be educated and must learn to adopt this civil attitude towards one another. The essential link between civilization and education rest on one simple fact: the existence of children. Collingwood claims that any philosophy of civilization must acknowledge that people are “born a red and wrinkled lump of flesh having no will of their own at all, absolutely at the mercy of the parents by whose conspiracy he has been brought into existence” (TNL, 176). Collingwood calls the group of individuals not yet able to rule themselves ‘the nursery’. Civilization is therefore be a process of “converting the nursery from a non-social community into a society or briefly civilizing the children” (TNL, 309). Civilization is a therefore a process of cultivating in people the habit of reducing the amount of force in their relationships. 

But how does this process of education happen? What is the type of thinking that we should be cultivating in people? What are we supposed to be teaching the children? Collingwood says that civilization rests on a form of thought he calls dialectical. His conception of dialectical thought makes his definition civilization even more precise: “Being civilized means living, so far as possible, dialectically, that is, in constant endeavour to convert every occasion of non-agreement into an occasion of agreement. A degree of force is inevitable in human life; but being civilized means cutting it down, and becoming more civilized means cutting it down still further” (TNL, 326). As you can see, Collingwood’s definition of dialectical thinking is about an attitude towards relationships. It means that you are always looking to find a way to make things work with people, that you genuinely want to get along with people. Dialectical thinking is contrasted with eristical thinking, in which “each party tries to prove that he was right and the other wrong” (TNL, 181). For an eristic there is a true disagreement, as opposed to the non-agreement that would exist in a dialectical conversation. Dialectical thinking is thus a crucial element in Collingwood’s definition of civilization.

We can now precisely state Collingwood’s definition of civilization: a process of educating people to habitually use dialectical thought so as to reduce the amount of force in relationships both with members of their own community and other communities. It is an attitude, a way of approaching language and relationships, that seeks to minimize the amount of power inequality. Later on I’ll discuss the relationship between civility, dialectical thinking, reenactment, and simulation theory of mind, as well as the relationship between civility, aesthetics, and zen. But before I do that, I’d like to compare Collingwood with Foucault.

I think that Foucault arrived at a similar view towards the end of his life. Except he wasn’t calling it civility, he was speaking in terms of practices of the self, games of truth, and the aesthetics of existence. But I believe his goal was the same thing: that force is an ineluctable element of all relationships, and that the task is to find an attitude that would let us temper power inequalities. Foucault puts this point very clearly: 

“The thought that there could be a state of communication which would be such that the games of truth could circulate freely, without obstacles, without constraint and without coercive effects, seems to me to be Utopia. It is being blind to the fact that relations of power are not something bad in themselves, from which one must free one’s self. I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them into the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination (The Final Foucault,18).


This clearly resembles Collingwood’s attitude in The New Leviathan. But how close are they on the details? What does Foucault believe force is? What does he have to say about communities undertaking this process? And by what forms of thought does Foucault believe we can cultivate this attitude, this ethos? I’ll check these out in turn.

Foucault is well known for his discussions of power. Foucault believes that power is exists only in relationships between people, it is never something that an individual wields, but something that emerges when two people interact. This means that power can never be a mere top down phenomenon, it is not something that can be analyzed in those terms. It can only be seen as existing in concrete historical relationships. For Foucault, there are at least three interrelated types of power. Discursive power, disciplinary power, and biopower. Discursive power refers to the way that language alters power relationships between people. In Discipline & Punish Foucault argues that knowledge and power are inseparable: that there is no power relationship without a corresponding form of knowledge that lets those power relations exist in that specific type of way. This relationship between power and knowledge is central to all of Foucault’s ideas about power. He says that it culminates in the idea of “the ‘discursive regime,’ of the effects of power peculiar to the play of statements” (Foucault Reader, 55). The existence of a discursive regime, however, does not mean that all power is linguistically constituted. On the contrary, power is manifested in physical violence and bodies, that the primary reference in analyses of power relations should not be “the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning” (Ibid., 56). Language, discursivity, only matters in so far as it shifts the balance of power, what matters is who language serves, what type of physical power relations become possible based on the type of discursive regime in place. Discursive power, therefore, is the an element in all other forms of power, which is why knowledge/power is at the core of Foucault’s notion of power.

Disciplinary power is a perfect example of the ways that a discursive regime constitutes that manipulation of bodies. Foucault defines disciplinary power as a form of power that focuses on the manipulation and normalization of individual bodies. Disciplinary power fully emerged, Foucault claims, sometime in the mid-late eighteenth century. It is characterized by the rise of modern institutions capable of producing large amounts of knowledge about individuals and the application of that knowledge in normalizing procedures. A newly invented hospital, for example, would embody “a new and different use of space, one that allowed close observation of disease and isolation of its cause” (Delanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, 158). Similarly, prisons, mental institutions, schools, and other institutions serve a similar function: they maximize the visibility of its subjects, they produce elaborate knowledge about individuals, and they highly regulate people’s routines and habitual movements. Disciplinary power, therefore, is aided by discourse and the relationship between knowledge and power, but is defined by the focus on controlling and normalizing an individual body. 

Foucault’s third type of power is bio-power, by which he means a form of power that orients itself towards the issue of life and the preservation of the population’s health. Bio-power, too, is supported by discursive knowledge. It draws on knowledge from fields like statistics and medicine to justify policies of regulating the population. This could be things like food rationing or vaccination, policies that regulate the health of the population as a whole. This is why Foucault contrasts disciplinary procedures with regulatory mechanisms, the former referring to disciplinary power and the latter referring to bio-power. Further, Foucault claims he chose sexuality as a topic because it is at the intersection of disciplinary and bio-power. “Sexuality exists,” he claimed, “at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (Society Must Be Defended, 252). Thus we have the distinction between disciplinary and bio-power, and we see that discursivity, language, is always a component in these other types of power. 

Does Foucault’s definition of power resemble Collingwood’s discussion of force? For one thing, Foucault’s notion of power does seem to be about ‘mental force’. Panopticism, a key component in disciplinary power, is all about the maximization of observability of a subject. The subject, however, is rarely physically coerced. It is his knowledge that he is being observed that compels him to comply with those observing him. Panopticism is ultimately a way to get individuals to work on themselves, and is therefore primarily mental in its force. Foucault, however, does have a bit more to say about physical violence and coercion than Collingwood. But it seems like their discussions are compatible in that both stress that power is about a mental relationship, not something that someone wields. 

I don’t grasp Foucault’s concept of power as clearly as I’d like to. I haven’t enough effort into it lately. But I do believe that the comparison between their definitions of is legitimate. Especially given that they both believed ethics had to be found in the cultivation of an attitude, in the purposeful engagement in a mental process. Furthermore, in addition to both historical and philosophical arguments, both of these authors characterize this attitude in terms of aesthetics. Foucault much more explicitly than Collingwood, but Collingwood’s aesthetics have clear implications for his political thought. In a 1983 interview Foucault argued that “We have hardly any remnant of the idea in our society, that the principal work of art which one has to take care of, the main area to which one must apply aesthetic values, is oneself, one’s life, one’s existence” (Foucault Reader, 362). Foucault, however, never systematically worked out his conception of aesthetics. What he means by the word is unclear. And this is where I turn to Collingwood. Because Collingwood did give art a systematic treatment in The Principles Of Art, and I think his aesthetics add a lot to his discussion of civility. In Collingwood’s work there is a strange unification of individual ethics, aesthetics, and politics that I’m trying to parse. But he was smart and it is getting strange. I tried to give a close look here and here, but I still have a lot of parsing to do. But in any case, both of these authors claim that aesthetic values can be applied to personal ethics. And if those personal ethics have political implications, which both author’s think they do, then this means that their conception of a civil-aesthetic attitude is political somehow. What exactly they mean by that, or if I’m misreading them, or what is going on, I don’t know. But that is a problem I’m trying to work on from a lot of different angles. The problem of how minds manage to assert themselves in the civil-aesthetic processes they describe. But a further question I want to ask, which I’m not well read enough to really ask well, is the question about zen. 

Does this civil-aesthetic attitude in anyways resemble zen? My understanding of zen is less than adequate. So I won’t be using a lot of quotations here or anything. I’ll simply identify two components of zen that I think I grasp: its emphasis on practice, and its pedagogical approach. 

The zen literature I’ve read always stresses the importance of practice. That zen is difficult to talk about because so much of what it seeks to accomplish is nonlinguistic and only achieved through practice. Thus while zen has philosophical components it ultimately seeks to leave those components behind by transforming it into practice. Zen, therefore, can only be actualized in a practical attitude. It has to be a way of approaching reality and relationships, one that might, in some ways, resemble this civil-aesthetic attitude. 

But, if zen is ultimately about practice, what are we to do with its philosophical components? How does one use that written philosophy to cultivate an attitude? In short, what is zen pedagogy? Jon Sumida, by way of D.T. Suzuki, claims that zen pedagogy depends on a certain approach to language and rational thought. “In Zen Buddhism,...” Sumida argues, “the interposition between the individual and reality of abstract constructs, no matter how complex and sophisticated, is believed to result in distortions of perception that promote wrong action” (Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, xvi). This is because life “is too variable and unpredictable to be anticipated by fixed doctrine and must be engaged as it comes with flexible judgement rather than conformation with rigid prior destruction. Zen decision-making is about decisiveness and quickness that reflect an individual’s authentic sense of reality, not the holding of a certain course in accordance with markings on a moral compass constructed by others” (Ibid.). To cultivate this type of attitude, however, means adopting a certain attitude towards language and reason. It means one has to learn to use rational thinking to improve a process that is intuitive, to somehow rationally internalize principles and transform them into creative judgment. Koans are a good example of how reason is used in this way: “Their function, according to D.T. Suzuki,... is to compel the student to ‘go beyond the limits of intellection, and these limits can be crossed over only by exhausting oneself once for all, by using up all the psychic power’s of one’s command. Logic then turns into psychology, intellection into conation and intuition....’ And once solved, ‘the koan is compared to a piece of brick used to knock at a gate; when the gate is opened the brick is thrown away. The koan is useful as long as the mental doors are closed, but when they are opened it may be forgotten.’ “ (Ibid.). Zen pedagogy, therefore, is an approach to reason that emphasizes the necessity of transforming rational thought processes into a capacity for intuitive and creative decision making. I think a brief discussion of an idea I developed will make this clearer.

I think all of this is captured in what I’ve called ‘implosive rationality’, by which I mean a form of reason or thought that is meant to improve an intuitive, non-rational process. I developed this idea based on Collingwood’s argument about the relationship between reason and aesthetic practice: "The life of reason,...” he claims, “whose first step is the development of the aesthetic consciousness, finds its second step in the conquest and, in some sort, the destruction of that consciousness" (Speculum Mentis, 73). I think this notion makes sense in light of my discussion of zen above. We have to embrace the paradoxical idea that reason is most useful when it is aimed at improving intuitive processes. Intuition, creativity, and habit are at the core of social life. If we want to use reason in the social world we need to recognize the primacy of the non-rational. This attitude towards learning that I see in both zen and aesthetic thinking seems important to me. And it seems like this idea of cultivating an attitude exists in both Collingwood and Foucault’s civil-aesthetic attitude, but also in zen.

Moreover, I think that Collingwood and Foucault’s attitude very much resembles zen practice. I take zen’s proper task to be the accurate perception of reality. We want to live with a minimum of illusion so that we can intuitively grasp our situation and make decisions within its immanence. For convenience I will refer to this attitude simply as mindfulness. How mindfulness is achieved, however, is complicated for us living in this historically dense age. Modern America is so symbolically dense, we have so many institutions and practices, that it is difficult to know what types of thoughts to avoid, what type of attitude to cultivate in this moment. We can’t just go live in the mountains and withdraw, we have to reckon with the complexities of our culture and our inner lives. We have to recognize, as Zizek says, that our inner life is the biggest illusion of all. We, too, are indoctrinated into a culture, an ideology, that colors our actions and perceptions. To sort out the complexity of our illusory perceptions in this day in age, achieving modern mindfulness, is therefore a pretty tricky task. 

The problem for modern mindfulness is therefore how to gauge one’s thought given the density of their historical development, their historicity, if you’ll forgive such a word. The answer for both Collingwood and Foucault involves a historical-philosophical diagnosis of the present situation. Collingwood believes that metaphysical study, that is, the historical investigation into our own absolute presuppositions, can illuminate habits in our thinking that had gone unchecked, and thus give us the chance of thinking something else. “Men ill supplied with historical knowledge,” he claims, “cannot tell whether a habit they possess was imposed upon them lately by a divine autocrat or long ago by a divine ancestor in whom the wisdom of the tribe was incarnate” (An Essay On Metaphysics, 271). Historical study into our own habits of thought, therefore, is how Collingwood believes we achieve awareness of our selves.

Foucault, too, believes that a historical investigation into the conditions of our existence, ‘a historical ontology of ourselves’, is also the way to achieve an awareness of yourself. Further, Foucault also believes that this type of historical investigation into the self should result into creativity and experimentation. Foucault’s description of this attitude is remarkably similar to Sumida’s account of zen: “The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (‘What is Enlightenment?’, in The Politics Of Truth, 118, my emphasis). This historical ontology of the self is therefore meant to provide with a sort of attitude, a mindfulness, that will allow you to creatively explore your life rather than adhering to a doctrine. Sounds pretty zen to me. I believe that Collingwood is getting at many of the same issues. He, however, might be more committed to reason than Foucault or zen thinkers. 

In any case, it appears to me that Collingwood and Foucault’s civil-aesthetic attitude can fairly be compared to zen both in terms of its pedagogical means (by approaching reason as a means of improving intuitive processes), and its practical ends (in the cultivation of an attitude that strives for the accurate perception of reality and creative decision making). Collingwood and Foucault, however, take a much more historical approach, arguing that their civil-aesthetic attitude cannot be achieved without historical knowledge of the conditions of our existence. I therefore propose to corral their different ideas about this civil-aesthetic attitude into the phrase ‘metaphysical mindfulness’. In this term I believe I am capturing the historical ontological, the pedagogical, and the practical approach. This relies on a precise definition of metaphysics that Collingwood advances. Namely, that metaphysics is not a science of pure being, but the historical science of absolute presuppositions. That is, a historical investigation into the constellation of absolute presuppositions that make our thought possible. This is much like Foucault’s attempt to perform an archeology of the western episteme. In The Order Of Things Foucault is essentially doing precisely what Collingwood defines as metaphysics. Furthermore, Foucault’s work on historical ontology, too, should simply be called metaphysics. So much for the metaphysics part of the phrase. By referring to mindfulness I am invoking the desire to perceive reality and cultivate an attitude of creative decision making. Thus, metaphysical mindfulness means a historical investigation into the conditions of our thought that will lead us to an accurate perception of reality and the attitude of creative decision making. In other words, metaphysical mindfulness gives us an awareness of our unconscious habits and gives us the opportunity of engaging in a process of purposeful self /habit formation. 


It is the cultivation of this attitude, which is simultaneously rational, civil, aesthetic, and zen, I believe, that is at the core of Collingwood and Foucault’s work. But I need to get beyond this term metaphysical mindfulness. The definition of metaphysics is too specific and unusual to make it a precise phrase. But I think it makes sense if you grasp my logic. 


Before I summarize all of his I want to ask one more question: If the common thread uniting Collingwood and Foucault is the idea of developing an attitude, and if that attitude can be described as dialectical, civil, aesthetic, or zen, is there a specific mode of thought that underlies all of these processes? In other words, is it possible that this menagerie of terms is unified by a single identifiable mode of thought? I believe that the answer may lie in Alvin Goldman’s simulation theory of mind. I always write about simulation theory, so I’ll only briefly explain it. Simulation theory holds that we understand minds by internally recreating other people’s mental states in our own minds. That is to say, that we have to re-feel someone’s emotion or re-think their thought for ourselves if we want to understand them. We must simulate their thoughts for ourselves.

So is it the case that both civility, aesthetics, and zen all fundamentally rely on simulative thought? Do they all depend on the simulation of other minds? I won’t be exploring any of this in depth. Just giving tentative statements. Well, civility, for Collingwood, is supported by dialectical thinking. And I believe that dialectical thinking could not be accomplished unless we were willing to really think like someone else. I suspect that civility and dialectical thinking, at their core, rely on simulative modes of thought. Aesthetic activity, that is, imaginative emotional expression, too, cannot be accomplished without simulative thought. For can you imagine ever creating a work of art without having experience with another person’s thinking or another person’s art work? Art is always about collaboration for Collingwood. Furthermore, Collingwood claims that art is only understood when we are able to re-create in our own minds the artist’s total imaginative experience. We won’t be fully expressing ourselves, really engaging in an aesthetic attitude, unless we are engaging in simulative modes of thought. Zen, too, relies on the capacity of the mind to enter or simulate other minds. This is Guy Claxton’s main argument in his 2005 essay, ‘Mindfulness, Learning And The Brain’. There he tries to give an evolutionary account of mindfulness, trying to explain how the ability to monitor our own thoughts could emerge from human evolution. He argues, along with Nicholas Humphrey, that at some point we needed to understand the mental states of the other humans around us: “To do this, we had to learn to watch them, and to distill their behaviour over time into neural models of their idiosyncratic portfolios of preferences, fears and dispositions that we could then ‘run’ in order to predict their likely reactions to events, and therefore potentially assist them or outwit them” (Claxton, 311, Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter 2005). When Claxton says that we ‘run’ a model of another person in our head, I think he would be better saying that we simulate that person’s thoughts in our own head. It is this capacity for modeling and simulation, he believes, that would allow individuals to assume the perspective known as mindfulness. Because not until we learn to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and adopt a perspective different than our own can we assume a different perspective on our own behavior. Knowledge of other minds and mindful perception of the self are inseparable. Zen, mindfulness, and simulation theory are supportive concepts. Thus, I believe that simulation theory of mind is the thread that unites all of these disparate descriptions of this attitude. The civil-aesthetic-zen attitude is therefore a properly simulative attitude, it is a commitment to using empathic and simulative modes of thought above others.

That is all I wanted to show you here. Collingwood and Foucault clearly embrace similar definitions of force/power, both believing force relations to be ineluctable. Further, they both believe that our proper task is to seek to minimize the amount of inequality in our relationships. This task, however, is not to simply be written about, it is to be pursued. It is to be manifested in a life, in a real person working to embody these principles, somehow transforming philosophical logic into a life that is civil-aesthetic-zen. As Foucault would say, to live a philosophical life means that “You will have become the logos or the logos will have become you” (The Final Foucault, 6). In other words, your rational work will have crystalized into a concrete set of habits that let you live a metaphysically mindful life. I’ve got to cultivate a historical-philosophical-aesthetic-zen attitude towards living. I wish to cultivate a simulative attitude.

What I really want to know is how all of this can be applied to thinking about the education of political-military elite. I want to understand how both this civil-aesthetic-zen attitude and its pedagogical principles can be applied to political education and decision-making. I’m fortunate to have encountered people that are already working on this question. What I didn't tell you was that those quotes about zen came from a preface called 'Musical Performance, Zen Enlightenment, and Naval Command'. So clearly there is a potent connection between these things. So that is what I’m doing in my larger thinking and writing is trying to philosophically develop this idea of applying this civil-aesthetic-zen attitude to political education. Clausewitz is the main thing I will have to reckon with. But Foucault, Collingwood, and many other will help me along the way. 

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