Imagine a cloud as it moves across a windy sky.
Its form changes, though slowly, and it is clearly different when it drifts out of our vision than it was when we first saw it.
It isn’t tethered to anything, it isn’t anchored, but it is shaped by unseen forces. And it is clearly the same cloud at the end of its visible journey as it was when it began.
Change the word “cloud” to “consciousness” and you have one of themes of Lee Braver’s outstanding “Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” Braver, by linking arguably the two most important 20th century philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, proposes that trying to “ground” ideas and concepts in something rock solid, in something with the apparently solidity of the earth beneath our feet, is a fruitless effort.
Instead, he uses underlying themes from Wittgenstein and Heidegger – who have radically different viewpoints in many areas of their thought – to echo Willard Van Orman Quine, another prominent 20th century philosopher, that we have essentially created the terms and concepts of language in our own minds, and that we cannot step outside our language, terms and concepts to truly analyze their roots.
So as the cloud floats along, subject to gravity, temperature, sun and wind, it is its own entity, with no direct connection to anything tangible. It shifts and changes, according to outside pressures and internal operations, and defies precise definition, especially on its periphery. After all, like language, it cannot be defined from the inside, or even properly perceived. (How can we talk about language except with language? How can we consider consciousness except by being conscious?)
But perhaps if we move far enough to the edges of a phenomenon, we will be see it more clearly. Phenomena can’t be comprehended from their center, but maybe on the unsettled periphery – think of the indistinct edges of a cloud, the uncertain meaning of some terms, our consciousness while on LSD -- we can gain perspective.
Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein make this point: Most of the time, we do not "think" in the traditional sense of the word; most of the time, we are in the flow of one activity or another. Philosophers have always tried to ground consciousness and thought in rationality, in logic, in that essentially human ability to solve problems through the use of a particular kind of process.
In contrast, Braver connects Heidegger and Wittgenstein with what Heidegger called “the flow” -- a mental state of working on a piece of art, or writing a story, or surfing, or playing basketball, or having a conversation, or playing music. During that flow, we aren't "thinking" in any rational sense, even though traditional philosophy wants our reason to be active all the time. Clearly, though, it isn't. Even in conversation, we don't "think" about what words to say -- we just say them.
And when we get to the edge of an activity, where the flow isn't smooth, then we have to make decisions. Animals lacking a big brain and language will rely on instinct or intuition when the flow sputters. Humans, however, can then apply a new level of analysis, logical thinking -- but the logical thinking comes last, not first.
The idea, then, is that logical thinking doesn't underlie everything we do, and thus shouldn't be the standard by which we measure all our thoughts and actions. Rather, it is only applied on the periphery, when the flow we are defined by and primarily exist in is disrupted.
That flow is all about context and relationships, and when we pull something out of context, its meaning is lost. We can, for example, grasp what truth and justice are in particular contexts, but if we try to remove those two terms from their contexts and relationships in a particular flow, in a particular situation, then they cannot really be defined. (This is what Socrates emphasized, and it is the wellspring of skepticism.)
So maybe we can use logic to transcend our limitations, to go beyond our usual boundaries.
But even logical languages are languages. And as humans, we must be conscious to be logical, so even the unsettled flow of the periphery brings us no closer to an outside perspective on consciousness. The wisps and trailing edges of the cloud are still the cloud.
We are bounded by the limits of our consciousness, by the periphery set up with words and concepts, and just as a cloud could not perceive itself, neither can we move outside ourselves, beyond the flow of our consciousness. Even logic and reason are products of that consciousness, and despite their presence on the edges of the flow, they cannot step completely away from the cloud of electrical activity that makes us who we are.
And if we tried to pull a cloud out of the sky, to ground it in brute definitions, it would dissipate and disappear before our eyes. We cannot remove it from its environment without destroying it, just as we cannot remove ourselves from the central flow of our thoughts and activities without destroying them in a fruitless search for definition and clarity.
Trying to define what it means to be conscious is like trying to hold on to a piece of a cloud – it is simply and fundamentally beyond our grasp.
(This essay that began as a book review for Goodreads, one of about 900 I have posted over the years. You can see them here.)