Incidental thoughts on being oneself
The last few weeks the word ‘slowly’ has popped into my thoughts at intervals, usually in between thoughts I consider my own. The phenomenon doesn’t seem different in kind from that of a persistent melody or fragment of music recurring in thought as a kind of background music. The occurrences of the word seem to have little to do with what I’m thinking at the moment; they just happen.
The brain is first of all an organ which, as CabanisPierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808). Physician and physiologist, author of the Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme (written in the 1790s) and a posthumous Lettre sur les causes premières (1824). The first work was among the more prominent materialist works of its period; the second is vitalist. (Wikipedia; Les immortels de l’Académie Française; Rapports du physique et du moral at Gallica) said long ago, secretes thoughts. In humans it is capable of secreting thoughts about thoughts. The purpose of some of those second-order thoughts is to orient the activity of the brain toward ends. Keeping in mind an end—a destination if you are travelling, or a conclusion if you are arguing—and checking the current activity in relation to that end, so that your thoughts don’t wander—humans do that better than other creatures.
All of an organism’s activities are directed to the ultimate end of reproduction; subordinate to that are ends like eating and finding a mate. In that respect there is continuity of purpose in the activities of every creature. What distinguishes following a plan, say, from simple goal-directedness, is—evidently—the plan itself, but also that thoughts about the plan play a causal role in governing other thoughts directed to realizing it and in inhibiting irrelevant thoughts.
One reason I’ve been thinking about this—other than my own waywardness—is that when my father, near the end of his life, began to have difficulty with short-term memory, one consequence was a deterioration of will. He became less & less capable of formulating and following plans. His acts became more tightly bound up with immediate sensation, in part because he couldn’t remember what he was doing. More precisely, he couldn’t remember what that larger act was of which what he was doing at the moment was part. Most people, at least when they reach a certain age, have had the experience of going to the kitchen, say, and, once there, being unable to recall why. You look around, hoping that something will remind you, or try to “retrace your thoughts”. The plan must be present to the mind, as Hume would say, in order to affect your thoughts & through them your actions. Or at least it must be capable of being made present, so that you can remember why you are doing what you’re doing. (Just imagine what a mystery it would be to find yourself at O’Hare or Heathrow if you didn’t know you were on your way somewhere.)
The control exerted by plans over the continuing stream of thought—the totality of things going on in your mind at this moment—is of course incomplete. Some of our mental discourse is, I would guess, just the incidental output of associative networks, or of cyclic processes like those that in obsessive-compulsives take over & bring about the endless repetition of a single act. Or again: consider what happens to your thoughts when you are forced to sit in a waiting room without reading or conversation. Unless you make a point of concentrating on, say, solving a math problem or writing a sonnet, or some other definite thought-consuming task, your thoughts are likely to degenerate into a jumble or to revolve around a few more or less obsessive themes.
Some philosophers have argued strenuously against the “unity of consciousness”. Others defend it (a survey of various notions of unity can be found in Bayne & Chalmers 2003; see also Andrew Brook’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia). I’m not sure that what is united, if there is a unity to the mind, consists in conscious thoughts or a subset thereof. Or else the unity of the self and that of consciousness may be distinct. Perhaps what we think of as the self is unified by purpose, independently of awareness—by the recruitment of mental processes to the accomplishment of an end. Being constituted as a self would be rather an achievement, a matter of bootstrapping, than a fixed property of thought; it would have necessary conditions (e.g., the causal connectedness of the parts of the brain, a capacity for reflection) but no sufficient condition.