Dear Professor Gabriel,
By coincidence I reviewed the first two books of your trilogy for two different journals, and this one on the meaning of Thought, for yet another journal, without realizing that you had the intent to write the three books as a single project with the overarching goal of making up a new system of philosophy that you label “New Realism.” I chose the first book to review for Dialogue, Why the World Does Not Exist, because the title sounded intriguing to me. I chose the second book for Philosophy In Review, I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, because not only did I like your title, but also I thought from reviewing your first book that you seem to be an academic philosopher who writes unpretentiously in plain language with depth about major theoretical problems … [please read below the rest of the article].
Richmond, Sheldon. 2021. “Open Letter to Markus Gabriel: A Review of The Power of Art and The Meaning of Thought.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (8): 55-62. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-66f.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
The Power of Art
The Meaning of Thought
Polity, 1st edition, 2021
I am careful about calling your problems “theoretical,” as opposed to exclusively “philosophical.” It could be a bias I picked up from my studies in philosophy that according to Karl Popper serious philosophical problems, philosophical problems of real substance, originate outside philosophy in cosmology, the sciences, in everyday living, and are of interest not only to academics in those fields but also to the general public, as not mere academic conundrums but problems based in reality. That is, the theoretical problems you discuss are of general interest and cut through disciplinary boundaries. They are problems that appeal to thinking people wherever they work and live.
To my mind, your first book on why there is no single world was about how reality exists as slices, branches, as planes, depending upon the choice of perspective. What exists are situations or “fields of sense” in your terminology. Reality is plural not a single totality making up a Unity. As I see it, your second book on personal identity not being limited to one’s brain argues that there’s more to one than one’s brain; there is mindedness and Geist (Mind in Hegelian terms or World 3 as Karl Popper looks upon abstract entities, such as numbers, theories, blueprints, social structures).
When I learned of your new book, The Meaning of Thought, I immediately wanted to review it even though I thought that the title is humdrum compared to the titles of your other books that caught my attention. However, I thought to myself that you are a young philosopher who is a critical and independent thinker. Whether or not you gain notice in academia, or among the intelligentsia as a public intellectual, I was looking forward to being challenged to rethink my own outlook by reading The Meaning of Thought. In the meantime, I found that The Meaning of Thought announced by Polity Press was still “in press” and I saw that Polity had published a book of yours about art, one of my favourite topics. That book too has an unusual slant on art given your title, The Power of Art. In ordinary times, let alone during the COVID-19 pandemic, art is thought to be frivolous—as frivolous as the cover picture of the guy whose bearded face is covered in spaghetti (an image by Erwin Wurm). I quickly read your book, more of a monograph, and it seemed to me not to fit into your corpus as I understood it. You picked up on your idea that art requires involvement by the audience, very similar to Collingwood’s idea. However, you carry that idea of art as encouraging involvement with spectators and listeners to an extreme.
You revert to the Platonic idea that art is seductive, and takes away our powers of critical thinking, and even of freedom. You treat the audience as becoming erotically enmeshed in art, unable to see the work of art, even if it is a urinal, for what it is. Do you think this is a fair description of your view? If so, how does art as seductively powerful, basically as pornographic, fit into what I see as your underlying humanist outlook where people have the power to see things as they are and where people have the power to be more than their material conditions including their bodies and brains? What link have I missed between your monograph on art and your New Realism, or in my view, your old humanism where humans have the power to see things as they are even though reality is as plural as our takes or perspectives on reality and where humanity can be more than our biological and social conditions—or where humanity can be more than the conditions of humanity? That is how, I think, your book on the power of art links in with your new book on thought: both books provide room for humanism.
I decided to review that new book on art along with your new book on the meaning of thought after I received a review copy of The Meaning of Thought that could, at the time, exist only in the realm of thought. I was wondering whether your new book could exist only in the thoughts of you and your publisher though I imagined you had completed translating the book for your English readers.
The book arrived. Time passed. COVID-19 worried us all. I delayed, dithered, and finally opened the pages of the book on thought: it was real, not merely in your thoughts and the thoughts of those who worked for Polity.
The question I had in mind when opening the pages of that book was: is it not obvious how thought has meaning? Thought has meaning as a function of the process of thinking and gains meaning when thoughts as products of thinking are articulated in speech or in writing addressed to other people in specific situations as part of real life activities addressed to specific tasks, questions, problems. Isn’t that how thought gains meaning—in the context of our attempts to achieve or accomplish a practical task—even if the practical task amounts to completing a book review?
I am a realist of a sort, not necessarily a New Realist, but one who thinks that the test and purpose of thought and thinking is real life attempting to achieve practical goals in real-life situations, usually in social settings along with others, whether one is figuring out how to debug a computer program or figuring out how to drive to a location when your GPS is wrong.
In other words, I was puzzled at the beginning why you think that the meaning of thought requires explanation. During the reading of your book I could not find your question, your problem—why you decided the book needed writing—other than that you wanted to write a trilogy completing your new philosophical system that you call New Realism. Moreover, when you mentioned your main thesis that thought forms a faculty as a field of sense similar to more obvious perceptual senses, vision, touch, and even proprioception, I thought to myself that your New Realism applies the work of J.J. Gibson, the cognitive psychologist.
Though you don’t mention J.J Gibson, as you know, he came up with the ecological approach to cognition where perception involves sensory fields that highlight the “affordances” of the objects of perceptions of specific organisms in specific ecological niches. Coincidentally, J.J. Gibson’s work—so my train of thought went when hunting through the early chapters of your book for a specific question based in specific situations of reality—ties in with perception in art as well. Do you agree? For instance I thought E.H. Gombrich in his theory of how perspective was rediscovered in the Renaissance, through a process of trying out different schemas in works of art and then attempting to match those schemas against the real perception of perspective, uses the work of J.J. Gibson, who developed a realist theory of perception. As organisms move through their environment, their perceptual systems pick out different aspects that afford what they seek—colours and odours of certain foods, or of predators. Is this the type of theory of cognition that would explain how thought gains meaning? I was baffled. However, my interest was piqued when I hit the third chapter of your book discussing our plight with digital technology as I have a book on the topic.
I became even more baffled when I found that you discussed Heidegger, in this third chapter, a philosopher I find not merely baffling but pretentious and disingenuous. Heidegger, I find, writes as if he has discovered a new realm of reality, newly opened up only by him, with his tortuous neologisms, use of etymology, use of Greek and Latin phrases, vague statements about Greco-Roman philosophers, ambiguous interpretations of classical thinkers, and pretense that Heidegger lays before us indisputable truths for the select few who are able to comprehend his purple prose. That aside, I asked myself, is it enough to disentangle Heidegger’s theories from his person, his activities during the Nazi Reich, his collaboration with, and as you say, his active and enthusiastic endorsement of the Nazi Reich? However, even though you say that one can disentangle the two—Heidegger’s philosophical writings and his activities during the Nazi Reich—I began to wonder what elements of Heidegger’s philosophy echoes his activities in the real world?
In spite of my aversion to discussing Heidegger, since you refer to Heidegger’s book What is Called Thinking?, and to his essays on technology called, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, I decided to skim those books and essays by Heidegger. Lo and behold, I found in my bafflement with reading Heidegger (while metaphorically splitting my mind in two by bracketing Heidegger as an unapologetic operative of the Nazi Reich and ingestor of its ideology who swallowed it whole similar to a snake swallowing its prey), a solution to my problem of understanding your fascination with the meaning of thought. I discovered that you as an inventor of a new philosophical system of realism, that is as a New Realist, had to figure out a way of overcoming what Heidegger ineptly phrased, “the weakness of thought.” Heidegger’s “weakness of thought” amounts to the more aptly titled, “the limits of pure thought,” as discovered by Kant, or so I thought while reading your book and skimming Heidegger’s books. In other words, I hit upon what I thought must be the background problem of your book. You have been steeped in German Idealism and are an author of books on German Idealism. You have been immersed in the discussion of Kant’s view of the limits of thought, which in the idiosyncratic terminology of Heidegger goes as follows:
The way of the question “What is called thinking?” lies even now in the shadow of this weakness. The weakness can be described in four statements:
1. Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences.
2. Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom.
3. Thinking solves no cosmic riddles.
4. Thinking does not endow us directly with the power to act.
As long as we still subject thinking to these four demands, we shall overrate and overtax it …” (160, 1968)
I thought that if thought is to have power, it must overcome its “weakness.” In short, I thought your philosophical system of New Realism aims to resolve the dilemmas posed by Kant about pure thought having limits:
1. Pure thought is unable to provide us with the knowledge that science gains with empirical tests.
2. Pure thought is unable to judge without the use of our built-in conceptual-perceptual apparatus and ethical maxims.
3. Pure thought is unable to resolve cosmological questions about the origin of the universe, whether the universe is finite or infinite, without the use of physics and mathematics.
4. Pure thought is unable to result in action without the use of practical rules, or heuristics.
How can thought push us forward on its own? That I thought was the general problem behind your New Realism: how can pure thought guide us without direct contact with the facts of reality? Am I wrong—is that the background problem not only for this book, but also for your other books, including the book on art where art somehow has the power to push us forward without relying on the “weakness” of thought?
Because you seem to agree with the animus that Heidegger has toward technology mentioned in your third chapter, “The Digital Transformation of Society,” I turned to Heidegger’s book of his essays on technology and found a great prescription for reading books by the translator and editor, William Lovitt (meant only as a prescription for reading Heidegger):
To read Heidegger is to set out on an adventure. The essays in this volume-—intriguing, challenging, and often baffling the reader-—call him always to abandon all superficial scanning and to enter wholeheartedly into the serious pursuit of thinking. Every philosopher demands to be read in his own terms. This is especially true of Heidegger (xiii, 1977).
I thought I have been able to read philosophers other than Heidegger on their own terms, but honestly, I said to myself, I cannot put my shoes in the feet of not just a Nazi operative but one who ate at the dinner table of the Third Reich and who earned his living as a functionary of the academic institutions under the totalitarian control of the Nazis. It turns out I admire the work of a former student and intimate of Heidegger who framed what I think is the fundamental real-life problem of thought and thinking in the first book of her unfinished trilogy, The Life of the Mind, where the first page of book three on judgment was left in her typewriter, the typewriter of Hannah Arendt, on the night of her death. Am I wrong to think that Arendt and her perspective on thinking could be part of your own perspective on thinking, or at least, thought? Arendt, in recalling her thoughts about Eichmann while present at his trial, and preparing her book on the trial of Eichmann, writes the following:
I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological conviction or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and through out the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness. In the setting of Israeli court and prison procedures he functioned as well as he had functioned under the Nazi regime but, when confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliche-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all. It was this absence of thinking—which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think—that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just “base motives” (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition? (4, 1978).
Does Arendt’s book on thinking, though you did not mention it, capture the problem behind your approach to the meaning of thought? In other words, when we think, have thoughts, does that help us to avoid escaping reality, as well as prevent us from doing evil? Is the meaning of thought this: when we think, we must face facts and face reality, and thereby uncover, if not prevent, the doing of evil?
With this question in mind, I continued reading this book especially the third chapter with the critique of digital technology. Indeed, my mind dived into the book and swam through its depths with the goal to find out whether or not my hunch that you are attempting to develop a theory of the power of thought, pure thought, to enable us to think productively about world problems, and enable us, as Arendt herself proposes, to free ourselves from falling into the grip of evil-doing.
I put forward to you my observation about your two books, the one on art and the one on thought, for your comments. What you say about art is not its power, but rather its weakness as a medium for critical thinking and independence of mind, let alone mind-independence from hormonal-bodily-brain activity. Art is frivolous and leaves us speechless and without thought, whereas what you say about thought, as opposed to Heidegger, is not that thought has “weakness,” rather, that thought has power. The power of thought is as a sense modality where realities and facts are the objects of thought.
I find two giveaways in your book on thought that lead me to think that your book is more about the power of thought than the meaning of thought. To my mind, you are actually attempting to resolve Kant’s dilemmas about the apparent limits of thought and also answer Arendt’s question about whether it is the lack of thought and thinking that results in unwitting, mundane but horrific evil-doing.
The first giveaway, is what you ask, in Chapter 5, “Reality and Simulation,” the very last chapter of the book (not including the epilogue that you call “The End of the Book—a Pathos-Laden Final Remark”): “What is reality and how is our thinking in contact with it?” (163, 2021). This very question presupposes that thinking is in contact with reality. As Arendt states, it is the avoidance of thinking—for instance the unthinking nature of the many functionaries of the Third Reich, and their very use of language in their unwitting Orwellian fashion with trivialities, and trite idioms, platitudes, and neologisms—that leads them to avoid facing the facts of reality. Hence to face and confront the facts of reality, one must think and rethink how one acts in specific situations, with others and against others. Now the central question of the book on thought becomes, not the meaning of thought, but the power of thought: how do thought and thinking achieve power despite whatever in our society and digital technology works against thought? Or, in other words, how can we achieve power in our thinking, even against the power of our unconscious drives?
Though you do not state the question in that manner, I think you answer that question, for the first time also, late in your book as follows, and your answer is the second giveaway that your book is about the power of thought and not merely the meaning of thought:
Thinkers of a thought encounter themselves as thinkers by way of thinking about thinking … we can develop theories of thinking that are not themselves playthings of unconscious forces, else we would no longer have any standard by which to distinguish between genuine gains in knowledge and intellectually sublimated struggles for power (222, 2021).
I wonder whether thinking about thinking alone, pure thinking is sufficient. Can thinking on its own overcome evil-doing, social injustice, and unconscious drives? Do I misread you? Do you really think that thinking about thinking, pure thought on its own, has a power to overcome social powers that inhibit and even block critical thinking? I wonder whether thinking about specific social arrangements, such as the social architecture of specific institutions of education, of government, of corporations, of labour and work, and of family is required as opposed to thinking about thinking outside of specific contexts that you call “pure thinking”? Can pure thinking accomplish anything real? Rather, is thinking about how we act and think in specific social arrangements with specific social architectures required?
Indeed, I wonder whether we can think about anything without examining how specific situations structure our perception, thinking, and doing? Indeed, if culture in general is what we humans make, and remake, can we think about things only in terms of their roles in specific cultures, especially and including the current global techno-scientific culture that monopolizes humanity today? Is focusing on computational philosophy and AI, as you do in the second and third chapters of your book, sufficient? Rather, do we need to go beyond pure thinking, beyond the armchair approach to thinking that you advocate and examine how various specific institutions incorporate digital technology in their social architectures? Do critical thinkers need to use a practice similar to the way cultural anthropologists and sociologists use the practice of participant-observation in specific social and cultural groups? In other words, do we need a critical cultural anthropology of the current monolithic culture of digital technology?
However, though your books baffle me less after searching for, and I think finding, the background problem you attempt to solve with your philosophical system of New Realism, I wonder whether new philosophical approaches and systems are needed. I wonder whether we, I mean philosophers and all critical thinkers, need to do what Socrates did: go into the marketplace and actually talk with people who make their living in the marketplace, stop them in their activities and engage with them in critical discussion. Indeed, how do we get people who become unwitting ideologues and functionaries of the monolithic and global digitalized society move from unthinking to thinking? Arendt answers:
Our question, What makes us think?, is actually inquiring about ways and means to bring it [thinking] out of hiding, to tease it, as it were, into manifestation. The best, in fact the only, way I can think of to get hold of the question is to look for a model, an example of a thinker who was not a professional, who in his person unified two apparently contradictory passions, for thinking and acting … You will have guessed that I am thinking of Socrates. We would not know much about him, at least not enough to impress us greatly, if he had not made such an enormous impression on Plato, and we might not know anything about him, perhaps not even from Plato, if he had not decided to lay down his life, not for any specific belief or doctrine—he had none—but simply for the right to go about examining the opinions of other people, thinking about them and asking his interlocutors to do the same (67–168, 1978).
Professor Gabriel, do you agree or not with Arendt that doctrines and “isms” inhibit thinking whereas going about and examining with people the doctrines they propound and employ in the situations of their daily lives and routines drives thinking and brings thinking out of hiding?
Sheldon Richmond, firstname.lastname@example.org, Independent Scholar, Thornhill, Canada.
Arendt, Hannah. 1978. The Life of the Mind: Volume One, Thinking. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Gabriel, Markus. 2021. The Meaning of Thought. Translated by Alex Englander. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gabriel, Markus. 2020. The Power of Art. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gabriel, Markus. 2017. I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gabriel, Markus. 2015. Why The World Does Not Exist. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1968. What Is Called Thinking? New York: Harper & Row.
Lovitt, William, translator. 1977. “Introduction.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays” by Martin Heidgger, xiii-xxxix. New York: Garland Publishing.
Categories: Books and Book Reviews