While I was still in the hospital for post-surgery observation and recovery I still suffered from hay fever induced coughs and occasional sneezes. While not in itself unusual (nor even unique to me) it was still spectacularly unpleasant to suffer those sorts of spasms in my abdomen. I knew from the times (plural) that I’ve cracked a rib that wrapping my arms around my gut and applying counter pressure helped moderate the pain. The nursing staff created an abdominal pad for me by rolling up a blanket and taping it together. I’ve not needed any such help since coming home, and yet …
That nonverbal awareness dogs me much harder than my cognitive certainty of my physical status. So I continue to take a small pillow to bed with me that I can press to my abdomen. Not because I physically need it, but because my emotional, felt-sense of my body is comforted by its presence. Oh, and for the record, I nicknamed that blanket roll the nurses gave me “Teddy,” as in “Teddy bear.” It does no injury to my (or for that matter, anyone’s) manhood to recognize such things as intensely real in their felt presence. We feel our world and ourselves (what we might call our “world-selves,” although “self-world” works as well) long before – and continuing long after – we cognitively “know” it. And no amount of infantile, crippling and crippled, fantasies of machismo will alter that fact, even as we willfully brutalize ourselves trying to manifest such cartoonish images.
The sense of concern, the sense of fear and dismay, the sense of sadness, that attach to my surgical injuries is not cognitive, not a matter of thoughts that express themselves in verbalized propositions. They are much more primal than that; and on that account much more immediate. The greater part of western philosophy – especially in the “modern period” – has given no room (to say nothing of an account) of this nonverbal, noncognitive basis of the world-self. Two exceptions stand out here who, perhaps unsurprisingly, comprise two of my three favorite philosophers: John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead.
My friend and colleague (and one of the leading Dewey scholars in the world) highlights this statement of Dewey’s position: “what is not explicitly present makes up a vastly greater part of experience than does the conscious field to which thinkers have so devoted themselves.”i Dewey being a notoriously obtuse writer at times, Alexander’s book is an outstanding introduction to incredibly important aspects of Dewey’s thought which many scholars have themselves often been poor at uncovering. (For all of that, the curious reader can find a number of Dewey’s works freely available for the download HERE.) The “not explicitly present” in the above is a significant constituent of what I’ve described as the “nonverbal” contents of our minds and consciousnesses; verbalizing those contents and rendering them as cognitive is that step which makes them explicit. A single quote does not suffice to indicate how thorough-going Dewey is on this point (which Alexander devotes much effort to approvingly highlight), it will nevertheless have to suffice here as an indication for further inquiry by anyone interested.
The second thinker to consider is Alfred North Whitehead. As with all great thinkers, the scholarly literature about Whitehead is flooded with interpretations that wildly miss the point of what he was actually saying. Thus, his discussions include the argument that the coming-to-be of an actual occasion (Whitehead’s holistically “atomic” unit, what Auxier and myself called “the quantum of explanation”) includes both “physical” and “mental” poles. Both terms need to be scare-quoted, but the term “mental” caused more than a few readers to completely delaminate.
Despite his numerous and absolutely unambiguous warnings that consciousness was a rare phenomenon, manifested only in the most highly developed societies of (actual) occasions, many people concluded that he was saying that consciousness was an omnipresent fact of the universe. This is the source of the assertion that Whitehead was arguing for “panpsycism.” Some went further and attributed not only consciousness but cognitive qualities to occasions (an electron “knows” its world.)
The cognitivism certainly – and much or all of the panpsycism – is prancing, rampant nonsense on stilts.
Baseless accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, Whitehead never invented new terms; he always and only stuck with existing English terms and, where necessary, tried to nudge them toward the meanings he intended. In the case of the “mental” pole of becoming, it is important to remember that for Whitehead the primary form of ubiquitous relatedness is feeling. The world, the self, the world-self, are felt before they are matters of consciousness (if they ever become such), never mind objects of cognition. Actual occasions – and hyper-complex super-societies of such occasions, such as comprise a human being – feel ourselves and our world long before we are conscious of it, much less know any part of it.
In another post, I’ll have more to say about Whitehead’s often maddening use of words and terminology. For now it suffices to see how the above brings us back to the felt sense of my body post surgery. My brain may have been in a deep, chemically induced coma during the surgery. But the body was still fully there, and fully participating with the experience of having twenty-four inches of haggis makings pulled out through a three-inch slice in my gut. Just a few moments ago, there were a couple of sharp enough twinges that their presence rose all the way up into my conscious awareness. But felt presence – both as Whitehead and Dewey variously argue, and my own interactive world-self currently suggests – does not require explicit, cognitive consciousness to nevertheless be absolutely there. Our dominant philosophies of mind are catastrophically undermined by their failure to take such presence into account. And to follow up on the implicit argument, our toxic concepts of manhood are choked in their own bodies by the failure to grasp the relational density of our nonverbal connectedness to our world-selves.
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i Thomas Alexander, The Human Eros: Eco-ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence (New York: Fordham University, 2013)  kindle edition, my emphasis.