To Be Mindless

Really_Big_WaveTo be mindless can mean widely divergent things: either to be être-en-soi, being in itself, like a stone that perfectly coincides with itself and thus is devoid of subjectivity and concern; or to be a sentient creature so proficient at a certain activity as to perform it without stopping to think. Such seemingly effortless activity corresponds to the Chinese-Taoist notion of wu-wei, natural or uncontrived action; or to the related Japanese ideal of mushin, performance unfettered by analysis, especially in and around martial arts. 

The apparent simplicity of the mindlessness that comes with such (non-)action should not fool us. Performative mindlessness has very little to do with mechanical reproduction of previously inculcated behavioral patterns, and requires that the body be sensitive and awake to its surroundings, and not react “automatically.” If a behaviorist can see in it but the analogue of the machine, well, this says about his inability to relate to this sort of experience beyond narrow mechanistic presuppositions that a priori reduce the live body to a machine. Performative mindlessness deserves all the ethical consideration currently given to thematized consciousness, to deliberation and reflection, in the animals that exhibit them most profusely. It stands beneath and upholds the thin layer of reflective thinking (much current cognitive science admits this, if you need the claim to be validated by this sort of apparatus).Nor does the sort of visceral intelligence exist, enmeshed in the world around it, in order to uphold consciousness. To think so would be to have it upside down.

Reflection is sign of a sort of emergency in the interface between body and world, a dialectic which, when animated through skilled practical activity, stabilizes a rhythmic fluidity. Its discursive metastatis notwithstanding, mind is strictly related to activity. Beyond it, in idleness, it constitutes our prior activities’ echoing residue.

leopard_2244916kWould you confuse a mindless surfer, who receptively gears his whole body into the wave beneath him, with the wave itself? Would you confuse the mindlessness of a leaping leopard, whom a break to deliberate would unnecessarily slow down, with the immobility of the stone from which he leaps? Thematized thought is, and ought to be seen as, the servant, not the master, of the live body. It has its place, but there is no need to cherish mind at the expense of that on which it rests.

*I hold no rights to these beautiful photos. I hope the rights-holders will take no offence at my putting them here.

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1 Response to To Be Mindless

  1. Reader’s comment and my reply from reddit:

    “I like the poetic language, but without clear definitions of the discussed concepts the argumentation seems aimless.

    A surfer concentrated on surfing might not be mindless, just focused. And I don’t think that mind is limited to the systematic, analytical part.

    The author seems to imply a body-mind duality, but what she/he actually describes is what psychologists address with the dual process theory. There seem to be a mode of thinking that are conscious, controlled, and analytical and a mode of thinking that is non-conscious (or pre-conscious), heuristic and automatic.

    (It’s basically what Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is about, if you’ve heard about / read it.)”


    “Your objection concerning terminological indeterminacy seems rather misplaced: though vagueness ought to be avoided, to do philosophy with a scalpel in hand is to produce something sterile. On the other hand, the phrasing seems to be sufficiently clear for you to be able to interpret the text as a whole. Either the terms preculde understanding and are vague or they don’t and so they aren’t. I think it’s the latter.

    If mind and body dichotomy is implied, that’s primarily because despite attempts to innovate some vocabulary, the interpretive patterns inherited from the influential dualists of the past are still applied by default. Focus is concentrarion, and so repression of distractions in favor of the object of concentration. It’s conscious. Mindless coping is requires not suppression of distracting impulses, but overall, relaxed receptivity, and is mostly unconscious. Not that these things are black and white.

    Definitions of thinking vary widely, as most of us know, and some of this variation is in keeping with the phenomena described which nonetheless have much in common beyond the name.

    But two modes of “thinking” you distinguish are wholly different phenomenologically, and where issues of subjectivity are concerned, this should be taken into account. There is absolutely no need to call non-thetic, visceral coping “thinking.” Except to foster mentalism.

    The thing the note advocates, if between the lines and in no way systematically, is a certain revaluation while avoiding both mechanistic and rationalist approaches. There is a bodied, mindless mode of coping that’s inherently rewarding precisely because it aligns the active organism and the environing world into a shared flow.

    Thank you”

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