Here's a passage from David Velleman's recent essay, "The Way of the Wanton" that caught my attention (earning a rare four hm's in the margin, plus a question mark and exclamation point):
Attentively reflecting on one's thirst entails standing back from it, for several reasons. First, the content of one's reflective thoughts is not especially expressive of the motive on which one is reflecting: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the the thought of someone thinking thirstily. Second, attentive reflection is itself an activity -- a mental activity -- and, as such, it requires a motive, which, of course, is not thirst. Reflecting on one's thirst is, therefore, a distraction from acting on one's thirst, and in that respect is even a distraction from being thirsty. Most importantly, though, consciousness just seems to open a gulf between subject and object, even when its object is the subject himself. Consciousness seems to have the structure of vision, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer -- to occupy the position of the Gegenstand (p. 181, emphasis in original).Let's go one point at a time.
Does reflecting on thirst entail "standing back" from it? It's not clear what this metaphor means, though Velleman's subsquent three reasons help clarify. But before we get to those reasons, let's just wallow in the metaphor a bit: Standing back from one's thirst. I don't want to be too unsympathetic here. The metaphor is inviting in a way. But I at least don't feel I have the kind of rigorous understanding I'd want of this idea, as a philosopher.
On to the reasons:
(1.) Per Velleman: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the thought of something thinking thirstily.
Walking across campus, I see a water fountain. The sentence "Damn, I'm thirsty!" springs to mind as I head for a drink. Is this not a thirsty thought? It seems reflective of thirst; it probably reinforces the thirst and helps push along the thirst-quenching behavior -- so it's thirsty enough, I'd say. Is it not a thought, then -- or at least not a thought in the self-reflective sense Velleman evidently has in mind here? Maybe, for example, it's simply expressive and not introspective, an outburst like "ow!" when you stub your toe, but as it were an inner outburst? (Is that too oxymoronic?)
So let's try it more introspectively. As it happens, I've been introspecting my thirst quite a bit in writing this post, and despite having had a drink just a few minutes ago I find myself almost desperately thirsty....
Okay, I'm back. (Yes, I dashed off to the fountain.)
All right, I just don't get this point. Or I do get it and it just seems plain wrong.
(2.) Per Velleman: Attentive reflection is a mental activity that requires a motive, which is of course not thirst. It's a distraction both from acting on one's thirst and from being thirsty.
Does mental activity require a motive? If an image of a Jim wearing a duck-hat comes to mind unbidden as I talk to Jim, need there be a motive? (Or is that not "mental activity"?) And even if there is a motive for reflecting on one's thirst, why can't that motive sometimes be thirst itself? For example, reflecting on my thirst might be a means to achieving drink -- for example, it might help ensure that I order something to drink at the restaurant. And as such, it needn't be a distraction from acting on one's thirst; it might be part of so acting. And finally, is it a distraction from being thirsty? Well, not in my experience! Darn, I'm getting thirsty again! I can imagine a kind of contemplative attention to one's thirst (as to one's pain) that in a certain way renders that thirst (or pain) less compelling. Maybe something like that is achieved in certain sorts of meditation. But that doesn't seem to me the standard case.
(3.) Per Velleman: Consciousness opens a gulf between subject and object, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer.
Huh? There's nothing wrong with metaphor per se, but they're hard to work with when you don't see eye to eye. Velleman develops the metaphor a bit in the next paragraph: As a subject of thirst, thirst is not in one's "field of view" -- rather things like water-fountains are. In self-reflection, one's thirst is in the field of view. Now this seems to me mainly a way of saying that one is not thinking about one's thirst in the first case and one is thinking about it in the second. (Is there more to it than that? If so, tell me.) But then that brings us back to the issue in (2): Is there a competition, as Velleman seems to believe, between feeling thirst and acting thirsty, on the one hand, and thinking about one's thirst on the other hand? Or do the two normally complement and co-operate?
Can we venture an empirical prediction here? If I suggest to subjects that think about whether they are thirsty, then set them free, will they be more or less likely to stop by the fountain on their way out than subjects I invite to think about something else? I'm pretty sure which way this one will turn out. Now I suspect this test wouldn't be fair to Velleman for some reason. (Maybe the suggestion will also affect thirst itself and not just reflection on it?) So if one of you is sympathetic to him, maybe you can help me out....
By the way, did I mention that this is a delightful and engaging article?