Deeds Without Doers

There is a concept in phenomenology that is critical for understanding the nature of animal minds: prereflective experience. This level of experience is synonymous with automaticity, subpersonal cognition, behavioral reactivity, effortless action, mindless flow, selfless absorption, subliminal perception, depersonalization, being-in-the-moment, wu wei, natural action, etc. In a word, animal minds are characterized by “action without action”, that is, deeds without doers. Heidegger called prereflective experience the realm of the they-self, fallenness, thrownness, lostness. And given the brute processing power of automatic neural reactivity, it would be a mistake to consider a completely prereflective creature “unintelligent”. As anyone who has ever woken up with a brand new perspective on a difficult problem can attest, the subconscious mind is capable of great powers of synthetic decision making. Bad phenomenology drives us to overlook the reality of prereflective experience. This is why it requires a keen phenomenological sense to develop an awareness of how limited our reflective consciousness is in comparison with the vast cognitive unconscious. In this post, I want to create a list of concrete examples of “action without action”. This will necessarily be an incomplete list, but I hope it demonstrates the phenomenological point many people are unwilling to accept: we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of, and hence are deluded about the extensiveness of consciousness in our overall mental economy.

It is also very important to note that just because most of the following activities are usually prereflective does not mean that they cannot also be done in a conscious, reflective manner. This is the essence of mindfulness training: turning preflective habits into deliberate intentional actions. It is also important to note that just because the execution of these habits is subconscious, that does not mean a conscious thought or intention did not set off the action. We are not complete zombies. In fact, we are able to send conscious “instructions” or “structions” (as Jaynes called them) to the subconscious for automatic execution such as when we send a struction to “open our hand” despite not knowing exactly how this is performed.

Deeds Without Doers

  1. Precisely shaping your grip when reaching out to pick up a coffee mug
  2. Controlling each individual finger muscle when typing quickly or playing the piano
  3. Buttoning a shirt
  4. Getting dressed
  5. Brushing your teeth
  6. Coordinating your leg and  foot muscles when walking or running
  7. Breathing (this action is easily controlled consciously though)
  8. Moving your lips and tongue when talking and speaking in general
  9. Genuine laughter
  10. Maintaining posture, muscle tone, and balance
  11. Saccadic eye motion
  12. Focusing our eyes on an object
  13. Dodging a thrown object
  14. Reading text
  15. Expert automobile driving
  16. Coordinating your muscles to throw a ball
  17. Locating a sound
  18. Judging a distance
  19. Flash of insight
  20. Fidgeting
  21. Nail biting
  22. Riding a bicycle after automatization
  23. Working on an assembly line after many hours of practice
  24. Hypnosis
  25. Speaking in tongues
  26. Opening the door-handle to your bedroom
  27. Controlling your legs to run up or down stairs
  28. Mastery of a difficult videogame control schema/ expert videogame performance
  29. Visual illusions
  30. Sleepwalking
  31. Getting scared when you see a shadow move in a dark alley at night in a bad neighborhood
  32. Feeling intense emotions when something bad happens to your children or loved ones
  33. Gripping your hand to catch a frisbee
  34. Tapping your feet to music
  35. Using a hammer
  36. Hitting a tennis ball
  37. Zen archery
  38. Chewing/swallowing food
  39. Beating your heart
  40. Washing your body/hair
  41. Putting on shoes
  42. Lighting a cigarette
  43. Using a food utensil
  44. Hitting a baseball
  45. Walking around the house when talking on the phone
  46. Walking into the kitchen if you are hungry
  47. Holding a pen
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8 Comments

Filed under Phenomenology

8 responses to “Deeds Without Doers

  1. There are three ways you can deal with these cases, given the slogan “deeds without doers”. It might be better for my purposes to say “actions without actors”

    1) You can claim that, as the slogan suggests, there can be genuine actions without any actors whatsoever.

    2) You can claim that these actions do in fact have actors.

    3) You can claim that these are not really actions.

    Your post is ambiguous between these three options, and it would require an explicit theory of action to decide between them.

    I would be in favor of a theory of action that did not rest on actors, but was still able to distinguish between genuine actions and mere physical events. In other words, if nothing else a theory of action must distinguish between a hurricane and, say, voting. Good luck drawing this distinction without referring to individual actors or agents. I also worry that an appeal to “consciousness” or phenomenology as a source of action is just a back door into talking about individuals, and would fail to satisfy a genuine theory of actorless actions.

    Your post, and perhaps phenomenology generally, seems to imply the second option: that there IS an agent, but that agent is the “great power” of the unconscious mind. In other words, you do identify a source of the action, but that source is distinct from (or some proper subset of) a fully conscious, integrated mind. I’m skeptical of this option; at least, you would need to distinguish between my fully conscious self and my unconscious self, and then identify the latter as the real agent. This would still require a theory of action, but you can get these for cheap since each action would still implicate an actor. The apparent downside is that you’ve shattered the individual- not a terrible result, if you are an anti-individualist like me, but you need to be comfortable talking about sub-personal operations as independent actors. You clearly think this can be done with phenomenology, and I’m still skeptical, but it is worth pointing out that you’ve given up on any real analysis of “actions without actors.”

    The most obvious objections will be with the examples themselves, that they aren’t really actions at all. Fidgeting, adjusting your hand to grab a cup, maintaining balance, eye saccades, these seem less like concrete, individual actions, and more like mechanical behaviors (one might say, “mere behaviors”) that form the basis of complete actions. These objections are obvious because they are grounded on the common sense assumption that actions do require actors, and that actors are complete, deliberative, conscious persons capable of judgment and reflection; on the common sense view, the list you give is simply not a list of actions at all. So again you are left needing a theory of action that will both clearly identify these behaviors as actions.

    Just some thoughts 🙂

    • Gary Williams

      Thanks for the insightful comment. You raise a lot of important and difficult issues. When I originally conceived of the post, I was planning on making explicit the underlying theory of action but I ran out of motivation upon making the list.

      I would be in favor of a theory of action that did not rest on actors, but was still able to distinguish between genuine actions and mere physical events. In other words, if nothing else a theory of action must distinguish between a hurricane and, say, voting. Good luck drawing this distinction without referring to individual actors or agents

      I would probably cash out the distinction between “mere” physical events like hurricanes and genuine biological action in terms of Varela and Maturana’s autopoietic theory. I would also use the Heideggerian concept of “affectivity” [Befindlichkeit] and “concern” [Besorgen] to given an account of organic intentionality and teleological “directedness”. Care is the organizational structure which differentiates the rock from the unicellular organism. In contrast to the rock, there are conditions of normativity for the organism insofar as the organism is driven to self-organize in such a way as to maintain the cohesiveness of its autopoiesis (self-production). This would be the “ground level” of my theory of action from which I would construct more sophisticated processes. And insofar as this ground level is composed of largely domain-specific functional networks, this would be close to the “sub-personal operations as independent actors” than you mentioned. It would also be a largely attentional/salience model of low-level action control.

      I’m skeptical of this option; at least, you would need to distinguish between my fully conscious self and my unconscious self, and then identify the latter as the real agent. This would still require a theory of action, but you can get these for cheap since each action would still implicate an actor.

      In phenomenological circles, there is often a distinction made between the “minimal self” and the “narrative self”. The minimal self is more or less the unconscious brain-body system which acts automatically and effortlessly in coordination with the environment in terms of its history of structural coupling. The narrative self is socially constructed and dependent upon certain cultural conditions being in place during childhood development. In this regard, I am very much in agreement with Dan Hutto and his Narrative Practice Hypothesis.

      Fidgeting, adjusting your hand to grab a cup, maintaining balance, eye saccades, these seem less like concrete, individual actions, and more like mechanical behaviors (one might say, “mere behaviors”) that form the basis of complete actions.

      I would indeed say that they are “mere behaviors”. I’m committed to the view that humans are primarily “bundles of habits” as James once put it. Deep down, I am a radical behaviorist. It’s just that I propose that the introduction of language and culture to a radically behaviorist system starts modify the behaviors in such a way as to give rise to a new method of behavior control: linguistic self-other-regulation. From here, I think we can bootstrap up to the higher-order domains of language use and explicit reasoning. On my account, it is these linguistic scaffolds that allow for the phenomenological experience of being a “complete, deliberative, conscious person capable of judgment and reflection”. But this experience is of course grounded by the underlying phenomenological “core” or “background” of subconscious processing.

  2. I was always of the understanding that phenomenologists, particularly those like Merleau-Ponty, Todes, and Heidegger thought that we were unified at the pre-reflective level. Further, this unification is not something unconscious – if unconscious means something like unexperienced.

    If we take this view of the substratum of conscious action, we don’t fracture the individual. Like Gary mentioned, this pre-reflective ground allows for the flowering of linguistic capabilities, allowing us to radically bootstrap upon our biological base. It’s what allows for the kind of explicit formulations of actions in language, or symbols, or what have you.

    But that wasn’t what I came here to post. I posted because I sit uncomfortably in my chair when you use the term sub-conscious. Sub-conscious for me is equivalent sub-personal, aka mechanistic understanding. Pre-reflective experience is unthematized conscious experience – the richly contextual information the belies conceptual reification – and is not equivalent to these underlying neural or muscular mechanisms.

    I think that some of the examples you give are mechanistic examples, and others are more indicative of pre-reflective comportment. Focusing our eyes, locating sounds, the beating of our heart, these are unconscious and mechanized tasks that our body does unconsciously – not pre-reflectively.

    • I was always of the understanding that phenomenologists, particularly those like Merleau-Ponty, Todes, and Heidegger thought that we were unified at the pre-reflective level. Further, this unification is not something unconscious – if unconscious means something like unexperienced.

      For me, unconscious definitely does not mean unexperienced. I have recently argued quite extensively that “There is something it is like” to be nonconscious, namely, what-it-is-like to engage in automatic, prereflective behavior. For me, consciousness is more or less introspection or meta-cognition that is structured in terms of an internal “mind-space” which is actualized whenever we turn inwards and reflect upon our experience. Consciousness is also involved in the narratization of experience into folk psychological stories.

      But that wasn’t what I came here to post. I posted because I sit uncomfortably in my chair when you use the term sub-conscious. Sub-conscious for me is equivalent sub-personal, aka mechanistic understanding. Pre-reflective experience is unthematized conscious experience – the richly contextual information the belies conceptual reification – and is not equivalent to these underlying neural or muscular mechanisms.

      For me, the term “subconscious” simply means mental activity that occurs below the level of explicit introspection or reflection. For example, I cannot introspect upon how my memory system works. The results of the memory network can come into reflective consciousness, and I can ask the memory network to perform things for me, but I cannot introspect upon the actual mechanisms of its operation for it is “below” my level of conscious access. So subconscious really just means “below introspection”. But it is a mistake to think of this as being “purely mechanical”. The subconscious is only mechanical in a trivial sense but its operations are totally different from something purely mechanical like a stapler. I would say that the subconscious is best described as “organic” rather than mechanical. My heat beats organically, not mechanically.

  3. In Transcendence of the Ego Sartre gives an example of pre-reflective consciousness. He likens it to a man running after a car. In that moment, there is no awareness of any self, consciousness is non-positional. The only intention of which one is aware is that the “care is to be overtaken.” In other words, consciousness is only aware of itself insofar as it is consciousness of consciousness; not consciousness of a self (the latter being a consequence, a transcendent existent that only arises through reflective, positional consciousness).

    In BN, Sartre’s well-known example of pre-reflective consciousness is the man peeping through a keyhole to observe the figure on the other side of the door. In the moment, the man’s intentionality plunges him into the object of consciousness, with no awareness of a self… that is, until he hears footsteps coming down the hall. Then the man recognizes the other, which in turn causes him to realize himself, ultimately leading to the man feeling shame, etc.

    The only thing that Sartre doesn’t clearly delineate is when and how positional awareness arises. He intimates that it has to do with familiarity and/or the ascription of quality upon an object of consciousness and/or the presence of the other. But the point at which non-positional becomes positional and HOW/WHY such occurs is not explained in much detail. What does Heidegger say about this transition?

    Also, is there a need to preserve the idea of the unconscious? Is is necessary and/or beneficial in explaining the structure and function of conscious existence?

  4. Your post left me grasping in irritation for some sort of conclusion. I was like “yes, AND”?

    What’s your position? Do you think mindless action is a good thing?

    I am somewhat aware of this, and other people have written about it too. The general consensus is that we as humans have the choice of control. But not always exercised.

    It is desirable for me to let my subconscious take over driving the car while I use my conscious mind to work through a business problem. It’s undesirable to let my instinctive drives towards anger take the lead in a relationship situation, where anger might be detrimental. So in that instance I will over-ride, control and let my every moment by controlled by the conscious will.

    So both reflective and prereflective actions have their place.

    I know that some of us are more tended towards one or the other – control versus ‘flow’. Musicians are good at flowing (but poor at controlling their actions towards a long term goal). Business people are the opposite.

    Animals don’t have a choice. They will carry out prereflective, instinctive activities even if it is to their detriment (ie dogs biting or barking at the wrong times).

    • Gary Williams

      Luke,

      I think you hit my position exactly: “So both reflective and prereflective actions have their place.”

      I am of the opinion that reflective consciousness is at times the greatest gift of humanity and at times the worst. Same goes with the nonconscious mind. Good habits can be gifts and bad habits can be curses. Although I used to concentrate more on honing my nonconscious mind through meditation, it is now largely reversed: I spend most of my time filling my consciousness with information and only meditate on rare occasions when I am in the mood. Why? Because I now believe that meditation should only be done if it benefits your overall life and wight now in my career stage the thing that benefits me the most is explicitly studying philosophy, reading, and writing. This isn’t to say that my meditative training doesn’t help me with those things, but I think that I am now expanding my reflective consciousness in order to keep up with the complex information economy of the 21st century. As an academic, I need to have a fine balance of both prereflective and reflective cognition, but at the moment, I think it is more important for my reflective cognition to be in tip-top shape. I think this is largely because the shifts in consciousness through the modern era are accelerating the need for consciousness as a means of coping with the specialized sociocognitive niches of our modern world. My niche (academia) certainly requires a lot of consciousness to be successful. But if it werent for the underlying nonconscious foundation, my consciousness certainly wouldnt be able to get a firm grip in the world.

      I hope that answers your question.

  5. Ha!

    I loved your response!

    It’s possibly the most insightful expression of self responsiblity that I’ve ever read.

    And as a result of reading it, for the first time I recognize that I have made a similar decision.

    I too practice a form of a medition because I believe it creates a better “underlying nonconscious foundation” – that’s my sole reason for practicing – because it appears to improve my instinctive behaviour: my instinctive sense of direction, my luck, my “conscious choices”.

    However, in the past I expected much more from it than I do now. But I’ve learned that self responsibility demands more – much more.

    Therefore, over time, I have laid more emphasis on reflective thought – specifically reading and learing, learning. Because it’s the main way of improving one’s position on this planet ie. ability to create more or give. At least in my field of ecommerce & online markteting.

    It’s been nice talking to you. It’s fascinating to me that an academic would spend time on meditation. The academics I knew when I studied, did not respect this side of their nature.

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