A guest authored edgy essay by Doug Mann

“Evening Organicism,” by Kelly McConnell/MECA Portfolio

1. Aims

2. A Bit of Metahistory

…the more this mind learns to rely on delusion, the less tolerance this mind has for any betrayal of that delusion…this mind has denied that it itself is a thing of Nature. It has begun to identify not only its own survival, but its own existence with culture. The mind believes that it exists because what it thinks is true. Therefore, to contradict delusion is to threaten mind’s very existence.[iv]

At the dawn of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the self was defined in terms of the way that the natural scientist objectifies the world, in terms of mechanistic laws. Western metaphysics from the seventeenth century on is by and large a response to this technologization of the self. The first stage of our dialectic is to see Mind as Machine (Hobbes and Locke), or, tightly connected to this, to see Mind as Anti-Machine (Descartes) or as a Shadow-Machine (Hume). The mechanical model of the mind popular in the seventeenth century (e.g., in Hobbes) was a reflection of a given process of mind-activity, the new physics (i.e., Bacon and Newton). The basic impulse came from Baconian and Galilean mechanistic science. This image is still alive in our own century: the New Baconians of cognitive science use the language of computer science to re-vivify the corpse of the theory of the Mind as a Machine which rises, vampire-like, all pale and bloodless and hoary, from its grave, flitting about in the region between philosophy and psychology, throwing streaks of light across this usually gloomy space. For example, in the last chapter of Keith Holyoak and Paul Thagard’s Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought, the authors tell us that “the human mind, in all its subtlety and complexity, is in its essence a machine.” The model of the Mind as Machine has been recycled time and again within academic consciousness.

In response to this first stage of our dialectic, there arose in the late eighteenth century and later a view of Mind as Culture, for example in the idealism of Hegel and in the historicism of Dilthey, Croce, Ortega, most of the existentialists, and to some extent in post-modernists like Rorty. The Mind was seen as a cultural product, not as a mechanistic engine. From this image sociology got its start in the work of eighteenth-century thinkers like Adam Ferguson and John Millar. By the twentieth century sociology had evolved, in thinkers like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, to a radically constructivist position, which sees the self as “constructed” by culture. This constructivist position is echoed in postmodernist analyses of the self as a text with multivalent meanings. As Taylor notes, poststructuralist thought is attractive because it offers a complete license to subjectivity, “unfettered by anything in the nature of a correct interpretation…of either life or text.”[v] It pretends to “construct” the self ex nihilo. This constructivist view of the self stands in radical but symbiotic opposition to the image of the mind as a machine.

But a third possibility exists: to see Mind as a Natural Entity. I mean by “natural” not the nature of the objective-mathematical worldview of modern science, but something closer to the life-world of Husserl. By staying within the mythic and poetic sense of nature, we can avoid the agony of a self separated from that nature, and thus divided against itself.

Thomas Nagel, in his The View from Nowhere, wrestles with the whole problem of the “objective self.” He wants to include the subjective point of view within a framework of an objective understanding of the world. His alternation between a view of mind as machine (the objective self) and as culture (the subjective point and view) leads to an unhappy angst, to an attempt to see the world from nowhere. But the primordial background of this nowhere is the “everywhere” of an unobjectified nature. Heidegger had it right in the first place, although he was handicapped by his rather obtuse and pompous literary style. We approach the truth of our being through poetic creation. Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dualism provides an interesting framework for this creation: we probably come most directly to the primordial, natural ground of our existence in the most Dionysian artform, music. Whether one prefers the pounding rhythms of contemporary music, or the sweeter strains of classical, music is the artform that hints most strongly to our grounding in nature.

The “brain in a vat” scenario of the contemporary metaphysician illustrates all too well the distancing of the mind from its natural source. This bizarre scenario taken from the pages of science-fiction points out the mechanistic presuppositions of many of the commonly used metaphysical thought experiments. The mind-as-brain can be plugged and unplugged at will. As one recent popular work puts it, we in the modern age are all bastards of reason. Reason is the central technology of the self, the one that allowed the building of modern economies, modern social and political structures, and the modern hope of continual progress. It also holds out the illusory hope of a final solution to the riddle of the mind.

An ecology of mind would have to rely heavily on metaphor and analogy as theory-building devices. This could quickly lead to the charge, perhaps from behaviourists or cognitive scientists, that it produces no “results”, that it can have no practical applications. But in what sense does metaphysics ever produce “results”? What has 2500 years of questioning done to improve our understanding of the human mind? At best metaphysics can paint the backdrop for some other more pragmatically orientated activity going on at center stage. It is to a large extent, to use R.G. Collingwood’s formulation, the science of absolute presuppositions. The sort of understanding of the mind that I see as the central focus of metaphysical speculation is the one that leads to a self-knowledge that is at the same time a roadmap to social, scientific, or creative action. Metaphysics in this sense is a roadmap for the spirit; it is up to other forms of thought and action to choose to be guided by the map, or to reject it and look for another.

Seeing the mind as a machine, for example in the project of cognitive science, has powerful cultural, political and sociological meanings. The Geisteswissenschaten for a century have been seen as the poor cousins of Naturwissenschaften. This is reflected in the structure of our educational institutions, especially in our universities, and also in the social capital adhering to the various professions in a liberal society. The scientists, engineers, and their loose allies, the social engineers (lawyers, social workers, bureaucrats) are accorded high levels of social status. Of course, the representatives of culture are also given their due, but only the most successful artists, musicians, writers, and film makers are able to “make it” in the same way that the even the average manager of the machine social metaphor can. I now turn to a more explicit social understanding of how the dialectic of the Mind as Machine versus Mind as Culture works in one specific case.

3. The Social Dimension: The Case of the Narcissistic Personality

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Historical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches, and practices the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance…Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand…Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character.[vi]

These social critics revolted against mechanistic analogies for social and poltical action, for understanding history, and, perhaps most importantly, for understanding the self. Carlyle himself knew that the analogy of the machine was what the German idealists used to call a “world historical” idea, or what Thomas Kuhn was later to call (if we extend his analysis beyond science in its strictest sense) a paradigm. Carlyle vehemently rejected this idea:

The living TREE Igdrasil, with the melodious prophetic waving of its world-wide boughs, deep-rooted as Hela, has died-out into the clanking of a World-MACHINE…I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion “motives”, self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something far other in it than the clank of spinning-jennies and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all![vii]

Yet this “organicist” critique has all but disappeared from the cultural mainstream.8 This is part of a larger process, the internalization of the machine-metaphor as a cultural given, and the reaction against this metaphor expressed in the idea of Mind as Culture, with its attendant problems (e.g., ethical and cultural relativism, the “absolute” tolerance and lack of communal direction of liberal societies, and most importantly the emptiness of inner life).

As a case in point, I turn to the notion of the narcissistic personality. At the end of the seventies Christopher Lasch, in a cunning diagnosis of post-sixties American consumer capitalism in decline, showed how much of the contemporary cultural scene (and I would argue of much of more formally political, sociological and philosophical thought) can be understood as manifestations of the narcissistic personality. Lasch saw the America of just a few years ago (and no, not that much has changed) as participating in the dying culture of competitive individualism, “which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”[ix] A central element in our culture’s bankruptcy is that in its forward-looking bias it encourages an active hostility to the past, leading to a general levelling and impoverishment of the psyche.[x] In his The Culture of Narcissism Lasch traces the role that the narcissistic personality plays in various contemporary cultural phenomenon. One of the more interesting cases can be found in his discussion of “the psychosociology of the sex war.” For several reasons, i.e., the collapse of “chivalry”, the liberation of sex from its old constraints, the pursuit of sexual pleasure as an end in itself, overloaded personal relations, and the male fear of feminism, Lasch sees the dominant cultural image of sexuality as involving a flight from feeling. This divorce of sexuality from Eros leads to a cynical detachment and protective shallowness in the relations between the sexes.[xi] The results include promiscuity without emotional commitment, sexual separatism (e.g., ideologically motivated lesbianism on the part of feminists fed up with men), or even withdrawal from relationships altogether.

This case is interesting insofar as it illustrates one of the ways that the de-mystification of mind and body, allied to seeing the body as a mechanism that requires period “servicing” (i.e., the paradigm of commonsense mechanistic dualism), winds up perpetuating the image of the mind as machine. Just as we can, on a larger scale, scrape the Amazonian rainforest off the surface of the planet and replace it with a network of strip-mines, we can satiate our bodily lusts without impeding our emotional or intellectual lives. In this sense the narcissist fully accepts the mechanistic image of the mind just as much as he or she accepts a mechanistic image of the body. We can split the whole into its parts, and give to each what it needs. Shifting the train of my argument to an alternative but parallel track, Freud was quite right to draw aside the curtain of rationalism and show us how much thought and behaviour was engineered by the unconscious Wizard of Eros. To borrow a phrase from Erving Goffman, just beneath the way the self is presented in everyday life is the surging subterranean stream of the sensual. It flows into and out of consciousness with a jerky, inconstant rhythm. Despite this wavelike surging of Eros into everyday life, sexuality has been traditionally seen as less than central to grand metaphysical questions. The way that our culture becomes aware of and presents sexuality (i.e., in terms of what is seen as morally acceptable, the way that sexual images are manipulated by the media and “commodified”, and the way that sexual issues become tied to broader social and political issues) I would term “sub-metaphysical.” Remaining in the central dining room of culture, in metaphysics proper, makes one short-sighted as to how the delicacies of High Intellectual Culture (HIC) are prepared and served by those working in the basement. As academics we live too much the lie of the exclusivity of HIC from human existence, happy not to know what’s going on downstairs. My ecology of mind would involve a call for a new species of philosophers, for sub-metaphysicians, whose purpose would be to relate the goings-on downstairs to those upstairs, to relate this sub-culture to HIC.

4. Ways into the Natural Mind

(1) Being in the presence of non-human nature, whether vegetative or animal. An “understanding” (Verstehen) of this nature.

(2) Visual art, music, poetry that draw us into nature, whether as a picture of the external world or a tapping of the well-springs of our “inner selves.” Embracing primal cultural archetypes.

(3) “Spiritual” experiences unmediated by institutional authority. The personal, unguided, genuine experience.

(4) Love combined with sexual fulfilment. Not the well-adjusted personality or relationship, but the romantic image of courtly love informed by a modern sense of the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. This (along with the other three ways) is a self-conscious appeal to a “dead” paradigm, just as the revolutionaries of the German peasant rebellions, the English civil war and the French revolution gave shape to their rebellions by wanting to return to a past golden age, by appealing to age-old, traditional rights, or by attempting to recreate the classical idea of citizenship.

In formal thinking, it is clear that we cannot return to medieval paradigms such as the view of the cosmos as layers of crystal spheres. But we can bring back into our individual and collective consciousness past ways of thinking, modify them to suit our own needs, change our way of thinking, and thereby change our social reality. This is especially easy to do if these images are highly metaphorical and abstract, and we do not become overly concerned with the concrete content they had in the historical period from which they were taken.

When approaching the issue of how we can find our way back to the natural mind, we should remember that what Charles Taylor calls the second of his three malaises of modernity,[xii] instrumental reason, is firmly tied to the mechanistic model of mind. Instrumental reason is a central technology of the modern self in the sense that it is a way of building and extending that self through time and space. It provides us with much of the physical landscape of modernity (modern technology, modern cities, communications, transport, information storage and retrieval, and mass production), along with its dominant metaphysical roadmap. As Taylor notes, this instrumental reason has grown alongside a view of the human subject as disengaged, tied to a view of human thinking divorced from any messy embedding in the body, emotions, our dialogical situation, or traditional life forms.[xiii] But I do not want to claim that this should be seen, purely and simply, as a moral evil. The world we all live in, whether we choose to retreat from it or embrace it, is built on the techonological, social, and economic foundation of instrumental rationality. The point, however, for the sub-metaphysician is not just to interpret the world, but to interpret it in a socially critical sense, as a social choice, and not just as a random conglomeration of unintended consequences.

Quentin Skinner reminds us that in the contemporary human sciences there has been a return to Grand Theory in its traditional and architectonic sense.[xiv] I see an ecology of mind as part of this general return to grand theory. The physical and mental structures erected on the scaffolding of the Machine and Culture metaphors of mind are still quite solid and in no danger of being toppled over by a spirited critique or two. There is something invigorating and creative about the sheer act of thinking critically, provided that that thinking is grounded in an understanding of and an at least preliminary empathy for the author, point of view, or social institution under consideration.

So the utility of the grand critique comes from both the act of questioning itself (dialectics being the mental equivalent of gymnastics) and from the slight possibility that such a critique will effect a few cracks in the wall of a structure that, as a whole, is in little danger of tumbling to the ground. There’s just too much at stake, too many institutions built on the metaphysical grounds laid out by the Machine/Culture dualism, for us to need to worry about “philosophical” damage. There are always lots of underlabourers around to sort out the little philosophical puzzles that academic, especially analytic, philosophy values so highly. We could all lay back on our couches and imbibe liberal doses of Huxley’s soma, but it should seem obvious to any thinker of spirit that an active intelligent questioning coupled with a willingness to assert, at least provisionally, clear moral, aesthetic, and political positions is a healthier philosophical state of mind than the near catatonia of the under-labourer, grubbing deep in the mines of pure scholarship.

5. Mind, Politics, and the New Idealism

Seeing the mind as open-ended curve doesn’t especially commit one to any given colour on the political spectrum, even though many of the nineteenth-century organicists took conservative stances. It is perhaps wary of abrupt and violent political change, but the very essence of the organic is growth, therefore making it hostile to simply leaving things the way they are. This is why I call for a new idealism: this is in recognition that men and women shape their future, including their political future, by acts driven by economic, social, and political ideas. We should not see politics on analogy with blind mindless vegetative growth.

I see a legitimate extension of the organic metaphor into politics as a partial abandonment of the politics of unlimited industrial growth, of class, and of gender (which I see as the last gasp of the politics of class, transferred to the realm of social biology) in favour of a politics of limited and ecologically intelligent economic growth, an attention to human decency as expressed in some minimum level of well-being for all who are willing to play some economic role in society, direct communal participation in the political process, and tolerance for dissent and cultural diversity (although not state-managed multiculturalism). This would not involve a fatal blow being administered to the fatted calf of consumer capitalism, but instead a series of good wacks to its rump. Many liberal freedoms are essential here, including the freedom of speech, of the press, and of public assembly. But a sweeping right to private property is certainly not ecologically sound, taking the latter term either in its literal or its metaphysical sense. The transference of the idea of spiritual fulfilment into the consumption of mass-produced goods is the antithesis of my central claim here, and I would thus reject a definition of freedom founded solely on economic liberties.

As with other idealisms, this “new idealism” would make the claim that the fundamental reality is mental, but a mental reality that shoots out into the world like ivy-tendrils crawling up a stone wall. Art and nature would cease to be mere entertainments or ways of unwinding from the travails of the workaday world. Our mechanistic Eros would give way to an at least partial healing of the bond between Lust and Love. It would leave science to the scientists and engineering to the engineers, recognizing the epistemologically constructivist nature of these disciplines. The fundamental distinction between philosophy and science I see as that between drawing a picture of the world and manipulating reality to construct a new world. But sometimes when one draws an appropriate picture, the (phenomenological) world shifts ever ever so slightly to accommodate this new picture.


[ii] Other than the socially acceptable “high culture.” Popular culture is seen by most academics (outside of a few sociologists and rebellious spirits like Camille Paglia) as analogous to sex: necessary, but not really a legitimate subject of inquiry outside of a narrowly-defined field.

[iii] Susan Griffin, quoted in “Ecofeminism is Voice of Political Conscience,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Oct. 16, 1993.

[iv] Griffin, “Ecoferninism.”

[v] Charles Taylor, “Overcoming Epistemology,” in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, edited by K. Baynes, J. Bohman, and T. McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 482.

[vi] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Collected Work: (New York: AMS Press, 1903), vol. 27, 59, 63.

[vii] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 171.

[viii] Although modern pop culture can be accused as by and large guilty of trivializing life and reducing the self to a commodity, to an engine to be periodically fueled with amusement and pleasure, i.e. the consumption of goods (including food, sex, and visual and auditory images), we can unearth within it the occasional (usually unconscious) revolt against the two traditional models of the mind. For example, in “new wave” and punk rock of the late seventies we find highly charged layers of irony and “world-historical” pessimism about the whole modern experience. Note Jonathan Richman’s song “Roadrunner”:

I’m in love with Massachusetts

The neon looks so cold outside

And the highway when it’s late at night

With the radio on

I’m like a Roadrunner . . .

And then later on, in Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols’ hastily improvised version:

I’m in love with the Modern World

Out of touch with the Modern World

But still in love with the Modern World

Roadrunner Roadrunner

Going a thousand miles an hour

With the radio on

Needless to say, for those who know what I’m talking about, this irony and pessimism comes out most strongly in British punk, e.g., in the “no future” attitude and antisocial anarchism of the Sex Pistols, or the radical social critique of The Clash or Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers.

[ix] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books,1979), 21.

[x] Lasch, Narcissism, 25.

[xi] Lasch, Narcissism, 322–23, 330.

[xii] Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity (Concord, Ontario: Anansi,1991), 4–5.

[xiii] Taylor, Malaise, 101–2.

[xiv] Quentin Skinner, Introduction, The Return Grand Theory in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 14.


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Delaney, Frank. The Celts. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. Also a 6-part BBC-Scotland television series.

Griffin, Susan. Quoted in “Ecofeminism is voice of political conscience.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record Oct. 16, 1993.

Holyoak, Keith J. and Paul Thagard. Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press (unpublished manuscript), 1993.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lasch, Christopher . The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Warner Books, 1979.

Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Nagel, Thomas. “What is it Like to be a Bat?.” In Introduction to Philosophy, edited by John Perry and Michael Bratman. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Richman, Jonathan. “Roadrunner.” Quoted in Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Full lyrics from the album “Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.” Cannibalized version on The Sex Pistols’ “The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle.”

Skinner, Quentin. Introduction to The Return of Grand Theory in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Smith, Dorothy E. “Sociology from Women’s Experience: A Reaffirmation.” Sociological Theory 10 (1992).

Taylor, Charles. “Overcoming Epistemology.” In After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, edited by K. Baynes, J. Bohman, and T. McCarthy. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1987.

Taylor, Charles. The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1991.


APP EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the sixth in a six-part series featuring the work of Doug Mann.

Here is the original publication information for this article:

Mann, D. (2000) “The Ecology of Mind,” Alexandria 5, 73–78.

Like Marc Champagne’s essay, “We, the Professional Sages: Analytic Philosophy’s Arrogation of Argument,” Mann’s work in the 00s and early 10s of the 21st century remarkably anticipates many ideas and themes developed and explored by APP since 2013.

See, e.g., APP’s 2016 essay, “The Organicist Conception of the World.”

More information about Doug Mann’s work can be found HERE.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 23 April 2018

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