The Drama of Mind
By Eli Siegel
Today I talk on The Drama of Mind; or, Aesthetic Realism Sees Mind. One purpose I have is to deal with mind at its very simplest, and at least hint at mind at its most intricate and most disturbing, also most beautiful, and try to show that there is something in common.
If Aesthetic Realism has any idea as God, it’s the idea of definition. The notion of definition is, in the long run, the being fair to something in any situation in which that something may find itself. In defining a tree, we should hope to be fair to the idea of tree, whether it is in Ecuador or Asia or the Hudson Bay Territory or Pennsylvania. So, also, in defining an idea, the purpose should be to be fair to it in any condition whatsoever.
In mind, as in reality, there is a drama always going on. At any moment in our lives—and mind and life are ever so close in meaning—there are two things which one can be aware of right now. There is something of pleasure and pain, and there is also something that we are meeting or that we are knowing. I use the word meeting in the definition of mind, because I do not want to presuppose an idea of knowing. Knowing is always a kind of meeting. And if there is pleasure and pain, there must be something known.
In mind—whether it is a philosopher contemplating the history of Spain in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, or something hardly to be seen meeting something—there is some kind of knowledge and there is pleasure and pain. The definition of mind that I hope to make real, to make seem sensible, is the following: “Mind is the power of at once meeting something and having pleasure and pain.”
How does that include our little brethren and little sisters in the entomological world, let alone the world of the protozoa or the zoophytes, and that person who writes a lengthy work on mathematics or the history of poetry in the Ottoman Empire, or Hegel dealing with the philosophy of history, or Mallarme—writing poetry which has been seen as some of the most delicately subterranean and musical? I shall try to show that this definition is fair to both our inarticulate entomological companions and those who have used their minds with great comprehensiveness or delicacy.
The Paramecium Represents Mind
I use a book that is a sort of American classic, written by a woman who taught psychology at Vassar College, Margaret Floy Washburn: The Animal Mind (fourth edition, Macmillan, 1936). Professor Washburn includes among the animals that renowned little living being of drama, the paramecium.
The paramecium does meet something. And it seems to be aware, in a way, of what it is meeting. To be aware of what you are meeting, whoever or whatever you are, is to know a little bit. Meeting that is accompanied by pleasure and pain has to be knowing of a kind. Professor Washburn writes of the paramecium:
…Its needs are…well served by the very definite and vigorous negative reaction which gets it out of trouble. This is given when it swims against a mechanical obstacle…: the animal darts backward, reversing the beat of its cilia….
It seems that the paramecium is doing a little deciding. It also seems to be in the neighborhood of emotion. To react is to prefer, and the paramecium reacts with some preference. The paramecium is meeting something; its cilia, or little hairs, are used to meet something.
“Instead of crawling about, like Amoeba, this animal swims freely and rapidly.” So far, prosperity. The paramecium is swimming freely and rapidly. We all want to do that—to be unobstructed.
“Its needs are therefore well served by the very definite and vigorous negative reaction which gets it out of trouble. This is given when it swims against a mechanical obstacle, or into strong ultra-violet rays.” One of the reasons we should know is to know what to keep away from. What happens when the paramecium meets strong ultraviolet rays? It recognizes the fact and does something.
“…or into temperatures above or below the optimum between 24° and 28° C.” To know that it’s hot is something that we may not do if we’re in a coma. The simplest thing may not be ours at times—to know that we have a floor beneath us: if we are unconscious we don’t know that. And so, we should not in any way disparage the knowledge of the paramecium. If the paramecium knows what the temperature is, that is knowledge. There’s a knowledge of temperature as there is a knowledge of Sanskrit.
The animal darts backward, reversing the beat of its cilia, turns toward the aboral side (that opposite to the mouth groove)…, and continues on a forward course that is now at an angle with its former line of motion.
So the paramecium has changed direction. When you change direction, you may do it with pleasure, as a person on a road says, This is a better road. Very often it’s done with pain. “Ultimately it avoids the source of stimulation”—which here, apparently, is unpleasant. The paramecium has met something and has shown pleasure and pain, and therefore it is properly and laudatorily in the field of mind. We can do no better. We can’t go beyond knowing something and showing pleasure and pain.
It Can Like Something
However, not just unpleasant stimuli come to the paramecium. It seems it can like something, and does like something:
Sometimes, when [the paramecium] comes into contact with a solid, instead of darting backward it merely stops and extending stiffly the cilia which touch the object, remains at rest.
This seems to be felicity for the paramecium. It is not darting; it’s not reacting at an angle: it is at rest.
This contact reaction, or “thigmotaxis,”…is more likely to be made if the animal comes against the solid when swimming rather slowly….Paramecium tends to come to rest against loose or fibrous material, which gives contact at several bodily regions at once, rather than against smooth hard material such as glass.
It very often happens that we don’t like to be in too much of a hurry. Rest, repose are part of human felicity. The paramecium is like that, and so it finds thigmotaxis when it has been swimming rather slowly. And the paramecium, like human beings, doesn’t like things to be too smooth. It would like things to be a little various, a little rough. It likes “loose or fibrous material.” To distinguish loose or fibrous material from glass implies a certain kind of knowledge. There are things that cannot do this.
In order to show some of the difference between the paramecium and many other things, I read this little story. The paramecium is not a frog; the frog is much more complicated—is a biological professor emeritus compared to the paramecium. The frog, though, is representative of life.
Mind; or, The Twig Remained
A frog was on a twig in woods near river. A sound was heard some yards away, maybe made by a man. The frog went off and away from the twig. The twig remained.
The frog, like the paramecium, met a stimulus and showed it was reacting. The twig was near the stimulus but remained where it was. This is a difference between life and nonlife, and often between life had by an animal and that kind of vitality, or even life, had by a plant. The frog has pleasure and pain and knows something. To have any kind of response to a stimulus is to know something.
Evil, Error, and Mind
In the field of any life whatsoever, there is evil, and there is error. It is thought that instincts are more correct than reason. They are not. The reason that the moth gets burnt by flame is that its instincts are not true. Many animals are silly because, their instincts misleading them, they don’t respond to stimuli in the best way.
A very pitiful kind of living being is the anchovy. The anchovy floats around in water, often off New England, quite comfortably. Then fishermen come, and they have a light on their boat. The anchovy stops going around comfortably—goes toward the boat. And the fishermen just take them. The anchovies are misled by the light. This is an aspect of evil, at least from their point of view, in the field of foolishness.
Then, in the field of entomology there is much evil. It has taken, lately, a national form, with works showing that DDT is an agent of a scientific devil. The need to deal with insects as man’s enemies has been around a great deal. Ever since there was the seventeen-year locust, ever since farmers looking at their crops saw something had happened, evil in the insect world was felt. Much has been written about how to deal with insects that know how to get where apple trees are, peach trees, strawberries, wheat, corn, alfalfa, anything that you may grow. They know where it is—sometimes they are very wise.
This Is Mind, Too
In an American journal, The Practical Entomologist, of 1866, Benjamin D. Walsh writes about the buprestis borer, a beetle that likes apple trees. So I read about the buprestis borer as meeting something—in this instance, horticulture prepared by man—and also having pleasure and pain:
It is, indeed, peculiarly fond of what are known as “sun-scalded” trees, attacking by preference the part of the trunk facing the southwest, where the bark has been killed.
To be fond of something is to know something. You can’t be fond of anything without having some knowledge of it. Fondness is a preference. It is emotion when quite cozy. And emotion is still of mind. So these buprestis borers have a preference for “sun-scalded” trees, for bark that isn’t alive. What makes them have the preference? Pleasure and pain, and some knowledge.
But if need be, the beetle will also go to apple trees with the bark alive: “But I have dug them out of the butts of perfectly sound and healthy young Apple-trees.” We have here something like instinct, propensity, drive, and this is all in the field of desire. There can be no desire without something known to be desired. The word known is used carefully, because known is like light: there are various kinds of light. There is a knowing which is very dim and a knowing which is more complete.
When a farmer wants to deal with an insect, he has to think of, What will this particular insect have a negative reaction to? —that is, instead of going on, the insect will keep away. In this instance, it seems to be soap: “About the last of May,…take a bar of common soap…and go over your trees with it.”
The whole success of this plan depends on the possibility that the buprestis borer will find out that soap isn’t good for it. That’s a kind of knowledge. To know that something isn’t good for one is very inconvenient, but it’s knowledge. Everything that has mind does do a little discriminating, if it only means to go from this part of the water to another part.
The mother-beetle, perceiving the soap, is apprehensive that the tree is not a suitable home for her future progeny, and therefore refuses to lay her eggs upon it.
We have words having to do with knowledge: Mother-beetle perceives the soap: perception is part of mind, part of knowing. And to be apprehensive means that you’re not having pleasure.
A Continuation in Glory
I now go to another kind of life. This is the first time that Emily Brontë has been related to entomology, but I don’t think she’d mind.
In biology, there is a response to external stimuli but also to internal stimuli. To respond to internal stimuli means that you yourself are an object to yourself. You can touch your knee or you can touch your cheek or your brow, and have a stimulus pretty much as you would touching anybody’s knee or cheek or brow.
In a sense, all pain is an internal stimulus. The pain becomes an object: I don’t feel good and I want to do something about it. The car is not parked right and I want to do something about it—the car is an external stimulus. I don’t feel good and I want to do something about it—the not feeling good is an internal stimulus.
There is a poem by Emily Brontë which shows that Miss Brontë could be affected by an internal stimulus that seemed to have a meaning wide in the world. This is mind, too. Emily Brontë is reacting to evil in herself and in the world:
I am the only being whose doom
No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn;
I never caused a thought of gloom,
A smile of joy, since I was born.
In secret pleasure, secret tears,
This changeful life has slipped away,
As friendless after eighteen years,
As lone as on my natal day.
’Twas grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere;
But worse to trust to my own mind
And find the same corruption there.
The first question is whether this perception is a continuation in glory, but still a continuation, of the paramecium, the frog, the beetle. It definitely is. There is no more than pleasure and pain here. The pleasure and pain that you get from yourself is of the pleasure and pain that may be anywhere.
Man, having consciousness, can have stimuli of intricacy and depth and richness from himself—that is, from previous stimuli and the response thereto. I’m using this language—I don’t very much care for it—but still there is something valuable in it. It means that the outside world has been felt by you, but the result can be seen by you as separate from the outside world that first caused it. Kant writes about this.
“I am the only being whose doom / No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn.” This can be questioned. We are now asking who Emily Brontë is. And mind has the tremendous privilege, sad privilege of being wrong. Mind is the only thing that is wrong: if there were no mind there would be no error. But the paramecium cannot describe itself. It is a being of action. It’s not given to contemplation, meditation, or useless sadness.
“I never caused a thought of gloom, / A smile of joy, since I was born.” There is pleasure and pain here. There’s a kind of grim pleasure in Emily Brontë as she writes this; otherwise she wouldn’t make stanzas of it. Still, it is painful. And the stimulus is not an apple tree; it is the Brontë self, at that time. We shall find that the Brontë self could be other.
“In secret pleasure, secret tears, / This changeful life has slipped away.” One of the subjects of mind is one’s past, and the past generally. With all my care for the mental abilities of the paramecium, I have to say it’s not too interested in the past as an object. There are quite a few subjects about which the paramecium doesn’t do so well. However, it does meet something, and it does have pleasure and pain. So it is in the lodge, the Life Lodge.
“As friendless after eighteen years, / As lone as on my natal day.” Once one is an individual, one can make too much of one’s being an individual: that is, feel that one is lonely, and feel that one is no good.
The question is, how does the mind here—which is deep and musical, though, as Emily Brontë herself says through other poems, incorrect—how does this mind go along with the mind to be found in every living being?
Going Towards and Going Away
There have been times I cannot hide,
There have been times when this was drear,
And my sad soul forgot its pride
And longed for one to love me here.
We find in all life a going towards and a going away from, with individuals choosing. In the same way as there is thigmotaxis for the paramecium, so Emily Brontë wanted something to care for. She has a poem called “The Old Stoic,” in which liberty is the one thing to be cared for. Yet it can be shown that there are two things that one cares for: one is liberty, and the other is the being able to make something other than oneself completely of one, friendly to one even while it is different.
“And then experience told me truth / In mortal bosoms never grew.” Persons have felt: no person whom one knows really is representative of truth; minds aren’t made to know, they are made to tell lies. This is what Emily Brontë is saying. Minds in human beings are meeting other minds and do take the right to call those other minds names.
’Twas grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere;
But worse to trust to my own mind
And find the same corruption there.
Miss Brontë is taking a look at herself. To be introspective is to have yourself as a cause of thought—or to have yourself a stimulus to yourself, with the self responding being quite the same as the self causing the response.
Emily Brontë is questioning herself, criticizing herself. One of the things that mind does is criticize. If the paramecium changes its place in the water, there has been a criticism of the previous place. To change without criticism is impossible.