What Dies on the Sharp End

As children, many of us were cautioned not to judge another person until we had walked a mile in their shoes. This simple aphorism is meant, and taken, in two ways. For those with a literal bent, it means that we should withhold judgment until we have the all the relevant information. For those with a more philosophical inclination, the saying means that we shouldn’t judge, or more precisely, we should understand that our judgments about others are always bound to be a little off. The latter interpretation is more accurate, because we cannot walk in another’s shoes. Beside them or in their tracks we can experience their walk, but not in their shoes or their skin. To do so would demand abandoning our own identity. In light of the latter interpretation, the implication of Mom’s trite admonition becomes apparent. We aren’t limited by our subjectivity – the statement is nonsense – our subjectivity makes us. Like so many things which children must learn to get straight, it marks a snag in our understanding which trips the most carefully considered philosophies.
Let’s see how philosophical problems regarding mind fare under the heat of our kindergarten lesson. With no subjective experience of subjectivity, philosophical zombies – hypothetical creatures which exhibit behavior without experience – take a shot to the brain, not because we cannot conceive of behavior which does not entail qualitative experience, but because we cannot conceive of qualitative experience divorced from activity (after all shouldn’t something which is a property of experience rather than a product of it show some sign of life for itself?). Rigid designators – necessary identities – hold for representative entities in logic, but not for the objects from which the logical entities derive (would that it were otherwise; think of the savings on auto repairs and trade-ins alone, not to mention the safety benefits of “the red car turning left in front of me” being true in fact as well as in theory). Determinism becomes an analytical curiosity. There is no quantity of happiness, suffering, or human thriving calculable. There is nothing that it’s like to be a bat – or a human.
Philosophies stumble because most of them have not been field-tested. This state of affairs is understandable; field testing is a grim business. The best contrivances fail in unexpected ways, leaving us deflated and puzzled. Trying to break a precious invention in the course of it’s intended use admits to some basic pessimism, but it is vital. Yet how do we test an idea of how the mind works in the world? What we need is something other than the sort of post-game analysis which always concludes that the contest turned out as it did because one team managed to “execute” and one didn’t, that one managed to fit the criteria of our post-hoc definitions and one did not. We need to know what happens, what falls away, what persists and the shape of the relationship between the whole lot.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go to the trouble of designing a test for philosophies of mind. The sort of test in question happens naturally on the sharp end of a rope. Every rope in use has a sharp end, attached to the lead climber, and a loose end, secured by the belayer. As soon as the leader finishes his knot, things begin to fall away. The belayer is a person who pays attention or not, who arrests a fall or not. He may be a Saint, or he may have walked out of prison that morning; it doesn’t matter. Likewise, the leader is a person who falls or not, who puts the belayer at risk or not. The relationship is quite specific and pertains to the subjects and the salient features, the valuable points, of the situation, as do all the relations and values which fall away. But the test extends beyond the mind-to-mind relationship. In the leader’s experience our ideas about the nature of mind itself get tested, because the leader is the one who grasps the holds. Looking at a hold creates a shaped perception of it. The hold has size, conformation, anticipatory feel, relevance to body position, distance and even strategic utility. But that hold is not the hold which the finger touches, and the leader knows the hold in hand by a different means.
Here is where another important set of ideas breaks down. Contact with the hold demolishes the mental theater. The hand and mind know the hold by assimilation. They know the edge as a hold by becoming the hand and mind which grasp it. The meaning of the feature’s heat, slipperiness, sharpness and adequacy are immediately apparent, because all those remake the first person in the moment of contact. The hand and mind know the feature as a hold because that is how they are capable of knowing it and the situation could not be otherwise in the revised individual. The subject doesn’t transcend the moment by discovering some permanent and essential nature realized in the experience, but by diving in, taking in and being taken into the meaning of the hold.
So what dies on the sharp end is transcendence, permanence, and commitment in the abstract. But these are no losses at all, because we can see that, all along, those defunct ideas were merely mistaken shaped perceptions of engagement, persistence, and understanding of change. With the death of its bearers, on more thing must fall and break in our field-test: meaning as a graven image – of God’s will, nature, humanity or whatever other imagined necessity. Meaning is revealed as, like us, the property of the present moment. The edge on the face of the stone is many things, we think, possibly, but with fingers on it, it is a hold – and that fact accounts for all valuation, all confusion over minds and bats, and the limits of footwear exchanges. This is not mysticism; it is much, much smaller. It is just what we know.

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