The Body of Thought: On Markus Gabriel’s “The Meaning of Thought”

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

FLAUBERT ONCE SAID, “on ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis” (“one can think and write only when seated”), a statement Rodin seemed to endorse in his portentous statue The Thinker, which makes thinking look like an assiduous bout with constipation. Nietzsche took exception to Flaubert’s dictum, declaring: “The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” Maybe he had in the back of his mind the Reformation, an idea that came to Luther on the lavatory, where, by his own admission, he did most of his contemplating. I would side with Nietzsche, even if siding is not required. Thinking takes place both in sedentary and ambulatory postures, and many others besides. What is important here is that thought transpires in and through our bodies. Where there is no body, there is no thought.

Yet where does a thinking body begin and end? It certainly does not begin and end in the brain, which is only a part of the body of thought. In The Meaning of Thought, Markus Gabriel claims that thought is an integral part of personhood and another fundamental sense that we humans possess. “The key thesis of the book,” he writes, “says that our thought is a sense, just like sight, taste, hearing, feeling or touch. Through thinking, we touch a reality accessible only to thought, just as colours are usually accessible only to sight and sounds to hearing.” The German word Sinn means both sense and meaning; hence, the English title chosen by Gabriel and his co-translator, Alex Englander, does not have the full resonance of the original title: Der Sinn des Denkens. For what it’s worth, I would have opted for The Sense of Thought.

Before returning to his idea of thought as one of our senses, a word about Markus Gabriel. One of the main exponents of New Realism in philosophy, he holds the chair of epistemology, as well as of modern and contemporary philosophy, at the University of Bonn, where he also directs the International Center for Philosophy. The Meaning of Thought is the third installment in a recent “trilogy” of works to appear in English translation with Polity Books. The first, Why the World Does Not Exist, appeared in 2015, and the second, I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, in 2017. Gabriel has published much more beyond that; his work ranges broadly, encyclopedically, and at times eclectically. As a leading public intellectual in Germany, he calls for a new “enlightened humanism” in a post-Enlightenment, perhaps even posthuman age.

The main modality of Gabriel’s philosophical approach is assertion. He has little use for the interrogative style favored by academic philosophers who love to ask open questions but become timid and reticent when it comes to staking affirmative claims. As he boldly and quickly powers through the discursive bramble that surrounds many of the ethical and epistemological questions that vex philosophers these days, Gabriel, who is extremely clear-sighted, turns impatience into a tour de force of declarative sentences.

The Meaning of Thought is in some ways a summa of Gabriel’s philosophy to date. In Whythe World Does Not Exist, he argues that there is no such thing as “world” in the singular; there is instead a wild plurality of realities. A world gives itself to perception, and even within our finite biosphere there exists an almost endless diversity of perceptual realities. Every life form has its own given lifeworld. In The Meaning of Thought, Gabriel reprises and furthers his thinking on this topic, introducing, for example, the concept of “perceptual selectionism,” namely that “we can only ever perceive some things at the expense of others”; hence, we are constantly selecting our worlds, so to speak. Insofar as it is another sense, thinking also is selective in what it considers, conceives, and strives to understand. When Gabriel writes that “[t]hrough thinking, we touch a reality accessible only to thought,” I take that to mean that the body of thought is in touch with a world of its own — a world of ideas and conceptual apprehensions that is related but not identical to the other perceptual realities we inhabit at any given time.

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The Meaning of Thought’s claim that thought is a sense follows up on Gabriel’s previous book, I Am Not a Brain, where he argued against current dogmas that thinking can be reduced to neurology. In both books, Gabriel engages with a number of philosophers of mind, neurological reductionists, and AI apologists as he sets out to dismantle notions that our new artificial intelligences, which seem so marvelous in their abilities, actually possess intelligence. Whatever intelligence they display, Gabriel claims, derives from the researchers and programmers who create them.

Gabriel does not buy into the Turing test. In a fine passage about meaning and vagueness, he writes that “modern computer science is based on Turing’s defiant response to Wittgenstein’s insight that human intelligence and understanding rest on vagueness, which cannot be reduced to binary signs.” Human intelligence arises from, and remains forever embedded in, the lifeworld. “The lifeworld is full of vagueness,” Gabriel writes, and we humans navigate it without having to subject its background contexts to linguistic analysis. AI cannot navigate such contexts since “it has to extrapolate from data that have typically already been pre-processed by humans on its behalf.” Gabriel’s conclusion: intelligence is sensible, not digital, and “[o]nly animals think.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books