BMCR 2018.10.57

Plotinus on Consciousness

, Plotinus on Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. viii, 209. ISBN 9781108424769. £75,00.


As the author notes at the beginning of this impressive monograph, the flourishing field of consciousness studies today rarely seeks for historical foundations prior to Descartes. In fact, those working in ancient philosophy, in particular in its later phases, have known for a long time that Plotinus has an extensive and complex theory of consciousness that overlaps with contemporary interests, but also goes well beyond these. This is the case for virtually every topic treated in the Enneads where psychological phenomena and capacities especially are always situated within a systematic metaphysical framework.

Hutchinson faces squarely the challenge that the single word “consciousness” as it is used today is not adequate for translating the Plotinian tetrad of concepts: antilêpsis, parakolouthêsis, sunaisthêsis, and sunesis. According to Hutchinson, these four terms refer to different “modes” of consciousness, corresponding to different levels within Plotinus’ hierarchical metaphysics. He translates them as “apprehension,” “self-consciousness,” “self-awareness,” and “awareness” (44). The book is mainly devoted to exploring their subtle differences. One can certainly appreciate the difficulty Hutchinson is confronted with in articulating these differences and relating to what the informed contemporary reader would understand by “consciousness.” His point, however, in trying to distinguish Plotinus’ uses of these terms is a sound one. In a Plotinian universe, the soul in relation to the body, the intellect in relation to the soul, and the One, the first principle of all, in relation to all of these reflect gradations of being and life and accordingly different ways of interacting with the intelligible and sensible worlds. In relation to the theory exposed in this book, Cartesian dualism of mind and body is a modest, deracinated flower, cut off from ancient Greek philosophy by more than a thousand years of mostly diffident attention.

Hutchinson’s thesis is that Plotinus’ theory “involves multiple layers of experience; different layers of consciousness occur in different levels of self” (2). The first layer is the physical or embodied self, the subject of affective states ( pathê). The second layer is the “dianoetic” self, that is, the subject of embodied higher cognition, especially imagination and discursive reasoning. The third layer belongs to the “noetic” self, the subject of contemplation of the intelligible world. The central chapters of this book (Chapters 3-5) address these three layers of consciousness. They are preceded by chapters on philosophical issues surrounding the concept of self and philological issues relating to Plotinus’ vocabulary. They are followed by a final chapter on self-determination as this relates to human action. There is an appendix on the history of the four terms used by Plotinus to articulate his theory.

The first layer (Chapter 3) is found in the subject of embodied psychical states, that is, states that require a body. The subject of these states, and his consciousness, is the unifying principle of the organic life of the individual. The self- awareness of the subject of bodily states, whether a human being or an animal, governs the dynamic continuity of the living being. As Hutchinson shows, the important and distinctive claim that Plotinus is making is that there is a “soul-trace” animating the body that is a “part” of the soul of the cosmos. This soul trace is, basically, what differentiates a living being from a dead one. It includes both anatomy and physiology. The consciousness at the first level, including proprioperception, belongs to the lowest party of the soul in relation to the states of the composite body plus soul-trace. So, this consciousness or awareness, belonging to soul, is non-physical or material; it has the physical living being as intentional object, but it is itself immaterial. Its self-awareness is not possible for a being that has material or extended parts. No survey or analysis of these parts could ever yield the subjectivity of bodily self-awareness.

The second layer (Chapter 4) is the consciousness involved in imagination and discursive thinking. Hutchinson is here not clear enough about how imagination differs in living beings that can and cannot engage in higher cognition. Plotinus, I think, follows Aristotle in labeling our imagination as logikê or “rational,” which is distinct from the non-rational imagination of animals. Hutchinson says that the imagination does three things: (1) provides the soul with apprehension of affective states of the qualified body like pleasure and pain and desire; (2) provides the soul with apprehension of its intentional activities, including sense-perceptions, acts of reasoning, and thoughts; (3) provides the soul with apprehension of the activity of separate Intellect. (1) does occur in animals, though (2) and (3) do not. Only in human beings is there cognition of affective states requiring conceptualization or thinking. The difference is found in how the soul —depending on the kind of soul it is—cognizes perceptual images. Thus, an animal is aware of its pain, but it does not cognize it as a pain. The type of consciousness present in thinking about the painful state one is in makes possible acts of reasoning, especially in action. So, the soul of a human being, cognizing the pain of the qualified body, does not itself feel the pain. As much as Plotinus disdains Stoic materialism, including the inability of Stoicism to account for consciousness of a localized pain, it is difficult to avoid seeing in his doctrine, and in Hutchinson’s exceptionally clear account of it, a Stoic influence.

Since the “lower soul,” the soul as governing the qualified body, cannot be the subject of affective states, Plotinus concludes that it is “impassible,” or incapable of being affected by its relation to the body. This claim is both a key to his account of moral improvement and decay and also a problem for his account of personal blame and punishment. If the soul is unaffected, how can it ever suffer for its wrongdoing, except perhaps by reincarnation? Owing to the distinction of the affective state of the qualified body from the cognitive consciousness of that state, Hutchinson argues that the soul cannot be incorrigibly aware of the states that the qualified body is in. I do not believe, however, that there is any other type of awareness for Plotinus except incorrigible awareness. Hutchinson needs a sharper distinction than he is prepared to make between incorrigibility and infallibility. The latter is the absolute impossibility of error and Hutchinson is correct in attributing this to Intellect and our “undescended” intellects. But this does not preclude our being incorrigible with respect to the awareness or consciousness of bodily states since there is no basis whatsoever for correcting a temporalized awareness when it is in the past.

The remainder of Chapter 4 includes some good discussion of a number of complex issues, including memory, imagination, and the consciousness of the higher embodied soul of the eternal truths contained in separated Intellect and in its own undescended intellect. Plotinus says that intelligible reality is imaged in us like “laws” written in our soul and reflected in our imaginations like a mirror. Since at the level of Intellect, thinker and objects of thought are cognitively identical, when we apprehend eternal truths (or even the eternal truths that make possible the cognition of contingent truths), we apprehend them in images as “spread out.” These are then expressible, say, in predicative judgments. Here, we are apprehending or are conscious of not the intelligible themselves, but their logoi or expressions at the human level. These facts about the second level of consciousness lead Plotinus to posit two sorts of imagination, one derived from sense-perception and one derived from the deliverances of our separated intellects.

The third layer of consciousness (Chapter 5) occurs in the separated intellect. As Hutchinson argues, it is somewhat misleading to talk about “separation” without qualification. For Plotinus insists that the hypostases Soul, Intellect, and even the One “are in us.” Our path to accessing noetic consciousness is, therefore, not so much a “trans-world” journey, as it is a matter of eliminating the impediments of embodiment. Plotinus’ metaphor of the sculptor removing all that surrounds the final product is most apt here. Since, while embodied, impediments are not completely removable, we can, as Hutchinson shows, have a perspective or point of view in relation to the intelligible world. These perspectives, it would seem, do not amount to the relativization of truth, but rather to a gradation of our possession of it in terms of clarity. This seems exactly right and reflects the commonplace that, for example, a professional mathematician has a clearer and more comprehensive grasp of mathematical being than do the rest of us. The awareness in Intellect and in our undescended intellects is essentially self-reflexive. That is, the consciousness here is not a second-order awareness of awareness. Rather, noetic consciousness is just the epistemological side of the identity of being and thinking at the level of Intellect. This consciousness is not an awareness of a private inner world but of objective reality, as much as it is in absolute idealism. I am not so sure that the perspectivalism Hutchinson finds in the higher cognition of human beings is also present in our undescended intellects, which after all do not employ images of any sort. But I do not know of a better solution to the problem of how one undescended intellect differs from another.

Chapter 6, “Self-Determination,” focuses on the dynamics of embodied consciousness, including desire, action, and moral development. I do not find this chapter as clear and as accurate in its account of Plotinus’ thought as the previous ones. The main difficulty I have is with the author’s assumption that Plotinus thinks that there is non-rationality in the soul alongside rationality and that the human drama of embodied life is found in how we react to or submit to the non-rational parts of our soul. I think such an interpretation does not distinguish between a non-normative and a normative meaning of “rationality” in Plotinus. Hutchinson does recognize the latter in Plotinus’ idea of “right reason,” but he does not follow out the implication of there being “wrong reason.” Because we are human beings, “rational” names the kind of soul we have. At the same time, there is an ideal rationality that, as Hutchinson notes, is to be located in the intelligible world. Human life is situated between rational embodied living and the ideal on one side and its polar opposite on the other, the non-being and utter unintelligibility of matter. Acting contrary to the ideal is not acting contrary to reason in the non-normative sense, but in the normative sense. Plotinus, following Plato, does hold that all wrongdoing is unwilling, but this does not mean that wrongdoing is non-rational or irrational, except in the normative sense. The point is of some importance because Plotinus thinks the central benefit and goal of philosophy is to separate one’s true self from the temporary self that is the subject of embodied psychical states and even dianoetic thinking.

This is overall a very good book, and though Hutchinson makes considerable efforts to situate the discussion of some rather technical issues within the overall framework of Plato’s metaphysics, this is probably not a book to be recommended to someone who is a Plotinus-novice. It is, however, a book that ought to be recognized as an important contribution to the historical background of contemporary consciousness studies.