Spirit

Breathe! That's it. Slowly. In and out. Here is spirit.

Quietly now, we must whisper if we would speak of spirit. It is soft as the air. Even a whisper scares away this ghost. Silence alone allows its presence. Silence and breathing.

Life has long been regarded as the breath of spirit, and at death the breath goes out of us. When we exhale for the last time, we expire, which is visualized as the exiting of spirit. Breath is ever the original of spirit (to cop a line from William James). Here he is wresting an quasi-materialist theory of consciousness from the stuff of myth and a whiff:

"Let the case be what it may in others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The 'I think' which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the 'I breath' which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of 'consciousness,' so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of 'spirit,' breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are." William James (1842-1910).

Here James rejects positing consciousness as an entity with intent to explain. If not as an entity or thing per se, it nevertheless exists as a process, flow or stream, that needs to be explained. In technical parlance, it is the explanandum that demands an explanation, not the explanans that supplies one. James here set his post-Darwinian position over against that of Kant, himself salvaging the pieces of Descartes’ failing cogito. The self, soul or spirit (l’esprit) whose substantial existence Descartes sought to establish proved hard to find, impossible to locate, and too intangible to be presented. The substance claim fell through the bottom, leaving only a premise dangling over a void, the premise “I think”. Already Hume had pointed out that “there is a thinker” does not follow logically from “there are thoughts”. The I is nowhere to be found in experience, and yet all our experience, all our thoughts, are after all our own. Kant postulated the transcendental ego precisely to explain the unity of experience despite the absence in experience of the subject itself, the I. The transcendental ego is the missing I.

The explanatory power of spirit is lost to James, who is far more impressed with the variety of its mysteries. The “original of 'spirit'” is breath, bare breath, along with the “muscular sensations” accompanying breath and other subtle but physical motions within the head and throat. The very thoughts in our heads are “made of the same stuff as things are”, that is, as external physical objects. This is a realism about thought and consciousness, which take their existence as a given, as something demanding explanation. However subtle it may be, spirit is not missing, not without location in space, like the essential consciousness of the Cartesian ego. Though James denies consciousness the status of a substance or thing with unique explanatory advantages, he embraces it all the more emphatically as a phenomenon, as a fact to be accounted for, as explanandum. The consciousness certainly exists, and even has a purpose, or a least a function or role to play in our everyday and not-so-everyday knowing. It needs now, however, to be accounted for in an evolutionary context, as it is understood as an adaptation conferring survival value. Of course, an explanation or account based on mechanisms like natural selection will make no appeal to the metaphysics of essence, with its allusions to changeless being and eternal identity. Nor is it strictly mechanistic the way that the machine universe of Descartes is mechanistic.

Aristotle had equated psyche and eidos, spirit and essence, soul and form. Spirit, taken as soul (psyche), is the form of the body, its essential activity, inscribing order and purposes on the body’s dynamism (potential), hence the domineant explanatory factor. As form or eidos, spirit carries the bulk of the explanatory weight. In Descartes, the soul (l’esprit) is a distinct and separable substance (reality) from the wholly mechanical body, which operates according to discoverable and quantifiable laws. Yet complex human behaviour, as shown in even a dull wit’s commentary, can only be explained by appeal to mind, which has its own essence which evades but can ascertain physical law. The ghost in the machine explains what the machine cannot explain, so again in early modernity spirit plays a major explanatory role, is postulated to clarify what is opaque, to resolve what is troubling. Though Kant could not follow along with Descartes substance metaphysics, nor could he shake the ever-present “I think”, which thus evaporated into such diaphaneity as to earn the honorific, transcendental. Otherwise we are allegedly without any account of the unity of the self, the mineness of all my experiences. Spirit is the explanation we cannot speak.

So James’ anti-dualism is hardly the usual perspective on spirit, which is prima facie a dualist notion. Spirit hovers, matter settles. A breath moves over the face of the deep. Thus in the beginning there was a whisper. The silence was disturbed, and spirit was no longer alone.

Still breathing? Shall I go on?

Spirit is what is left of the divine after consciousness came to be regarded as just another a physiological phenomenon. Spirit retains a transcendence even while soul is particularized to this or that individual and their life story. Spirit is unconstrained by space or time and steps like mighty Vishnu across all worlds. Coincidence is the idiosyncrasy of spirit.

Ask of spirit, "Who?", and it will recede. You must wrestle your angels before you may name them — and even then you have a pang and maybe no answer. And if we may ask "who?" must we not ask "he or she?" Has spirit a gender? Or has spirit the ambivalence of Siva Ardhanarishvara?

In the West, for so long, spirit has seemed male. In Aristotle, for example, spirit is form (eidos), and form is male. Formless matter (hyle), which is passive and indefinite, was coded female. While matter differentiates individuals one from another, it is itself wholly lifeless; for form alone generates beings after their own kind. Likewise in the Bible reads: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Again the male creator of matter moves his hand over the waters (tehom, the deep; the abyss; allegedly cognate with the Babylonian Tiamat, the originating goddess or creatrix). Thus "the deep" has a feminine connotation, and that the hovering spirit completes the usual male on top scene. Again the male is the active, the creator.

In ancient India you had the reverse. Spirit as Purusha is a male person, but he is inactive. He is the witness, doing nothing but suffering everything. Spirit is the true experiencer of your experience; your eyes are the eyes of the world. No doubt you think you do stuff too, but even your action you must surrender, for it is in the hands of the creatrix, Prakriti, Nature. The executive function of the divine is transferred wholly over to this female counterpart of Purusha — (i.e., like a lazy man lies around all day doing nothing, absorbed in his own experience). Meanwhile the she-spirit does all the work, which is to say creates all the mischief. Abandon the fruits of your action and consecrate all you accomplish to the one for the sake of whom all is done. That is called right relation with spirit.

This implies that living selflessly is living for spirit. But how can that be unless spirit is without a self? But without a self, can spirit retain an identity? Spirit without identity is just a plain old entity, and inert thing. Spirit is just not itself without a self. Thus the Buddha never became a god.

To be spiritual is presumably to be like spirit. But can you be like god — invisible, silent, deadly, sure, but unknown? How can you be like god without knowing yourself? But how can you know yourself without being yourself, and thus being a self, which disqualifies you from selflessness, unlike god? It seems the more you are like god the less you are like yourself and the more you are like yourself the less you are like god. How far then are we yet from spirit?

I will stop there. Enough going round in circles. Bring your mortal coil and your eternal ghost to philosophy. Let us whisper together about higher things.