Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Plotinus and the Problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness

Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because it thinks/experiences itself. By being conscious of itself, then, the Absolute constitutes its own existence and should thus be understood as Absolute Self-Consciousness. Despite Absolute Idealism’s near universal rejection by contemporary philosophers, I personally think this philosophical position deserves a second chance, mainly because it provides such a neat answer to Leibniz’ famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”: there is something, rather than nothing, because (absolute) self-consciousness is self-creating. I think this position is attractive because (a) we know – with Cartesian certainty – that self-consciousness exists, and thus that this theory latches on to a real phenomenon, and (b) because it fits the contemporary philosophical landscape rather well, a landscape which has changed considerably due to the well-known Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC). The HPC has plunged scientific materialism / physicalism into a deep crisis, sparking a remarkable return of interest in consciousness oriented ontologies, such as Panpsychism, Russellian Monism, and different varieties of Idealist Monism, including Absolute Idealism (cf. Sprigge 1983; Hutto 2000; D'Oro 2005).

The problem, however, is that most contemporary philosophers have very scanty knowledge of the rich philosophical tradition of Absolute Idealism. Usually this tradition is seen as limited to the post-Kantian German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel); sometimes their Anglo-American successors (such as Bradley, McTaggart, Royce) are included as well. However, Absolute Idealism is a much,
much broader tradition, stretching back to the beginnings of philosophy in both ancient India and Greece. As shown in a previous post on this blog, Absolute Idealism first arose as a recognizable philosophical position in India, notably in the Upanishads, where the famous identification of Brahman (the ultimate essence of reality) with Atman (the Self) was first made. In classical Greece, the first hints of Absolute-Idealist thinking are found in pre-Socratic philosophy, notably in Parmenides of Elea. His notorious claims that “thinking and being are the same” and that “all things are one, and this one is Being” are sometimes interpreted along Absolute-Idealist lines (see e.g. Dunham, Grant & Watson 2011: 10-18). But the few surviving fragments of Parmenides’ writings are too scanty to warrant any definite conclusions about what his philosophy amounted to. For the first clear case of Absolute-Idealist thinking in Greek philosophy, we have to wait until the third century CE, for the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Although Plotinus saw himself as first and most a disciple of Plato, it is clear that he was a highly original thinker who transformed Platonism into something radically new, indeed, into the West’s first full-blown system of Absolute Idealism.

The Absolute Idealism of Plotinus
Plotinus conceives of reality as a hierarchy of levels called “Hypostases”. At the top stands the first Hypostasis, a self-sufficient principle called “the One”, which somehow produces or “emanates” a lower level reality called “Intellect”, which in turn emanates the still lower level of Soul, which finally produces the lowest level of all, physical Nature, where the creative power of the One is all but spend and lost in the non-being of Matter, the principle of all evil
in the Plotinian system. Although Plotinus intended his “One” to capture the essence of Plato’s highest principle, the Idea of the Good, it is clear that Plotinus turned it into something radically new and in the process invented Absolute Idealism. In an unprecedented move, Plotinus conceived of the One as self-causing self-consciousness. The One, for Plotinus, is the consciousness it has of itself, and as such it only exists because it is conscious of itself. By being self-conscious, then, the Ones “makes itself”. Thus, Plotinus writes that the One “so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23). This “self-vision” is the essence of the One, the “internal activity” in virtue of which it exists. It is from this essence that we must explain its “secondary activity”, the production of the lower Hypostases, beginning with Intellect. Here we should note that for Plotinus each Hypothesis exists internal to the preceding one, with the exception, of course, of the highest Hypostasis, the One, which exists in nothing beyond itself. Thus, Nature exists inside Soul, which exists inside Intellect, which exists inside the One (cf. Wallis 1995: 51). All of reality, then, exists internal to – and as an unfolding of – the Absolute Self-Consciousness which is the One: all things belong to It and are in It (V.4.2). This is Absolute Idealism if anything is!

This fact, however, that the Plotinian system amounts to Absolute Idealism, is usually not acknowledged – apart from some notable exceptions (Bréhier 1958; Beierwaltes 2004). Partly this is due to the sad state of current knowledge about the tradition of Absolute Idealism, which has become something of a ‘forgotten tradition’. Partly, however, this is also due to Plotinus himself. The fact of the matter is that Plotinus was highly ambivalent concerning the ascription of self-consciousness to the One. Thus, the Absolute-Idealist picture I painted above of the Plotinian system, where reality is conceived as a hierarchical unfolding of the One’s self-consciousness, is really an
idealizing interpretation, which smooths away many of the wrinkles in Plotinus’ thought. I’m not saying this interpretation is false. But its correctness is certainly not immediately obvious from the letter of the Enneads. For, as has been noted before (cf. Armstrong 1962: 29-30), Plotinus both ascribes and denies self-consciousness to the One. As we have seen, he ascribes self-consciousness to the One in order to account for its self-causation. Elsewhere in the Enneads, however, Plotinus emphatically denies self-consciousness to the One. The crucial point is that consciousness, according to Plotinus, requires multiplicity, both in the form a duality between subject and object, and in the form of diversity within the object (since an absolutely simple object, lacking all internal differentiation, cannot be grasped by consciousness). The One, however, is supposed to be an absolutely simple unity, indeed it is unity as such, lacking all internal multiplicity, which is precisely why Plotinus calls it “the One”. As such, however, the One is incapable of self-consciousness. Thus, referring to the One, Plotinus says: [I]f anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple. (V.3.13, 34-36)

The problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness in Schelling, Hegel and Plotinus
Plotinus, then, appears enmeshed in a contradiction: he both ascribes and denies self-consciousness to the One. For a proper understanding of his philosophy, however, it is important to note that this is not – or not just – the result of sloppy thinking. The (apparent) contradiction follows from a fundamental tenet of his thought, namely, his conception of the One as self-causing. To repeat: Plotinus tries to account for this self-causation by ascribing self-consciousness to the One. But the absolute simplicity of the One, too, is motivated by the idea of self-causation. In an influential argument, which prefigures similar arguments in later scholastic theology (cf. Dolezal 2011: 1-2; Duby 2016: 130), Plotinus argues that if the One were multiple, it could not be understood as the first, self-causing principle of all reality: “[T]he first must be not in any way multiple: for its multiplicity then would depend on another again before it.” (VI.7.17, 39-42) The basic argument is that if the One were composed of parts, it would
depend on those parts, since they would be indispensable to the explanation of its essence and existence. The parts would then be ontologically prior to the One, which would then not be the Absolute, the wholly self-causing and first principle of all reality.

Thus, the fundamental idea of the One’s self-causation – which was revolutionary in the tradition of Greek philosophy to which Plotinus still belonged – pulls his thought into different and seemingly irreconcilable directions. On the one hand, the self-causation of the One invites the ascription of self-consciousness to the One, since it is by seeing the One as the consciousness it has of itself that Plotinus can describe the One as ‘making itself’. On the other, the self-causation of the One requires its absolute simplicity, which rules out all consciousness, including self-consciousness. We may see this as a weakness of his thought, but at the same time we may wonder whether the same problem does not affect all Absolute-Idealist thinking. For it is difficult to see how the Absolute could be anything else but an absolutely simple unity. Here Plotinus’ influential argument, that any multiplicity in the One would detract from its status as the first principle of reality, seems quite convincing. But if this is so, then the core idea of Absolute Idealism – that the Absolute is a self-creating self-consciousness – becomes problematic. Plotinus’ claim that consciousness requires multiplicity (namely, subject-object duality and diversity within the object) is, after all, quite reasonable and has been re-asserted by many later philosophers. How, then, can the Absolute be defined in terms of self-consciousness if it lacks all internal complexity?

This is indeed a basic problem for all Absolute-Idealist thinking. The conflict between Schelling and Hegel turns on it. Schelling, sensitive to the idea that the Absolute must be absolutely simple, conceived of Absolute Self-Consciousness as a simple, immediate intuition without any distinction between subject and object. Hegel, however, ridiculed this absolute, seamless identity as
the night in which [...] all cows are black (Hegel 1977: 9) and argued that Absolute Self-Consciousness must essentially be mediated by otherness, so that – as he put it – the infinite can only be understood as resulting from the negation or sublation of the finite: “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is; ; and herein lies its nature of being actual and subject: becoming itself.” (Hegel 1977: 11) But the Absolute, as that which explains all of reality, cannot be “essentially result”, because result of what? By definition nothing can precede the Absolute. So the cause producing the Absolute can only be the Absolute itself, such that the Absolute is both beginning and result at the same time. And, moreover, nothing can mediate that transition from beginning to result, because the Absolute must already be the Absolute right from the start, i.e. it must immediately be its own result. By giving up the immediacy and simplicity of the Absolute, therefore, Hegel may be in a better position to understand the Absolute as self-consciousness, insofar as all consciousness requires multiplicity, but at the same time he loses what we might call the “ontological firstness” of the Absolute, which means that in a way he loses the Absolute altogether. That Hegel, in this way, also loses the ability to answer Leibniz’s question has been noted before, first of all by Schelling himself (cf. Halper 2011). We now see that this problem really originated in Plotinus. Let us therefore take a closer look at the problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness in Plotinus and see what we can learn from him with a view to a possible solution.

Why should Absolute Self-Consciousness be self-causing?
Let’s start with Plotinus’ view that the One’s self-consciousness accounts for its self-causation.1 This is a truly revolutionary aspect of his thinking, which had tremendous impact on subsequent theology and philosophy. It was revolutionary for several reasons. To begin with, Plotinus is the first philosopher, at least in the Western tradition, to speak of self-causation at all (cf. Gerson 2011: 34). Plotinus, indeed, is the first Western philosopher to feel the need for a total explanation of reality, with no ontological danglers (cf. Gatti 1999: 28). For Plotinus, the ultimate principle that explains why everything exists must itself also be explained, and as such it can only be explained by itself – otherwise an infinite explanatory regress would ensue where we continually have to invoke a ‘still more ultimate’ principle in order to explain the previous one. Hence Plotinus’ description of the One as self-caused, to prevent the explanatory regress threatening any total explanation of reality.

This was highly innovative in the context of Greek philosophy, where the existence of ultimate reality had always been taken for granted as unproblematic, as something that needed and indeed allowed no explanation. For Plato and Aristotle, first principles were precisely first because they explained everything else but could not themselves be explained. To ask for their explanation would have been seen by them as an inversion of the proper order of explanation (cf. Gatti 1999: 28). This may have been due to the fact that the ancient Greeks had no conception of absolute nothingness, just as they had no concept of zero, and therefore could not imagine that reality might not have existed. Leibniz's famous question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", then, could not have occurred to them. But somehow this changed with Plotinus. He was the first, at least in the West, to realize that not only the things in reality require explanation but also reality itself. In this way Plotinus was remarkably modern. In a sense he anticipated Leibniz's rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason, which obligates us to explain everything. As Leibniz argues, it is the Principle of Sufficient Reason that directly motivates the question why there is something rather than nothing. Plotinus’ vision of the self-caused One is his attempt to give such an all-inclusive explanation.

The second way in which Plotinus’ thought about the One’s self-causation was revolutionary lies in how he conceived this self-causation, namely, as essentially bound up with the One’s self-consciousness. According to Plotinus, the One is the consciousness it has of itself and as such the One only exists because it is conscious of itself (I explain this more fully below). By being conscious of itself, the One makes itself exist. The One "so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself […]." (VI.8.16, 19-23; cf. V.4.2, 13-19) To be sure, the identification of the Divine Being with self-consciousness was not new in Greek philosophy: it can already be found in Aristotle’s conception of the Unmoved Mover as self-thinking thought, which greatly influenced Plotinus. But, given the absence of any idea of self-causation up to Plotinus, the idea that the Divine Being could bring itself into existence through self-consciousness was of course alien to Aristotle and indeed to any other philosopher prior to Plotinus. He was completely original in this respect, so much so that we do not find anything like it in Western philosophy until we reach post-Kantian German Idealism. The closest analogon to Plotinus’ conception of the One as self-causing self-consciousness is Fichte’s notion of the self-positing I and Schelling’s absolute-idealist development of that notion, where the self-positing I becomes the origin of all reality. Hence the fact that this aspect of Plotinus’ thought is sometimes elucidated in language that sounds surprisingly close to the Fichtean terminology of self-positing (cf. Gatti 1999: 29).

It should be noted that Plotinus does not conceive this self-causing self-consciousness of the One in purely epistemic terms, as a neutral registration of itself, without any evaluative aspect. Rather, the self-consciousness of the One is just as much volitional and emotional. Thus, Plotinus says that the One wills itself, loves itself and desires itself. Presumably, given the absolute simplicity of the One, the self-consciousness of the One is identical with its self-willing and self-desire. This is also corroborated by the fact that not only the self-consciousness but also the self-willing and self-loving of the One are seen by Plotinus to explain its self-causation: "[T]he nature of the Good [...] is its freely willed substance which comes to it in accordance with its will and is one and the same thing as is its will and is established in existence through its will." (VI.8.13, 15-20) In the case of the One, “desiring is one with the object of desire”: “But if this is so, again it is he himself who makes himself […].” (VI.8.15, 1-11)

Exactly why does Plotinus think that the One’s (volitional and emotional) self-consciousness explains its self-causation? The crucial point, repeated several times by Plotinus, seems to be that the One is the consciousness it has of itself: “this so-called being of his is his looking to himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23), “its thinking of itself is itself” (V.4.2, 13-19), “his being what he is is his self-directed activity” (VI.8.16, 27). Plotinus makes the same point in terms of will and desire, such that the One is its will and love for itself: “the nature of the Good [...] is one and the same thing as is its will” (VI.8.13, 15-20), the One “is lovable and love and love of himself” (VI.8.15, 1). The One, then, is the (willing, loving, desiring) consciousness it has of itself. But this means that the One has no essence or identity apart from how it conceives of itself. The One is as it conceives of itself. As it grasps itself, so it is. Or in volitional terms: as the One wills / desires itself, so it is. In this way Plotinus is able to account for the absolute, self-determining freedom of the One: “[T]he nature of the Good [...] is its freely willed substance which comes to it in accordance with its will and is one and the same thing as is its will and is established in existence through its will.” (VI.8.13, 15-20) Thus, the One is absolutely free because it is only as it wills itself to be, simply because it is its own will for (i.e. volitional consciousness of) itself.

But if the nature (essence) of the One follows completely from how the One conceives itself, doesn’t this imply that its existence, too, follows completely from this self-conception? The One has no properties apart from how it conceives itself. Thus, apart from its self-consciousness, it is nothing and has no existence. The One only exists insofar as it is conscious of itself. It exists, then, because of its self-consciousness. By being conscious of itself, it brings itself into existence. Such seems to be Plotinus’ account of the self-causing power of the One’s self-consciousness. The most direct statement of this explanation appears in the following passage: “[H]is being what he is is his self-directed activity; but these are one thing and himself. He therefore brought himself into existence, since his activity was brought out into existence along with himself.” (VI.8.16, 27-30) Here Plotinus says that the self-directed activity by which the One determines its own essence – namely, the willing and loving consciousness it has of itself – is not something that ontologically precedes the One. Rather, the One essentially is that self-directed activity. And so this self-directed activity, as it gives being to the One, also gives being to itself (“his activity was brought out into existence along with himself”). As such, the self-directed activity of the One is a self-causing activity.

The absolute simplicity of the One
At the same time, however, the self-causation of the One pulls Plotinus’ thought into another direction as well, namely, towards the absolute simplicity of the One, which contradicts the ascription of consciousness to it. Let us therefore take a closer look at Plotinus’ reasons for seeing the One as absolutely simple. As has already been noted, his arguments to this effect have been very influential, notably in later scholastic theology. Plotinus, in short, argues that if the One were multiple, it could not be understood as the first, self-causing principle of all reality: “[T]he first must be not in any way multiple: for its multiplicity then would depend on another again before it.” (VI.7.17, 39-42) “[F]or […] what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence.” (V.4.1, 5-15) Here Plotinus argues that if the One were composed of parts, the One would in some sense depend upon those parts, since they would be indispensable to the explanation of his essence and existence. The parts would then be ontologically prior to the One, in which case the One would not be the absolute, wholly self-causing and first principle of reality. One cannot circumvent this problem by saying that the One is somehow prior to the parts of which he is essentially composed – for in that case the parts would not be essential to the One and the One would really be simple.

Another way to make this argument would be to depart from the premise that nothing composite is what it is until it is composed. Parts, after all, do no assemble themselves: they require an external agent or force to put them together. So, if the One were composed of parts, it would presuppose a prior composer and then the One would not be first and self-caused. Again, one cannot circumvent this problem by saying that the One itself is the efficient cause assembling its own parts, for that would imply that the One already exists prior to the assemblage of its parts and thus that this assemblage is not essential to the One.

For Plotinus, this argument gains special force from the Platonic theory of participation, which he, of course, takes over. On that theory, what composes a being – what holds its parts together – is the Form in which it participates. Thus, what makes this collection of arms, legs, hair, nose, bones, ears, and so on, a unity is the Form of Man in which these elements participate; without the Form, they would just be a heap of disconnected body parts. But each Form is in itself also multiple, since each Form comprehends a complex being different from other complex beings falling under different Forms. The Forms themselves, therefore, presuppose a further principle of unification, a Form of Forms, in which each Form participates and which as such guarantees its unity. This partly explains why Plotinus places the One at the top of the ontological hierarchy, directly above the realm of Forms: the One is the ultimate unifying principle, in which each Form participates and by virtue of which each is a unified Form. “It is by the One that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings [i.e. the Forms, PS] and those which are in any sense said to be among beings. For what could anything be if it was not one?” (VI.9.1, 1-5)

Plotinus, then, subscribes to the view that to be a being is to be a being, i.e. to be one. Since a being is one only by participating in the One, it follows that beings are beings only because of the One. By conferring unity to a being, the One turns it into a being. This is also why Plotinus says, following Plato’s statement about the Good in the Republic, that the One itself is “beyond being”, which should be understood as meaning that the One is prior to every being qua unified being. This indicates that Plotinus’ view of the One as the highest Form, the Form of Forms, had good Platonic credentials. Although we do not find the identification of the Good with the highest principle of unity directly in the Platonic dialogues, we do find hints of it in Plato’s so-called “unwritten doctrines”. Aristotle indicates that Plato in his oral teaching in the Academy equated the Form of the Good with a first principle called “the One” which generates the lower Forms by conferring unity on indefinite multiplicity (cf. Wallis 1995: 48; Dillon & Gerson 2004: xx-xxi).

Be that as it may. What matters here is how in Plotinus’ thought this aspect of the One, its being the ultimate principle of unification, relates to the One’s absolute simplicity. As the principle of unity, the One cannot itself be multiple, for then it would presuppose a further principle of unification to guarantee its unity, and then it would no longer be the principle of unity. This is simply Plotinus’ argument for the absolute simplicity of the One couched in the language of Plato’s theory of participation. As the ultimate principle of unity, the One must be absolutely simple. The One is unity as such, without any inner multiplicity unified.

Multiplicity, consciousness, and the ineffability of the One
The One, then, must be absolutely simple, and as such it can in no way be conscious, since all consciousness requires multiplicity. As Plotinus makes clear, consciousness requires multiplicity in two ways: (a) duality between the conscious subject and the object of consciousness, and (b) diversity within the object of consciousness. I will discuss the requirement of subject-object duality first. Plotinus appears to be on firm footing here. Without any distinction between a subject’s consciousness and what it is conscious of, the object, it seems to make little sense to speak of consciousness at all. Thus, phenomenologists like Brentano and Husserl argue that consciousness is essentially intentional, i.e. directed at or about something. Consciousness, then, is a relation between one relatum and another. It is crucial to see that this relationality even holds in the case of self-consciousness, where there is arguably only one ‘thing’ being conscious of itself. In self-consciousness, the subject is its own object, so in a sense there is no difference between them, they are numerically identical. In another sense, however, subject and object must still be distinguished as different aspects of self-consciousness. The self-conscious subject must distinguish itself qua subject from itself qua object; the knower is distinguished from the known, even if the known is ultimately the knower itself. Otherwise there is no point in talking about (self-)knowledge at all. The thing that stands in the relation of self-consciousness to itself must allow this distinction within itself. Thus, Plotinus writes: "[T]hat which thinks is double, even if it thinks itself […]." (III.9.7, 4-5)

Given the utterly undifferentiated nature of the One, however, even this minimal distinction between knowing subject and known object gets no grip on it. Thus, referring to the One, Plotinus says: "[I]f anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple." (V.3.13, 34-36) Plotinus draws the same conclusion from the second requirement mentioned above: that the object of consciousness must be internally differentiated. An object without inner diversity is an object without any properties and aspects: it cannot be determined at all, and is as such a mere nothing. Such an ‘object that isn’t an object’ cannot be known, simply because there is nothing to be known about it. In a sense, however, this is precisely the situation with the One, which because of its absolute simplicity cannot be conceptually determined as a normal object of thought. As such, the One is literally unthinkable and indeed ineffable, as Plotinus emphasizes. Plotinus, after all, is generally seen as the founding father of negative theology, where one can characterize God only negatively, by saying what He (or rather It) is not.

Hence, also, Plotinus’ repetition of Plato’s characterization of the highest Form, the Good, as “beyond being”. The One, for Plotinus, is “beyond being” because it is not a proper being at all, since any being must be conceptually determinable and delimitable. At the same time, however, Plotinus stresses that the One is not nothing – on the contrary: it is rather everything, the superabundant source of all existence. The One is nothing only for thought, since it cannot be conceptually determined. We can say nothing about it, we can only say what it is not: thus e.g. we must say the One is not conscious. Crucially, this ineffability of the One also holds for the One itself. Even if the One were somehow able to become conscious of itself as object (which, as we have already noted, is strictly impossible given the utter lack of duality within the One), it would be confronted with a completely empty object, a conceptual void, about which there is nothing to be known. Thus, in being conscious of itself, it would be conscious of nothing, and as such it would really not be conscious at all: "[I]t is not then absurd if he does not know himself; for he has nothing in himself which he can learn about, since he is one." (V.6.6, 30-35)

The self-thinking of Intellect and its relation to the One
The official place of self-consciousness in the Plotinian system is therefore not the One but rather its first product, Intellect, which Plotinus defines as “thought thinking itself”. It is well-known that Plotinus’ conception of Intellect synthesizes the Platonic realm of Forms with the Aristotelian view of the Unmoved Mover as self-thinking thought. According to Plotinus, the Intellect, in thinking itself, also thinks all the Forms. Indeed, it is by thinking itself that Intellect generates the Forms, and the subject-object duality plays a crucial role in this generation. Plotinus repeatedly notes that Intellect, by thinking itself, splits itself into subject and object: "[T]he thinker must not itself remain simple, especially in so far as it thinks itself: for it will duplicate itself [...]." (V.3.10, 45-47). And this means, since the object is Intellect itself, that the object, too, becomes internally duplicated and thus differentiated. As Emilsson (2007: 83) notes: “[T]he multiplicity on the object side is something that comes about in or through Intellect's vision of itself.” In this way, Plotinus meets – in a nifty way – the second requirement mentioned above: that the object must have internal diversity in order to be thinkable. By thinking itself, the Intellect differentiates itself and thus simultaneously becomes a thinkable object for itself. And since the Intellect’s object is the realm of Forms, this means that the Forms are generated by the self-thinking of Intellect, although how this happens is never fully explained by Plotinus.

Plotinus does makes it clear, however, that this inner complexity of Intellect and its object increases insofar as Intellect progresses to higher-order levels of self-thinking, such that Intellect not only thinks itself but also thinks that it thinks itself, and thinks that it thinks that it thinks itself, and so on. Thus, writing about Intellect, Plotinus says: “[W]hen it sees itself it does so not as without intelligence but as thinking. So that in its primary thinking it would have also the thinking that it thinks […].” (II.9.1, 49-59) Plotinus then goes on in the same passage to argue that we should not stop here, we should rather add “another, third, distinction in addition to the second one which said that it thinks that it thinks,” namely, “one which says that it thinks that it thinks that it thinks”. And then Plotinus asks rhetorically: “And why should one not go on introducing distinctions in this way to infinity?”, clearly indicating that the recursion involved in Intellect’s self-thinking is endless and as such generates infinite multiplicity. In this way, one can say, the self-thinking of Intellect amounts to an endless self-multiplication.2 And this underscores the reason why Plotinus must deny self-thinking to the One, which is after all supposed to be – and to remain – absolutely simple.

At the same time, however, this view of Intellect creates a problem for Plotinus – a problem that deepens the tension involved in Plotinus’ thinking about self-consciousness in relation to the One. For the fact of the matter is that Intellect is the One’s first product, and as such Intellect stands to the One as image stands to archetype. Emanation, after all, is for Plotinus essentially a process of imaging and re-presentation, where a higher reality creates a lower reality as its own image (thus material Nature is the image of Soul, which in turn is the image of Intellect, which finally is the image of the One). In this way Plotinus takes over, and develops further, the Platonic theory of participation. But if Intellect essentially is the image of the One, then Intellect should up to a point be like the One and should as such convey something of the One’s supposedly ineffable nature. Admittedly, emanation is for Plotinus also always a fall away from the higher reality, and as such the lower reality can only be an imperfect image of the higher reality. Thus, the nature of the One can never be fully captured by Intellect. Still, something of the One must be mirrored in Intellect, otherwise there is no point in calling it the image of the One. As Emilsson (2007: 71) notes: “It is no accident that the next stage after the One is Intellect, and this fact may actually give us an inkling about what sort of thing the One is […].” But what, then, is it about the One that is represented by Intellect?

First of all, this is the unity of the One, which is represented by the Intellect’s unity-in-diversity. By thinking itself, the Intellect indeed splits itself into subject and object, but at the same time this duality remains unity, since the object ultimately is the subject as it becomes conscious of itself: “It becomes a pair, therefore, while remaining one.” (V.6.1, 6) By thinking itself, the Intellect creates multiplicity, but at the same time holds this multiplicity together in the unity of its self-consciousness. This simultaneous unity and difference of subject and object in self-consciousness is the primal form of the unity-in-diversity exemplified by Intellect. This unity-in-difference enables Intellect, up to a point, to think the absolute unity of the One. Intellect cannot think this unity directly, since – as we have seen – any object must be internally differentiated in order to be thinkable. It is only as unity-in-diversity, therefore, that the unity of the One becomes thinkable for Intellect (cf. Armstrong 1962: 33). At the same time, however, the diversity in Intellect implies that the latter will never fully succeed in grasping the One. The diversity, although necessary, keeps spoiling Intellect’s vision of the One: “Therefore this multiple Intellect, when it wishes to think that which is beyond, [thinks] that itself which is one, but in wishing to attain to it in its simplicity comes out continually apprehending something else made many in itself [...].” (V.3.11, 1-5)

But is the unity of the One all that the Intellect is capable of representing, albeit imperfectly? How about the self-thinking of Intellect? Doesn’t that represent something of the One as well, a corresponding self-consciousness in the One? Self-thinking belongs to Intellect just as essentially as unity-in-diversity does (indeed, we have just seen that the self-thinking of Intellect explains is unity-in-diversity). Shouldn’t we expect that what is most essential about a lower reality is precisely that aspect in which it mirrors or captures something of the higher reality which it represents? This seems reasonable enough. So, the fact that Intellect is essentially self-thinking seems to say something of importance about the One: that its ‘ineffable’ nature includes something like self-thinking, but without any multiplicity, thus some absolutely simple form of self-consciousness. Plotinus in fact acknowledges this explicitly. Discussing the archetype-image relation that obtains between the One and Intellect, Plotinus concludes that the latter “is, by its own intelligent nature, evidence of something like Intellect in the One which is not Intellect; for it is one” (VI.8.18, 21-2; cf. Bussanich 1999: 58-9).

The perfection of the One implies self-consciousness
The same problem emerges when we consider a third argument used by Plotinus for denying self-consciousness to the One. The first two arguments, as we have seen, depart from the premise that consciousness always involves multiplicity. The third argument follows a different track and pivots on the absolute self-sufficiency and perfection of the One. This argument, however, is highly ambiguous and can be seen to establish exactly the opposite of what Plotinus wants to establish, namely, that the One eternally does have complete self-knowledge. Plotinus’ argument, in short, is that the One cannot be said to know it itself, because knowing is always an actualization of some prior potentiality where, although knowledge was already possible, it was not yet attained. Thus ascribing (self-)knowledge to the One would imply that the One was previously lacking in such knowledge, which would detract from its absolute omnipotence and ontological plenitude. As Plotinus writes: “But the Good will not be conscious of itself… That which is conscious of itself and thinks itself comes second, for it is conscious of itself in order that in this actuality of consciousness it may understand itself. Therefore, if it becomes acquainted with itself, it must have been unacquainted with itself and deficient in its own nature, and is completed by its thinking. So, then, thinking must be excluded from the Good, for the addition causes diminution and defect.” (III.9.9, 13-24)

This is, for different reasons, a rather weak argument. First of all, Plotinus presupposes that we can ascribe self-consciousness to the One only as the result of a process of becoming self-conscious. At different points in the Enneads Plotinus makes it abundantly clear that the One can in no way be said to become: it eternally is what it is, timelessly, and in pure actuality (cf. VI.8.20, 23-27, 43-44). But does this imply we cannot ascribe self-consciousness to the One? Must all consciousness, including self-consciousness, necessarily be conceived in temporal terms, as the actualization of a prior potentiality? Why can’t the One be said to be eternally (“always already”) self-conscious? That consciousness always presupposes a prior state of unconsciousness, which it repairs, may indeed be true for us human beings, finite and temporal as we are. But to assume that this eo ipso holds for the One is to be guilty of anthropomorphizing the One, as if It were a temporal being just like us. This argument for the claim that the One cannot be said to have consciousness is therefore not a particularly strong one.

This is all the more so because, as noted above, the argument in fact establishes the opposite conclusion, namely, that the One does have complete self-consciousness. Remember: Plotinus argues we cannot ascribe self-consciousness to the One, because that would imply that the One was previously ignorant about itself, and thus deficient, and this is inadmissible: “if it becomes acquainted with itself, it must have been unacquainted with itself and deficient in its own nature” (III.9.9, 13-24). But if we are not allowed to say that the One was in any way unacquainted with itself, shouldn’t we then conclude that the One is “always already” fully acquainted with itself? The same difficulty emerges in another passage where Plotinus denies we can attribute self-thinking to the One because that would imply that “before his thinking he will be ignorant, and will need thinking in order to know himself, he who suffices for himself” (VI.9.6, 42-46). But, again, if we are not allowed to say that the One is or was in any way ignorant about itself, aren’t we then compelled to say that the One always has complete self-knowledge? What is absolute lack of ignorance about oneself if not absolute self-knowledge?

Thus, from the reasonable claim that the One cannot be said to become self-consciousness, since that would imply prior ignorance, we can draw only one consistent conclusion: that the One is timelessly and completely conscious of itself. This is also in line with the fact that the One is the paradigm to which Intellect orients itself. Of the Intellect it is indeed correct to say that in a way it becomes3 self-conscious, for the Intellect begins its existence as “inchoate Intellect” and only becomes fully actualized as self-thinking Intellect in its it attempts to think the One. But what the image has only imperfectly, the paradigm must have perfectly: “For something like what is in Intellect, in many ways greater, is in that One […].” (VI.8.18, 32-3) Thus, corresponding to the developing and initially incomplete self-consciousness of the Intellect, we must posit an eternally completed self-consciousness in the One as the paradigm to which Intellect aspires.

The immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness
But it is not just eternal completion that we must attribute to the One’s self-consciousness as a result of its being the paradigm to which Intellect aspires; paradoxically, the absolute simplicity of the One’s self-consciousness, too, follows from this fact. For the self-thinking of Intellect is, in Plotinus’ view, imperfect precisely because it involves multiplicity. As the perfect paradigm of Intellect, then, the One must have (or, rather, be) an absolutely simple self-consciousness, lacking all internal differentiation. This is the reason why Plotinus insists on the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness: “its thinking of itself is itself, and exists by a kind of immediate self-consciousness, in everlasting rest and in a manner of thinking different from the thinking of Intellect" (V.4.2, 13-19).

Clearly, the “everlasting rest” indicates that there is no development in the self-consciousness of the One. It is “always already” completely transparent to itself, in contrast to Intellect which is essentially developing, from inchoate Intellect towards the complete vision of the One (a vision that ultimately remains unattainable, given the Intellect’s ineluctable multiplicity). The absolute simplicity of the One’s self-consciousness comes out in Plotinus’ description of it as “immediate”, which indicates that the subject immediately is its own object, such that there is no difference or separation between them. This seamless identity of subject and object is also suggested by the preceding clause, “its thinking of itself is itself”, which implies that the One essentially is its own object. Plotinus makes the same point when he writes that the One “will have a simple concentration of attention on itself” [my emphasis], immediately followed by the question: “But since there is no distance or difference in regard to itself, what could its attention be other than itself?” (VI.7.39, 2-5) The question is clearly rhetorical and indicates that, for Plotinus, the One is essentially its own object of attention, so that again subject and object are asserted to be identical. There is no difference – no duality – between them, which is also indicated by the prior clause that “there is no distance or difference in regard to itself”. The One, then, somehow manages to be self-conscious without subject-object duality.

To express this immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness, Plotinus sometimes resorts to metaphor by comparing it to a “self-touching” rather than a conceptual self-thinking. In the One, he writes, “there will not be a thought of it, but only a touching, and a sort of contact without speech or thought, prethinking because Intellect has not yet come into being and that which touches does not think” (V.3.10, 40-3). But, like all metaphors, the image of touch does both justice and injustice to what it describes. According to the concepts of Greek antiquity, the sensation of touch is both the most immediate and the most obscure (cf. Bréhier 1958: 157). It was thought of as the most immediate because there must be a direct contact between toucher and touched, with virtually no space between them. It was also thought of as the least conceptual sensation, the least mediated by thought (as Plotinus says: “that which touches does not think”). In these ways the metaphor of touch expresses the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness rather well.

At the same time, however, it is clear that the metaphor remains just a metaphor and should not be taken too seriously. The concept of touch, after all, is based on experience in Nature, the material world, and clearly it cannot be the case for Plotinus that the One is describable in terms taken from a lower – indeed, the lowest – reality. Although there is direct contact between toucher and touched, they remain spatially separated, occupying contiguous but still different positions in space, even in the case of self-touching. But the One exists ‘outside’ of space (and time), and thus an essentially spatial concept such as touching is inapplicable to it. Even if we abstract from this spatial dimension, it is clear that the concept of touching retains a duality between subject (toucher) and object (touched), even in the case of self-touching. But the self-consciousness of the One is supposed to be immediate, without subject-object duality.4

Clearly, the immediacy of the One’s self-consciousness poses a problem for Plotinus, given his official position that multiplicity is necessary for all consciousness. But note that Plotinus also needs to describe the self-consciousness of the One as lacking all subject-object duality in order to account for its self-causing capacity. As we have seen earlier, the One can be understood as self-causing because it is the consciousness it has of itself. For as such, the One only is as it conceives itself to be, and thus, by being conscious of itself, it constitutes its own being. Thus, to repeat an earlier quote, the One “so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself” (VI.8.16, 19-23). But to say that the One is “his looking to himself” is precisely to say that the subject immediately is its own object, and that the consciousness is numerically identical with what it is conscious of.

It is, by the way, crucial to note that the term “subject” here does not denote a subject in the usual philosophical sense, namely, a pre-existing self or agent underlying and performing the act of consciousness. For it is precisely not the case that the One precedes the consciousness it has of itself. Rather, the One is only through this consciousness. In a sense, then, the One’s self-consciousness is a state of consciousness that somehow produces, or rather is itself, the subject ‘having’ that consciousness. It is a state of consciousness that is its own object and which as such exists only because it is conscious of itself. The self-consciousness of the One is therefore better described as “consciousness-consciousness”, i.e. a consciousness that is its own object of consciousness. This also avoids the connotation of a self preceding and underlying the consciousness it has of itself. Since, however, the terminology of self-consciousness is so well-entrenched, and the expression “consciousness-consciousness” sounds a bit awkward, I will continue to speak of the self-consciousness of the One, but with the proviso that here the reflexive pronoun “self-” does not refer to a pre-existing self underlying the consciousness but rather to this consciousness itself, indicating that it is this consciousness itself which is conscious of itself and which as such causes itself. The One, for Plotinus, is this self-relating, self-causing consciousness. Insofar, then, as consciousness involves a relation (namely, between it and its object), we can say that the One is a self-relating relation, i.e. a relation that is its own relatum. This seems to be what Plotinus has in mind when he calls the One “altogether self-related” (VI.8.17, 25-27).

But this description of the One as “self-related” immediately makes clear the problem facing Plotinus (cf. Bussanich 1999: 45). For how can the One be described as “self-related” if it is absolutely simple? Normally, after all, a relation implies a multiplicity of relata: one thing is related to another or several others. Admittedly, this is not the case in self-relation, where there is only one relatum, relating to itself, as in the relation of self-identity, where a thing is (numerically) identical to itself. But even then we have a distinction, namely, between the relatum and the relation; each thing stands in the relation of identity to itself, but clearly the relation is something different from the thing standing in that relation. So, if we say that the One is “self-related”, we seem at least to be importing the difference between relatum and relation into the One, thus denying its seamless simplicity. One might object that in the case of the One not even this distinction holds, since the One is – as we said above – a self-relating relation, i.e. a relation that is its own relatum. But does this make sense? Can we, in the face of such thoroughgoing unity, without any distinction between relatum and relation, still speak meaningfully of relation at all? The upshot remains that where there are no differences, the language of relationality is meaningless. The problem of Absolute Self-Consciousness, then, remains intractable…

Notes
1.
To make the idea of self-causation a bit more palatable right from the start, we should note that Plotinus views the self-causation of the One as ‘taking place’ outside of time and space altogether. Indeed, for Plotinus, time and space are among the (indirect) products of the One. Indicating this timelessness of the One’s self-causation, Plotinus speaks of it as an “eternal generation”. (VI.8.20, 27). In this way Plotinus avoids the objection that the One, in order to cause itself, must exist earlier than itself, which would be absurd. The point is that temporal distinctions, like before and after, do not apply to the One.
2. Though this is not often noted, Plotinus is here to be remarkably close to Josiah Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, where the latter’s recursion (i.e. its awareness of itself, and its awareness of that awareness, and its awareness of its awareness of that awareness, and so on) generates a sequence that is isomorphic to the infinite set of natural numbers ℕ = {0, 1, 2, 3, …}. See the famous “Supplementary Essay” on the One-Many problem in Royce 1959. For a mathematically up to date interpretation and evaluation of Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see Steinhart 2012. Of course, we should not expect to find exactly the same theory in Plotinus, simply because the mathematics of his time had not yet progressed to the level of sophistication reached by Cantor and Dedekind, on whose work Royce builds. But the fact that the generation of Intellect by the One and the inner unfolding of Intellect towards increasing multiplicity were intended by Plotinus to be mathematical processes is nevertheless clear from the Neopythagorean background to much of his thought. Thus the ‘emanation’ of reality by the One is for Plotinus also a mathematical process, in which number and increasing multiplicity are somehow generated by the primordial unity of the One and the duality of its first product, the self-thinking Intellect. In this way the Pythagorean creed that “All is number” also held for Plotinus: “Is not being, then, unified number, and beings number unfolded, and Intellect number moving in itself, and the living creature [i.e. the World Soul, PS] number embracing everything?” (VI.6.4.29-31)
3. Though this is not often noted, Plotinus is here to be remarkably close to Josiah Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, where the latter’s recursion (i.e. its awareness of itself, and its awareness of that awareness, and its awareness of its awareness of that awareness, and so on) generates a sequence that is isomorphic to the infinite set of natural numbers ℕ = {0, 1, 2, 3, …}. See the famous “Supplementary Essay” on the One-Many problem in Royce 1959. For a mathematically up to date interpretation and evaluation of Royce’s arithmetical model of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see Steinhart 2012. Of course, we should not expect to find exactly the same theory in Plotinus, simply because the mathematics of his time had not yet progressed to the level of sophistication reached by Cantor and Dedekind, on whose work Royce builds. But the fact that the generation of Intellect by the One and the inner unfolding of Intellect towards increasing multiplicity were intended by Plotinus to be mathematical processes is nevertheless clear from the Neopythagorean background to much of his thought. Thus the ‘emanation’ of reality by the One is for Plotinus also a mathematical process, in which number and increasing multiplicity are somehow generated by the primordial unity of the One and the duality of its first product, the self-thinking Intellect. In this way the Pythagorean creed that “All is number” also held for Plotinus: “Is not being, then, unified number, and beings number unfolded, and Intellect number moving in itself, and the living creature [i.e. the World Soul, PS] number embracing everything?” (VI.6.4.29-31)
4. In addition, the non-conceptual nature of touch, its obscurity, causes the wrong impression when applied to the One, as if it were dumb, only half conscious of itself, less perfect than conceptual self-knowledge. But this is not what Plotinus means. In fact, he means precisely the opposite, namely, that the One’s self-consciousness is perfect precisely because of its absolute simplicity, and stands as such far above the self-thinking of Intellect, which is imperfect because of its ineluctable multiplicity. Thus, Plotinus describes the self-consciousness of the One as “a thought transcending thought” (VI.816, 32-3). This is precisely why the One is the paradigm of Intellect, the ideal to which the self-thinking of Intellect eternally aspires.

References
-Armstrong, A.H. (1962), Plotinus. Collier Books: New York.
-Beierwaltes, Werner (2004), Platonismus und Idealismus. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann.
-Bréhier, Émile (1958), The Philosophy of Plotinus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
-Bussanich, J. (1999), "Plotinus's metaphysics of the One", in: Gerson (ed.)(1999), pp. 38-65.
-Dillon, J. & Gerson, L.P. (2004), Neoplatonic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis/Cambridge.
-Dolezal, J.E. (2011), God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness. Pickwick Publications: Eugene, OR.
-D’Oro, Giuseppina (2005), “Idealism and the philosophy of mind,” in: Inquiry 48 (5): 395-412.
-Duby, S.J. (2016), Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account. Bloomsbury: London.
-Dunham, J. & Grant, I.H. & Watson, S. (2011), Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. McGill-Queen's University Press: Ithaca.
-Emilsson, E.K. (2007), Plotinus on Intellect. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
-Gatti, M.L. (1999), "Plotinus: The Platonic tradition and the foundation of the Neoplatonism", in: Gerson (ed.)(1999), pp.10-37).
-Gerson, L.P. (ed)(1999), The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Gerson, L. (2011), “Goodness, Unity, and Creation in the Platonic Tradition”, in: John F. Wippel (ed.), The Ultimate Why Question: Why Is There Anything at All Rather than Nothing Whatsoever?, pp. 29-42. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.
-Halper, E.C. (2011), "The Ultimate Why Question: The Hegelian Option", in: J.F. Wippel (ed.), The Ultimate Why Question: Why Is There Anything at All Rather than Nothing Whatsoever? The Catholic University of America Press: Washington, D.C.
-Hegel, G.W.F. (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
-Hutto, Daniel D. (2000), Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
-Royce, J. (1959), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Sprigge, Timothy L.S. (1983), The Vindication of Absolute Idealism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
-Steinhart, Eric (2012), “Royce's Model of the Absolute,” in:
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 48 (3), pp.356-384.
-Wallis, R.T. (1995), Neoplatonism. Gerald Duckworth & Co.: London.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Orgasmic Absolute: The Ambiguous Role of Bliss in the Vedanta

In my previous post I recounted how the philosophy of Absolute Idealism originated not in early 19th century Germany with Schelling and Hegel -- as is often thought -- but rather in ancient India from the 8th to 5th century BCE. There the polytheistic mythology of the Hindu religion, originally expressed in the Vedas, was gradually rationalized into a philosophical monotheism, culminating in the Upanishads where this monotheism took on the shape of an Idealistic Monism known as Vedanta (literally meaning "end / culmination of the Vedas"). In the Vedanta, reality as a whole is explained in terms of a self-causing Absolute, known as Brahman, the spiritual nature of which is announced through its identification with Atman, the Universal Self, which finds its highest empirical manifestation in the human self. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the self as the key to the nature of Brahman was partly the self’s epistemological significance, i.e. the fact that the self is presupposed in all acts of thought, experience and knowledge. As a result, Brahman was identified with the Universal Knower, the transindividual subject underlying all individual acts of cognition -- much like the transcendental subject in German Idealism.

Although Brahman, as the Universal Knower, does have much in common with Kant's transcendental subject, we should also recognize their substantial differences. Whereas the transcendental subject is purely epistemological in function (as the formal unity of the transcendental apperception that guarantees the synthetic unity of the empirical object), the Vedantic Brahman is much more: it is volitional and emotional right from the start. Brahman is not just the Universal Knower but also the Universal Willer and Enjoyer -- indeed, Brahman is Will and Joy as such. Brahman is
the self-willing and self-sustaining pure bliss underlying and driving everything that exists. Brahman is the bliss "from which these beings are born, that, by which, when born, they live, that into which, when departing they enter" (Taittiriya Upanishad : 553).1 Hence the standard Vedantic definition of Brahman as satcitananda -- a compounded Sanskrit term consisting of "sat" (being), "cit" (consciousness) and "ananda" (bliss). Satcitananda, then, designates Brahman as the integral unity of consciousness, being and bliss.
 


"As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife
knows nothing without or within, so the person when
in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing
without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)
This presents us with a unique and attractive feature of the Vedanta, especially when compared to other dominant forms of monotheism in the world, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the origin of creation, the Vedanta does not place a "jealous God", ruling over mankind with stern commandments, but rather a pure "pleasure principle": a self-creating, self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. "It is this delight that overflows into creation," as Radhakrishnan notes (1953: 70). Keeping in mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum “A dirty mind is a joy forever”, we can say that the Vedanta is all the more attractive given the clear sexual connotation to this pure bliss which is Brahman. True, in many religions the imagery of the sexual unification of lovers is used to describe the unio mystica, i.e. the mystical unification of man with God. But the Vedanta is unique because it uses this imagery to explain the nature of Brahman itself. Thus the Vedantic Brahman is the pinnacle of pleasure and is as such analogous to the sexual climax, the orgasm that concludes sexual unification (well, most of the times anyway… but now I am wandering off-topic). In this sense the Vedantic Brahman can be described as "the orgasmic Absolute". The Vedanta has strongly influenced Tantric Yoga in this regard.

At the same time, however, this orgasmic quality of Brahman is highly ambiguous, because in all other respects the Vedanta promotes ascetic renunciation of bodily pleasure, even to the point of extreme mortification (as in Shankara). So how we are to understand the cosmic orgasm which is Brahman? The answer, elaborated in the final section of this post, is that we should understand it primarily in intellectual terms, as the intellectual orgasm that results from reaching (through meditation) the knowledge of one’s unity with Brahman -- a knowledge that participates in Brahman’s own self-awareness. In line with the Absolute-Idealist approach to Leibniz's question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", the Vedanta explains Brahman's self-causation in terms of its self-awareness: Brahman exists because it is aware of itself – it’s pure self-awareness is its self-creation. The attainment of this absolute self-awareness, therefore, is at the same time the intellectual orgasm that produces reality as such. And the sage who attains this absolute self-awareness participates in this ontological orgasm.  

The volitional aspect of Brahman
As noted above, we should not make the mistake of seeing Brahman qua Atman in purely epistemological terms, as the Universal Knower. There is also a strongly volitional aspect to the Vedantic concept of Brahman. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the human self -- like all Absolute Idealists the world over -- was its apparently free will, its capacity for spontaneous self-determination, to initiate a new course of action seemingly 'out of nothing': "I choose to do this though I could have done otherwise..." Such a capacity for free self-determination seemed precisely what was needed to make sense of Brahman as the self-causing cause of reality. The free will of the human individual was -- and perhaps still is -- the only model available for understanding the possibility of self-causation. Though imperfectly realized in human beings, as finite and empirically conditioned as we are, this capacity for free self-determination becomes absolute as we ascribe it to the Absolute itself. This was the revolutionary step taken by the Upanishadic sages: the cosmic expansion of the human self, the modeling of Brahman on the self-determining power of the self, the Atman. "Brahman, the first principle of the universe, is known through Atman, the inner self of man." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 77) Brahman's self-causation can then be conceptualized as analogous to human self-determination -- as self-determination freed from human limitations, thus as absolute self-determination. "Why is the universe what it is, rather than something else? Why is there this something, rather than another? This is traced to the divine will... The power of self-determination [...] belongs to God." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 63)

Brahman as Self-Willing Joy
We would, however, be unfaithful to the spirit of the Upanishads if we saw this free act of divine will -- which explains why there is something rather than nothing -- as an act exercised by a pre-existing subject, i.e. by God as He exists independently from the act. To conceive of the primordial will in this way would be to relapse in religious dogma, which is precisely what the Upanishads were trying to overcome. In traditional religion we simply presuppose the existence of God to explain the creation of the world ("because He willed it"). But then the question why there exists something rather than nothing is not yet answered; we still have to explain God's existence. Thus, in conformity with the concept of self-causation, we have to see the primordial act of the will as bringing itself into existence. This act, then, does not presuppose a prior subject: it is in a sense a will without a subject, a subjectless will. Or, if the notion of act without acting subject is illogical, we must say that this act of the will produces the subject performing the act. That is to say: insofar as it produces its own existence, the primordial act of the will is its own subject. In the same way, this act of the will must be said to be its own object, i.e. what it wills. For since there is nothing outside of it (given that it is the self-causing cause of all reality), there is nothing for it to will but itself. And it is precisely by thus willing itself that it brings itself into existence: it wills itself into existence -- a self-willing, self-creating will. There is thus in the primordial act of the will, which timelessly 'kick starts' reality, a strict identity between act, subject and object: will, willer and willed are one and the same.

Alex Grey, Big Bang
Brahman, as conceived in the Vedanta, is this self-willing, self-creating will. This explains the Vedantic conception of Brahman as supreme bliss ("ananda"). Brahman's will for itself immediately satisfies itself, since its self-willing is its self-causation. In other words: Brahman gives itself to itself merely by willing itself. Brahman is therefore a self-satisfying will. And as such Brahman is pure bliss, i.e. ananda, a self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. Thus the Vedantic philosopher Shankara lets Brahman say in an imaginary soliloquy: "I am both the enjoyer and that which is enjoyed... In myself is the ocean of joy, infinite, undivided." (Shankara 1975: 115) The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it paradoxically as follows: "That, verily, is his form in which his desire is fulfilled, in which the self is his desire, in which he is without desire, free from any sorrow" (262; italics mine). That is to say: Brahman satisfies its desire by being that desire -- by being the self-satisfying will -- and as such (as self-satisfied) it is also without desire.

The ladder of ananda
By being self-reinforcing, this joy -- which is Brahman -- is infinite. It is ultimate bliss, the greatest joy imaginable. The Upanishads occasionally express this maximality of ananda in terms of a 'ladder' of gradations of joy (see in particular the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266-7, and the
Taittiriya Upanishad: 550-1). At the lowest level we find common human joy, which for most men is thoroughly materialistic: "If one is healthy in body, wealthy, lord over others, lavishly provided with all human enjoyments, that is the highest bliss of men." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266) Each higher step in the ladder then gives a form of joy that is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous one. Thus above human joy we find the "bliss of the gods by action, those who attain their divine status by (meritorious) action". In turn this bliss "multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of the bliss of the gods by birth". This bliss then forms one hundredth of the bliss of the gods who are not just born as gods but who are also "versed in the Vedas" and "not overcome by desire", and so on... Ultimately the ladder culminates in Brahman: "This is the highest bliss. This is the world of Brahman." (Idem: 267)

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder
It is not exactly clear whether the authors of the Upanishads intended such ladders to be taken literally or as mere pedagogical metaphors indicating the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss -- though the latter option seems to be the most likely. For the fact is that the ladders do not make much sense when taken literally (even if we bought into the Vedic pantheon, which they still presuppose). The ladders are, after all, just finite: they culminate in the highest bliss after a finite number of steps. The ladder in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad consists of seven steps; the ladder in the Taittiriya Upanishad consists of ten steps. But the highest bliss, i.e. Brahman itself, is supposed to be infinite. Clearly, infinite bliss cannot be reached in a finite number of steps starting from the finite quantity represented by common human bliss. If each next step is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous level, then the bliss of Brahman would according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad be a mere hundred to the power of seven times stronger than human bliss... which makes no sense at all. Thus the Upanishadic ladders of ananda are illogical under a literal interpretation. But the authors of the Upanishads usually display great logical acumen in most other matters; surely the logical deficiency of the ladders of ananda could not have escaped their notice. Thus it seems likely that the ladders were primarily intended as mere metaphors for conveying the infinite distance separating human bliss from divine bliss.2

Ascetism in the Vedanta
It should be noted, however, that such ladders do not just indicate the transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss. They also represent processes of purification and intellectualization: the forms of joy become progressively stronger as they become nobler, less corporeal and more intellectual. In a way, therefore, the steps of the ladder also indicate the stages which a student of the Vedanta must pass through if he is to attain highest wisdom: the spiritual unification with Brahman. This instructional character of the ladder comes out clearly in the
Taittiriya Upanishad, where the ladder ends with the sage finally attaining ultimate wisdom: "He who knows this [...] reaches the self which consists of mind, reaches he self which consists of understanding, reaches the self which consists of bliss." (551) Starting from the lowest level of joy (materialistic joy), the Vedantic student must gradually purify himself from his primitive urges, immerse himself in the teachings of the Vedas, and develop his intellectual powers.

The Upanishads frequently stress these ethical and intellectual requirements which a student must meet. For example, the Taittiriya Upanishad directly admonishes the student: "Speak the truth. Practice virtue. Let there be no neglect of your (daily) reading..." (537). These ethical and intellectual requirements, which the student of the Vedanta must meet, reflect the spiritual nature of ananda. In some Upanishads this spiritual purification required for the attainment of Brahman even takes on a strongly ascetic form, such that the aspiring sage must mortify all earthly desires: "When all desires that dwell within the human heart are cast away, then a mortal becomes immortal and even here he attaineth to Brahman. / When all the knots that fetter the heart here [i.e. earth] are cut asunder, then a mortal becomes immortal. Thus far is the teaching." (Katha Upanishad: 646-7)


Shankara (ca. 788 - 820 CE)
This ascetic tradition, which runs through some of the Upanishads (though it is certainly not dominant in all of them), culminates in Shankara. For example his Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (Viveka-Chudamani) contains a great many and remarkably vehement diatribes against the body and its earthly desires. Here are some of the 'highlights': "He who tries to find the Atman by feeding the cravings of the body, is trying to cross a river by grasping a crocodile, mistaking it for a log... Kill this deadly attachment to body, wife, children and others... This body, which is made up of skin, flesh, blood, arteries, veins, fat, marrow and bone, is full of waste matter and filth. It deserves our contempt." (Shankara 1975: 45) "O fool, stop identifying yourself with this lump of skin, flesh, fat, bones and filth." (Idem: 58) "Do not waste a moment in concern for worldly affairs or attraction to sense-objects... Regard it [the body] as impure, as though it were an outcast." (Idem: 80) "Escape the bondage and the rotten stench of worldliness... Detach yourself completely from this covering, the body, which is sluggish and foul. Having done this, never think of it again. To remember one's own vomit is merely disgusting." (Idem: 101-2) "The knower of Atman does not identify himself with his body. He rests within it, as if within a carriage... He dwells in the body, but regards it as a thing apart from himself -- like the cast-off skin of a snake." (Idem: 122-3) And so on, and so on...   

The orgasmic quality of ananda
This ascetic tendency in the Vedanta may seem surprising when one takes into account the fact that the Vedantic concept of ananda has strong sexual connotations and often indicates orgasmic pleasure (cf. Olivelle 1997). This sexual connotation comes out clearly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where the unification with Brahman -- and thus participation in the supreme bliss -- is directly compared to sexual bliss: "As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife knows nothing without or within, so the person when in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 262) Of course, the comparison of man's unification with God to the sexual unification of man and wife is not unique to the Vedanta. Such mystical use of the imagery of marital love (what German scholars call Brautsmystik, "marital mysticism") can be found in many religions the world over (see e.g. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for thy love is better than wine..."). But the Vedanta is unique in that it uses such imagery to describe not just man's unification with God but the Divine itself! According to the Vedanta, Brahman is ananda, and therefore Brahman is the bliss experienced by the sage who attains unification with Brahman. Since the Upanishads compare the pleasure of this unification with sexual bliss, we must conclude that according to the Vedanta there is an orgasmic quality to Brahman itself. That is to say: Brahman, qua ananda, is a form of orgasmic pleasure. Brahman, we might say, is the orgasmic Absolute.

Tantric Yoga elaborated the orgasmic
aspect of the Vedantic concept of
Brahman as supreme bliss.
This corresponds to the already noted maximality of ananda, its infinite intensity. A sexual orgasm is commonly regarded as the pinnacle of human pleasure, the climax par excellence. Thus the ultimate pinnacle of pleasure, the bliss of Brahman, can be seen as the ultimate orgasm, the cosmic climax or ontological orgasm in which reality gives birth to itself. But how does this relate to the spiritual nature of ananda, the fact that it can only be attained through a process ethical and intellectual purification? How can the orgasm, this epitome of bodily pleasure, possibly be a model on which the understand the bliss of Brahman? Clearly we have to rid this orgasmic conception of ananda from its all too bodily connotations. In conformity with the 'ladder of ananda', where each form of joy becomes a hundred times stronger as it becomes less corporeal and more intellectualized, we should conceptualize ananda as intellectual orgasm, an orgasm of the mind. A common sexual orgasm must then be a faint shadow of this intellectual orgasm which is ananda -- or, in terms of the ladder of ananda, a sexual orgasm represents a mere hundredth of a hundredth of a hundredth -- and so on -- of the cosmic orgasm underlying reality as such.

The intellectual orgasm of absolute self-awareness
To fully understand why the Vedanta emphasizes this intellectual nature of ananda, we must return to the question why the Upanishadic sages made the inward turn, i.e. why they chose the human self as the model on which to understand Brahman. For, as noted earlier, what impressed them in the human self was not just its volitional aspect (the free will as a model for divine self-causation) but also its epistemological aspect, i.e. the relation of the self to sense experience and knowledge. Brahman thus became conceptualized, in the Upanishads, as the Universal Knower, the universal subject underlying all individual acts of experience, thought and knowledge. Since the Upanishads at the same time declare that nothing exists apart from Brahman, empirical reality is effectively reduced to the object of Brahman's consciousness. That is to say: empirical reality exists only insofar as Brahman experiences and knows it. It was this move that turned the Vedanta into a species of Absolute Idealism, on a par with the systems developed by Plotinus, Schelling and Hegel.

For the Vedanta, then, it holds that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by Brahman. But what, then, about Brahman's own existence? To be consistent, the Vedanta must claim that Brahman, too, exists only because it is thought / experienced by Brahman -- that is to say: Brahman exists because it thinks / experiences itself. Brahman, in other words, is self-causing through its self-awareness. This is indeed the answer we find in the Upanishads: "Brahman, indeed, was this in the beginning. It knew itself only as 'I am Brahman'. Therefore it became all." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168) Thus, as Radhakrishnan explains, in the Upanishads the term being "expresses simultaneously God's consciousness of himself and his own absolute self-absorbed being" (Radhakrishnan 1953: 54). Brahman's being, then, is its consciousness of itself. It should be noted that in this regard, too, the Vedanta is very close to Western Absolute Idealism, for there too the self-causation of the Absolute is explained in terms of self-awareness. Thus Plotinus: “The One [...] made itself by an act of looking at itself. This act of looking at itself is [...] its being.” (Ennead VI, 8, 16, 19-21) Thus Fichte: "The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself." (Fichte 1991: 98) Thus Schelling: “[I]t is through the self's own knowledge of itself that that very self first comes into being.” (Schelling 1800 [2001]: 27) We also find it in the American Idealist Royce: “[I]f whatever exists, exists only as known, then the existence of knowledge itself must be a known existence, and can finally be known only to the final knower himself, who, like Aristotle's God, is so far defined in terms of absolute self-knowledge.” (Royce 1899 [1959]: 400)

Alex Grey, Oversoul
It is this intellectual nature of Brahman's self-causation through absolute self-awareness that explains the intellectuality of the pure bliss that defines Brahman. What we should appreciate is how the volitional-emotional and epistemological aspects of Brahman's being coincide: Brahman's self-knowledge, self-willing and self-enjoyment are one and the same. Brahman's self-caused being is at the same time the highest pleasure and the highest knowledge. The sage who reaches this knowledge -- i.e. who realizes his unity with Brahman and thus 'loses' his empirical individuality -- at the same participates in the ontological orgasm that underlies reality as such. That sage not only experiences the pure bliss which is Brahman but at the same time participates in the creation process that produces the universe: "Whoever knows thus, 'I am Brahman', becomes this all... He who knows this as such comes to be in that creation of his." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168, 165)  

Notes
1
All quotes from the Upanishads are taken from the translation by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1953).
2 This does, however, lead to an interesting side question: can we use modern mathematics to construct a correct ladder of ananda, i.e. a ladder that respects the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss? This question, of course, is irrelevant to the interpretation of the Upanishads. But it does matter for the continuing relevance of the Vedanta. If the philosophical core of the Vedanta is still to have truth value for us, and if the notion of a ladder of ananda forms an intrinsic part of that core, then that notion must allow of a precise and logical formulation. The modern mathematical theory of infinity, inaugurated by Cantor, seems especially relevant in this regard. Cantor's notion of Absolute Infinity, which is the entire sequence of transfinite ordinals but which itself is not mathematically construable, seems to be the mathematical analogon we need to make sense of Brahman's absolute bliss as the highest point of the ladder of ananda.

References
-Fichte, J.G. (1991), Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Olivelle, Patrick (1997), "Orgasmic Rapture and Divine Extacy: The Semantic History of Ananda", in: Journal of Indian Philosophy, 25, pp.153-180.
-Plotinus, Enneads, translation by A.H. Armstrong, Loeb edition.
-Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1953), The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.
-Royce, Josiah (1899 [1959]), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Schelling, F.W.J. (1800 [2001]), System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
-Shankara (1975), Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.