There is a bat in our bedroom. We don’t know how it got in, but bats can crawl through the narrowest of crevices and passageways, and our old house is full of gaps which no amount of caulking and repointing could ever close off. However it made its way, there it is: looping around the room, pausing occasionally on a bookshelf or the wall just below the ceiling, then launching into yet another fluttering circuit.
For a long time I watch it, broom in one hand and a sheet in the other, waiting for it to land close to me. I stand on the bed and then a chair, hoping to catch it up in the sheet, but whenever I do that the bat makes tighter circles on the other side of the room.
I know it won’t understand me, but I tell it that I don’t intend any harm, that we both want the same thing, its release into the warm night outside. When it finally alights above one of the windows I press it gently against the wall with the broom, holding it in place while I climb on a chair. Then I grab its small brown body with the sheet and wrap it up. It cheeps and chitters as I bring it downstairs, and I’m happy it seems unharmed. Then I fling the sheet and bat out the front door, check to make sure the bat is gone, and return upstairs, hoping I can calm down quickly enough to get a decent night’s sleep.
No reader of philosophy can evict a bat from the house without thinking of Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel’s answer was that the bat’s sensory apparatus is so unlike our own that we simply cannot know what “being a bat” would be like. But I am sure that we can know something about at least some of a bat’s experience, in the same way that we know what a cat feels when he relaxes between our legs or what a shelter puppy feels when the cage opens and a smiling ten-year-old reaches in.
Emotional states are more public than we often think or desire, and their markers can be remarkably consistent across many species boundaries. The trapped bat’s almost obsessional circling, the speed and jerkiness of its flight, its repeated landings and launches, all read as confusion and even panic. It wanted to be somewhere else. The electric-lit brightness, still air, and echoing walls of our bedroom—these strange sensations made it uncomfortable and fearful, desperate to escape into the breezy humid darkness of the street where its sonar returns softer echoes, free to fly endlessly in any direction.
Nagel was wrong, too, in thinking of echolocation as impossibly exotic. Even those with eyesight can imagine the shape and feel of a world-picture mapped by sound. Some years ago, I did the circumambulation of the sanctum in the eighth-century Kailasanathar temple in Kanchipuram, a passage in total darkness through chambers of different shapes and heights. Disoriented and fearful, I crouched under ceilings high and low, steadied myself as I assayed the uncertain drop of uneven steps, and bent my head under the looming weight of sensed or imagined blocks of granite, crawling and walking until I emerged into the light in a symbolic rebirth. To recall the invisible but almost palpable space in which I moved gives me a plausible analogue for the world in which bats fly.[i]
Emotional life and world-pictures seem to share very little, though, so much so that it is hard to say that we are talking about the same “consciousness” in both. Kathleen Wilkes argued that we should dispense with the concept entirely; it brings together too many disparate phenomena to be anything other than a source of confusion.[ii] Her argument is a cogent but limited one. It is more interesting to look into the presuppositions that produce the illusion she wants to dispel.
Nagel’s essay was intended as a critique of physicalist theories of consciousness, and he was not really interested in bats as such. Its enduring influence, though, comes from its catchy title and from a definition: “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something that it is like for the organism.”[iii] This definition has come under heavy criticism,[iv] but it has been a mainstay of philosophical treatments of consciousness for nearly fifty years, and so, too, has its identification of consciousness with subjectivity. Christopher Peacocke’s well-received The Mirror of the World, published in 2014, repeats it nearly verbatim, adding, “it is in the nature of the property of being a conscious occurrence that for anything with that property, there is some subject who enjoys (or suffers) that occurrence.”[v]
Both Nagel and Peacocke assume that consciousness is a percipient subject’s awareness of external objects or of a bodily state. (In the latter case the body itself is framed as external to the subject.) This sounds plausible from our own self-conscious perspective, and its implicit subject-object structure seems unproblematic, but the supposition of a persistent subject is contentious, especially where other animals are concerned,[vi] and the subject-object structure is not found in experience itself. Fichte’s basic argument seems unassailable: only once we constitute ourselves as selves, claiming a perspective distinct from our perceptions and interoceptions, do we find ourselves as subjects within an objective realm. Without that self-positing there is neither subjectivity nor objectivity. Bats do not make themselves into subjects, and we have no reason to assume that they have an inner world which can be teased apart from the ebb and flow of their experience. In that respect they are good Humeans.[vii]
What is more, conceiving of consciousness as a mental state tends to render it static and passive; a mere percipient can do nothing but enjoy or suffer its experience. This presents a problem for those who see agency as the product of three distinct stages: of action directed by the internal processing of perceptual input. Such theorists thus often presuppose a minimal self which can act on the basis of the various mental states in which it finds itself. What this could be is not easy to understand; being minimally self-conscious sounds a good deal like being minimally pregnant.
If we step aside from that three-stage schema, however, we can account for both consciousness and agency without implicating subjectivity or self-consciousness. Susan Hurley, for one, mounted a strong critique of the theory, seeing action, perception, and intention as all interwoven and in important respects essentially public. She did argue for a primitive self-consciousness in animals, but this was limited to perspectival and access consciousness, “the ability to keep track of systematic dynamic relationships between what is perceived and what you are doing spatially, and … the availability of certain intentions.” Both aspects depend on “the interdependence of perception and action.”[viii] Neither demands any kind of subjective center.
Instead of trying to summarize Hurley’s complex and subtle arguments, though, I would like to suggest a different account of consciousness that develops themes from Fichte, not only because of his sophisticated analysis of self-consciousness but because for him, as for Hurley, perception, intention, and activity must all be understood as a single dynamic process. As he wrote in 1800, “something that is stable, at a standstill, and dead can never enter the orbit of what I call philosophy. Everything in philosophy is act, motion, and life.”[ix]
While Fichte is thought of as an idealist philosopher of self-consciousness, there was an at least equally important realist strain in his Wissenschaftslehre, centered on the activity out of which self-consciousness emerges. Echoing Leibniz on the one hand and anticipating autopoietic cognitive science on the other, he saw this as incessant reciprocal interaction through which all things make and remake each other. It is manifest within each organism as a complex of drives, aspects of a primordial drive, and the one that is relevant for our purposes is a formative urge to maintain self-organization and integrity and to incorporate or assimilate other elements of nature, “to relate them as such to my natural needs, to bring them into a certain relationship with me.”[x]
Fichte assumes that needs and sources of satisfaction are directly associated in the lives of plants, where he asserts this takes place automatically.[xi] Among “rational” (i.e., human) beings those connections are mediated by conscious processes, which opens the door to the exercise of freedom.[xii] There seems to be no room left in this dichotomy for sentient animals who lack self-consciousness, but Fichte was also the first major European philosopher to recognize that reflexive acquaintance with inner states is insufficient to constitute self-consciousness, and in his System of Ethics he refers briefly to conscious beings which do not make themselves into “subjects of consciousness.”[xiii] We can conceive of these as beings with access consciousness but not self-consciousness. They cannot engage in conceptual thought, but there is no reason to deny them enjoyment, pain, perception, intentionality, and memory, or—what is more important— the purposive activity in which all these are interwoven.[xiv]
In both ourselves and our bat, the formative drive manifests as a lack or longing, signaling sexual frustration, discomfort, disorientation, or significant risks like hunger, thirst, or the presence of predators. It drives beings to seek food and drink, shelter, sexual satisfaction, or security. Percepts associated with those needs and their satisfaction coalesce around the need itself, “immediately and absolutely” as they do for us, too; “I do not feel hunger because there is food for me,” as Fichte wrote. “Instead, something becomes food for me because I am hungry.”[xv] This process generates real, if hazily defined, complexes imbued with attractive or repellent power. It makes a world.
Consciousness cannot be reduced to a “something that it is to be like;” to think of it in terms of a mental state is to dwell on an abstraction. It is an organism’s self-protective and appetite-driven engagement with needs, sense perceptions, and recollections, spontaneously isolating, combining, generalizing, and synthesizing them to constitute foci of desire or aversion. Sounds, smells, and movement imply food in certain configurations, or a possibility of food strong enough to inspire further investigation. Others promise comfort, pleasure, or security, and yet others are associated with pain or panic. This world-making builds on itself to encompass much more than immediate needs. The preservation or propinquity of objects of desire becomes an end in itself—try taking food from a hungry dog—and so can the lives of other beings. There is surely an inborn bond with one’s young, but partners and all those with whom need and satisfaction are densely interwoven are also constituted not merely as objects but as agents to be sought out and protected.
To be conscious is to live in a landscape of feeling. Although we are self-conscious and can distance ourselves from our experience, our worlds, too, are given to us through desire,[xvi] and as other people and other animals respond to our gestures, voice, scent, and touch we know them independently of our ability to conceive of the specifics of their perceptual apparatus.[xvii] We can never inhabit a bat’s world, but ours is similar enough for us to recognize it as a fellow being, to care for its disquiet, and to wrap it gently in a sheet and return it to its proper life.
[i] This may be an unnecessary exercise, because echolocation can operate without awareness at all. A quickly-returning echo can lead to a mid-air turn just as automatically as the heat of a stove can make us flinch.
[ii] Kathleen V. Wilkes, “Is Consciousness Important?”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep. 1984), pp. 223-243.
[iii] “What is it Like to be a Bat?” in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 166. (Journal publication in 1974.) Emphasis in the original.
[iv] See, e.g., P. M. S. Hacker, “Is There Anything It Is like to Be a Bat?”, Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 300 (Apr. 2002), pp. 157-174.
[v] Christopher Peacocke, The Mirror of the World: Subjects, Consciousness, and Self-Consciousness. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 41.
[vi] See Naomi Fisher, “Kant on Animal Minds,” Ergo, Vol. 4, No. 15 (2017), p. 441, at pp. 451-453.
[vii] David Hume, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P.H. Nidditch, A Treatise of Human Nature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1978), p. 252.
[viii] S. I. Hurley, Consciousness in Action. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 160.
[ix] J. G. Fichte, “From a Private Letter” in J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), trans. Curtis Bowman and Yolanda Estes. (London & New York: Routledge, 2020), p. 255.
[x] J. G. Fichte, The System of Ethics [SE], ed. and trans. by Daniel Breazeale and Günther Zöller. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 118.
[xi] This common assumption is untenable in the light of much recent plant science.
[xii] What Fichte meant by this freedom is a complex and much-debated problem.
[xiii] SE, p. 122-123. Fichte does identify reflection with full self-consciousness in this text (Ibid., 124), but his ambiguity in his use of “reflection” especially (as both acquaintance with inner states and cognition about such states) allows the argument made here, which is also consistent with his distinction between reflexivity and self-positing.
[xiv] Similar ideas of awareness and agency are found in nonconceptualist interpretations of Kant, such as those advanced by Lucy Allais.
[xv] SE, p. 118. Cf. Colin McLear, “Animals and Objectivity,” in John J. Callanan and Lucy Allais, eds., Kant and Animals. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 64: “animals experience a world that presents itself strictly in relation to the animal’s needs and interests, and is unified only according to coarse cognitive principles such as those of continuity and cohesion.” Fichte, of course, argues the human world is similarly constructed through our needs and interests.
[xvi] To be sure, self-consciousness broadens and deepens the experience of the world, but this is still born of affect. One theme of Kant’s Critique of Judgment is that aesthetic pleasure arises from the sense that the free play of our faculties moves in harmony with the activity of the world. In the experience of art or a beautiful landscape, then, we embrace the world as the image of gratified desire.
[xvii] The unusual condition of Capgras Syndrome, where sufferers correctly recognize the appearance of loved ones but consider them impostors, may arise from the disappearance of the emotional core around which other identifying percepts gather; this argues for affective response as primary in human identification of at least intimate others. See V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain. (New York, William Morrow, 1998), pp. 158-173.