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

Robert Pogue Harrison considers Markus Gabriel’s “The Meaning of Thought.”

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

The Meaning of Thought by Markus Gabriel. Polity Press. 256 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot resist invoking Emerson here, even if Gabriel never mentions him. When I consider the relative heterogeneity and separation of worlds, I think, above all, of Emerson’s remark, toward the end of “Experience”:

I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and shall observe it. One day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance. But I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.

Given its sanguinary history of revolution and ideological warfare, the 20th century did not do a good job of “observing that difference.” And Western civilization in the 21st century seems wholly committed to pursuing new “manipular attempts to realize the world of thought,” this time through the sorcery of digital technologies. Gabriel descries such attempts, and he inveighs against them lucidly and persuasively.

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

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

Gabriel’s attempt to renaturalize human intelligence runs headlong into a major problem, though — that is, that “[t]he human being is the animal that doesn’t want to be one.” That is the first sentence of Gabriel’s introduction. The conflicted and unreconciled nature of human beings invites the suspicion that human intelligence is not natural and that maybe it has some other deviant, even preternatural origin. Gabriel himself quotes Kant on the inveterate perversity of human nature. The human being, as Kant writes,

reduces himself and others of his own species, by means of plagues he invents for himself, such as the oppression of domination, the barbarism of war, etc., to such need, and he works so hard for the destruction of his own species, that even if the most beneficient nature outside of us had made the happiness of our species its end, that end would not be attained in a system of nature upon the earth, because the nature inside of us is not receptive to that.

Gabriel would like to sequester or reeducate this other nature inside of us that leads to social injustice and dehumanization. His proposal for an enlightened humanism would put that darker nature in chains, like the Titans, and “bring humanity forward” under the auspices of Enlightenment values such as freedom, the exercise of reason, the treatment of all human beings as ends rather than means, equality of opportunity, and so forth. Unlike traditional humanism, which took “white, European, adult, politically significant and well-to-do men as the standard of being human,” enlightened humanism holds that “everyone, whether foreigner, native, friend, neighbour, woman, child, man, coma patient or transsexual, counts as human in the full sense.”

I am all for reinvigorating universalist Enlightenment values, yet when I read that quote by Kant I recognize our own late-modern society in it, and I wonder why we have, in the two centuries that separate us from Kant, become all the more ingenious at inventing plagues for ourselves, at augmenting beyond all measure the barbarism of war, and plotting our own destruction. I commend the verses of Durs Grünbein that serve as the epigraph of The Meaning of Thought: “Technology, the little titanic mistake, is / Nothing that saves humanity from itself.” Technology is more likely to hasten our self-annihilation than save us from it. Gabriel seeks to provide guidelines for how “we might together rediscover our sense of thought [and] calibrate it in a way that lets us begin to clear away the errors generated by the industrial mechanisms of unbridled technological progress.” In fact, much of his work is devoted to “correcting” what he views as thought mistakes. Yet what if technology, and AI in particular, are not mistakes to be recalibrated by clear thinking? What if modern technology’s inner, unavowed drive has its roots in what Kant called “the conflict in the natural dispositions of the human”? What if it is the principal means by which the conflict unfolds in our era?

Rather than conclude in a facile manner with a string of leading questions, let me instead assert that neither humanity nor technology is going to submit to the claims of rationality or the dictates of moral insight. There is something in the human that loathes the human and actively seeks to surmount, if not extirpate, it. Whatever that something is, one cannot reason with it. One must lure it out of hiding and confront it on its own psychotic terms. Laying down norms for action will not help us to work through, rather than act out, our species’ insanity. That insanity has in many ways already colonized our rationality. What is called for is a dark psychology of the acting-out process itself. We cannot bring our humanity forward unless we first bring to light the insurrectional rage against death and finitude that agitates the depths of the human psyche.

That, however, is a topic for another book, so perhaps Markus Gabriel’s trilogy could become a quartet.


Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of several books, among them Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008).

LARB Contributor

Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of several books, among them Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008).


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