- Dreaming, Imagining, and First-person Methods in Philosophy:Commentary on Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being
Evan’s book is in many ways an exercise in remapping. The first is suggested by the book’s title. Waking, Dreaming, Being challenges existing ways of mapping the conceptual relationship between conscious states across the sleep-wake cycle. The idea that waking and dreaming are not discrete states but can interpenetrate each other—that, to use Evan’s words, they “aren’t opposed but flow into and out of [one] an other” (Thompson 2014, p. 11)—is a central theme running through the book. If Evan is correct, then the taxonomy of conscious states that underlies large parts of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience has to be redrawn. As Evan tells us in the introduction, the book’s organizing principle comes from the Upanishads, “the world’s first recorded of map of consciousness” (p. xxxiii). Following this older map, Waking, Dreaming, Being reflects the idea that there are four principle states of the self: waking, dreaming, deep dreamless sleep, and pure awareness. The confrontation of classical Indian arguments on the mind with results from cognitive neuroscience stands to transform and enrich both sides of the debate.
This brings me to the second way in which Evan’s book is an exercise in re-mapping. The book interweaves a unique set of sources, including cognitive neuro-science, Indian philosophy, and contemplative practice, but also Chinese and Western philosophy, poetry and fiction, and autobiographical elements. The result is a rich and beautifully crafted piece of cross-cultural philosophy that reflects Evan’s personal background as well as his unique expertise. There are not many scholars who would be able to navigate these different disciplines and integrate them so fluidly, and there are even fewer who could do this in such a way as to render this diverse material accessible to readers from different disciplinary backgrounds, from within and outside academia. While many of the ideas discussed throughout the book are abstract and theoretical, their discussion is always informed by the concrete and the personal. One result is that the book is highly idiosyncratic, and systematically so. For this reason, Waking, Dreaming, Being transgresses disciplinary borders not just because of its diverse and cross-cultural sources, but also because of the role played throughout the book by autobiographical accounts and reports based on Evan’s own firsthand experience. While the Upanishads may have suggested the topic matter and the conceptual framework that organize the book, these personal accounts provide an organizing principle on the formal or structural level. [End Page 959]
In this commentary, I will focus on questions related to both types of organizing principles and the different forms of remapping that they give rise to. The first will concern disciplinary remapping. Here, I consider whether the distinctly autobiographical tone of Waking, Dreaming, Being could potentially be not just a matter of style and presentation, but exemplify a distinct philosophical practice in which the author’s own experience reports have a unique argumentative function. If so, this leads to potentially far-reaching and subversive questions on how philosophy should be practiced and how it should be taught. Does it make a difference for the defense of philosophical arguments whether authors consider their own experience, and is it permissible, in philosophy, to argue from one’s case? How exactly can philosophers profit from firsthand familiarity with the types of conscious states they are discussing? Do we, in other words, need something like disciplined and systematic first-person methods not just in interdisciplinary consciousness research but in philosophy of mind? And might this be a way in which philosophical methodology could be informed by contemplative traditions? I invite Evan to address these questions in more detail because I suspect that the unique presentational style of the book is in fact closely related to its subject matter and the traditions from which it draws, and that a consideration of potential metaphilosophical consequences will be instructive.
In the second part of the commentary, I turn to Evan’s discussion of the relationship between dreaming, imagining, and perceiving. I argue that his suggestion...