Subjectivity, Rational Thinking and the Inabiility to Understand Autism


Autism Spectrum Disorders present us with an immediate ontological problem: given the wide diversity of symptomology, how is it that we are easily able to view this diversity as fundamentally one issue? While it perhaps took a number of studies to demonstrate the notion that the diverse symptoms were somehow related, even those studies were based on an a priori understanding that somehow they were related. Yet nothing in our standard, rational view of things unites the symptoms.

Rationality itself has, since the Renaissance at least, if not earlier, understood itself as subjective and representational. While the nature of the subject has been under constant dispute (and from Kant to modern cognitive science, the apparent paradox that the subject is nothing at all but a posit for which representation is represented), the apparently obvious question of what does the representing and what is initially presented such that it is available for representation has barely been asked. Since most thinking, and most science, is accomplished in the mode of subjective, representational being, this lack of questioning something so basic is understandable. When thinking about things in an abstractive, representational, subjective manner that which does the representing, as well as that which experiences the initial presentation such that it can be represented, must simply be assumed as a priori.

Thought about properly, the presentational unity of the symptomology of ASD, contrasted with its representational lack of unity, gives us a clue as to the ontological nature of ASD itself. Representation is primarily a visual mode of thinking, to the degree that Heidegger could with justification call the modern world the “age of the world picture”. Parmenides substantial view of things is a natural way to “see” the world, while the flux of Heracleitas is more easily comprehensible if we close our eyes and experience the world aurally. The flux of temporality is immediately accessible to our hearing, though not as much to our sight. The understanding, which underlies all understanding, arising in our initial experience of the presentation of what is within-the-world we refer to as intuitive understanding. But this is precisely where we do understand the variety of symptoms of ASD as fundamentally a unity, intuitively, while rationally it appears as a set of symptoms with no immediately obvious connection. The flux of temporality is immediately presented to our intuitive understanding, but that presentation is not carried over into our subjective, rational understanding, where reality is made more static and more substantive, and simultaneously much simpler. This simplification is necessary for us to make rational judgements, since taking into account every possible parameter would make us incapable of making timely judgements.

When those who are describing their experience of reality while engrossed in something, particularly something that requires some sort of taking into account many more parameters in a timely manner than our rational thought is capable of, an oddity of our use of language becomes apparent. While we generally view the difference between the terms “I” and “me” as subjective and objective, respectively, this arises from a language already based on that assumption, or at least on the related assumption of subject and predicate. Thus in Rastafarianism, for example, “me” is not used because it “objectifies” the person. But in speaking of some experience of reality where we are not thinking “rationally” but of necessity are acting intuitively, we avoid the term “I”, and since we are drilled from childhood not to use “me” prior to the verb in a sentence, we fall into the habit of using “you”, even though we are talking about something we as individuals precisely do and experience.

As an example of this, listening to someone who plays European football at a high level, which requires a constant intuitive understanding of every players position, motion, and likely changes in such, together with the same of the ball, and requires that understanding to be at such a degree of accuracy that milliseconds of timing off will prevent any play from working, the term “I” is virtually never used. Precisely how the mind is capable of experiencing reality as it were in “slow motion”, as some sort of mix of the effects of adrenaline on the nervous system and the effect of learning and habituating taking into account so many parameters is an interesting problem in itself, but one we won’t go into further here. Instead, the footballer involved will use such language as “when a cross is coming in, you think about the different things you could do, you make a decision, and then you do it almost at the same time”. Somehow the term “I” is experienced as inappropriate, while substituting “me” is simply so against our upbringing as to be impossible, yet the person involved is referring to what they do as individuals, not at all to what the person listening does.

The lack of any intrinsic content, the negativity of the subject, is related to this inappropriateness of the “I” specifically when the topic is presented, intuitive experience, precisely because the “I” doesn’t exist in that situation. While the self certainly exists as that to which presentation is presented, this self is not at all equivalent to the subject for which representation is represented. In fact is it the self that does the representing of what is represented for the subject, and so initially posits the subject itself as that for which the representation is to be represented.

As we said earlier, one of the main things that “drops out” between presentation and representation is our basic experience of the flux of temporality. Given that difficulties of temporal awareness have been consistently noted in various observations of those with different symptomologies of ASD, might it be the case that we intuitively understand it as one thing precisely because our own experience of temporality is intact in that experience, while it is no longer intact in our representational thinking about ASD? Only in the situation where we intuitively compare our own experience of temporality with the experiences manifest in different types of ASD can we immediately sense that the basic difference is one of the experience of temporality itself. This may manifest primarily as a difficulty in temporal sequencing, a difficulty in experience of duration, or any combination of these, but despite the radically different set of symptoms any given different experience of temporality is liable to give rise to, we intuitively understand all these different symptomologies as arising from a different basic experience of temporality.

The difficulty, then, of understanding how “neurotypical” people experience temporality from a neurological standpoint is key to understanding how autism arises, and particularly why in certain locales and cultures its prevalence is increasing radically. Our ability to experience temporality goes against the usual model of the neurosciences as far as the functioning of the neurological system goes, but there are more recent ideas on the topic that may be of use in solving both problems.


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