by Jon Mills
A patient once told me, “I’m not living; I’m just existing.” From the felt-interiority of prolonged melancholy, life and existence become opposites. “I am not alive, I merely exist” expresses a qualitative state of loss and lack, at once both a presence and an absence, that which is missing and that which is not. What is present is the “something missing,” and what is absent is the qualitative enjoyment of presence. Unlike Sartre’s axiom “existence precedes essence,” here existence becomes the absence of life—the continuity of nothingness, where the human spirit is reduced to being merely an enduring thing.
To me the phenomenon of life is not a question of biological facticity or organic cellular organization, nor the complex systems underlying the energetic stratification of material substance, but rather it is the qualitative vitality of experience. The quality (qualis) of life pertains to a class of events that is distinguished by its particular kind(s). Here particularity supersedes the universal: from the perspective of the singular, existing concrete subject who lacks, life is absent because it is abject. If quality is the internal self-regulatory touchstone for which life itself rests, then experience can never be a neutral phenomenon. If we accept this premise that life and qualia are inseparable psychic categories that inform the lifeworld of each person, then we cannot speak of life devoid of valuational properties without plummeting the human being into the abyss of thinghood, of merely existing. Therefore life is an inherent axiological process punctuated by qualitative contingencies peculiar to the experiential-hermeneutic subject who lends value or worth to the presence or absence of such qualities it experiences.
For Dilthey, experience was life, what he referred to as Erlebnis (lived experience), a primordial reality of consciousness that is prereflective. In other words, what is “lived” is the immediate inner presence of something, an unconscious consciousness. But here “life” is left unexplained. It is merely an a priori, a formal given? If existence precedes essence, then what is the essence of life? For ontologists, essence is the formal parameters that allow for and condition all experience; while for phenomenologists, essence is how we individually define or assign a qualitative attribution to our experiential lives. This involves self-consciousness or reflection, for qualitative experience requires mediatory agency to lend it any value. When the question of life is approached from the standpoint of qualia, the question then becomes one of existential self-definition and the valuation of lived experience.
Qualitative valuation, I argue, is the essence of life. Without it life is vapid and meaningless. Life is more than mere existence, as my patient reminds us. Life is constructed and given value based on qualifications. And these qualifications are e/valuative, hence based upon the critical (analytic) or judgmental (discerning) nature of our valuation processes. The continuation of experiential complexity that underlies the processential nature of our subjectivity is organized around qualitative variants. It is these qualitative variations that lend a certain zeal to inner experience, which may be the psychological equivalent to an affectively laden animism. But here spirit is not some supernatural force, rather it is a vitalizing principle that animates the psyche—spiritus, to breathe.
Life is not merely experience. Or put another way, experience in-itself is not tantamount to life per se. If that were the case, then there would be no difference between humans, Darwin’s worms, a blade of grass, and a cell. Life demands a qualitative factor that only the human psyche can generate. This is the meaning-making power of valuation that transcends the banality of ordinary experience under the governance of our biological bodies or sentient thrownness. Sentience is not life in any qualitative sense of higher-order experience, only a precondition of our embodied, sensuous, and perceptual faculties. The work of our vitalizing principle requires us to craft our lived experience, in short, to create and redefine who we are, what we value, what we long for, and what we wish to become.
The qualitative self-organization of the soul (Seele), as the experiential complexity that generates lifevalue, is in essence the animating principle underlying the core of our being. This makes life an affective phenomenon, not merely a cognitive (let alone rational) enterprise. It is also not confined to conscious order, for the large majority of psychic processes are unconscious constellations of experience. In this regard, qualia is life—at once both a universal and a deeply singular, personal idiosyncratic expression of interiority, our private felt self-relation to inner being.
Feeling the qualitative permutations of life presupposes an element of self-reflectivity in order for there to be any judgement of valuation assigned to such feeling self-states; and this in turn acquires meaning systems that connect affectivity to valuation. Therefore the trinity of affect, value, and meaning becomes an intersecting desirous-ideational unit of inner experience that properly signifies and defines subjective qualia. And if we further construe the meaning of this meaning to the human psyche, then life becomes purposeful value-laden experience that is crucially significant to our human functionality and worth. Valuation lies at the very heart of life, for life is about quality. Here life acquires a transcendent function, for we seek to experience and realize a future full of qualitative value. This is why the etymology of the word ‘experience’ derives from the Latin experiri, to try. Like my patient, we all must try to continuously breathe spirit into life, a life worth living.
JON MILLS, Psy.D., Ph.D., ABPP
Professor of Psychology & Psychoanalysis
Adler Graduate Professional School, Toronto
Diplomate in Psychoanalysis & Clinical Psychology
Fellow, American Board of Professional Psychology
Director, Mills Psychology Prof. Corp.
1104 Shoal Point Rd., Ajax, ON L1S 1E2 Canada
Direct Line: 289-800-1927
Office Ph./Fax: 905-686-7184