Feliks Mikhailov 1976
The Riddle of the Self

4. Towards a Solution

The impasse we have been brought to by Kant only goes to show once again that even theoretical philosophy, when based entirely on “common sense”, does not solve the problem of the essence and nature of knowledge and consciousness. Admittedly, philosophy is better than the common sense approach in that it states the question correctly. Man’s conscious life is presented to us as a clearly formulated riddle, which is an achievement in itself.

Kant himself, the founder of German classical philosophy, who better than anyone else exposed all the flaws in contemplative epistemology, began to grope for solutions beyond its framework. I have in mind his urge to understand man’s active role in the process of cognition. It is man himself, Kant assumed, who organises and guides his experience, the objects of cognition being formed in the movement of his thought. At some point man ceased to be a passive side of the interrelationship with nature and became an active element operating according to its own inner laws. Kant failed to reveal the true source of human activity, and he was looking for it, as we say, in the wrong place – in man himself, in the properties of his consciousness. But the idea was not lost. The activeness of human consciousness contrasted to and divorced from passive nature, gave rise to a new theoretical contradiction that occupied the minds of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

Historical events made this problem particularly urgent. Philosophy was confronted with the world of real history, a world that was not sleepily inert but in a process of destruction and creation by human beings themselves. Revolution is an act of historical, popular creation. It demonstrates clearly enough man’s ability to actively change the world in which he lives. In this case it was a world that was considered to be in accord with man’s essential nature. But history itself stood on the threshold of the quiet and cosy studies of the philosophers, and Hegel, the great German idealist philosopher, opened the doors wide to welcome it.

As a student, the young Hegel, and his friends, greeted the French revolution with the greatest enthusiasm. Hegel studied events in France and envisaged the future of his native Germany as a bourgeois-democratic republic cloaked in an Athenian toga. During the restoration, some fundamental changes were to take place in the philosopher’s view of the world. He became reconciled to the “objective course of history” and accepted the Prussian constitutional monarchy as the highest manifestation of the idea of the state, but what matters to us at the moment is this great and direct interest in social history, the history of the state, law and religion which Hegel showed in building his philosophical conception. He also made a serious study of political economy. And in investigating the complex logical and epistemological problems posed by Kant, Fichte and Schelling he found himself face to face with man, the maker of history, the active transformer of life.

For Hegel the active nature of the consciousness was from the very first related to man’s social essence, but on the other hand this social essence itself, man’s social history, was seen as a result of human activity.

German classical philosophy, which embraced not simply “man in general”, but a historically active man, regarded his activity primarily as something spiritual, as the self-development of the consciousness. The need for social reforms on German soil produced not specific political slogans indicating the goals of specific actions, but general definitions of man, which had to be studied by the means and methods of philosophy. German history demanded active struggle, but the incapable cowardly German burghers produced their own peculiar historical paradox. The more thoroughly the theoreticians of the German bourgeoisie studied activity in the idea, the more incapable they proved to be in politics and practice.

For history as a whole, however, the German immersion in the theory of human activity ultimately turned out to be something of great revolutionary significance. True, if we are concerned directly with German classical philosophy (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel), it must be emphasised that this “immersion in the theory of activity” did not bring them down to bedrock. It was a deep submersion in the waves of theory and theory alone (ideas), and for this reason even the reality that these philosophers studied remained for them only a sphere of the spirit. And this in its turn prevented them from overcoming the idealist interpretation of history.

Before Hegel (with the exception of Fichte and Schelling) philosophers had tried to understand the human consciousness by studying the role of sensations, representations, will, imagination, speech, thought, and so on, in man’s effective activity. Attention was focussed on the universal forms in which thought “processed” the data of direct sensuous experience. But the question of the origin of consciousness and its forms was not even posed. Man with all his various attributes was regarded as something given, ready-made – whether by nature or God, it didn’t matter. Such in general was the logic of empirical science: take the ready-made facts without their history, just as they are given in experience, and establish their general features, their constantly repeated connections (laws). But study of the ready-made mental “elements” of consciousness in their constant regular interaction could at best answer the question “how” and not “why.” How a person thinks, but not why he is capable of thinking.

The most surprising and, from the empiricists’ point of view, inexplicable thing was that a different logic, a logic enabling us to see the object of investigation not as something static, not only ready-made, but also in its dynamics, in the process of formation, was born in hazy, purely philosophical contrasts that seemed to be far removed from direct experience – the Ego and not-Ego of Fichte, and Schelling’s mysterious reasoning about their “absolute identity.” What of any real value could a natural scientist gain from discussing how the Ego (and not just my, individual, personal Ego, my consciousness, but some general, spirit of the race), presupposes not-Ego (what may be called Nature), how the Ego releases the not-Ego, turns it round in front of itself and finds there – its own Ego? What was all this? It sounded like pure fantasy, the ramblings of a mind remote from life and reality. Both the method of thought and the language, and even the concepts were alien to common sense and the usual concrete notions of empirical science.

But the serious and attentive reader who knows the history of philosophy finds nothing fantastic in this statement. He will study Fichte with delight and see how the Ego (in which Fichte envisages the whole sphere of the spirit, consciousness, the mysterious active force transforming the world) presupposes a not-Ego (with which he identifies the resistance to the spirit offered by inert matter). Knowing Kant, he will be interested to watch Fichte’s attempt to find in the movement of the spirit the answer to the question of how universal forms of reason are related to the particular phenomena of experience. And his interest will grow as lie finds that these universal forms are presented not as empty envelopes into which the facts of experience are forced, but as stages or moments in the active motion of the spirit in its relation to not-spirit, to external nature, that is opposed to spirit.

The thoughtful reader of Fichte will be unable to dismiss as a myth or a fairy-tale what seems absurd to common sense: the notion of external nature, opposed to the spirit, as a kind of “mirror” of the spirit, and produced by the spirit itself. This means that nature itself is spirit, a moment of its motion, a result of its “self-dichotomy”? You say this is absurd? This is mythology? Science will have none of such tricks! But just a minute, our perceptive reader retorts, natural science itself abounds in all kinds of mythology, such as Cuvier’s “species”, created by a series of acts of divine creation. One may disagree with Fichte, but he is undoubtedly right about one thing: knowledge (including natural scientific) about the external world is a form of the activity of the spirit (consciousness) and nature presents itself to the reason in the forms of the reason’s own activity, in the forms of its motion. This is an important idea, even though Fichte may find no source of its activity or the logic of its motion except in the “dichotomy” of the spirit itself (reason, consciousness). But he has no other means of explaining the fact that any knowledge is a form of the activity and existence of man himself. So he deduces the not-Ego (nature) from the Ego (consciousness).

Of course, this is arrant idealism. The Ego (human consciousness) has swallowed everything: the thoughts and feelings of individuals, all objects, all nature as a whole. But it is not enough merely to record this fact. We must look for a correct explanation of the activity of consciousness. Let us see where Hegel leads us on from Fichte.

Yes, it’s time we got back to Hegel. Our digression on Fichte was needed to illustrate the highly important proposition that the new (not empirical) logic, the logic of studying objects not statically but in their motion, their development, was born in the idealist conceptions of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, “vague”, “distorted”, “mad” (as the physicists since Niels Bohr like to say) though these conceptions appeared to honoured common sense. It was not for nothing that Lenin, when making his conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic, noted the aphorism: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!

And it is also worth recalling that Lenin’s philosophical legacy includes the article On the Significance of Militant Materialism, where he writes: “Modern natural scientists (if they know how to seek, and if we learn to help them) will find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science....... In the same article he writes of the need to organise “a kind of ‘Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics’.”

Basing himself on the solid national tradition (the German enlightenment, Kant, Fichte, Schelling), Hegel from the outset links the activeness of human consciousness not with the peculiarities of man’s bodily, natural, organisation, but with the process of each individual’s active assimilation of the spiritual wealth accumulated by previous history, and with the realisation of what he has assimilated in his own activity that overcomes the resistance of object. For Hegel, it is not man’s bodily organisation that forms the basis of how and why he acts. On the contrary, even the peculiarities of bodily organisation are in a certain sense both a premise and a result of his activity. This is what Hegel writes on the subject: “The individual ... has an original determinate being of his own .... This being, the ‘body’ of the determinate individuality, is its original source, that in the making of which it has had nothing to do (ihr Nichtgetanhaben). But since the individual at the same time merely is what he has done, his body is also an expression of himself which lie has brought about; a sign and indication as well, which has not remained a bare immediate fact, but through which the individual makes known what is actually implied by his setting his original nature to work ...” [Phenomenology]

For Hegel “the true being of a man is ... his act.” And the individual’s actions are connected in their motivation (their cause) with the purpose and destination of the surrounding objects, which the individual masters in the process of training (education).

If we try to present in the most general and popular form the propositions from which Hegel builds his grandiose system, we arrive at the following.

Hegel does not question the everyday fact that every concrete individual human action is evoked by thought, by the conscious setting of an aim. Before acting, a person makes a decision in his mind and the future result of the action presents itself as an ideal idea or image. The will mobilises the “forces of the body” and the person overcomes the resistance of external objects and achieves his aim. Thus he converts his ideal idea into a perfectly tangible material fact (object, and so on). Now that fact or object itself confronts the person as an external object, an objectified idea, an idea that has become a thing and is according to Hegel, his own spirit alienated from him and opposed to him. For example, the motor-car is above all a thing, and sometimes a thing highly inimical to man, if the latter happens to be a forgetful pedestrian or a careless driver. But this same car is also a person’s objectified desire to get about quickly and comfortably. It is a dream turned into a thing, a will placed on four entirely material wheels. The motor-car is theory, logic, and calculation driving about the streets.

The human being lives in the world of things. He is directly surrounded by things created by previous generations. Consider the matter carefully. Man’s every movement, every action is an action involving a thing that has previously been created by people. The sum total of these things makes up the grandiose “body of human civilisation”; it is the result of the activity of many generations, humanity’s objectified history. And since every thing, being a particle, a cell of the whole material body of history, was created in order to satisfy certain desires, needs, fantasies, and finally since each thing is man’s own spirit objectified and alienated from man, this must mean that the world of the objects of civilisation as a whole is the ideal world of the spirit, of the consciousness, inert and settled in its material embodiment.

And it is this “world” that the individual’s consciousness encounters (as something external to it). Encounters? No, not simply encounters or meets as a fully developed individual. The individual himself, his needs and his ways of satisfying them, that is, the modes of his life-activity, his interaction with other individuals and with the whole world of things are not given, not ready-made. They appear, take shape and develop in the process of mastering the objective existing “body of civilisation.” Thus, for Hegel the consciousness is not a gift from the gods or from nature, not the point of departure of philosophy, not the beginning, but always, at every instant, the result and continuation of the process of assimilating the object world, the world of things created by humanity in the whole period of human history. The consciousness itself is thus seen by Hegel as a process.

So, on the one hand, we have the history of humankind, constantly enshrining its achievements in the form of an unencompassable sea of objects of material and spiritual culture. This, according to Hegel, is the history of the human spirit, the history of the development of human consciousness. History and its material embodiment – the “body of civilisation” – is a process of unfolding all the potentialities of the human spirit. On the other hand, according to Hegel, the individual consciousness of each separate person appears and takes shape in his individual history. This is also a process. Moreover, Hegel notes that the developing consciousness of the individual (since his development is the constant assimilation of the gifts of social history, from the simplest, most rudimentary to the latest and most complex) repeats all the basic stages of the development of general human culture.

The development of the individual consciousness represents the gradual drawing of the individual into the spiritual treasure-house of humanity as a whole: the individual’s consciousness may make its contribution to that treasure but only if, first, it acquires sufficient mastery of the amassed riches and, second, if it is able itself to resolve the contradictions that have accumulated there – the contradictions of social history. It is not difficult to see that the individual consciousness thus becomes only a part of the grandiose whole, a part in which this whole finds its one-sided expression.

What is this whole? It is easy to write “the whole is the consciousness of all humankind”, the “spirit of the history of society”, and so on. But how does this spirit exist in reality? Society as a whole has no special head differing from our (yours and mine) individual heads. Then perhaps it is the aims, desires, will and ideas of each individual taken in sum that are this famous “spirit of history”?

And here we again run up against the “universal forms” of consciousness, which were always a stumbling block to the philosophers of the past. Both the empiricists and the rationalists regarded them as forms inherent specifically in the consciousness of the individual. For Hegel, on the other hand, individual consciousness – both its forms and content – develops in the process of mastering the “spirit” of human history. Consequently, even the universal forms of consciousness are represented mainly in the objective structure of the very “body of civilisation.” Hegel cannot regard them as congenital or even taking shape repeatedly in the head of the individual merely because his head is “built that way.” If the individual’s consciousness is primarily a process of being drawn into the “whole”, which repeats in the history of the individual the basic stages of the history of society, the universal forms in which this process takes place must also be forms of the flow of this social-history itself. So the law-governed development of universal forms of people’s historical activity is the “whole” we are looking for – the logic of history, its spiritual foundation. It is not the consciousness of the individual and not the sum of all the individual’s thoughts, emotions, knowledge, desires and so on, but something higher and greater, something clearly supra-individual, something that has its own internal logic of development, that does not depend on the will and desire of individuals.

We have only to consider the history of science. In his youth every future scientist studiously “chews its granite”, masters the system of knowledge in which the laws of nature are strictly and consistently recorded. Now note the following: the orderly scientific theory preserves in the very consistency of its principles the history of their discoveries. Admittedly, later discoveries throw new light on those that preceded them, we often rethink them and come to a deeper understanding of their essence. But all previous discoveries themselves remain intact and in principle preserve their internal logic. What is embodied in this logic? The desires and aspirations of the individuals creating science? To some degree, perhaps. But only to the degree to which their desires and aspirations coincide with the internal logic of the discoveries themselves, which they have mastered. The immediate content of these discoveries and, hence, their continuity do not depend on the will and desire of the scientists. This content is made up of essential definitions of phenomena of the objective world, and the continuity is the logic of the connection of these definitions, the logic of the development of their historical cognition (from the relatively simple to the more complex). The law of gravity cannot be formulated while there is no concept of centrifugal and centripetal forces. One cannot arrive at the formula E= mc2 if mathematics has not yet emerged from Euclidean space, and so on. Science thus reveals itself to us (as it did to Hegel) as a process, whose source and “regulator” are just as objective in relation to each individual as to all individuals taken as a whole.

Science as a whole, as a process with its internal logic of development is a supra-individual phenomenon, although it is always realised by the actions of individuals. Thus the whole question centres on what or who, if not the individual, fulfils the role of the source and regulator of historical motion? The individual cannot claim to play this lofty role. He is himself a part, a partial embodiment of historical motion. The individual possesses consciousness (spirit) insofar as the spirit of history has possessed him, insofar as history acts in him and through him. He is a scientist (in our example) and this merely means that the objective development of science has caught him up in its mighty stream. He has mastered the history that passes without him and apart from his will, he has become privy to its secrets, and permeated with its logic. Science as the individual spiritual heritage of society has become the instrument and field of his activity: its notions are his personal view of the world, its knowledge is his personal means of communicating with the world. Through becoming involved in science he has taken shape as an individual, and in the process of his individual development the basic stages of the development of science as a whole have been repeated in abbreviated form. In this way Hegel gave an explanation of something that bad appeared to be utterly inexplicable before him: the origin and role of the universal forms of individual human thought that guide experience but are not to be deduced from individual experience.

The universal forms of thought turned out to be nothing else but the supra-individual historical “stages” or forms assumed by the tempestuous flow of human history only to burst out again in a welter of human passions and then flow back into the new forms it had created. These are, in fact, the categories – the universal forms of man’s activity and relationship to the world as a whole, the forms in which thought is actually realised and which guide (determine) the “course” of our experience. And since the individual in the process of his social training and education absorbs human history precisely in the forms in which it was realised, they become the forms of his reason, the forms (and framework) in which his thinking and sensuous empirical activity take place. Though not generated in the experience of the individual as such, they are generated in the “experience of history” and are its forms, and only for this reason, forms of the individual history of each of us.

This was a colossal scientific discovery, which provided a fruitful summing-up of the intense efforts of the philosophers of the New Age.

And yet “revolving of consciousness in itself” on the level of the extra-individual world spirit is no more productive than its isolation, its hopeless languishing in the individual framework set by Kant. The impasse of subjective idealism was replaced by the impasse of objective idealism. Merely calling consciousness God does not bring us any nearer to understanding its essence. But here again we are more concerned with judging the way the search was conducted than with its ultimate result. Hegel was the first philosopher to draw attention to the role of material, productive activity and the instruments of labour in the process of development of knowledge. He clearly enunciated the theory that individual consciousness is formed under the influence of knowledge accumulated by society and demonstrated the narrowness and inadequacy of the definition of consciousness as nature’s gift to the individual. His study of the objectively developing institutions and forms of the intellectual life of society underlined the need to solve the problem of the relationship between social and individual consciousness. But the honour of solving the problems posed by the history of philosophy was to fall to Karl Marx.

Since the remaining chapters of this book will be devoted to an account of how the riddle of the Self is solved from Marxist positions, there is no need to dwell on the road Marx travelled to reach the scientific solution of the basic question of philosophy. For the reader with a knowledge of Russian there are some interesting books on this subject.

However, despite the fundamental solution Marx offered to the riddle of the Self, it still remains a riddle to those who try to approach it from non-Marxist positions. The next chapter deals with certain questions that are bound to arise in this connection.

Contents | Chapter 2