Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
Prev Next

Chapter 3. Consciousness of the World and the World of Consciousness

Table of Contents

The General Concept of Consciousness and Mental Activity
The Material and the Spiritual
Consciousness and Language

The General Concept of Consciousness and Mental Activity

Definition of consciousness. Human beings possess the most wonderful of all gifts—reason with its keen insight into the remote past and the future, its penetration into the sphere of the unknown, its world of dreams and fantasy, creative solutions to practical and theoretical problems and the realisation of the most daring plans. As the highest level of human mental activity, consciousness is one of the basic concepts of philosophy, psychology and sociology. The unique nature of this activity lies in the fact that the reflection of reality, and its constructive-creative transformation in the form of sensuous and mental images, concepts and ideas, anticipate practical action by individuals and social groups and give them a goal, an orientation.

Humanity's finest minds have from ancient times sought the answer to one of the greatest mysteries of existence. What is the nature of man's spiritual world? All the forces of reason—science, philosophy, art, literature—have combined in the effort to cast light on this mysterious realm known as consciousness. At the early stages in the development of philosophy, psychological phenomena were interpreted with out any strict distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, the ideal and the material. The basis of conscious action was termed Logos, which meant word, idea, essence of things, the logic of existence, and the value of human reason was determined by the degree to which it corresponded to this Logos, the objective universal order. Psychological processes were thus identified with the material (air, the motion of atoms, and so on).

The borderline between man's inherent processes of consciousness and material phenomena was first noted by the Sophists, and later by Socrates, who stressed the uniqueness of acts of consciousness in comparison with the material existence of things. The objective content of consciousness was elevated by Plato into a specific world of ideas, a realm of pure thought and beauty contrasted to everything material. Just as for the whole universe the incorporeal reason was the prime mover, the source of harmony and strength, capable of comprehending itself, so in every individual the mind contemplated itself and at the same time functioned as the active principle regulating behaviour.

The achievements of science and particularly medicine played an important role in shaping philosophical views of consciousness as a specific, higher form of mental activity. They made it possible to delimit consciousness as the human being's ability to have knowledge of his own mental, emotional and volitional acts as distinct from other mental phenomena.

In ancient philosophy, consciousness was closely associated with reason, which was considered to be cosmic, a generalisation of the real world, a synonym for universal law.

In the Middle Ages consciousness was interpreted as a transcendental principle (God), which existed before nature and created nature out of nothing. Reason was understood as an attribute of God, and human beings were granted only a tiny "spark" of the all-pervasive flame of the Divine Reason. At the same time Christianity conceived the idea of the spontaneous activity of the soul, which included consciousness. According to Saint Augustine, all knowledge resided in the soul which lived and moved in God. The truth of this knowledge was rooted in inward experience; the soul turned inwardly upon itself, achieving profound and utterly reliable comprehension of its own activity. As time went on the concept of inward experience became the basis for the so-called introspective conception of consciousness. For Thomas Aquinas inward experience was a means of obtaining deeper knowledge of oneself and communication with the supreme being through conscious reason. The unconscious soul was reserved for plants and animals, while the mental activity of human being, from sensation onwards, was considered to have the attributes of consciousness. The concept of intentio was introduced as a special operation of consciousness, expressed in its reference to or orientation on an external object. The materialist traditions that existed during the Middle Ages were developed by the thinkers of the Arab world, particularly Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), and in Europe, for example, by Duns Scotus, who proposed the theory that matter could think.

The greatest influence on the problem of consciousness in the philosophy of modern times was exerted by Descartes, who in giving precedence to the factor of self-consciousness regarded consciousness as the individual's contemplation of his own internal world, as a substance revealed only to the subject contemplating it and contrasted with the outside world. According to Descartes, the soul only thought and the body only moved. This view had a tremendous influence on all subsequent theories of consciousness, which came to be identified With the subject's ability to have knowledge of his own mental states. Cartesianism was counterbalanced by the theory of unconscious mental activity (Leibnitz). The French materialists of the 18th century (particularly Le Mettrie and Cabanis) based themselves on progress in physiology and medicine and founded the proposition that conscience was a particular function of the brain, distinguished from its other functions by the fact that it enabled man to acquire knowledge of nature and himself.

A new era in interpretation of the origin and structure of consciousness was opened up by German classical idealism, which revealed different levels of the organisation of consciousness, its activity, historicity, the dialectics of the sensuous and the logical, the individual and the social. In their critique of introspective psychology they showed the dependence of the individual's emotions, perceptions and the content of his consciousness on forms and structures of cognition that did not depend on him (Kant's theory of transcendental apperception). Hegel surmised the socio-historical nature of consciousness and asserted the principle of historicity in the understanding of consciousness. He proceeded on the assumption that the consciousness of the individual (the subjective spirit), being necessarily connected with the object, was determined by the historical forms of social life; these, however, he interpreted idealistically, as embodiment of the objective spirit.

Positive knowledge of consciousness was substantially enriched by advances in neurophysiology (specifically, the theories of I. M. Sechenov and his followers on the reflectory activity of the brain) and by experimental psychology.

Dialectical materialism showed that consciousness arises, functions and develops in the process of people's interaction with reality, on the basis of their sensuously objective activity, their socio-historical practice. Since it reflects the objective world in its content, consciousness is determined by natural and social reality. Objects, their properties and relations, exist in consciousness ideally, in the form of images.

For centuries the idealist and materialist schools have been at war over the essence of consciousness, as the most complex phenomenon in what we know about existence. Idealists interpret consciousness as something rooted in the mysterious depths of the human soul, understood substantially. They take consciousness out of the natural relations of the real world and regard it as the independent and all-creating essence of existence, as something primordial. Not only is it inexplicable by any phenomena of reality; it is in itself the explanation of all that happens in nature, in the history of society, and the behaviour of every individual.

While idealism creates a gulf between reason and the world, materialism tries to discover the unity between the two by inferring the spiritual from the material. In materialism, the interpretation of consciousness is based on its recognition as a function of the human brain, the essence of which lies in the reflection and constructive-creative transformation of the world. Historical-materialist theory maintains that it is impossible to analyse consciousness in isolation from other phenomena of social life. From the very beginning consciousness has been a social product and it will remain so as long as human beings exist. The human brain embraces the potentials evolved by human history, the inherited abilities that are realised through training and education and the whole assembly of social influences, and through exposure to world culture. The brain becomes the organ of consciousness only when a person is drawn into social life and assimilates historically evolved forms of culture. The essential purpose of consciousness is to give people a true orientation in the world, the ability to know and transform it by means of reason. When we say that a person is conscious of something, we mean that he understands the meaning of what he has perceived or remembered and takes into consideration the possible consequences of his actions and can be held responsible for them to society and himself.

Human consciousness is a form of mental activity, the highest form. By mental activity we mean all mental processes, conscious and unconscious, all mental states and qualities of the individual. These are mainly processes of cognition, internal states of the organism, and such attributes of personality as character, temperament, and so on. Mental activity is an attribute of the whole animal world. Consciousness, on the other hand, as the highest form of mental activity, is inherent only in human beings, and even then not at all times or at all levels. It does not exist in the newborn child, in certain categories of the mentally ill, in people who are asleep or in a coma. And even in the developed, healthy and waking individual not all mental activity forms a part of his consciousness; a great portion of it proceeds outside the bounds of consciousness and belongs to the unconscious phenomena of the mind. The content of the activity of consciousness is recorded in artifacts (including language and other sign systems), thus acquiring the form of ideal existence, existence as knowledge, as historical memory. Consciousness also includes an axiological, that is to say, evaluative aspect, which expresses the selectivity of consciousness, its orientation on values evolved by society and accepted by the individual—philosophical, scientific, political, moral, aesthetic, religious, etc. It includes the individual's relation both to these values and to himself, thus becoming a form of self-consciousness, which is also social in origin. A person's knowledge of himself becomes possible thanks to his ability to relate his principles and orientation to the stand points of other people, his ability to consider these stand points in the process of communication. The very term "consciousness", that is to say, knowledge acquired together with others, points to the dialogical nature of consciousness.

The existence of several planes of consciousness has made it a target of research by many sciences and all art. For philosophy the main question is the relationship of consciousness to being. As a property of highly organised matter (the brain), consciousness is consciously perceived existence, that is to say, a subjective image of the objective world or subjective reality, and on the epistemological plane, as the ideal in contrast to the material and as a unity of the two.

From the sociological standpoint consciousness may be regarded primarily as social consciousness, the reflection of the existence, interests and ideas of various social groups, classes, nations, society, and history as a whole in people's intellectual life. As the reflection of being it takes various relatively independent forms.

In psychology consciousness is interpreted as the highest level of mental organisation of the individual, when he separates himself from his environment and reflects this reality in the form of mental images, which serve as regulators of goal-oriented activity. Consciousness is a highly complicated system consisting of diverse and constantly interacting elements and existing at different levels. This system has as its nucleus the processes of cognition, from elementary sensations and perceptions to the highest manifestations of reason, emotional refinement and the power of the human will. Sensations and perceptions are the immediate, sensuous forms of consciousness. These are the foundation blocks, as it were, for the edifice of more complex intellectual formations and representations, imagination, intuition, logical and artistic thinking.

Consciousness could not have arisen and could not function without the mechanisms of memory, that is to say, the ability to record, preserve and reproduce sensuous and conceptual images. Consciousness not only reproduces reality in ideal forms, it also regulates the individual's inner mental and practical activities, expressed in attention and efforts of will. Attention and will are also facts of consciousness essential to the setting of goals. Before undertaking anything in reality, a person "does" it ideally, in his imagination.

Human emotions and feelings are a fundamental "layer" of the world of consciousness. In reflecting the world a person experiences its influence and his own relation to it, to things, to other people and himself. Nothing happens in our consciousness without the participation of feelings, which in people with a rich inner world acquire amazing degrees of subtlety, colour and fullness.

Conscious and unconscious phenomena of the mind. The colourful fabric of mental processes is woven out of various "threads", ranging from the supreme clarity of consciousness at moments of creative inspiration, through the dimness of the half-sleeping mind, to the complete darkness of the unconscious, which accounts for a large part of man's mental life. For example, we hardly realise all the consequences of our actions. Not all external impressions are focussed by our consciousness. Many of our actions are automatic or habitual. However, despite the exceptional significance and place of unconscious forms of mental activity, the human being is primarily a conscious being. Awareness, understood as the evaluative aspect of consciousness, is the highest level of regulation of human activity on the basis of accepted values, moral and other social standards. It presupposes that these standards have become an integral component of the individual's life. Having become part of the system of his beliefs, they are realised with a clear and distinct understanding of ultimate aims and the possible consequences of action. Awareness also presupposes a person's ability to analyse the motives of his own behaviour and choose the most rational means of achieving his aims in accordance with the moral standards accepted in society.

As a complex systemic formation consciousness has various levels of relative distinctness or clarity. As a rule these levels are diagnosed in the healthy person by his own accounts and by the degree of his orientation in the environment—in space, time, the logic of events, the people around him and also in relation to himself, his thoughts, feelings and volitional orientation. When consciousness is at a low level, we observe unmotivated swings of concentration from certain objects of thought and actions that are sufficiently known, to unexpected mental targets, unmotivated reorientation of action, and, in various mental disorders, to loss of the "thread" of thought. One may also observe various degrees of clarity of consciousness, from the so-called dawning, half-awake, torpid or simply ordinary perception of things to states of mind achieving brilliant vision, amazingly keen intuitive insight into the essence of things. At the highest peaks of consciousness we have the "superconscious" level of spiritual activity achieved in processes of exceptionally inspired and productive creativity, when a new, original and sometimes huge-scale idea is focussed in the consciousness with astonishing clarity.

Consciousness has a complex relationship with various forms of unconscious mental phenomena. They have their own structure, whose elements are connected with each other and also with consciousness and actions, which influence them and in their turn experience their influence on them selves. We are sensibly aware of everything that influences us, but by no means all sensations are a fact of our consciousness. The majority of them are peripheral or even beyond its borders. Many of our actions, when originally formed, were consciously controlled, but later became mechanical. Conscious activity is possible only when the maximum number of elements of activity are performed automatically. As the child develops, many of his functions gradually become automatic. Consciousness is relieved of the duty of worrying about them. Thanks to this adaptation the unconscious takes care of the body's life-activity, and irritants that would interfere with rational behaviour do not as a rule intrude on the healthy person's consciousness. On the other hand, faced with violent intrusions by the unconscious, the consciousness sometimes fights a desperate and losing battle with these streams of "unbidden guests". This happens in cases of various mental disorders—obsessive or maniacal ideas, states of alarm, of inconquerable, unmotivated fear, etc. Habit, as something mechanical, extends to all forms of activity, including thought, on the principle of "I didn't mean to think of it, it just occurred to me". The paradox lies in the fact that consciousness is present, in a way, in unconscious forms of mental activity; though it does not keep close watch on everything that happens in these dark recesses of the mind but only grasps the general picture. It may, however, at any moment take control of habitual actions and accelerate, decelerate or even stop them altogether.

Excited by the powerful instinct of mating, the nightingale sings tirelessly through the night, but this wonderful bird does not realise that its splendid trills express something beyond its song, that objectively it expresses the urge to preserve and perpetuate the race. All of us, individually and in our common efforts, sometimes resemble this little grey creature. Do we always realise what response the words and message of our "songs" will bring back? Not always.

Human activity is conscious only in relation to results that initially exist in plan and intention as the goal. But realisation the goal cannot be understood as including all the consequences of actions. The results of people's actions may differ from what was originally intended. They come under the influence of external forces, which sometimes turn out to be quite different from what people thought they were. For example, the ideologists of the French bourgeois revolution (Rousseau, for example, and others) dreamed of the reign of reason, fraternity and justice. The masses and the political parties fought in the name of these principles. The task was enormous, the aims noble. But instead of enjoying the reign of reason France received the dictatorship of Napoleon.

There is much that is both rational and irrational in the life of the individual and in the vortex of history. The unconscious manifests itself in extremely diverse forms, including information accumulated as experience and recorded in the memory of the individual and humanity's social memory, and also in the form of the infinitely varied illusory sphere of dreams, instincts, etc. In the history of science, particularly psychology, medicine and sociology, and also philosophy a great deal of attention has been given to the problem of the unconscious in the life of the individual and society. Freud was particularly concerned with this problem. As a practising psychiatrist, he observed extraordinary manifestations of the unconscious, particularly in the sexual sphere. According to Freud, there is a primordial enmity between the conscious and unconscious principles in man. The unconscious is portrayed as a sly woman whose only aim is to beguile or outwit gullible reason, which is often led astray by its resourceful and irresistible enemy. Freud's conclusions are based mainly on his personal observations of the behaviour and condition of the mentally ill. In healthy people, however, the dominating principle is the regulative power of reason. This is what ultimately forms the basis for the general movement of human history, notwithstanding the "neuroticism" and "social folly" of specific events and such social formations as fascism, which may be seen as horrible but temporary distortions of social development.

Origin and development of mental activity and conscious ness. The consciousness of modern man is a product of world history, the sum-total of the practical and cognitive activity of countless generations throughout the centuries. To under stand its essence we must consider how it came into being. But consciousness has not only a social history. It also has a natural pre-history, the development of its biological pre requisites in the form of the evolution of mental activity in animals. Twenty million years were needed to create the conditions for the emergence of rational human beings. Without this evolution the appearance of human consciousness would have been nothing but a miracle. And it would have been no less a miracle for mental activity to have appeared in animal organisms without the properties of reflection inherent in all matter.

The process of reflection in all the diversity of its forms, from the simplest mechanical marks or impressions to the reasoning powers of genius, takes place in the process of interaction of the various systems of the real world. This interaction results in mutual reflection, which in the simplest cases takes the form of mechanical deformation, and in general cases, that of mutual reorganisation of internal states and relations, changes in states of motion, in forms of external reaction, and the mutual transference of energy and information. Reflection is a process whose result is the informational reproduction of the properties of the reflected object. Since everything in the world is in a state of immediate and infinitely mediated interaction, everything carries information about everything else. In this connection one recalls the aphorism of the ancient philosophers: summa summarum! The statement presupposes a universal field. But what does this mean? It means that there is a universal form of connection, of interaction and thus a unity of the universe: everything in the universe "remembers" everything else. This is what follows from the principle of reflection as a universal property of matter. Figuratively speaking, one may say that every point in the universal field is a living mirror of the universe.

One of the key aspects of the interaction of living organisms with the environment is their ability to obtain vital information about it. This ability and the ability to use such information to some purpose is so important for their behavioural acts that it may be classed among the fundamental properties of everything that is alive. Moreover, organisms that have had a more complex evolution possess more diversified information. The living organism acquires a special adaptive activity, which represents a qualitatively higher level of interaction of the organism as a whole with the environ ment, that is to say, behaviour regulated by mind. This activity allows the organism to detect and relate biologically significant pointers, to anticipate and mediate its behaviour— not only to obtain one thing but also to avoid another. It is possible that the rudiments of mental activity appeared in animals that had no nervous system. There can be no doubt, however, that mental activity later became a function of the brain. An animal regulates its behaviour in accordance with the information received from organs, produced by evolution, for obtaining information about environing things and processes. Mental activity in the form of sensation and perception is a kind of double information, which relates to the properties and relations of external things and also their significance for the life of the particular organism.

The process of development of mental activity involves qualitatively new formations. The essential thing about this process is the genesis of new forms of behaviour arising in the course of an animal's life. These are related to the concept of instinct and the acquired abilities of imitation and learning. Instinct is a purposeful and goal-oriented adaptive activity based on direct reflection of reality. It is conditioned by innate mechanisms and stimulated by biological needs. The important thing about behaviour determined by instincts is that without actually comprehending them the animal per forms objectively intelligent actions in relation to stereotype situations that are biologically essential to the survival of the species. From the evolutional standpoint instinct, as an innate feature of mode of action, is the "informational experience" of previous generations of the given species and of man in satisfying biological needs, experience which is beneficial to the individual of the species and recorded in certain morphological-physiological structures of the organism and also in the structure of its mental activity.

At the common-sense level, in fairy tales and myths, animals have from time immemorial been presented as our little brothers in reason. They have been credited with cunning, initiative, consciousness, conscience, a sense of beauty, all the human characteristics. Everyone has heard of exceptionally intelligent dogs saving human beings and serving them devotedly, of horses carrying their riders out of danger, finding their way in snowstorms, and so on. At the scientific level scientists have for many years now been investigating the behaviour and mental activity of animals, particularly, such higher species as dolphins and apes, which possess amazing ability to imitate and observe. At a recent international conference which discussed the problem of consciousness in animals, most of the delegates said no in reply to the question, "Do animals think?" But the resolution passed by the conference after much argument contained a rather careful formulation: science has not enough facts to affirm with certainty or to deny the ability of animals to think.

Thinking means solving problems of various degrees of complexity. Both experiments and observation have shown that the higher animals are capable of solving relatively simple problems, whose terms do not go beyond the given situation. They can find devious ways to a goal, construct a biologically significant structure, track down a quarry, improve a stick for obtaining food, crack nuts with a stone, and so on. Monkeys are very interested in anything new. In short, the higher animals have an elementary intellect. But to the concept of consciousness we attribute a very wide meaning, which is possessed only by human beings, and if animals have it, they can be said to have only its biological rudiments or prerequisites.

From the very beginning, consciousness has been a social product and will remain such for as long as human beings in general exist. Whereas animals' mental activity depends on biological laws and regulates their behaviour, human consciousness aspires to creative knowledge and practical transformation of the world.

The development of humankind and human consciousness is associated with the transition from the gathering of ready-made objects to the process of labour, that is, to production of the means of existence with the help of man-made tools. Labour with its necessary transition from life in the conditions of a biological community to the social form of life and, consequently, to communication by means of language, transformed the basically instinctive behaviour of animals and led to the formation of mechanisms for conscious human activity.

Arising and developing in labour, consciousness is also and indeed mainly embodied in labour and creates the world of humanised nature, the world of culture. So the answer to the riddle of the origin of consciousness can be expressed in two words: labour and communication. By sharpening the blade of his stone axe and communicating by means of speech man at the same time sharpened his own intellect. It was labour, the relations formed on its basis, and also language in the form of gesture, sound and writing, in the form of painting, sculpture and music, that developed the consciousness of our distant ancestor beyond the limits of the individual mind and made possible the formation of supra-individual consciousness — the dawn of various forms of social consciousness as the rudiments of scientific knowledge, art, simple rules of morality, various kinds of magical, mythological and religious notions and rituals. All this would later develop in the course of history and grow into a rich variety of forms of social consciousness — philosophy, science, art, morality, political ideology and law. The world monotheistic religions would arise. All these forms would be either a true or imaginary reflection of more developed forms of people's social existence, their material and intellectual production, the ideals and aspirations of various social groups, classes, nations and humanity as a whole. The power of culture grows like a snowball. It has a complex structure with various levels, from the ordinary mass consciousness to the highest forms of theoretical thought.

Though relatively independent, social consciousness has a feedback effect on the life of society.

Between personal and social consciousness there is a constant interaction. Just as society is not the sum-total of the people whom it includes, social consciousness is not just the sum-total of individuals' consciousness. Just as the general will by no means expresses the will of every individual, so the social consciousness is not the consciousness of every member of society. Social consciousness is a qualitatively specific intellectual system, with a relatively independent existence. Historically evolved standards of consciousness become the personal convictions of the individual, the source of moral rules, aesthetic feelings and ideas. In their turn, personal ideas and beliefs, thanks to the creative activity of those who have them, acquire social value, become socially significant and merge in the general ocean of the social consciousness. Important ideas are thus recorded in words and deeds. That is why they do not die with their creators. On the contrary, it is often after this death that their real life, their unusual destinies and adventures begin. It is above all the great historical personalities who plant the tree of a new trend whose crown reaches out to the future, and whose rich foliage serves many generations and whole peoples, even the whole of humanity.

The fate of the individual consciousness is inseparable from that of the individual himself. It comes into being as the highest form of mental activity. It expresses the unique features of the individual's path in life, the specific features of his education, various political, religious, moral, scientific, philosophical and other social influences, all the things that diversify and enrich the individual's spiritual world. Every child, when it comes into the world, begins to think, to experience aesthetic pleasures, moral impulses and a desire for knowledge only by becoming involved in culture, by becoming aware of standards that have their roots in the previous history of humankind. The individual becomes a personality to the extent that he commands this wealth and multiplies it. Through comprehending the products of their own material and intellectual activity, by becoming aware of their relations with one another, people have come to comprehend themselves, that is to say, they have attained self-consciousness.

From the very start consciousness developed in two closely related directions, the cognitive and the constructive-creative. Together they express the main reason for and social necessity of its origin and development. The constructive and creative side of consciousness could not have arisen or existed without cognition and cognition alone could never have provided the necessary individual, subjective spur to human development. Consciousness was never a mere luxury, a mere act of contemplation.

While rejecting the idealist explanation of consciousness as the individual's immanent activity arising from the depths of his spirit, science at the same time explodes the concept of metaphysical materialism, which treats consciousness as contemplation divorced from practice. When we speak of the activeness of consciousness, we mean its selectivity, its ability to set itself a goal, its generation of new ideas, acts of creative imagination, its guidance of practical activity. The point of departure for any relationship to the real world is goal-setting activity. The main reason for and historical necessity of the emergence and development of consciousness, which enables man to get an accurate picture of the surrounding world, to foresee the future and on this basis transform the world by his practical activity, is its goal-setting creative activity aimed at changing the world in the interests of man and society. A person's consciousness is not merely a contemplative reflection of objective reality; it creates it. When reality does not satisfy a person, he sets out to change it by means of his labour and various forms of social activity.

Self-consciousness. A human being is aware of the world and his attitude towards it and is thus aware of himself. At this level, the objective and subjective begin to reveal their integral unity. This duality in unity is in fact the "glimmering dawn of self-consciousness". Self-consciousness was the answer to the imperative demand of social conditions of existence, which from the outset required that a person should be able to assess his actions, words, thoughts and feelings from the standpoint of certain social norms and to comprehend not only the surrounding world but also himself. Like consciousness as a whole, self-consciousness was moulded by labour and intercourse. In all forms of his activity a person constantly encounters not only the external world but also himself, becomes the target of his own thoughts and evaluations. A human being is a reflecting being. He is constantly thinking about his actions, thoughts, ideals, feelings, his moral image, aesthetic tastes and socio-political positions, his relationship to everything that goes on in the world. Human beings have the ability to look at themselves "from the side". In the philosophical sense a self-conscious person is one who is fully aware of his place in life, the inevitability of passing through certain growth stages, the finity of his existence as a passing moment in the flow of events. The personality cannot be deprived of its reflexive dimension. This is one of the essential privileges that distinguish man from the animals. The animals must be given credit for knowing something, for possessing some elementary information about the things going on around them. But unlike man, they are not aware of their own knowledge. Man knows about the actual act of knowledge and the fact that he is the person who knows it, that is to say, a person is aware of himself both as the subject of knowledge, the knower, and also of what he knows. A person understands not only that he knows something but also that he is far from knowing everything, that beyond his own knowledge there stretches a boundless ocean of the unknown. He knows what he does not know and hence the innumerable questions and the groping search for answers.

Can a person possess consciousness without at the same time possessing self-consciousness? Apparently not. Both historically and ontologically the two take shape simultaneous ly. They are something integral, although inwardly they have a qualitative differentiation. The physiological and psychological mechanisms of self-consciousness would appear to be rather more complex, more subtle and vulnerable. Self-consciousness is not simply consciousness turned inwards. It cannot take place directly. It is always mediated by awareness of other things outside the self. The individual gets to know himself only to the extent that he knows the world. Thus self-consciousness clearly has a "double image"; it consists of both the external object and the subject himself. It is a kind of inner light that illumines both the self and the other thing. Every thinking person understands how difficult it is to separate the object of thought and the act of observing this thought. There are usually three aspects to a person's reflections: one's own personality as the object, one's ego as the subject, and objective reality, which includes other people. Self-consciousness is born when the subject of consciousness, the knower, turns into an object for himself. At the point of emergence of self-consciousness the individual is identified with himself. This is when man begins to be aware of his own existence in the world, of his needs and desires, and the state of his own organism (physical comfort or discomfort, etc.). He thus becomes able to distinguish the state of wakefulness from that of sleep. As soon as he awakes, a person begins to experience a certain feeling of self, an awareness of his own existence in the world. When he opens his eyes, he sees the world, hears its sounds, is aware of external objects and his own body. He feels both his distinctness from the environment and his organic connection with it.

Self-consciousness is not simply a matter of contemplating one's self admiringly or otherwise. A person cannot find his bearings in the flood of events without some knowledge of himself. He must know what he is capable of and how far his aspirations can reach.

The level of self-consciousness may be extremely varied, from a vague awareness of one's abilities to a profound understanding of one's historic role, sacred sense of duty to one's people and their destiny. At the higher stages of self-consciousness the individual fully appreciates his link with world history, the history of his people, the "thread", embodied in everything he has done, that links both the past and the future. Only rich natures possessing refined self-consciousness are stirred as much by the future as by the present. We know that the particularly gifted personality perceives his own self with a special kind of rational intensity, often from the days of his youth. The knowledge of one's selfhood is felt as a kind of inward revelation. Such intensity and ceaseless activity are particularly characteristic of the self-consciousness of the genius, and this is linked with his vivid perception of his special social significance and consequent great responsibility towards humanity.

Every person has moments when his self-consciousness becomes unusually acute and moments when it subsides completely, when he is self-forgettingly immersed in some external object. Consciousness is focussed in one area, as it were. And the opposite may also happen. A superficial glance at what is around one and a deep immersion in oneself, sometimes with agonising and destructive effects. For in stance, when a person is sick, he may be "up to his neck" in his own sickness and feel that he has nothing else to live for; the whole world is seen through the prism of his sick condition. In such cases he must have some distraction. Usually people's self-consciousness balances between the two extremes. It is difficult at one and the same time to separate and fuse thoughts and act of observation of these thoughts in the act of thinking. When a person does not treat himself as the object of his perceptions and thoughts—both from his own point of view and also from that of other people—he cannot exercise self-control. One may observe substantial individual differences in the ability to exercise self-control. Some people remain self-possessed in the most difficult and sometimes tragic situations, while others lose their grip on themselves at the slightest provocation. Some people even act much more effectively in conditions of danger than in ordinary circumstances.

Every act of becoming aware of the world involves the controlling and guiding force of self-consciousness, from which a person is not free even when he is deeply immersed in studying a real object. The state of complete self-forgetfulness, loss of self-control and ability to direct one's mental processes seldom occurs and usually only in cases of extreme stress or insanity. The norm is constant self-control, at least on the general plane.

Degrees of self-consciousness may vary, from the most general momentary control over the stream of thought directed upon external objects, to profound meditations upon oneself, when the ego is not only the subject but also the main object of consciousness, when the emphasis is on the inner world of mind and body.

Concentration of attention on one's self has its reasonable measure, which is dictated by the vital necessity of preserving a stable harmony of the whole. Overconcentration of attention on the self may cause difficulties of orientation and reduce the effectiveness of practical and theoretical activity. It may degenerate into self-satisfied, selfishly oriented attention on one's own cherished peculiarities. The call to know oneself implies not individual features of character, for example, certain chance inclinations or weaknesses. It urges us to know the genuine in ourselves, our very essence.

An important element of self-consciousness is awareness of the demands of society upon oneself, awareness of one's social duty and purpose in life, one's responsibility for the task with which one has been entrusted, responsibility to the community, the class, the nation, the country and, finally, to mankind as a whole. It is self-consciousness that enables a person to view critically his own actions, practical and theoretical, real or imaginary. It allows him to separate his internal world from what is going on around him, to analyse it, contrast or compare it with the external and thus study himself, arrive at judgements of himself, or perhaps even condemnations. Self-consciousness is an essential condition of education and self-education. One has to distinguish between trivial egocentrism, passive contemplation of one's own person, and the profound self-consciousness with its subtle fabric of moral principles, which reveals one's place in life and the purpose of one's activity and of one's existence in the world generally. Egocentric reflection, introspection, which links everything with the self, as the egoist's most cherished hub of attention, hinders or even interrupts the living and beneficial process of activity. Such a person does nothing that is of use or benefit to others or himself, for one can help oneself only through helping others. The hypertrophy of the egoistic self-consciousness may even cause pathological health failures and is itself one of their symptoms. On the other hand, a profound self-consciousness implying reasonable attitudes of self-criticism clarifies the purpose of action and fills a person's mind with a sense of being needed by others, by society, and produces a sense of true happiness. Self-criticism is a sign of a highly developed self-consciousness. Looking back on his life, Leo Tolstoy notes that at a very early age he began to analyse everything in his own ego and to root out mercilessly everything he considered to be illusory or unworthy of his true purpose in life. It often seemed to him that this habit might one day destroy the whole. But, he wrote, "I am getting old and I still have quite a lot left that is whole and sound, more than some other people ... people of my own age, who believed in everything when I was destroying everything...."[1] Such reasoned self-criticism, rather than a stolid smugness, preserves and strengthens the harmonious integrity of the human personality, as it likewise strengthens that of any social group, including the nation.

Self-consciousness takes place not only on the individual plane, as a mental form of activity, but also at the level of social consciousness, when knowledge, scientific, artistic or technical creativity, or political activity become a specialised object of theoretical research, when certain social groups rise to the level of self-comprehension, of understanding their place in life, in history, their interests and ideals, their purpose, their real possibilities and responsibility to society and humanity. When a nation rises to such a level of self-consciousness it is capable of miracles of heroism. For example, the Russian people had to overcome the social and psychological consequences of the three-hundred-year Tatar-Mongol invasion of their country in order to become aware of their strength and win the historic battle of Kulikovo. History furnishes us with many such examples. The same thing happened to the Russian people during the Napoleonic and the nazi invasions. Such upsurges of social self-consciousness have been experienced by all peoples of the world, when they have had to fight against external or internal oppressors or at times of national liberation and social revolutions. Social self-consciousness is not homogeneous either in its social scale or in its intensity. Its turbulent waves achieve their peak at turning points in history. It may embrace small groups of people and be the self-consciousness of a certain political party, armed with a certain world-view, class or national self-consciousness, or even the self-consciousness of all humankind, particularly today, when the very existence of life on earth is placed at risk by the nuclear sword of Damocles. The theoretical core of social self-consciousness is philosophy, which mirrors, reflects, gives meaning to and evaluates all other forms of social consciousness and social psychology.



L. N. Tolstoy, Collected Works in twenty volumes, Vol. 19, Moscow, 1965, p. 275 (in Russian).

Prev Home Next
Contradiction and Harmony   The Material and the Spiritual