The Book of Genesis mentions a place called “the Garden of Eden.” In the beginning, Adam lived alone in this garden. There were many fruit-bearing trees to furnish food. Solicitous of Adam’s happiness, God created a female partner for him named Eve. They were naked together but had no shame. God allowed Adam and Eve, the original humans, to live in this place on one condition: that they not eat any fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, which was planted in the middle of the garden. A serpent tempted Eve to disobey God, suggesting that, if she did, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
The temptation proved irresistible. Eve took the forbidden fruit from the serpent and gave some to Adam. After Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit, “their eyes were opened and they discovered that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” This alerted God to the fact that they had disobeyed his instructions. He expelled them from the Garden to begin a hard life. Christian theology traces humanity’s “Original Sin” back to this event. Sin and death entered human life because our original parents disobeyed God.
This Biblical story is an allegory relating to self-consciousness. The forbidden fruit came from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”; it was a source of moral self-knowledge. Previously living in an innocent state like that of animals, Adam and Eve became self-conscious. They tried to cover up their nakedness with fig leaves and hid from God in shame. Their self-awareness, presented here as a consequence of disobeying God, brought on a hard, guilt-stricken life.
The Garden of Eden is personally reminiscent of childhood. As a child, one is apt to get in trouble when one disobeys one’s parents. Self-conscious thoughts do serve to create a more complicated life than what we remember from the dawn of our lives. Allegorically, the Garden of Eden represents a state of perfect rhythm - a purely unselfconscious condition of mind - which has all its needs and wants naturally provided, even as conscious concentration underlies rhythmic action. When they tried to think and act on their own, Adam and Eve made mistakes. They were no longer able to sustain that perfect rhythm based on total conformity to the conditions of God’s world.
natural and self-conscious personalities
It is possible to look at this story and say that Judeo-Christian religion wants to keep people in perpetual childhood. After all, Jesus said: “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Is it not unnatural for adults to remain as innocent as children? Perhaps so. In this case, however, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden is presented as a consequence of disobeying God, not losing their innocence through sexual activity or another way.
This story is urging people to remain obedient to God. It also is a story about human personalities. Ideally, people should have natural personalities. They should be themselves. They should not try to be someone else whom they may admire or think they should imitate. It may be the pernicious influence of civilized society which causes them instead to behave self-consciously.
As adults, we are yearning for a more innocent kind of life. That is one of the delights of having children. Their own innocent youth having long since departed, they are longing for the presence of pure consciousness. That natural simplicity and freshness of mind would seem to be, for most, a rather idyllic condition found only in the lives of certain wholesome individuals, working perhaps on the farm, or in the lives of saints whose thoughts have been purified by steadfast devotion to God.
As a teenager, I once stood on a street corner in downtown Detroit, waiting for a bus. A middle-aged man came up to me saying that he had just come from the “wonderful, marvelous” convention of a certain Protestant denomination that had been held in the area that week. He lifted the lid of a nearby trash container to help me dispose of a paper bag that I had in my hand. I politely explained that I needed the bag to carry some drugstore items that I had just purchased. In an exuberant spirit, he even started to sing a hymn.
I thought the man’s behavior was rather odd, though harmless. The man seemed to be doing these inspirational things not in response to an evident need but to impress others and, more likely, himself with his religious fervor. I imagined that he had been so inspired by a talk at the convention about “neighborliness” or another subject that he rushed out to put his Christian ideals immediately into practice.
We all have affectations. We are afflicted to one degree or another with vain ideas of roles that we want to exhibit. Some people laugh when nothing is funny to seem in a jovial spirit or be more attentive to a particular person whom he wishes to please. Others try to appear efficient and businesslike, or a “smooth operator”. Upwardly mobile types may attend concerts and visit art galleries though they have little interest in them because that is how they want to be seen. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “Joe Sixpack” wants to be seen drinking lots of beer. Another person fancies himself as “just an ordinary guy”, underestimated by many, who “really knows the score”.
The roles which people assume are endless, especially during the adolescent years. Others do not see them in the same way. Trying to seem better than they are, such persons usually seem much worse. Self-consciousness has infected their personalities. A sensible piece of advice might be: Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself. Act naturally.
But how can a person act naturally when he is already contaminated by self-conscious conceits? Is there a way back to innocence? This becomes a problem for politicians who, on one hand, must be intellectuals to master the business of politics and, on the other, be natural to present an appealing image on television. Richard Nixon, who was inclined toward the intellectual, was never comfortable with that combination of personality traits. Walter Mondale’s brother, Pete, confided to a reporter: “People often ask why Fritz is so stiff. He doesn’t want to be seen as pompous, but how loose can you be when you’re constantly self-conscious about trying to stay loose?”
Ronald Reagan was one who did have the right mix. Yet, during the 1980 campaign, a magazine article reported that, compared with a Hubert Humphrey or a Gerald Ford, Reagan “lacks the itch to mingle that infects most politicians. He is reluctant to plunge into crowds, and prefers to wave at his adoring fans from a distance.” This was something that one might expect in an actor. Reagan himself explained it in these terms: “You’d be surprised at how many actors and actresses are basically introverted. By making it a job, they can do it without self-consciousness. But they don’t like to perform at private parties.”
Self-consciousness can be understood as a “second mind”, attentive to oneself rather than to objects of truth. The Buddhism religion takes an uncompromising stand on remaining steadfast in the conscious mind. “Learn to distinguish between Self and Truth,” Buddha said. “Self is the cause of selfishness and the source of evil; truth cleaves to no self; it is universal and leads to justice and righteousness ... If we liberate our souls from our petty selves, wish no ill to others, and become clear as a crystal diamond reflecting the light of truth, what a radiant picture will appear in us, mirroring things as they are, without the distortion of erroneous illusion, without the agitation of clinging and unrest.” Self-consciousness, on the other hand, is seen as an illusion. “There is no separate ego-soul outside or behind the thought of man,”
Buddha also declared. “He who believes the ego is a distinct being has no correct conception ... How much confusion of thought comes from our interest in self, and from our vanity when thinking “’I am so great’, or ‘I have done this wonderful deed.’ The thought of thine ego stands between thy rational nature and truth; banish it, and then wilt thou see things as they are ... The ideas ‘I am’ and ‘I shall be’ or ‘I shall not be’ do not occur to a clear thinker.”
Attempting to explain the Buddhist doctrine to westerners, the Dalai Lama spoke of the two minds, the one conscious and the other self-conscious, as being pure comprehension or attachment to delusion. He wrote: “Delusion is not a part of the essential or central mind, which, as I have said, is intrinsically pure; it is a defect of one of the peripheral or secondary minds. When this secondary mind is stimulated, delusion becomes influential, dominating the central mind and causing sin. There are many kinds of delusion: passion, anger, pride, hatred, hostility, and so on ... Passion may become a self-attachment or egoism, and from it one may develop pride through a sense of superiority; or, on encountering hostility toward oneself, one may develop a counter hatred ... This strong ‘I-consciousness’ has been fostered in all beings in Samsara (the physical or delusional world) since time immemorial, and they are so habituated to it that they experience it even in their dreams.”
Another way to understand the difference between the conscious and self-conscious minds is in terms of simplicity and complexity. Knowledge is simpler than life’s reality. While its expressions are distilled from worldly experiences, they do not merely reflect or copy an experience. They digest reality - break it down into simpler components. Instead of recording a situation photographically, knowledge picks it apart, isolates, and identifies the separate elements of meaning.
In that respect, an expression of knowledge is like a type of chemical. Chemicals in nature are seldom found in a pure state but are normally mixed with other chemicals in chemical compounds and aggregated materials. The chemist separates out the various chemicals in a refining process, accumulates each in a pure form, and then stores them in separate containers. Each type of chemical has known properties which determine its use. So knowledge treats ideas. Taken raw, human experience is a bundle of mixed and confused meanings. Knowledge is the result of separating them into pure strains and exhibiting each in its simplest form.
simple and complex literature
Literature follows this pattern as knowledge. The greatest masterpieces of our culture tend not to be complicated works but ones whose expression is relatively easy to understand. To read the lines of a Shakespearean play or verse from Homer, one is struck by their simplicity of expression. The real world is seldom so pure and uncomplicated as what these writings suggest. It would seem a paradox that such works of creative genius should be simple in comparison with ones of lesser merit. Were not Shakespeare, Homer, and the others intelligent enough to describe life in its complexity of realistic detail? One would suppose so. To put a complex message in its simplest form requires a certain skill. One must select and arrange the details in a way which most economically presents their theme.
This principle applies to all forms of knowledge. Scientific formulae express truths about natural relationships in a direct and simple way. An eminent American scientist of the 19th century, Willard Gibbs, wrote: “One of the principal objects of theoretical research in any department of knowledge is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in its greatest simplicity.”
Human behavior is known principally through stories. Some kinds of stories present archetypes of human experiences. Such expressions may come in the form of myths or folk tales, even in single sentences or sets of sentences. They may be nursery rhymes or popular sayings. Thoughts repeated to the point of becoming a cliche may be tiresome, but may express an underlying truth that connects with many people. Slogans and catch phrases, even commercial advertisements, may provide patterns for thought. Many a person remembers “what my father used to say.” Some of our best-known literature - Beowulf, the Iliad, etc. - came to us directly from oral culture. Religious scripture has had perhaps the greatest impact of human values. Much of this came from oral sources and was later written down. The founder said certain things to his followers or, in Mohammed’s case, dictated certain words, and it became a body of literature containing many kernels of knowledge.
George B. Milner, a scholar of comparative cultures, has pointed out the striking similarity between proverbs appearing in the cultures of various nations. In our culture, the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” conveys a certain idea. In Iran, the same thought is expressed: “Two midwives will deliver a baby with a crooked head.” The Japanese say: “Too many boatmen run the boat up to the top of the mountain.” The Russians and Italians also have their own sayings to cover this idea. To Professor Milner, the fact that these separate cultures have each developed a proverb to express the same idea suggests the universality of human thought . Alternatively, the conditions of life must be largely the same in all societies. In any event, archetypal expressions such as these express human experience in an eloquently simple way.
Writers who aspire to express the basic themes of human experience are generally inclined toward the ideal of simplicity. Walt Whitman expressed this aspiration when he wrote in reference to his own poems: “The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form ... The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity.”
In the category of simple literature one also finds such classics as Aesop’s Fables, the stories in Genesis and other books of the Bible, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, Schiller’s dramatic works, Heine’s poems, Voltaire’s philosophical novels, Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”, Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, Wagnerian opera, the children’s stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and many others. This kind of literature aims at clarity. Their expressions follow the crevices of human experience to reveal important truths.
Nineteenth-century realism in literature and the arts steered western culture away from knowledge for the sake of advancing social and aesthetic ideals. Written structures became the focus of literary expression. Archibald MacLeish’s statement, “The poem should not mean but be,” sets the theme. This type of writing is featured in college literature courses. Such literature contains dense descriptions and thoughts, intricately woven together. Much symbolism and private imagery is stuck on many levels of meaning. The writings of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner are well-known creations in this mode.
The hidden meanings usually have a history behind them, by which perceptions of a given situation could be spun out temporally in simple stories. Their complexity consists of self-conscious compressions of several experiences. But the beauty is that these complex, symbolically meaningful thoughts are all squeezed together in the same work like tiles in a mosaic. This is not a vehicle suitable for knowledge but for intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment. The descriptive narratives in such works approach the complexity that one finds in real life.
the urweg: a world created through simple thoughts
Life can be simple as it flows from generation to generation through certain channels. The simple life would move forward in a straight line to handle its functions in the most efficient way. Why, then, do some people bring trouble upon themselves in departing from the beaten path and wandering off through difficult terrain? It may be that a person found the direct path blocked by an accidental impediment or he succumbed to temptations dangled by others. Maybe he himself took the detour on a whim or out of a perverse curiosity. In any event, once he has left the straight and simple path, he must find his own way back from the wilderness.
If a person consistently follows reason, life’s processes could indeed be direct. Within the parameters of necessity, this person would act to handle problems in a straightforward way. But self-consciousness intrudes. A person becomes aware not only of immediate situations needing to be handled but of ways that such purposes have previously been achieved. The activity no longer stands by itself in singleness of purpose but in the complication of its past history.
Imagine a world without self-consciousness. This would be a world consisting of the most basic patterns. Certain functions are required to carry on life. People must eat, drink, sleep, breathe, evacuate wastes, reproduce, avoid sickness and pain, and so on. They must, of course, carry on activities that are related to those purposes. In addition, one may suppose that human beings have a certain curiosity or restless energy which pushes them to explore their surroundings. So we might add educational and recreational activities to the list. Even so, if people simply did those things that are required by their nature or environment, society would be quite different from what it actually is. There would be no pretentious behavior or selfish conflict. Everyone would act rationally to do whatever needed to be done. Life would be simple and perfect.
Let us call this hypothetical world “the urweg”, which is a pseudo-German word meaning the original or primordial way. It is more a logical construction than something which exists. It is related to the situation to which Locke referred when he supposed that human societies had developed from a “state of nature”.
The urweg represents society at the beginning of its history, which is a logical history rather than an actual one. In the beginning, one might say, life was simple. People were uncorrupted by the kinds of vices that we have today. They lived unselfconsciously. They did only what needed to be done or what they wanted to do for the most basic reasons. But somehow humanity left the primordial path, the urweg, and began wandering along a path that led ultimately to the society that we have today.
The urweg exists logically inside of every situation found in today’s society. Every thought that we have about our world somehow takes it into account. For, the urweg is what life would be like if people simply followed their conscious thoughts and did not let self-consciousness take them in other directions. Contemporary society takes care of the basic needs but it has room for more than that. Seldom are people concerned with questions like “What shall I do today?” or “Where will I find food?” - or, if they are, it is an abnormal situation. We let custom and institutional practice look after such needs. Occasionally, as during wars or natural disasters, people again come face to face with life’s fundamental conditions. They either rise to the occasion or slink miserably away and sometimes perish. Most of the time, however, our lives are spent in mundane pursuits, the primordial ways having long since disappeared.
By and large, society operates on the principle of doing what has been done before; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Yet, gradually the patterns of life that develop within organized society follow a more complicated course. Under various influences, the simpler practices are crowded out by more complex, devious ones. There is a tendency for the original channels to become clogged as society develops new ways. Congested, those earlier ways fall into disuse.
One might compare this process with gullies carved in the soil after a heavy rain: The clouds dump their load upon the ground and the water must be carried away through the existing ruts. Water naturally travels down hill in a straight line, following the path of least resistance. Sometimes, however, that course is blocked by a pebble, or it becomes congested by the sheer torrent of water passing through. In that case, the channel overflows. The water spills out in secondary channels that follow a less direct course.
Likewise, in human society there are channels to handle life’s various functions. Life starts out simple, and the natural tendency would be for it to remain so. But when unresolved problems arise, they become obstacles forcing a person off the urweg. Life then follows a more devious course to its end.
why we depart from the urweg
Many of our adult attitudes are shaped by experiences in childhood when our understandings were, of course, comparatively simple. These simpler conceptions provide a foundation for more complicated ones to arise later in life. In childhood, there is pressure to depart from the urweg. The child, in becoming more sophisticated, learns that the apparent route to an end may not be the best way to go. There are forces to ambush him along the well-trodden path. There is generally a “catch” to what seems easy.
Children trick each other. A common sport among them is to set a trap for their playmates, some lure that draws them in; and, then when the bait is taken, they laugh and shout triumphantly at their victim. Of course this was a sport, but it has a serious side. It teaches children to be wary of simple solutions. The child learns to act more deviously and not jump at the obvious. The child also learns that there is safety in ambiguity. If someone attacks you in one place, you can escape to another.
To a small child, no insult is worse than being called a “baby”. To a five-year-old, being left to play with the two-year-olds is humiliating. Children are naturally driven to want to become more like adults: a little bigger, stronger, and smarter each year. No self-respecting teenager wants to think of himself as being sheltered or naive. The simple person may be considered a “simpleton”, someone who is intellectually less capable and therefore can be safely abused. On the other hand, society honors and elevates sophistication because it suggests capability. One does not want to antagonize this type of person.
Jealousy may also be a factor. The one who succeeds without having endured personally trying experiences is widely resented. We want to teach that person a lesson. We want to bring him down a few notches. The one who makes life seem easy is disliked and is therefore more prone to attack than one who had a hard life. Therefore, one has an incentive to exaggerate one’s tough background and shed the image of innocence as fast as a molting snake. The simple person has the air of vulnerability; and there is something in human nature like the shark’s instinct to attack when it smells blood. One does not want to be seen as easy prey.
In electrical engineering, it is known that an electrical current which passes through a wire generates “back EMF” which tends to restrict the flow of electricity. The stronger the current, the more internal resistance is created.
There is a similar situation in society. Patterns which have developed to a certain point generate their own self-limiting condition. As thieves used to wait alongside well-traveled highways to attack and rob unarmed carriages, so any practice that is widely followed will attract opportunistic attention. Secondary activities may then arise in anticipation of the continued traffic. That, in turn, may force changes in the original practice to protect it from harm. And again, self-consciously, this new pattern may attract attention and generate a new set of reactive activities, which may then require a new response. So it is in any society with persons or groups having different interests as each tries to advance and protect its own interest. Society is filled up with increasingly complicated patterns of behavior. The immediate, apparent way is rejected.
For example, a young man sees a beautiful woman on the street and is attracted to her sexually. Why does he not go up to her and ask her to have sex with him? Given his desire, would that not be the simplest thing to do? It may be but, in some ways, it would also be the most difficult. Most people would suppose that such an approach might fail. Therefore, they would not even try. For, even if she was similarly attracted to the man, the woman would not want to seem too “easy”. The man, in return, would be inhibited by the fear of rejection. Both might be influenced by moral or religious teachings against casual sex. Sex is for marriage, and marriage is based on love.
The man might try to overcome that objection by telling the woman that he “loves” her. However, the woman would be aware that many a man has told a woman this and then dropped her after a “one-night stand”. There does not seem to be any alternative to a long, torturous series of events by which a man and a woman become slowly more accepting of each other.
Of course, it should be said that the direct approach does occasionally pay off. Twenty years ago, an odd practice was reported in the Soviet Union, then a puritanical society, where random sexual encounters took place in crowded places such as subway stations. A man and a woman, total strangers, would quickly have sexual intercourse and then pass out of each others’ lives. The unwritten rule was that neither party should try to get in touch with the other again: that would be “immoral”.
This was obviously a twisted set of values, but it does illustrate a point about self-consciousness. Sometimes social practices become so complicated that nothing can ever be accomplished. Then the direct approach might well win the day. Its very difficulty would be proof of the lover’s dashing spirit. The move might succeed in large part because it was so unexpected.
quality changing with quantity
Normally one assumes that quality does not change with quantity. A brick is the same whether it is one brick or a thousand. One counts by quantity alone, assuming that each unit stays the same. Most enterprises depend on this ability to multiply an operation many times. Uniformity of results, no matter what the quantity, is assumed. In reality, this principle does not always hold true. Growing apples on a small scale is different from operating a large orchard. Driving down a six-lane highway is different from that on a narrow country road. Techniques streamlined for efficiency bear little resemblance to the way things originally were done.
Imagine that there once was a quaint little restaurant in the Bavarian Alps. It served good food and had much local atmosphere. A few “jet-setters” discovered this restaurant and told their friends about it. Before long the restaurant was written up in a well-known magazine. More people began coming here for meals. Management enlarged the facilities to handle the crowds. Reservations had to be made days in advance.
To make a long story short, the character of this restaurant changed as it became more popular. Tourists who came here expecting to see people wearing lederhosen and exhibiting Bavarian “gemutlichkeit” encountered mainly other tourists who could be seen ordering expensive bottles of wine, buying postcards, keeping an eye out for celebrities, and asking the tour guide how much time they had left to shop. Whatever charm this restaurant might once have had disappeared with the growing number of customers and amount of worldly recognition.
the tendency to become bureaucratic
As society develops in the direction of greater complexity, its institutions become more bureaucratic. Bureaucracy has its own style of written language, self-conscious and opaque. Bureaucrats as a rule do not produce anything yet have an uncanny knack for survival in the occupational jungle. Their secret weapon is secrecy itself. They know how to render the simple complex, and to use jargon with mystifying effect. This confuses anyone who tries to find out exactly what kind of work they do. Such a posture has definite advantages in a world where people rise to the top by judging others.
Targeting lower-level positions, the managers and efficiency experts are always trying to “improve work performance.” In their drive for greater productivity, they make life miserable for productive workers. If you can understand a job, you can improve it; maybe even abolish it. Therefore, the bureaucrat’s job is safe. No one wants to study this since its function defies description. No one wants to become involved in such a confusing situation, offering no apparent solution. Really, no one wants to risk exposing his own ignorance. And so, like the prickly-pear fish which is too painful for predators to swallow, the bureaucrat survives.
Bureaucracy plagues the communications media. Fifteen years ago, the cable-television channel, VH-1, played rock videos. Don Imus, the video jockey, simply played videos, one after another, making a few comments in between. Now, on the same channel, one finds mostly stories about rock stars or interviews with the stars and their friends. The rock videos, when they appear, include “pop-ups”, or short messages which writers for the show have produced. There may be a “top ten” countdown narrated by the host.
It seems, in other words, that a bureaucratic process has set into productions seen on this channel. Viewers see and hear less of what the musicians themselves have produced and more of what others say about the musicians. These editors and producers have inserted themselves increasingly into the show even though the rock videos which were its original fare are exquisite works of art - at least, some people enjoyed them.
A similar process has beset newspapers and commercial television. In the mid 19th century, newspapers frequently quoted entire speeches, letters, or telegraph dispatches. For example, the New York Times once printed the text of a letter which Abraham Lincoln wrote to the Governor of New York airing their differences over the military draft. Today, the news is so heavily digested by editors and reporters that one hardly hears from the news makers any more.
As journalists hog the show, statements made by government leaders are reduced to short sound bites. We may no longer have famous orators among our politicians because the media would never present their speeches at a length sufficient for the public to know them in that role. Likewise, the television networks used to cover live events at the Olympic games. Now Olympic coverage more often consists of edited footage from these events. Increasingly, the shows tell stories about spotlighted athletes trying to build “human interest”. The commentators are, of course, much in evidence.
Bureaucracies illustrate how self-consciousness transforms an institution from an instrument to serve a constructive purpose into something else. Originally, let’s say, there was an idea which a visionary had; he wanted to make it a reality. This person worked on the idea and built an organization. The organization prospered, gaining power and wealth.
At this point, persons who worked within the organization became ambitious in terms of their own rank. The more powerful the organization, the more attractive its positions seemed to these individuals. Eventually, the top managers of the organization came to make decisions on the basis of what would strengthen their internal position (or increase their pay) rather than what served the interests of the organization. And so this organization turned away from its original purposes related to the founder’s idea and instead catered to the interests of its managers and employees. The bureaucratic purposes were thus a new consciousness built on the structure of an old consciousness whose ideas had materialized.
When a purpose is pursued with some visible success, its institution often becomes involved in a new set of purposes having to do with its own material embodiment.
We call this process of changing from one consciousness to another “dialectics”. The first consciousness works itself out into an organization with a worldly presence. It then becomes the object of new conscious perceptions and new purposes, at variance from the first. In other words, self-consciousness is involved. The original thrust of purpose creates a visible object. People can see and appreciate the founder’s idea where, at the beginning, many could not.
Worldly size is easy to spot. So people begin to focus on the material trappings of this organization and forget the ideas that made it grow. The fact that an institution is large and successful becomes its salient feature. Once its managers and employees (now bureaucrats) become self-conscious with respect to their own power and importance, the institution enters a new phase in its life cycle. Its accumulated material is eyed as food for other interests. As the original constructive vision is lost, the possibility of corruption increases. The organization goes into decline.
The German philosopher Hegel taught that the world was created through a dialectical progression of ideas. The first idea, the “thesis”, moved to generate its opposite, the “antithesis”; and the two ideas then combined to create the “synthesis”, a third and more complex idea. Hegel was a philosopher in the idealist tradition of Plato, except that he brought history into its scheme. According to Hegel, “being” was the original thesis. Its negation was “nothing”. These two concepts together produced “becoming”, which was a being that came out of nothing. This philosophy involved the notion that conscious developments move toward their opposite over a period of time. There is then a resolution of the two ideas whose perspective transcends the previous ones. General ideas spawn more specific ideas so that society as a whole progresses toward greater specialization.
Hegel applied his philosophical system to particular institutions in early 19th Century German society to show their essential spirit. Of greater historical importance, perhaps, was Karl Marx’s adaptation of Hegel’s ideas to the study of economics and class relations. Marx’s “dialectical materialism” explained how societies advanced to higher forms when changes took place in economic relationships. As capitalism ripened, it would create its own “contradictions” - “antithesis” in Hegel’s terms - and this would create a need for socialism to resolve the conflicts.
In practical terms, Hegelian dialectics represents the philosophy of self-conscious causality. Its mechanism depends on creative interaction between two different levels of thought. During conscious experience, worldly events give rise to certain thoughts which control the activities. So long as worldly experience is unchanged, the conscious activity will stay the same. However, when an action is repeated several times, it becomes a factor in the situation along with the elements originally experienced. A new consciousness will emerge, self-consciousness, which takes into consideration all elements of the situation.
This second consciousness will differ from the first one in that the previous thoughts, or their visible effects, are among the elements observed at a higher level of thought. These new thoughts do not focus on the same elements as before but are a more abstract and complex type of thinking. Their thoughts may pull in a different direction. The extent to which thought shifts from the conscious to self-conscious levels will depend upon the extent to which the original consciousness has developed. The more its purposes have materialized, the more likely that the direction of thought will change.
self-consciousness in practice
The causality of self-consciousness helps to understand certain behavioral phenomena. Like biological organisms, conscious purposes change through a dynamic of their own. They have a life cycle governed by an internal clock. Therefore, observed patterns are valid only at certain points in time. Those who would be knowledgeable in this mode must determine, besides the pattern, the stage of development that it has reached. To be a successful actor in this environment, a person must know when the situation is ready for his move, which, in turn, would depend on what others are thinking. No one knows that for sure since the others’ thoughts are opaque. The thinking can only be sensed. The background of preceding conscious events will determine to what extent a purpose has materialized and has therefore become ripe for reversal in the next wave of consciousness.
To stand on this platform of shifting events and keep one’s balance is an acquired art. Anyone whose livelihood depends on an ability to interpret the public mood must be in tune with dialectical forces governing his area. Such proficiency requires more than a textbook grasp of technique. One needs to know what has a promising future as opposed to that with exhausted potential.
The stock market illustrates dialectical forces. An investor initially decides to buy stock in a company on the basis of its earnings or, perhaps, the potential earnings in relation to its market price per share. If a company reports high earnings, more investors will want to buy its shares and the present owners will want to hang on to them a while longer. This will tend to drive up the price of the stock until at a certain point the price rise neutralizes the higher earnings. As soon as important information about company earnings becomes public, its impact is quickly reflected in market price per share.
The trick is to get this information before the general public, but the government has put restrictions on insiders taking advantage of such information. When a stockbroker gives a client a “hot tip” about a particular stock, the chances are that, if this broker knows about it, the big Wall Street investors do, too, so the information has already been discounted. An investor must be a step ahead of the general public to make money in the stock market; however, everyone trying to get a step ahead of everyone else creates a furious dialectic. It may, in fact, be impossible to pick stock-market winners rationally.
The crux of the problem is one’s inability to get inside the other person’s mind. Without that ability, certain problems cannot be solved. For example, how could the German commander in World War II have knowledgeably predicted whether the Allies would land in Normandy or in some other place? He could not have. The phenomenon known as “reverse psychology” comes into play in such situations.
The commander’s decisionmaking dilemma can be presented in the form of a puzzle which involves possibilities on several different levels of thought. Which level is the right one? None but one’s adversary knows; and he is not telling. The puzzle is called a “dialectical shuttle”. This and several other examples are presented in Appendix III. They show how self-conscious thinking occurs in particular situations which involve inherent uncertainty.
Perhaps some type of self-consciousness will be the ideal of the emerging computer age. Computers have a mind; so do we humans. The two types of minds can act in harmony or at cross purposes. Maybe the future will bring a mixture of both. Who knows?
Note: This is Chapter 10 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.
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