Rhythm and self-consciousness in my own life 

by William McGaughey

When I was a boy five to ten years of age living in Detroit, I had a normal range of interests. I went to neighborhood schools that did not require homework. I played softball in vacant lots and game called “mumbly-peg” or “duck on rocks” in yards and alleys. I had a brother close to me and friends roughly my own age with whom I played.

There was little pressure to do anything. I was balanced in my interests and activities and was reasonably happy.

But then, at the age of ten, my parents sent me to a private school for boys in the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe where I was introduced to a more demanding life. Rigorous homework was assigned for the first time. Being an obedient boy, I took to this work wholeheartedly. Judged “most improved” among 5th graders, I ranked Number One in my class in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I tied for first in the 9th grade. Adults admired me; my peers, not so much.

Then, after a year at a public school in the 10th grade, I went to another private school for 11th and 12th grades, graduating in 1958. Here I was no longer Number One academically. I think I might have ranked second in my class in my senior year. The emphasis upon academics had shifted my focus, however. I was not longer sociable and spontaneous, as I had been earlier in my life, but had become a hard-working young man focused upon what I needed to do to advance myself. Posing as a well-rounded student, I engaged in some extracurricular activities. My grades and SAT scores, along with a resume of extracurricular activities, were impressive enough that I was admitted to Yale.

Yale was still more demanding academically. I was no longer a top student but someone ranked in the middle of my class. I took an introductory course in philosophy that captured my interest. Philosophy was a pure pursuit of truth, the highest calling in life. If not career-wise, I wanted to become a philosopher. I kept a journal of ideas in which I wrote down my ideas. This log of spontaneous ideas is something that has continued through my life. It has been the core of my life work.

Around sophomore year at Yale, I began to have fundamental doubts about myself, both because I had slipped academically and because my singleminded focus on academics had caused me to lose interest in other aspects of life. This meant that I did not have enough friendships. It is not that I was conspicuously lacking in social graces but that I was no longer proud and secure. I was a book worm grown stale, lacking in other experiences. For that reason, I decided to satisfy my military obligation prematurely to experience the real world. I dropped out of Yale in the middle of my junior year, resuming my college studies two years later. Rejected by the army, I lived in west Germany for a year. But my main focus during this time was on ideas.

An idea that had become important to me while a student at Yale is that success in life, particularly in academics, depends upon a person’s degree of concentration. If I concentrated on my studies, I would make rapid progress academically. Through mental concentration, I might regain a respectable position in my class.

However, this became more a philosophical than personal issue. I decided to cut myself loose from academic competition. Once when a professor accidentally graded me too low, I decided not to bring the error to his attention to get the deserved higher grade. Grades would no longer be that important to me, I reasoned. I would take charge of my own life and my own self-esteem.

Back to the philosophy of concentration. Concentration is not something that can be deliberately achieved. If I try to concentrate more, I am actually losing the required degree of focus. Concentration is, rather, an absence of extraneous influences. It is a natural state of focusing hard upon an object or a task to be performed.

I had concentration when I became a serious student in the 5th and 6th grades. I was sincerely interested in the subjects taught in school and made every effort to learn them and remember what I needed to know for the tests. But as time went by, this type of life became stale. I lost my primal interest in subjects at school. I began to worry about keeping up academically; and so I lost my concentration.

The term I used for the absence of concentration was “self-consciousness”. Certainly there was the element of thinking about myself. But it also involved a distinction between modes of thought. Consciousness was focusing upon the interior elements of a situation and becoming aware of them. Self-consciousness was focusing upon the act of thinking. It was the awareness of trying to improve upon performance rather than upon performance itself. Thought was looking at itself rather than at the interior elements of a situation existing in the world. Self-consciousness, in my lexicon, was “thought thought of”.

The result of performing a routine with pure concentration was something that I called “rhythm”. If an athlete or musician became “lost” in the act of performing and let habit carry the movements along in the intended way, he was concentrating fully upon the performance. This mentality gave rise to the best performances. The performer was in a state of rhythmic perfection. On the other hand, if the performer was distracted by other thoughts such as how to bring better technique to bear in particular situations, then concentration would be lost and his performance would not be so good.

Personally, I had become a philosopher more than a performer. My self-esteem now became associated with the insights I had regarding rhythm and self-consciousness rather than with mastering particular performance routines. So, in a sense, I lost the anxiety I had about making progress as a student or, later, as an employee in a career. So long as my ideas continued to flow and were written down adequately in a journal, I was satisfied that I was achieving my highest potential.

My ambition was to write a book cobbled together from these philosophical thoughts. After many years, I succeeded in producing a manuscript that coherently arranged the various ideas in my idea notebook. It was self-published in 2001 under the title Rhythm and Self-Consciousness: New Ideals for an Electronic Civilization. This book fulfilled an important part of my life work, even if it meant little to people in the academic world or elsewhere.

The idea of self-consciousness continued to develop. Eventually, this came to mean a reaction to previous conscious activity. I envisioned a world, like Hegel’s, where each conscious thought, if it materialized and was therefore visible in the world, became an object to which other conscious persons might react. In other words, self-consciousness was not just mind’s self-awareness of control but the product of a previous thought which became a new interior element in the mind capable of giving rise to new thoughts, either by the original thinker or someone else.

I began to perceive a dynamic of history based upon such mechanisms. Self-consciousness underlay the changing state of society as thought-driven institutions developed and became powerful, provoking a reaction from other conscious forces. There was an ecology of conscious forces, feeding upon each other and giving rise to new institutions.

About this time, I published another book titled Five Epochs of Civilization that presented world history in terms of five “civilizations”, or configurations of society and culture, that have succeeded one another in the course of the past five or six thousand years. The scheme involved the idea of successive civilizations which rose and fell. It was inspired by the historical thinking of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, who had embraced the idea of an internal dynamic that drove the development of civilizations.

But the idea that civilizations undergo organic life cycles is foreign to historians associated with the World History Association who, inspired by William McNeill, tend to think that civilizations change through contact with other societies or, following Jared Diamond’s scheme, are destroyed by external influences such as wars, famines, or diseases. I find the idea that success brings subsequent failure more compelling as an explanation for the rise and fall of civilizations than mechanistic explanations for such events.

The concept of self-consciousness therefore explains why young, undeveloped organizations succeed while prosperous and mature bureaucracies fail. In their earlier stages, organizations focus upon a particular purpose - let’s say, bringing a particular commercial product to market. They succeed because they have the intensity of concentration associated with pure “conscious” thinking. In their later stages, the organizations themselves become a focus of attention. They become “pots of gold” or accumulations of power that are attractive in their own right.

Once an organization has become successful in satisfying its original purposes, it becomes a worldly presence to which others can react. There are then struggles for leadership of these organizations for the sake of personal wealth, power, and prestige rather than building up the organization itself. There are also envious or greedy outsiders who challenge the organization and sometimes succeed in weakening or destroying it. Then something else comes along as a replacement. This is the phase of self-conscious thought; it is consciousness acting in light of a previous consciousness that has become fully developed.

In the later chapters of my book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, I developed the idea of a purely conscious or logical world called the “Urweg” (the original way) that underlies all activities in this world. It is how we would behave if released into a world without any previous inhibiting history. We would act directly to satisfy immediate physical and other needs. However, the forces of self-consciousness work to make the world more devious.

After man departs the rhythmic “Garden of Eden”, so to speak, life becomes more complicated because people react to what others have done. It is no longer possible to act in simple and direct ways. The emerging patterns of activity show a concern with how others have reacted or might react. One needs a sense of the other person’s thinking to know what to do in a given situation. Since no one can read another’s mind, it is impossible to know such things with certainty.

I developed the scheme of “dialectical shuttles” which involves two conscious minds of opposing interest trying to reach a decision. A classic case would be the U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower trying to decide where the invasion of Europe should take place - at Calais, the most direct route, or at Normandy, where he would benefit from the element of surprise if the Germans thought he would attack at Calais. The opposing general, Erwin Rommel, would be occupied with similar concerns, trying to second-guess Eisenhower.

When I explained this concept to my mother, she came up with an even better example: Two women are approaching a narrow door way from opposite directions, each trying to avoid the other. One moves to the right but the other does, too. Then they both move to the other side, again blocking each other. Eventually, through dumb luck, they figure out how to get around each other.

And so, self-consciousness become a logical mechanism of thought building upon thought that accounts for practices that exist in the world today. Originally, I had conceived of it as a distracting influence upon mind seeking to achieve rhythm. Rhythm remains a pure, innocent state of mind as it focuses upon a particular set of elements interior to thought and lets well-groomed habit rather than thought carry the performance along to perfection.

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