Friday, October 17, 2008

Quick Question-I-Had-at-Work Post

It's kind of a commonplace of discussion about the history of Western thought that we have this religious/Platonic idea running throughout it that consciousness precedes the external world - an idea that has had many permutations of varying levels of interest. However, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of the concepts that consciousness in general precedes the external world or some form of Platonic/Wordsworthian barely-remembered reincarnation exists, surely our actual experience of our individual consciousness that we can actually remember tends to suggest that this one thing does, in fact, come after the external world. Like, there's this big world with a lot of stuff in it that seems to have been around for a while, and, while our experience of consciousness is obviously guided by various mental constraints that allow us to learn, surely every actual experience is new to the individual mind (and it's not like we have memories of some other experiences that are no longer happening to us). So why is the idea that consciousness comes first so prevalent? Does Freud talk about this?


Jon Jucovy said...

I suppose, if I recall my Freud, that he argued that
1. endowing other things with consciousness, like objects in the world, is a remnant of an early stage of life when infants don't have the ability to distinguish between themselves and the external world. Once they begin to make that distinction, the memory of that earlier stage may lead us to still endow the external world with consciousness, that is nothing other that leftover traces of our own minds that we one thought were inseparable from the external world.

2. the sense that consciousness precedes material objects/the world may be due to the same phenomenon. If the consciousness that we think inhabits the external world arises from our projection of our own consciousness onto it, then the feeling that most of us have of being unable to really "feel" what it is like for a world not to be inhabited by our own consciousness (such as the classic, trying to imagine the world after you die, which is hard to really "feel") could give rise to the sense that consciousness is always there.

Grace Mulligan said...

Thanks for the analysis. . . I guess that makes sense. I'm trying to work through the contradictions of the human drive for union. I suppose that if we see the world as divided, in one way or another, into conscious and unconscious, then the two possibilities for unity are for everything to together lose consciousness or everything to share in the same consciousness.

I really like the start of the Pulp song "Love Is Blind" for its lyrical gesture towards this idea - "Give me the city. Give me the sea. Give to me everything I need." The city can be seen as representative of ultimate union through shared consciousness, the sea as ultimate union through an abandonment of consciousness. They are both desirable, because they both involve union, but, at the same time, they're completely contradictory.