The Intellectual or Self-Consciousness as a Way of Life
The animal world follows a simple principle: eat but avoid being eaten. Animals eat plants. Larger animals eat smaller animals. The body tissue of the plant or animal which is eaten at the cost of its life supplies organic materials for the other’s body to function and grow. One’s place in the food chain is therefore quite important; there is an advantage to being at the top. One eats by harvesting or subduing the prey, tearing its flesh into a chewable size, putting one’s mouth around this food, crunching, chewing, and swallowing it. Materials ingested as raw food are converted into the animal’s cell tissue so as to assume its DNA structure. Supplied with a source of energy and chemicals for cell replacement and growth, the surviving animal then goes about its business, affecting the world in a certain way.
The mind functions like a digestive system. It reaches out to focus upon certain elements (objects or patterns) in the world. These elements, as objects of attention, are drawn into mind’s system of understanding. Sensory receptors draw information about them into the nervous system which transmits electrical signals to the brain. The brain coordinates and interprets the information. A certain consciousness is formed in which the perceived elements comprise its internal nourishment, so to speak. The brain may use its understanding for some active purpose. In that case, electrical impulses travel from the brain to muscles which move the body in certain ways. The organism of which mind is a part thus makes its presence known in the world. The world is changed in ways that reflect the mind’s particular thoughts. Thought becomes an agent of causality.
General Motors had an interesting exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. In keeping with the “futuristic” spirit of those days, this automobile manufacturer was envisioning a world in which road-building processes would become completely mechanized. There was a model of a gigantic machine which moved through the Brazilian rain forest laying down a track of asphalt. Presumably, this was a mobile factory which manufactured the asphalt from the trees and shrubs that were in front of it. As the machine moved slowly through the rain forest, this vegetation became raw material for the asphalt. In a way, mind is like such a machine moving through the world, taking pristine situations (like the jungle shrubbery) and, through work, turning them into situations more in line with its purposes (asphalt). For, the mind has the ability to ingest external images, interpret them, and then initiate action which changes the world.
This describes how the conscious mind works. The self-conscious mind works in a different way. Referring again to the analogy of eating, we know that human beings and most animals observe certain taboos. They will not eat the flesh of their own species, least of all of their own children or other family members. Instead, they “sit around the dinner table” feasting together on food appropriate for their species. That may food consist of vegetables, minerals, and meat taken from a “lower” species. Also, no species eats its own excrement. The feeding process is orderly and clean. Only certain things go into the mouth to be processed by the gastrointestinal system. With respect to human thought, the elements of consciousness are those drawn from perceptions of the world - things external to mind, able to be understood. However, it is also possible for mind to think of its own thoughts, or of thoughts like ones found in its own thinking. That would be self-conscious thinking. Its internal element is not a worldly fact but something more intimate to itself.
Like eating the flesh of a species too close to our own, we feel rather uncomfortable thinking about what we have previously thought or about subjects close to ourselves. We cannot form an objective judgment about such things for we see ourselves in them. The term, “self-conscious”, is defined in the New Century Dictionary: “conscious of one’s self or one’s own thoughts; also, excessively or morbidly conscious of one’s self; given to thinking of one’s self as an object of observation to others.” The morbidity of self-conscious thinking reflects its unhealthy tendency to confuse the knower with the object of knowledge. It’s like eating the flesh of a kindred species or, perhaps, one’s own excrement.
the thought inside the thought
Self-conscious thought may be experienced in a moment when conscious thought continues as a fixed routine and the mind has time to observe what it is doing. Because mind cannot hold two full-fledged thoughts in itself at the same time, it is not possible to see, introspectively, conscious and self-conscious thoughts simultaneously. Yet, the mind can shift between the two points of view, retaining the memory of consciousness as an object of mind’s new perception. For, consciousness is formed when mind focuses upon its internal elements; self-consciousness, when that element is a previous thought.
In the active mode, mind first has a perception of the world. It relates this perception to its system of understanding and an idea for action is conceived. The mind then directs this purposeful thought outward through muscular movements (including those of speech) and the world is changed in a certain way. The action which mind has directed thus brings external patterns of being into closer conformity with its ideals. Self-conscious experience would require another cycle. Here, mind perceives an action which its thoughts have previously caused in the world. It again relates this perception to its system of understanding and another idea for action is conceived. This new conception of purpose would take the earlier one into account. (In other words, the first thrust of consciousness, which was acted upon, would become an interior element in the second.) Mind would self-consciously perceive the pattern of action which an earlier consciousness had created, and the world again would be changed. This new pattern would reflect the more complex structure of mind’s “double understanding” - of the conscious and self-conscious actions seen together.
Activity produced by self-conscious thinking may be considered a new type of causal entity. If it is true that thoughts cause actions, then a thought whose awareness takes another thought into account is a different kind of thought than thoughts of natural being. Self-conscious thinking is different from just thinking about the world. The world of human behavior is full of self-conscious elements whose awareness is formed in response to or in anticipation of other conscious acts. In other words, human behavior includes, besides the satisfaction of physical and other natural desires, activities which feed off other conscious activities and can only be explained in reference to them. A causal explanation of those activities would have to include an understanding of both the activity itself and the one to which it responded. Mind, embracing both perspectives at the same time, would form a “self-conscious” image of the world.
In the natural world, where the larger and more complex type of animal eats smaller and simpler life forms, the organic material of the simpler creature is incorporated in the bodily mass of the predator. Similarly, the world of human behavior is a jungle-like complex of purposes existing at several levels of complexity. Self-conscious thoughts “eat” thoughts formed at the level of ordinary consciousness. Being more complex and broadly inclusive, they impose their scheme of organization on the other conscious entity. Self-consciousness incorporates simpler understandings within its own scheme of meaning. We must understand them before we can understand the self-conscious thought.
Babies are thrown into the world with undeveloped thoughts. They have certain physical and emotional needs. Life in their parental household revolves around certain routines. This repetitious experience conditions the infant’s mind to perceive particular objects or patterns in its surroundings. The incoming sense data are interpreted in certain ways. Thoughts form to grasp the patterns. Spoken language gives thought a physical presence in the world. As a person grows older, consciousness increasingly becomes a stream of words passing through the mind. This is not contemplation but active experiences as well.
Repetition guides the process of thought formation. When a perception is repeated, a pattern is recognized. When bodily motion is repeated, there is a habit. A habit formed in conjunction with purposeful knowledge is a skill. The association of spoken words with physical experience is an important step upward in the processes of thought. Later, written language is added to life’s experience. All this takes place on the conscious level. Human experience can remain there to one degree or another - a mix of physical sensations, words, habits, and conscious thoughts, directly perceived - until the condition arrives for self-consciousness to enter a person’s life.
Each of us has experienced self-conscious thoughts from time to time. Usually these arise when we are unhappy or, it may be, when we are happy. We then begin to think about ourselves. Such thoughts may last for a few moments before we revert to our normal lives. But for some people, at certain times in their life, self-consciousness continues beyond a brief period. They think about themselves and their own private experiences not just occasionally but quite often. Their self-perceptions and personal struggles become more interesting to them than the ordinary experiences in life. They may lose interest in these ordinary experiences and become withdrawn. They may become preoccupied with self-improvement. They may feel guilty whenever they are not making the best use of their time. They condition themselves not to accept life’s small pleasures because more important purposes claim their time. They have put themselves on a program which self-consciousness has chosen for them, which makes them sacrifice present experiences for the future. This is an artificial kind of existence - so far from the natural lives they remember as children when each little thing was interesting and fresh.
Intellectuals are more prone to self-consciousness than others because their life’s work forces them to explore their own thoughts. Therefore, they do not have the same kinds of thoughts as people engaged in more active pursuits. For intellectuals, ideas are important. Since they deal with products of their inner mind, mental experiences become their main interest. Meanwhile, the active side of life may have settled down into an unchallenging routine. The same routines appear again and again until they have become second nature.
As habit takes over, mind is cleared for other kinds of thoughts. The thoughts which arise at such times may be of several types. They could be simple daydreaming. One might recall some recent experiences, toy with pet ideas, or move lazily from thought to thought in aimless chains of association. Another possibility would be self-conscious thinking. During the automatic performance of a routine, one has the opportunity to watch one’s own actions being carried out by habit. One can also observe one’s own habits of thought and begin thinking of them. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, said in a television interview that in his early years he had worked as a laborer in a bristle factory. It was a simple job, easily handled by habit, so that much of his time was spent daydreaming. Kissinger remarked that this was the sort of job which could turn anyone into a philosopher.
hierarchies of thinking
Self-conscious thinking injects a wider and more complex element into the stream of human experience. Mind expands to include its previous thinking as one of several objects. In ordinary consciousness, the mind gathers diverse influences from sense perceptions and organizes them into patterns. In self-consciousness, the conscious thoughts themselves become particulars at a higher level of abstraction. The mind is an instrument of abstraction; its function is to conceive worldly phenomena in terms of general patterns. The universal pattern or concept of a horse, for example, applies to any and all of the millions of horses which one might find in the world.
Mathematical formulas also illustrate the paradigm of abstract reasoning. With a single abstraction, mind is able to transform an unlimited number of values for x into another value that stands in the proper y-relationship to it. The ability to generalize gives a great advancement to knowledge. Without it, we would always be having to learn from scratch each aspect of a new situation that we might encounter. With it, we already possess much of the knowledge we need.
Practical life requires knowledge to deal with various situations. The expert in a field is one who possesses the knowledge of concepts, relationships, or rules to handle its particular functions. His consciousness includes the information needed to do a certain piece of work. That person is looking down on its elements as if from a higher vantage point. At a higher level of authority, it is possible for someone to look down on another person’s work from the standpoint of a higher understanding. Supervisors assume that role in corporate bureaucracies. Their job requires an understanding of what the people beneath them do in their work. They do not need to know how to do the work themselves, but how this work fits into the scheme set forth by higher management. With their view of the organization’s interests as a whole, supervisors have the authority to countermand specific decisions which their underlings have made. When they supervise, they “look over” events taking place on a lower level. They assess those events from the point of view of one situated at a higher level.
Vertical hierarchies of knowledge translate into a corresponding scheme of economic and social stratification. Because self-conscious thought is more complicated and abstract than ordinary thought, occupations which require such thinking are considered to be intellectually more challenging and are compensated accordingly. In the accounting field, for instance, bookkeepers make routine entries to the company’s general ledger. The staff accountants, organized in a hierarchy, compile and arrange this information as they prepare the financial statements. Outside auditors from public-accounting firms review the work of the corporate accountants. The superior view involved in their job function entitles the accountants to greater rank, prestige, and pay than the bookkeepers, and the auditors a higher position than the accountants, even though all these people are handling the same set of books. Whoever passes judgment on another person or reviews his work is on top.
Academic disciplines assume this posture with respect to other areas of life. Whatever his field of study, the scholar gathers facts relating to particular situations to build a structure of more general knowledge. Within academia itself, the disciplines are arranged in a hierarchy according to the degree of generality which their type of knowledge involves. Some disciplines are concerned with specific experiences or creative expressions. They would include history, literature, and the arts. Another sort of discipline is concerned with building a structure of general principles to describe something. Mathematics, linguistics, logic, and the natural and social sciences would be examples of this category. Still another sort embraces a more general understanding of life or is a self-reflective review of other disciplines. Philosophy and literary or art criticism illustrate this.
History and literature tell a story of events that happened (or might have happened) in a particular case. One grasps their knowledge through ordinary consciousness. It may seem otherwise, for at the college level at least, these subjects are taught from an analytical or self-critical point of view. In literature, students are made aware of verbal imagery, symbols, and other technical features. In history, they must be prepared to discuss trends and themes. In mathematics and science, knowledge is organized in terms of general principles.
Since nature functions in a regular way, we can know these principles with certainty. The “laws of nature” are general relationships that bind the specifics without exception. Mathematics describes patterns in numerical or spatial relationships. Although language is based on conventions, its study suggests patterns of human thought inherent in words and grammatical rules. At a higher level, it becomes linguistics or a study of comparative languages. With philosophy, the human mind is turned loose on any and all aspects of life’s reality. As an academic discipline, it includes logic, ethics, and metaphysics. Earlier philosophies embraced the study of nature; what we call “science” was once “natural philosophy”. As these areas of inquiry became more highly developed, they were spun off into separate disciplines, leaving philosophy with the residue. Philosophy therefore remains a rather wild discipline in which mind is still inventing its methodology. It is self-consciousness in a pure sense.
While not hierarchical in the bureaucratic sense, academic disciplines stand in a vertical relationship to each other. If one assumes, for instance, that history is governed by certain laws, there might be a “science of history”. A “history of science” would also be possible, though scholars here would collect facts about the progress of scientific knowledge. A “philosophy of science”, on the other hand, would consider the principles underlying science.
Literary criticism stands in a similar relationship to literature. The critic does not read as others do, for enjoyment, but in a more self-conscious way. The discipline which functions at a higher level of abstraction presumably holds the key to understanding the one beneath. For instance, literary criticism would seem to have discovered the technique by which an author produced his work. Presumably, we too could write such literature, knowing the technique. Of course, that is unlikely. A famous architect once said: “God is in the details.” By that, he meant to suggest the importance of execution. Indeed, although knowledge at the higher level would seem to be superior to facts, it is facts that determine its truth. The scientist who has no acquaintance with facts but only with scientific theories cannot contribute much to his field. Philosophers who philosophize without descending to the level of common experience are apt to utter nonsense.
active and contemplative life
That is sometimes a problem in academic life. Scholars who are surrounding themselves with ideas may have forgotten what it is to live at a primary level. Academics have specialize in study as opposed to “practical” activities. Their function is to produce new and better conceptions. “Intellectuals”, a name for idea-centered individuals, may give themselves permission to let their personal life slide so long as their ideas are showing progress. For, their life work is to create and polish ideas. This is a function that largely depends on self-conscious thinking. Unlike the practical man who uses fixed principles of knowledge to work in some area, the intellectual lets his worldly situation stay fixed while he is working on improved ideas. To him, one’s system of understanding is the important thing; action is secondary. Understanding comes from learning about the world. Throughout life, simpler conceptions are being replaced by more sophisticated ones. While all persons go through this learning process, intellectuals spend more time at it than most.
Rhythm needs a fixed thought upon which to focus its attention. That is true of successful action generally. For the man of action, there is no particular virtue in having original thoughts since his purpose is to do something well. For that, he must have steady thoughts. His inner mind must be settled, whether by personal temperament or by religious conviction, while he is engaged in incomplete projects in the active world. He cannot be always changing his mind. The intellectual, on the other hand, makes a career of changing his mind. His conceptions are undergoing constant development. If it were not so, the intellectual’s opinions and beliefs would be worth no more than those of the man on the street. It follows that the intellectual, often changing his mind, is unlikely to be a successful actor. But that is not his function. Instead, he is meant to work on ideas. He is able to do that better if he has a stable living arrangement. Unlike the man of action, the intellectual needs stability in his outer life while his mind is entertaining unsteady thoughts. He needs a certain financial security. He needs an orderly living routine, no matter how untidy it may appear to others, so that habit can free mind for the higher kinds of thoughts. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant had such regular habits that his neighbors in Konigsberg, East Prussia, could set their clocks by the morning walks that he took to the post office.
Intellectuals and practical persons have this in common: Whether in action or thought, there must be an element of stability. One or the other must be fixed while its opposite is freely moving. This situation can be compared with walking. For one leg to move forward, the other must be on the ground. Then it is the other leg’s turn to move forward as the first leg returns to the ground. If both legs were traveling at the same time, the walker would lose his balance. So it is with action and conceptualization. Only one of the two can be changing at a given time. It is more common for conceptualization to be the fixed member and action the variable one. The other possibility, though, is for one’s beliefs to undergo rapid change while action settles down to a comforting routine. Because intellectuals are in the minority, their unsettled beliefs can make them social outcasts. Conflict may develop with religious or political authorities. Intellectuals find it difficult to stop at a particular formulation and declare it to be a complete and perfect expression of truth. The man of action can more easily arrest this inward development and live with a fixed set of ideas.
when self-consciousness becomes a habit
Intellectuals have another problem. Their life’s work involves a type of knowledge which is derivative and therefore weaker than it would be in practical life. They are working with self-conscious perceptions rather than those from primal experience, closer to sense and immediate need. Conscious thoughts are based on directly perceived facts of the world. One receives immediate feedback. In contrast, self-conscious thoughts, like a landscape illuminated by moonlight, depend on understanding from another source. Since it is impossible to hold two thoughts (a conscious and a self-conscious one) in the mind at the same time, the conscious thought must be remembered for it to become an element in self-conscious thinking.
That means that there will be a certain degradation in the perceived thought because of memory’s weakness. One cannot have self-conscious thoughts without having another thought, which appeared first, as an interior object. The perception of its experience will remain only so strong as it can be remembered. One may have a good memory of conscious experiences which have occurred recently or have made a strong emotional impression. On the other hand, if one’s life has drifted into a mode of chronic self-consciousness, such experiences will be rare. Instead, the practice and experience of thinking self-consciously may become a habit.
Think of what it means for self-consciousness to become a habit. Each action or thought, exercised once, it sets a precedent for future events of the same sort. Habits are strengthened each time they are practiced. If it were ordinary conscious experiences which were repeated and habitually strengthened, that would pose no problem. But for self-consciousness to become a habit undermines its own structure of support, consisting of conscious thoughts. For, while repetition may reinforce the self-conscious thought by direct experience, it erodes through neglect and disuse those experiences on the conscious level which were the focus of its attention. Those primary kinds of activities are no longer being exercised. Therefore, they are no longer able to support firm habits of thought. Once those habitual thoughts have decayed, the self-conscious mind loses its object of attention. And so self-consciousness is like a parasite feeding on ordinary conscious thought. Its influence over the mind must be restrained lest, in strangling the host, it too will perish.
The habit of self-conscious thinking is inherently unstable. In self-consciousness, mind is observing its own thoughts (or thoughts like its own). Those thoughts have arisen as a result of thinking about something else - namely, the “elements” of ordinary experience. The practice of regularly thinking about ordinary things in the world produces steady habits of mind, which create memories that can then be accessed during self-conscious reflection. The thought itself, remembered from previous conscious experience, becomes an object of perception.
On the other hand, if mind makes a habit of thinking self-consciously, then its attention is diverted from the world of primary experience and its memory of such things begins to fade. Mind’s habit of focusing upon the elements experienced in ordinary life becomes flabby and weak. Its faculties of carrying out normal thought processes become atrophied. To an extent, the ground is cut out from under its own ability to think. Self-consciousness, in moderation, is not such a problem. But when self-conscious thinking which is practiced too often solidifies into habit, its structure of thoughts may become top-heavy in relation to the base of conscious thoughts and start to erode.
Intellectuals must wrestle with this problem of eroding consciousness. In their life work, they use self-conscious awareness to discover certain truths or develop artistic themes. By the same token, their acquaintance with other of life’s pursuits tends to weaken as its knowledge recedes into a distant memory. With these receding memories, the intellectuals’ mental picture grows fuzzy. Their minds are filled up with personally meaningful but useless impressions. Understanding becomes a private matter. I remember two statements which Jean-Jacques Rousseau made in his Confessions. He said that he could remember his own feelings more easily than facts. He also said that most of his personal troubles began about the time that he started writing philosophy.
Intellectuals tend to live in a “dream world”, built from their own thoughts. Whoever carries on an extended creative project comes to perceive worldly experience in privately symbolic terms. For him, this new way of thinking replaces the old world; he loses contact with its elements. The former “things” of the world now exemplify a theoretical point, or a theme in a poem, or some other abstraction being conceived in his mind. He comes to see the world in those terms. Facts which may be obvious to others escape him since he never saw them that way. His purposes are different from other people’s purposes so his perceptions are different, even of the same world. For example, a poet may see the same tree as a logger. The logger thinks of this tree as so many board feet of a certain kind of wood. The poet sees it as an element in a poem, symbolizing something. At least the logger can talk about the tree in terms that others can understand. The poet’s vision may be too personal, or too loaded with meanings known only to himself, for him to be able to discuss it with anyone else.
People communicate with each other through facts. Intellectuals may not know facts outside their own field of interest. If, for instance, a philosopher is not interested in trees as harvestable timber, he no longer notices this aspect of their being. Not noticing it, he does not form that kind of perception; and the unformed perception does not become a remembered fact. This philosopher may instead think of some obscure personal association with the tree and remember that experience. He may also have thoughts unrelated to external experience. Sometimes the ideas just spin off each other in idle cogitation, separate from any event.
Since intellectuals are mainly aware of their own kinds of experiences, they may be retarded in other respects. The world laughs at one who, seeming to be so intelligent, displays such ignorance or lack of common sense. Sir Isaac Newton once cut a hole in the door of his study to let his cat and her kittens in and out; he thought it necessary to cut a small hole for the kittens as well as a large hole for the mother cat. President Lyndon B. Johnson sneered at his scholarly critic, Senator William Fulbright: “Why, he can’t even park a car straight.” In the late 19th century, a certain Professor Lombroso of the University of Turin claimed that “genius” was “a form of cerebral disease.” He called it “degenerative psychosis of the epileptoid group.” Plato himself observed that “anyone who gives himself to philosophy is open to such mockery ... When he is forced to talk about what lies at his feet or is before his eyes, the whole rabble will join the maidservants in laughing at him, as from inexperience he walks blindly and stumbles into every pitfall. His terrible clumsiness makes him seem so stupid.”
The German novelist, Thomas Mann, wrote about the problem of being an intellectual in a world dedicated to mundane pursuits. His Nobel-prizewinning novel, Buddenbrooks, put these words into the mouth of its principal character, a businessman who was advising his son against choosing an artistic career. He might have been talking of self-consciousness in general.
Mann wrote: “I have thought a great deal about this curious and useless self-preoccupation because I once had an inclination to it myself. But I observed that it made me unsteady, harebrained, and incapable - and control, equilibrium, is, at least for me, the important thing. There will always be men who are justified in this interest in themselves, this detailed observation of their own emotions; poets who can express with clarity and beauty their privileged inner life, and thereby enrich the emotional world of other people. But the likes of us are simple merchants, my child; our self-observations are decidedly inconsiderable. We can sometimes go so far as to say that the sound of orchestral instruments gives us unspeakable pleasure ... but it would be much better ... if we sat down and accomplished something, as our fathers did before us.”
Why must a person know about himself? Will this help him to do anything or become more proficient in a skill? On the contrary, such thoughts generally detract from performance. Basically, self-consciousness tells a person that he is happy or unhappy or, perhaps, doing poorly or well. Of what use is it for him to know that? If a person concentrates too much upon his good qualities, he may become complacent or overly proud; if on his bad qualities, he may succumb to debilitating worry. At best, he will probe the cause of his worries. He will analyze his problems and try to overcome them. Even so, the danger exists that the self-analysis and attempted self-reconstruction may produce results that are worse than the original problem - unless, through chance or intelligence, he happens to hit upon the solution. Then there would be the additional step of applying this remedy to his own situation. Most worriers fail to get past that last hurdle.
Success or failure in life depends on the outcome of struggles directed toward an external purpose. These hold the key to human happiness. When a person instead becomes involved in self-consciously determined purposes, a secondary effort is created. This effort might take the form of attempts at self-improvement. The person would be attempting to improve his technique of performance. There is a difference between the two kinds of efforts. To practice a technique for the sake of improved performance is not the same as applying it to achieve a certain result. In one case, the intended result, whatever that might be, is the object; in the other case, improved technique. Improving one’s technique should not be allowed to become the main goal because this changes the nature of the struggle. To seek an end directly creates its own technique. The “better” techniques in that case are be the ones that work. On the other hand, if one seeks primarily to improve technique, then the object becomes to bring performance into closer conformity with a prescribed pattern. Not only might its prescription be faulty, but the knack of successful performance may be lost as one self-consciously pursues technique instead of the primary end.
For example, suppose that a child has trouble reading. There are pedagogical techniques to teach children how to read. For the child, the primary effort would be to understand the message expressed in the book. Hopefully, the child would be interested in the subject matter and would learn how to read as a byproduct of that interest. Reading skills would become a means to the end of comprehending the meaning of an interesting text. So effective reading skills would be developed in the process of trying to read. From the teacher’s standpoint, however, the effort might center on learning proper technique. If the child fails to learn reading fast enough, the teacher then might push technique harder in an attempt to “catch up”. The teacher might ask the child to practice certain exercises, keeping in mind such things as eye movement, vocalization and paragraph construction. The child might confuse techniques aimed at the improvement of reading skills with the act of reading itself. The farther behind he falls, the more intense might become the effort to improve his reading by a better grasp of technique. The child might begin to lose interest in books altogether.
Without self-consciousness, learning takes place by a process of “natural selection”. The learner experiments with means to an end. Those means which do not work are normally rejected and replaced by ones which do. If a person keeps his eye on the end at all times, he will learn to distinguish the better means from worse ones and so will acquire an improved set of techniques. He will repeat the successful techniques until they solidify into habit. The self-conscious student also practices technique, but lacks a natural sense of distinguishing good means from bad ones. He practices techniques which he supposes to be good. However, his goal is to execute the techniques properly, not achieve the best means to an end. Whether or not he reaches that end will depend on whether he has selected appropriate means. Sometimes the means being recommended are not the best ones but are the product of some pedagogical theory. One would not then substitute more effective for less effective means, but more orthodox means for less orthodox ones. A person might succeed completely in improving technique yet fail in his main purpose.
In the quest of self-improvement, we should not allow ourselves to stray too far from life’s principal ends. If one instead becomes bogged down in secondary purposes, one may lose touch with the broader experiences which give meaning to life. Therefore, a student who is in school merely to “learn” or get good grades may become stale. He needs to be interested in course content to be an effective learner and perhaps earn good grades. Otherwise, a student is apt to go through the motions of study without learning or remembering much.
Self-conscious projects consume time. They may set unhelpful habit-forming precedents. If self-conscious pursuits come to dominate a person’s aspirations, he may begin to lose interest in life. Such an event may cause a person to worry about himself, bringing further estrangement from the world. Someone who is interested mainly in self-improvement may be knowledgeable about his own personal history, but would be hard-pressed to discuss this with others. For example, a detailed account of one’s own courageous battle against self-doubt and inner despair is hardly a suitable topic for conversation at the dinner table. If you want someone to listen to that kind of talk, go hire a psychiatrist.
Intellectuals run the risk of becoming imaginatively exhausted. That may not be their fault so much as it is the fault of a career system that requires them to specialize in self-conscious functions. People cannot go on creating or inventing full tilt without a change of pace. Unfortunately, the marketplace does not take a person serious in his work unless he is a “professional”. For intellectuals, this means being a full-time teacher, journalist, creative writer, or thinker of some sort. But where does he get the experience to teach or write well? Perhaps as a teenager, he spent a summer in a canning factory, hitchhiked across the country, worked as a policeman, played semi-pro ball, or trained for another career. Somerset Maugham was grateful for his early years of training as a medical intern. The point is that intellectuals need to stay in touch with the primary world. Creative expression needs to be grounded in real-life experiences. Otherwise, works created in an environment that is separated from such things may be of little consequence.
a redeeming value?
It would seem from the foregoing discussion that self-consciousness is an unmitigated evil which must be eliminated from human experience. Its influence is responsible for mental breakdowns, academic befuddlement, personal grief, or whatever else makes people miserable and unhappy. Its only redeeming quality would be “self-knowledge”, a benefit loudly proclaimed by Socrates but by few others. I once talked with a woman who had studied philosophy in college but had abandoned it because, as she said, “I do not want to be unhappy.” Evidently she did not believe Aristotle’s statement that people can find happiness in philosophical wisdom.
Yet, I am uncomfortable with the conclusion that self-consciousness needs to be eliminated. Somehow, its simple annihilation seems an uncourageous escape from the challenges that one faces as a rational human being. For some unknown reason, humanity must know the truth. Truth, to the extent that it fully reflects worldly experience, must take self-conscious phenomena into account. To stifle and suppress such things will not help. They can, of course, be pushed deep down into the subconscious regions of the mind to fester and cause emotional anguish. Better to expose these problems to the light of self-conscious thinking so that intelligent decisions can be made about them. On the other hand, a person needs the discipline not to wallow in these thoughts. The self-conscious lesson needs to be seized quickly.
“Know thyself” read the inscription at Delphi. While it is the particular fate of intellectuals to live lives filled with self-conscious motivations, those in positions of practical leadership also need to deal with such things. So much of the world that we experience is created by thought.
To operate effectively in a given situation, one needs a sense of the motivating factors created by preceding conscious events. Especially at the highest levels of decision making, one needs a “psychological” awareness to make the right judgments. The successful financial investor cannot limit his knowledge to data concerning earnings per share; he needs to understand how other investors might react to this information so that he can act with good timing. A government leader does not have the luxury of deciding public-policy questions on the “merits” alone but must also know something of voter psychology. One cannot make wise decisions without taking a reading of the world as it is in its full extent. Because the world of human behavior is partially or largely created by self-conscious thoughts, successful actors in this world must rise to their level of complexity when they size up a situation and act. Successful actors or managers of every stripe must be, therefore, intellectuals.