Consciousness Blog 6th January 2017

Weasel Words

One of the greatest difficulties in reading, writing or thinking about consciousness is that the words we have to employ have shifting, amorphous meanings, beginning with the word consciousness itself. For instance, what is the difference between consciousness, self-consciousness, awareness and self-awareness? I may think that I can distinguish between them (I am not sure about it); you may think so, and perhaps you can; but how do you know what is meant when a writer or researcher uses such terms without defining them (and people hardly ever do so)?

The word 'self' adds to the confusion in the above example. 20th century psychologists or psycho-analysts such as Freud and Jung tended to use the word 'self' to refer to a combination of the ego, which more often than not is equated to a person's consciousness, and elements of the unconscious which feed into one's sense of person-hood. And it's a fact that one has (I have, and I suppose that you have) a feeling that one's self is more extensive than the bundle of individual characteristics of which one is consciously aware, and which one uses in everyday dealings with the external world. I am only too aware that my behaviour is often influenced by unconscious motivations, which I only sometimes identify, and of which I sometimes become aware long after the event, if ever. Other people occasionally observe that one's behaviour is driven by hidden or unconscious motivations; sometimes they might comment on that to you or to third parties; other times they might not.

Then there is the superego. Freud said in 1921: "The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego's criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person's conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one's idealized self-image." For him, it was made up from one's parents' moral beliefs. Jung, on the other hand, saw the superego as an aspect of the "collective unconscious," being an unconscious receptacle of the accumulated moral wisdom of the race. Both agreed that the superego was unconscious, at least early in life, although with time, a person could import parts of the superego into her conscious ego, or perhaps it would be better to say that an evolving adult consciousness can form its own moral values based on direct life experience, and thus replace or discard matching parts of the inherited superego. There can be marked and uncomfortable conflicts between 'inherited' and 'acquired' moral precepts. People often struggle to sort them out. At a very advanced stage, a person will have wholly replaced inherited with acquired morality. Not many of us get that far.

The superego is of course just one part of unconscious motivation. What Jung termed the 'personal unconscious' contains much more, including repressed sexual drives and oedipal complexes, if you believe Freud, and 'shadow' complexes, to use Jung's term, including the anima (female part of men) and the animus (male part of women). Much of psychoanalysis, Freudian or Jungian, is concerned with trying to help a subject to deal with the unconscious baggage that they have been unable to assimilate into consciousness.

So, all of that simply to point out that when you are addressing someone's consciousness, whether your own or another's, you need to try to be aware of the extent of it, to gauge the extent to which your counter-party has evolved from the basic level of 'inherited' ego consciousness, mostly populated by archetypal content. And of course to have an equivalent awareness of your own degree of advancement. Does that sound strange? Have you never said to yourself: "That was stupid," when you had miscalculated someone's response to your behaviour? So, in that construction, who is the 'you', and who is the 'yourself'? Do you have multiple consciousnesses? Is that it? Or is it that your consciousness, your own ego, has access to or more likely can be accessed by multiple sets of differentiated unconscious content?

However much consciousness has evolved in the last few thousand years, and many writers believe based on Greek texts that it only became self-consciousness a couple of thousand years before Christ (BC), there is nothing new or modern about talking to oneself. Here is the Old Testament David in Psalms 42:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?” Of course, those words may have been attributed to him long afterwards, in one of the many rescensions of the Biblical text, but it would be stretching things to put them later than early centuries AD.

'Soul' is another difficult word, of course, if you are not strongly religious, or perhaps even if you are. Jung and other modern writers equate 'soul' to 'self' as defined above. The 'you' and the 'yourself' involved in talking to yourself probably represent an aspect of the unconscious talking to the conscious ego (the wrong way around, apparently!) but in some instances a case could be made for the opposite direction, or even that it is two aspects of the unconscious talking to each other, while consciousness is merely a listener.

Many psychologists believe that introspection is almost by definition impossible, and if that is the case then the task of sorting out the tangle of one's unconscious becomes horribly difficult. Others think that through meditation or hypnosis some degree of analytical contact is possible.

Read more in Chapter Five of Agent Human: Imagining, Dreaming and Time


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