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Self-consciousness as a causal force in the world
by William McGaughey

In a nutshell, there is the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness. Consciousness is the thought of something. Self-consciousness, in the sense used here, is a thought of thought. It has some relationship to the present thinker. And because it does, the thought is not entirely free. The “self” in the thinker needs somehow to be favored or protected.

Because self-conscious thought is connected with the sense of self, thoughts of morality can arise. We own these thoughts that we once had and for which we are now judging the consequences. Ethical philosophies arose in the 1st millennium B.C. when, in the case of Greek philosophy, thought was treated as an object, or in the Hebrews’ case it was linked to the history of a nation with which they continued to identify.

The Garden of Eden represents a state of pure consciousness. Adam and Eve were naked but unashamed. They did not think of themselves. Once they partook of the apple in violation of God’s instruction, they had to acknowledge their own action and, indirectly, themselves. So they became self-conscious. Moral complexity was added to their lives.

This is the moral lesson: If I have to judge something to which I gave rise, there is a mental conflict of interest. One mind says to be objective. Know the world as it truly exists. The other says “this is my work” and, of course, it is good. The more I was responsible for creating something, the more conflicted I will be in judging it.

I think of thought as mind containing an image. It is the image of something in the world. You see or hear something and then think of it. The natural world presents a pure image. The mind is a mechanism for dealing with images like this. It understands them through repeated exposure.

Self-consciousness is more complicated. Being a thought of thought, it supports a double image. There is, first, the image of whatever is perceived - some worldly pattern that was produced by thought. There is, second, an internal understanding of that thought. The thought-produced phenomenon will not make sense unless mind puts itself inside the original thought to imagine itself in that role. Mind understands what was produced by thought by imagining itself in the act of the creation.

What has this to do with history? History is filled with activities initiated by human thought. In other words, it belongs to a world more closely related to self-consciousness than the conscious world of nature. Its structures and practices may not have been created by us individually, but they were created by other human beings whose thoughtful purposes were similar to ours. We therefore understand them through the lens of the double image.

On the other hand, it is important to recognize that history includes mainly thoughts that are “successful”. The thoughts had to accomplish something in the world for others to notice them. Most thoughts simply perish undeveloped within a person’s mind. Successful thoughts, giving rise to large and powerful institutions, become objects to which others can react.

To put this in philosophical terms, a good place to start would be with Hegel’s concept of ideas actualizing themselves or becoming concrete. Some thoughts are just idle cognition, with little consequence in the world. Others, however, become materialized. When these ideas or purposes materialize, they become objects in the world. When they become material objects, they can be seen by others. On the other hand, if the thoughts fail to materialize, they are known only by the mind that has conceived them. Therefore, the degree to which ideas participate in history depends on the degree to which they have materialized.

What does it mean for an idea to materialize? Take a simple example. I own a vacant lot near my home and want to plant an apple tree in that lot. Now I must work on that project. I google “buy apple tree” and find a listing of websites where apple trees can be purchased. After looking at several of them, I place an order using my credit card. Later an apple tree arrives at my home via UPS. I first read the directions and then, armed with shovel and watering can, I walk to the vacant lot. I dig a hole in the ground and place the roots of the apple tree in the hole, before covering it up with earth and sprinkling the earth around the tree trunk with water. If I have done this properly, I will have a live tree whose branches bear apples after a few years, just as I had imagined. If I have not done this, there will be no apple tree in that lot in years to come.

Such projects come in various “sizes” or degrees of difficulty. Some things can be easily and immediately performed. I think of pointing the index finger of my right hand at something. In the next second, it is done. The project of planting an apple tree in a vacant lot could take several weeks or months to finish, depending upon my level of resolve and the apple orchard’s speed and effectiveness in filling the order. Two players are involved here. More ambitious projects may involve still more players. Their successful execution could break down at more points.

For instance, I have the idea of starting a restaurant. I imagine that this restaurant will eventually become so successful that it will become a chain. I, as owner, will then become a multi-millionaire. This project, however, requires the approval of a banker who will lend me the money to buy or rent the building, equip the kitchen, and buy tables and chairs for the customers. It may require the approval of city zoning officials. I would have to hire cooks, waiters and waitresses, cashiers, and someone to run the office. I would need the right food recipes. Most important, I would need the attention and approval of customers who would come to my restaurant, order food, and keep coming back because they like what the restaurant offers. Hopefully, they would tell their friends about it.

Another factor in success, however, would be the absence of competition. If another restaurant offered better food and service or these at a lower price, then people would stop coming in such numbers to my restaurant even if I did everything right. Businesses generally exist in competition with other similar ones, adversarially positioned.

History is filled with even bigger projects than starting a restaurant. Many more people are involved. This means that many more people react to what thought has created, forcing it to change. Large successful institutions are, therefore, continually under attack; but they also have immense resources to withstand the attacks. The interior thoughts that sustain them are challenged by external forces utilizing these institutions for their own purposes, often in a hostile way.

the dynamic of self-consciousness

While the word “self-consciousness” refers primarily to thought, it is historically significant in terms of the worldly result. And since much of the world of human society is the product of human thinking, actions undertaken as a result of thoughts change society. They change the previous patterns of behavior and make the society more complex.

Consider this example. Suppose that, every Wednesday afternoon, a rich nobleman travels along a highway in a carriage to get from one place to another. A robber realizes this. Knowing the traveler’s intent, he anticipates that the nobleman will be coming down this road at a certain time. He waits in ambush and then robs the carriage. If repeated often enough, the practice of robbery on this highway becomes a fact to be reckoned with by those wishing to travel.

Next we move to the stage of self-conscious thought: The nobleman realizes that he may be robbed if he travels along this highway on Wednesday afternoons. Anticipating this, he takes steps to avoid the robbery. He might change the time of travel to Wednesday mornings. He could take a different route. Or, he might hire an armed guard to ward off the expected attackers. In either case, his original practice is changed.

Philosophically, the situation can be analyzed as follows:

(1) It is a conscious thought for the nobleman to decide to travel on the highway to keep a Wednesday afternoon appointment.

(2) It is a self-conscious thought for the robber to wait in ambush. He must know or suspect the traveler’s intention.

(3) It is also a self-conscious thought, but at a deeper level, for the traveling nobleman to change his plans. He must suspect that a robber will likely be waiting for him if he adheres to the original plan. He thinks what the robber’s thoughts will likely be and takes evasive action.

No longer, then, is it a simple matter of traveling on this highway to get from one place to another. Because there are two minds of contrary purpose - the traveler’s and the robber’s - travel practices become more complex. A less efficient route to the appointment must be taken or an armed guard must be hired.

This last thought - to change travel plans - takes the robber’s previous thought into account, which, in turn, takes the traveler’s original thought into account. To understand the situation completely, one’s knowledge is based upon a juxtaposition of the three thoughts.

Again, it’s important to note that thought must be successfully acted upon in order for it to become a factor in the world. If the robber thought of robbing the carriage but did not do it, his thought would have no effect. Only if the robber acts upon his intention to rob the carriage does the traveler becomes aware of that possibility so that he changes his plans.

dialectical shuttles

There is also a situation which I find intellectually interesting, based on the fact that, until acted upon, thoughts are opaque. One person must react to another person’s actions but cannot read his mind. That leads to a series of speculations that are increasingly deep but consistently ignorant. I call this a dialectical shuttle.

The state of mind before the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, is an example. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the aggressor, and the German General Erwin Rommel, the defender, are the two conflicted minds.

The situation is this: The German army was expecting Allied forces from Britain to land on the coast of northern France in late May or early June 1944 in order to open a second front in World War II. General Rommel was charged with defending Germany’s “Festung Europa” against the expected attack. The element of surprise would play an important part in the outcome. It would help Rommel to know where the Allies would land so that he could concentrate his defenses at that point instead of spreading them out along the entire coastline. Where should he expect the attack? The General thinks to himself:

1. The most logical place to expect an attack would be in the vicinity of Calais. Here the distance between England and France is about twenty-five miles. The Allies could quickly transport their troops across the English Channel and strike a damaging blow before we realized what was happening. The only way to defend against such an attack would be to concentrate our forces heavily in this area.

2. No, General Eisenhower surely knows that we would be expecting the invasion to take place near Calais. The element of surprise would give him a greater advantage in the attack than the speed in bringing troops across the sea. Therefore, it is likely that the Allies will pick another location along the French (or Belgian or Dutch) coast which is somewhat more distant from England but not so much as to increase transport time significantly if our defenses are light. We can foil this strategy if we position our troops in several places besides Calais from which we could quickly rush them to the precise location of the attack once it materializes. How about Cherbourg, Le Havre, Boulogne, and Oostende?

3. Actually, it is reasonable to expect the Allies to know that we would not be so foolish as to station the bulk of our troops at Calais. Also, their spies and reconnaissance flights could easily detect the scattering of our troops among these various other locations. In that case, they might decide to strike at Calais. Not only could they strike more quickly but the element of surprise would be in their favor. That combination of advantages could finish us off. Better play it safe and choose the most logical place to invade, which is Calais.

4. No, no, no, we do not win battles by playing it safe or being logical but by throwing the enemy off balance. Have the courage to go with your gut feeling that the Allies will strike some place else than at Calais. Back to scattering our defenses between Calais, Oostende, Boulogne, Le Havre, and Cherbourg.

Historical Note: The Allies did strike along the Normandy coast near Cherbourg in the D-Day invasion that took place on June 6, 1944, and were able to establish a beachhead there. It is known that the Germans expected an attack near Calais in part because the Allies had used General George Patton (whom the Germans knew as their most aggressive general) as a decoy. They had given him command of a phantom army stationed near Dover, England, across the Channel from Calais, and used visual subterfuge to make it seem that this army existed. After the successful invasion near Cherbourg, Patton’s command was quickly transferred to a real army.

self-consciousness in a growing enterprise

How does self-conscious thought relate to changing phases of civilization? Start with the idea that thoughts often lead to action. They must lead to successful action to become an object that others can notice. Others can then react to its existence, like any other object in the world.

For instance, if I think I can become rich by selling bootlegged software on the street corner, I may act upon this idea. If I find no customers willing to buy my product, I may well give up on this enterprise after several outings. If, on the other hand, I sell tons of software disks and make lots of money, I will repeat the practice indefinitely. It may soon be that others will imitate me. Before long, people will begin noticing that the bootlegged-software business is booming. This represents a change in the local economy.

Let’s carry this a step farther. The process of having an idea and making it work represents conscious thinking. Self-conscious thinking comes about when the product of the earlier thinking becomes an element in the world. In this case, a business which becomes successful by pursuing an idea grows larger. The increased size changes its structure and mode of thinking. The organization tends to become more bureaucratic. The informal selling of products gives way to sales procedures set by upper management. The thought is no longer: how do I sell the product? It becomes: how do I obey management?

As profits increase, the managers become more interested in getting their hands on some of this money than they are in managing the business. The internal competition for promotions intensifies. Employees worry mainly about pleasing the boss. Incompetence in terms of the firm’s original purpose becomes institutionalized, leading to decline. None of this would have happened had the firm not first become successful. With success comes its exploitation for other purposes.

And so the patterns of self-conscious action take various forms. As ideas acquire an institutional “body”, other persons take that being into account. Oppositional interests create new practices. Alternatively, success breeds imitation which leads to a over-crowding situation. Increased competition makes it less likely than before that a business enterprise will succeed.

how this affects world history

Civilization, in my view, begins with the emergence of a new institution in society: government, religion, commerce, entertainment. There is vigorous growth in the initial creative years. But then, as the institution gains power, the internal competition for power overshadows the purpose that the institution originally had. Society’s leaders become mainly interested in preserving their own position and power. Toward that end, they use coercive and sometimes violent practices.

Again, consider an example. The second civilization (in my book Five Epochs of Civilization) was an age of religion. It replaced the previous civilization dominated by imperial government because people were tired of war. Christianity was originally a pacifist religion. In the late 11th century, however, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to recover Jerusalem from the Moslems. After much expenditure of blood, this purpose failed. The Papacy became discredited. That was the beginning of the end for Civilization II.

In the 17th century, there was a similar experience of futile warfare when Protestants and Catholics fought each other for decades . Continental Europe was devastated. European intellectuals realized that arguing over theology was an unproductive enterprise. They turned to natural science instead. That, in turn, led to technologically based industries and a new civilization in which religion played a smaller part.

So it is that any movement in a culture or in its institutions of power sows the seeds of its own destruction as it develops beyond a certain point. Great power and influence attract unsavory characters: gatekeepers to stifle new creative expressions, priesthoods to enforce orthodox expression. No longer can individuals with new ideas find a receptive audience for their work. The status quo selfishly beats back challenges to its authority and position.
And that is why civilizations languish and eventually change to something else. Self-conscious thoughts, cognizant of earlier thinking, undercut the possibility of unimpeded progress along the same lines. The main act of killing comes from within.

Toynbee and Spengler both believed that civilizations rose and fell by an internal dynamic. They had a certain life cycle. In this chapter, I have tried to identify the cause of changing civilizations. Once guided by conscious purposes, human institutions are eventually undermined by the forces of self-conscious thought. The situation becomes increasingly complex and self-defeating.

In my opinion, this has been the chief pattern of civilizational decline in the past. I will admit that in the 21st century human society is facing a new situation: the collision between growing populations and economic growth, on one hand, and finite space and natural resources, on the other. The challenge of our time may well be to find ways to reconcile this contradiction. Again, our technological “success” in supporting an ever growing population has produced a crisis.

Humanity’s progress in institutions and practices since the Renaissance has created a kind of “overcrowding” with respect to what the earth can support. External threats, such as depletion of the earth’s water or petroleum resources, may well force changes in the way our society operates. More than ever before, the future of civilization may therefore be determined not only by internal dynamics of society’s power struggle but also by the external relationship between human society and the natural environment.

What I take from world history is the idea that entrenched bureaucracies seldom reform themselves, at least not completely. Reform, if at all, comes with new personnel in leadership positions. Therefore, when a obstacle arises, the best way to deal with it is not to try to remove the bottleneck. Instead, you bypass it. The new growths occur in other areas of human endeavor. The old centers of power eventually become irrelevant to what people are then thinking and doing.

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