On The Living Construct 1: On Consciousness
In the previous essay, Logic as the Law of Being, it can be seen that the limit of possibility is the Logic of things. In other words, there’s a limitation to everything, according to its own Logic. Thus, consciousness, as an existence that is in the world, also has limitations imposed on it by that which makes it possible. As much as we can say that consciousness is, there is something that defines consciousness, something which makes any other thing outside this definition not conscious. Therefore, consciousness itself, as we can say that it is, has in its core being-in-itself (Sartre, 1992). To make clear, the limitations of consciousness come in its limits of comprehension, its restrictions in action, and its limitations imposed by the situation around it. By the situation around it, I mean it is by the contingent fact that consciousness has to exist in such and such bodies, in such and such times, be susceptible to such and such disturbances, that it has to understand the world in and through such and such cultural context, through such and such intellectual tools, through such and such abilities and disabilities, its possibilities and impossibilities through matter, and finally as such and such praxis. (Merleau-Ponty, 2015; Sartre, 1991; Sartre, 1992; Sartre, 2004).
Since the necessity of a form of Logic is universal, this means that if there is anything that we can say to be a conscious being, it has to be according to its own facticity. Similar to when we say “[object] exists,” we are also postulating what the object’s nature is, the assertion “consciousness exists” is also to an extent asserting what it is. But here, we encounter a difficulty. While it is true that consciousness has a nature (note that I do not mean human nature, but what it is that makes it possible to say that “it is”), it is by no means the same ontologically speaking as any other inert object in the world. If consciousness is entirely being-in-itself, then consciousness itself will not be as we know it today. For something to be conscious of itself and its surroundings, consciousness itself has to be of a different order than the inert world (Sartre, 1992). Note that this does not mean I am postulating a different kind of being which comes from “beyond the material world” that gratuitously happens to have such and such properties. It is possible to solve the problem without resolving into such tactics, assuming such tactics answer anything at all. The reason is something more straightforward. If the observer is the same as the observed, meaning if there is no distance at all between the observer and the observed, no distinction at all between them, then the act of observation itself would be impossible (Sartre, 1992). There would be no such thing as “the world”, for there will be no totalization of being-in-itself that brings about the world as we know it today (Sartre, 2004). Such “presence-to-something” is based on the ability of consciousness to distance itself, to carve itself out of the surrounding plenitude, for otherwise how can consciousness pull itself out from the plenitude of being-in-itself? And thus, for this to be possible, consciousness has to be able to enter into a relation of negation between itself and being-in-itself to affirm that consciousness is not the world, but the observer of such a world. For this to happen, consciousness itself has to be something other than being-in-itself. Consciousness has to be the source of such a negation so that there can be a totality of a world and an awareness of it.
But, while it is true that consciousness is ontologically different from being-in-itself, it is imperative that we do not mistake it as just another species of substance dualism. Substance dualism, while seemingly creating a distinction between consciousness and the body, only ends up accidentally creating a superficial distinction between the two while, in essence, still allowing them to stay the same. The “soul” remains to be a thing that happens to have such and such properties. However, such conception of consciousness is condemned to unresolvable conundrums such as “how they both interact with each other if both of them are related in exteriority”, or, following the topic of our discussion, “how is it that the soul is able to enact differentiations if it is a being”. Being-in-itself cannot enact a negation unto itself, and therefore it is incapable of enacting differentiations within itself. Since the soul (and the body in this conception) are parts of being-in-itself, neither the soul nor body is capable of enacting the differentiation and the distancing necessary for there to be consciousness itself. Negation cannot come from the plenitude of being, and thus consciousness cannot arise from what is essentially being-in-itself dressed in another name.
But, if consciousness is ontologically different to such an extent from being-in-itself, by what means can we say that “it is”? We can say that “it is” because neither being-in-itself nor consciousness can be easily separated in concrete reality. Such distinction between consciousness and the world is only possible in abstraction, and even then, consciousness has not been given what is due. Consciousness, in reality, is not just a mere nothingness as nothingness only, but instead an existence that has to be what it is. Nothingness, that is, non-being, if it is just that, will cease to exist, because there is nothing to talk about, nor is there anything to think about, as we have discussed in the previous part. But consciousness is, therefore it is not nothingness in the sense of passive, inert non-being. It is a being through which being is disclosed, as Heidegger says (Heidegger, 1996), or to be more precise, it is a being that, in its existence, continues to nihilate itself so as to be something. This creates a very odd mixture, because without being, nothingness ceases to exist, both in terms of there is nothing to nihilate and also there can “be” no nothingness. But in so far as it is, it lacks, or to be more precise, it rejects being in the sense it never settles into a particular inertness. It is in order to not be something, and yet it is not in order to be something. Therefore it is only in so far as it is that nothingness nihilates, that it constantly moves into the future, that it constantly negates being-in-itself while at the same time being dependent on being-in-itself to exist.
Perhaps one might wonder, why is it then that consciousness is not regarded as a species of being-in-itself? After all, isn’t it still what it is? Even though consciousness is in a sense contingent, as we will see later (after all, no one chooses to be conscious; one is already born with consciousness and will just have to deal with it afterward), it is not opaque like being-in-itself. As we discussed earlier, an inert object cannot be aware of its surroundings, nor can it distance itself from its surroundings. Therefore, for consciousness to be aware of itself, even though it is dependent on being-in-itself, it cannot be being-in-itself. The observer has to observe something that is different from what the observer is now; it cannot examine itself as it is at the same time. Furthermore, consciousness also does not have the finality of being-in-itself. Being-in-itself never has to be itself, nor does it just let itself be given being from the outside. A block of wood is just a block of wood, it does not have to try to be a block of wood, nor does its “a-block-of-woodness” always have to be renewed, while someone who wants to be a good waitress or a good lawyer will always have to strive to be one, even though the person has become a lawyer or a waitress. That’s why one tries so hard to satisfy the customers, why one always wakes up early in the morning, to dress up neatly, etc.
How does it translate to our concrete existence? How does it translate to our experience in our everyday life? As I have said before, treating consciousness as being entirely separate from being-in-itself is only possible in an abstraction. If we leave it at that, then consciousness itself will not be intelligible as one. Therefore, it is essential to remember that consciousness is only one if it exists in a situation. It is embodied in the world. This situatedness of consciousness is not a limitation, as some would like to suggest, but instead a necessity, for, without any situation, consciousness will just be dispersed like a dream. It is because I am aware of my surroundings, that I am aware of my body, that I realize that I am a coherent person of some sort. In other words, since consciousness can only exist as a being embodied in the world, that means consciousness can only exist as being consciousness-as-a-body, or a “living body”. I relate to the world through my body. Keep in mind that this body does not necessarily have to take a particular form to be conscious, nor does it have to be made based on the same chemical elements as we do (although perhaps one cannot make a living being out of everything. I personally cannot imagine a living being based on hydrogen but who knows).
My actions are possible only if I have a body. I modify inert things as my body, and when I move, I do not move my arm as if I am pulling strings in my body. When I move my arm, I feel that the arm is a part of my consciousness. It is me that I am moving, not some sort of extended tool. Thus, the body is not a “prison” of sorts, but instead precisely the thing that allows me to be aware of my surroundings. Facticity is not a limitation, but precisely the only thing that makes a situation intelligible as one. When I see other people, it is not as if I see his body, then infer that this person might be alive. The body is not something that hides his consciousness from me. Instead, his body signifies his consciousness. I am able to determine his intentions from his movements; it is not that I infer his intentions from his movements, at least, now always. When I see that my friend screams in pain after he fell from a bicycle, I do not infer from his behavior that he is probably in pain or wants me to help him. It is not as if his behavior is something that is detached from the feeling of pain. I can see his pain from his cries, and that I understand what he means when he asks for help precisely from his gestures. It is only through looking at him as a living body can I see him as a consciousness-in-pain. I don’t see his body as an inert doll being controlled by something hidden behind his face. He is both this seemingly inert thing (after all, I can feel my finger sinks into his cheeks when I poke him, and my finger being resisted from sinking further into his cheeks), and yet he is never just a thing. He exists; he, to an extent, is graspable, but there’s always something beyond the present that escapes me. I know him, and if you are to ask me who he is, I will be able to give you some descriptions, either of his appearance or his character. But he will never be the same as when I give you an answer about “what a table is”.
What is it that escapes me that I am incapable of grasping? It is precisely his capacity as consciousness to not have a being in the sense of being-in-itself. It constantly nihilates itself (giving birth to subjective temporality), and he is therefore never what he is in the sense a table is what it is (Sartre, 1992). A person is never born a waiter. No one is destined to be a waiter. A person has to be a waiter, and even when he is already a waiter, he has to make the effort to be a good waiter constantly. A machine does not have to try to be a good machine; it is either a good machine or a broken one. But a person will have to constantly adjust his attitude in front of his customer, adjust his attire, make the effort to wake up every morning so that he doesn’t get late to work, and so on. He will never be a good waiter. Even if he has created a habit out of it (and thus his work is now so much easier than when he first started to be a waiter), even if much of his behavior is now automatic in a sense, he will still have to make the constant effort not to slack off, not to lose himself in a daydream, and not to let fatigue get in the way of excellent service. When he closes the curtains because it is too bright inside the café, he does this because he is able to distance himself from the present. It is precisely because he is able to distance himself from the situation can he inspect the room and realize that the sun’s glare is too bright during this particular hour, and thus he decides to close the curtains. But even this behavior is not automatic; one can easily fail to realize that the sun is too hot, making it hard to relax properly, for example. He has to decide without any impetus; he comes to this decision not through exteriority but through throwing himself into the dark. After all, it is entirely possible that he is in the wrong, and that perhaps his customers would have preferred the brighter setting, for that day is such a nice day, the first day in which the sun is visible in spring. When I see him suddenly jump out from the corner to close the curtains, I immediately see him not as a doll suddenly springing up for reasons unknown to me, but as someone who wants to close the curtains because the room is too bright for him. Here, we see the body affecting the environment around him in exteriority (he is capable of closing the curtains precisely because his hands and the curtains are solid objects, and that the curtain is flimsy and susceptible to such manipulations according to its nature), but while I can see his hands as if it is determined entirely in exteriority, it is after all a part of a living body, the body of my friend. The waiter’s body is a conscious body, for it is here with me, it exists, and yet unlike a table that is confined in the present, filled entirely in being-in-itself, the waiter’s goals always run ahead of him into a not-yet future (he thinks that by closing the curtains, he can reduce the amount of glare from the sun, but this state-of-affair is not yet here, and thus it does not exist). He is here with me, and at the same time, he is not here with me. I know him, and yet at the same time, I don’t know him.
Is this what a conscious body is? Perhaps. Is it all that the conscious body is? Certainly not. This criterion might be enough to determine whether something is alive or not, but certainly not enough to determine how inert materiality can “give birth” to consciousness. Unfortunately, we cannot appeal to any “supreme rationality”. We cannot appeal to analytic reason, for that will reduce consciousness to nothing else but inert exteriority, and we cannot appeal to dialectical reason, for there is only one unity here, the living body. The unity of the body is something that is contingent; no one chose to be born in this or that body, let alone to be a human being at all. Our existence happens to take form in such and such form; our body is arranged according to the Logic of the world. The body is built by the same building blocks that created the world, as science has told us (when we cut open a body, we don’t find any new elements that we cannot find anywhere else on earth). Consciousness emerges inside an extraordinarily ordinary world. And thus, we can conclude that, for a living creature, it is not the parts that are different from inert objects, but instead, it is the order in which the components are arranged that creates a living creature. This is obvious enough; no one will deny that. And we also know that the phenomenon that is created from such an arrangement is distinct from the parts, even though it is built from and gains its meaning from its parts (Merleau-Ponty, 2015). The phenomenon itself is what gives the parts their meaning in the bigger picture; the totality of it is there inside every part, and every part is there in the totality of it. However, while we know all these to be true, one might object that it might still be too vague. After all, the devil is in the details. Sartre tries to deal with this in Being and Nothingness. I am not going to reiterate his points here, although in my opinion, his explanation regarding the living body is very comprehensive (I am not paid to promote any book). Nevertheless, he then seemed to hesitate, for he then confessed that the relationship between praxis and the living body belongs neither to analytic nor dialectical reason, and thus, it is something beyond him (as far as I understand it) (Sartre, 2004). But, while a professional philosopher gave up on solving that puzzle (or perhaps it no longer worth his time, for during the latter part of his life, he was more interested in the progression of history and solving things that actually mattered, like the fate of the proletarians) we, as amateurs, will try to see if we are able to sketch something that might be enough to let us move forward.
Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time. (J. Stambaugh, Trans.). New York: State University of New York.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2015). Phenomenology of perception. London: Forgotten Books.
Sartre, J. (1991). Critique of Dialectical Reason (Vol. 2) (A. Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Verso
Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington: Washington
Sartre, J. (2004). Critique of Dialectical Reason (Vol. 1) (A. Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Verso