Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

1. Life Source of the Self

From what was said in the preceding chapters it will be clear that in isolation from the general laws of development of social forms (forms of intercourse in activity or, which is the same thing, forms of activity realised in intercourse), both nature and man become an “abstract object”, a set of ready-made things taken outside their own history and wholly determined by their present, given bodily organisation.

Similarly, the individual consciousness, considered in isolation from the actual history of the forms of human intercourse, proves to be a “function” of the human organism and again can be regarded only as a set of given abilities inherent in the organism, such as thought, will, emotion, feeling, perception.

All we have to do now is to develop this idea into a full-sized concept. We shall begin with the “moment” when the biological means of life-activity were finally deprived of their direct adaptive function and became, in a modified form, a natural “mechanism” of people’s social activity. In the formulation given by Marx and Engels this “moment” is described as the “first historical act”. The passage runs as follows: “But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” And this production is “. . an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.”

Production of the means of sustaining life is both the first historical act and a “fundamental relation” repeated billions of times throughout history and containing the fundamental (universal) contradiction of this act: “. . The satisfaction of the first need, the action of satisfying and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired, leads to new needs; and this creation of new needs is the first historical act.”

Consequently, in the process of production people acquire new needs, new abilities and the instruments for their satisfaction, that is to say, man takes shape mentally and physically along with all the social means of his life-sustaining activity. His ability to set himself aims, his ability to think, is also perfected, as are the instruments of this ability, from means of communication to the bodily organs (for instance, what A. N. Leontyev calls the functional organs of the brain).

So thought (and consciousness as the individual’s relation to the world, the individual perception of the world that thought generates) is not produced by the brain as such, any more than it is produced by language, as a means of speech communication. Only intercourse between individuals as a social process is at one and the same time the actuality of the process of thought, its genesis and its realisation. Marx wrote: “But also when I am active scientifically etc. – an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity...... [Private Property & Communism] Clearly, then, one cannot discover the nature of any human ability by studying the processes occurring in the brain. The only thing that can reveal to us the nature of human abilities is what people do with instruments and objects in the corresponding forms of their intercourse.

Marx and Engels showed that human activity cannot in principle be one-sidedly determined either by its historical goal (by thought, as Hegel believed) or by its “pure” objectivity (spatial, corporeal being as such, as Feuerbach imagined). Objectified activity, “doing things” provides us with a third element that in relation both to thought and to natural being emerges as their integral “substance”, whose development simultaneously generates and determines the one and the other and their opposition itself.

In fact, neither the human individual’s being as such nor his thought are the foundation or cause of each other. For a man to be a man he must think. One could even say that human existence (the organic life of the body) is determined by man’s having the ability to consciously set himself goals, his ability to think, including his awareness of his instincts. And since this ability develops and exists only in people’s intercourse, in their speech, which “reinforces” their accumulated knowledge and skills, it cannot be inferred merely from the spatial, corporeal interaction of the individual with other objects.

On the other hand, in order to enter into intercourse with living and past generations, every human being must possess a body organised in a certain way. He must be born a man, and his being is a most essential premise of his intercourse, speech, and thus his thought.

In this mutual opposition of being and thought the question of their relationship (identity, in philosophical language) will be solved by the “pendulum method”: now thought will be the foundation of being, now being the foundation of thought. But is not man’s being his mode of life? Is his mode of life not people’s activity together, in which they become involved as soon as they are born? And finally, is not people’s joint activity, above all, the historically developed means of the objective, instrumental transformation of nature for their purposes? And if this is so, then surely it ought to be closely studied.

Historically developing objectified activity is the lap where the thinking human being, aware of himself and the rest of the world – our Self, our Ego – is formed. People develop bodily and mentally as people insofar as in their intercourse they transform surrounding nature with instruments that in their making establish the social modes of activity. The objects with which man has to do, which are given in. his perceptions, become socially significant for him, for everybody, and thus of direct universal significance, insofar as his relation to them is mediated, that is, served not only and not so much by the organisation of the vital processes peculiar to his species, as by the “organisation”, the making of the instruments of his intercourse and activity.

In full accord with the long tradition of empiricism Bertrand Russell held that the social (universal) significance of the word “rain” was the result of abstraction (induction, building of inference) from the individual particulars of perception. For him it is social “depersonalised” language that strips rain of its individual perceptual peculiarities and keeps in the meaning of the word only that which is repeated in an autumn drizzle and a tropical downpour. But we see that a word contains the universal (our Something) in its meaning because it serves us as a means of intercourse, “doing things” in relation to rain, when we shelter together from the rain, pray for rain, study the possibility of preventing it or making it by artificial means. In all these cases the ways and means of our intercourse and activity (particularly language) establish not the mere sensations that are personally unique or the same as everyone else’s, but the meaning of real rain for our life-activity, its objective role in our social and personal lives, the role it plays precisely because it is rain, because this is its objective essence that does not depend on us. And it is for this reason that our “initial”, apparently direct perception which Russell took as the sensuous individual basis of all human experience, is itself guided and filled out by the universal meaning of the ways and means of intercourse and activity that we have learned (this is the idea behind Marx’s thesis that our senses become theoreticians).

For a person to be able to see anything, that “anything” must speak to him with its visible attributes in “depersonalised” public language. Otherwise the eye will lose its sense of support and become clouded. Either its glance will become inattentive and turn inward or it will be guided only by hunger, thirst or the sense of approaching danger and resemble that of an animal. Without the ability to determine every separate object in a social (basically instrumental) way, that is, without the ability to notice its universality, a person is not a person and can neither think nor exist.

Thought means, in the first place, treating all separate objects of contemplation and activity as generally significant (meaning something for others and thus for myself). And, secondly, it means operating with social means of intercourse and activity that mean something for others, and thus for each separate individual.

This can also be stated in another way. Thought means constantly organising and checking one’s life-activity, one’s being, with the help of the historical means of intercourse (particularly language), whose social form reveals and establishes the objective properties of nature and social relations. To be (a human being) means transforming in the process of joint instrumental activity the objective forces of nature into modes of one’s life-activity, and thus into the socially significant content of one’s thought.

Thus, people’s objectified activity as the historically developing mode of their life is their social being, and this is what determines man’s social consciousness, mode of individual being, and individual consciousness. Consequently, thought itself is, like the organisation of the body, its very existence, abilities, etc., a result and moment of people’s joint objectified activity. Individual being and thinking are not even two sides of the same medal. Rather they are manifestations of the individual’s whole mode of life and the difference between them is not given primordially but develops historically. Man himself noticed this difference (later to become a contradiction) only when the integral mode of social, historical activity in the course of its development generated and gave social form to separated mental and material production (thus opposing one to the other).

From this standpoint the attempts to discover the specific nature of man’s inner world by analysing the physiological peculiarities of the sense organs and the brain are no more than relies of the anthropological interpretation of the human essence. And this being so, it is quite logical first to acknowledge the community of the natural, sensuous means of reflection in animal and man, and then introduce a highly important addition – the second signal system, language as a social phenomenon.

No one contests the fact that man inherited the means of sensuous perception from his animal ancestors. But the animal’s individual behaviour, its selective attitude to the objects of the external world are somehow predetermined by the sum total of biological needs peculiar to its species. The animal sees in the world around him only that which it needs to see, its perception is prepared by the evolution of the species and is, as it were, expected by the organism. “. . If an animal has no instinctive attitude to a given thing ... and the given thing is not related to the realisation of this attitude, then the thing itself virtually does not exist for that animal.” But an animal does see things that don’t exist for it. Yes, but how! Take Leontyev’s very apt analogy explaining how things and phenomena that have on direct biological significance exist for an animal: “You are walking along the street, absorbed in your own thoughts, you see houses, cars, you stop at crossings, you wait for the traffic lights to turn green. All this happens automatically, unconsciously or, as some people say, subconsciously, because your mind is occupied with your own thoughts. This is approximately how the animal sees the surrounding world, but with the one essential difference that it is not absorbed in its own thoughts, because it has none.

“Now let us take the analogy a stage further. You are in a hurry to cross the street, but are compelled to stop to let the traffic go by. If you are thinking of something else, you will look upon the traffic merely as a nuisance and not consider whether a bus or trolleybus, a car or a lorry is going past, and certainly not what make of car it is. According to the eminent German psychologist Jakob Uexküll this is precisely how the animal perceives its environment.” [Leontyev]

So the “sensuous stage” that we have in common with the animals cannot, in principle, provide a basis for conceptual generalisation. One can only pity the person who has to be content with such knowledge. In fact, this can only happen to a person who grows up, is brought up outside society. But such cases merely confirm the fact that the biological means of sensuous contact with the environment that we have inherited from our animal ancestor are not in themselves capable of any cognition unless they are guided by the socio-historical experience of generations.

Here is a case in point, based on documentary fact. A normal child with all the means of perception that we have in common with the animals was lost and for a time lived with a pack of wild animals. It lost the ability to perceive things that any normal human being would notice immediately and stopped developing as a personality. On the other hand, another child, Olga Skorokhodova, lost her sight, hearing and speech because of illness, but thanks to the efforts of those who in the given case represented the socio-historical experience of generations she later grew up to become a poet and a scientist, a truly creative personality. The story is told in her book, How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the World Around Me.

The mentality of social man differs from that of the animal not because of any immanent, innate “additions”, but thanks to that which in general distinguishes one person’s inner world from another’s – their external world, the world around them, their being. It is in being that one must look for the qualitative difference between human and animal mentality.

Our animal ancestors broke out of the animal world and became people thanks to collective labour. There is no need to expound Engels’s classical works The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and others. Those who are particularly interested in the question have a wide range of anthropological literature to choose from. And we shall have more to say about one aspect of the problem later on.

At this point it is worth recalling Marx’s splendid Theses on Feuerbach. Marx writes that Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuousness but cannot conceive it as sensuously practical, revolutionary activity. The process of production, of historical social practice involves not abstract “society in general”, but living, feeling individuals who experience, are aware of their actions. Their sensuousness is not a special “stage in the process of cognition”, not the “sensuousness” of the philosopher contemplating nature. It is living contact with nature in the process of its practical transformation. The objective essence of things revealed by labour, by production, is necessary to the living, feeling human being. On the other hand, unless he can feel the hardness of stone, unless he can picture the direct aim of using an instrument and the results of the collective efforts of the members of the tribe, in short, unless the conditions and objects of his activity are sensuously reflected in the individual’s mind, the process of production cannot take place as a social process. The practical activity of society is an interweaving of the activity of its members, each of whom is capable of doing something insofar as he experiences, sensuously perceives the world around him. Sensuously practical, socially individual activity constantly changes both society as a whole and each individual, and is thus truly revolutionary.

To sum up, man’s objectified activity is that integral foundation of all forms of his life-activity which alone enables us to understand consciousness as a social, historical phenomenon.

Contents | The Language of Real Life