Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

3. When Consciousness
Is Conscious of Itself

But could man always ask himself: “How is it that I know? How is it that I know that I am I, know other people, know that we are people, and not bears or tigers?” As we have seen, such questions presuppose the ability to look at one's own activity from the side. Here am I, here is an object, and this is what it will be like when I do this or that with it. Only when “I” and “I shall do this or that” are not the same thing, when the “I”, the Self, the Ego is able to treat its activity as a forthcoming process, which may be corrected, modified in accordance with a prepared plan of action, only then can the question arise of the nature of knowledge and what human consciousness is.

If present-day ways of thinking are transferred to the past of mankind it may seem that the person who does not separate himself from his own life-activity is simply not yet a human being. It now seems to us so natural to be able to organise activity according to the aims that are generated in our consciousness. Surely, then, to be a human being merely means being able to distinguish one's knowledge from the object of knowledge, oneself from those around one and from the external world in general and, of course, oneself as a person from one's own abilities and actions. “I can't do that yet, but I will learn to do it.” “I can type but somehow I feel more at home writing.” No one is surprised at such simple statements. Is it so important whether I can type or not, whether I can speak Chinese? I remain myself. Knowledge, skills, abilities come (and go) with the years. Knowledge, skills and abilities can exist without me, they need not necessarily be mine. I acquire them as external “objects”.

Has it not always been so? Did not even “primitive man” teach his children what he knew, the skills he had acquired? They knew less than we do, of course, but if they were human they must have been able to teach their children, pass on their knowledge and abilities as something separate from the person who possessed them.

In this case it would be natural to assume that man has always been able to ask himself the question, what is knowledge and, consequently, what is consciousness? This is how things may seem to the person who regards man's ability to separate himself from the specific forms of his life-activity as a historically immutable attribute always manifesting itself in the same forms.

At the dawn of history, however, people did not view their activity “from the side”, although in objective terms their relation was reflexive. Why? Because people knew how to act only insofar as they obeyed the ritual of their collective life, the mode of their intercourse and activity, reproduced by one generation after another, having arisen on the basis of the division of labour according to sex and age.

“We are kangaroos,” declared as late as the last century a tribe of aborigines in Australia whose totem was the kangaroo. The Kangaroo tribe, unlike, say, the Crocodile tribe, had not only its own ancestor, but certain unique features in the ritual of life that were carefully guarded against any change. The ritual was a means of preserving, reproducing and handing on the skills, production activity and rules of intercourse from generation to generation. The ritual was an inviolable standard, a set of rules of intercourse in obedience to which people played the roles assigned to them, depending on sex and age. Each “role” in the ritual reproduction of the modes of collective activity was their own essence, their own Self, which hid not detached itself from the “mask”, from the mode of action assigned to this “mask” by the ritual of collective life.

Many critical arguments based on thoroughly researched ethnographical material have been mounted against the so-called “theory of primitive animism”. [6] But it is now clear that the person of primitive society did not detach the soul from, or contrast it to, the body despite his conviction that every member of the tribe and he himself could be a child, a grown-up hunter, an old man, a kangaroo, a plant, and so on. Each of his fellow tribesmen lived not as an individual in his own right, possessing his own consciousness, his own soul, but according to the pattern of his whole tribe, which had assigned to him the ritually necessary roles. The ritual mask, the sears on the face and body (marks of initiation), the natural attributes of age and the distinctions between sexes were for him evidence of his indissoluble unity and blood relationship with the group.

These sensuously apparent, ritually denoted attributes of “kinship through role” along with instruments and articulate speech constituted an organically integral system of means of communication ensuring goal-oriented activity and intercourse – the “language of real life” that we have just been discussing.

As a system it did not belong to the individual; rather he belonged to it. His mode of life, guided and regimented by the ritually reproduced rules of the “language of real life” did not allow him to look at himself from the side. This meant that he could not pose the question about his own consciousness. He had consciousness, but he was not yet aware of the fact.

Only with the development of objectified activity and the division of labour is man given the opportunity of treating, first, his activity as an acquired ability, of “separating himself from his activity”, and, second, separating the object of knowledge from knowledge itself, and thus objectively preparing the ground for the question of the nature of consciousness. This question could be asked only after the social division of labour in material and mental labour. Marx wrote:

“Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of 'pure' theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc.” [German Ideology]

But humanity did not advance at once to the production of “pure theory”. The division of material and mental labour was foreshadowed by yet another great change in the structure of the productive forces of society: the separation of agriculture from cattle raising and the appearance of agriculture as a stable mode of production. This had truly fundamental significance for the further history of mankind. For the first time man took possession of the soil as an object of his labour.

It is usually assumed that people became settled with the transition to agriculture. But what matters is not so much whether certain tribes led a settled or nomadic existence, as that the crop farmers did not merely till the soil, but owned it. This was the relation that turned out to be crucial for the further development of human activity and intercourse.

But surely the primitive tribal communes had their own habitations? Surely they did not allow other tribes to cross their boundaries? Yes, for primitive man the forest, the fields, rivers, sky, even the wind were corporeal embodiments of his life, a sensuously visible picture of where and how he must do what. But where did the river end? Where was the border of the sky? Even the elders of the tribe did not know the boundaries of the forest where sacred relics, masks and so on were kept. This forest – the forest of the tribe was a boundless whole. No one owned it, any more than one owned the river or the wind, a bill or a cloud. The people of the tribe did not admit strangers (people of a different totem) into their forest not because they owned it but because strangers might infringe the ritual of their existence. And they defended the forest not as their property, not as something possessed but in order to defend themselves.

Tilled land breaks out of the circle prescribed by ritual and confronts man as an object of activity. Now a stranger may not set foot on tribal land not because he is thus penetrating the body of the tribal life, but because in doing so he “takes the bread out of its mouth”, robs it of the means of life, tramples the young corn, tramples that which does not belong to him. All the people of the tribe, all who work this land are its owners. This is how it was at the beginning of the “agricultural revolution”.

A new relation of social production arose, transforming not only the intercourse within the farming tribes, but also their intercourse with the outside world, and particularly with the cattle-raising tribes. Now if they set foot on land that someone owned, they entered into legal relations with its owners because they had with good or evil intent violated the principle of ownership.

Raiding or parleying accompanied by gift-making as a sign of peaceful intentions, these new relations between tribes were based on the relation to the land as property. It was this relation that mediated human intercourse and turned it into a political act. The exchange of the product of activity as an exchange of “gifts” was thus at first political in character and only gradually evolved into trade, which made it possible to orient production on the exchange value of its goods.

Yet another consequence of the agricultural revolution had special significance. The inexorable life cycle of the land itself, objectified through the skills of agricultural production and in its implements, destroyed the established principles of the tribal ritual so jealously reserved by the elders. As tribes proliferated and grew in numbers, the elders, who personified the unity of the tribe with its ancestors, formed a special group that included their nearest relatives, who also came to be regarded as representing the root unity of the tribe. As tribes spread and merged with each other this “tribal nobility” symbolised the “beginning” of tribal traditions that was still associated with the worship of ancestors. In the tribal associations that grew up on the basis of agriculture the nobility, as the guardians of tribal tradition and high priests of ancestor worship and tribal unity, formed a new social institution, whose main function was to realise the relation of property.

This practical division of the former community into two unequal groups (unequal both in numbers and in the substance of their activity) laid the foundation of history (or, as Marx and Engels wrote, the prehistory) of mankind. It was here that the majority of the members of the agricultural commune realised their activity in relation to the land as direct material activity, the aims of which were always set both by the object itself (life cycle of the land) and by those in the commune who personified that object. that is, the tribal nobility. In its turn, the nobility had as the object of its activity not the physically existing plots of land that had to be tilled at any particular moment, but the land as a whole, as the territory of its commune, its tribe, and eventually its people.

In this case the activity of the “upper crust” becomes for the first time different from the general activity not only in its object, but also in its social significance, in the status it acquires in the system of social production. The organisation of other people's activity, the subordination of all seasonal and other particular forms of labour to the principle of the territorial integrity of the land becomes a special object of “upper crust” activity. It is also their business to set goals for the working majority of the community. Thus the head now sets other people's hands to work and this turns the larger physically toiling part of the community into an instrument of the owners of the land. Thus the “co-owners” are split up into those who are actually owners and the mass of land workers dependent on them and held together in small communes enjoying no rights whatever, or slaves completely excluded from the relationship of common ownership of the land. Thus were laid the foundations of the vast land-owning despotisms of the East.

At first guardians of the ritual mode of activity and intercourse acted as the part of the tribe that on account of its association with the ancestors was promoted to the role of spokesman for “bounteous mother earth” in relation to all the other members of the tribe. The history of the tribe, of its ancestors became the explanation and justification of the integrity of the tribal territory and the tribe itself. “Dying” land, reborn land, blossoming land, fertile land, all became interwoven in the saga of the tribe, in tales of its heroic progenitors. Their exploits, embellished by the imagination, became associated in the consciousness with the seasons in the life of the earth, of all nature, with the influence of the natural forces on which agriculture depends. The first heroes of the tribe were usually “remembered” as being as powerful as these forces and often became identified with them. The history of the agricultural tribe was thus transformed into myth.

Mythological awareness is a fantasy awareness of the real historical existence of the agricultural communes developed on the basis of tribal communities and serves both as a mode of social goal-setting and as a set of vivid patterns of precedents governing intercourse in accordance with the customs of the given tribe and its form of awareness of reality. The stability of the given form is also connected with the phenomenal stability of the cyclical self-reproductive, self-contained agricultural mode of production.

As the tribal nobility increases its power and the political organisation of society develops, the myth begins to perform social functions. A priesthood appears. At the same time, the mythological form of society's awareness of its historical existence acquires ever new features of ideological consciousness, of religion.

Yet another historical consequence of the great agricultural revolution is thus finally established – the division of labour into material and mental labour, the emergence of theoretical activity. Only this division of labour allows consciousness, in the words of Marx, “to emancipate itself from the world” and judge world as its object and itself as a problem. What brought about mental production as such? What is the substance and structure of this new form of activity?

Aristotle in his day observed that the invention of free arts became possible because some people acquired leisure at the expense of the labour of others – the slaves who were compelled to give all their time to useful but arduous toil. And even today the question of the origin of mental activity is often summarily decided in much the same way, on the grounds that part of society was freed of the necessity to perform constant physical labour.

But the correct notion that without slavery there would have been no flowering of ancient culture [7] only describes the result and does not reveal the causes and essence of the origin of theory as a special form of activity. Leisure, after all, may be devoted to any number of things. The interesting point is why did the Greeks devote their culture to creative intellectual pursuits. What was the objective necessity that prompted them to reinterpret their myths on an entirely new foundation. Why, specifically, does the search for the one nature (arche) of all being gradually begin to intermingle with the picturesque tales of the birth of gods and heroes. To reply to these questions we must return to stratification of society into two unequal communities, one of which becomes the subject of the property relation, and the other, the subject of production (primarily agricultural) activity. The first group, the tribal nobility (later the “upper crust” of the agricultural despotism that grows out of it, a special caste of the agricultural aristocracy, the priesthood, civil and military governors and generals, mandarins, etc.) exercised ownership of the land in practice. In relation to those who worked on the land this was an organisation of political power ensuring the economic interests of the “upper crust” by extra-economic acts of administration based on violence, on special detachments of armed men.

The state is, in fact, organised political power based on force, that is, on an apparatus of force. But the point to remember is that the guidance, the direction of activity now emerges as a special form of occupation.

Objectified practical production activity is focussed directly on the land, on irrigation canals, buildings, tools, etc. The focus of activity of the “upper crust” is the same land, but as a whole, as a territory, as the universal foundation of all the works performed on it. For those who are engaged in material production, the objective attributes of natural phenomena are something directly given, perceived as resistance to the efforts of the toiler. In the special activity of those who on the basis of the “common interest” (which, as Marx showed, conceals the selfish interests of the ruling class) set the specific goals of particular forms of activity, the land, implements, buildings and people themselves are seen in their general form.

As I have explained, man always sees in every object of his activity or contemplation mainly the “object in general” – the land in general, buildings in general, people in general, and so on. Without this ability to define each object in a social way, that is, define it in its general sense, a human being is simply not a human being.

So the farmers of the period of the “great agricultural revolution”, the period of the emergence of political communities, of states, much as we do now, and as did primitive man, saw in each object, phenomenon or process, no matter how direct the perception, the universal (social) definition: “This is a bullock”, “This is a river”, and so on. The “angle of vision” of those who exercised the relation of ownership to the land “picked out” in real objects precisely their universal determinates. On the other hand, physical labour as the basis of its social function socially formulated as the class distinction of those who performed it, had the task of material, sensuous-practical transformation of the substances of nature. Moreover, the labourer know, of course, before he harnessed a bullock that what he was harnessing was a bullock, and before picking up a spade or an axe he saw in them, above all, a spade in general or an axe in general. But the instruments and objects of his labour were still in fact that particular bullock, that spade, that plot of land, and so on. The whole point of his labour was that he was directly engaged in working that plot of land with that instrument.

Those who realised the property relation, all those who were in some way involved in directing all the particular forms of labour focussed their attention directly on these particular forms and modes of labour, that is, on the socio-historical foundation of their universal determinates. In other words, activity in guiding, in representing the universal interests of the state is activity whose object is the modes of labour, forms of intercourse, etc., precisely the socio-historical forms of representing the object that constitute the basis of universality for man. This is where man has to work directly with universals.

So the territorial integrity formed by the given community's transition to stable forms of agriculture was represented by the special role of the tribal aristocracy which exercised the property relation. But this meant at the same time that the land domains of the given community were limited, and this in turn presupposed the marking out of the actual borders of this territory.

We are now faced with two directly objectified kinds of activity: the first is the working of the land, agriculture, arduous physical labour; the second is the working out of how to regulate “border conflicts” with the neighbouring agricultural or cattle-raising tribes. The head of the given tribe and his closest associates see the basis of their activity precisely in the integrality of the tribal lands. And it is this land as the possession of the tribe that they represent in their activity of border regulation. So the object of their activity is the mode of dividing, the mode of limiting the claims of neighbours on their land, on their possessions. It was not the land as such with its life-giving fertility, not the plough and the bullocks that occupied the attention of the head of the tribe and his advisers, but the way of objectively presenting to oneself and one's neighbours where their domain ends.

But how can one objectively delimit land? What does it entail? It entails a number of things. It entails putting a stone landmark at some disputed point, another some distance away, noting a solitary tree as a third “point”, the top of a hill, as a fourth, and then perhaps putting up another stone, and so on. All these “points” are only the means of expressing the border as a line. The border itself thus drawn is only the objectively formulated means of representing one's land as a single whole.

Finding such a means and formulating it is a special kind of labour. The erection of the stones or digging of divides will be done by others, namely those whose social position has now bound them to material production with all its one-sidedness, its separation from setting goals and finding ways of achieving them. Having as the object of his activity the means, methods and forms of activity as such, having people's social modes of activity as the object of his labour, the head of the tribe was confronted with a direct universality of natural processes reflected in human modes of activity. For him the border of the land was a line drawn mentally from a post to a stone. And this line made a perfectly real measurement of the land and was itself an object of his labour.

Lines, straight lines ... They may be used to draw a geometrical figure. A line is free of the sensuous immediacy of a given plot of land. It cannot and does not have to be ploughed or dug up. The real relations objectively inherent in nature are reflected in it, as they are reflected, “caught” by every mode of socially significant human action. But as soon as these modes and means as such (line, figure, angle, etc.) become the object of a person's activity, then nature is represented in them only as an idealised, “directly universal” object. Activity connected with it is no longer material but mental activity, performed as a set of intellectual operations with given idealised objects.

Thus a great revolution came about in the development of the modes of human activity. The ideal plane of people's objective activity – and this is what distinguishes man from the animals – acquired a relative independence, became a special mode of activity of a special group of people. This set the stage for intensive development of the modes of theoretical goal-setting and of everything that the intellectual culture of society was to produce.

Consequently, intellectual culture appeared on the scene out of necessity. Its emergence was determined by the social development of the property relation, which broke away from direct, material influence on the object of possession (particularly, the land). It was not the leisure of the free citizen of the ancient city-state, but the character, the content and object of his socially necessary activity that made possible and essential the “invention of free arts”.

What was the relationship between the individual's consciousness and the social forms of consciousness before the appearance of theoretical consciousness as such? The consciousness of primitive man was almost a direct unity, if not fusion, of the individual and the collective in the form of ritual with its developed “language of real life” as a mode of setting goals and ways of achieving them. The individual's obedience to ritual was the basic condition for society's survival and the handing down from one generation to another of the social modes of activity and intercourse. This was the basis of the tribal social and individual mode of goal-setting (thought).

For a whole epoch a great variety of human communities developed on this basis. And those of them that entered modern times with a tribal organisation had travelled from their primitive state as great a distance in time as the peoples now populating the so-called civilised world.

In the agricultural tribes, and later also the agricultural state despotisms, at the early stages of their development, people probably still retained some of their mythological consciousness with its characteristic subordination of nearly all acts of individual consciousness to the content and logic of the myth. But before the emergence of relatively independent theoretical activity the question of the nature of the consciousness, as a specific problem, did not arise. The drive and purposefulness of human activity were understood along with the activity of the forces of nature as a manifestation of the world-governing principles described by the myths of the origin of all existence.

We thus find that the question of the nature of consciousness did not arise over a long period of human history, and not simply because people did not yet know what we know today. The reason was that they knew themselves and the whole world in such a way that, far from demanding that the question of consciousness as an individual attribute of man whereby he might understand the world he lived in should be posited, it actually ruled out any such positing. It only becomes necessary when the universal forms in which mental production develops, the production of social goals, the production of knowledge itself, the production of consciousness, turns out to be socially opposed to the particular modes and means of material production. When “the head set the hands of others to work”, when the idealised object of theory had apparently been stripped of all the sensuous flesh of the real object worked by the hands of other people, only then did the question arise of how the “purely universal” meaning of a word (geometrical figure, number, etc.) might not correlate, coincide with all the diversity of unique, inimitable things. But, out of the same context, the question arose of the role of language in the production of consciousness, because it was the language of the people, as though freed of its direct function of providing for human intercourse in their direct material activity, that became the sphere of the elaboration of “pure meanings”, the sphere of the existence of the universal as such.


6. Animism - belief in spirits. By analogy with later beliefs associated with the opposition of body and soul it was thought im good and evil spirits on which his life might depend. Primitive man was indeed surrounded by living in forces in the most diverse guises, which worked both for and against him. But lie had not yet learned to distinguish the force from the guise and regard it is an “incorporeal soul”.

7. Social development necessarily passes through all stages of the organic integration of the human group, including the stages of antagonistic class formations. The price is a high one but, had it not been paid, humanity would still not have emerged from the neolithic age.


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