Forms of Consciousness – Prof John McMurtry | Encyclopedia of ethics

Reproduced from: Becker, L. C. and C. B. Becker (2013). Encyclopedia of ethics, Routledge. p. 564-567.

forms of consciousness

Forms of consciousness have been a central object of philosophical investigation from the doctrine of Forms or Eidos proposed by PLATO (427–347 B.C.E.) to the “forms of consciousness” or Bewusstseimformen excavated by Immanuel KANT (1724-1804). In both cases, they are construed as transcendental, a priori structures of thought. Plato’s Forms are directly apprehended by the intellect in an eternal, supersensible realm of Ideas. Kant’s forms of consciousness constitute an internally regulating framework processing experiential inputs as conditions of their intelligibility. What is remarkable is that in neither of these defining cases of philosophy’s inquiry into forms of consciousness, nor in the subsequent philosophical tradition, has there been recognition of underlying structures of consciousness which organize mental life in accordance with socially presupposed principles of what is good and bad.

Consider the following examples. The Hindu presupposes dharma as the morally ordering principles of human existence which oblige him or her to think and act in terms proper to the station of life each has in virtue of the KARMA of past lives. This is an assumed ordering of existence inculcated in participating members of the culture as the mind-set by which their cultural tradition is reproduced through time and across individuals. These underlying principles which order perception, valuations, and conduct across a group membership are denoted by the concept, “forms of social consciousness.”

The Chinese Confucian is similarly mediated. There is a given framework of propriety, or i-li, with whose principles of conduct one is obliged to comply in, at best, a “perfect form or obedience”; but which, whether or not one actually conforms to these principles, are construed as necessary, universally binding and no more controvertible than the tendency of water to flow downhill.

At this point, we need to distinguish between forms of social consciousness which are conscious, and those which are pre-conscious. When they are explicit tenets of doctrine, forms of social consciousness are, to this extent, conscious. When they are not explicit. but govern agents as unrecognized rules of normative judgement, they are pre-conscious. A pre-conscious form of social consciousness across many social orders would be, for example, the pre-supposition that one’s own social order, and no other, is a moral given on the basis of which acceptable discourse proceeds. No-one may state this underlying principle, because its presumption is self-undercutting. But like a grammar which speakers conform to without knowing its rules, such a social form of consciousness is complied with as an unspoken normative ground regulating what is publicly said and done. It operates, we might say, as an acquired a priori of ethical judgement. The savage persecution throughout history of those not complying with this underlying principle of social judgement is testimony to its hold as a regulating norm of consciousness across cultures. But this substructure of thought cannot be understood philosophically as long as it regulates consciousness. For where its presumption is laid bare, its rule can be apprehended only in other social orders where its prohibiting block to human thought can be condemned – the banning of doubt of ISLAM in Moslem societies, of criticism of the Party’s right to rule in Soviet societies, of questioning of Church dogma in medieval societies, and so on. The general form of social consciousness itself cannot be laid bare, because this would implicate one’s own society as participant in a systematic repression of thought, and thus call into question the principle of its own assumption.

Despite much lipservice to metaethical analysis, the deep normative structures of the actual societies philosophers live within have in this way been typically assumed as uncriticizable givens. Because such a form of social consciousness is not acknowledged, it is not examined. Because it is not examined, it is not questioned. Because it is not questioned, it is not criticized, evaluated from a more comprehensive standpoint, or even justified. In short, preconscious forms of consciousness are ethically fundamental and, at the same time, cannot be penetrated by ethical analysis. This closure of thought persists as long as ethical inquiry fails to lay bare the deepest foundations of its own indoctrination.

Consider the case of David HUME (1711-1776). Perhaps the West’s greatest subverter of conventionalized presupposition since SOCRATES – who himself presupposed SLAVERY as unworthy of question – Hume too was imprisoned within the forms of social consciousness of his time. Confronted by radical thinkers who did not assume the social order within which they lived as an ethical given, but on the contrary challenged established property arrangements as against Christian principles, Hume was adamant in condemning them. “Fanatics may suppose,” he declares in an Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), “that dominion is founded on grace and saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers.”

If we examine Hume’s reaction for its substructural form of consciousness, we find that what he presupposes is affirmation of the social order within which he lives as a first premise of ethical judgement. Thus he repudiates by a repressed and unexamined premise any position which controverts this ulterior moral ground from which he reasons. At the same time, because this form of consciousness is pre-conscious, he cannot be aware of the covert principle of right by which he is walled in. He is stuck, as ethical inquiry has been over epochs, within what he and others alike presuppose as their normative foundation, the social regime by which they are ruled. Since those who do not comply with such a substructural form of consciousness are, by its very operation, ruled out as subversive or unintelligible to those who conform to it, there is a systematic selection against any confrontation of such structures of cognitive incarceration.

Socrates and Hume, of course, are not untypical in their question-begging of unstated premises at the deepest levels of ethical judgement. On a more everyday level of expression of regulating NORMS of consciousness, Christopher Columbus was celebrated for five centuries as an heroic exemplar across continents for having “discovered America.”

Despite the fact that America was inhabited by tens of millions of people for thousands of years before Columbus existed, there was no reported demurral from eminent thinkers, including philosophers, to century after century of this judgement of the highest approbation. If again we look to the substructure of unstated assumption underlying this judgement, we can see that what it presupposes is the silent categorical assumption, All human discernment is European. Otherwise the claim would be manifestly absurd. This social a priori of judgement underpins both the statement and the acceptance of it as a necessary condition of both’s intelligibility. But unlike a Kantian category of judgement, its a priori principle is contingent, false, and eliminable. Once exposed to the light, its hold on consciousness is more vulnerable to skepticism. Although philosophers are obliged to expose such general constructions of the conditioned mind, they have rarely done so with the deepest-lying assumptions of the social orders within which they prosper.

Even when declared, some very basic forms of social consciousness can still restrict consciousness within a narrow band. Consider the present a priori of value judgement across disciplines and cultures, Market economies are always better, or its corollary, All alternatives are to be repudiated. Where can we now see any public assertion not conforming to this more or less explicit form of social consciousness and its corollary? More deeply, can we identify any pre-conscious form of social consciousness intrinsic to this contemporary normative mind-set? Consider the unstated equation of value which underlies INTENTION and action across contemporary capitalist orders. “Real money equals real wealth.” Any number of value assertions express this underpinning copula of value, from assumptions of higher GNP’s as measures of social wealth to the incentive of a higher salary as a normal good to aspire to and strive after. The apparently analytic principle which governs these value positions is, however, another form of social consciousness which is foundationally false. It assumes that what is an exchangeable demand on wealth is wealth itself. Such a form of consciousness may seem as tautological as 2 + 2 = 4. But if it operates as an unconscious assumption regulating value consciousness across societies, it may have the most fateful consequences for the conditions of life itself. For if the money demand on wealth keeps growing, as it does, and the wealth which it is a demand on keeps decreasing (e.g., usable land, water, fish stocks, forests and subterranean energy sources), as these kinds of wealth now do, then such an unexamined form of social consciousness can organize value judgement and action across the world into a program of mounting life reduction which a surface-moving ethics cannot fathom. This is why the underlabour of philosophical analysis is needed to unmask the moral syntax which forms of social consciousness bear. Such presuppositions can structure understanding of the species itself toward evils to which most remain blind.

Philosophy’s most socially grounded thinker, Karl MARX (1818-83), introduced the concept of “forms of social consciousness” (gesellschaftliche Bewusstseinsformen) over 150 years ago in his famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). He gave no explanation, however, of its meaning, and nowhere distinguished it from ideology proper. In the Communist Manifesto eleven years earlier, he hinted at such a distinction, saying: “The social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms.” But Marx never explained what these forms are, as distinct from the social consciousness which moves within them. His criticism of conventional assumptions, however, allows us to deduce forms of social consciousness which he implies. A central one of these would be the presupposition that one’s social order is both necessary and permanent – “an eternal nature-imposed necessity,” as he describes this preconception in bourgeois ideology’s assumption of capitalist relations of production as the inevitable order of humankind. Marx’s concern, however, was with what he believed forms of consciousness and ideologies are reflections of, material production and its relations. He overlooked the fact that social production and its relations are themselves expressions of consciousness, and are structured and reproduced by what conscious agents decide and plan, prescribe and obey as sequences of value judgement and implementation. Effects of decisions within these sequences appear as law-like because their antecedent value judgements become automatic. In truth, however, they are expressions of presupposed principles of preference whose ground is fixed forms of social consciousness.

Consider such unstated, economy-regulating principles as: “All non-human life is of value only as a resource of human use”, or “More machine power is always better.” Both capitalist and Marxist ideologies assume these principles as givens, although in ferocious disagreement about the mode of production appropriate for the subjugation of nature by humans, and their machine occupation of the world. These undergirding presuppositions are not recognized as principles of value, but they are in a fundamental sense deeper regulators of societies than means of production themselves. For the latter are continuously designed and redesigned by conscious agency, whereas the former have regulated their development and use across centuries and opposing social orders.

Even if a form of social consciousness is exposed, however, this recognition is no assurance that it will be more open to ethical criticism. When persons think and act in accordance with the fixed premise that women/blacks/children cannot be reasoned with, for example, the form of social consciousness regulating the mind may remain invulnerable to revision, even when laid bare. Opening them to the light may not make them any less invariably assumed. Forms of social consciousness operate to select and validate what conforms to them, and to exclude or invalidate what does not. There is no a priori limit to how far rationalization of deeper forms of social consciousness can elaborate in the compulsion of their hold. Consciousness of their content need not emancipate consciousness from their rule, but may merely confirm them as settled truths. Yet it cannot be doubted that without consciousness of them, forms of social consciousness are not open to consideration at all, or movement beyond the “group-think,” as we might call it, of the values they prescribe.



Note: Because there is almost no critical literature on forms of social consciousness, this bibliography is necessarily limited. Some thinkers who would seem relevant – Freud and Jung from the psychoanalytic tradition, for example, or Levi-Strauss and Foucault from the structuralist and post-structuralist traditions – do not address any forms of consciousness they explore as defeasible, categorical principles of value.

  • Chomsky, Noam. and Edward S. Herman. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. The “propaganda model” exposited in the first chapter outlines the “filters” of contemporary mass communications, which explains the means whereby public discourse can be regulated by forms of social consciousness. FSCs as such, however, are not considered.
  • Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals. Edited by Charles W. Hendel. New York: Library of Liberal Arts. Bobbs-Merrill. 1957 [l751]. See especially p. 24.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press. 1964. This work is the clearest of the Frankfurt School in laying bare the underlying forms of social consciousness of industrial corporate positivism, which Marcuse sees operative in twentieth-century analytic philosophy. But, again, Marcuse does not analyse FSCs as universal, cognitive principles of value.
  • Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by S. Ryazanskaya; edited by Maurice Dobb. New York: Progress Publishers, 1970 [1859]. The famous preface refers to “forms of social consciousness” as “corresponding to” the economic structure, but provides no explanation to distinguish them from the manifest formulations of ideology.
  • Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Translated and edited by Frederick Engels and Samuel Moore, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. 1969 [1848]. See especially p. 72.
  • McMurtry, John. The Structure of Marx’s World-View. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978. The chapter entitled “Forms of Social Consciousness” deduces the meaning of this concept in Marx’s work, as well as a set of FSCs underlying manifest ideologies across cultures.
  • —. “Philosophical Method and the Rise of Social Philosophy.” Eidos 2:2 (December 1981): 139-76. The confinement of philosophers East and West within the social assumptions of their surrounding orders of rule is tracked across history from Socrates and Confucius to Wittgenstein and Rawls.
  • —. “The Unspeakable: Understanding the System of Fallacy in the Media.” Informal Logic 10:3 (Fa11 1988): 133-50. This analysis formalizes universal principles of selection and exclusion regulating public communications across cultures, and deduces from these forms of social consciousness predictions of what will be ruled out of public communication by their operation.

John McMurtry

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