Kenneth Smith on The Cave of False Consciousness

Posted by on February 13th, 2010 at 9:40 AM

Opinion is the castle, or rather the temple of human nature; and, if it be polluted, there is no longer any thing sacred or venerable in sublunary existence.

William Godwin, An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, vol. 2, b. VI, ch.1

. . . Consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; . . . as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility. Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, [i.e.] “to know ourselves,” each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but “average.” Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness—by the “genius of the species” that commands it—and translated back into the perspective of the herd.  Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that.  But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Consciousness is … from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.

—Marx, The German Ideology

Few humans “think for themselves.”  Few even know what this would mean, what it would require of them, what abysmal risks and dangers it would entail, not to mention how much is unsettled and disrupted once the “adventure” or “ideaquake” of thinking is undertaken.  Few care enough about such issues even to assess realistically the costs of thinking for oneself; most dismiss the matter altogether as being transparently too much work or pain quite apart from the presumptive negative results—and they pass this verdict all the more blithely the more impoverished they are in resources for fathoming the matter they (presume they) are thinking about.  Those who fatuously and myopically dismiss any value or obligation to exercise autonomy and conscientiousness in thinking, those who imagine they can safely get through life just by their sheer powers of “faith” and obviousness, in truth are not making any kind of “conscious” decision at all—they are directly the victims of their self-clouding and self-necessitating pathos of character, their instinctive fear of all demands or logics that run averse to their deepset libidinal dreams of what “life” ought to be.  Indeed, few humans can even recognize when someone is “thinking for himself”; they interpret this in the way they are bound by their collectivity to do, not as any sort of individual expression but rather as the intrusion of satanic or maleficent forces, perverse and depraved powers antagonistic to their own regime of communal and cultural “comfort foods” (which are needless to say someone else’s “perverse and depraved” daimonisms).  Culturally and politically no less than spiritually, humans are indeed “what they eat,” and the more blithely they swallow it the more profoundly it becomes them.

Moderns flatter themselves that traditionalist or primitive or naïve people may be subject to such chains, such gravity-sinks of thoughtlessness—but not ferociously “critical” and “rebellious” moderns; not the “New World”’s rootless experimentalists, not the “interminable revolutionists” of modern science and economy.  But the truth is that what is true of most humans on this planet is even more profoundly and asphyxiatingly true of moderns, precisely because what moderns have “liberated” or “abstracted” themselves from is not just fanciful or lying myths and superstitions but also the more encompassing grasp of what is true of humankind at large, the “human condition” in which the bonds of “human nature(s)” express their regularities and their chthonic authority.  Humans in modernity have not in the least “emancipated” themselves  from the pathos of human nature(s) by hyper-intellectualizing themselves, by “radicalizing” and “systematizing” the powers of consciousness or ego over their existence; on the contrary moderns have only fashioned a more abysmally one-sided mode of existence for themselves.  Their “self-cognition” does not amount in the least to any form of self-mastery or self-understanding (gnothi seauton).

In characterizing realities no less than in taking positions on issues, consciousness generalizes, i.e. genericizes:  in articulating or formulating, it reduces things, even our own selves, to forms, abstractions, idealizations, types, archetypes, simplisms.  “Thinking” is an activity that ultimately grounds or resolves itself in the satisfying, self-certain form of orthodoxies, preconceptions, uncriticized and imperative norms; and it is overwhelmingly inept to recognize just how pathetic, parasitic or placental is its relation to its “own” fundamental norms of understanding and valuation.  Rarely if ever does any act of thinking grow so laserlike or iconoclastically intensive as to escape from the dense miasma of what is acceptable.  To think what actually is is even more contranatural for humans than to see what actually is:  as subjectivizing as “seeing” is, “thinking” is many degrees or magnitudes more saturated with conditioned biases, delusions, self-deceptions.  A program of hygiene or asepsis for the sanity, acuity and clarity of syncretic or wholesided thinking—a discipline of orthotics for sobering, grounding and polemicizing of well-formed gnoseonoesis—is needless to say unknown in modernity.  Not just language but virtually all of intellect, education, culture, etc. have been adapted into utilities, tools whose very aspectivity militates against the nakedness of “evidence,” which is to say, against candor and against truth:  regardless of what it may be called, “evidence,” even the most obvious and blatant, is in actuality not so “evident” to most people, and the modern development of “sophistication” or “education” typically worsens the obscurantism.

Thoreau perceived in the nineteenth century that men were becoming the “tools of their tools,” even as Emerson saw that “things are in the saddle and are riding mankind.”  Most humans inhabit nests of subliminal or witless “constructs,” concoctions generally expressing someone else’s interests, and for this reason Wilde’s incisive observation, that “most people are other people,” is one of those skewering truths too true to be recognized precisely where it is most pertinent.  Our actuality or existence, the truth of who and how we concretely are in our basal naturality and activity, is by no accident a nameless matter among us forever being subverted—eviscerated and conscripted and repurposed in its qualities and tendencies and powers—by the pervertive forms of what we so absurdly or witlessly continue to call “consciousness,” whose binding a priori commitments (“-isms”) eclipse and defeat mere evidence every time, being themselves exempt from our “knowing.”

Scruples about rationality and objectivity are in truth grossly unknown among most hominids; nothing matters less to featherless bipeds than matters of truth and coherency.  “Philosophy” is an ethos or a calling known only through the mass-engendered contempt it evokes, or through the intellectual preciosities, ideologies and methodolatries that pass for it in academia.  Humans at large process the “givens” of their lives and senses and language not in order to know or understand them but in order to digest them into some ineffable reigning delusion, because on this planet such a compulsive irrationality—anabolic or dissolutive-decompositional belief—is the sack of fraudulence that foists itself off not just as so-called rationality but also as sanity, truth, knowledge, science, information, consciousness, religion, freedom, and values.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.