The struggle over consciousness

One of the major themes of Western philosophy since Plato is the elevation and near-deification of consciousness. Conscious thought and reflection have been prized above all else. Suspicion has been directed towards everything that is dark, murky, instinctive, unclear, unreasonable. Spirit has been emphasised above body. Christianity and its penal mechanisms was in no small part the engine used for this process for many centuries.

But what can consciousness really do? Every sequence of words I produce, every line of code I write, every sketch I draw or tune I play on the piano is for the most part not a product of conscious reflection. (Some earlier, unfinished thoughts on the limitations of reason here.) These productions are given to me, just as associations, feelings or moods are given to me – by the Other in me, the unconscious, the body. Through reflection I can remix and arrange these parts, critique them, say yes and no, but I cannot generate these things through purely conscious thought and logic. So what, in fact, was Western society really doing for 2000 years?

Nietzsche heralded the beginning of a reversal of this trend. In him, consciousness turns around, questions itself and finds that in the end, it isn’t all that powerful. A new philosophical school begins: a counter-movement that aimed, and aims to, reaffirm what is unthought, unseen, unreasonable. After him, thinkers like Freud, Jung (with his elaboration of the unconscious and his idea of “individuation”, psychological development understood as a harmonious union with the unconscious), Foucault (whose “History of madness”, if not almost his entire oeuvre, is almost entirely about this theme and the technicalities of how the unreasonable was suppressed) and Heidegger (in part) progressed on this path. But this reversal has only just begun. What are, in the grand scheme of things, the 130 years since Nietzsche’s productive years in the 1880s? The battle over the value of consciousness is in full swing and might be for centuries or millennia yet. And so we find ourselves, for now, living in a schizophrenic society, perhaps on the threshold of crossing over from a value system that praises consciousness to one that gives it a much more modest role.

 

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