If you are asked, “who are you?” You will probably answer by your name, your first name, the city where you come from, your age. You will certainly speak of your passions, your profession, your character. But at no time will you say to your interlocutor “I am a conscience”.
Yet this is the case. But if we do not do it, it’s because we have trouble perceiving the complexity of our “I”, in other words, we do not really know what constitutes our inner “self”, our consciousness.
If you also wonder:
- What am I really?
- What good is my conscience?
- Am I always in agreement with myself?
- What mastery can I expect to have on me?
The philosophers Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, Kant should help you to see more clearly.
First, what is consciousness?
It is the “me”, and of being able to say “I” and knowing that it is about myself.
Some characteristics of consciousness:
- It is immaterial: we can not see it or touch it.
- She is inside: yes, she is in us.
- It is subjective: as our consciousness is nothing but us, our thoughts/ideas/beliefs belong to us and are therefore purely subjective.
In other words, our consciousness is what allows us to be lucid about the present moment, having a clear idea of the situation in which we find ourselves.
For example, I am aware that I am sitting in a more or less comfortable chair, reading a philosophy article on ‘RytHere. I know it’s me and only me who lives at this moment.
And what does our consciousness do?
It defines us, certainly, but above all, it thinks.
Remember, some time ago I wrote an article about Descartes and his discovery of the “me who thinks“.
To summarize, Descartes assumed that from an early age we have indiscriminately accepted dubious opinions that we believed to be true. As a result, much of our knowledge turns out to be wrong.
So to remedy this, Descartes begins to doubt everything, he eliminates his beliefs to refound all his knowledge on solid foundations.
And what does he discover? Well, Descartes falls face to face with his conscience. He realizes that the only thing that is certain is that we are all subjects who think and who are aware of it, hence the “I think I am“.
I am, therefore, precisely speaking, only one thing that thinks, that is to say, a spirit, an understanding, or a reason. – Metaphysical Meditations (1641), René Descartes
Regardless of whether we all think in a different way, the only thing that matters is that we think. Thus, the action of thinking thus defines man (unlike objects or animals that do not think).
Note: Descartes is the first philosopher to introduce the notion of “consciousness” into philosophy in the seventeenth century (and that’s also why his thinking revolutionized the world).
And besides thinking, what is our conscience good for?
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, man is perfectible, that is to say, he can become better by the day. And the tool that allows man to perfect himself on a daily basis is what he calls “the moral conscience“.
This moral conscience is compared to an inner voice that would have authority over us: it would serve to show us good and evil and to give us the right path when we go astray a little.
Our moral conscience is universal and allows us to reconnect with our instinct, that is to say, our original freedom and what we really aspire to. But the concern with this little voice is that we are free to listen to it or not. And unfortunately, sometimes she does not speak loud enough or she is covered by our fears, our loved ones or even society.
Thus, when we find ourselves going on paths that do not suit us if we make choices that do not correspond to us, it is very often because we have neglected our moral conscience because it alone would have could guide us to the right path.
It is up to us to learn to listen to it because one thing is certain, this inner voice wants us good.
Ok, we have a conscience, we think, but are we always in coherence with ourselves?
For the Scottish philosopher David Hume, the answer is no. He is fiercely opposed to Descartes’ thesis, which he kindly dismisses in his treatise on human nature:
There are certain philosophers who imagine that we have at all times the inner consciousness of what we call our “me” – David Hume, Treatise on human nature.
To put it simply, Hume wonders: how can I be sure that I am always me? And to that, he answers that consciousness is always partial because it is limited to what we see or what we feel (to our senses what).
According to Hume, our consciousness is only a series of perceptions: pains, feelings, hot, cold, sadness … and that, without identity proper.
In other words, if you believe that you are unique and that you have a personality out of the ordinary … Think again, Hume assures you the contrary, and it goes even further: for him, the personal identity is only one faction of the imagination.
The mind is a kind of theater where several perceptions successively appear, pass, repass, flow and mingle in an infinite variety of positions and situations. There is no such thing as simplicity at a single moment, nor identity at different times, any natural penchant for this simplicity and identity. – David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature.
But how does he manage to think that? First, Hume is an empiricist philosopher, that is to say, he considers that all human knowledge comes from sensible experience. Our senses would be the source of our knowledge.
Starting from this principle, Hume wonders about the “me” and realizes that the only way to meet this “me” is when you feel something. For example, it’s cold, your “ego” shivers; you are sad, you shed a tear; you’ve cut your finger, you hurt finger, etc.
Conclusion: the “me” exists only when we feel something, and as our sensations and our perceptions are always changing (we are not always sad, we do not have all the cold weather, and we do not do not have your finger permanently cut off).
If the “me” does not have its own identity, it is because we do not build a personality on changing perceptions/sensations! Consciousness is only the tool that makes you feel.
What mastery can we hope to have about ourselves?
As Descartes said, our consciousness allows us to think first. But unfortunately, for the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, thinking properly is a task far too difficult for us.
Indeed, according to Kant, very few people really know how to think for themselves. The majority takes refuge in prejudices (= beliefs that we are not masters, which come from our history or our temperament) and many build their opinions on crude cliches.
This is why Kant says that we do not know, or at least that we do not have the courage to use our understanding (= faculty to think and understand using reason).
Kant explains that many people let their thoughts be dictated by relatives, by society, or doxa (= public opinion). These “lazy and cowardly” people are called “minor adults”. And you will understand, the ultimate goal is to become “major”, that is to say, adults who stop to indulge in this passivity of thought and dare to think as they see fit.
So how to think for oneself?
Kant gives us the method to apply, in Critique of the faculty of judging, through 3 maxims to apply:
- To learn to think for oneself (by turning all our prejudices).
- Think by putting oneself in someone else’s place, that is to say, having an open mind and thinking in a universal and objective way.
- Always think in harmony with yourself, always be consistent in your thoughts and actions.
“Man is both the closest and the farthest from himself, ” St. Augustine said.
And now, you understand why. Human nature is complex: we all have a consciousness that allows us to think, to have moral values (unlike animals), to recognize us as “human”.
But to know that I exist and that I have a conscience is not knowing who I really am (this is your part of the job, and nobody can do it for you).