Walker Percy Wednesday 182


THERE ARE two interesting things about current approaches to consciousness as a subject of inquiry. One is that the two major approaches, the explanatory-psychological and the phenomenological, go their separate ways, contributing nothing to each other. They do not tend to converge upon or supplement each other as do, say, atomic theory and electromagnetic theory. One can either look upon consciousness as a public thing or event in the world like any other public thing or event and as such open to explanatory inquiry; or one can regard it as an absolutely privileged realm, that by which I know anything at all-including explanatory psychology. As exemplars of these two approaches, I shall refer in the sequel to the work of George H. Mead and Edmund Husserl. The other interesting thing is that both approaches encounter the same perennial difficulty, albeit each encounters it in its own characteristic way. This difficulty is the taking account of intersubjectivity, that meeting of minds by which two selves take each other’s meaning with reference to the same object beheld in common. As Schutz has pointed out, intersubjectivity is simply presupposed as the unclarified foundation of the explanatory-empirical sciences. A social behaviorist writes hundreds of papers setting forth the thesis that m ind and consciousness are an affair of responses to signs or responses to responses; yet he unquestionably expects his colleagues to do more than respond to his paper; he also expects them to understand it, to take his meaning. As regards phenomenology, on the other hand, philosophers as different as James Collins and Jean-Paul Sartre have noticed that the chief difficulty which Husserl (not to mention Hegel and Heidegger) encounters is the allowing for the existence of other selves.

It is the purpose of this essay to suggest that these two chronic difficulties which have beset the study of consciousness have come about in part at least from a failure to appreciate the extraordinary role of the symbol, especially the language symbol, in man’s orientation to the world. I am frank to confess a prejudice in favor of Mead’s approach to consciousness as a phenomenon arising from the social matrix through language. It seems to me that the psychological approach possesses the saving virtue that it tends to be self-corrective, whereas in transcendental phenomenology everything is risked on a single methodological cast at the very outset, the famous epoche. But I wish to suggest first that positive psychology, in its allegiance to the sign-response as the basic schema of psychogenesis, has failed or refused to grasp the peculiar role of the language symbol. I would further suggest that an appreciation of this role will ( l ) confirm in an unexpected way Mead’s thesis of the social origin of consciousness, (2) reveal intersubjectivity as one of the prime relations of the symbol meaning-structure, (3) provide access to a phenomenology of consciousness, not as a transcendental idealism, but as a mode of being emerging from the interrelations of real organisms in the world.

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