Walker Percy Wednesday 183



The selective and intentional character of consciousness has been stressed by empiricists and phenomenologists alike. The conscious act is always intentional: One is never simply conscious, but conscious of this or that. Consciousness is, in fact, defined by the phenomenologist as noematic intentionality in general. But quite as essential to the act of consciousness is its symbolic character. Every conscious perception is of the nature of a recognition, a pairing, which is to say that the object is recognized as being what it is. To amend the phenomenologist: It is not enough to say that one is conscious of something; one is also conscious of something as being something. There is a difference between the apprehension of a gestalt (a chicken perceives the Jastrow effect as well as a human) and the grasping of it under its symbolic vehicle. As I gaze about the room, I am aware of a series of almost effortless acts of matching: seeing an object and then knowing it for what it is. If my eye falls upon an unfamiliar something, I am immediately aware that one term of the match is missing. I ask what it is-an exceedingly mysterious question. Marcel has observed that when I see an unfamiliar flower and ask what it is, I am more satisfied to be given a name than a scientific classification, even though the name may mean nothing to me. May this satisfaction be dismissed as a residue of name-magic, or is there a radical epistemological need of a something of comparable ontological weight (the sensuous symbol) to lay alongside the object in order that the latter be known? It is the pairing in the act of perception which must not be overlooked. It is a relation, moreover, which goes far deeper than the attaching of a label to something already known, as the semanticists suggest. Rather is it the pairing or formulation itself, as Cassirer has said, which comprises the act of knowing. Each conscious recognition may be regarded as an approximation, a cast of one thing toward another toward the end of a fit. Thus, if I see an object at some distance and do not quite recognize it, I may see it, actually see it, as a succession of different things, each rejected by the criterion of fit as I come closer, until one is positively certified. A patch of sunlight in a field I may actually see as a rabbit-a seeing which goes much further than the guess that it may be a rabbit; no, the perceptual gestalt is so construed, actually stamped by the essence of rabbitness: I could have sworn it was a rabbit. On coming closer, the sunlight pattern changes enough so that the rabbit-cast is disallowed. The rabbit vanishes and I make another cast: It is a paper bag. And so on. But most significant of all, even the last, the “correct” recognition is quite as mediate an apprehension as the incorrect ones; it is also a cast, a pairing, an approximation. And let us note in passing that even though it is correct, even though it is borne out by all indices, it may operate quite as effectively to conceal as to discover. When I recognize a strange bird as a sparrow, I tend to dispose of the bird under its appropriate formulation: It is only a sparrow (cf Marcel’s “simulacrum”).

Awareness is thus not only intentional in character; it is also symbolic. The phenomenologist tells only half the story. I am not only conscious of something; I am conscious of it as being what it is for you and me. If there is a wisdom in etymologies, the word consciousness is surely a case in point; for consciousness, one suddenly realizes, means a knowing-with! In truth it could not be otherwise. The act of consciousness is the intending of the object as being what it is for both of us under the auspices of the symbol.

It does not, of course, solve the problem of consciousness to say that it is an exercise in intersubjectivity. I only wish to suggest that the conviction of the phenomenologists that intersubjectivity must somehow be constituted at the very heart of consciousness, a consummation devoutly to be desired but evidently not forthcoming under the phenomenological reduction, is illuminated and confirmed by the empirical method, a method which takes account of natural existences, organisms and symbols and objects, and real relations in the world. But I would also suggest that a recognition of the denotative function of the symbol, as a real property, yields the intersubjectivity which is not forthcoming from Mead’s sign-response psychology. Consciousness and intersubjectivity are seen to be inextricably related; they are in fact aspects of the same new orientation toward the world, the symbolic orientation.

This empirical insight into the intersubjective constitution of consciousness suggests an important corrective for the transcendental reduction. Is the phenomenologist’s stronghold of the absolute priority of the individual consciousness so invulnerable after all? Is there in fact such a thing as the “purified transcendental consciousness” or is it a chimera from the very outset? Is it a construct masquerading as an empirical reality? If my every act of consciousness, not merely genetically speaking my first act of consciousness, but each succeeding act, is a through-and-through social participation, then it is a contradiction in terms to speak of an aboriginal ego-consciousness. There may be such a thing as an isolated ego-consciousness, but far from being the apodictic take-off point of a presuppositionless science, it would seem to correspond to Buber’s term of deterioration, the decay of the I-Thou relation into the objectivization of the I-It. It would appear that the transcendental phenomenologist is seizing upon a social emergent, consciousness, abstracting it from its social matrix, and erecting a philosophy upon this pseudo-private derivative. But the organism does not so begin. The I think is only made possible by a prior mutuality: we name.

Sartre’s even more radical revision of the transcendental consciousness falls that much shorter of the mark. Declaring that the Cartesian cogito is insufficiently radical, that it is a derived condition of consciousness in which consciousness intends itself as an object, Sartre probes back to the “prereflective cogito.” This fundamental reality is a nonposited, nonobjectified, prereflective consciousness. But is there such a thing? Or is it not the very nature of the search that the most radical backtracking into consciousness cannot carry us beyond what Marcel calls the “intersubjective milieu,” by which he means the prime and irreducible character of intersubjectivity?

Mead’s major thesis was that the individual transcendental consciousness is a myth, that mind and consciousness are indefeasibly social realities. This thesis, it seems to me, is not borne out by Mead’s behavioristics, however refined, but is dramatically confirmed as soon as the peculiar character of the symbolic orientation is recognized.

Sartre would amend the Cartesian and Husserlian formula for the originary act of consciousness,

I am conscious of this chair,

to read,

There is consciousness of this chair,

both of which single out the individual consciousness itself as the prime reality. An empirical study of the emergence of symbolization from the biological elements of signification suggests the further revision of Sartre:

This “is” a chair for you and me,

which co-celebration of the chair under the auspices of the symbol is itself the constituent act of consciousness.

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