The Mind and the Brain/Book II/Chapter V

The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book II: Chapter V
Definition of the Consciousness—The Relation Subject-Object
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After having separated from the consciousness that which it is not, let us try to define what it is. This and the two following chapters are devoted to this study.

A theory has often been maintained with regard to the consciousness; namely, that it supposes a relation between two terms—a subject and an object, and that it consists exactly in the feeling of this relation. By subject is understood the something that has consciousness; the object is the something of which we are conscious. Every thought, we are told, implies subject and object, the representer and the represented, the sentiens and the sensum—the one active, the other passive, the active acting on the passive, the ego opposed to the non ego.

This opinion is almost legitimised by current language. When speaking of our states of consciousness, we generally say, “I am conscious; it is I who have consciousness,” and we attribute to our I, to our Ego, to our personality, the rôle of subject. But this is not a peremptory argument in favour of the above opinion; it is only a presumption, and, closely examined, this presumption seems very weak.

Hitherto, when analysing the part of mind, we have employed non-committal terms: we have said that sensation implied consciousness, and not that sensation implied something which is conscious.[1] The difference may appear too subtle, but it is not; it consists in taking from consciousness the notion of a subject being conscious and replacing it by the very act of consciousness.

My description applies very exactly, I think, to the facts. When we are engaged in a sensation, or when we perceive something, a phenomenon occurs which simply consists in having consciousness of a thing. If to this we add the idea of the subject which has consciousness, we distort the event. At the very moment when it is taking place, it is not so complicated; we complicate it by adding to it the work of reflection. It is reflection which constructs the notion of the subject, and it is this which afterwards introduces this construction into the states of consciousness; in this way the state of consciousness, by receiving this notion of subject, acquires a character of duality it did not previously possess. There are, in short, two separate acts of consciousness, and one is made the subject of the other. “Primitively,” says Rabier, “there is neither representative nor represented; there are sensations, representations, facts of consciousness, and that is all. Nothing is more exact, in my opinion, than this view of Condillac’s:—that primitively, the inanimate statue is entirely the sensation that it feels. To itself it is all odour and all savour; it is nothing more, and this sensation includes no duality for the consciousness. It is of an absolute simplicity.”

Two arguments may be advanced in favour of this opinion. The first is one of logic. We have divided all knowledge into two groups—objects of cognition, and acts of cognition. What is the subject of cognition? Does it form a new group? By no means; it forms part of the first group, of the object group; for it is something to be known.

Our second argument is one of fact. It consists in remembering that which in practice we understand by the subject of cognition; or rather, metaphorically we represent this subject to ourselves as an organ—the eye that sees or the hand that touches—and we represent to ourselves the relation subject-object in the shape of a material relation between two distinct bodies which are separated by an interval and between which some action is produced which unites them. Or else, confusing the subject and the Ego, which are nevertheless two different notions, we place the Ego in the consciousness of the muscular effort struggling against something which resists. Or, finally and still more frequently, we represent the subject to ourselves by confusing it with our own personality; it is a part of our biography, our name, our profession, our social status, our body, our past life foreshortened, our character, or, in a word, our civil personality, which becomes the subject of the relation subject-object. We artificially endow this personality with the faculty of having consciousness; and it results from this that the entity consciousness, so difficult to define and to imagine, profits by all this factitious addition and becomes a person, visible and even very large, in flesh and bone, distinct from the object of cognition, and capable of living a separate life.

It is not difficult to explain that all this clearness in the representation of ideas is acquired by a falsification of the facts. So sensorial a representation of consciousness is very unfaithful; for our biography does not represent what we have called acts of consciousness, but a large slice of our past experience—that is to say, a synthesis of bygone sensations and images, a synthesis of objects of consciousness; therefore a complete confusion between the acts of consciousness and their objects. The formation of the personality seems to me to have, above all, a legal and social importance.[2] It is a peculiar grouping of states of consciousness imposed by our relations with other individuals. But, metaphysically, the subject thus understood is not distinguished from the object, and there is nothing to add to our distinction between the object and the act of consciousness.

Those who defend the existence of the subject point out that this subject properly constitutes the Ego, and that the distinction of the subject and the object corresponds to the distinction of the Ego and non-Ego, and furnishes the separation between the physical and the moral so long sought.

It is evidently very enticing to make of the Ego thus a primitive notion of the consciousness; but this view of the Ego as opposed to the non-Ego in no way corresponds to that of the mental and the physical. The notion of the Ego is much larger, much more extensible, than that of the mental; it is as encroaching as human pride, it grasps in its conquering talons all that belongs to us; for we do not, in life, make any great difference between what is we and what is ours—an insult to our dog, our dwelling, or our work wounds us as much as an insult to ourselves. The possessive pronoun expresses both possession and possessor. In fact, we consider our body as being ourselves.

Here, then, are numbers of material things introducing themselves into the category of mental things. If we wished to expel them and to reduce the domain of the Ego to the domain of the mental, we could only do so if we already possessed the criterion of what is essentially mental. The notion of the Ego cannot therefore supply us with this criterion.

Another opinion consists in making of the subject a spiritual substance, of which the consciousness becomes a faculty. By substance is understood an entity which possesses the two following principal characteristics, unity and identity, this latter merging into unity, for it is nothing else but the persistence of unity through the course of time. Certain philosophers have asserted that through intuition we can all establish that we are a spiritual substance. I am compelled to reject this idea, because I think the expression spiritual substance has no meaning; nothing but the sonorous value of six syllables. It has also been supposed, that there exists a corporeal substance hidden under the sensations, in which are implanted the qualities of bodies, as the various organs of a flower are in its calyx. I will return later to this conception of a material substance. That of a spiritual substance cannot be defended, and the chief and fatal argument I urge against it is, that we cannot represent it to our minds, we cannot think it, and we cannot see in these words “spiritual substance” any intelligible idea; for that which is mental is limited to “that which is of the consciousness.” So soon as we endeavour to go beyond the fact of having consciousness to imagine a particular state which must be mental, one of two things happen; either we only grasp the void, or else we construct a material and persistent object in which we recognise psychical attributes. These are two conclusions which ought to be rejected.

  1. This second method of expression, which I consider inexact, is constantly found in Descartes. Different philosophers have explicitly admitted that every act of cognition implies a relation subject-object. This is one of the corner-stones of the neo-criticism of Renouvier. He asserts that all representation is double-faced, and that what is known to us presents itself in the character of both representative and represented. He follows this up by describing separately the phenomena and laws of the representative and of the represented respectively.
  2. The preceding ten lines in the text I wrote after reading a recent article of William James, who wishes to show that the consciousness does not exist, but results simply from the relation or the opposition raised between one part of our experience (the actual experience, for instance, in the example of the perception of an object) and another part, the remembrance of our person. But the argument of James goes too far; he is right in contesting the relation subject-object, but not in contesting the existence of the consciousness (William James: “Does consciousness exist?” in J. of Philosophy, &c., Sept. 1904).