Consciousness

Consciousness is the totality of the subjective processes of a human being which mediate between a person’s physiology and their behaviour.

History

Consciousness first became an object of philosophical and scientific study with the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650), and has been a central problem for philosophy ever since. In the mid-19th century, the specialised and natural scientific study of consciousness emerged mainly in Germany, including the study of physiology, introspection, behaviour and cultural phenomena, leading to the development of Psychology as the science of the mind, or consciousness. By the 1920s, Psychology differentiated itself between those currents which affirmed Consciousness as the subject matter of Psychology, and Behaviourism, which rejected consciousness as a category open to scientific investigation. CHAT emerged out of this conflict.

Explanation

Consciousness is the entirety of a person’s Subjective processes. Affect, Cognition, Thinking, Awareness, ‘the Unconscious’, Will, Intention, etc., are all included in the category of ‘consciousness’. Although Consciousness mediates between the material behaviour and physiology of the person, consciousness is not itself material. Consciousness is an appearance. Like the reflection in a mirror, consciousness can be entirely understood in terms of the material processes which underlie it, but just like the subject matter studied by the historian or the geologist, the subject matter of the psychologist, can only be studied indirectly, but studying the material processes which it mediates, in particular the social behaviour of human beings (and its development), and human physiology.

The distinction between consciousness and matter is not erased, because matter (in the philosophical sense) is simply, by definition, what lies outside consciousness and is reflected in consciousness. Vygotsky quoted Lenin approvingly:

“the only ‘property’ of matter connected with philosophical materialism is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of our consciousness ... Epistemologically the concept of matter means nothing other than objective reality, existing independently from human consciousness and reflected by it.” (See ‘Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology’, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 233–370)

See Chapter 7 of “Thinking and Speech” for a concise exposition of Vygotsky’s view of consciousness. Note that according to Vygotsky, his analysis verbal thinking based on the unit of word meaning opens the way to the study of consciousness as a whole, as opposed to the study of separate psychological functions in isolation:

“There exists a dynamic meaningful system that constitutes a unity of affective and intellectual processes. Every idea contains some remnant of the individual’s affective relationship to that aspect of reality which it represents. ... At this point, we will simply restate the claim that the method that we are applying in this work not only permits us to see the internal unity of thinking and speech, but allows us to do more effective research on the relationship of verbal thinking to the whole of the life of consciousness” (Thinking and Speech, Chapter 1, LSVCW v. 1. p. 50–51)

Note that the word “mind” is a synonym for consciousness and bears no special meaning in CHAT. The word “psyche” is used in a more general sense in that it is ascribed to all animate organisms, with “consciousness” being reserved for the human psyche. According to A. N. Leonyev:

“The basic position of Marxism on consciousness is that it represents a quality of a special form of the psyche. Although consciousness also has its own history in the evolution of the animal world, it first appears in man in the process of the organization of work and social relations.” (1978. p. 46)

References

Lenin, V. I. (1908) “Matter has Disappeared,” Materialism and Empirio-Criticism §5.2 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/five2.htm

Leonteyv, A. N. (1978) Activity, Consciousness and Personality, http://www.marxists.org/archive/leontev/works/activity-consciousness.pdf

Vygotsky, L. S. (1929). Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 233–370. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/crisis/psycri13.htm

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech, Chapter 1, LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 43–51. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/ch01.htm

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech, Chapter 7, LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 243–288. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/ch07.htm

-- AndyBlunden - 12 Nov 2013

Commentary

Topic revision: r9 - 25 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden
 

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