Discussion of C.H. Cooley's "Social Consciousness"


Had not Mrs. Gilman prepared the way for the somewhat radical point of view that I wish to present, I should have hesitated to present any remarks on Professor Cooley's exceedingly suggestive paper. As it is, however, I should like to say a word in behalf of the contention that of the two, self-consciousness and social consciousness, the former is a derivative of the latter, and not the latter of the former. Social consciousness, or awareness of society, is not only inseparable from consciousness of self, but consciousness of self is developed later than social consciousness. Instead of saying that self and society are in the consciousness of the individual twin-born, I would say that consciousness of society precedes consciousness of self.

We know that in the experience of infants it requires considerable time before the child learns to mark off itself from the outside world, to draw the line between the ego and the altrui. Similarly, in the domain of psychic existence the marking-off of self takes place late in the history of consciousness. Moreover, it is always a vague and indefinite marking-off—so vague and indefinite as to make it not unreasonable to contend that social consciousness is more real and more definite than self-consciousness. Any endeavor to mark off those contents of the mind which are primarily individual, which belong to

(114) me, as opposed to the social group of which I am a member, at once reveals the difficulties that stand in the way of any description of self-consciousness. Language itself, in which all thought-processes find their expression and in which they necessarily take form—whether language be articulate or inarticulate does not matter—is a social product. In other words, whenever we think, we use words, either aloud or inarticulately; and these words are social things. Thus the implements of thought are themselves social implements. The assumption that of the whole field of consciousness one part—that part which belongs to me as a distinct ego—cannot only be marked off from the rest, but is more fundamental than the rest, has no foundation in fact. Not infrequently what I regard as the peculiar characteristics of myself as a psychic entity are not my characteristics at all, but are attributed to me by my fellow-creatures and represent merely the characteristics which I am striving to attain. The indefiniteness of the psychic self on this account is well illustrated by Dr. Holmes's celebrated story of John and Thomas. When John and Thomas take part in a dialogue there are, said Dr. Holmes, at least six personalities distinctly to be recognized as participating in the dialogue : first, there is the real John, known only to his Maker; second, there is John's ideal John, never the real one, and often very unlike him; third, there is Thomas' idea of John, never the real John, nor John's John, and often very unlike either. Similarly, there is the real Thomas, Thomas' ideal Thomas, and John's ideal Thomas. The real John may be old, dull, and ill-looking. But John very possibly conceives himself to be young, witty, and fascinating, and talks from the point of view of this ideal. Thomas, again, believes him to be an artful rogue, we will say ; therefore he is, so far as Thomas' attitude is concerned, an artful rogue, though really simple and stupid.

Nietzsche somewhere contends that our idea of ourselves in no way corresponds with the reality, and is usually determined by other people's idea of what we are.

In brief, I am not at all certain that Professor Natorp is wrong in his statement that the individual is just as much an abstraction in the social sciences as the atom is an abstraction in chemistry-made for purposes of convenience, but possibly corresponding to nothing real and distinguishable


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