Review of Individualism: Four Lectures on the Significance of Consciousness for Social Relations by Warner Fite

Professor Fite's Individualism is a notable discussion of the conceptions of the individual and society in their reciprocal relations. The remarkable lucidity of the author's style and the simplicity and deftness of presentation have given the book an immediate and sympathetic audience. With the social theory the BULLETIN is not immediately concerned, but in the argument that supports the theory the psychologist is interested, for the theory of consciousness presented, for the criticism upon functional psychology, and for the detailed criticism which the author makes upon the positions of Tufts and Dewey in their Ethics and upon James' statement of the instincts, and the object of conscious desire.

The principal thesis of the book is that conscious conduct is always that of an individual who acts from motives of self-regard.

Consciousness, however, implies that all the aims of the individual should receive consideration, and that in proportion as the act is fully conscious all will be satisfied in an act which is deliberately chosen. Consciousness furthermore implies that the environment within which conduct takes place is elastic and in proportion to the completeness of the consciousness of the actor is fully amenable to the purposes that are seeking expression. This involves only the comprehension of the environment -- as this would be given in a perfect science -- but also the freedom of the conscious individual, a freedom which lifts him above material law and a mechanical order of nature.

It implies further such a complete comprehension of the social environment that the individual who acts with reference to others will fully recognize their individual natures, their aims and ends. This recognition involves the acceptance of the nature of the'others' who make up this social environment, as of like and equal worth with himself -- as ends in themselves -- whose peculiar character he can use only in so far as he intelligently estimates and values their natures.

On the basis of such an individualism the author maintains a theory of natural rights, of social contract, and identifies justice and brotherly love. The author's definition of consciousness is diversity in unity. This is placed over against a definition of the mechanical object. The mechanical object has, as such, no internality. In itself

(324) it has no relations -- is merely acted upon from the outside. This object has therefore neither diversity nor unity. So far as it falls into a system this relationship with other things exists only for an outside intelligence. The operation of natural law upon such elements -- such atoms -- is necessary and mechanical. Mechanical objects exist only in space and time, occupy isolated points and moments, and in themselves imply neither other places nor other moments.

An implication of the 'there' in the 'here,' of the 'then' in the 'now,' can exist only in an idea in a mind. Diversity in unity, or unity in diversity, then, can exist only in consciousness, and wherever these are found, they must be found in consciousness. Professor Fite insists that such a formal definition of consciousness is legitimate and criticizes those who, like Wundt, insist that consciousness may not be defined. While this formal definition undertakes to distinguish consciousness from the unconscious, it does not state the content of consciousness, which involves not simply the presence of all elements in relation within the idea of the relation, but also the aims and values of these elements. In other words, consciousness is not only unity in diversity, but is the unity of impression and response, of conation and satisfaction, of feeling and emotion.

But the author does not admit that this unity arises, in any way, from the activity implied in animal organisms. As consciousness it can have no origin. In a word, Professor Fite denies the functional doctrine of consciousness. For him it can be neither stated as the process of selection of appropriate stimulations and responses, nor as the adjustment of conflicting tendencies. Consciousness with reference to the organism simply is. When it is, it at once arises above the mechanical process of stimulus and response, and becomes free.

Now this doctrine, which is metaphysical and not psychological, is used by the author to justify his position that the process of consciousness, so far as it is present, includes always both elements in the subject-object relation. There is a growth in the degree of consciousness, not a growth in consciousness itself. So far as we are conscious, we are conscious of objects and of ourselves as subjects. Consciousness may increase in so far as the field of systematic knowledge is concerned, and our subject-consciousness will increase in proportion; but the relation of subject and object must be given in every conscious state, for this is what consciousness is. This is not the only use made of the doctrine of consciousness by the author. Its first and most considerable purpose is to overthrow a mechanical

(325) theory of the individual in society, but when Professor Fite reaches the discussion of social consciousness and the object of conscious desire, he has as his presupposition a consciousness in which no object can rest without an equally clear and distinct subject, a consciousness that in its nature is an idea of a relation within which exist both elements in the relation, and this presence of objects in relation is not the result of the development of consciousness, but is the nature of consciousness.

So the author states that the young child has, to be sure, inadequate self-consciousness, but that it has correspondingly inadequate object-consciousness. The child cannot, therefore, come to consciousness of others first, nor consciously imitate others before he has a consciousness of self. His self-consciousness must be strictly contemporaneous with the consciousness of others. In like manner so far as he consciously desires an object he must do this with conscious reference to the self that must be equally present with the object of desire; for it is the nature of consciousness to be such a unity of diverse elements. At least it is to be presumed that this definition of consciousness determines the author's theory of the self, for he simply asserts that such equal recognition of the self with the other is implied in consciousness.

From the standpoint of the empirical psychology that the author refers to somewhat contemptuously, it is quite conceivable that conscious attention should be occupied with the field of stimulation, should make discriminations within this field, should organize contents in objects without having for the time being a corresponding consciousness of the subject. It is the teaching of our empirical psychology that attention and apprehension are occupied at first with the stimulus and only gradually get conscious control over those elements which constitute the content of self-consciousness. From this standpoint it is perfectly conceivable that 'others' should arise in the consciousness of the child before an equally clear presentation of the self appears. In the same manner it has seemed quite reasonable that conscious beings should be consciously desirous of objects without referring this desire to themselves in the same act of consciousness.

This position of James, which Dewey adopts, the author combats simply by insisting that consciousness must necessarily present the subject of desire as definitely as the object of desire. The author's position is, not that such a relation is the implication of desire, but that it is inconceivable that a conscious being should desire an object without referring the object to himself as the object of his desire.

(326) He admits that a hungry man may seize bread and devour it without consciousness of self. But such an act is in so far not a conscious act.

The position becomes still more important in the criticisms of the Ethics of Dewey and Tufts. He accuses them of subordinating the individual to society, because these authors have maintained that moral development is a process by which a larger self arises through the consciousness of the social ends.

In their historical treatment the appearance of self-consciousness is shown to be the point at which the old group morality breaks down. This new form of self-consciousness becomes the starting point of the development of conscience. As the values of group life appear in opposition to this self-consciousness, it becomes morally necessary that a larger self should arise to meet the enlarged demands of society on the individual. Now this development of the larger self is a process within which, according to Dewey and Tufts, the conception of a social good is formed earlier than the conception of the self that answers to this larger duty. It is through the formation of the new moral and social object that the larger self comes into existence.

Professor Fite interprets this doctrine to mean that the self is to be sacrificed to society, that the good of the self is to be ignored over against the common good.

It is true, according to the doctrine which these authors embrace, that the former self is to be in a sense sacrificed. And quite in accordance with the theory of object- and subject-consciousness stated above, the new object must be presented before an adequate conception of the self can be presented. But this sacrifice of the former self does not in any sense imply that the self as such is sacrificed, indeed it implies that a larger and more adequate self supersedes the earlier self, a self which commands the same respect and right that belongs to all others in the social group. It is only a doctrine which assumes that consciousness of the object must be at once coterminous with consciousness of the subject that could maintain that this theory subordinates the self and its good to that of society and its good. It is true that reflective moral conduct is constantly engaged in such adjustment of the self to an enlarged sense of moral obligation, and that, therefore, in reflective moral consciousness the attention is centered upon the construction of a new objective world and that the consciousness of self follows upon this. But this reflective moral consciousness is not the whole of consciousness, nor are we continually engaged in reconstructing our moral universe.

In this presentation of Professor Fite's Doctrine of Consciousness

(327) and its corollaries I have sought to bring out only this one point of central psychological interest, that subject and object must be strictly coterminous in consciousness, and that, therefore, the individual cannot come to self-consciousness through the consciousness of others, nor can desire center upon the object without reference to the self, nor can moral consciousness present the common good as its object before the larger self arises in consciousness which is implied in this common good.

For the author of Individualism to assume that the object can appear in consciousness earlier than the subject, and determine the conditions under which the subject will itself arise, is to assume that the subject disappears entirely, is sacrificed to the object, and its values ignored. The authors of the Ethics which he criticises, on the contrary find in this process, not only conscious moral growth, but the growth of the larger self as well, a self which seems to them as highly important and valuable as does the self to Professor Fite.

Professor Fite also recognizes the necessity of a growth in the self. He suggests, however, no process of growth. Indeed from the point of view of his thesis of consciousness it is hard to see how the self could grow consciously. It must always be there, and moral consciousness can be but a realization of relations of values already in existence, not the formation and acceptance of new relations and values, which lead to the conscious formation of a new self arising to meet new obligations. It further strikes the reader of Individualism that its author recognizes no motive that can lead the narrower self to abandon its attitude and values and accept those which belong to the larger self. If a larger object is there, either the narrower self will necessarily fail to appreciate it, or the larger self by definition will be already present. There is no room for the moral effort which Professor Fite himself implies. His doctrine is in spite of himself hopelessly optimistic.

An important corollary of this position is that the doctrine of Individualism suggests no method of conscious moral progress. It is an analysis of an achieved social organization, not a method of social advance and reconstruction. If Professor Fite had realized this more fully he might have been less severe in his strictures upon the social theorists, whom he calls 'Anti-individualists,' and who with varying degrees of success are attempting to determine the social conditions under which a larger moral self-consciousness can arise.

It may be pertinent to add that society is discovering that by changing social conditions it may to a considerable extent determine

(328) the character of the selves that go to make up society, and that the moral and social theory which Professor Fite assails is attempting to make a method of this process for individual consciousness.

In conclusion the reviewer must again insist that he has considered only a single though central thesis in Individualism, and that he has been quite unable to do justice to the wealth of acute analysis and admirable presentation of which the book is full.



No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2