Existence and Consciousness
Questions in Cultural History

Essay by
William H. Stoddard
July 1997


This essay is not an expression of opinion, but a question, or a series of questions.

I've been thinking about the contrast that is drawn in Ayn Rand's writings between primacy of existence and primacy of consciousness. At least some of Rand's writings leave me with the impression that she sees this as a fundamental question in philosophy, if not the fundamental question. The "Plato vs. Aristotle" appendix in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand asserts this claim even more strongly.

How well does this apply to actual cultural history?

In some cases, fairly well. India, for example, hit on the idea of consciousness quite early, roughly around the time when the Upanisads were composed. The argument there was, first, that since you could cut off a man's arm, or his leg, or put out his eye, and he was still the same man, that no part of his body was essential to his identity; that what was essential was his consciousness. They went on to argue that the consciousness of an individual human being was ultimately identical to the consciousness of the whole universe — atman is brahman. In effect, having hit on the idea of consciousness and the idea of volition (there's an idea in Hindu thought that I've seen translated as the Inner Controller which sounds like a description of volition), they made them the ultimate reality and the source of all other realities. All very much as Rand described.

But on the other side of the Himalayas, in China, this seems to have been much less the case. When the first Jesuit missionaries entered China, they were hampered in translating the Bible by the lack of a Chinese word for "God." The word "Heaven" was used in some translations, but was condemned by the church as heretical, because it also meant the physical reality of the sky and thus identified God with part of the material world. None of the indigenous Chinese "religions" seems to fit a prior certainty of consciousness model; Confucianism emphases the function of ritual as part of the glue that holds society together, with no strong commitments about whether the beings the rituals invoke are real; Taoism centers on the tao, which isn't so much an entity or even a force as a mode, the path of least resistance or the way things naturally happen when left to themselves. Chinese culture seems a lot more this-worldly than Indian and a lot less inclined to turn inward and look for the self. So how does this fit in with a prior certainty of consciousness model? Or does it?

An explicitly identified account of consciousness is slow to emerge in the thought of many cultures. Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has flaws as historical reconstruction, but Jaynes' discussion of how words for aspects of consciousness start out as very physical ideas — noos originally meaning field of vision and only later mind (the Sanskrit darshan evolved the same way) — strikes me as well taken. Can a culture be based on the prior certainty of consciousness if it doesn't have an explicit concept of consciousness?

More recently, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, V.I. Lenin advocated the prior certainty of existence, very explicitly, and in terms much closer to Rand's than is often supposed. For example, while insisting that matter is independent of consciousness, he disavows any competence of philosophy to identify the nature of matter, other than its having the attribute of independence of consciousness; he points to physics and chemistry as the place to go for the details. At least the excerpted version of the argument that I've read was surprisingly sophisticated. But obviously Lenin did not draw the same cultural or political conclusions as Rand!

So is prior certainty of existence vs prior certainty of consciousness less fundamental than Rand thinks, or more detached from other philosophical positions? Or is the role of philosophical premises in culture and history less than she supposes? Or have I misunderstood what Rand is saying on these issues in some way?


© 1997 William H. Stoddard

Originally appeared on the
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