I See What You Mean

In a passage that ended up being cut from Galt’s speech, Rand writes:

Man is an entity of mind and body, an indivisible union of two elements: of consciousness and matter. Matter is that which one perceives, consciousness is that which perceives it; your fundamental act of perception is an indivisible whole consisting of both ….Your consciousness is that which you know – and are alone to know – by direct perception. It is that indivisible unit where knowledge and being are one, it is your “I,” it is the self which distinguishes you from all else in the universe. No consciousness can perceive another consciousness, only the results of its actions on material forms, since only matter is an object of perception, and consciousness is the subject, perceivable by its nature only to itself. To perceive the consciousness, the “I,” of another would mean to become that other “I” – a contradiction in terms; to speak of souls perceiving one another is a denial of your “I,” of perception, of consciousness, of matter. (Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 663)

I think this is partly right and partly wrong. It’s wrong, I claim, to say that we can’t perceive other people’s consciousness directly. I’m not talking about telepathy, just the ordinary way that we perceive that someone is angry or bored or scared.

Your mind to my mind ... your thoughts to my thoughts ... Captain, I'm not getting anything. When I say that our awareness of other people’s states of mind is (often) direct, I mean, of course, epistemically direct – that is, not inferred from some other known fact. I don’t mean to deny that causally the chain between your anger and my awareness of it is indirect and quite complex; nor do I mean to deny that this awareness is made possible by additional background information I have accumulated. All I deny is that my awareness is inferred from any of these background factors. In short, what I claim about our direct perception of other people’s minds is very similar to what Rand claims about our direct perception of other people’s bodies.

Rand might object that awareness of other people’s mental states is fallible while awareness of physical objects isn’t. But Rand doesn’t deny the existence of what would ordinarily be called perceptual illusions; she simply holds that in such cases what has occurred is either the mistaking of a perception of one thing for the perception of another, or else the mistaking of a perception for a nonperception. Now if Rand wants to use the term “perception” as a factive, that’s fine by me, but then I get to do the same thing; in that sense, perception of others’ consciousness is infallible too.

But the genuine truth that Rand is reaching for is that no one can be aware of my consciousness the way I am; I think she’s just confusing having a different mode of consciousness with having a different object of consciousness. There’s a way of being aware of X by being X, and no one but X can possess that form of awareness; here indeed “knowledge and being are one.” But what’s impossible is not perceiving the “I” of another, but perceiving it as one’s own “I.”

These issues are on my mind because in the department we’ve started a reading group on what looks so far to be an excellent book, Sebastian Rödl’s Self-Consciousness, which is trying to elucidate exactly what is involved in being aware of X by being X.


4 Responses to I See What You Mean

  1. Anonymo January 21, 2008 at 8:16 am #

    In a passage that ended up being cut from Galt’s speech

    Yeah, that’s where you lost me.

    Seriously, she cut something?

  2. William H. Stoddard January 21, 2008 at 9:34 am #

    I believe Rand was going seriously astray on this one.

    Rand defines an axiom as a principle that identifies the basis of knowledge, so that, if you deny the axiom, you are denying the possibility of knowledge, and thus any claim to know that the axiom is fault is self-undercutting. (I always think of a man sitting on a tree branch and sawing away between himself and the treetrunk.) And Rand says, and I think she’s right, that human knowledge takes the form of concepts, which are an integration of past, present, and future perceptions.

    1. To go beyond the barest minimum of concepts, and certainly to have enough concepts to be able to formulate philosophical ideas about axioms, one needs to use language to express the concepts. But no one ever created a language by solitary effort; at a minimum, language requires communication between two different speakers. But that requires that the speakers both have minds. Hence the existence of other minds is axiomatic.

    2. Moreover, the concepts we use are not shaped by the perceptions of only one speaker. They may start out that way, but if they come into use, it’s by being adopted by many speakers, each of whom reshapes the concept slightly. The final form (this is where Wittgenstein was onto something) is “the result of human action, but not of human design” (to quote my favorite of Hayek’s esssays): the definition of the concept, and its implications, and the way it fits together with other concepts, only reach a stable form when it has been tested against the full range of human knowledge. But that requires many different minds. So the existence of other minds is necessary to elaborated conceptual structures such as philosophy, and is axiomatic.

    3. Moreover, note Rand’s statement elsewhere that things that are axiomatic are knowable by perception. Well, when someone is hurt in an accident, and the paramedics are called in, one of the first things they ask is, “Is the victim conscious?” If we suppose that consciousness is some (literally) occult quality hidden away within the inner recesses of the brain or the spirit, and unobservable except in the first person, this endeavor would be literally nonsensical; no one would be able to conceive of determining whether someone else was conscious. But in fact we can do so fairly straightforwardly. Consciousness is directly perceivable.

    4. As to how consciousness is directly perceivable, the basic effect of consciousness seems to be control of the flow of information through the nervous system by negative feedback—either by physically approaching or withdrawing from things from which information is desired or undesired, or by orienting sensory receptors toward distant objects of perception. In fact, there’s experimental evidence that minute eye movements, for example, are necessary for visual perception to take place at all; if you stabilize a visual image on the retina, counteraction eye movements, the image fades quickly to brain gray. The active movements of the body are not an accidental byproduct of consciousness, but are an essential part of the process of being conscious. And we can see those movements. I can see, for example, whether my cat is awake or asleep by watching the ears. Observation of the external, physical part of the process of consciousness is part of the mode in which we perceive consciousness.

    5. If the theory of mindblindness is correct, there are people for whom other people’s consciousness is not axiomatic. This condition is called autism, and it’s severely impairing to human functioning.

    So I’d say it’s a good thing that Rand cut that passage. Branden’s inclusion of similar statements in his writings on psychology and mind/body issues seriously damaged Objectivism as a conceptual system. The whole treatment of mind represents a fall into empiricism; the denial that we can perceive consciousness is not different in spirit from the denial that we can perceive matter.

  3. Dabney Braggart January 21, 2008 at 2:22 pm #

    I can’t shake the feeling that Rand was at least somewhat Aspergic—the insistence that we can’t perceive others’ consciousness without material intermediation is exactly right and completely off-point: we evolved to perceive each others’ consciousnesses through this intermediation. Some of us, myself included (until I trained myself to do so intellectually) aren’t good at this at all.

    Before it was more her assertion that human behaviours were more amenable to reason than they are—most notably the “the two of you are more rationally compatible than I and she, so good luck to you both” that worked much better in a book than in real life—that led me to think this; also was someone’s observation that I would make a good cult leader, to which I replied that manipulating people who can fit in can sometimes be easier for people who can’t.

  4. Administrator January 22, 2008 at 10:55 am #

    Well, it was the dominant view in philosophy from the 17th through the 19th century (see, e.g., the first page of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments), and still has many supporters, so I think it’s a philosophical malady, not a psychological one.

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