Consciousness and Identity

by Ayn Rand
From Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
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It is the task of epistemology to provide the answer to the “How?” — which then enables the special sciences to provide the answers to the “What?”

In the history of philosophy — with some very rare exceptions — epistemological theories have consisted of attempts to escape one or the other of the two fundamental questions which cannot be escaped. Men have been taught either that knowledge is impossible (skepticism) or that it is available without effort (mysticism). These two positions appear to be antagonists, but are, in fact, two variants on the same theme, two sides of the same fraudulent coin: the attempt to escape the responsibility of rational cognition and the absolutism of reality — the attempt to assert the primacy of consciousnessThe basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness...
The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made, 24View Full Lexicon Entry
over existence.

Although skepticism and mysticism are ultimately interchangeable, and the dominance of one always leads to the resurgence of the other, they differ in the form of their inner contradiction — the contradiction, in both cases, between their philosophical doctrine and their psychological motivation. Philosophically, the mystic is usually an exponent of the intrinsic (revealed) school of epistemology; the skeptic is usually an advocate of epistemological subjectivism. But, psychologically, the mystic is a subjectivist who uses intrinsicism as a means to claim the primacy of his consciousness over that of others. The skeptic is a disillusioned intrinsicist who, having failed to find automatic supernatural guidance, seeks a substitute in the collective subjectivism of others.

The motive of all the attacks on man’s rational faculty — from any quarter, in any of the endless variations, under the verbal dust of all the murky volumes — is a single, hidden premise: the desire to exempt consciousness from the law of identityTo exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes...
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. The hallmark of a mystic is the savagely stubborn refusal to accept the fact that consciousness, like any other existent, possesses identity, that it is a faculty of a specific nature, functioning through specific means. While the advance of civilization has been eliminating one area of magic after another, the last stand of the believers in the miraculous consists of their frantic attempts to regard identity as the disqualifying element of consciousness.

The implicit, but unadmitted premise of the neo-mystics of modern philosophy, is the notion that only an ineffable consciousness can acquire a valid knowledge of reality, that “true” knowledge has to be causeless, i.e., acquired without any means of cognition.

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity.

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity “His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes — deaf, because he has ears — deluded, because he has a mind — and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.” (For the New intellectual.)

This is a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such, whether man’s, insect’s or God’s. (If one supposed the existence of God, the negation would still apply: either God perceives through no means whatever, in which case he possesses no identity — or he perceives by some divine means and no others, in which case his perception is not valid.) As Berkeley negated existence by claiming that “to be, is to be perceived,” so Kant negates consciousness by implying that to be perceived, is not to be.

What Kant implied through coils of obfuscating verbiage, his more consistent followers declared explicitly. The following was written by a Kantian: “With him [Kant] all is phenomenal [mere appearance] which is relative, and all is relative which is an object to a conscious subject. The conceptions of the understanding as much depend on the constitution of our thinking faculties, as the perceptions of the senses do on the constitution of our intuitive faculties. Both might be different, were our mental constitution changed; both probably are different to beings differently constituted. The real thus becomes identical with the absolute, with the object as it is in itself, out of all relation to a subject; and, as all consciousness is a relation between subject and object, it follows that to attain a knowledge of the real we must go out of consciousness.” (Henry Mansel, “On the Philosophy of Kant,” reprinted in Henry Mansel, Letters, Lectures and Reviews, ed. H. W. Chandler, London: John Murray, 1873, p. 171.)

From primordial mysticism to this, its climax, the attack on man’s consciousness and particularly on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality, since it is “processed knowledge.”

Make no mistake about the actual meaning of that premise: it is a revolt, not only against being conscious, but against being alive — since in fact, in reality, on earth, every aspect of being alive involves a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. (This is an example of the fact that the revolt against identity is a revolt against existenceExistence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists...
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. “The desire not to be anything, is the desire not to be.” Atlas Shrugged.)

All knowledge is processed knowledge — whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An “unprocessed” knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition. Consciousness (as I said in the first sentence of this work) is not a passive state, but an active process. And more: the satisfaction of every need of a living organism requires an act of processing by that organism, be it the need of air, of food or of knowledge.

No one would argue (at least, not yet) that since man’s body has to process the food he eats, no objective rules of proper nutrition can ever be discovered — that “true nutrition” has to consist of absorbing some ineffable substance without the participation of a digestive system, but since man is incapable of “true feeding,” nutrition is a subjective matter open to his whim, and it is merely a social convention that forbids him to eat poisonous mushrooms.

No one would argue that since nature does not tell man automatically what to eat — as it does not tell him automatically how to form concepts — he should abandon the illusion that there is a right or wrong way of eating (or he should revert to the safety of the time when he did not have to “trust” objective evidence, but could rely on dietary laws prescribed by a supernatural power).

No one would argue that man eats bread rather than stones purely as a matter of “convenience.”

It is time to grant to man’s consciousness the same cognitive respect one grants to his body — i.e., the same objectivityObjectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence...
Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics? Feb. 1965, 7View Full Lexicon Entry

Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity

Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity, neither in the universe with which he deals nor in the working of his own consciousness, and if he is to acquire knowledge of the first, he must discover the proper method of using the second; that there is no room for the arbitrary in any activity of man, least of all in his method of cognition — and just as he has learned to be guided by objective criteria in making his physical tools, so he must be guided by objective criteria in forming his tools of cognition: his concepts.

Just as man’s physical existence was liberated when he grasped the principle that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” so his consciousness will be liberated when he grasps that nature, to be apprehended, must be obeyed — that the rules of cognition must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature, the identity, of his cognitive faculty.

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Ayn Rand
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