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How Do We Know? Essay

1566 words - 6 pages

The relationship between thought and consciousness has intrigued human beings from the times of the earliest civilisations and forms the foundation of self-consciousness. Socrates expressed the unsettling idea that the only thing we can certainly know is that we know nothing. This was unsettling because our relationship to the world is determined by our knowledge of it: not being able to know anything has disastrous implications for our ability to act. Altered states of consciousness: for example dreams and trances and the consciousness of children or the insane: are disturbing because 1) these forms of consciousness arise from the same physical reality as more normal consciousness; and 2) they form an alternative construct wherein to understand physical reality. This is disturbing only if we assume that states of consciousness are mutually exclusive. Insofar as the same subject can experience different forms of consciousness (dreams and waking reality) they need not be mutually exclusive; rather, the fear is that a totally different worldview, and therefore a totally different mode of operating in the world, may be appropriate. For example, it would be unsettling if someone managed to convince us that feudalism is the correct worldview and therefore the correct modus operandi. Our defence of the current worldview (industrial capitalism) would be motivated not only by apprehensions of the alteration in our individual condition (from factory-owner to serf) but perhaps even more by our belief in the props (e.g. belief in free speech and free enterprise) of the current worldview. Our values and beliefs are ultimately determined by our social existence; our knowledge of the world is based on our social relations and conditions.The thesis he posited in contradistinction to Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” and which is central to Karl Marx’s body of work is that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Critique of Political Economy 2). Existence itself does not depend on consciousness, much less on meta- consciousness; neither does life or productivity depend on consciousness. Rather, given a certain social structure and an individual’s relations to it, subjective consciousness arises from physical reality. Physical reality encompasses everyday material activity (Burke 3), which is determined by the configuration of the individual or socioeconomic class in the current relations of production. An early 21st century American farmer’s consciousness arises from the sum of all the activities and relationships he enters as a farmer (planting with a seed-drill, selling his grain to a corporate miller, buying seeds from a transnational biotechnology giant); it is different from the consciousness of the miller or the biotech company, and also from that of a farmer in Soviet Russia. It is different and unique not only because of...

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