False Consciousness

I wanted to start a thread about the relation between various thinkers and a concept called “False Consciousness.”

Lets define a “False Consciousness.” (FC) Now, this was more difficult to define than I would have thought, perhaps this suffices.
FC: Thought “A” exists in head. Person “A” actively supports thought “A”. Thought “A” qualifies as an example of a FC if “A” is false, but person “A” remains mislead.

Let me examine three forms of a FC.
[As a thought experiment with philosophers, I always emphasize the importance of a philosophers claim by imagining a world before this claim was ever offered to the world, and considering the implications of thinking about it for the first time.]

1) Freud: The Unconscious. By popularizing the term unconscious in the psychoanalytic arena, Freud explained how, by means of repression, our unconscious hides valuable content from our conscious minds, forcing us to create false justifications for various actions. In a TTC lecture, the Self Under Siege, an old angry fat man claimed that Freud brought about the death of epistemology, because we, as individuals, can never be sure of when we actually know something to be true, rather than simply be deluded into thinking it.

2) Marx: Social Structure. Marx can be thought of as providing an understanding of how individuals are mislead by the structure of society. The most popularized example is Marx’s claim that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” The social structures that have come about by means of a Hegelian historical progression serve primarily to keep one class up, and another class down.

He builds off of Freud’s language, “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Marx taught us to be skeptical not only of an individuals psychology, but also by the influence of society on the individual.

***This one was the hardest to explain. I would love to revise this at some point with suggestive help.
3) Nietzsche: Moral Doubt. As a progenitor of ironism, Nietzsche was highly critical of externally derived morality. His full inversion of platonism consists in this: Plato wanted to find sublime truths, like wisdom, honor, virtue, in the heavens, while Nietzsche saw the Overman as one who found his ultimate aim in an intrinsically defined setting. “The overman…Who has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative. Aware of life’s terrors, he affirms life without resentment.”

The idea that all of our moral understandings are simply historically contingent upon one’s own resentment seems very frightening to me. By building the conscious bridge to explain why one holds a certain thought, in this instance, moral thought, Nietzsche shed light on this false consciousness by explaining how his Geneology of Morals leaves most individuals moral systems as entirely contingent, empty-handed attempts–thereby depleting most, if not all, of the seemingly metaphysical benefits to living a moral life.

[The same TTC lecture explained that Nietzsche can be thought of as the doom-bringer of metaphysics, because with his full inversion of platonism, he ended the insistence in finding a system to follow that is dependent on something outside of the physical world–like Plato’s heavens. By making it entirely dependent on one’s intrinsic nature, Nietzsche appears to have escaped a metaphysical calling.]

2 Responses to False Consciousness

  1. Ross says:

    I think this is a situation where Foucault’s account of knowledge becomes very helpful. I’ll start with Marx and Nietzsche and then work my way back to Freud.

    I don’t think it’s useful to view Marx and Nietzsche in terms of a distinction between “true” and “false” consciousness. Instead, I think their thought should be interpreted through a lens of power relations. What Marx is saying, I think, isn’t that there is a “real” state of affairs that the capitalist superstructure has suppressed. What he’s saying is that capitalism had produced a set of truths which are useful insofar as they maintain capitalist power over the proletariat. They are “false” not in the sense of failing to correspond to reality, but in the sense of manipulating the proletariat into acting in ways that are beneficial to the bourgeoisie. Similarly, Nietzsche’s account of morality describes how the oppressed classes used morality to restrain the power of the aristocracy. Again the emphasis is on power relations rather than truth. I think it would be misleading to assert that the aristocracy’s consciousness was somehow “truer” before the Jews came along and fucked it all up.

    Freud falls into a slightly different category because his thought deals with individual psychology and can’t be reduced directly to power relations. I see Freud as offering a more useful and in-depth account of the phenomenon originally noted by Marx and Nietzsche. The unconscious undermines the notion of perfectly rational humans actors and helps to explain how human behavior could be influenced – even determined – by socialization in morality or capitalism. What I see as a potentially problematic underside of Freud’s thought, though, is its tendency to produce a new power relation between the the psychoanalyst (who is often thought of as near-superhuman, possessing knowledge or a sense of emotional control that the patient lacks) and the patient, who is often told that his outward personality is something like a “false consciousness” and that his most closely held beliefs are simply manifestations of his unconscious.

    Personally, I’m inclined towards a model of psychology that ditches the appearance/reality distinction and treats all perspectives, including the perspective of the therapist, as manifestations of the unconscious. But that’s a different topic.

  2. chesleya says:

    It is unbelievable how much clearer Ross is than Joey.

    Brian said that.

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