The Human Spirit’s Pursuit Of Self-Liberation


“Meaning becomes the moving force of self-transcendence, which reaches beyond the limited horizon and longs for the whole.” (Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe)

If universal structure is co-contemporary with the world and its history then we should be able to find this structure waiting to be discovered. I believe this structure has always existed, unconsciously no doubt, in the historical context of people and culture. Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, especially as it is described in The Savage Mind, is just one attempt at disclosing this structure. The holism/ elementarism debate,–the tension that exists between group demands and individual desires–is another attempt at disclosing this structure. This tension exists in all cultures, but varies in degree. For instance, it appears as though Pre-modern man, in the early stages of his development, was able to maintain cultural stability while at the same time maintaining a holistic perception of his environment. This ability, in the words of the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl, “sets Pre-modern man apart from his modern predecessors.” The qualities that we take for granted, or our ability to differentiate the space that surrounds us ad infinitum, did not exist for Pre-moderns. Rather, his/her experience of the participation process was more restrictive and inclusive within what Levy-Bruhl called the “synthetic whole”. In other words, Pre-modern society was considerably different from modern society. Still, all societies must have some mechanism to preserve and perpetuate the social roles that are vital to the on going existence of the group. For Pre-moderns, as for the rest of us, this mechanism lies in our work. In this respect the investigations of Ernst Cassirer become extremely helpful.

Myth, or the mythical-religious consciousness of man, for Cassirer, is understood to be the proto-reality out of which symbolic forms evolve e.g. language, art, religion, science etc. These symbolic forms, in turn, are thought to result from the human spirit’s progressive movement towards more liberated forms of self-expression. From within the matrix of mythical thought, according to Cassirer, evolves the differentiation of the “I” of our personality and, over time, the more potent symbolic forms that define the present state of our modern knowledge and belief.

The origin of the self-liberation process (and knowledge in general), is first discovered in mythical thought as the capacity to order and differentiate, and then the self liberation process, in its capacity to transcend its own reality, metamorphizes into higher levels of symbolic expression. These higher levels of symbolic expression move self-liberation in the direction toward more constancy, endurance and certainty. Cassirer informs us:

“For a glance at the development of the various symbolic forms shows us that their essential achievement is not that they copy the outward world in the inward world or that they simply project a finished inner world outward, but rather that the two factors of “inside” and “outside,” of “I” and “reality” are determined and delimited from one another only in these symbolic forms and through their mediation. …The crucial achievement of every symbolic form lies precisely in the fact that it does not have the limit between I and reality as preexistent and established for all time but must itself create this limit–and that each fundamental form creates it in a different way.” (Ernst Cassirer, Mythical Thought, 1955, p. 155-156)

Cassirer tells us that Pre-moderns, as they engaged their environment through emotions, desires and work, acquired the ability, via symbolic representation, to objectify nature–the nature of both “inner and outer reality.” There was (and is) a double movement that arises from one’s interaction with his/her environment; in one direction there develops an objectification of one’s self-nature and in the other direction there arises the objectification of the social and cultural contents of society. From Cassirer’s point of view, art, myth, magic and ritual are co-creative products arising from this objectifying movement, which in turn, arises from the work that people do in society. “For the form of society,” Cassirer states, “is not absolutely and immediately given any more than is the objective form of nature, the regularity of our own world of perception. Just as nature comes into being through a theoretical interpretation and elaboration of sensory contents, so to the structure of society is mediated and ideally conditioned reality.” (Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Smbolic Form, 3 vol., vol. 2, Mythical Thought, 1955, pl 193) In his three volume work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer concentrates his focus on the nature and origins of symbolic form as it first arises in language and myth and then, over time, develops into the theoretical orientations of scientific thought. The utility of symbolic forms, if that is the right word, is not just about a “thing” to be apprehended, it is about a movement towards constancy, endurance and certainty, and that objective applies to both culture and mind.

Pre-moderns then, as participating agents in an environment conceived holistically, objectify mind and culture in and through creative acts of differentiation. This process evolves out of the acquisition of life’s necessities to the creation of more complex societal structures, e.g., kinship systems, sacred and profane boundaries, talismans, origin myths, etc. Thus, myth, or the mythical-religious consciousness of man, for Cassirer, is understood to be the precursor to the technological culture that, from the standpoint of utility, increases our ability to do work, as is makes life easier for all. However, this is not the end of the story. Self-liberation or the movement towards constancy, endurance and certainty continues to direct the human spirit’s progressive movement towards new forms of self-expression.

For Cassirer, myth and myth making becomes an expression of the human spirit/culture as it seeks to liberate itself from the restrictive conditions that hinder and retard the self-liberation process. In our present modern episteme, as Foucault likes to call it, however, the myth-centered universe of the Middle Ages has given ground to a more matter-centered, self-centered universe, a universe that, for Cassirer, represents a more spiritually liberated state, but, for Foucault, represents just another power/knowledge driven episteme, catering to the needs of those who desire and benefit most from power/knowledge relationships. Shortly, I will challenge this assumption by Foucault, but first I must add a bit more structure to Cassirer’s self-liberation world view. This structure comes from an unlikely source, the philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre.

The Innate Structuring Capacity Of All Structures—Reciprocal Movement

Reciprocal Movement, –The Carrier Of Free Thought, The Same Free Thought That Brings Into Being Language, Myth, Science, Ethics, And Civilization

Identifying Sartre’s philosophy as structuralism is, I am aware, pushing the envelope. However, an authority on structuralism has proposed this option (without, I might add, elaborating on it.) “One might go as far as to say…that structuralism is analogous to Sartre’s view of consciousness — it is what it is not, and it is not what it is.” [Jean-Marie Benoist, A Structural Revolution, 1975, p. 1] In Sartre’s book Being And Nothingness, his chapter on Being-For-Itself is subtitled “Immediate Structures of the For-Itself.” [Jean-Paul Sartre, Being And Nothingness, 1966, p. 119] Structure is not hidden in Sartre; it’s just that on the whole Sartre’s book is a polemic against reading structure as anything more than appearance.

In the representation of Sartre’s though
t as “consciousness is what it is not, and it is not what it is,” we find reciprocal movement, the same reciprocal movement encountered, in one form or another, in all the structuralists I have discussed hitherto in this paper. Specifically, Sartre defines the consciousness of the transcending For-itself (our self-space) as: “Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.” [Ibid. p. 801] In an extrapolation from Sartre’s definition of the consciousness, Benoist describes that relationship as: “it is what it is not, and it is not what it is,” while I describe it as: being-what-is-not-while-not-being-what-is. In both cases, however, we end up with a definition for reciprocal movement.

This double movement is represented on many levels in Sartre’s exegesis on being and nothingness. This double movement becomes very specific in Sartre’s description of his pre-reflective Cogito. In so far as we find ”nothingness” at the center of Cogito, consciousness per se must be understood to be set apart from itself, therefore, Sartre’s pre-reflective Cogito will always form one pole of our conscious experience while the “objects” of consciousness will take their place at the other pole of conscious experience. In this way, Sartre is able to dispense with Descartes’ Cogito on the grounds that consciousness cannot be separated from its object. This condition, where the pre-reflective Cogito becomes a preexistent condition for the conscious awareness of objects, establishes the double movement of conscious reflection — the object of consciousness less the pre-reflective Cogito, and the pre-reflective Cogito less the object of consciousness. Depending on where “you” focus your concern, the content of consciousness is either pushed to the front of consciousness (the unreflective consciousness), or, the object of consciousness is pushed into the background, as the “negation of consciousness” is brought into the foreground (the reflected upon object of consciousness).

Together, our pre-reflective Cogito and the object of consciousness, form our conscious experience of the knower-known dyad. In so far as this double movement turns on the pivot point of pure negation, the known exists for the knower, but the knower can never be fully known. As self-consciousness rises in consciousness, it is denied the possibility of becoming fully self-aware. This result, the incompleteness of self, brings us back to Sartre’s original definition of consciousness, or, “consciousness is such that in its being its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.” This movement, the symbol-generating movement of free thought, the movement that makes thinking possible, emancipates language, myth, science, and morality. In the absence of this movement, “thinking” is restricted to the manipulation of signs—mere sensual indicators, minus the symbols that carry the significance of those same indicators.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: