2 minute read


OverviewSelf-consciousness And Identity

Consciousness may refer to self-identity. As Locke put it in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, "as far as … consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person."

Hegel, Marx, György Lukács, Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) elaborated on the extent to which one's self-consciousness may not depend on introspection, but on how others conceive of oneself. Hegel introduced the master-slave dialectics, where the master's consciousness depends on the slave, since without the recognition of the slave, the master is not a master. Marx interpreted ideology as false consciousness, self-identity that does not conform to objective class interests, derived of relations to the means of production as owners or laborers. The Hungarian György Lukács (1885–1971) combined Hegel's phenomenology with Marx's materialism to present a theory of class-consciousness that became influential among European Marxists and emphasized reification and alienation. Heidegger analyzed alienation in modern mass societies where self-consciousness is imposed from without by the mass media and mass society, molding all people to become identical and anonymous. Sartre criticized the reduction of persons to roles, the promotion of essence above existence.

Under these influences, especially through the writings of Michel Foucault (1926–1984), historians have been tracing the history of such constructed and imposed self-consciousnesses, of sexual identities, madness, deviance and crime, ethnic and national identities, and so forth. These contributions to the history of consciousness have an emancipatory as well as a scholarly purpose, they intend to discover the history of self-consciousness as well as liberate groups from identities that were imposed on them from without to control and dominate.

Another debate within the writing of history and social sciences is about the primacy of consciousness and human intellect over being, material conditions and especially economic structures, in history. Materialists attempt to explain historical changes in consciousness including scientific theories and new religions and artistic styles, as resulting from economic changes, whereas idealists attempt to show the opposite. As the new president of free Czechoslovakia and a former political prisoner, playwright Václav Havel put it in his speech to the joint houses of Congress in February 1990: "The experience [of totalitarianism] has given me one great certainty: Consciousness precedes Being!"


Brentano, Franz Clemens. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Translated by Antos C. Rancurello, D. B. Terrell, and Linda L. McAlister. London: Routledge, 1973.

Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986.

Churchland, Paul M. The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Jackson, Frank. "Epiphenomenal Qualia." The Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127–136.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Lukács, Gregor. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971.

McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackwell, 1991.

Nagel, Thomas. "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" The Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435–450.

Rotenstreich, Nathan. Between Past and Presence: An Essay on History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.

Velmans, Max. Understanding Consciousness. Philadelphia: Routledge, 2000.

Aviezer Tucker

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConsciousness - Overview - Consciousness In Modern Philosophy, The Unconscious, Contemporary Philosophy Of Mind, Historical Self-consciousness