What is the first sign of human consciousness during childhood? Philosopher Günther Anders pictures the emergence of infant consciousness as a primordial struggle between a child’s identity and the surrounding reality, resulting in manifestations of shame. Anders’ enlightening explanation of this feeling contributes to understanding the inescapable tendency of humans to conform with others.
It is a prominent belief that human identity can spontaneously arise from “inside”: people usually consider the emergence of consciousness as a result of a lone interior process.
However, if we were to lock a child in an isolated and dark room for years, they would not be capable to grow as a human being.
Therefore, humans are not self-defined: biology alone is not sufficient to shape our intimate nature.
Now, if we wish to reflect on how the human soul emerges, perhaps we should try to reconsider our common beliefs: what would happen, if the awakening of infant consciousness was primarily caused by the child’s recognition of themself as a non-identity, as an indistinguishable part of the surrounding reality?
During the past century, the German philosopher Günther Anders made interesting observations on the interplay between “the self” and “the world”. He imagined these two entities as one challenging the other in a constant fight for supremacy.
Indeed, Anders pictures human intimacy as constantly being reshaped by two opposing forces.
On one side, our identity is driven by the incoercible desire for freedom: every individual on Earth wishes to achieve their realization, regardless of any limit the surrounding reality may impose. However, this spontaneous tendency (the so-called “self”) is structurally forced to face such limitations: there are aspects of the world that precede the coming of individuals (the so-called “es”) and also contributes to defining what we are.
Thus, a dramatic conflict between the self and the es ensues, in which the es, including all aspects of the world, inevitably shapes our existence, despite human will.
In children, Anders identifies the first sign of this primordial struggle as the appearance of shame.
We usually think that we feel ashamed because of the things we have done or the thoughts we have imagined. Shame is seen as a consequence of actions, as an emotive mirror of events in which people have actively played.
However, according to Anders’ conception, this definition is misleading. Should we – instead – consider that shame primarily appears as an intrinsic trait of what we are, of what we structurally carry?
Let us imagine the following scenario.
A child is walking down the street with their mother, when they suddenly meet a stranger who asks them: “Hey buddy, what’s your name?”
The most common result would be retraction: the child immediately hides behind their mother.
If we now consider the child’s original status, we will conclude that they “belong” to the mother’s world. They are – indeed – a homogeneous part of a familiar background: the “being part of” condition confines their reality as an es, shaping them only from the outside. Therefore, the kid is in principle together with the mother, deeply embedded in her dimension. However, when the stranger unexpectedly approaches them, the kid is asked to reach out. This exposure invokes the child as an individual and provokes the self to emerge.
In this situation, the es is forced to impersonate the self, posing an irresolvable question in the child’s mind: do I really carry an identity?
Because the child finds themself split into two inconceivable conditions – at the same time trying to be a defined identity, but still being part of an impersonal background – they feel ashamed and need to confuse themself back with their mother.
Therefore, grasping individual identity for the first time is the primordial motive of shame.
In other words, the feeling is driven by the prime recognition of the “I am myself but nothing else”.
This infantile ritual defines the moment in which the individual is drawn out as a unique exception for the first time in life, fully unable to sustain other people’s attention and consideration about their uniqueness.
Perhaps, we should try to keep in mind this lesson anytime we feel the unjust need to conform ourselves with others, to confuse ourselves back to the original es in order not to feel guilty of being a genuine exception to normality.
Indeed, normality is a symptom of how the es constantly forces us to withdraw our intimate nature, confining our true self into tacit solitude.
As a general reference to Anders’ cited work:
Anders, G., “The Outdatedness of Human Beings 1. On the soul in the Era of the Second Industrial Revolution”, 1956.
We discussed Anders’ work in other articles:
Why are we becoming insensitive to human tragedies?
Why all news carries a dose of fakeness