Philosophy and Everyday Consciousness

by Theodore Oizerman

The traditional, age‑old concept of philosophy is directly associated with the opposition of philosophical reflection to "unthinking", everyday consciousness. The latter is described as something possessed by all, including ignorant people. No doubt, a critical attitude to everyday consciousness and its basis, everyday experience, is both necessary and justified. But the history of philosophy shows that traditional philosophical criticism of everyday consciousness (and everyday experience) usually fails to understand the necessary organic connection of philosophy (and science) to these phenomena of everyday social developments. The correlation "philosophy ‑ everyday experience" can only be correctly understood as a unity of opposites comprising not only opposition but also the moment of identity.

The sentence repeatedly passed by speculative idealist philosophy on the materialist understanding of the world was usually the following: materialism is not philosophy but everyday consciousness which, lacking intellectual culture, uncritically approaches its own premises and does not even suspect the need for a critical analysis of sense impressions and of its own confidence in their correctness. Since everyday consciousness is not a speculative myth but something actually existing, we should examine the true attitude of materialism and idealism to that form of reflection of the objective world. Everyday consciousness can be studied by sociology, history, social psychology, ethnography and other sciences. But here we shall deal with the epistemological and historical‑philosophical aspects of the issue.

Historical materialism differentiates between social and individual consciousness. Individual consciousness, is, of course, also social. But unlike art, morals, religion and other forms of social consciousness, it is the immediate consciousness of individuals. According to Engels, thought exists "only as the individual thought of many milliards of past, present and future men". (8; 105) The same is true of everyday consciousness too: that form of social consciousness does not directly depend on the purposeful and planned cognitive activity of men. The shaping of everyday consciousness (and of everyday experience, its basis) is mostly a spontaneous process, and its necessary elements include involuntary memory. A large part of everyday experience is acquired unnoticed, simply because a man lives, comes in contact with other individuals, reacts to his environment, to developments in his personal life and society, without realizing what has left an imprint on his consciousness and become part of his personal experience.

Everyday consciousness is a multi‑layered, complex and contradictory entity composed of a multitude of perceptions, emotions and concepts that are generated and continuously reproduced by the relatively constant and familiar conditions surrounding individuals. The diversity, historical transformation and development of those conditions are echoed in the historically developing diversity of everyday experience and everyday consciousness, its concomitant, through which this experience is perceived, interpreted and applied in knowledge and practical activity. We encounter concepts of everyday consciousness everywhere. They are, first and foremost, empirical notions consisting partly of relative truths and partly of illusions and errors: water boils at 100° C; gold does not rust; the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening; money in a savings bank pays interest. Proverbs are classic expressions of everyday consciousness, polished to perfection by the ages; they are the quintessence of popular wisdom ("life is not a bed of roses"), the class instinct of the oppressed and exploited ("satiety can't feel for"), popular fears and hopes.

In his economic and historical studies Marx has shown that unscientific political economy records and theoretically substantiates everyday concepts of the bourgeoisie: land produces rent; capital, profit; and labor, merely wages. Marx has exposed the unscientific essence of those concepts, elevated by crude political economy to the status of theoretical dogma, and proved that only live labor produces value, surplus value and its modifications. At the same time, he has also explained that the false formula of unscientific political economists reflects a certain type of reality, since the owner of capital does make profit, the landowner does receive rent, and the working man is paid wages for his labor. In this case everyday bourgeois consciousness superficially reflects capitalist production relations. It reflects the appearances generated by typically capitalist ways of redistributing the surplus value produced by the proletariat among various groups of capitalists.

As Marx pointed out, petty‑bourgeois ideology theoretically sums up the everyday notions of the petty bourgeoisie. In other words, for all its theoretical guise, it does not rise above class prejudices. Although the education and personal status of its ideologists may be infinitely better than those of the petty bourgeoisie, they still represent that class because "in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not got beyond in life, they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter in practice." (1; 11, 130‑31) Unlike petty‑bourgeois ideology, scientific socialist ideology overcomes the spontaneous, trade‑unionist everyday consciousness of the workers, bringing into it the realization of the need for revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie and the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. This is how Engels outlines the fundamental difference between everyday notions and scientific concepts: "For everyday purposes we know and can say, e.g., whether an animal is alive or not. But, upon closer inquiry, we find that this is, in many cases, a very complex question." (8; 32) The contradiction between a scientific understanding of reality and its reflection in the notions of everyday experience is inevitably a paradox if perceived from the standpoint of everyday consciousness. According to Marx, "Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive appearance of things." (1; 2, 54) Today, Gaston Bachelard, a prominent French philosopher, analyzes the major characteristics of 20th‑century natural science and arrives at the same conclusion Marx made in his socio­economic studies over 100 years ago: "Any new truth is born despite the obvious, any new experience arises despite direct experience." (36; 7)

Aside from its empirical and ideological content, another prominent feature of everyday consciousness is its religious aspect, especially important in antagonistic society. Unlike theological pseudoscience, religious consciousness is also everyday, although both theologians and idealist philosophers refuse to accept it as such. Self‑alienation, the division of the world into the imaginary and the real have been noted by Marx as features of the religious reflection of reality, and they are expressed in the contradictory nature of everyday consciousness which combines empirical experience with fantastic religious notions. In their practical everyday activity, believers almost always act the way unbelievers do: they disregard the religious interpretation of the transcendental origin of any existing thing, they are guided by empirically established causes, effects, etc. But that spontaneous irreligious trend (borne out by conscious activity and knowledge) constantly runs into the traditional religious notions which are introduced into men's minds not only through antagonistic social relations but also through upbringing and education. This dichotomy forces the believer to judge things and his own life from two diametrically opposed and even mutually exclusive standpoints. Naturally, he can neither reconcile his religious feeling to his own irreligious approach, nor overcome the doubts whose deep social roots he does not understand.

It follows that everyday consciousness cannot be reduced only to everyday experience, its factual basis. It faces both the real, "this" world and the nonexistent "other" world. Therefore it is wrong to identify everyday consciousness with common sense, although the latter is undoubtedly a vital component of the former.

Since everyday consciousness remains itself—that is, does not rise to a scientific interpretation of the world—it is incapable of critically analyzing its own content in which realistic and irrational notions collide, overlap and blend together. Irrational notions can be not only religious but simply unscientific or antiscientific. That is why sound common sense is often far from really sound.

In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel speaks ironically about Dietrich Tiedemann's claim (made in his Spirit of Speculative Philosophy) that Gorgias goes farther than a man of common sense. Hegel remarks that every philosopher "goes farther than common sense because what is usually called common sense is not philosophy, and is often much less sound than the latter. Common sense comprises the way of thinking, maxims and prejudices of its time . . . and it is absolutely unaware of the intellectual definitions of its time guiding it." (64; 14, 36) Lenin quotes this remark in his notes on Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy and follows it with " common sense = the prejudices of its time". (10; 38, 273) This formula should be interpreted rather as a summary of Hegel's thesis and recognition of its relative correctness than as Lenin's own evaluation of common sense. It is clear from numerous remarks made by Lenin that he resolutely rejected one‑sided evaluations of everyday consciousness. For example, while noting that "common sense" regards the latest discoveries in physics as outlandish (10; 14, 261), Lenin condemns Hegel's attempts at removing the rational content from notions based on everyday experience which not only gives rise to but also daily checks, corrects and confirms those notions. When Hegel declares that Epicurus' recognition of the correctness of "perceived being" "does not at all rise above the viewpoint of everyday common sense", Lenin says that critical remark distorts the essence of materialism: "Disagreement with 'common sense' is the foul quirk of an idealist." (10; 38, 291)

The need to distinguish between scientific, philosophical and everyday concepts was already recognized in ancient Greece: Democritus demanded that a distinction be made between that which is true and that which exists only in opinion. Francis Bacon's doctrine of idols also contains criticism of everyday consciousness and, which is equally important, everyday language. However, his criticism does not negate the cognitive value of everyday consciousness but tries to purify it, correct its concepts, take account of the truth it contains, and go further. In creatively developing the materialist tradition, dialectical materialism has proved that the contradiction between theoretical knowledge and direct sensory data does not in the least undermine the significance of the latter. Consequently, it does not refute the sensationalist thesis about the sensory origins of abstract ideas. Usually, this dialectical contradiction between the rational and the sensuous is incomprehensible to everyday consciousness because it persists in recognizing only that which can be verified by the senses. That is why the concepts and norms of common sense, which reflect certain aspects of reality more or less adequately, cannot guide a scientific study: the latter's field is immeasurably greater and more significant than that with which everyday consciousness deals and which inevitably limits its competence. A conflict between scientific concepts and common sense does not refute the former: only science and practice can refute or confirm them. Hence this quotation from Engels: "Sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research." (8; 31)

We all remember how common sense argued against the heliocentric system, non‑Euclidian geometry and the theory of relativity. But it was not only everyday consciousness but also the conservative contemporaries of Copernicus, Lobachevsky and Einstein in the academic world who persisted in their refusal to recognize Earth's revolutions around the Sun or the seemingly paradoxical theories of Lobachevsky and Einstein. Conservative scientists did not rise above everyday common sense, maintaining that "it is impossible because it cannot be".

But in contrasting everyday and scientific consciousness we should not ignore the diversity of everyday consciousness which accumulates not only familiar notions within the environment immediately surrounding men but also their versatile experience, especially that gained in production activities. That experience serves as a basis for scientific conclusions too. For example, according to Professor Kolmogorov, a noted Soviet scientist, Euclid's geometrical axioms reflect facts deduced from everyday experience: "In the final analysis, confidence in the correctness of axioms is always of experimental origin. If the experience underlying this confidence is a case of pre‑scientific experience shared by all mankind and turned into a spontaneous conviction that does not cite any specific observation as proof, then we are dealing with an obvious truth. The axioms of elementary geometry are a case in point." (25; 394) Euclid himself described axioms as everyday notions.

Man had learned to raise crops, build houses and smelt metals long before science began to study these production processes. Agronomy, construction engineering and metallurgy all paid due account to everyday production experience, that is, to the everyday notions which guided man in their work. As to prejudice, it is not confined exclusively to everyday consciousness: the history of science shows that it is common in scientific (or pseudoscientific) theories.

Hegel, who thoroughly examined the opposition of the dialectical and metaphysical modes of thinking, fully identified everyday (in his own words, reasoning) consciousness with the metaphysical view of the world. Describing the objections of everyday consciousness to the doctrines of ancient Greek Sophists as "the cry of common sense which knows no other way to help itself" (64; 14, 7), Hegel maintained that everyday reason would inevitably lapse into sophistry because it treated the truths and maxims it was guided by as absolutes.

Hegel correctly identified the typical features of a definite historical form of everyday consciousness, but he made the same mistake (which he himself exposed) believing that the metaphysical limitations of everyday consciousness were something extrahistorical and insurmountable. That negative assessment of everyday consciousness stemmed from the rationalist‑idealist nature of Hegel's philosophy which claimed that the outside world perceived through the senses is only an appearance (albeit objective), and that it is the only realm of everyday consciousness. Philosophy, Hegel claimed, differs from everyday consciousness in that it regards only as a phenomenon that which everyday consciousness presents as existing.

A specific historical analysis of everyday consciousness leads to a conclusion that was totally alien to Hegel's philosophy despite its historicism: the metaphysical features of everyday consciousness were products of the same age that gave rise to metaphysical thinking in science. [1]

There is no absolute opposition between everyday and not everyday (scientific, philosophical) consciousness. Everyday consciousness does not exist in isolation, and today it is not so commonplace as it was 100 years ago. It evolves, but it does not disappear. To a certain degree, it becomes more intellectual because it is affected by culture and education, and scientific concepts find their way into it; and still it remains everyday and commonplace. The same applies to commonplace, everyday experience which is limited compared to the special experience of science. Everyday consciousness assimilates experience, knowledge, ideas and certain scientific concepts; but it is not independent in assessing their cognitive value. People use them as stereotypes of sorts for picking their way in the sphere of their everyday, nonprofessional occupations and interests.

Today, men have the telephone, the radio, the television set, the automobile, the cinema and other achievements of science and technology at their disposal, but they usually have a rather vague notion of the scientific laws underlying the operation of those devices. The individual is content to know their purpose, to be able to use and enjoy them, and to know where to apply should they malfunction. And it is impossible and even useless for him to understand everything that is clear to physicists, mechanics, electrical and radio engineers and other specialists. But because of specialization, scientists themselves are quite vague about those accomplishments of science and technology which they use but which are not connected more or less directly with their own fields. So here, too, there is no absolute opposition between everyday and scientific consciousness. Nowadays, there are no people whose consciousness is either purely scientific or purely everyday. Both those forms of human consciousness are inseparable.

Thus the Marxist understanding of everyday consciousness is based on the admission of diversity in man's relationship with objective reality, both natural and social. As an agent discovering the infinity of the universe, learning and mastering its laws, creating "the second environment" and thus shaping himself, man shapes and develops his scientific consciousness. But as someone merely finding his way in his immediate environment and adapting to it by using tried and tested methods, man is a creature of everyday consciousness which combines reason and prejudice, real knowledge and illusion in the most unexpected and contradictory ways.

Since everyday consciousness remains based on everyday experience, it is empirical and thus undoubtedly hostile to idealism, a fact reflected in the speculative‑idealist criticism of it. Still, once again, it is not always based exclusively on everyday experience and practice. As we see from ancient philosophy (which emerged before science and interpreted everyday experience), everyday consciousness comprises prototypes of both materialist and idealist views. In that sense, idealism, as well as materialism, relies on concepts of everyday consciousness. And materialists, as well as idealists, argue with it.

Materialism relies on "naive realism" of everyday consciousness; idealism, on its subjectivist notions. Materialism criticizes everyday consciousness from the left; idealism, from the right. Materialism argues against the prejudice of everyday consciousness; idealism (usually but not always), against common sense. A classic example of the latter is Tertullian's claim that religious faith must not fear the absurd which common sense rejects. But the history of Christianity and related philosophies proves that Christian theology and the idealist philosophies which support it try to reach their goal both by criticizing common sense (Protestantism, Protestant neo‑orthodoxy) and by appealing to everyday reason (Catholicism, neo-Thomism).

Thomas Aquinas, who proclaimed the harmony of religion and reason, tried to prove that the latter, proceeding from facts of everyday experience, logically and inevitably concludes that God exists. For example, an object moves because motion has been imparted to it. Hence, according to Thomas Aquinas, the logical conclusion that a moving object is impossible without something moving it. But if the mover is itself in motion, it is also a moving object, that is, it has its own mover. This chain cannot be endless because in that case no motion could have a beginning in time. Therefore there must exist something that imparts motion while being itself motionless, i.e., the first cause.

Thomas Aquinas and his medieval followers supported their appeal to reason as something indisputable by putting a mystical construction on that human ability which they proclaimed to be identical for all men, irrespective of the conditions they lived in and the knowledge they possessed—that is, something innate, bestowed on the human soul from above. For example, the 16th‑century Thomist Dictionary of Philosophical Sciences asserted that common sense "is exactly the same in all men and in all ages; it neither advances nor retreats. it is, as it were, reason in its primordial state (1'état brut), reason without reflection and without science." (75; 971) Obviously, such raison A l'état brut, "untainted" by reflection or education, readily admits that the existence of God is logically demonstrable. This explains why modern Thomists fully share the views of their medieval forerunners about immutability of everyday experience (allegedly stemming from immutability of human nature). Viewed from that angle, philosophy corresponds to its concent—that is, operates as authentic philosophical knowledge—only when it is connected solely to everyday experience, interpreting its content. In that case philosophy is independent of science, which can neither refute nor confirm fundamentals of philosophy because science deals with special—that is, scientific—experience.

In the neo‑Thomist view, all philosophers are contemporaries because they all interpret everyday experience which is unchanging and common to everyone. That experience contains neither affirmation nor negation, is neither true nor false, but a totality of immediate experiences of reality and one's own life. The neo‑Thomist apologia of everyday consciousness and experience—just as the attempt to prove the independence of their basic content of time and space, of science and special scientific experience—is aimed at acquitting the theological philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: he is treated as our contemporary on the grounds that everyday experience cannot become obsolete. According to neo‑Thomists, Thomism flows directly from the pure source of common sense, untainted by speculation; and because of its essential immutability, common sense must be understood as the extrahistorical spiritual human faculty bestowed on us from above. Rejecting the Thomist view of some neutral and mute everyday experience which is the only thing philosophy is supposed to study, Gaston Bachelard aptly remarks: "After the age‑old dialogue between the world and the spirit, one can no longer talk about mute experience." (36; 8)

In the 18th century, French materialists spared no effort in exposing the attempts of Catholic theologians and philosophers at using the authority of common sense to justify their fantastic religious notions. Holbach asserted that man can reason soundly only when he is healthy, "when his soul is neither troubled by fear nor changed by illness nor disturbed by passions". (77; 138) Sound reason, he maintained, cannot reconcile itself to religion which "demands that we firmly believe in things that are not evident and in propositions that are either barely probable or greatly contrary to reason". (76; 142)

Whereas French materialists proved that religion was incompatible with reason, the Scottish "philosophy of common sense" saw its principal mission in proving the opposite. Thomas Reid, the foremost proponent of that school, maintained in his Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764) that the admission of the existence of the outside world cannot be based on the evidence supplied by sensory organs because that evidence is only valuable inasmuch as it commands credence. Common sense is the original ability to believe which precedes sense perception and reflection and leads to the admission of both the external world and God. Thus a lack of faith in God is as contrary to reason as the refusal to believe that the objects reported by the senses are real. Therefore, according to Reid, rejecting religious faith is tantamount to refusing to believe that the outside world is real.

Thus, historically, both materialism and idealism have claimed to represent common sense. And although because of its organic contradictions everyday consciousness obviously sustains opposite philosophies, the everyday experience it reflects—the experience shared by all mankind, and constantly enriched and confirmed by social practice—contradicts idealism and serves as one of the starting points of the materialist world view. Lenin repeatedly stressed that very important aspect of the issue of the relationship between everyday consciousness and philosophy. He criticized those idealists who tried to use the "naive realism" of everyday consciousness to substantiate their antimaterialist concepts. One of those was George Berkeley, a subjective idealist who said, "I endeavour to vindicate common sense.'' (37; 102) This assertion, at first glance a complete paradox since it is made within the framework of a subjective‑idealist system, becomes clear if we recall that Berkeley idealistically interpreted empiricism based on everyday experience. Today, idealist empiricism often proclaims its dedication to ordinary common sense. For example, in substantiating his subjectivist-agnostic epistemology, Karl Popper proclaims: "I was always a commonsense philosopher, and a commonsense realist . . . I was thoroughly opposed to every idealism, positivism, or even neutralism in philosophy." (90; 322‑23) Typically, the pseudonegation of idealism by today's bourgeois idealist philosophers is presented as agreement with everyday experience. This is indirect proof of the fact that the main content of everyday experience is largely in favor of materialism. In his monograph on Charles Peirce, the Soviet philosopher Yu. K. Melvil notes that this founder of American pragmatism described his doctrine as a philosophy of "critical common sense". Common sense is presented as comprising ideas and beliefs that are "the result of human experience handed down from generation to generation". (29; 382)

Lenin criticized the Machist attempts to portray subjectivist‑idealist empiricism as the viewpoint of unbiased everyday consciousness which allegedly knows only sensations and their complexes and refuses to recognize anything different, that which cannot be sensed. "The reference to 'naive realism', supposedly defended by this philosophy, is sophistry of the cheapest kind," Lenin wrote. "The 'naive realism' of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self and of man in general . . . Materialism deliberately makes the 'naive' belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." [2] (10; 14, 69­70)

Even in its undeveloped form, materialism goes much further than naive realism and critically analyzes both the prejudices and the empirical content of everyday consciousness. In its more advanced modern form, materialism studies the dialectics of the active reflection‑knowledge, reflection‑study of objective reality, correcting the naive idea about the direct reflection of the outside world by sense perception, about the identity of the image with the object reflected in it. This viewpoint dialectically negates naive realism but retains and develops the truth it contains. It follows that the precepts of materialist and especially dialectical‑materialist philosophy do not merely transcend the bounds of everyday consciousness and its empirical notions, but also contradict the latter. Everyday consciousness, inasmuch as it is not permeated with the relevant scientific concepts, is incapable of grasping the self‑propulsion of matter, the unity of mutually determining and mutually exclusive opposites, etc. That is not explained by the metaphysical (as asserted by Hegel) nature of everyday consciousness but simply by the fact that the content of dialectical thinking is too versatile to fit into the framework of the limited everyday experience of individuals.

Usually, today's positivism, which differs from Machism in its rejection of the empirical origin of mathematical and logical precepts, does not ally itself with "naive realism" but instead dismisses it as an unscientific view of the world. Trying to overcome the spontaneous materialist notions of common sense, neopositivists almost invariably accuse it of a theological bias. They refuse in principle to distinguish between reason and prejudice or to analyze the contradictions of everyday consciousness. For example, Philipp Frank wants the philosophical terms that mark the distinction between materialism and idealism to be banished from the philosophical vocabulary because the concepts those terms denote are historically rooted in notions of everyday consciousness. In his Philosophy of Science he maintains: "Expressions like 'matter', 'mind', 'cause and effect', and similar ones are today merely commonsense terms, and have no place in strictly scientific discourse." (55; 45‑6) That same book also holds that "the central problem in the philosophy of science is how we get from commonsense statements to general scientific principles". (55; 2) This thesis correctly identifies an important epistemological problem, which, however, neopositivism is unable to solve because it totally opposes science to everyday experience. According to neopositivism, since science recognizes the existence of matter, consciousness and determinism, it remains on the level of everyday consciousness and its language. That claim subjectively distorts the accomplishments of science which has discovered nonsubstantial forms of matter, revealed the complex physiological mechanism of psychological actions, and abandoned the mechanistic concepts of determinism. Those discoveries and related theoretical conclusions do not at all imply that a scientist operating with the concept of "matter" is at the same level as a housewife.

Proclaiming his opposition to the identity of scientific and everyday language, Frank is essentially trying to get rid of matter, a task long laid down by George Berkeley. According to the latter, "The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance." (37; 2, 55) But apparently Frank is more consistent than Berkeley because he denies the existence of both consciousness (he contrasts it to matter) and causality, the categories directly related to the key philosophical issue: about the causal relationship of matter and consciousness.

In the final analysis, the neopositivist "revolution in philosophy" rejects all past philosophy with its age‑old issues. The latter are presented as a disorderly multitude of unverifiable and undemonstrable views, unable to rise above everyday consciousness and naively probing questions that cannot be answered because they are phantoms devoid of real content. That is precisely the meaning of Wittgenstein's pronouncement asserting that what cannot be discussed should not be spoken about. [3] This means that people without a proper (in the "modern", neopositivist sense of the word) philosophical education argue about whether the world is finite or infinite, knowable or unknowable, etc. Meanwhile, the philosopher (neopositivist) is silent: those issues cannot be answered because they are pseudoissues. But, presenting the age‑old philosophical consciousness as everyday, neopositivists fail to notice that their renunciation of the so-called metaphysics—meaning the problems belonging to philosophy proper—is rather similar to ordinary common sense which dismisses philosophical issues and regards their discussion as empty talk unworthy of serious people.

Everyday consciousness appears idyllic, serene and perhaps even carefree if viewed in the epistemological aspect—that is, as empirical self ‑consciousness, the comprehension of the outer environment, reasonably arguing that the self is the self and therefore the self is not a cloud, a rock, a donkey, etc. But viewed from another angle, as a totality of everyday experiences—that is, all the joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments that comprise everyday life—that everyday consciousness appears continuously turbulent. Scientific and philosophical consciousness appear as something similar to the ancient Greek ataraxia in comparison. This aspect of everyday consciousness, previously studied by the philosophical doctrines of affects (both by materialists and idealists), has now been almost totally annexed by existentialism. The latter revives in its own way the opposition of philosophy to the so‑called positive sciences and regards them as practical, utilitarian, pragmatic and therefore unable to probe the being of that which exists, that is, not rising above everyday consciousness.

Existentialism opposes the natural scientific descriptions of objective reality with a hermeneutic description of man's being, defined as worry, fear, being‑in‑the‑world, freedom, etc. Essentially, it is the emotion that fills the everyday existence of individuals. Existentialism interprets those emotions in the spirit of Husserl's phenomenology, divorces them from the empirical source and declares to be existential, that is, a priori inherent to man's selfness. In that connection, Heidegger and Sartre, following Kierkegaard, draw an essential dividing line between fear (Furcht, la peur), generated by external empirical causes and allegedly insignificant as far as "existence" is concerned, and anguish (Angst, l'angoisse), caused by the "existence" itself and therefore insurmountable. An existentialist regards existential consciousness as cleansed of its everyday aspect, of philistine conformism, because it experiences fear not of a definite, substantial danger, but of the very existence, perceived as dangerous, fragile, unstable—in other words, because the existence is afraid of itself.

Existentialists castigate the "vulgar" (everyday) fear of death, a fear based on perfectly real empirical causes, and contrast it to the existential fear of the ultimate possibility, the possibility not to be, which, in their view, has no connection with the everyday existence of individuals among other individuals who live and die. Those who temporarily stay alive thus acquire a perfectly empirical notion first of others' mortality and then of their own.

All existentialism argues furiously against everyday existence, presented as faceless, illusory and meaningless, against everyday, spontaneously materialist consciousness, allegedly reflecting not reality but pseudoreal ordinariness. An existentialist describes everyday consciousness as alienated (although that can only be true of some of its aspects), claiming that only the existentialist self‑consciousness of existence, renouncing everything mundane, overcomes alienation. But the "ontological solitude" of the existential self‑consciousness mystically reflects the actual alienation of the personality in bourgeois society; essentially, existential consciousness is refined everyday consciousness.

Existentialism criticizes everyday consciousness as allegedly incompatible with the grasping of the substance of being. According to Heidegger, philosophy violates itself when it reckons with objections voiced by common sense, because the latter cannot see that to which it objects. Philosophy, Heidegger writes, "cannot refute ordinary commen sense because it is deaf to its language". (65; 6) But existentialism itself, while fighting the mundane (and to a certain degree really exposing the depersonalizing influence of bourgeois relations), limits philosophical problems to a detailed description of everyday consciousness, emotions and concepts. Although Husserl's subjectivist-idealist phenomenology does distill them, yet for all its criticism, existentialism is not much interested in all that lies beyond the everyday consciousness and the ordinary (and negatively interpreted) emotions it criticizes so harshly. It sees nothing worth noting in everyday life, especially in social intercourse because its misanthropic interpretation of existence offers no place for things like work, love or knowledge. [4] Existentialist philosophy borrows even its theory of "extreme" (critical) situations, which elevate man above prosaic everyday life, from everyday notions of impending death, irredeemable sin, etc. Paradoxically, a philosophy claiming to oppose quite uncompromisingly everything ordinary is incapable, due to its extreme individualist limitations, of extricating itself from the quagmire of everyday bourgeois routine.

Unlike existentialism, Marxist philosophy critically analyzes everyday existence and the relevant everyday concepts and emotions as historically definite social phenomena which do not remain unchanged throughout history but are changed in the course of the communist transformation of society. Medieval scholasticism maintained that common sense is the awareness of certain fundamental principles, independent of the time and place and identical with all people; but today there is no longer any need to prove that common sense and everyday consciousness as a whole, reflect the social environment and change together with it.

Indeed, from the point of view of both mundane common sense and science and philosophy (materialist philosophy, too) in, say, the 18th or early 19th centuries, the very idea of a cubic centimeter of substance containing a huge amount of energy was not only absurd but also extremely mystical, and making no distinction between the supernatural (unreal) and the natural (really existing or possible).

Today, both science and philosophy are very cautious in their interpretation of the notion "impossible". Meanwhile, everyday consciousness has grown used to the miracles worked by man's intellect and can hardly be shaken by scientific and technological breakthroughs. It has not yet lost its sense of wonder, but it firmly believes that there are no miracles—at least not in the field of science and technology.

Everyday religious consciousness has also changed (where it has at all survived). In all probability, no one believes any more that God created the world in six days, if only because it is common knowledge that days (and nights) came into being after Earth had taken shape and begun to rotate on its axis. This explains the genuine despair of Berdayev who said that most people, including Christians, had turned materialist because they believed only in the material power—military or economic—and not in the power of the spirit. The Protestant Church has reconciled itself to this situation and no longer requires its adherents to accept all the dogmata: it is enough to believe that God and Jesus Christ His son exist.

In his The Condition of the Working‑Class in England Engels offered the following description of the life and spiritual development of British workers on the eve of the industrial revolution: "They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought, delighted in physical exercises, listened with inherited reverence when the Bible was read, and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well­disposed towards the 'superior classes'. . . They were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence, which cosily romantic as it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human beings." (1; 4, 309) There is no need to describe here the tremendous changes in the consciousness of all the working people brought about by subsequent developments which led to the establishment of the new, socialist system first in the USSR and then in many other countries. The victory of socialism radically changed everyday consciousness. In capitalist countries, too, mass consciousness has changed greatly. As Jacque Maritain, a prominent Catholic philosopher, remarked, "Nobody wants to die for capitalism any more—neither in Asia, nor in Africa nor in Europe." (84; 124) This admission by an opponent of Marxism is evidence that there is increasing realization among the exploited masses that only destruction of capitalism can bring about their social emancipation.

I do not propose here to analyze the impact of socio-economic, scientific and technological progress on everyday consciousness. I would only note the major aspects of that historical process: it supplants irrational notions and other groundless beliefs in everyday consciousness and brings everyday and scientific consciousness closer together which, however, does not cancel out their substantial difference. Everyday consciousness becomes increasingly rational, moral, discriminating, esthetically demanding, independent and critical. It no longer merely adapts to the existing conditions but plays an ever more active part in man's creative activity. All that greatly changes the relationships between philosophy and everyday consciousness and experience. The latter is an integral part of social practice, which underlies all forms of knowledge.


[1] Engels pointed to the metaphysical limitations of everyday bourgeois common sense: "The jaded cart‑horse of the commonplace bourgeois mind falters of course in confusion in front of the ditch separating substance from appearance, and cause from effect; but one should not ride cart‑horses if one intends to go coursing over the very rough ground of abstract reasoning". (6; 223) [—> main text]

[2] In his Philosophical Notebooks Lenin stresses that forms of logic are organically linked to everyday practice: "Man's practice, repeating itself a thousand million times, becomes consolidated in man's consciousness by figures of logic. Precisely (and only) on account of this thousand‑million‑fold repetition, these figures have the stability of a prejudice, an axiomatic character." (10; 38, 217). [—> main text]

[3] In this Wittgenstein obviously echoes Nietzsche's "Sometimes, as the saying hints, one can only stay a philosopher if one keeps silent." (89; 2, 14). That is not the only case of positivist scientism putting its own construction on irrationalist theses. [—> main text]

[4] Here I do not refer to the "optimistic" version of existentialism (Abbagnano, Bolnow and others) which tries (albeit in vain) to overcome the pessimistic interpretation of positive emotions (joys of family life, holidays, customs, etc.) typical of "classical" existentialism, because the truly positive, significant and genuine content of life is basically incompatible with the existentialist approach to the world. The Soviet philosopher A. S. Bogomolov has substantially and scientifically analyzed that latest type of existentialism. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Oizerman, Theodore [Oizerman, Teodor IlŽich]; translated from the Russian by Dmitri Beliavsky. Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy: Essays on the History of Philosophy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), chapter 1, section 5, pp. 100-118.

Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy: Contents

Problems of the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman, review by Ralph Dumain

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov, review by R. Dumain

The Main Trends in Philosophy (Contents) by T. I. Oizerman

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography


Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman
(entire book online)

The Problem of the Scientific Philosophical World-Outlook by T. I. Oizerman

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