The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer

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George Herbert Palmer, (1842-1933)
Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity
Harvard University
Portrait: 1926, 40 x 30 inches, Oil

III. Self-Consciousness


In the preceding chapters I have examined only those features of goodness which are common alike to persons and to things. Goodness was there seen to be the expression of function in the construction of an organism. That is, when we ask if any being, object, or quality is good, we are really inquiring how organic it is, how much it contributes of riches or solidity to some whole or other. There must, then, be as many varieties of goodness as there are modes of constructing organisms. A special set of functions will produce one kind of organism, a different set another; and each of these will express a peculiar variety of goodness. If, then, into the construction of a person conditions enter which are not found in the making of things, these conditions will render personal goodness to some extent unlike the goodness of everything else.

Now I suppose that in the contacts of life we all feel a marked difference between persons and things. We know a person when we see him, and are quite sure he is not a thing. Yet if we were called on to say precisely what it is we know, and how we know it, we should find ourselves in some difficulty. No doubt we usually recognize a human being by his form and motions, but we assume that certain inner traits regularly attend these outward matters, and that in these traits the real ground of difference between person and thing is to be found. How many such distinguishing differences exist? Obviously a multitude; but these are, I believe, merely various manifestations of a few fundamental characteristics. Probably all can be reduced to four,– they are self-consciousness, self-direction, self-development, and self-sacrifice. Wherever these four traits are found, we feel at once that the being who has them is a person. Whatever creature lacks them is but a thing, and requires no personal attention. I might say more. These four are so likely to go together that the appearance of one gives confidence of the rest. If, for example, we discover a being sacrificing itself for another, even though we have not previously thought of it as a person, it will so stir sympathy that we shall see in it a likeness to our own kind. Or, finding a creature capable of steering itself, of deciding what its ends shall be, and adjusting its many powers to reach them, we cannot help feeling that there is much in such a being like ourselves, and we are consequently indisposed to refer its movements to mechanic adjustment.

If, then, these are the four conditions of personality, the distinctive functions by which it becomes organically good, they will evidently need to be examined somewhat minutely before we can rightly comprehend the nature of personal goodness, and detect its separation from goodness in general. Such an examination will occupy this and the three succeeding chapters. But I shall devote myself exclusively to such features of the four functions as connect them with ethics. Many interesting metaphysical and psychological questions connected with them I pass by.


There is no need of elaborating the assertion that a person is a conscious being. To this all will at once agree. More important is it to inspect the stages through which we rise to consciousness, for these are often overlooked. People imagine that they are self- conscious through and through, and that they always have been. They assume that the entire life of a person is the expression of consciousness alone. But this is erroneous. To a large degree we are allied with things. While self-consciousness is our distinctive prerogative, it is far from being our only possession. Rather we might say that all which belongs to the under world is ours too, while self- consciousness appears in us as a kind of surplusage. No doubt it is by the distinctive traits, those which are not shared with other creatures, that we define our special character; but these are not our sole endowment. Our life is grounded in unconsciousness, and with this, as students of personal goodness, we must first make acquaintance.

Yet how can we become acquainted with it? How grow conscious of the unconscious? We can but mark it in a negative way and call it the absence of consciousness. That is all. We cannot be directly aware of ourselves as unconscious. Indeed, we cannot be quite sure that the physical things about us, even organic objects, are unconscious. If somebody should declare that the covers of this book are conscious, and respond to everything wise or foolish which the writer puts between them, there would be no way of confuting him. All I could say would be, “I see no signs of it.” My readers occasionally give a response and show that they do or do not agree with what I say. But the volume itself lies in stolid passivity, offering no resistance to whatever I record in it. Since, then, there is no evidence in behalf of consciousness, I do not unwarrantably assume its presence. I save my belief for objects where it is indicated, and indicate its absence elsewhere by calling such objects unconscious.

But if in human beings consciousness appears, what are its marks, and how is it known? Ought we not to define it at starting? I believe it cannot be defined. Definition is taking an idea to pieces. But there are no pieces in the idea of consciousness. It is elementary, something in which all other pieces begin. That is, in attempting to define consciousness, I must in every definition employed really assume that my hearer is acquainted with it already. I cannot then define it without covert reference to experience. I might vary the term and call it awaredness, internal observation, psychic response. I might say it is that which accompanies all experience and makes it to be experience. But these are not definitions. A simple way to fix attention on it is to say that it is what we feel less and less as we sink into a swoon. What this is, I cannot more precisely state. But in swoon or sleep we are all familiar with its diminution or increase, and we recognize in it the very color of our being. After my friend’s remark I am in a different state from that in which I was before. Something has affected me which may abide. This is not the case with a stone post, or at least there are no signs of it there. The post, then, is unconscious. We call ourselves conscious.

In unconsciousness our lives began, and from it they have not altogether emerged. Yet unconsciousness is a matter of degree. We may be very much aware, aware but slightly, vanishingly, not at all. Even though we never existed unconsciously, we may fairly assume such a blank terminus in order the better to figure the present condition of our minds. They show sinking degrees moving off in that direction; when we think out the series, we come logically to a point where there is no consciousness at all.

Such a point analogy also inclines us to concede. In our body we come upon unconscious sections. This body seems to have some connection with myself; yet of its large results only, and not of its minuter operations, can I be distinctly aware. In like manner it is held that within the mind processes cumulate and rise to a certain height before they cross the threshold of consciousness. Below that threshold, though actual processes, they are unknown to us. The teaching of modern psychology is that all mental action is at the start unconscious, requiring a certain bulk of stimulus in order to emerge into conditions where we become aware of it. The cumulated result we know; the minute factors which must be gathered together to form that result, we do not know. I do not pronounce judgment on this psychological question. I state the belief merely in order to show how probable it is that our conscious life is superposed upon unconscious conditions.

In conduct itself I believe every one will acknowledge that his moments of consciousness are like vivid peaks, while the great mass of his acts–even those with which he is most familiar–occur unconsciously. When we read a word on the printed page, how much of it do we consciously observe? Modern teachers of reading often declare that detailed consciousness is here unnecessary or even injurious. Better, they say, take the word, not the letter, as the unit of consciousness. But taking merely the letter, how minutely are we conscious of its curvatures? Somewhere consciousness must stop, resting on the support of unconscious experiences. Matthew Arnold has declared conduct to be three fourths of life. If we mean by conduct consciously directed action, it is not one fourth. Yet however fragmentary, it is that which renders all the rest significant.


Just above our unconscious mental modifications appear the reflex actions, or instincts. Here experience is translated into action before it reaches consciousness; that is, though the actions accomplish intelligent ends, there is no previous knowledge of the ends to be accomplished. A flash of light falls on my eye, and the lid closes. It seems a wise act. The brilliant light is too fierce. It might damage the delicate organ. Prudently, therefore, I draw the small curtain until the light has gone, then raise it and resume communication with the outer world. My action seems planned for protection. In reality there was no plan. Probably enough I did not perceive the flash; the lid, at any rate, would close equally well if I did not. In falling from a height I do not decide to sacrifice my arms rather than my body, and accordingly stretch them out. They stretch themselves, without intention on my part. How anything so blind yet so sagacious can occur will become clearer if we take an illustration from a widely different field.

To-day we are all a good deal dependent on the telephone; though, not being a patient man, I can seldom bring myself to use it. It has one irritating feature, the central office, or perhaps I might more accurately say, the central office girl. Whenever I try to communicate with my friend, I must first call up the central office, as it is briefly called and longly executed. Not until attention there has been with difficulty obtained can I come into connection with my friend; for through a human consciousness at that mediating point every message must pass. In that central office are accordingly three necessary things; viz., an incoming wire, a consciousness, and an outgoing wire; and I am helpless till all these three have been brought into cooperation. Really I have often thought life too short for the performance of such tasks. And apparently our Creator thought so at the beginning, when in contriving machinery for us he dispensed with the hindering factor of a central office operator. For applied to our previous example of a flash of light, the incoming message corresponds to the sensuous report of the flash, the outgoing message to the closure of the eye, and the unfortunate central office girl has disappeared. The afferent nerve reports directly to the efferent, without passing the message through consciousness. A fortune awaits him who will contrive a similar improvement for the telephone. A special sound sent into the switch-box must automatically, and without human intervention, oblige an indicated wire to take up the uttered words. The continuous arc thus established, without employment of the at present necessary girl, will exactly represent the exquisite machinery of reflex action which each of us bears about in his own brain. Here, as in our improved telephone, the announcement itself establishes the connections needful for farther transmission, without employing the judgment of any operating official.

By such means power is economized and action becomes extremely swift and sure. Promptness, too, being of the utmost importance for protective purposes, creatures which are rich in such instincts have a large practical advantage over those who lack them. It is often assumed that brutes alone are instinctive, and that man must deliberate over each occasion. But this is far from the fact. Probably at birth man has as many instincts as any other animal. And though as consciousness awakes and takes control, some of these become unnecessary and fall away, new ones–as will hereafter be shown–are continually established, and by them the heavy work of life is for the most part performed. Personal goodness cannot be rightly understood till we perceive how it is superposed on a broad reflex mechanism.


But higher in the personal life than unconsciousness, higher than the reflex instincts, are the conscious experiences. By these, we for the first time became aware of what is going on within us and without. Messages sent from the outer world are stopped at a central office established in consciousness, looked over, and deciphered. We judge whether they require to be sent in one direction or another, or whether we may not rest in their simple cognizance. Every moment we receive a multitude of such messages. They are not always called for, but they come of themselves. My hand carelessly falling on the table reports in terms of touch. A person near me laughs, and I must hear. I see the flowers on the table; smell reports them too; while taste declares their leaves to be bitter and pungent. All this time the inner organs, with the processes of breathing, blood circulation, and nervous action, are announcing their acute or massive experiences. Continually, and not by our own choice, our minds are affected by the transactions around. Sensations occur–

    “The eye, it cannot choose but see;
     We cannot bid the ear be still;
     Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
     Against or with our will.”

These itemized experiences thus pouring in upon our passive selves are found to vary endlessly also in degree, time, and locality. Through such variations indeed they become itemized. “Therefore is space and therefore time,” says Emerson, “that men may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and divisible.”


Have we not, then, here reached the highest point of personal life, self-consciousness? No, that is a peak higher still, for this is but consciousness. Undoubtedly from consciousness self-consciousness grows, often appearing by degrees and being extremely difficult to discriminate. Yet the two are not the same. Possibly in marking the contrast between them I may be able to gain the collateral advantage of ridding myself of those disturbers of ethical discussion, the brutes. Whenever I am nearing an explanation of some moral intricacy one of my students is sure to come forward with a dog and to ask whether what I have said shows that dog to be a moral and responsible being. So I like to watch afar and banish the brutes betimes. Perhaps if I bestow a little attention on them at present, I may keep the creatures out of my pages for the future.

Many writers maintain that brutes differ from us precisely in this particular, that while they possess consciousness they have not self- consciousness. A brute, they say, has just such experiences as I have been describing: he tastes, smells, hears, sees, touches. All this he may do with greater intensity and precision than we. But he is entirely wrapped up in these separate sensations. The single experience holds his attention. He knows no other self than that; or, strictly speaking, he knows no self at all. It is the experience he knows, and not himself the experiencer. We say, “The cat feels herself warm;” but is it quite so? Does she feel herself, or does she feel warm? Which? If we may trust the writers to whom I have referred, we ought rather to say, “The cat feels warm” than that “she feels herself warm;” for this latter statement implies a distinction of which she is in no way aware. She does not set off her passing moods in contrast to a self who might be warm or cold, active or idle, hungry or satiated. The experience of the instant occupies her so entirely that in reality the cat ceases to be a cat and becomes for the moment just warm. So it is in all her seeming activities. When she chases a mouse we rightly say, “She is chasing a mouse,” for then she is nothing else. Such a state of things is at least conceivable. We can imagine momentary experiences to be so engrossing that the animal is exclusively occupied with them, unable to note connections with past and future, or even with herself, their perceiver. Through very fullness of Consciousness brutes may be lacking in self-consciousness.

Whether this is the case with the brutes or not, something quite different occurs in us. No particular experience can satisfy us; we accordingly say, not “I am an experience,” but “I have an experience." To be able to throw off the bondage of the moment is the distinctive characteristic of a person. When Shelley watches the skylark, he envies him his power of whole-heartedly seizing a momentary joy. Then turning to himself, and feeling that his own condition, if broader, is on that very account more liable to sorrow, he cries,–

    “We look before and after,
     And pine for what is not.”

That is the mark of man. He looks before and after. The outlook of the brute, if the questionable account which I have given of him is correct, is different. He looks to the present exclusively. The momentary experience takes all his attention. If it does not, he too in his little degree is a person. Could we determine this simple point in the brute’s psychology, he would at once become available for ethical material. At present we cannot use him for such purposes, nor say whether he is selfish or self-sacrificing, possessed of moral standards and accountable, or driven by subtle yet automatic reflexes. The obvious facts of him may be interpreted plausibly in either way, and he cannot speak. Till he can give us a clearer account of this central fact of his being, we shall not know whether he is a poor relation of ours or is rather akin to rocks, and clouds, and trees. I incline to the former guess, and am ready to believe that between him and us there is only a difference of degree. But since in any case he stands at an extreme distance from ourselves, we may for purposes of explanation assume that distance to be absolute, and talk of him as having no share in the prerogative announced by Shelley. So regarded, we shall say of him that he does not compare or adjust. He does not organize experiences and know a single self running through them all. Whenever an experience takes him, it swallows his self–a self, it is true, which he never had.

It is sometimes assumed that Shelley was the first to announce this weighty distinction. Philosophers of course were familiar with it long ago, but the poets too had noticed it before the skylark told Shelley. Burns says to the mouse:–

    “Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
     The present only toucheth thee:
     But, ooh! I backward cast my e’e
         On prospects drear!
     An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
         I guess an’ fear.”

This looking backward and forward which is the ground of man’s grandeur, is also, Burns thinks, the ground of his misery; for in it is rooted his self-consciousness, something widely unlike the itemized consciousness of the brute. Shakespeare, too, found in us the same distinctive trait. Hamlet reflects how God has made us “with such discourse, looking before and after.” We possess discourse, can move about intellectually, and are not shut up to the moment. But ages before Shakespeare the fact had been observed. Homer knew all about it, and in the last book of the Odyssey extols Halitherses, the son of Mastor, as one “able to look before and after.” [Greek text omitted.] This is the mark of the wise man, not merely marking off person from brute, but person from person according to the degree of personality attained. It is characteristic of the child to show little foresight, little hindsight. He takes the present as it comes, and lives in it. We who are more mature and rational contemplate him with the same envy we feel for the skylark and the mouse, and often say, “Would I too could so suck the joys of the present, without reflecting that something else is coming and something else is gone.”


Yet after becoming possessed of self-consciousness, we do not steadily retain it. States of mind occur where the self slips out, though vivid consciousness remains. As I sit in my chair and fix my eye on the distance, a daydream or reverie comes over me. I see a picture, another, another. Somebody speaks and I am recalled. “Why, here I am! This is I.” I find myself once more. I had lost myself–paradoxical yet accurate expression. We have many such to indicate the disappearance of self-consciousness at moments of elation. “I was absorbed in thought,” we say; the I was sucked out by strenuous attention elsewhere. “I was swept away with grief,” i.e., I vanished, while grief held sway. “I was transported with delight,” “I was overwhelmed with shame,” and–perhaps most beautiful of all these fragments of poetic psychology,–"I was beside myself with terror,” I felt myself, to be near, but was still parted; through the fear I could merely catch glimpses of the one who was terrified.

These and similar phrases suggest the instability of self- consciousness. It is not fixed, once and forever, but varies continually and within a wide range of degree. We like to think that man possesses full self-consciousness, while other creatures have none. Our minds are disposed to part off things with sharpness, but nature cares less about sharp divisions and seems on the whole to prefer subtle gradations and unstable varieties. So the self has all degrees of vividness. Of it we never have an experience barely. It is always in some condition, colored by what it is mixed with. I know myself speaking or angry or hearing; I know myself, that is, in some special mood. But never am I able to sunder this self from the special mass of consciousness in which it is immersed and to gaze upon it pure and simple. At times that mass of consciousness is so engrossing that hardly a trace of the self remains. At times the sense of being shut up to one’s self is positively oppressive. Between the two extremes there is endless variation. When we call self-consciousness the prerogative of man we do not mean that he fully possesses it, but only that he may possess it, may possess it more and more; and that in it, rather than in the merely conscious life, the significance of his being is found.


Probably we are born without it. We know how gradually the infant acquires a mastery of its sensuous experience; and it is likely that for a long time after it has obtained command of its single experiences it remains unaware of its selfhood. In a classic passage of “In Memoriam” Tennyson has stated the case with that blending of witchery and scientific precision of which he alone among the poets seems capable:–

    “The baby, new to earth and sky,
       What time his tender palm is prest
       Against the circle of the breast,
     Has never thought that ’this is I.’

    “But as he grows he gathers much,
       And learns the use of ’I’ and ’me,’
       And finds ’I am not what I see,
     And other than the things I touch.’

    “So rounds he to a separate mind,
       From whence clear memory may begin,
       As thro’ the frame that binds him in
     His isolation grows defined.”

Until he has separated his mind from the objects around, and even from his own conscious states, he cannot perceive himself and obtain clear memory. No child recalls his first year, for the simple reason that during that year he was not there. Of course there was experience during that year, there was consciousness; but the child could not discriminate himself from the crowding experiences and so reach self- consciousness. At what precise time this momentous possibility occurs cannot be told. Probably the time varies widely in different children. In any single child it announces itself by degrees, and usually so subtly that its early manifestations are hardly perceptible. Occasionally, especially when long deferred, it breaks with the suddenness of an epoch, and the child is aware of a new existence. A little girl of my acquaintance turned from play to her mother with the cry, “Why, mamma, little girls don’t know that they are.” She had just discovered it. In a famous passage of his autobiography, Jean Paul Richter has recorded the great change in himself: “Never shall I forget the inward experience of the birth of self-consciousness. I well remember the time and place. I stood one afternoon, a very young child, at the house-door, and looked at the logs of wood piled on the left. Suddenly an inward consciousness, ’I am a Me,’ came like a flash of lightning from heaven, and has remained ever since. At that moment my existence became conscious of itself, and forever.”

The knowledge that I am an I cannot be conveyed to me by another human being, nor can I perceive anything similar in him. Each must ascertain it for himself. Accordingly there is only one word in every language which is absolutely unique, bearing a different meaning for every one who employs it. That is the word I. For me to use it in the sense that you do would prove that I had lost my wits. Whatever enters into my usage is out of it in yours. Obviously, then, the meaning of this word cannot be taught. Everything else may be. What the table is, what is a triangle, what virtue, heaven, or a spherodactyl, you can teach me. What I am, you cannot; for no one has ever had an experience corresponding to this except myself. People in speaking to me call me John, Baby, or Ned, an externally descriptive name which has substantially a common meaning for all who see me. When I begin to talk I repeat this name imitatively, and thinking of myself as others do. I speak of myself in the third person. Yet how early that reference to a third person begins to be saturated with self- consciousness, who can say? Before the word “I” is employed, “Johnny" or “Baby” may have been diverted into an egoistic significance. All we can say is that “I” cannot be rightly employed until consciousness has risen to self-consciousness.


And when it has so risen, its unity and coherence are by no means secure. I have already pointed out how often it is lost in moments when the conscious element becomes particularly intense. But in morbid conditions too it sometimes undergoes a disruption still more peculiar. Just as disintegration may attack any other organic unit, so may it appear in the personal life. The records of hypnotism and other related phenomena show cases where self-consciousness appears to be distributed among several selves. These curious experiences have received more attention in recent years than ever before. They do not, however, belong to my field, and to consider them at any length would only divert attention from my proper topic. But they deserve mention in passing in order to make plain how wayward is self-consciousness,– how far from an assured possession of its unity.

This unity seems temporarily suspended on occasion of swoon or nervous shock. An interesting case of its loss occurred in my own experience. Many years ago I was fond of horseback riding; and having a horse that was unusually easy in the saddle, I persisted in riding him long after my groom had warned me of danger. He had grown weak in the knees and was inclined to stumble. Riding one evening, I came to a little bridge. I remember watching the rays of the sunset as I approached it. Something too of my college work was in my mind, associated with the evening colors. And then–well, there was no “then.” The next I knew a voice was calling, “Is that you?” And I was surprised to find that it was. I was entering my own gateway, leading my horse. I answered blindly, “Something has happened. I must have been riding. Perhaps I have fallen.” I put my hand to my face and found it bloody. I led my horse to his post, entered the house, and relapsed again into unconsciousness. When I came to myself, and was questioned about my last remembrance, I recalled the little bridge. We went to it the next day. There lay my riding whip. There in the sand were the marks of a body which had been dragged. Plainly it was there that the accident had occurred, yet it was three quarters of a mile from my house. When thrown, I had struck on my forehead, making an ugly hole in it. Two or three gashes were on other parts of the head. But I had apparently still held the rein, had risen with the horse, had walked by his side till I came to four corners in the road, had there taken the proper turn, passed three houses, and entering my own gate then for the first time became aware of what was happening.

What had been happening? About twenty minutes would be required to perform this elaborate series of actions, and they had been performed exactly as if I had been guiding them, while in reality I knew nothing about them. Shall we call my conduct unconscious cerebration? Yes, if we like large words which cover ignorance. I do not see how we can certainly say what was going on. Perhaps during all this time I had neither consciousness nor self-consciousness. I may have been a mere automaton, under the control of a series of reflex actions. The feeling of the reins in my hands may have set me erect. The feeling of the ground beneath my feet may have projected these along their way; and all this with no more consciousness than the falling man has in stretching out his hands. Or, on the contrary, I may have been separately conscious in each little instant; but in the shaken condition of the brain may not have had power to spare for gluing together these instants and knitting them into a whole. It may be it was only memory which failed. I cite the case to show the precarious character of self-consciousness. It appears and disappears. Our life is glorified by its presence, and from it obtains its whole significance. Whatever we are convinced possesses it we certainly declare to be a person. Yet it is a gradual acquisition, and must be counted rather a goal than a possession. Under it, as the height of our being, are ranged the three other stages,–consciousness, reflex action, and unconsciousness.


James’s Psychology, ch. x.

Royce’s Studies of Good and Evil, ch. vi.-ix.

Ferrier’s Philosophy of Consciousness, in his Philosophical Remains.

Calkins’s Introduction to Psychology, bk. ii.

Wundt’s Human and Animal Psychology, lect. xxvii.


Preface.  •  I. The Double Aspect of Goodness  •  II. Misconceptions of Goodness  •  III. Self-Consciousness  •  IV. Self-Direction  •  V. Self-Development  •  VI. Self-Sacrifice  •  VII. Nature and Spirit  •  VII. The Three Stages of Goodness

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Nature of Goodness
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