E.F. Schumacher & Friends on What Makes Us Human: The Consciousness Recoil

“Self-awareness, which constitutes the difference between animal and man, is a power of unlimited potential, a power which not only makes man human but gives him the possibility, even the need, to become superhuman. As the Scholastics used to say: “Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est” — which means that to be properly human, you must go beyond the merely human.”

— (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 38)

The question “what makes us human?”, or “what does it mean to be human?”, is a doozy. To some, it’s the central question of the human experience. To others, it’s among armchair philosophy’s greatest sins of pontification. While children starve all over the world and people are out there doing the real and useful work of answering those hungry questions, philosophers debate unanswerable questions with detestable ambiguity. But are these seemingly abstract pursuits really devoid of practical value?

Maybe not; perhaps what makes us distinctly human is precisely the avenue by which we may best ameliorate our humanity. We don’t know exactly what makes us human. Maybe some blend of opposable thumbs, highly-developed prefrontal cortexes, and taxes. But none of these truly make us human. Animals could have thumbs, large brains, and even pay taxes without being considered human (or maybe not?).

In A Guide for the Perplexed, economist E.F. Schumacher provides his answer:

"Moving from the animal to the human level, who would seriously deny the addition…of new powers? What precisely they are has become a matter of controversy in modern times, but the fact that man is able to do — and is doing — innumerable things which lie totally outside the range of possibilities of even the most highly developed animals cannot be disputed…How can it be defined? What can it be called? This power z [denoting the uniquely human trait] has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself. This power, z, consciousness recoiling upon itself, opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge…I shall call it self-awareness.”

— (Schumacher, p. 17)

In short, a human may be differentiated by the ability of our evolved consciousness to recoil upon itself; self-awareness, or self-knowledge, along with a maturing theory of mind.

If we are to explore the previous idea — that whatever makes us uniquely human may also hold the greatest potential in furthering mankind’s ascent — cultivating self-awareness becomes a big deal. In a metaphorical sense, we must learn to see inside ourselves.

But in a literal sense, what does this actually mean? If a book concludes that we all need greater self-awareness, what should we go home and actually do? It’s really tough and problematic to translate “seeing inside ourselves” into an actual action. Schumacher continues in this vein, noting the difficulty of the task:

“There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see…A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, this is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity. It lies in what the Bible calls man’s ‘inward parts.’…The senses are man’s most outward instruments; when it is a case of ‘they, seeing, see not; and hearing they hear not,’ the fault lies not with the senses but with the inward parts.”

— (Schumacher, ibid, p. 44)

It takes a “special effort” to mobilize these uniquely human faculties. Great. Continued effort is difficult enough to maintain as is, not to mention when it’s towards some amorphous, mysterious goal such as self-knowledge. Regardless, as mathematician and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky writes, the responsibility is shifted onto our shoulders to further guide our evolution:

“…man as we know him is not a completed being; that nature develops him only up to a certain point and then leaves him, either to develop further, by his own efforts and devices, or to live and die such as he was born…Evolution of man…will mean the development of certain inner qualities and features which usually remain undeveloped, and cannot develop by themselves.”

— P.D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, First Lecture (1951)

But this duality strikes a chord; that there’s a muffled entity within us totally aware of and transfixed by the complexities of existence, truth, reality, and meaning. In Tim Urban’s spectacular essay, Religion for the Nonreligious, he puts this together:

“The battle of the Higher Being against the animals — of trying to see through the fog to clarity — is the core internal human struggle…part of the same core conflict between our primal past and our enlightened future.”

The battle is how much of ourselves, our time and our energy, we commit towards clearing the fog. But again, “clearing the fog” is as mysterious and unclear as “seeing inside ourselves”. What do we do?

Schumacher responds:

“Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

— E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 318

Alan Watts echoes with a distilled, hard-boiled jab to the conventional ontology:

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

— Watts, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, p. 21

I’m 23 and unemployed, so I can’t rightfully say what catalyzes the proverbial experience (of course, in my next sentence, I will nevertheless attempt just that). Still, the gist I’ve gotten from my meager vantage point is to seek out anything that promotes the dis-identification of ourselves with our ordinary, default state of consciousness, where we own and are the thoughts and feelings we experience. Coiling consciousness so as to witness itself, cultivating an aloofness to that “I” at the center of our universe, is the human work both Schumacher’s traditional wisdom and Watts’ experimentation drive at. The actionable components of this work vary by person, but often include forms of: meditation, prayer, yoga, writing, reading, learning, psychedelics, art, music, travel, deeply honest conversations, and so on. If you have more ideas, please help grow the list; there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Finding your introspective thing could take anywhere from 5 days to 500 lifetimes, and I can do very little other than with us both luck. But once the vehicle is established, a path is forged. And at a point farther down this line, something really interesting seems to happen. The enquiry often becomes a self-propelling entity, swallowing whole the very enquirer. We actually become our own inquiries, and can be nourished by nothing other than various responses to that embodied question.

Carl Jung is a great example of this, having ventured as far inwards as perhaps anyone from the West, characterizing his life as such:

“The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate my answer, for otherwise I am dependent upon the world’s answer. That is a suprapersonal life task, which I accomplish only by effort and with difficulty.”

— Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 318

Jung affirms the inward path’s inherent effort and difficulty. There seems to be no panacea, magic bullet, or fast track; only discipline. James Joyce attests to the engulfing singularity of self-enquiry with a striking line on his autobiographical protagonist, Stephen Dedalus:

“Beside the savage desire within him to realize the enormities which he brooded on nothing was sacred.”

—  Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 106

Or from Evelyn Underhill:

“He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”

— Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness

Keiji Nishitani, at the forefront of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, writes of the blackhole that opens up when we invert our gaze from without to within, from the utilitarian view driving animals and humans alike to the uniquely human faculty of teleological inquiry:

“Man ordinarily grasps himself on the field of reason as a rational being. But once on the field of nihility, he is no longer able to express what his self itself is. Self and things alike, at the ground of their existence, turn into a single great question mark.”

— Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, p. 124

Nishitani continues on to reiterate Schumacher’s original claim, that “to be properly human, you must go beyond the merely human”, by calling into question those very rational foundations from which we explore the human condition:

“But if the possession of reason in general is the distinctive trait of mankind, and if man be definable as animal rationale, then it follows as a matter of course that the existential investigation of human existence…and its existential interpretation lie beyond the scope of the ‘human,’…For a fundamental investigation of human existence, the man-centered point of view, the kind of outlook in which man sets himself as the center, has to be broken through.”

— Nishitani, Ibid, p. 172

And this is a, if not the, central friction between science and spirituality: the culpability of rationality and logic in limiting our understanding of what it means to be human, the nature of reality, etc.

Nishitani may be right in that so long as we retain the man-centered point of view, the utilitarian, we prevent ourselves from progressing the enquiry. This is where many people roll their eyes and put down the book — or the essay — because divesting of rationalism leads into the spiritual mumbo-jumbo where faith appears and most modern humans are turned off.

But this is a common misconception, that spirituality in the sense of pursuing self-knowledge asks us to abandon rationality. It doesn’t.

Nishitani is wrong if he’s asserting that progress can only occur via a suspension or transcendence of rationalism. It simply necessitates that we admit subjective experience as data. It is perfectly rational to begin meditating, or painting, or running, and to observe the internal experience. It’s only irrational to expect results overnight. We noted individuals before, Jung and Joyce, whose entire lives were spent in these internal pursuits. Monks, priests, and artists devote years, decades, and lifetimes to their cultivation. Perhaps this hesitation is why not until recently did the neuroscience of meditation emerge as a field of scientific study, and already the preliminary results are fascinating.

This is precisely what Schumacher calls for in the arena of existential investigations:

“The main concern of existentialism, it has been noted, is that experience has to be admitted as evidence…”

— Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 126

Of course, Schumacher does also hold that “life is bigger than logic”, but his point is that one needn’t believe this in the slightest to rationally begin investigating. There is no faith required other than in one’s own subjective experience. Buddha’s quest was an empirical one. As Robert Thurman describes:

“The Buddha taught that humans should investigate the relative world of material and mental nature, in order to understand it thoroughly and improve the lives of all beings. They should investigate not only through their senses, but also through an intensified use of the subjective human mind itself, using reason and introspection, and cultivating critical thought and focused concentration to degrees of acuity unimaginable to the normal, untrained individual.”

— Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 17

Thurman brings us full circle, back to the “intensified use of the subjective human mind”, recoiling consciousness upon itself, the humanity found in becoming witness and student to our own conscious experience.

But this line of logic would imply that many of us aren’t really human. That most of us are just animals, led around by our default modes of consciousness no fundamentally different than an ape’s, only further along evolution’s horizontal spectrum. I imagine this is somewhat true. To be fully human, then, calls for a cultivation of latent potentialities deep within the scrapyards of awareness. As Schumacher, Ouspensky, and Nishitani suggest, a going beyond the “merely human”. Exercising the capacity to ask existential questions of purpose, meaning, and truth stimulates that divergent strand of evolution. We needn’t answer, but wrestle with them:

“…the real problems of life have to be grappled with. To repeat the quotation from Thomas Aquinas, ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things,’ and ‘grappling’ with the help of slender knowledge is the real stuff of life, whereas solving problems with the help of ‘the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things’ is merely one of many useful and perfectly honorable human activities designed to save labor.”

— Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 134

The thing about grappling with the “real stuff of life” is that we have to do it ourselves. It can’t be absorbed from a book or by listening to somebody else relate their own trip; it can be found nowhere but our own experience. By being meta-aware, conscious of our own consciousness, witness to our thoughts & emotions rather than owner of them, we can begin to dislodge the “I” that keeps us from utilizing the uniquely human capacity for self-awareness. This isn’t just theory or abstractions. Studies are continually finding that by training the subjective mind, we can alter our very experience of life itself, for the better.

Asking that question, “why”, stimulates precisely the brand of subjective awareness that is unique to human beings. No other being on earth has the ability to ask why. To ask why is to ask questions of ourselves — and life — that otherwise remain off limits.

Schumacher characterizes the guidance of these inquiries inward, far from pontification, as essential for the well-being of secular society:

“Instruction on cultivating self-knowledge…is the main content of all traditional religious teachings but has been almost entirely lacking in the West for the last hundred years. That is why we cannot trust one another, why most people live in a state of continuous anxiety, why despite all our technologies communication becomes ever more difficult, and why we need ever more organized welfare to plaster over the gaping holes torn by the progressive disappearance of spontaneous social cohesion.”

— Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 134

And this is largely true; our exclusive subscription to the objectivity of science crowded out much of the subjective realm. The idea of “cultivating self-knowledge” was associated with the religious institutions that the scientific revolution sought to liberate mankind from. But today we’re a culture of people who largely have the ability to think for ourselves, to trust our own judgment over what the Church, or the Internet, tells us. The kind of humans around today are better suited for the pursuit of self-knowledge than ever before. We cannot, and now largely don’t want, to outsource the work of telling us how to live onto any outside entity.

We are now more than ever well-equipped to ask ourselves that consequential question: what does it mean to be human? Schumacher’s venture is that to be human is to both recognize and utilize that uniquely human potential for self-awareness, stimulated by an intensified study of our own experience.