This question notably fell in the philosophy test of the 2015 baccalaureate.
It is difficult with such a subject to engage with a historical event. It was easier to start your reflection, to hook your reader – in this case the corrector – either by a quotation, or by a literary work which would expose the opposition between individual and society as we will see in the definitions.
consciousness: very difficult to define, you will have to come back to this notion during your development. Malebranche defines consciousness as the inner feeling that one has regarding a thing of which one cannot form a clear and distinct idea. Jean-Jacques Rousseau defines it as the feeling that humans have regarding their states and their acts.
Individual: Any concrete being, given in the experience, having a unity of characters and forming a recognizable whole.
Reflection: the reflection is an image, a representation. It can also be understood as a weakened representation, a degree on which you could play in the plan.
society: State of collective life; mode of existence characterized by the life in the group
We must not stop the definitions we have just given, they can evolve. However, it is interesting to note the opposition between individual and society, two terms present in the question, and which already announced in the introduction also leads to the question that pinpoints the problem.
The problem raised by the question is the following: does the individual have a consciousness that is proper to him, irreducible, or is his consciousness shaped by society, the environment in which he lives? In other words, is the consciousness of the individual porous, leaving a passage between the environment and the individual? How does the individual integrate his environment in consciousness, shaping in turn this environment?
The small formula “is it” is characteristic of exam questions that call for a dialectical answer, an outline in three parts. There are, of course, different approaches, and we offer a classic but effective outline in the development below.
I. Society influences the consciousness of individuals
“It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness,” said Karl Marx
Consciousness is determined in relation to the individual, as Sigmund Freud reminds us in a radical way:“Our consciousness, far from being the implacable judge of which the moralists speak, is, by its origins, “social anxiety” and nothing more“.
II. But the core of consciousness of the individual remains irreducible
René Descartes, in order to formulate his famous formula cogito ergo sum, first puts the watch in brackets. By doing that, he erases the society, he excludes it. The consciousness of the individual is fundamentally without society. See more explanations on the Discourse of the method.
The conscience aspires to a piece, far from the tumult of the society. It allows me to understand what is good and evil, it is a “celestial voice”. In that, it moves away from the influences of the society: “The conscience is timid, it likes the retirement and the peace; the world and the noise frighten it”, as wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Profession of faith of the Savoyard vicar, an extract of the book IV of Emile.
III. The conscience of the individual is built in relation to itself and in relation to the relations to the society that it perceives
Friedrich Nietzsche is opposed to the conception of the permanence of the consciousness. The conscience is not a refuge in which anybody nor even the society could enter: “One believes that it is there the core of the man: what man has of permanent, of eternal, of ultimate, of more original! One holds the conscience for a given stable quantity! One denies its growth, its intermittence! One conceives it as a “unit of the organism”! This overestimation and this ridiculous ignorance of the consciousness had for happy consequence to avoid it is too fast development.”
Sartre distinguishes “in itself” and “for itself”, which makes it possible to understand that the question consciousness can be different from what it is, and that the man is a project thanks to his consciousness.
Propose your outlines and ideas, there is not only one possible correction, especially in philosophy. Do not hesitate to comment below!
→ Topics in philosophy for the 2015 French baccalaureate