I believe that the state I’ve termed ‘auto-pilot’ is common and okay. Eat a meal without any presence. Go to work for eight hours, come home a few moments later. Partake in a long and witty conversation without a single thought. Have a night out with friends and miss it. Max Weber called this state the ‘inarticulate half-consciousness’ – I think it is very human, and thus very social. He described it like this (Economy and Society, 21-2):
‘In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to “be aware” of it in a vague sense than he is to “know” what he is doing or be explicitly conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit. Only occasionally and in the uniform action of large numbers . . . is the subjective meaning of the action, whether rational or irrational, brought clearly into consciousness. The ideal type of meaningful action where the meaning is fully conscious and explicit is a marginal case.’
This is why story telling can be a beautiful constant if you’re with a partner that insists on constantly knowing your thoughts (if you don’t tell a story, they’ll likely tell themselves one). It’s also why you should never completely believe that intentions can be ‘deciphered’ through actions. More specifically, it’s why sociology can never truly do what so many undergrads, laymen and chatterers think it can: provide us with a grand method for analysing (and *gasp* accurately and consistently predicting) social action in all its forms (still… we do what we can).
Now, let’s deal with a criticism some readers (in my mind at least) will probably make:
‘But Christian, the phrase “half-consciousness” implicitly suggests that there is such a thing as a “whole-consciousness”. I’m reading what you’re not saying, and that seems like a positivist claim if ever there was one – and, as everyone knows, positivism is derp.’
First of all, dear reader, that’s a mighty sharp brain you have there. This is why I coined the less positivist term ‘auto-pilot’ (because it’s all in the language, right?). But even if I didn’t, it can be wasteful to throw out ideas simply because they come packaged in a disagreeable argument. Passing statements like “I don’t agree with X”, or “Such and such thinker is an idiot” often take what could be any number of insights or observations and pin them to a single object – be it a school, discipline, or human body – which can then easily be rejected. While this can be useful as conversational shorthand, it can develop into a habit that stunts intellectual development. Besides, even if it is a positivist claim, does that mean you can’t relate at all to the state I’m talking about?
At any rate, I know that this state is certainly a real thing for me, in that it is a corner in the court of my lived experience. The fact that Weber, a German from way back, possibly thought along the same lines makes me think that I am not alone in this (thank goodness for books saying what friends and family won’t!). Is it just Weber and I, or have you been there (kind of) too?