Character and Consciousness
It would be good to have a philosophy of character analogous to the philosophy of action or perception or emotion or thought or imagination or consciousness or the self. But we don’t. The subject hardly exists. I will take some steps to remedy that, focusing on the relationship between character and consciousness. First, let’s pin the subject down a bit, given its rather nebulous status. The OED gives us “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual” for “character”. This is admirably concise and helpfully conjoins the mental with the moral. When we turn to “personality” we find “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s character”; so, personality consists of the mental and moral qualities that constitute character—the one defines the other. Neither definition brings in the concept of a trait, but it is common to speak of personality and character traits: thus, character is to be defined as a combination of mental and moral traits, varying from person to person. What traits? A representative list would include: honesty, loyalty, generosity, impatience, integrity, empathy, bravery, fairness, wit, conscientiousness, flexibility, curiosity, and paranoia—along with their opposites. The first thing we feel inclined to say about this psychological terrain is that it is unconscious—or not conscious. But in what way is it not conscious? Not like the Freudian unconscious, which is the result of repression: no one represses their character traits—they are not generally shameful or disturbing to consciousness. They are not the source of neurosis or jokes or dreams or slips of the tongue. Nor are they like unconscious memories, which can be retrieved with mental effort; they were not once conscious and now lie in wait for conscious retrieval. Nor are they comparable to the unconscious mastery of our native language—computational machinery operating behind the scenes. They have their own sui generis form of unconsciousness, apparently. But they are also accessible to consciousness in another way: they can erupt into consciousness. Sartre gives the example of seeing a man walk into a room and feeing a sudden rush of conscious revulsion coupled with a strong desire to shun this man. You thereby know that you hate him. Sartre calls this a “state”: it transcends the conscious convulsion that manifests it. It is not yet a trait of character, but it might be a symptom of such a trait, because you might be constitutionally prone to irrational hatreds and general interpersonal hostility. You might have the trait of irascibility. This Sartre calls a “quality” (note that the dictionary employs the same word). In fact, we don’t have a developed vocabulary for the type of property in which character consists, so we choose whatever locution that comes to hand. This suggests a certain ontological aporia, and is worth bearing in mind. The ontology of character is obscure, even ineffable. Some may reach for that philosophical catchall “disposition”: but that would be to try to reduce character to its manifestations in consciousness and behavior, and anyway would run into familiar problems with contrived dispositions in the absence of underlying character traits. In any case, our question has to do with the relationship between character and consciousness: between character reality and character phenomenology. Do we ever have flashes of conscious insight into our character? Is character necessarily hidden from consciousness? It is far from obvious that this is true; we might well experience such flashes. There might be something it is like to be irascible. An irascible man might be well aware of his tendency to irascible emotions and behavior—what with those upsurges of angry feeling at the slightest provocation or no provocation at all. He might feel perpetually on the brink of a violent outburst. That can happen for limited time periods in the life of many people, so what is to stop it occurring over a whole lifetime? A person could be consciously irascible and know himself to be so (or generous, empathetic, impatient, etc.) For example, it is perfectly obvious to me that I am an impatient individual, because I feel impatience all the time: I don’t infer it from my behavior—it isn’t a theoretical posit designed to explain what I observe. I’m not agnostic about it or self-deluded or plain ignorant. I am fully conscious of my impatient nature (and I try to curb it, with limited success—oh how I suffer!). This puts the lie to a well-known bromide about the epistemology of character, namely that there is no first-person privilege about it. The idea is that I am as ill-placed as another person to know my character, because I have only behavior to go on; it is nothing like knowing I am in pain or thinking. Certainly, one can be fallible about one’s character, but it does seem true that consciousness can reveal character quite plainly, and in a way not available to anyone else. There is something it is like to have a particular personality type—a certain specific noema (in Husserl’s terminology). Character can be an intentional object of a conscious act. It isn’t always but it can be. Why isn’t it always? Who knows—maybe it is just a matter of cognitive economy, not wasting valuable conscious space on what it is not necessary to consciously know. But it does tell us that character occupies a strangely ambiguous position vis-a-vis consciousness: it both is and isn’t conscious (not at the same time, of course). I think that in general people know quite well what kind of person they are. Their character is displayed to their consciousness—in all its gruesome glory. They may flinch from it and try to avoid it, but they know—they know perfectly well. How could you not know if you are a constitutionally envious or ill-intentioned person? You have an envious consciousness, an ill-intentioned inner aura. You know that your character exists and you know its lineaments—this is much clearer to you than the nature of someone else’s character. There is no symmetry between your knowledge of your own character and your knowledge of other people’s character (there is a real other character problem). Your own character never surprises you in the way other people’s character can: it never comes as a revelation, a shock, a bitter disappointment. Your character is hooked up to your conscious cognitive faculties in a way that other people’s character is not (same brain, remember). I don’t sit around speculating about my character (“Maybe I’m an exceptionally loyal generous person, though I strike myself as a bit of a bastard”). Character has close connections with emotions, and I am well aware of those: how could a generous person have these emotions? Thus, people try to conceal their character from others: they know quite well that they are a certain way and they don’t want other people to know—they are not in the dark about it, as others are. They consciously exploit the first-person third-person asymmetry. People probably start to do this in the teenage years when social manipulation sets in and self-reflection gets a grip; then it becomes a way of life. It isn’t that they are blissfully unaware of their character faults, or what are deemed such; their conscious self-knowledge is what guides their social behavior. I myself constantly conceal my impatience—it is not an attractive trait. I adopt a look of benign calm, spiritual ease, while inside I am seething with impatience. Nobody would want to hang out with me if I didn’t do this. It is not news to me to be told that I’m an impatient individual. Anyway, character is manifested in consciousness. It has a phenomenology. It is “intuitable”. It is not a transcendent mental reality, slyly escaping the searchlight of consciousness. It is noteworthy that the character traits often deemed inaccessible to consciousness are the bad ones; it isn’t supposed that people are unconscious of their good qualities. Shades of Freudian repression here: we render unconscious what we are ashamed of being. But wouldn’t it be odd if the only unconscious character traits were a subset of the totality? They should all be equally conscious or unconscious, but then the bad ones should be as conscious as the good ones, which are not unconscious. The truth is that our characters are uniformly accessible to consciousness; not constantly before the mind, to be sure, but capable of being known by conscious awareness. We are not a closed book to ourselves, as the Freudian legacy would have it, but an open secret (open to ourselves, closed to others). Character and consciousness are therefore interwoven. Character traits are not covert states of an unconscious medium but intentional objects of conscious mental acts. We are aware of ourselves as characterful beings. The first finding of the philosophy of character is: character is conscious.
 The Transcendence of the Ego (1957), p. 63.
 I haven’t discussed such familiar questions as whether character traits should be regarded as reducible or irreducible, real or fictitious, indispensable or eliminable. Are they primitives in the psychology of personality or explicable in other terms? I tend towards a realist view in which they act as internal causes of behavior and conscious events. They are not dispositional properties defined by their manifestations. Bravery is not like solubility: to call someone brave is not to say what he or she would do in such and such circumstances; it’s more like saying a bridge is sturdy or a tree leafy.