The confused conceptions of consciousness

Where philosophers have gone wrong

The emergence of the vocabulary of consciousness

The term ‘consciousness’ and its cognates are surprisingly late arrivals in the English vocabulary. No occurrence is to be found in Shakespeare. The first recorded case according to the Oxford English Dictionary is in the early seventeenth century. Initially ‘to be conscious’, like its Latin prototype ‘conscius’, meant: to be privy to something or some secret. So one might be said to be conscious to a murder or to an assignation. Applied to a person, it meant sharing a secret with another, and its common form was ‘to be conscious of such-and-such [information] to A [a person]’ from which it rapidly mutated into ‘to be conscious of such-and-such to oneself’ when the secret was not shared. What one was said to be conscious to oneself could be facts in general, facts about other people, and facts about oneself. By mid-century ‘to another’ and ‘to oneself’ had become dispensable, and ‘consciousness to something’ was transformed into ‘consciousness of something’. What one could be conscious of was any piece of information, including past, present, and future facts about oneself. The objects of consciousness were not initially subjective mental phenomena. When these were incorporated, they were limited to what one can feel, such as sensations, emotions, and moods. ‘Self-conscious’ was a mid-seventeenth century innovation. ‘Being conscious’ (i.e. awake) as opposed to ‘being unconscious’, as well as ‘subconscious’ are mid-nineteenth century additions, and ‘class-consciousness’, ‘money-conscious’, and ‘dress-conscious’ are twentieth-century supplements. By then the vocabulary of consciousness had become a useful and unproblematic array of relatively specialized instruments in our linguistic toolkit, which will be examined below.

Unfortunately ‘conscious’ and its family fell into the hands of philosophers in the mid-seventeenth century. The tale begins in France with Descartes’s novel use of ‘conscius’ (in Latin) and ‘la conscience’ or ‘conscient’ (in French). It occurs but once in his Meditations (1641) but becomes prominent in his Replies to Objections and later writings. It was Descartes who first invoked the idea of consciousness as a mark of the mental, and confined its extension to the contents of a person’s mind to which only he is privy. Consciousness of the contents of one’s own mind (which Descartes misleadingly denominated ‘thoughts’) is, he argued, indubitable, infallible, and transparent. Consciousness is confined to the present operations of the mind and is a cognitive faculty. We cannot be conscious of something’s being so unless it is so. We cannot have a ‘thought’ (in the extended sense) without knowing that we do and cannot make a mistake in taking ourselves to be thinking, doubting, supposing, seeming to perceive, feeling an emotion or mood. This novel notion rapidly caught on, and was further developed by John Locke, who introduced an epistemological twist: we know our thoughts, or more generally our experiences, by means of an inner sense (subsequently denominated ‘introspection’), for we perceive our perceptions. Consciousness of the operations of the mind is self-consciousness, in as much as one is conscious of one’s inner states and experiences as being states and experiences of one’s self).

It was Descartes who first invoked the idea of consciousness as a mark of the mental, and confined its extension to the contents of a person's mind to which only he is privy.

The faults in the early modern conception of consciousness

In almost every respect this philosophical conception of consciousness is mistaken. The mistakes have played havoc with our reflections ever since the seventeenth century.

It is correct that the sincere first-person use of many psychological expressions is subjectively indubitable. If one feels a pain one cannot doubt that one is in pain. If one thinks it is time to go, one cannot doubt that one does. If one is afraid of tomorrow’s examination, one cannot doubt one is. It is also correct that in many such cases, one cannot be mistaken. One can’t mistake a pain for a tickle, or one’s thought that 2 + 2 = 4 for the thought that 2 + 2 = 22. And it is correct that in all cases that seem to involve such certainty and infallibility, truthfulness guarantees truth. But it is all too easy to misconstrue these simple truths. For we mistake the impossibility of doubt for the presence of certainty and think that it is certainty that excludes doubt . We similarly conflate the exclusion of mistake for the presence of infallible knowledge. And finally, we think that truthfulness guarantees truth because we know indubitably and infallibly how things consciously are with us.

It is correct that when we have enough evidence to make it certain that things are so, then our certainty excludes doubt, for one cannot both doubt that things are so and be certain that they are. But doubt may also be excluded by senselessness. If it makes no sense to doubt something to be so, then it can make no sense to be certain either. For there is nothing for certainty to exclude. And that is how it is with regard to a subset of psychological expressions. For ‘I doubt whether I am in pain, let’s see!’ has no use. ‘I think I expect Jack, but I must find out’ is similarly illicit. Were someone to utter this sentence in normal circumstances we should not know what he was trying to say. When doubt is logically excluded, its exclusion makes no room (leaves no logical space) for certainty or for knowledge.

Similarly, the fact that truthfulness guarantees truth is not a consequence of the speaker’s knowledge. The speaker’s word goes, not because he has a privileged access to and so is a witness to his own consciousness, but rather because he is an articulate agent. It is not that he is in pain and knows that he is, and therefore ignorance of whether he is in pain is excluded. Rather, ignorance is logically excluded and therefore knowledge too is excluded. They are excluded by what it makes sense to say.

For we mistake the impossibility of doubt for the presence of certainty and think that it is certainty that excludes doubt.

To be sure, we are prone to claim that we know that we are in pain by introspection or inner sense. But this is only to add further confusions. There is such a thing as introspection (at which Marcel Proust excelled) but it is a form of reflection on one’s motives, reasons, actions and intentions, not a form of vision or of inner sense (which is then denominated ‘apperception’ (perception of perceptions), as Leibniz called it). For we do not perceive our pains and joys. In the Lockean tradition (elaborated by William James), inner sense is just like outer sense only (i) without a sense organ, (ii) its successful exercise is independent of observation conditions (no ‘More light, please’ and no using a telescope or magnifying glass), (iii) it is infallible and so always yields knowledge, and (iv) we know the mind better than we know the material world. But there is no such thing as a cognitive faculty miraculously immune to error, and no such thing as a faculty of perception that allows us to perceive without any organ of perception and the exercise of which is independent of circumstances of observation.

What is correct is that being articulate creatures, if we are asked whether we are in pain, whether we want this or that, whether we think things to be so, we can say so, and ignorance is excluded. The classical tradition confused the ability to say how things are with one in such respects with an ability to see (by introspection, inner sense, or apperception) how things consciously are with one. Of course, there is such a thing as not knowing what one thinks or not knowing what one wants, but these are not cases of ignorance but of indecision. For when one doesn’t know what one thinks, one does not ‘introspect’ or try to perceive one’s perceptions, one examines the evidence and makes up one’s mind, or one looks at the options and decides which is the most appealing.

It is now obvious that consciousness is not an inner sense. It is not ‘the eye of the mind’.  In so far as the mind has an eye, it has only one, and we see in it, not with it: ‘I see in my mind’s eye’, not ‘I see with my mind’s eyes’. Nor is it the mark of the mental or the psychological. There is much that may be deemed to be ‘mental’ or ‘psychological’ with regard to which truthfulness does not guarantee truth (e.g. understanding, knowing, remembering, being jealous or envious) and with respect to which the agent’s word carries little if any special weight or privilege.

We must now turn to an analytic survey of ‘consciousness’ and its cognates. This will clarify the structure of our conceptual scheme in this domain, uncontaminated by the philosophical bungling characteristic of the Cartesian and empiricist traditions.

An analysis of consciousness 

The first distinction to be drawn is between intransitive consciousness and transitive consciousness. We distinguish between being conscious and being unconscious. Consciousness is something one may lose (on fainting, when one has a high fever, when one is knocked out) and regain (on recovering consciousness). Being awake differs from being conscious in as much as it is contrasted with being asleep rather than with being unconscious. ‘Is A unconscious?’ or ‘Has A recovered consciousness?’ belong in the hospital, whereas ‘Is A asleep?’ and ‘Has A woken up?’ are more appropriate at home. Responsiveness during sleep is far greater than responsiveness during periods of unconsciousness. There are borderline cases between being conscious or unconscious. Some are signified by expressions in ordinary language, such as being semi-conscious, barely conscious, groggy, dazed, or sleep walking. Others are signified by technical terms, such as hypnotic trance, fugue, epileptic automatism. Unconsciousness is a state of a creature, though not a mental state. Consciousness is a condition for a creature to be in any occurrent mental state. A conscious state (or state of consciousness) is not a state that is conscious any more than a happy outcome is an outcome that is happy. Nor need it be a state of which one is conscious. It is no more than a state one is in while one is conscious.

A conscious state (or state of consciousness) is not a state that is conscious any more than a happy outcome is an outcome that is happy.

A subconscious belief, desire, memory or motive is one which the agent is unwilling to acknowledge, even though he behaves in accordance with it. It is not something hidden from view ‘in the subconscious mind’, but rather a missing part of a pattern or syndrome, the completion of which by the unconscious item is explanatory and the criterion of correctness for which is the subject’s acceptance of the reluctantly recognised item. The idea long antedates Freud.

Transitive consciousness is consciousness of something or some circumstance. What one is conscious of must be so; one cannot be conscious of something that does not exist or that is not the case. So it is factive. One may become and then be conscious of something (e.g. the ticking of the clock, the distress of one’s friend, one’s growing irritability), so what one is conscious of must pre-exist one’s becoming conscious of it, and must persist for a while. One may notice the momentary, but one is conscious of the relatively persistent. To become conscious of someone present or of a circumstance is to acquire knowledge. But the knowledge one acquires when one becomes conscious of someone in the bushes, or of the smell of fried bacon wafting in from the kitchen, is not achieved by effort or attained by endeavour. It is given one or thrust upon one. To become and be conscious of something is a form of cognitive receptivity. The concept of transitive consciousness is a member of a small group of verbs that include being aware of, noticing, realizing and recognizing. What we notice strikes us, what we realize dawns on us, what we are conscious of we currently have in mind, and what we are aware of sinks in. Because they are all forms of receptivity, none of them is either voluntary or involuntary, but rather non-voluntary. One cannot decide or intend to be conscious of something, nor can one order someone to be conscious of something. Whatever one is conscious of one is also aware of, but there is much that one is aware of that one is not conscious of, namely things one knows and adverts to without them being constantly before one’s mind (e.g. climate change). What may be unconscious (resentment, envy, jealousy) may become conscious. But one’s brain processes are not unconscious, but non-conscious.

Transitive consciousness may be dispositional or occurrent. Being class-conscious, money conscious, or safety conscious are dispositions, when awake to be concerned or occupied with one’s social class and the social class of others, with monetary or safety concerns. Occurrent transitive consciousness may take many forms: 1. perceptual consciousness, 2. consciousness of antecedently acquired knowledge (of facts known to one), 3. consciousness of one’s own feelings, 4. conscious-ness of one’s own actions, 5. self-consciousness.

Perceptual consciousness is a matter of having one attention caught and held by something in one’s field of perception, usually on the periphery, as when one becomes conscious of the ticking of the clock in the background or of a movement in the  bushes or of the smell of cooking wafting in from the kitchen.

We must explore the grounds for the modern myth that consciousness is one of the greatest mysteries of the world

Consciousness of antecedently known facts may take three forms: i. being occupied or pre-occupied with something one knows (as when one is conscious of the death of a friend), so that it is, for a time, constantly before one’s mind. ii. being conscious of something one knows which colours one’s thoughts and actions (as when one makes a visit of condolence and one’s knowledge of the grief of the person one is visiting colours one’s thoughts and affects one’s behaviour). iii. Being conscious of a piece of information which one bears in mind and which weighs with one in the process of deliberation and decision.

Consciousness of one’s own feelings, as when one is conscious of the increasing severity of the pain in one’s side, or of one’s growing anger or jealousy, or of one’s desire for something. Here too no introspection or apperception is involved, but only the intrusion upon one of pain, anger or jealousy, or a craving, urge or desire, coupled with the ability to express such feelings.

Consciousness of one’s actions may be spectatorial, as when one suddenly becomes conscious of feature of what one is doing, e.g. that one is telling the same joke twice in a lecture. But it may be agential, as when one ‘consciously and deliberately’ does something.

Self-consciousness, which may take three forms. i. embarrassment, a consequence of being observed by other people. ii. Deliberative as opposed to spontaneous creativity (‘Leonardo was a highly self-conscious artist’). iii. Proneness to reflect upon one’s own motives and reasons, upon the roots of one’s likes and dislikes in pursuit of self-knowledge (Marcel Proust).

These different forms of consciousness form a family. They are characteristic of mankind. Some are shared with other developed animals (perceptual consciousness), others are not. There is nothing mysterious about them, nor is there any mystery about the concept of consciousness. So we must explore the grounds for the modern myth that consciousness is one of the great mysteries of the world, that it is irreconcilable with a scientific view of the world, that no one knows what it is for, that it’s evolutionary warrant is a mystery. This will be done in Part 2.

For additional material and both diagrams and charts, see P.M.S Hacker, The Intellectual Powers: a Study of Human Nature (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford 2013), chapter 1.


If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation