IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Speaking of Consciousness

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Speaking of consciousness

The cardinal sin of philosophy, committed all too often, is to use terms that are ambiguous.

By Bill Meacham | The Rag Blog | January 15, 2013

The philosophy club is currently studying Philosophy of Mind, a topic fraught with ambiguity. People use terms such as “mind,” “consciousness,” “awareness,” “experience,” and so forth as if everyone knows what they mean. But they can mean very different things to different people; and the cardinal sin of philosophy, committed all too often, is to use terms that are ambiguous.

You start out talking about one thing and end up talking about something else even though you are using the same word. That’s called equivocation, and it is bad because it promotes confusion rather than clarity.

One of the things philosophers claim to be good at is logical definition and clarification of terms, so in this essay I propose some definitions of salient terms. I do not claim that these are the only correct definitions. I merely claim that if we all agree to use words the same way, we’ll have a productive conversation rather than talking past each other, and that this is the way I recommend. Don’t expect any grand conclusions, just (I hope) some clarity.

Proposed definitions

Of all the concepts relating to mind, I propose that we use experience as the most inclusive. It means the subjective aspect of a person’s taking into account his or her world. By subjective I mean detectable or observable in principle by only one person, the one who is taking his or her world into account. This is in contrast to objective, by which I mean detectable or observable by more than one person.

This definition of “experience” is a bit circular, as “detect” and “observe” are, if not synonyms, perhaps subsets of “experience.” That’s unavoidable. I can’t give an ostensive definition of “experience” because our experience (the experience that each of us has) is private; it can’t be observed or pointed to by anyone else.

At any rate, “experience” is the broadest category, including everything from being awake, focused and alertly paying attention (to something) down to hazily and dimly having a feeling (of something) in the background, so to speak, even so far in the background that it is not present to our attention at all. The latter is what some call “non-conscious experience.”

Consciousness is a subset of “experience.” I prefer to use the phrase “being conscious,” because “consciousness,” a noun, implies something fixed and substantial, but our experience is ever changing. Being conscious involves the following:

  • The world is presented to you with vividness or intensity; in other words, you are paying attention to some aspect of the world; and
  • At the same time at some level you notice, or think about, what you are paying attention to; and
  • All this happens with sufficient intensity to leave a memory.

Being conscious entails some degree of complexity of interiority, both paying attention to the world and thinking about it or at least having some mental representation of what you are paying attention to. What we call conscious experience has some element of thinking about what we are paying attention to.

Consciousness happens when attention is focused on something — that is, something is present vividly — and at the same time there is some thinking about that same thing. Without the thinking, there is experience, but it is not memorable enough to be called conscious experience.

Being acutely conscious is one end of a spectrum of kinds of experience. I use the terms awareness or being aware for the entire spectrum, particularly the less vivid and acute end.

To point out what I mean: until I called it to your attention, you were probably not conscious of the chair pressing against your seat and back. You were not conscious of it, i.e., you were not attending to it; but nevertheless you were aware of it, it was present in your experience.

Consider the so-called consciousness of animals. We cannot know for sure, but we can imagine that the world is presented quite vividly to a dog, but we doubt that the dog thinks about it much. The dog’s attention seems to shift quite rapidly as it sniffs at one thing and then barks at another with no behavioral evidence of there being any connection between the two.

Consider highway hypnosis, times when the driver is unable to recall specific moments or events during extended periods of driving. Certainly the driver is aware of — n the sense of being responsive to — his or her surroundings, the other cars on the road, the turns and intersections and so forth; but he or she drives automatically or habitually, without thinking about it.

In both cases I would rather say that the dog or person is aware, rather than conscious, of its or his or her surroundings. Others may use the term “awareness” differently. This is how I recommend using it. Because “being conscious” ordinarily connotes clarity and distinctness of perception, I would like to use “being aware” to denote the broad spectrum of ways we experience and take into account our environment, from clear and distinct perception of publicly-observable things or our private ideas to vague and obscure presentations of moods, bodily sensations, the not-fully-attended-to physical environment, etc.

Let’s reserve “being conscious” for wakingly and explicitly being aware.

My point is that clear and distinct perception is not the only form of being aware; in fact is it only one end of a continuum, at the other end of which are vague and indistinct presentations, emotional and physical feelings, and finally subliminally or subconsciously presented objects of which we can only with the greatest of difficulty become explicitly conscious.

That’s how I would like to use these terms. But there are other uses, and it is useful to take a look at them so you can recognize them when you come across them. Particularly slippery is the term “consciousness.”

Other uses: ‘conscious’ and ‘consciousness’

The literature on consciousness contains many different meanings of the term. A very good list is found in Consciousness, A User’s Guide, by Adam Zeman. Zeman says that the origin of the term is the Latin scio, meaning “I know” and cum, “with.” This implies that consciousness is “knowledge with,” shared knowledge, knowledge shared with another person or knowledge shared with yourself (as when you talk to yourself). The Latin conscientia means a witness to the facts, whether external or in the workings of the mind.(1)

The first sense of the term “conscious” is simply being awake. When you are awake you are capable of making a well-integrated response to your environment. Humorously we can say that consciousness is that annoying interlude between naps.

The second sense of “conscious” is being aware. To be conscious is to be aware of something. In this sense, “consciousness” is ordinary experience, which is always experience of something, such as people, trees, books, food — all the things around us — or of subjective things such as bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc., the contents of consciousness.

Zeman says, “The interplay of sensation, memory, emotion and action is the foundation of ordinary experience.”(2) He quotes William James in Principles of Psychology, as saying that consciousness is “the current content of perceptual experience.”

However — and here is where the definition of the term gets slippery — sometimes the term “consciousness” means not the content but the container, that which holds or includes the content. Consider phrases such as “It was not in my consciousness” and “expanding your consciousness.” Clearly the metaphor is that consciousness contains something else, and if consciousness is expanded it can contain more things or perhaps the same things more vividly.

As quoted in Zeman, James lists several characteristics of consciousness.(3) In the following list, substitute for “consciousness” “the content of perceptual experience”. If the sentence does not make sense, substitute “the container of perceptual experience”.

  • Consciousness is stable for short periods of time, up to a few seconds. [Content]
  • Consciousness is changeful over time. [Content]
  • Consciousness is selective, with a foreground and a background, and a limited capacity. [Container, that which has capacity. But also content, in that foreground and background are contents.]
  • Attention can be directed, one can shift the focus of consciousness. [Container. The container focuses on some of the contents to the exclusion of others.]
  • Consciousness ranges over innumerable contents. [Container]
  • Consciousness is continuous over time, in the sense that memory allows one to connect what one is conscious of in the present with what one was conscious of in the past. [Container. Certainly the contents vary over time.]
  • Consciousness is “intentional,” in that it is of something, directed at something. [Container]
  • Consciousness is aspectual, with a limited point of view, conditioned by the perspective of your viewpoint. [Container]
  • Consciousness is personal, involving a subject. [This is the most problematic of these assertions. Is the container the subject? Or are some of the contents the subject?]

Yet another meaning of the term “consciousness” is mind or the subjective, interior aspect of the human being. Zeman says, ”…’conscious’ in this third sense can be used to report our acquaintance with any state of affairs whatsoever….”(4), whether public or private. In this sense you are conscious of anything that passes through your mind, and the term “conscious” means “knowing.”

Consciousness in this sense (the state of knowing) is related to intentions and purposes, as in “a conscious attempt to influence the proceedings.”(5) There is a link between consciousness and volition, the act of willing, or its outcome, deliberate action. This sense of “consciousness” bridges perception and action. You do something deliberately when you know that you are doing it and plan and intend to do it.

Another meaning is the way you interpret your world in a more global sense, particularly politically. Marxists talk about “bourgeois consciousness” or “proletarian consciousness,” meaning the categories people in those economic classes use to think about economic or political events or their place in the social order, particularly if those categories are not examined but instead are used uncritically. In this sense “consciousness” refers to characteristics of the container. The container is like a filter or colored lens, such that you pay more attention to certain contents than to others without realizing that you are doing so.

Finally, the term may be used to refer to a conscious being such as a person or even a deity: “He could sense a consciousness somewhere in the distance” or “a vast consciousness watching over us.” Such figurative speech — technically called synecdoche, using a part to represent the whole — is not at all how discussions of mind would use the term, however.

‘Self-conscious’ and ‘self-consciousness’

The relationship between consciousness and self-consciousness is as confused as the meaning of “consciousness.” Some say that self-consciousness is an essential component of consciousness and other say it is not. They are using the terms “consciousness” and “self-consciousness” in different senses.

Zeman helpfully lists several common meanings of the term “self-conscious.”(6) The first is awkward or prone to embarrassment. Self-consciousness is excessive sensitivity to the attention of others when it is directed towards us. An essential element of self-consciousness in this sense is knowing that others are conscious of us.

Another sense of ”self-conscious” is self-detecting. We can detect things that are happening to us or are caused by us, as opposed to happening to or caused by someone else. We ascribe this knowledge in greater and greater degree to children as they grow out of infancy. The infant, we surmise, has little self-consciousness in the sense of being able to detect what happens as a result of its own activity as opposed to someone else’s. As children grow older they acquire self-consciousness in this sense.

An elaboration of this sense of self-consciousness is self-recognizing. When you are self-conscious, the contents of your experience include a concept or idea of yourself, a self-representation. This gives rise, says Zeman, to second-order evaluative emotions such as envy, pride, guilt, and shame, which require a sense (concept) of yourself as the object of others’ attentions. First-order emotions, such as joy, anger, sadness, interest, disgust and fear, do not presuppose any self-representation.

Having an idea of yourself, you can then pay attention to your experience in a different way, knowing that it is subjective. This is another meaning of “self-conscious”: knowing that you are conscious and paying attention, not just to the contents of consciousness, but to the fact of being conscious as well (which then becomes one of the contents of consciousness).

You distinguish between things that are open to public inspection, such as physical things, and things that are private, such as dreams. You conceive of yourself as subject of experience, not just as a person being observed by others. You pay attention to the subjectivity of experience in addition to the other objects of experience.

Finally, you can speak of being self-conscious in a broader sense as having self-knowledge, your knowledge of the entire psychological and social context in which you come to know yourself.

Consciousness and self-consciousness

Sometimes being conscious entails thinking about your subjective experience while experiencing something, rather than — or in addition to — thinking about the thing itself. You put some attention on the fact that attention is focused, i.e., that you are conscious of something, as well as on the thing itself. That this type of experience is always vivid and leaves memories leads some to believe that consciousness always entails some degree of self-consciousness.

However I think this is not the case. We need to be careful about the meaning of our words here. Certainly you do not have to have self-knowledge in order to be awake and responsive to your surroundings. The question is whether ordinary human experience always contains some element — sometimes more pronounced and sometimes less so — of knowledge that you are conscious. I think careful observation of experience will show that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not, but I am open to discussion about the matter.

What we call conscious experience often, but not always, has some element of knowing that you are conscious, of paying attention to what you are doing. What is always present in vivid experience that leaves memories is, in addition to the object being paid attention to, thinking that is vivid enough to be noticed and that bears some relation to the object of attention.

The more such thinking is present, the more vivid is your ordinary experience and the stronger your memory. The thinking may be about the object or it may be about the subjectivity of your experience or both. But it is not necessary that it be about your subjectivity. It is enough that it be about the object.


Being conscious or being aware always entails being conscious or aware of something. This “ofness” is called “intentionality” in the philosophical literature, and the meaning of “intention” is different from its meaning in ordinary usage. “Intention” in the normal sense means your plan to make something happen. It is more than just desire; it entails some degree of determination to make it happen and thus some amount of thinking about how to accomplish it. The technical term means something else. Here are two explanations:

“Intentionality” is a technical term used by philosophers to refer to that capacity of the mind by which mental states refer to, or are about, or are of objects and states of affairs in the world other than themselves. … The English technical term comes not from the English “intention” but from the German Intentionalität and that in turn from Latin.(7)

The standard philosophical term for aboutness is intentionality, and … it “comes by metaphor” from the Latin intendere arcum in, which means to aim a bow and arrow at (something). This image of aiming or directedness is central in most philosophical discussions of intentionality.(8)

Well, that’s all folks. As I said, I have no profound insights to pass on, only recommendations for using language in a mutually agreeable way.

But I will say this: If it is important to know ourselves, as Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi advised, then being able to speak without ambiguity about mind, experience, consciousness and so forth is not just a good intellectual exercise. It is important for self-understanding and hence for self-improvement as well.

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin’s ’60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

(1) Zeman, p. 15.
(2) Ibid, p. 18.
(3) Ibid., pp. 18-19.
(4) Ibid., p. 20.
(5) Ibid., p. 21.
(7) Ibid., pp. 21-29.
(7) Searle, p. 28.
(8) Dennett, p. 333

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company Back Bay Books, 1991.
Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Zeman, Adam. Consciousness, A User’s Guide. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

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