The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.1.1 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Problems of Existence and Meaning

[1] The task of the self-approach is to give an account of self-identity and this, on my interpretation, is an account of the self qua subject of consciousness. Such an account must begin with consciousness, for apart from consciousness no question about the subject of consciousness can arise. I cannot know what it is to be a self if I am not conscious. Equally I cannot be a self if I cannot at least be conscious. Such native knowledge as I have of myself cannot therefore be divorced from the fact that I am conscious, and from the fact that in being conscious I am a self. Consciousness will therefore have to be subjected to an analysis if we are to give a philosophical account of the self. To comply with the self-approach the consciousness to be analysed must be first-person consciousness. Certain nineteenth-century British philosophers adopted what is essentially the self-approach. To support their views on the relation between a subject and his experiences they appealed to what they called 'the deliverances of consciousness'. Among these philosophers were J. F. Ferrier, Sir William Hamilton, and Shadworth Hodgson. It would be doing them no injustice to call them 'philosophers of consciousness', because to them it was a truth above argument that a sound philosophy began with an analysis of consciousness.

Standing in the way of any attempt to re-establish links with their tradition in philosophy are those philosophers and psychologists who more recently have denied the very existence of consciousness. The philosophers of consciousness would no doubt have greeted the proposition 'Consciousness does not exist' with the disbelief with which G. E. Moore greeted such propositions as 'Time is unreal' and 'There is no external world'. I shall therefore begin this enquiry into the nature of consciousness by considering what philosophers might have in mind when they ostensibly deny the existence of consciousness. My aim is not merely to clear a route back to a bygone tradition, but, more importantly, to explain

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how I myself understand the notion of consciousness and how I shall use it in the present study.

To deny the existence of consciousness seems a paradox, because it seems to imply that we are all unconscious, or that we should look upon ourselves as Cartesian automatons: it seems to imply that we are incapable of feeling and have no sense experience. Now it would plainly be ridiculous to believe any such thing, and we cannot seriously believe that this is what the philosopher denying the existence of consciousness has in mind. When a philosopher's position seems to be outrageously false, it is wise to consider the possibility that he is denying a particular philosophical account of the facts, and not the incontrovertible facts themselves.

Let us therefore find out what at least one philosopher has in mind when he denies the existence of consciousness. I refer to William James' famous paper 'Does "Consciousness" exist?' 10 which is the classical statement of the position. The first point that should strike us is that William James puts the word 'consciousness' in inverted commas. This should warn us that he is not referring to consciousness as ordinarily understood, but to a specific philosophical doctrine of 'Consciousness'. The word 'consciousness' had been taken up into the technical terminology of a number of philosophical systems, and it was to its employment in these systems that he took exception. This the following passage makes clear.

'To deny plumply that "consciousness" exists seems so absurd on the face of it - for undeniably "thoughts" do exist - that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function. There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing.' 11

This passage leaves us in no doubt that what James is denying is not in fact the existence of consciousness, but the correctness of certain types of description of consciousness: viz. those that entail its

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Being an 'entity' or 'aboriginal stuff', That is to say, James is disputing the truth of the descriptions certain philosophers give of consciousness. This is a far less radical challenge than is implied in the unqualified statement that consciousness does not exist. Other philosophers have not been as meticulous as James in putting the word 'consciousness' in inverted commas, before denying its existence, thus making their position seem needlessly provocative and paradoxical.

I proceed now to the substance of James' objection: his claim that consciousness is not an 'entity' or 'aboriginal stuff'. Although not mentioned by James, a statement made by Hamilton gives a good idea of the sort of view he was objecting to:

Consciousness may be compared to an internal light, by means of which, and which alone, what passes in the mind is rendered visible. Consciousness is simple, - is not composed of parts, either similar or dissimilar. It always resembles itself, differing only in the degrees of its intensity; thus, there are not various kinds of consciousness, although there are various kinds of mental modes, or states, of which we are conscious. 12

When in The Concept of Mind Ryle remarks that the myth of consciousness is a piece of para-optics, 13 he too no doubt had passages such as this in mind. But there is no need to go back as far as Hamilton to find examples of the view James and Ryle are attacking. G. E. Moore's 'Refutation of Idealism' in which he offers his analysis of sensation provides the most notable instance of the doctrine of 'consciousness' to which they took exception.

Extracts from Moore's article are actually quoted by James as representing the view he was objecting to. Moore maintains:

'We have then in every sensation two distinct elements, one which I call consciousness, and another which I call the object of consciousness. This must be so if the sensation of blue and the sensation of green, though different in one respect, are alike in another: blue is one object of sensation and green is another, and consciousness, which both sensations have in common, is different from either.' 14

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If it is doubted that this passage commits Moore to the proposition that consciousness is a sort of 'aboriginal stuff', the next passage in which he elaborates his meaning settles the issue.

For the element "consciousness" being common to all sensations may be and certainly is regarded as in some sense their "substance" and by the "content" of each is only meant that in respect of which one differs from another. 15

Although Moore claims that this is only one of two possible ways of describing the position, he does not give any indication that he is opposed to this formulation.

Now it is quite clear that when philosophers such as James and Ryle deny the existence of 'consciousness', they are not denying that we are conscious in the ordinary sense of the word. They are denying rather views such as those held by Hamilton and Moore as exemplified in their contention that all our experiences contain an element in common which they, rather confusedly, also name 'consciousness'. The fact that Moore, for instance, means by 'consciousness' something entirely different from what is ordinarily meant by consciousness is proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in the following passage:

The moment we try to fix our attention upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is, it seems to vanish: it seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue: the other element is as if it were diaphanous. 16

In the ordinary sense of 'consciousness' the presence or absence of consciousness is not something that we can only detect after taking great pains. On the contrary the impact of the presence of consciousness is powerful and immediate - if I may be permitted for the moment to speak in these terms. Moreover, as ordinarily understood 'consciousness' is not to be conceived of as something over and above the occurrence of thoughts and feelings. We are, therefore, free to determine the meaning of consciousness as ordinarily understood, without fear that we might be referring to something which in no sense exists, and without falling foul of James and Ryle.

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10. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (London, 19 12), ch. 1.
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11. Ibid , p.3
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12. Bowen, The Metaphyics of Sir William Hamilton, p 120.
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13. G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London, 1951), p. 159
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14. G.E. Moore, Philosophical Studies (London, 1960), p. 17
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15. Ibid. p. 23.
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16. Ibid. p.25.
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