The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.1.2 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Problems of Existence and Meaning

[2] Any attempt to discover the meaning of consciousness as it is ordinarily used would meet with the immediate objection of Ryle, who argues, quite rightly, that the word is ordinarily used in a number of different contexts for a variety of purposes. 17 Ryle himself has done us the service of distinguishing five different uses to which the word 'conscious' and its cognate 'self-conscious' are put in real life. I do not wish to dispute the fact that the word is used in these five senses, and indeed I believe I can add a sixth. I would not deny, either, that a great deal of confusion has been caused by the fact that philosophers who have given the concept of consciousness a prominent place in their philosophical systems have failed to keep the various senses distinct. One frequently finds a philosopher like Hamilton sliding from one sense of the word to another seemingly without being aware of doing so. Where I do wish to take issue with Ryle is in connection with his unspoken assumption that these several uses are all on a par with one another - none being more basic than any of the others. As against Ryle I shall argue that there is a basic meaning of 'consciousness' which we may understand philosophers to have in mind when they use the word. I shall further argue that a philosopher may make use of this basic meaning without this carrying the implication that he is using the word in a special philosophical sense which is different from any of its ordinary uses (as we discovered to be true of Moore).

The criterion I shall use in respect of which a particular sense to the word 'consciousness' is basic can at once be defined. A sense of 'consciousness' is basic if a person's being conscious in that sense does not entail his being conscious in any other sense, whereas his being conscious in any other sense does entail his being conscious in that sense. I propose now to give excerpts of Ryle's analysis of the different ways in which the words 'conscious' and 'consciousness' are used, so that we can consider whether there is not among them a sense of consciousness which is basic in the sense I have defined.

(a) People often speak in this way; they say, "I was conscious that the furniture had been rearranged" or, "I was conscious that he was less friendly than usual". In such contexts the word "conscious" is used instead of words like "found out" "realized" and "discovered" to indicate a certain noteworthy nebulousness and consequent inarticulateness of the apprehension . . .

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(b) People often use "conscious" and "self-conscious" in describing the embarrassment exhibited by persons, especially youthful persons, who are anxious about the opinions held by others of their qualities of character or intellect.

(c) "Self-conscious" is sometimes used in a more general sense to indicate that someone has reached the stage of paying heed to his own qualities of character or intellect, irrespective of whether or not he is embarrassed about other people's estimations of them . . .

(d) Quite different from the foregoing uses of "conscious", "self-conscious" and "unconscious", is the use in which a numbed or anaesthetised person is said to have lost consciousness from his feet up to his knees. In this use "conscious" means sensitive or sentient and "unconscious" means anaesthetised or insensitive. We say that a person has lost consciousness when he has ceased to be sensitive to any slaps, noises, pricks or smells.

(e) Different from, though closely connected with this last use, there is the sense in which a person can be said to be unconscious of a sensation, when he pays no heed to it. A walker engaged in a heated dispute may be unconscious, in this sense, of the sensations in his blistered heel, and the reader of these words was, when he began this sentence, probably unconscious of the muscular and skin sensations in the back of his neck, or in his left knee. A person may also be unconscious or unaware that he is frowning, beating time to the music, or muttering.

"Conscious" in this sense means "heeding"... 18

To this list I would like to add:

(f) "Conscious" is sometimes used synonymously with "distracted by". "I couldn't concentrate on Mark Antony's speech, because I was conscious of the actor's accent all the time."

Of these six senses of consciousness sense (d) is the only one which could be considered basic: namely the sense in which 'conscious' means 'sentient'. However as it stands, Ryle's description of this sense of consciousness is not sufficiently clearly drawn. A person is sensitive' or 'sentient' while he is fast asleep, and yet no one can be conscious in any of the other senses while in a dreamless sleep. Before we have a sense of 'conscious' which is truly the basic sense, we have to rule out this possibility.

This has been done very clearly by John Wisdom. The interest

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of his analysis lies in the fact that he is concerned to determine the fundamental sense of consciousness.

I cannot analyse what I mean by "conscious", but I want to make known to you what I attribute to a thing when I call it "conscious" When using the word in this special sense I will write it conscious. And I will now set down the clues to what I mean by conscious.

(i) Conscious implies either feels or is aware.

(ii) Consider the change which comes over a man as he comes round from chloroform or from dreamless sleep. You know quite well the change I mean. That kind of change I call "becoming conscious" Of course as you come round from chloroform all sorts of bodily, changes are taking place - the nerves are recovering from the chemical poison; and as you come round from sleep more blood flows to the brain. So that, strictly, there is nothing that can be called "the change" which takes place when one comes round from chloroform and sleep. Nevertheless, these bodily changes are not ones you thought of when I spoke of the change; you never thought of blood and brain. That kind of change which you immediately thought of when I spoke of the change from sleep or chloroform is the one I express by "becoming conscious".

(iii) Conscious does not mean alive. A tree is alive but not conscious. An amoeba is certainly alive yet quite likely not conscious.

(lv) Conscious does not mean living and sensitive. A man in a dreamless sleep is a living and sensitive being; but he is not at that time conscious in my sense, i.e., conscious. Of course such a man is conscious compared with a tree or a dead man; more accurately there is a sense of "conscious" in which it is correct to say that he is a conscious being He is conscious in the derived and hypothetical sense that, if he were shaken, he would become conscious (fundamental sense).

This hypothetical sense of "conscious" is less fundamental than that in terms of which mental facts are to be defined, that is conscious. For "conscious" (in this hypothetical sense) has a meaning derived from, i.e. defined in terms of, conscious. In other words, if we split up the meaning of the hypothetical sense, we find that one of its elements is conscious. . .

(v) S is conscious implies neither (I) that S is conscious of his environment nor (2) that S is conscious of himself. As to (1), a man is conscious when he is dreaming . . . and therefore when unconscious of his environment. I do not deny, on the contrary I

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assert, that there is a usual and therefore perfectly respectable sense in which "conscious" is used, which does imply "conscious of his environment" Thus, when we say "Is he conscious?" meaning "Has he regained consciousness?" (after an accident), we do mean "Is he now again conscious of his environment". But it will be seen that this third way of using "conscious" is yet another sense derived from our first, that is, the sense we write conscious. For "conscious" (sense 3) means "conscious of environment"

As to (2), a man may be conscious and yet be unconscious of himself . . . It is important to add clause (2) because some psychologists use "conscious" in a sense which implies consciousness of self. Thus they would deny that animals are conscious, because, although they would admit that dogs smell bones and are therefore conscious, they would deny that a dog ever thinks to himself, "I shall do so and so", e.g. "take a bone" In other words, they deny that an animal is ever conscious of itself and they express their view very misleadingly by saying that animals are not conscious. This fourth sense of "conscious" is obviously also derived from conscious. So we may write:

'(vi) Conscious is the fundamental sense of "conscious" - that is the sense in terms of which all other senses are defined.' 19

Wisdom's analysis brings into the open all the ambiguities latent in Ryle's description of sense (d). There are two major points of disagreement between Ryle and Wisdom, and over both points I am, with some qualification, in agreement with Wisdom. Firstly, he believes that a fundamental sense of 'conscious' may be distinguished. As we have seen Ryle fails to determine the relations of dependency which hold between the various senses of consciousness he distinguishes, and he denies by omission that there is a basic sense of consciousness. Secondly, Wisdom asserts that the other senses of consciousness can be defined in terms of the fundamental sense. I, on the other hand, asserted that the other senses entailed the basic sense, but were not in turn entailed by it. We both therefore assert a dependence of other senses of consciousness on the fundamental sense, although we see this dependence differently. My relation of dependence is weaker than Wisdom's, and it would still stand even if his claim that other senses of conscious can be defined in terms of 'conscious' proved to be false.

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It should be noted that Ryle's list of different senses of 'conscious' is a different type of list from Wisdom's. Ryle's list is a list of possible usages of the word 'conscious' in ordinary language, whereas Wisdom's list reveals a number of possible philosophical distinctions that may be made by taking 'conscious' in various senses. Thus while it is true that Wisdom's basic sense of 'conscious' is a defining sense for his list, it is doubtful whether it could be a defining sense for Ryle's list. Since my entailment relation between the basic sense of 'conscious' and its other senses applies to Ryle's list as well as to Wisdom's, it is more flexible than Wisdom's defining relation.

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17. The Concept of Mind, pp. 156-7.
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18. Op.cit., pp. 156-7.
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19. J. Wisdom, Problems of Mind and Matter, (Cambridge, 1963), pp 12-15. This work was first published in 1934.
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