The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.1.3 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Problems of Existence and Meaning

[3] Although Wisdom claims that the derived senses of 'conscious' can be defined in terms of the fundamental sense of 'conscious', it is clear from what he says that he does not believe that the fundamental sense - conscious - can be defined. For this reason he gives us 'clues' instead. Wisdom's belief about the indefinability of consciousness is shared by many philosophers, including Hamilton who says:

Nothing has contributed more to spread obscurity over a very transparent matter, than the attempts of philosophers to define consciousness. Consciousness cannot be defined; we may be ourselves fully aware what consciousness is, but we cannot, without confusion, convey to others a definition of what we ourselves clearly apprehend. 20

Let us consider then what seems to be the difficulty about defining consciousness. Hamilton seems to be suggesting that a definition of consciousness would not be a definition of the use of the word 'consciousness', but a description of the phenomenon itself which the word designates He seems to have in mind a definition which is 'real' as opposed to 'nominal' or verbal. He presumably thinks of such a definition as a description of the phenomenon that specifies its essential characteristics. Such a description would be definitional in the sense that it could be said that nothing failing to fit the description could possibly constitute consciousness, and further that nothing fitting the description could possibly fail to constitute consciousness. That this is what he means seems to be confirmed by his referring to a definition, not of a term, but of what we ourselves

-page 46-

clearly apprehend'. From this point of view a mere verbal definition of consciousness must fail.

We can appreciate this by treating Wisdom's first clue to consciousness, not as a clue, but as a definition: (1) would then become 'Conscious' ' means feels, or is aware21 It is plain that such a definition does no more than supply possible synonyms for the word 'conscious'; possible alternative designations of the phenomenon but not possible descriptions defining it. Such a verbal definition would not be to the point because exactly the same request to have the concept defined arises again in respect of the definiens - in the present case 'feels' or 'is aware' This is because a person puzzled about the nature of consciousness is hardly likely to be less puzzled about the nature of feeling or awareness. It is presumably for this reason that Wisdom hesitates to propose (i) as a definition rather than as a clue. He recognizes that as a definition it hardly adds anything to our understanding.

Let us for the moment concede the rejection of the appropriateness of verbal definitions of consciousness, and, returning to defining descriptions as such, raise the question: Under what conditions might that type of definition have point? It would have point, I suggest, for a person who had not encountered the phenomenon the definition was about. In lieu of a direct encounter, a description gives some impression of the phenomenon. The description will then have the added function of enabling a person to recognize the phenomenon in the event of his encountering it.

Now it is true that in some cases we may fail to find a description that seems to portray a phenomenon adequately. When that happens we may then be forced to say that words fail us, and that there is nothing for it but for a person to encounter the phenomenon for himself. In that situation we may feel inclined to say that the phenomenon cannot be defined - cannot be given a defining description.

If I am right, a defining description has point for someone who has not encountered the relevant phenomenon, and it follows that it is only when a defining description would have point that there is room for the admission that the phenomenon is indefinable. But neither of these conditions applies to consciousness. It is logically impossible for a person not to have encountered consciousness: nothing can be a person and not have encountered consciousness. Again, it is logically impossible to give a defining description of

-page 47-

consciousness to a person who had not encountered consciousness. For a precondition of the possibility of communicating the definition is the consciousness of the person receiving the communication. Thus a defining description of consciousness necessarily lacks point. But in that case the assertion that consciousness is indefinable in the above sense must also lack point. I conclude that the idea of giving a 'real' definition of consciousness is absurd. If this is what Hamilton had in mind when he said that consciousness was indefinable then we can agree with him. But we can object to his manner of making his point. For the claim that consciousness is indefinable inevitably suggests that it is either too transparent to describe or too elusive to pin down, and neither of these is the right reason for concluding that consciousness is indefinable.

It is important to stress the absurdity of the request for a definition of consciousness in the sense in question. If we say no more than that consciousness is indefinable we leave the impression that the request for a definition was in order but simply could not be met. Such an impression is false and injurious. The doctrine of the indefinability of consciousness has, I believe, been detrimental to the whole notion of consciousness.

Philosophers quite rightly stay clear of indefinable terms wherever possible, and when they are told that consciousness is indefinable their instinct is to try to manage without it.

But if I am right a request for a definition of consciousness cannot be the self-contradictory sort of request I have been considering. It can more plausibly be seen as a request by someone to whom the meaning of the word 'consciousness' is unknown, to be informed of its meaning. We must be able to give the meaning - or meanings - of the word *consciousness' just as we must be able to give the meaning of any word belonging to language.

We need not be as cautious as was Wisdom, when he would commit himself to no more than the giving of 'clues'. 1 shall, therefore, contradict Hamilton and maintain that consciousness is definable. It should however be clear that what I have in mind is a verbal definition as opposed to a real' definition (defining description).

To put it in a nutshell definitions of consciousness presuppose experience of what it is to be conscious on the part of both hearer and speaker. Consequently it is pointless to propose a definition as a substitute for encountering consciousness, and it is equally pointless to point out that no definition can substitute for an actual

-page 48-

encounter. We are forced to conclude that the only meaningful form of definition that can be given of consciousness is a verbal one. This I shall now try to give.

If a definition is to be successful, the definiens must consist of terms which are understood by the hearer. If we could appeal to no words which were known to the hearer, we would be precluded from giving a definition. Thus these 'verbal' definitions can only be given to practised language-users. This means that if a person asks the question 'What is consciousness?' we are entitled to take it for granted that he understands other words - words no language user could properly speaking be said to lack - which we can make use of in our definition and which we are not going to be asked to define in turn. Given this condition we can define 'conscious' in the basic sense as follows: to be conscious is, inter alia, to perceive, to feel emotions and sensations, to have images and recollections, and to have desires, intentions, and thoughts.

I shall make some observations about this definition. In the first place I have omitted reference to a subject. There are two reasons for this: (a) I do not want to limit consciousness to persons such that only persons can be conscious, and (b) Since I am staying within the self-approach no question arises of having to correlate consciousness with behaviour. Thus from the point of view within which the definition is proffered the hearer is the reader himself, and he must understand it in terms of his own encounter with perceiving, and so forth. Secondly, the list is not meant to be exhaustive, and nothing is implied concerning how many of these 'mental events' need occur together for one to be conscious. Lastly, the mental concepts in terms of wuch I have defined consciousness must be understood in a non-dispositional, or episodic, sense.

Consciousness as so defined is similarly understood by James Mill who writes:

It is easy to see what is the nature of the terms Conscious and Consciousness, and what is the marking function which they are destined to perform. It was of great importance for the purpose of naming, that we should not only have names to distinguish the different classes of our feelings, but also a name applicable equally to all those classes. This purpose is answered by the concrete term Conscious; and the abstract of it, Consciousness. Thus, if we are in any way sentient; that is, have any of the feelings whatsoevcr of a living creature; the word Conscious is applicable to the fccler, and

-page 49-

Consciousness to the feeling: that is to say, the words are Generical marks, under which all the names of the subordinate classes of the feelings of a sentient creature are included. When I smell a rose, I am conscious, when I have the idea of a fire, I am conscious; when I remember, I am conscious, when I reason, and when I believe, I am conscious; but believing, and being conscious of belief, are not two things, they are just the same thing: though this same thing I can name at one time without the aid of the generical mark, while at another time it suits me to employ the generical mark.' 22

If we take Mill's definition of consciousness, and qualify it along the lines Wisdom's account suggests to us, we have the account of consciousness I have been trying to reach. We ought not to be dissuaded from accepting Mill's account because of the faulty example at the end of the passage. Had Mill made the distinction between dispositional and episodic senses of mental concepts he would not have needed to have made the dubious claim that believing and being conscious of belief are the same thing.

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


20. Bowen, The Metaphysics of Sir William Hamilton, p 125.
back to text

21. See above, p. 43.
back to text

22. James Mill, Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, ed. by J S. Mill (London, 1869), I, pp. 225-6.
back to text