The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.2.5 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


2. The Nature of the Concept

[5] I have argued that Mill's definition of consciousness in terms of the experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, imagining, etc., is the right one. The relation I have been arguing for between consciousness and the variety of conscious phenomena can be explicated in terms of a technical term that Ryle has given us for the purpose. 1n his terms consciousness is a polymorphous concept. 24 That is to say it would not be true to say that a person was conscious in the basic sense unless it was also true to say of him that he was enjoying at least one experience in at least one of its modes. But in the past few philosophers have taken the course I am advocating of drawing the line here by insisting that consciousness is nothing over and above a congeries of experiences or feelings. Many of them have gone on to argue that if the one word 'consciousness' can be used to cover such a variety of mental manifestations, it must be in virtue of the fact that all these rnanifestations have some property in common, and that until we have identified that property, we have not reached the heart of the matter. Hamilton, who by and large successfully resists the temptation of taking consciousness to be a special faculty, reveals

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nevertheless, in the following passage, to what extent he is in the grip of the idea of a common property:

But before proceeding to show in detail what the act of consciousness comprises, it may be proper, in the first place, to recall in general what kind of act the word is employed to denote. I know, I feel, I desire, etc. What is it that is necessarily involved in all these? It requires only to be stated to be admitted, that when I know, I must know that I know, - when I feel, I must know that I feel, - when I desire, I must know that I desire. The knowledge, the feeling, the desire, are possible only under the condition of being known, and being known by me. For if I did not know that I knew, I would not know, - if I did not know that I felt, I would not feel, if I did not know that I desired, I would not desire. Now, this knowledge, which 1, the subject, have of these modifications of my being, and through which knowledge alone these modifications are possible, is what we call consciousness25

Leaving aside the soundness or otherwise of what Hamilton says, we see underlying it the assumption of the existence of a property common to all the 'manifestations' of consciousness, in virtue of which the word 'consciousness' can be applied to them. The same assumption was operative in Moore's analysis of sensation, where consciousness was held to be the element which several sensations had in common. Now we have every reason to be suspicious of this assumption as it applies to consciousness. For we are entitled to ask for the evidence on which is based the claim that consciousness is a common property. The answer, I suspect for none is explicitly forthcoming - is that it must stand for a common property, for otherwise so heterogeneous a collection of instances (manifestations) could not be subsumed under the one concept. That is to say, the evidence for the existence of a common property is none other than the fact that the one word 'consciousness' is used to cover these diverse instances. Thus the existence of a common property is arrived at by deduction from the existence of the concept for which it is assumed to stand. If my suspicion is well-founded, it would enable us to understand why philosophers have insisted that there is such a common property in spite of the difficulty they have experienced in producing evidence of its

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existence. It would also throw light on Moore's famous observation that consciousness 'is as it were diaphanous'. We can take this observation to be a sign of how tenuous is the evidence for the common property. Alternatively we could treat it as evidence of the fact that the putative common property is a myth. On either interpretation we have seen enough of the difficulties faced by the common property view for the basic assumption to be challenged. Moreover it scarcely needs to be said at the present time that the assumption that every general term stands for a common property is not compelling,

We would be well advised, therefore, to try an approach that is not based on the assumption that consciousness stands for a common property. For this reason I follow James Mill in treating consciousness as a concept which covers reference to actual thoughts, perceptions, images, dreams and so forth. Used in this way, it enables us to refer to any of these occurrences, and is an abbreviation for them. By adopting this view we are spared the difficulties that are created by thinking of consciousness as something over and above such occurrences as I have listed. Whether such a 'reductionist' theory of consciousness is successful may be judged by its performance in the argument of this book, for the word 'consciousness' will be understood in this sense throughout. It should not be forgotten, however, that when I use the term 'consciousness' I do so on the understanding that I reject the view that consciousness can be exhaustively specified in terms of any determinate set of referents of which it is the abbreviation. This is the novel twist I give to the meaning of the term, and it is absolutely crucial to my argument.

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Footnotes

24. See, A. R. White, Attention (Oxford, 1964) on polymorphous-concepts.
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25. Bowen, The Metaphysics of Sir William Hamilton, p. 126.
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