The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.3.7 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

3. Sir William Hamilton and his Critics

[7] Now that the question of the definability of consciousness has been cleared up, and an explanation has been given of the sense in which consciousness may be said to be a real phenomenon, we are in a position to consider the view of a leading philosopher of consciousness, Sir William Hamilton. After giving a brief survey of his position, I shall state the views of his critics, J. S, Mill, Shadworth Hodgson, and William James, who take exactly the opposite position to Hamilton. My purpose in doing this is not to endorse the view of one party or the other, but rather to show the impasse that was reached in the analysis of consciousness at a time when this was considered a central philosophical enterprise. Only if this impasse can be broken can the self-approach once again come into its own alongside the persons-approach. We have already seen that Hamilton regards all consciousness as self-consciousness. 27 The following passage sets out his view more definitively.

1. 1 shall commence with that great fact to which I have already alluded, - that we are immediately conscious in perception of an Ego and a Non-ego, known together, and known in contrast to each other. This is the fact of the Duality of Consciousness. It is clear and manifest. When I concentrate my attention in the simplest act of perception, I return from my observation with the most irresistible conviction of two facts, or rather two branches of the same fact; - that I am, - and that something different from me exists. In this act, I am conscious of myself as the perceiving subject, and of an external reality as the object perceived; and I am conscious of both existences in the same indivisible moment of intuition. The knowledge of the subject does not precede, nor follow, the knowledge of the object; - neither determines, neither is determined by, the other. 28

Lest it be thought that it is only in perception that the ego presents itself in this way, let me hasten to add that this duality is present, in Hamilton's view, in every act of consciousness. This is made clear in another place, A here he tells us:

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11. We may lay it down as the most general characteristic of consciousness, that it is the recognition by the thinking subject of its own acts or affections. 29

These passages seem to commit Hamilton to the view that no distinction can be drawn between consciousness and self-consciousness. Unfortunately none of his statements of his position makes it quite clear which of three possible interpretations of his words is the right one. (a) He could mean that in all consciousness we know that it is a self which is conscious, but we do not have any acquaintance with the self which is conscious. To put it slightly differently, in every conscious act there is the recognition of the fact that a self is conscious, but apart from knowledge of this bare fact, nothing about the self is known. (b) He could mean that in all consciousness it is not only a fact that a self is conscious, but that there is a genuine acquaintance with the self which is presented along with the act of consciousness: (b) would differ from (a) in affirming that we both know that a self is conscious, and have a direct intuition of the self. (c) He could mean that in all consciousness the self knows not only the content or object of consciousness, but its mode of presentation. Thus I know, not only that I am conscious of a visual object, but at the same time that this visual object is one I am perceiving, and not imagining. The position is made more complicated for us, because Hamilton would not describe any of these three possibilities as self-consciousness, which term he reserves for an altogether different distinction. It will be useful to explain what this latter distinction is, but before doing so we need to make up our minds on the question of which of the three positions listed as (a), (b) and (c) represents Hamilton's position. Passage I seems to support (a), while passage II points to (c). On the other hand, a third passage seems to favour interpretation (b):

111. The various modifications of which the thinking subject, Ego, is conscious, are accompanied with the feeling, or intuition, or belief, -or by whatever name the conviction may be called, - that I, the thinking subject, exist. This feeling has been called by philosophers the apperception, or consciousness, of our own existence; but, as it is a simple and ultimate fact of consciousness, though it be clearly given, it cannot be defined or described. 30

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This passage undoubtedly lends support to (b), but it might just as well be taken to be an unhappy way of stating (a).

Perhaps the following passage will be allowed to have settled the issue in favour of (a).

IV. In so far as mind is the common name for the states of knowing, willing, feeling, desiring, etc., of which I am conscious, it is only the name for a certain series of connected phenomena or qualities, and consequently expresses only what is known. But in so far as it denotes that subject or substance in which the phenomena of knowing, willing etc., inhere - something behind or under these phenomena - it expresses what, in itself, or in its absolute existence, is unknown. 31

In passage IV we recognize the Pure Ego Theory in all its starkness. According to it we have some special indefinable sort of knowledge of the sheer fact of the existence of the self, but what this self is we still do not know. It lies outside experience. Hamilton's description of the Duality of Consciousness thus reduces itself to the assertion that every act of consciousness is presented as the consciousness of a subject, or self. Self and consciousness exemplify the logical behaviour of correlatives.

In view of the unapproachability of the self in Hamilton's Philosophy, we may well wonder what for him passes as self-consciousness. His solution is rather neat.

V. Perception is the power by which we are made aware of the phenomena of the External world; Self-consciousness, the power by which we apprehend the phenomena of the Internal. 32

I think we may take this conception of self-consciousness to be negatively defined: viz. an internal phenomenon is any phenomenon which does not belong to the External world. It would then be possible to maintain that self-consciousness is one of the subspecies of consciousness; to be contrasted with perception, and memory, which are two other forms of the 'Presentative Faculty' of consciousness. Such a proposal may be criticized on the ground

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that self-consciousness is made a rag-bag for all instances of presentative consciousness which cannot be classed either as perceptions or as memories. It lacks the character of a coherent category in its own right. Furthermore it is open to serious objection. Not all memories are memories of events in the external world, and those which are not should be eligible for classification under the heading of self-consciousness. This would cut across Hamilton's distinctions. As a passing shot I might add that it would be odd to say that in being aware of an after-image or a hallucination one was being self-conscious.

A more promising interpretation can be put on proposition V than the one we have just seen to be unsatisfactory. When Hamilton refers to the 'phenomena of the Internal' he could be interpreted to mean those cases of consciousness in which we ourselves are the objects of our states of consciousness. On this interpretation the facts I know about myself through consciousness, as distinct from the facts I know about objects through consciousness, are what I know through self-consciousness. This interpretation would fit in more happily with the meaning the term 'self-consciousness' is often taken to have in ordinary usage. It approximates to Ryle's sense (c) of 'self-conscious'. 33 The most favourable example in support of this interpretation is provided by such statements as 'I am in pain', 'I am feeling angry', 'I feel thirsty'. These statements may be understood as descriptions of states of consciousness in which I myself am the object of consciousness. I do not believe we can decide between these alternative interpretations of self-consciousness without a detailed analysis of consciousness of the sort I propose to undertake, and for this reason I do no more than note these two interpretations of Hamilton's conception of self-consciousness. Both alternatives agree in this, that in self-consciousness there is no direct awareness of the self as such, and self-consciousness is not thought of as a sort of second-order awareness; an awareness of awareness.

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27. See above, p 54.
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28. Bowen, The Metaphysics of Sir William Hamilton, p 195.
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29. Ibid., p. 13.
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30. Ibid., p. 254.
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31. W. Hamilton, Lectures on Metaphysics, Vol. 1, p. 138.
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32. Op.cit. p. 396.
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33. See above, p. 42.
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