The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.1.2 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Consciousness and Change

[2] The thesis that consciousness is dependent on change is neatly expressed in the proposition: 'Semper idem sentire idem est ac non sentire.' 48 It has been convincingly argued for by a noted French psychologist, TH. Ribot, who was a contemporary of William James'. I shall try to develop the position he sets out in the following passage:

All our organs of perception are at the same time sensorial and motor. To perceive with our eyes, ears, hands, feet, tongue, nostrils, movements are needed. The more mobile the parts of our body, the more exquisite is their sensibility, the less perfect their mobile power, the more obtuse their sensibility. Nor is this all; without motor elements, perception is impossible. We will call to mind a previous statement that if the eye be kept fixed upon a given object without moving, perception after a while grows dim, and then disappears. Rest the tips of the fingers upon a table without pressing, and the contact at the end of a few minutes will no longer be felt. But a motion of the eye, or of the finger, be it ever so light, will re-arouse perception. Consciousness is only possible through change; change is not possible save through movement. It would be easy to expatiate at great length upon this subject, for although the facts are very manifest and of common experience, psychology has nevertheless so neglected the role sustained by movements, that it actually forgot at last that they are the fundamental condition of cognition in that they are the instrument of the fundamental law of consciousness, which is relativity, change. Enough has now been said to warrant the unconditional statement, that where there is no movement there is no perception. 49

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As a psychologist Ribot is concerned to identify the physical conditions that support consciousness, and his theory is that the consciousness of a percipient (man or animal) is dependent on the bodily movements it makes when it actuates its sense-organs. His account presupposes therefore that consciousness is a property of a physical being. However, from the standpoint I am adopting I cannot consistently make that assumption, for to do so would mean my taking a stand of a theoretical order on the relation between consciousness and bodily existence, and this is not the concern of the self-approach which I am adopting. I shall therefore try to show that a conceptual point lies behind Ribot's theory, and that this conceptual point is not dependent on his scientific assumptions.

First of all, the movement claimed by Ribot to be necessary to consciousness cannot be understood as simple physical movement. It must be looked upon as an aspect of action - of what we do. Our movements, in this sense, necessarily enter into descriptions of what we are doing. Secondly, our sense-organs should not be thought of as mere physical mechanisms which may be identified apart from their function. Conceptually considered, a sense-organ should be understood as that with which certain sorts of activity can be performed. Thus having a particular sense-organ necessarily enters into a full description of a certain sort of doing. On this view it is analytically true that we see with our eyes, whereas it is a synthetic truth that we see with the orbs located in our head. The significance of this point is that it enables us to mention our sense-organs without committing ourselves about their physical nature. If we bring these two points together we get the result that consciousness is dependent on certain activities that involve sense-organs and their movement. Examples of such activities are 'looking for something', 'feeling for something', and, at a more complex logical level, 'reading'. I shall give the name 'sense-organ activities' to those activities that cannot be engaged in by a percipient lacking the requisite sense-organ. A point not brought out by Ribot, but one which will be shown to be of considerable importance later on, 50 is that these sense-organ activities will bring about changes in consciousness because of the kinaesthetic sensations to which they give rise. One of our ways of knowing that we have succeeded in engaging in a particular sense-organ activity is through the relevant qualitative changes that we experience as kinaesthetic sensation. Such activities

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therefore ensure that when they are engaged in, consciousness will exhibit the characteristic of temporal succession.

Ribot's thesis takes it for granted that we are dealing with the world we all know, a world which itself manifests variety and change, and he is only concerned with the conditions that make consciousness possible in this world. He is not concerned with the conditions that would have to be satisfied in every possible world. Given our world of variety and change it is true that our sense-organ activity will usually result in a temporal succession of elements of consciousness. As I look about me, for instance, I am bound to have a variety of visual experiences, and since it takes time for me to look about me, the visual experiences are bound to be successive. It is also true of this world that since noticeable changes occur within it which are not instantaneous, and since such changes can be broken down into stages, our experience of such change can be described as successive in that we can be said to have experienced first one stage of the change and then the next, and then the next, and so on. It may strike the reader that changes taking place in the world may be perceived without the appropriate sense-organ having to move, in which case consciousness would seem to be supported by change in the world and not by movement connected with the relevant sense-organ. This Ribot would not deny, but he would reply that such a state of affairs could not long be sustained by a normal consciousness. But this side of his theory will receive detailed examination in a later section of
the book. 51

The experiences that come about as a result of sense-organ activity may be put under the heading of perceptual consciousness. This allows me to point out that not all consciousness is perceptual consciousness. And the question arises: Is our non-perceptual consciousness also dependent upon the movement that enters our doings? Prima facie it would seem that I could continue to have images and recollections, not to mention thoughts, even if all my sense-organs were out of action; i.e. I had no perceptual conscious-ness. This raises many complex questions, but as we shall see Ribot's theory rests on a denial of this possibility. However, even if we allow such a possibility we would be talking of a conscious-ness completely foreign to us. It would not therefore refute the claim that our variety of consciousness is dependent on our sense- organ activities. In any case I shall be arguing that non-perceptual consciousness is dependent on perceptual consciousness, and if

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that is true it follows that the whole of consciousness is dependent on the movement connected with sense-organ activity. To be explicit the inference is this: if movement is a necessary condition of perceptual consciousness, and perceptual consciousness is a necessary condition of non-perceptual consciousness, then movement is a necessary condition of both perceptual and non-perceptual consciousness; i.e., the whole of consciousness.

Thus by relating consciousness to what we do - to our sense-organ activities - we can offer an explanation of the Kantian point that consciousness exhibits temporal succession. Our doings take time and involve a sequence of changes themselves and in being aware of what we are doing we are aware of some of these temporal changes. In this way consciousness reflects temporal change.

In the foregoing I sought to show that a total temporary state contained a number of elements, and that successive total temporary states in a series would differ from one another in that in normal circumstances each would contain some elements not shared by the others. On this basis I proceed to an examination of the precise relationship between consciousness and attention.

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48. Pointed out to me by Professor H. H. Price. I do not know if this dictum originated with Hobbes, but it certainly expressed his thought. viz. ' . . . it being almost all one for a man to be always sensible of one and the same thing, and not to be sensible at all of any thing.' The Metaphysical System of Hobbes, ed. M. W. Calkins (Illinois, 1948), p. 119.
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49. TH. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention (London, 1890), p. 52.
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50. See below, pp. 125-6.
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51. See below, pp. 123-5.
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