The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 5

The Experiential Self - 5.3.9
[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


3.Support From Unexpected Quarters

[9] It is a commonplace observation that there is scarcely anything new in philosophy, so if we look for intimations of the theory I am advancing it will be surprising if none are found. It is interesting to discover that something reminiscent of this theory was suggested by Leibniz. In explaining his notion of petites perceptions, Leibniz says this

Besides there are countless indications which lead us to think that there is at every moment an infinity of perceptions within us, but

-page 172-

without apperception and without reflexion; that is to say, changes in the soul itself of which we are not conscious, because the impressions are either too small and too numerous or too closely combined, so that each is not distinctive enough by itself, but nevertheless in combination with others each has its effect and makes itself felt, at least confusedly, in the whole.' 144

After further elaboration of the idea of petites perceptions, Leibniz adds this:

These unconscious (insensible) perceptions also indicate and constitute the identity of the individual, who is characterized by the traces or expressions of his previous states which these unconscious perceptions preserve, as they connect his previous states with his present state . . .' 145

In more recent times essentially the same theory as mine was sketched by Dawes Hicks in an article he wrote in 1913. 146 His three basic ideas are these: (a) Attention is said to operate in all forms of consciousness; (b) It brings about 'a certain selection or limitation within the field of what is apprehended of some features and the relative neglect or disregard of the rest'; (c) In its higher, voluntary, form it is responsible for the distinction between self and not-self. I shall pass over (a) and (b) which do no more than endorse the approach of the earlier chapters. The important consideration is (c), and referring to the distinctions which attention discloses by operating on its material Dawes Hicks has this to say:

'One such important distinction - it is not too much to say, the most important distinction - which thus comes gradually to recognition is that indicated by the terms self and not-self. By degrees in the development of intelligence there is effected a definitely recognized separation between the trains of thoughts, sentiments, feelings and sense-presentations which are more or less constant and habitual, and which thus come to be regarded as constituting the prevailing centre or background of individual

-page 173-

personality, and the relatively transient presentations and apprehended contents which come and go, and which the subject learns to contrast with and to distinguish from the totality of the former. The contents of our knowledge or experience, or rather certain of them, tend more and more to wear the aspect of an inward possession, and to become the instrument, as it were, by which we apprehend the world of objective fact. So soon as this distinction has attained any prominence in consciousness, it must of necessity influence in a very decided manner the direction, as we may put it metaphorically, of attention. For it will then become possible for the subject to differentiate between the cases where attention comes about through a presented object being connected with the contents of representations or ideas that are not specially included in the consciousness of self, and the cases where the activity of comparing and relating is carried on through means of those ideas and feelings which are included.' 147

There are, of course, certain differences between the position expressed in this passage, and the one I have been developing. In spite of that my theory clearly has the backing of Dawes Hicks. Apart from Leibniz and Dawes Hicks, there is some evidence for the view that the theory I am advocating was also arrived at by Wittgenstein. If my surmise is right then we will be able to offer an interpretation of the so-called 'no-ownership' theory of the self which puts it in a completely different light from that in which it is at present viewed. However, it suits my purpose better to introduce Wittgenstein's views in the course of the argument of the next section.

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


Footnotes

144. R. Latta, Leibniz The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings (London, 1951), p. 370.
back to text

145. Ibid, p. 373. I am grateful to Mr J. Schumacher for drawing my attention to these passages.
back to text

146. G. Dawes Hicks, 'The Nature and Development of Attention', The British Journal of Psychology, VL, I (1913).
back to text

147. Ibid. p. 22.
back to text