The Subject of Consciousness Revisited
© John Fudjack, 2000


In a book that explores 'the role of the body and emotion in the making of consciousness' neurologist Antonio Damasio (1999) has the following to say about the interest that scientists and philosophers have recently shown in trying to understand consciousness:

What is currently known as the field of consciousness studies was created over the past decade by a handful of philosophers and scientists, independently, unwittingly, and unexpectedly. Thanks are due especially to the philosophers Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn, and John Searle, and to the neuroscientists Gerald Edelman and Francis Crick. 1

Prior to the late 1980s, as Damasio points out in the sentence to which the above passage appears as a footnote, "studying consciousness was simply not the thing to do." Not at least until you had tenure, he adds, "and even after you did it was looked upon with suspicion. Only in recent years has consciousness become a somewhat safer topic of scientific inquiry." 2 This alone should make the 1970 appearance of The Subject of Consciousness, by philosopher of mind C.O. Evans, a noteworthy event in the history of consciousness studies. Even more remarkable is the fact that in this book, and the follow-up papers that he authored in the subsequent six year period, Evans offered ingenious solutions to the two main problems that Damasio would single out, nearly thirty years later, as the most significant ones facing researchers in this area of study as we begin the new millenium - the problem of the self 3 and the problem of consciousness. 4

It can easily be demonstrated that Evans's work anticipates not only several of Damasio's central concepts (I have in mind the latter's notion of 'background feeling', and his idea that the self is a 'critical issue in the elucidation of consciousness' 5) but also the work of others in various consciousness-related fields during the intervening decades. The word 'anticipate', however, seems much too weak a word to convey the comparative value of Evans's contributions. For, if truth be told, the solutions that he offered in the early 1970s continue to be more comprehensive and convincing than any that have been put forward in recent years.

I see two main reasons for this. First, his solutions to the grand problems of 'consciousness' and 'self' come not as idle speculation or mere introspection. As a reading of The Subject of Consciousness will show, they emerge as a result of meticulously tracing an intellectually viable path through a complex maze of philosophical issues that we inherit from Descartes, as passed down through Hume and elaborated on by countless others in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Second, Evans's solutions comprise a model of consciousness that reveals a set of complex relationships that pertain between various features of everyday experience. I say 'reveal' because the nature of these relationships have for a long time now been obscured by some rather dubious philosophical assumptions regarding consciousness. These assumptions, which underpin what we came to call 'the spotlight model of consciousness' in our 1976 manuscript, Consciousness, are deeply entrenched in Western thought and invariably throw researchers off track when it comes to understanding how the commonplace features of experience are interconnected.

In the period since 1976 some authors who have taken consciousness as their topic appear to have independently arrived at one or more of the propositions put forward by Evans. But none, as far as I know, identified all of the pieces of the puzzle or put them together in as elegant a fashion as did he. I dare say that this is simply because none saw the pieces as pieces of one coherent puzzle, and none recognized so clearly as did Evans that these pieces, when correctly assembled, comprise a model of consciousness - and a very powerful one at that.

Not until much too recently has Evans's work begun to receive the recognition that it deserves. As a result, some of the concepts that he was the first to formulate (the concept 'executive attention', for example, or the idea that the principal structural feature of consciousness is its separation into foreground and background) continue, at this point in time, to be attributed to better-known authors with whom these ideas have become associated. The model of consciousness that he created in order to tie together these and other concepts remains for the most part unknown, unfortunately, even to some who are contemporary practitioners in this 'new' field of consciousness studies. That will hopefully not remain the case for long.

Self, Subject, and Subjectivity

In The Subject of Consciousness Evans offered a philosophical theory of the self that sought to explain 'how it is that our experience of being selves is an experience of being continuous subjects of experience' [SOC, p.11] In the course of doing this, he articulated a fully developed theory of consciousness on the basis of which he and I would later articulate a model that we called the 'Attentive Model of Consciousness' (AMC) [C].

The theory of self that he put forward in The Subject of Consciousness was presented in a methodical fashion that demonstrates a mastery unsurpassed in the field of philosophy of mind. Suggesting solutions to a considerable list of unresolved questions of long-standing, he provided a synthesis of rival points of view not only in philosophy, but also in the field of psychology. The work is both elegant and compelling.

But it also departs radically from what was typically going on in the area of philosophy of mind at the time. First of all, it dealt squarely and effectively with the topic of consciousness - a subject which was nearly as unpopular in professional philosophy at the time as Damasio encourages us to believe that it was in science. Secondly, it did so in such a way as to shed light on the complex relationships that pertain between various aspects of experience that had not hitherto been adequately explored or explained, or understood in relation to each other - consciousness, attention, awareness, feeling, the self, and so forth.

In addition, the approach to the problem of self-identity that was utilized by Evans was novel and far-reaching. It sought to offer a viable alternative to the persons-approach, which prevailed virtually unchallenged at the time. "According to the persons-approach", says Evans in SOC, "we learn all there is to know about self-identity by understanding in what the identity of other persons [as public objects] consists." (SOC, p. 21) Not many were critical of the persons approach during that period, and those that were did not seem to be very clear about what would count as a genuine alternative. This unfortunately continues to be the case today, despite the fact that the persons approach to self-identity has increasingly come under fire in the intervening years. 6

Recently, for example, it has been suggested that a 'first person' approach to the study of consciousness needs to be cultivated as a complement to the 'third person' approach favored in the physical sciences. 7 This suggestion poses a tacit challenge to theories of consciousness associated with the persons approach - theories that attempt to construe consciousness exclusively in objective terms, as behavioral dispositions of publically observable objects. But to frame the challenge in terms of 'first person' and 'third person' accounts is to use a metaphor that is somewhat misleading in a subtle way that becomes significantly easier to describe in the language in which the AMC is formulated.

Subjectivity and Classes of Personal Pronoun

Even when we speak or write in the first person, it is not this mere grammatical fact that makes what we say 'subjective'; it is not the use of the first person pronoun that makes what we say an account from the point of view of the subject to whom the experience is occuring. If it were, we would not be able to use the third person pronoun to describe our own experiences as subjects. But on occasion we do. When, for instance, trying to disguise the fact that I am talking about myself, I say, 'he felt terrible about having to lie to his friend', I do not thereby forgo my claim to having some sort of priveleged access to the subjectively experienced feeling state referred to in the sentence. For the individual to whom the third person pronoun refers on this occasion is, after all, me - even if I choose not to disclose that fact.

Neither does the use of the first person pronoun ensure that it is a subjectively experienced state that is being referenced. Seeking to offer a hypothesis about why I might have acted in a particular way on a given occasion, I could for instance say, "I must have been tired". It is clear by saying this that I am not making a claim about a subjectively experienced feeling of tiredness at the time - or I would not have used 'must have', which suggests that my conclusion is conjecture. It is clear that I am not speaking from 'first hand' knowledge about my state at the time.

Unprojected Consciousness

If it is not the use of the first person pronoun that makes my experience 'first hand' experience, what is it that does? What gives us the impression of being the subject of our own experience? This is the question that Evans asked himself in the late 1960s. Arthur Deikman (1982) 8 gives the following very brief account of the position that Evans arrived at, in The Subject of Consciousness, as a result of this inquiry -

C.O. Evans, after reviewing previous philosophical attempts to solve the problem, proposed a solution in terms of cognitive psychology. He began by introducing and defining the term unprojected consciousness: "I give the name 'unprojected consciousness' to those elements of consciousness that together make up the background of consciousness when attention is paid to the object". [SOC, p.104]

He then equates the observing self with unprojected consciousness:

If the self is unprojected consciousness, then the self can no more become an object of attention and remain subject than an element of unprojected consciousness can become an object of attention and remain an element of unprojected consciousness. [SOC, page 149]

The crucial error that Western philosophers inevitably make, according to Deikman, is in conceiving of the self as a content, an object as opposed to a subject. There is at least one western philosopher, however, who succeeded in avoiding this error - namely, Evans. And it is his concept of unprojected consciousness that enabled him to do so. For it is this concept that permits him to say that the subject of consciousness is experienced, albeit not as an explicit 'object of attention'. Our sense of self - being the continuous subject of our own experience - arises from the experience that we have of the unprojected portion of consciousness. 9 We have a special term for such a self, one which can never itself be experienced as 'object' - we call such a thing the 'subject', and imply by this usage that it is not a 'thing' at all!

Until we distinguish two types of awareness operating at the same time 'within' the same consciousness - one that is identical to the focal area of awareness circumscribed by attention (which Evans called projected consciousness), and the other a less explicit, 'subsidiary' awareness located in the unprojected background of consciousness, we have no way of discriminating between the self that is tacitly experienced by the individual (which he or she experiences as subject) and what Damasio calls the 'autobiographical self' - the self (or, better yet, 'the person') that is experienced as the object of awareness.

The faulty assumption that only that which we experience as an object of attention at any given moment can be said to be in consciousness is the assumption that underwrites what we called the 'spotlight model of consciousness' in our 1976 manuscript [C, p.18]. This model unfortunately continues to prevail amongst philosophers and scientists today. It is what inspires theoreticians to use the words consciousness and attention as synonyms, and to caution against the presumed folly of trying to define consciousness. I suspect that it is behind Francis Crick's (1995) advice when he says:

It is better to avoid a precise definition of consciousness because of the dangers of premature definition. 10

From the vantage point offered by the AMC, however, such advice is suspect; for it is easy to see how reluctance of this kind is more likely, at this point in history, to function as an obstacle to further progress in consciousness studies. In the absence of a more precise definition, the key terms (consciousness, self, attention, feeling, foreground/background, unconscious process, experience, awareness) will continue to be used in a wide variety of contradictory ways, and confusion will reign.

Once the concept of consciousness is expanded, in the manner suggested by the AMC, to include more than what is in the attention of the individual at any given moment, consciousness itself can no longer be considered something that is simple, irreducible and undefinable. It is revealed as a complex phenomenon. At that point, questions begin to arise as to how consciousness is 'structured',11 and where various features of conscious experience are to be located vis a vis these two kinds of awareness, both of which are part of consciousness. In answer to one such question which occured to Evans regarding the role of feeling in conscious experience he proposed the following answer. Although one can choose to turn attention to one's feelings, the role that feeling characteristically plays in consciousness, he suggested, requires that it remain in the 'background', in unprojected consciousness, as an 'underlying feeling state' that influences how selective attention is deployed.

I won't here elaborate on this feature of the model, argue for it, or locate it in relation to its precursors or other supporting theories. All of this has already been accomplished in the 500 or so pages of material in which the model was orginally presented; and it is all available at this site.

What I would like to do in what remains of this paper, however, is present a thumbnail sketch of the 'attentive model of consciousness' (AMC) by listing what I consider to be its 12 principal features. By doing this I hope to induce in the reader a shift in gestalt - a kind of 'aha' experience that one can have with regard to how the common features of our everyday experience, as expressed by ordinary language concepts, can be seen as fitting together in an exciting new way that reveals something about the very nature of human consciousness.

For the past 30 years I have found it amusing how some theorists, inspired by ordinary language usage, will tend to speak in a manner very close to how one who has the benefit of the AMC would describe experience, but then, when trying to construct a technical vocabulary for describing consciousness, revert to the bogus assumptions underlying the 'spotlight model'. Once one glimpses the vision behind the AMC, one can use it as a conceptual lens through which the statements of others regarding consciousness can be inspected and evaluated. To this sort of activity I will turn my attention after presenting the thumbnail sketch.


The AMC might be summarized using the following 12 propositions -

1. Consciousness has a structure.

2. It is structured by attention - ie, 'organized around the object of attention'. [SOC, 121]

3. Attention is the faculty which brings into relief (i.e., 'relevates') an 'object of attention', that stands in the foreground of consciousness - in what can be called 'projected' consciousness - against a background that remains in 'unprojected' consciousness.

4. We are aware of what appears as 'object of attention' in a different way than we are aware of what is in unprojected consciousness. Whereas the individual can be said to notice or be explicitly aware of his or her objects of attention, he or she is only tacitly or 'subsidiarily' aware of what is in unprojected consciousness.

5. Projected and unprojected consciousness have a relationship that can be characterized not only in terms of background and foreground, but also in terms of the dichotomies 'whole/part', 'context/content' and 'fringe/center'.

6. It can thus be said that what we are subsidiarily aware of while attending explicitly to particular contents of consciousness as 'objects of attention', is the 'context' ('frame', or 'relevancy system'[SOC, 121]) in which those objects appear.

7. We experience subsidiary awareness in the mode of 'feeling'. Unprojected consciousness is experienced as an 'underlying feeling state' or 'underlying feeling whole' that occupies the background of consciousness, providing the objects of attention with a 'feeling tone' associated with them.

8. What is in the background of consciousness will influence what is relevated by selective attention, and vice versa. There is a feedforward and feedback relationship between the two.

9. This 'whole' that remains unprojected, in the background of consciousness, is none other than what we commonly refer to in ordinary language as 'self'.

10. Consciousness is structured in such a way, in other words, that we experience its 'projected' portion as an 'object' existing outside of ourselves, and its 'unprojected' portion as 'subject'.

11. This is tantamount to saying that our sense of self (as opposed to 'person') arises from our experience of unprojected consciousness.

12. A consequence of this theory of the self is that it is no longer necessary to conceive of the one who is the experiencer as himself 'inaccessible to experience'. The self is conceived as the subject of experience - which is itself experienced, albeit not as an 'object'.

By presenting the model of consciousness in this bare-bones manner I hardly intend to suggest that these are not complex matters. And I don't want to imply that aspects of Cedric's work which have been omitted should be considered of less value than what is included. The distinction that he makes between 'executive' and 'interrogative' attention, for instance, and his discussion of the role that bodily sensation plays in establishing our felt sense of self, are important and complex topics. But what I am trying to get across in the above list is how these 12 primary features fit together in a way that qualifies them as comprising an integrated 'model of consciousness'.

Some Recent Parallels

To a certain extent, we can flesh out the model by using it to scrutinize the views of other theorists. In this section I will only consider a few selected individuals, whose works were published after 1976. All express views paralleling one or more of the 12 features listed above.


In an article on William James and consciousness, A.R. Bailey (1999) tells us that "Tim Shallice (1988, heavily influenced by James here) enumerates what he calls the two 'structural' properties of consciousness - being sensibly continuous, and being divided into foreground and background ..." 12 In the article to which Bailey refers, attention is also identified as 'the primary structuring feature of consciousness'. 13 We thus see Shallice expressing not only the idea that consciousness is structured (point #1), but that it is structured by attention (point #2), and bifurcated into foreground and background (point #3), which might be considered a primary structural feature. Shallice indeed appears to have been even more heavily influenced by C.O. Evans than by James. The reference made in Shallice's paper to the The Subject of Consciousness, in which these three features of the model play so prominent a role that they would be nearly impossible to miss, reveals this. 14 And a comparison of the works referenced in the Evans book to the works referenced in the Shallice paper also demonstrates to what extent the latter work relies on the former with respect to these matters. Even so, Shallice reverts to a 'spotlight model' of consciousness at crucial points within his paper. 15


In a similar vein, Rupert Sheldrake (1988/1995) points to the structural features of consciousness. "Each moment of consciousness," he says, "has a certain explicit content and an implicit context which is a corresponding background." 16 Here, in addition to implying that consciousness has a structure (#1) and describing the principal feature of this structure in terms of the foreground/background dichotomy (#3), Sheldrake uses the concept of 'context' to characterize the nature of the 'background' (#5), which he conceives as tacitly experienced (#6), while what is in the foreground is 'explicit'. Unfortunately, however, almost all that he has to say about consciousness is packed into this one sentence. In his rush to connect the view that he is putting forward to Bohm's concepts of 'implicate' and 'explicate order' (the relevance of which we also covered in Consciousness), Sheldrake allows himself to become entrapped in Bohm's technical vocabulary. He thereby misses the opportunity to further explore the richness that is provided by the terms of ordinary language, in which the AMC was intentionally constructed.


Francisco Varela (1999) also speaks of the 'structure of experience'. 17 Interested in explaining 'time consciousness', he remarks that "it must be the case that consciousness of succession derives from structural features of the acts of consciousness." 18 "Our problem is the characterization of these structures," he suggests. In the analysis to which he then proceeds Varela makes an ultimate appeal to a structural metaphor - one that is utilized in the AMC to characterize the structure of consciousness itself. "I [take] the centre/fringe structure," he says, "as the very core of a new figure of time" (see point #5 above). 19 Although in an earlier article, co-authored with Shear, Varela seems to acknowledge degrees of awareness, he also appears to revert to a spotlight model of consciousness. This motivates him to do something that is rather strange from the perspective of the AMC - he invokes the notion of a 'subjectivity' that is 'sub-personal' and thus 'inaccessible' to the subject of experience:

The progress of cognitive science (as well as the development of psychoanalysis) has made familiar the idea that something might happen for a subject, and in that sense be subjective, but nevertheless not be accessible to this subject. We naturally describe such a case by saying that the subject is not conscious of the phenomenon in question. A distinction must therefore be introduced between conscious and non-conscious phenomena, or again between conscious and sub-personal subjectivity. 20

What sense can be made of this notion of 'sub-personal subjectivity'? If what makes a process 'subjective' is the way in which it presents itself to the subject of experience, how can processes that do not present themselves to such a subject be nevertheless construed as 'subjective'?

As Varela's mention of 'psychoanalysis' in the above passage would suggest, it was Freud indeed who made popular the notion of a 'subject of non-conscious processes'. From the perspective of the AMC, insofar as a process is actually non-conscious (ie, outside of consciousness) any subject for which such a process would be the object could only be located outside of conscious experience. This would distinguish such a subject from the subject of consciousness as normally understood, and as understood by the AMC. This, of course, leads to a proliferation of 'subjects' in the individual, a state of affairs about which critics of Freud have correctly, and persistently, complained throughout the twentieth century.

In Consciousness we argued that it was deficiencies in the version of the spotlight model to which Freud reverted that prompted him to postulate a second spotlight - 'the unconscious'. This second spotlight, insofar as it is construed as subjectively experienced awareness, requires - as we see here - a second 'subject'.

Some of the points that Lancelot Law Whyte (1960) 21 makes regarding the history of the concept of the 'unconscious' help us to understand some of the theoretical issues that motivated Freud to adopt such a peculiar and ultimately indefensible strategy. A brief review of Whyte's argument is in order at this point because, as it turns out, this is the same strategy that seems to appeal to many contemporary scientists.


Whyte (1960) points out that the term 'unconscious' was utilized long before it became associated with Freud. During the 19th century, what he calls 'materialist science' employed it as a label for the non-conscious physical processes into which, according to their belief system, all 'mental' process could be reduced. Whyte argues that Freud's appeal to 'unconscious MENTAL process' was an attempt on his part to distinguish between such processes and unconscious physical processes. This was Freud's attempt to address the problem posed by Descartes, who sought to avoid physical reductionism and strict materialism by elevating 'mental process' to a status separate but equal to 'physical process'. If Whyte is right, we can only add that from the point of view of the AMC, Freud's solution is found somewhat wanting.

When Freud failed to stick with concepts like the 'preconscious' (or 'subconscious'), which can be conceived as rough equivalents to 'subsidiary awareness' or 'unprojected consciousness' (insofar as they permit a distinction to be made within consciousness between types or degrees of awareness that are more and less explicit), he got himself into trouble. There was no other recourse for him but to resort to either 1) the positing of an independent 'subjective' realm - a second, reified consciousness that he refered to as 'the unconscious'); or 2) the positing of an alternate 'subject' capable of 'experiencing' the non-conscious physical processes. Freud wavered between the two. Sartre remarked on the problems associated with Freud's strategy, which continue to plague Freudian theory to date. In The Freudian Subject Borch-Jacobsen (1982) makes an argument that is similar to the way in which we presented the matter in Consciousness. "To specify, as Freud does, that the unconscious is not a second CONSCIOUSNESS changes nothing", he says, if this requires Freud to posit the presence of a second 'subject'. 22

Freud's failure does not bode well for the contemporary scientist interested in making the same kind of theoretical move. It might at first appear that the strategy can be made to be workable if the presumed 'subject' of the non-conscious processes is, in effect, demoted and no longer considered the subject of 'experience' - in any sense of that word that resembles what we usually mean by it. But then what kind of a subject is this, after all? Is it nothing more than an object to which one can predicate physical occurences? This smacks of a 'persons approach' to the self, and we come full circle back to what is basically a 'materialist' view of the unconscious.

As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it -

We won't have an adequate conception of the world until we can explain how, when a lot of physical elements are put together in the right way, they form not just a functioning biological organism but a conscious being. If consciousness itself could be identified with some kind of physical state, the way would be open for a unified physical theory of mind and body, and therefore perhaps for a unified physical theory of the universe. But the reasons against a purely physical theory of consciousness are strong enough to make it seem likely that a physical theory of the whole of reality is impossible. Physical science has progressed by leaving the mind out of what it tries to explain, but there may be more to the world than can be understood by physical science. 23

It is a mistake, as Nagel points out in another article about Daniel Dennett's position regarding consciousness, to think that one has 'explained' consciousness when what one has actually done is try to explain it away.24


In Evolving the Mind: on the nature and the origin of consciousness A.G. Cairns-Smith (1996) speaks of consciousness as primarily (and 'originally') a matter of 'feelings' [see point #7 above]. This, in combination with 'unconscious brain processes', which he conceives as taking place outside of the consciousness of the individual, account for what we experience subjectively as 'mind', according to Cairns-Smith. But look at the mess (i.e. - 'unconscious forms of awareness') that he gets himself in when he tries to describe what is taking place:

I know that many people take awareness to be a synonym for consciousness, but I do not think this is quite right. As with thought these are both conscious and unconscious forms of awareness. Our normal awareness of what is around us is largely, perhaps mainly, unconscious. You may not be consciously aware of the visible contents of a familiar room, but you are aware alright. Just see what happens if that picture over the mantel piece (which may be you have not consciously looked at for years) is missing one morning. Then again we have to be aware of all kinds of detailed things in performing a skilled task such as riding a bicycle but not consciously aware: once we have mastered such a skill we are left with a general feel for it, but our awareness about details, and our detailed actions, become almost entirely unconscious. 25

Despite having acknowledged the fact that one can be aware of something that remains unnoticed, and also despite having recognized that it is a mistake to treat awareness as a synonym for consciousness, one can only conclude (from the perspective of the AMC) that Cairnes-Smith gets it wrong. This is because he fails to similarly distinguish between attention and consciousness, and treats 'awareness' as a dispositionally defined term (in a manner similar to the way in which we saw above how certain scientists want to use the concept of 'subject' in a reduced, non-experiential sense). These choices lead Cairnes-Smith inevitably to a version of the spotlight model.


There are a handful of unhappy formulations in Damasio's new book that attract similar criticism from the point of view of the AMC, although his views in general, as we shall see below, tend to agree with the model. Sometimes, for example, Damasio uses the term 'non-consciously' in such a way that implies that he, like Cairnes-Smith, believes 'conscious' to be synonymous with 'in attention'. Consider, for example, the three stages that he posits for the 'processing' of feeling:

  • a state of emotion, which can be triggered and executed nonconsciously;
  • a state of feeling, which can be represented nonconsciously;
  • and a state of feeling made conscious, i.e., known to the organism having both emotion and feeling. 26

Good sense could be made of this statement within the context of the framework provided by the AMC, but only if one substitutes the phrase 'made an object of attention' for the phrase 'made conscious', and replaces the second usage of 'nonconsciously' in the passage with 'outside of attention'. Then we would have - 1) non-conscious physical processes associated with feeling; 2) underlying feeling states that we are not explicitly aware of (which, although they are not 'objects of our attention' at the moment, are in subsidiary awareness); and 3) feelings to which we have turned attention.

Note, however, that in the absence of this 'translation', his proposition raises difficult issues: How does one distinguish between (2) the nonconscious processes (for which he uses the term 'emotion') and (3) the nonconscious 'feeling state'? His appeal to the term 'representation' in the above passage, which is further elucidated in other sections of the work, is not convincing. Damasio's protestations to the contrary, the ambiguity of the term (ie, representation in the sense of 'mental image' and representation in the sense of 'neural pattern') permits him to shift meaning without changing words. But this begs the question about the relationship between certain 'non-conscious physical processes' and so-called 'unconscious MENTAL processes'.


In Mood: The Frame of Mind William N. Morris (1989) makes the point that it is attention that is the structuring agent which causes the bifurcation of our experience into figure and ground. This is reminiscent of propositions #2 and #3 in the AMC, above. But Morris formulates the point in a slightly different way - making no explicit reference to 'consciousness' per se:

Although manifested in the organization of the perceptual field, the figure-ground distinction is best understood as an attentional phenomenon. Because we have a limited capacity to take in information, it is necessary to concentrate our information-processing capability on part of the array of incoming data and ignore the rest. The part we attend to is figure; the rest becomes ground. 27
Although he fails to mention consciousness at all, from the point of view of the AMC we can easily see that it is conscious experience that he is here talking about. So we can take the above passage as asserting not only that it is attention that structures consciousness, but also that it is attention that divides consciousness into foreground and background (#3). 28 Lending further support to this way of interpreting Morris is the fact that it is the individual's 'mood' or 'feeling state' that he takes as occupying what is left in the background' when attention brings the 'figure' into focus as the foreground (point #7, above).

Furthermore, according to Morris, 'mood acts quite literally as the frame of mind'. It supplies 'a context or, in my terms, a ground, subtly influencing our responses to events' 29 (covering points #5, #6, and #7 in the AMC), and specifically accounting for the influence that the underlying feeling state has over selective attention (#8), which he also discusses under the rubric of 'mood congruence theory'. Morris also remarks that "upon entering focal attention, mood rapidly acquires the characteristics of a figure or thing," 30 a fact that has been explained by the AMC.

Morris does not, however, mention the relationship between what happens in the background of awareness and the sense of self. But Damasio does.

Damasio Again

Like Evans, Damasio takes 'self-consciousness' to mean 'consciousness with a sense of self' as opposed to 'consciousness of self'. 31 He also conceives of the sense of self as arising from what happens in the 'background'. We are 'subtly aware' of 'background feeling', according to him, without which 'the very core of your representation of self would be broken'. 32 Damasio is touching on points #9 through #12 in the list of propositions describing the AMC. Despite the fact that he sometimes reverts to a spotlight model, as we saw in the section above, Damasio is to be credited with re-discovering a number of the major points articulated in the AMC, and putting them together in a strikingly similar way.


In the period of time since 1970 others beside Damasio have articulated an understanding of the 'self' similar to the one described in the AMC. For example, in a discussion of self awareness and how individuals exert control over their inner states, psychologist Frances Vaughan (1979) distinguishes between 'awareness of ... the contents of consciousness" and awarness "of yourself as the CONTEXT in which they occur". 33 The features of the AMC that Vaughan's way of speaking brings most emphatically to mind are #5, #6, and #9. Incidentally, she also claims that 'attending to feelings without changing them is even more difficult than attending to your breathing without changing it', a fact that the AMC explains by pointing out that when a feeling state - which most properly fulfills its role by remaining in the background of consciousness - is attended to directly, along with this shift in status comes a change in role.


Amplifying on what Freud had to say about the 'splitting of consciousness', psychoanalyst James S. Grotstein (1985) talks about the 'splitting of the object of experience from the background experience', likening it to 'figure' and 'ground'. A 'sense of self', according to Grotstein, derives from what remains in the background when this split occurs. He calls that the 'Background Object of Primal Identification', but is quick to say that it "can also be thought of as the Background SUBJECT of Primary Identification since it is experienced as part of subjective I-ness ..." 34


More recently, Robert Ornstein (1997) talks in his new book about the 'distortion of self-image' that accompanies the breakdown of the schizophrenic's ability to build and maintain a sense of context 35 when the 'attention filter' malfunctions 36 - a point that we made in Consciousness, back in 1976. In his analysis he relies heavily on the concept of 'context', and the manner in which conscious experience can be conceived as bifurcated into an area located in the 'background of our worldview' 37 in which 'implicit context' 38 operates, like a 'framework' which gives 'meaning' 39 to the explicit 'details' 40 of experience that appear in the foreground. He recognizes a 'whole/part' 41 relationship that obtains between the two. This is basically the AMC, in a nutshell.

Even though Ornstein does not explicitly say so, I'd be inclined to simply assume that he conceives of all of these aspects of the individual's experience as taking place 'in consciousness' if it weren't for the fact, as we've seen demonstrated above, that so many theorists want to locate such experiences outside of consciousness.



1. Descartes' Error, Antonio R. Damasio, (New York, 1994), Harcourt Brace & Co., p. 336 ftn #1.
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2. Damasio, p. 7.
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3. With regard to the problem of the self, Damasio says: "This is the problem of how, in parallel with engendering mental patterns for an object, the brain also engenders a sense of self in the act of knowing," (page 9) He also remarks that "a consensus has been developing recently that subjectivity is the 'hard problem' of consciousness, although discussions of subjectivity usually do not consider that it requires a subject - a sense of self - and that the means whereby we have a sense of self, illusory or not, must be an important aspect of elucidating consciousness'. (p. 338) In his book Evans addressed this problem in a way that does clarify the role of the subject in consciousness and explains from whence the sense of self arises.]
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4. With regard to the problem of consciousness, Damasio says: "Much as I see the matter of self as a critical issue in the elucidation of consciousness, it is important to make clear that the problem of consciousness is not confined to the matter of self. ... Solving this problem encompasses, of necessity, addressing the philosophical issue of qualia". (page 9) Although Evans does not speak to the aspect of this problem that Damasio is ultimately interested in understanding - how 'the brain inside the human organism engenders the mental patterns we call ... images of the object', he does address the philosophical issues to which Damasio refers, and explains in what manner objects are experienced by conscious subjects, and what this has to do with the experience of 'self'.
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5. Damasio, p. 9.
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6. See review of The Paradox of Consciousness, by Louis Bermudez, forthcoming in Psycoloquy.
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7. 'First-Person Methodologies: What, Why, and How?', Varela and Shear in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness, Ed. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear, (1999),
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8. The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, Arthur Deikman, (1982), Beacon Press.
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9. "My theory," says C.O. Evans, "is the startling one that the self is identical with unprojected consciousness". [SOC, page 144)]
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10. The Astonishing Hypothesis - the Scientific Search for the Soul, Francis Crick (New York, 1995), Simon and Schuster, p. 20.
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11. Once one conceives of consciousness as 'structured', as Cedric did in 1970, it is only natural to begin to think in terms of using complex topologies to describe that structure. It was this possibility that hung constantly in the back of my mind during the period in which Cedric and I were busy writing Consciousness in the mid 70s. I became convinced, over the period of years that it took to complete our manuscript, that certain conclusions about the nature of consciousness arrived at by Eastern philosophers might best be articulated in terms of a complex and peculiar topology that describes what I have more recently come to call its 'liminocentric' structure. Although we decided, at the time, that any adequate discussion of the complicated issues raised by this hypothesis would have taken us too far afield from the simple and elegant model of consciousness that it was our purpose to present, some of my thoughts on this matter did surface in Chapter 3, in my analysis of the Shri Yantra. For more on this curious meditational mandala and the possible implications, in philosophy and psychology, of the view that such diagrams were originally used to articulate a structure that can account for the essentially paradoxical nature of consciousness, see 'A Conversation with Physicist Brian Greene', John Fudjack (1999)[1] and 'The Structure of Consciousness - Liminocentricity, Enantiodromia, and Personality', John Fudjack (1999)[2].
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12. 'Beyond the Fringe: William James', in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness p. 142.
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13. 'Information-processing models of consciousness', Tim Shallice, (1988), in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, ed. A.J. Marcel and E. Bisiach (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
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14. At the beginning of Chapter 3 in The Subject of Consciousnessyou find the following sentence, for example - "The object of this chapter is to show that consciousness is given a structure by attention". And also, "I give reasons for believing that what we take to be the presence of attention in consciousness is the polarization of consciousness into elements occupying its foreground relative to others which form its background".
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15. Shallice speaks, for instance, of "consciousness - in the sense of the contents of the foreground of attention" (p. 313} This phrase makes consciousness synonymous with the contents of attention - which is the defining characteristic of the 'spotlight model'.
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16. The Presence of the Past: morphic resonance and the habits of nature, Rupert Sheldrake, (New York, 1989, c1988), Vintage Books, p.305.
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17. 'Present-Time Consciousness', F.J. Varela, in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness p. 137.
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18. 'Present-Time Consciousness', F.J. Varela, in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness p. 114.
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19. 'Present-Time Consciousness', F.J. Varela, in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness p. 134.
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20. 'First-Person Methodologies: Why, What & How?', F.J. Varela and J. Shear, in The View From Within: first-person approaches to the study of consciousness p. 3.
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21.The Unconscious Before Freud, Lancelot Law Whyte, (1962, c1960, New York), Anchor Books.
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22. The Freudian Subject, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, (Stanford, 1988, c1982), Stanford University Press, p. 5-6.
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23. What Does it All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Thomas Nagel, (Oxford, 1987), Oxford University Press, p.36.
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24. "Daniel C. Dennett is a prominent and tireless defendent of the [physical] reductionist position - the majority view among those working in the field", says Thomas Nagel in Other Minds: Critical Essays - 1969-1994 [(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 87]. What Dennett does, according to Nagel, is "construct a third-person theory, which, though it employs familiar psychological terms in the 'as if' sense in which one might apply them to a robot, is based solely on the behaviorist and physiological manifestations generally associated with consciousness and does not assume that the beings he is talking about (humans, mostly) are conscious at all." (p. 87) The 'explanation' of consciousness that Dennett puts forward [in Content and Consciousness(1969) and Consciousness Explained (1994)] is thus, in Nagel's view, somewhat beside the point; it "doesn't imply anything at all about the consciousness of the subject" (p. 89) since "what is explained on the subpersonal level is not consciousness, but only certain patterns of behavior that are characteristic of consciousness..." (p.84-85) Dennett's position, which Nagel treats as "a sophisticated descendent" of behaviorism, turns out to be "a theory of consciousness that doesn't include mental events." Nagel likens this to "a book about Picasso that doesn't mention his paintings". (p. 88).
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25. Evolving the Mind: on the nature and the origin of consciousness, A.G. Cairnes-Smith, (Cambridge, 1996), Cambridge University Press, p. 186. In footnote #57, on page 191, he mentions that "Subliminal perception, 'perception without awareness', is a well established phenomenon. It strongly suggests that 'the brain processes underlying conscious experience differ from those that mediate between incoming signals and outgoing responses' (Dixon, 1987)]". Although this might appear to be a concession to the presence of 'subsidiary awarness', this type of 'awareness' takes place outside of consciousness for Cairnes-Smith.

Although he apparently wants to locate subsidiary awareness (subliminal perception) outside of consciousness, he does not consider feeling to be 'unconscious'. In footnote #2, on page 189, he remarks that "some people talk of 'unconscious feelings' but you will see that my use of terms makes this a straight contradiction". Given his views regarding feeling and submliminal perception, it would thus be rather difficult for Cairnes-Smith to conceive of feeling as taking place in the 'background' of awareness, as Damasio does, or as is suggested by the AMC.
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26. Damasio, p. 37.
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27. Mood - the Frame of Mind, William N. Morris, (New York, 1989), Springer-Verlag, p. 8.
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28. Sometimes Morris speaks in a way that smacks of spotlight-model assumptions. For instance, in the preface to his book (page ix) he states that "mood is most often out of awareness". We can only assume that 1) he is talking here about mood when it assumes its characteristic position outside of attention, 'in the background', and 2) that he is making the further (spotlight-model) assumption that whatever is outside of attention must also be outside of awareness. These propositions, in combination, lead him to the conclusion that mood is frequently 'out of awareness'.

But Morris apparently also wants to argue that we are aware of what is in the background, although he is prone (like other spotlight-model theorists do) to use the word 'attention' to refer to that awareness -

A good example is the 'cocktail party' phenomenon. While participating in a conversation, we focus on what our interactant is saying. Other conversations, although within 'earshot', are background noise. However, if your name is mentioned in one of those other conversations, attention can be rapidly deployed so as to tune in on what is being said. (Note, however, that the fact that your name intruded in the first place shows that some attention was already being allocated to the 'ground'). (page 8)

Morris could escape these difficulties by utilizing terminology in the way suggested by the AMC, which distinguishes between attention and awareness and thus permits one to say that mood, which is characteristically in the background, is 'most often out of attention' but also 'in awareness' or 'in consciousness', while reserving the word 'attention' to indicate what is explicit, in the focal area of awareness.
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29. Morris, pages 9 and 13.
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30. Morris, page 9.
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31. Damasio, p. 19. Philosopher Albert Hofstadter makes a similar point:

The grammar of our language tempts us into thinking about consciousness of self in the same way as we think about consciousness of objects. But the preposition 'of' in these two phrases does not have the same use. When I am conscious of myself, my self is actually present to me. But it is not present in the manner of something that stands over against me ... It is, rather, present to me precisely as NOT an object, NOT something that is there for me as other than myself.

... my immediate self-consciousness is not an object consciousness. I am conscious of myself by inhabiting my own acts, and I am present to myself by my being my own self. Rather than having to observe what I am doing when I think, or act, or feel, I know within my very thinking that and how I am thinking, within my very acting or feeling that and how I am acting or feeling. (Agony and Epitaph - man, his art, and his poetry, Albert Hofstadter, (New York, 1970), George Braziller Inc., p. 42-43)

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32. Damasio, p. 150-151.
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33. Awakening Intuition, Frances E. Vaughan, (New York, 1979), Doubleday, p. 25.
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34. Splitting and Projective Identification, Grotstein, (New Jersey, 1995, c1981), Jason Aronson Inc., pages 4,5,6, and 84, respectively.
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35. The Right Mind - A Cutting Edge Picture of How the Two Sides of the Brain Work, Robert Ornstein, (New York, 1997),
Harcourt Brace &Co., p. 132.
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36. Ornstein, p. 136.
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37. Ornstein, p. 113.
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38. Ornstein, p. 112.
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39. Ornstein, p. 175.
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39. Ornstein, p. 153.
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41. Ornstein, p. 120.
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