Consciousness: A User's Guide

Consciousness: A User's Guide

by Adam Zeman



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300092806
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/08/2003
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Adam Zeman is a consultant neurologist at Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, and senior lecturer in the department of clinical neurosciences at Edinburgh University.

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A User's Guide
By Adam Zeman

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Adam Zeman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300092806

Chapter One

As sweet by any other name? Consciousness, self-consciousness and conscience

There is no generally accepted definition of consciousness.

'Eeh, doctor, the patient ... she is somehow unconscious!'


Consciousness is in fashion, among scientists and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been 'regained', 'rediscovered', 'reconsidered', and even 'explained'. A Journal of Consicousness Studies carries forward the debate between students of psychology, physiology, anatomy, computation, artificial intelligence, religion and philosophy. The University of Arizona at Tucson plays host to a major biannual conference, 'Toward a Science of Consciousness'; the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness promotes its investigation. Recently, interest has spread beyond the circle of learned journals and societies. The editors of magazines and daily papers, the producers of programmes on the sciences and the arts, all regard the nature of awareness and its basis in the brain as sufficiently sexy topics to warrant freqilent bulletins.

You could be forgiven for assuming that the quest for consciousness must have an enticing quarry. Could so much intellectual effort be squandered on an imaginary prize? Well, perhaps it could. The pursuit of consciousness is unusual among scientific endeavours in that a powerful group of thinkers, including philosophers and scientists, has questioned the wisdom of setting off on the chase in the first place. They argue that the notion of consciousness is too deeply muddled to merit serious consideration. It originates, so the argument runs, in everyday thinking about the mind, in 'folk psychology'. Its messy beginnings render it unsuited to scientific use. Philosophers should do their best to loosen the hold of this confusing notion on our thinking. Psychologists had better not bother themselves with it at all. If there are any 'problems of consciousness', they arise from our inconsistent and unsophisticated use of language.

In the face of these doubts we need to take stock before investing too much time and energy in pursuit of consciousness. We must try to be clearer about what we mean by the word, and by its close relations, 'self-consciousness' and 'conscience'. This enquiry into meaning is the main task of this chapter.

Language, the great enabler and disabler of our thinking, is thoroughly steeped in history. So before dissecting the senses of the family of consciousness words in English today, we should take a look at their origins. This chapter traces the history of 'consciousness' and its forebears from their beginnings into present-day use, before examining the contemporary senses of consciousness and self-consciousness. It also surveys the vocabulary which is used to express these ideas in some other contemporary languages. If consciousness is of real interest we should expect it to be a subject of discussion by busy human tongues across the world.

The history of 'conscience'-and her cousins

It is well we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and immensely potent instruments words are.

Consciousness, self-consciousness and conscience bear close family resemblances. Over the centuries their shifting meanings have mingled and worked upon one another. In English, 'conscience' is the parent of the group, the begetter of 'consciousness'.

Conscience itself owes its origins to the combination of two Latin words, scio, meaning 'I know', and cum, meaning 'with' (which becomes 'con' when it is used as a prefix). Conscius is the adjective formed from the verb conscio, conscientia is the noun.

Conscio in Latin meant 'I know together with' in the sense of sharing knowledge. The knowledge in question was typically shared with another person, and was often of something secret or shameful: one would be 'conscius' with a co-conspirator. Writing in English in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes drew on this sense: 'When two or more men know of one and the same fact [i.e. deed] they are said to be conscious of it one to another'.

But if we can share knowledge with others, we can also share it with ourselves. This gives rise to the second sense of conscius. Bunyan had it in mind when he wrote: 'I am conscious to myself of many failings'.

These two senses, of knowledge shared with another and knowledge shared with oneself, have been called the 'strong' sense of conscio. Latin also allowed a weakened sense, which English would later echo, in which conscio meant little more than 'I know', or 'I know well', and in which conscientia meant knowledge, thought or mind.

All three senses entered English with 'conscience', the first equivalent of conscientia in our language. Conscientia in Latin was primarily a witness to the facts, whether reporting on external events - to which a pair of conspirators might be privy - or on the workings of a mind. But our knowledge of what has occurred and our views on its rights and wrongs are closely linked, making it understandable that the meaning of 'conscience' in English came to extend itself from witness to lawgiver, from the reporter at the scene of the crime to the legislator who outlaws or condemns it. Jeremy Taylor wrote, 'God rules in us by his substitute, our conscience'; Milton spoke of 'My umpire conscience'. Once this new usage was established a 'good conscience' could mean either a clear, unencumbered one, a witness with nothing discreditable to report, or a sound source of judgement on moral issues.

The words 'conscious' and 'consciousness' appear in English early in the seventeenth century. At first both were used in the strong sense, as later, by Pope, in 1744: 'An honest mind is not in the power of a dishonest: to break its peace there must be some guilt or consciousness'. But over the years their senses weakened, gradually losing the association with shared or guilty knowledge, and they came to refer first and foremost to the waking state: 'consciousness as opposed to dormancy, dreamless sleep, swoon, insensibility'.

Yet the old senses live on, colouring the new: when we speak of 'human consciousness' one can still hear a distant echo of the 'sharing' implicit in the Latin conscientia; when John Locke wrote in the seventeenth century that the soul 'must necessarily be conscious of its own perceptions' he was using a word in which the connotation of knowledge shared with oneself or another was very much alive.

'Self-conscious' and 'self-consciousness' came on the scene in the seventeenth century soon after consciousness itself. The self reference seems to have had a rather variable influence on the word's meaning. It sometimes added little to its force: 'self-consciousness to the greatest villainy' (1675) was really no more than consciousness of it, with a hint of discreditable involvement. But other authors, including Locke, used the term to refer to consciousness of one's own identity, acts and thoughts. The most colloquial sense of self-consciousness, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'so far self-centred as to suppose one is the object of observation by others', does not appear until the nineteenth century, nicely captured in a phrase by Carlyle: 'self-conscious, conscious of a world looking on'.

We should try to keep the history of these words in mind as we disentangle their uses in English today.

'What do you mean by ...?'


What do we mean by 'consciousness' in colloquial English? There is something forbidding about attempts to define abstract nouns. Rather than launch a direct assault on 'consciousness', let's start by tackling the more amiable adjective, and ask what we mean when we say someone is 'conscious'.

'Conscious' as 'awake'

When we say that someone is conscious, without further qualification, we generally mean that he or she is awake - rather, that is, than asleep or concussed, comatose, dead drunk, anaesthetised or in a hypnotic trance. We are referring to the individual's 'level' or 'state' of consciousness.

We speak, in this sense, of consciousness dwindling, waning, lapsing and recovering; it may be lost, depressed, regained. This sense of 'conscious' is used countless times each day in casualty departments and hospital wards throughout the English-speaking world. It is mostly captured by words like 'awake', 'aroused', 'alert' or "vigilant'. The 'disorders of consciousness' treated and studied by neurologists, the 'fits, faints and funny turns' discussed in Chapter 4, appeal to this sense of the word.

This use of 'consciousness' is unmysterious and relatively uncontroversial. We are generally good judges of whether others are or are not conscious, in this sense. We bring objective criteria to bear: Can he speak, preferably sensibly? Is he oriented in place and time? Are his eyes open? If not, do they open when we speak to him? Is he moving, with spontaneity and purpose, or at least on request? If the answer to all these questions is affirmative, we would be in no doubt that our companion is conscious, capable of a making a well-integrated response to his surroundings. We often equate wakefulness, judged by criteria like these, with the capacity for experience. But if we do so, we will sometimes be wrong.

Useful as they are, these criteria do not always tell us what we really want to know about someone's state of consciousness. People may be conscious even if none of them is satisfied; and we will at least contemplate the possibility that someone might not be conscious even if all the criteria are satisfied. Patients who are paralysed by muscle relaxants during surgery occasionally provide a disturbing example of the former state of affairs. If the anaesthetic is inadequate to obliterate consciousness, they will be able to give a detailed account of their experiences afterwards, even though at the time they gave - could give - no indication of awareness. We shall return to such alarming states in Chapter 4. Philosophers have recently been intrigued by the latter possibility, that despite all appearances to the contrary - despite the ability, for example, to engage you in lively conversation - your companion might be unconscious: we shall encounter these remarkable 'zombies' in Chapter 9. Such examples point us towards the second, more difficult, and much more controversial sense of 'consciousness'.

'Conscious' as 'aware of'

When we say that someone is conscious in this second sense, we imply that he or she is enjoying some experience. We imply that there is 'something it feels like to be' this person at this very moment, in a sense in which there is nothing it feels like to be a stone, or to be lost in dreamless sleep. In this use, we generally add the word 'of' to enable us to specify the content of consciousness. I, for instance, over the last few moments, have been conscious of the sound of a tractor chugging in the distance, of someone reading a story aloud to a child downstairs, of the tapping sound made by my fingers on the keyboard as I write, of the sentence which is forming itself on the screen of my laptop, of a slight twinge of backache as I lean forward from my chair.

The 'contents' of consciousness in this sense of the word are sensory or perceptual. They include the family of bodily sensations, tingles, tickles, itches, aches and pains and the deliverances of the five traditionai senses: all that we see, hear, taste, smell, touch. The contents of consciousness usually have a rich texture. Our experience from moment to moment, like the brief segment of the 'stream of consciousness' which I have just described, is alive with meaning and feeling, supplied without effort by processes which are themselves unconscious. Experience arrives classified and interpreted by memory, imbued with emotion, integrated in a course of action. Some component of my memory, for instance, without needing to be asked, informed me that the husky chug I could hear outside belonged to a certain farm vehicle; the sound of the tractor in the lane, evocative - for me - of holidays and country walks, reinforced my sense of leisure; tempered by the twinge of backache, this sense became a part of my experience as I worked, providing the background to the partly frustrating, partly agreeable effort to put my thoughts into words. The interplay of sensation, memory, emotion and action is the foundation of ordinary experience. We live, the apt phrase of the American biologist Gerald Edelman, in a 'remembered present' - with half an eye on the future.

Several writers have agreed with William James that we can make some useful generalisations about consciousness in its second sense (which we might define as 'the current content of perceptual experience'). It is stable for short periods, of up to a few seconds, but characteristically changeful over time; it is selective, with a foreground and a background, and a limited capacity, but we are able to make the most of its limited resources by directing attention to this or that target, shifting the focus of consciousness from an item in the foreground to an item in the background of our thoughts; it ranges over innumerable contents, with potential contributions from each of our senses, and from all our major psychological processes, including thought, emotion, memory, imagination, language and the planning of action; its contents are unified at one time, and continuous over time in the sense that memory allows us to connect consciousness of the present with consciousness of the past; it is generally 'intentional' in the philosophical sense that it is consciousness of things in the world, directed at this or that; it is personal, involving a subject with a necessarily limited point of view, and 'aspectual', conditioned by the perspective which our viewpoint affords.

The changeful, personal, aspectual nature of consciousness means that we are much less confident that we can share what others are 'conscious of' than that we can judge whether they are conscious at all. Although we normally assume that others perceive the world in ways broadly akin to our own, we accept that differences of age, of sex, of culture, of personal and educational history all influence the quality of their experience. Changes in our own perspective, as we grow up, or get to know a neighbourhood, become acquainted with a job or learn a language, give us some insight into the way experience of a static situation can be transformed by changes taking place in us.


Excerpted from Consciousness by Adam Zeman Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zeman. Excerpted by permission.
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