Are philosophers allowed to redefine standard terminology?

My friend Micah and I recently co-authored a paper on neuralplasticity, social interaction, and consciousness. Jon Cogburn kindly read an early draft version and gave me his comments. His biggest complaint was that we were using a nonstandard definition of “consciousness”. He said that our terminology goes against standard folk psychological conceptions, and thus, we were unjustified in using the standard term “consciousness” in a nonstandard way.

The question I want to explore in this post is whether and to what extent a philosopher is allowed to redefine standard terminology. If people have been using consciousness to mean one thing for 30 years, must a philosopher necessarily follow the trend? Or is the standard way of defining consciousness the very problem that needs fixing?

Personally, I think philosophers are allowed to deviate from the everyday usage of terminology, especially for ambiguous words that display the property of polysemy. I think that the ordinary usage of consciousness isn’t precise enough to generate a rigorous mental taxonomy that is appropriate for neural explanation. In some contexts, consciousness is transitive and synonymous with “awareness” e.g. “I am conscious of that chair”; in others, consciousness is intransitive and synonymous with being awake and alert e.g. “When I awoke, I became conscious”. A distinction has also been made between creature consciousness and mental-state consciousness. Creature consciousness is applied to the whole organism (“the cat is conscious of the mouse”) whereas mental-state consciousness is applied only to particular mental events (“that particular belief is conscious”). For mental-state consciousness, we can further distinguish between phenomenal consciousness (what Ned Block now calls “phenomenology”) and access consciousness. For mental states with phenomenology, there is “something it is like” to be in those states. For mental states with just access consciousness, there is not “anything it is like” to be in them, they are just functional states that “do something”. Furthermore, some philosophers claim that laypersons standardly think of consciousness as being synonymous with self-consciousness (awareness of awareness).

Now, with all these different usages of consciousness, what possible hope can we have for uniting them together into a single explanatory model? When “folk psychological intutions” display such polysemy, are we not better off starting from scratch and redefining our terminology so as to achieve logical consistency, explanatory parsimony, and conceptual coherence? We will never achieve these criterion of explanatory success unless we are willing to jigger with standard definitions.

Accordingly, Micah and I believe that orthodox approaches to consciousness often conflate two distinct kinds of consciousness: prereflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. We argue that keeping these two kinds of consciousness separate is crucial for understanding “what-it-is-like” to be human. Many philosophers fail to realize that phenomenal feeling and meta-consciousness upon those feelings are two separate things. Either philosophers focus exclusively on phenomenal feeling at the expense of meta-consciousness, or claim that meta-consciousness and phenomenal feeling are the same thing. In contrast to this approach, we contend that phenomenal feels and reflection upon phenomenal feels are two separate things.

Moreover, we contend that it is language that bestows the capacity for reflective consciousness, what we sometimes call “narrative consciousness”. This has the effect of limiting reflective consciousness to linguistically competent humans. Nonverbal animals are simply not reflective in the way verbal humans are. So whereas a preverbal infant is preflectively conscious (there is “something it is like” to be an infant), it is incapable of stepping “offline” to generate a psychological distance between itself and its own actions, and thus is not reflectively conscious.

Those who are careful readers of this blog will notice that the above usage of terminology deviates from what I normally insist upon. What Micah and I are calling “prereflective consciousness” I normally call “nonconsciousness”. That is, I normally reserve the term “consciousness” for reflective consciousness alone, with all prereflective mentality being nonconscious. This was actually the original terminological structure of our paper. But Shaun Gallagher and Jon Cogburn insisted so strongly that we were “highjacking” the standard usage of consciousness without justification that we decided to change our terminology (for fear of no one understanding us). Actually, it was just me that was doing the highjacking, since Micah resisted my usage of the term “nonconscious” from the beginning and only went  along with it reluctantly. So now the paper follows his terminological intuitions rather than mine and the definitions we employ are inline with Cogburn and Gallagher’s own understanding, not Julian Jaynes (who I follow).

But I still stand by my original claim that it is conceptually coherent and explanatorily more parsimonious to say that “there is something it is like” to be nonconscious. Moreover, I shouldn’t be restricted to how other philosophers have used consciousness in the past or to how laypersons understand the term. My contention is not just that it is “preferable” to use my nonstandard restriction of consciousness to “reflective consciousness” (while allowing that higher-order representations are unnecessary for phenomenal feeling), but also, that we can make philosophical progress only by redefining our terminology in light of the distinction between the nonconscious mind and the conscious mind.

Here is a reductio ad absurdum for the standard definition of consciousness as just the low-level phenomenal feels or “what-it-is-like” to be alive.

  1. Consciousness is simply being alive and intelligently responding or reacting to the world without being meta-conscious. One doesn’t need to be aware that you are aware in order to be aware.
  2. White blood cells are alive and intelligently respond to their surroundings by chasing and and devouring the appropriate kind of bacteria. Accordingly, white blood cells are “aware” of bacteria. Just as there is “something it is like” to be a bat in virtue of the bat being alive, there is “something it is like” to be a white blood cell. (It would require a question begging definition of phenomenal feels to restrict them to more phylogenetically evolved organisms)
  3. Accordingly (from 1 and 2), there are billions of conscious entities swirling in our blood stream at any given moment.

Now, some people are willing to bite the bullet here and claim, yes, under the best definition of consciousness that are billions of conscious entities existing inside every human. My claim that this result is undesirable for philosophy of mind and that we should adjust our terminology in order to avoid this. Accordingly, it is more coherent and parsimonious to restrict the term “consciousness” for “meta-consciousness” and use the phrase “nonconscious phenomenal reactivity” for “phenomenal consciousness”. My intuition is that it makes more sense to say that consciousness is something rare rather than ubiquitous. On my view, only one species is capable of consciousness. Consciousness is a recent socio-cultural adaptation. It is learned in ontogeny, not present at birth. Preverbal infants are not conscious. Humans who never learn a language are not conscious. We are conscious less of the time than we think, for we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.


1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

One response to “Are philosophers allowed to redefine standard terminology?

  1. Marcel

    To me, consciousness has everything to do with “what it is like”. Why do we need language, why do we need to be aware that we are aware? Being alive and intelligently responding to your environment does not necessarily mean that you’re also conscious, that there is something it is like to be you. My guess is there is nothing it is like to be a blood cell, hence they aren’t conscious. Just like I strongly suspect that computers and robots aren’t conscious. They, too, can intelligently respond to their environment, but it all goes on in the dark. Consciousness is when the lights are on, thoughts or no thoughts, meta-awareness and/or intelligence present or absent.

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