Quote of the Day 8-21-12, "Defining consciousness"

“There is no term [consciousness] at once so popular and so devoid of standard meaning. How can a term mean anything when it is employed to connote anything and everything, including its own negation? One hears of the object of consciousness and the subject of consciousness, and the union of the two in self-consciousness; of the private consciousness, the social consciousness, and the transcendental consciousness; the inner and the outer, the higher and the lower, the temporal and the eternal consciousness; the activity and the state of consciousness. Then there is consciousness-stuff, and the unconscious consciousness…, and unconscious physical states or subconsciousnss…The list is not complete, but sufficiently amazing. Consciousness comprises everything that is, and indefinitely much more. It is small wonder that the definition of it is little attempted.” ~ psychologist Ralph Barton Perry, 1904, quoted in William Calvin’s The Cerebral Symphony

I’d say that 100 years later the term “consciousness” is still devoid of standard meaning. Some people define it in terms of what-it-is-likeness, others define it in terms of introspection and meta-awareness, and others collapse the distinction between what-it-is-likeness and meta-awareness. Some think consciousness is primitive and shared with all mammals, others thinks its the reserve of apes and humans. For some it is a synonym of “awareness” and others it is a synonym of “self-awareness”. Some just want to abandon the term altogether. Personally, I like the definition of consciousness as an introspective or reflective operation, since I think this is in accord with its original connotation in English. Also, to define it in terms of awareness or what-it-is-likeness is hopeless given those terms are just in need of definition as consciousness itself. Adopting the introspective definition is the only way to ground the meaning of consciousness in terms other than itself or our own introspection of it (which is fraught with difficulties given the methodological limitations of introspection).


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

5 responses to “Quote of the Day 8-21-12, "Defining consciousness"

  1. ledge

    Obviously if you’re using these terms in a philosophical context you’re going to have to define them clearly whatever you take them to mean, and trying to sharpen their meaning in the public arena after years of blunting is a futile task. The reason I prefer to consciouness to mean awareness, and not limit it to introspection, is that otherwise ‘the problem of consciousness’ would seem to be a peculiarly human problem. I doubt that animals introspect but i don’t doubt that they have conscious experience that is just as difficult to explain as our own.

  2. Have you seen this ridiculous declaration? http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

    My fellow neuroscientists embarrass me. 🙂

    • Gary Williams


      Yeah, I saw that. I also thought it was a little weak considering they never even precisely define what they mean when they say animals are conscious while conflating several different phenomena and levels of explanation. It also has many metaphysical difficulties, as when they talk about brain areas “generating” both behavior and “feeling states”. This has the trappings of dualist language all over it. They are obviously using it in the sense of “qualia”, but I’d love to see the methodology section that shows how to empirically detect “primal affective qualia”, when the most striking philosophical feature of qualia is their lack of function and their causal innertness.

  3. Yohan

    “the most striking philosophical feature of qualia is their lack of function and their causal innertness.”

    Yup. Well said. In my department we generally just say the the C-word (consciousness) is outside the scope of science proper. You can’t launch an investigation of Subjectivity from the position of Objectivity (or intersubjectivity), can you?

    What has really happened in that declaration is this: they’ve replaced cortical chauvinism with neuronal chauvinism, in a somewhat pointless turf war within neuroscience. If they had even scanned the literature on plant intelligence they would have realized how problematic their functional assertions are.

  4. VicP

    What-it-is-like is a first person subjective view akin to saying our heart and lungs are the beaters and breathers in our chest.

    Introspection is also first person because it deals with the major product and processes of brain activity; information.

    C to me is the product of brain activity by which the external environment is transformed into internal representations of space, time and objects.

    Its very Kantian but all of the other fuctionality of motor interaction, senses and HOT’s are “add-on’s”.

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