Being Conscious


Being Conscious



What is consciousness? What is its basic and essential character? I shall suggest the following: consciousness is the feeling of being. This terse formula will need some elaboration but it is useful as a summary statement. I mean to be speaking of consciousness in the broadest sense—the kind of consciousness (sentience) found in birds, reptiles, fish, even insects, as well as humans. Mainly this is sensory consciousness, though other kinds branch out from the basic kind (presumably it was the earliest kind of consciousness to evolve). There are two sides to the characterization I propose, corresponding to feeling and being. By the latter I simply mean existence: to be conscious is to feel the existence of something. Here two historical figures come into play: Brentano and Descartes. Brentano maintained that to be conscious is to be conscious of something, generally something other than oneself, say objects in the environment. Descartes maintained that being conscious implies one’s own existence (the Cogito)—consciousness carries within it the knowledge of the existence of a self. Putting these two thinkers together, we can say that being conscious carries a double existential implication: it implies the existence of a subject of consciousness and the existence of something other than the subject. It is existentially committal in two respects. Possibly these intimations are misleading (illusions etc.), but they are real intimations nonetheless. Consciousness posits a duality of existences. The suggestion is that these are universal features of consciousness, as Brentano and Descartes supposed; they are necessary and definitive. I think that is basically right, but I won’t here go into the pros and cons. The important point is that conscious states are being-directed while non-conscious states are not (being square doesn’t imply the existence of anything). We can see this in the grammar: to be consciously seeing (say) is for a subject to see an object—there is no subject-less seeing of non-objects.[1]

What about the feeling part? I intend by this word to capture the primitiveness of consciousness in its most basic form—it is a primordial type of feeling. It is not a judgment or a mental act or a belief or an emotion; it isn’t “conceptual”. To be conscious is to feel a certain way—to feel consciously. Thus consciousness is rightly classified as a sensation: whenever an organism is in a conscious state it has a characteristic sensation, the sensation of consciousness. There are sensations of red and sensations of pain, but there is also the sensation of consciousness itself. You can feel this sensation in yourself during your waking hours; it attends your every conscious move. A being might not this have this sensation, in which case it would not be conscious. If you attend now to your visual experience, you will detect various visual sensations, but in addition to these you will find the sensation of consciousness itself. This is why you are aware of your consciousness—because you have sensation of consciousness that you know about. So the feeling of being is a sensation directed toward being—you sense being, you have a sensation of it. It is not that you believe in being whenever you are conscious or that you make a judgment about it; rather, you have a primitive sensation of being. But this sensation cannot occur in the absence of consciousness, as arguably other sensations can, since it is what consciousness is—it is precisely the sensation of consciousness (the consciousness-sensation). If you have a conscious sensation of pain, say, you have both a sensation of pain and a sensation of consciousness. The latter sensation accompanies all conscious mental states uniformly despite their phenomenological variety. When you recover consciousness upon waking up you start to have a sensation that will be present throughout your waking hours—not a higher-order judgment that you keep making or a certain type of omnipresent emotion or a mental act repeatedly performed. You have the consciousness-sensation, a specific feature of mental life.[2]

The view I am describing has points of contact with Sartre’s view of consciousness.[3] He emphasizes the fact that consciousness essentially posits being: the for-itself aims itself at the in-itself. It is not an enclosed self-subsistent being. He doesn’t describe it as having a sensation-like character, but this claim is consistent with his analysis. What he does emphasize is what he calls the “nothingness” of consciousness—the idea that consciousness has no positive being over and above its posited objects. I won’t try to explicate this idea here, merely noting that it can be added to the account I am developing. In Sartre’s terms, consciousness harbors a negation: it is not the objects it posits. It transcends those objects, though not because it is another object, but rather because its being is to be pure other-directedness. It posits existence without being an existent thing like the things it posits—it has a kind of invisible vanishing existence: nothingness, in a word. So, following Sartre, we can say that consciousness is the feeling of being that distances itself from being: it posits being as not itself. It is the feeling of being while feeling itself not to be a being (an in-itself). Thus three notions come together in consciousness: feeling (sensation), being (existence), and negation (nothingness). These are fundamental features of our conceptual scheme, as well as of objective reality. We can therefore say, filling out our simple formula, that consciousness is the feeling of double existence that presents itself as removed from existence (transcending it) and as not itself an existent thing (except as a kind of nothingness).

There is another way to put the view I am proposing: we can speak of manifest being and non-manifest being (pure being). Inanimate objects have non-manifest or pure being: their being is not manifest to any conscious subject, save per accidens. They simply are without any necessary recognition of this fact. But in the case of conscious subjects being becomes manifest, as when we recognize our own existence in acts of consciousness. Consciousness makes our being (and other being) manifest, so it is the agent of being-manifestation. Instead of saying that consciousness is the feeling of being we can say that it is being become manifest, thus shifting the emphasis to the level of being. Consciousness is being become aware of itself. At one time being was manifest to no one, but then consciousness came about and being became manifest. Being caused being to become aware of being. Thus the feeling of being became part of being, with its characteristic structure (sensation plus being plus negation). Instead of saying that consciousness consists in a subject feeling an object we can equivalently say that consciousness consists in an object making itself manifest to a subject—the difference is one of emphasis.

An idealist would insist that there is no being without the feeling of being, possibly a feeling in God’s mind. So there is no pure being: all being derives from the feeling of being–all being is manifest being. This is another way of saying that everything is made of consciousness, so idealism can be formulated using this definition of consciousness. It is the doctrine that all being is felt being. Being consists in sensations of being, i.e. consciousness. An idea in the mind of God is a sensation of being, since God is a conscious being, though no doubt more capacious than human sensations of being. When God has the sensation that a table exists a table exists—that’s idealism under the present theory of consciousness.

How does this account relate to the idea that consciousness consists of states there is something it is like to have? This phrase is usually coupled with the idea of subjectivity, which in turn is analyzed in terms of epistemic access: a state is said to be subjective if and only if it can only be grasped by experiencing it oneself. Thus what it is like to be a bat is subjective in the sense that only beings with experiences like bats can know what kind of state is in question.[4] Clearly this is an epistemological point concerning knowledge of conscious states (or possibly unconscious ones if they are similarly restricted in their conditions of understanding, e.g. subliminal bat perceptions). As such it belongs to a different level from the kind of constitutive conditions I have been discussing: those are internal to conscious states, part of their structure, whereas subjectivity in the sense defined concerns relational facts about knowledge of conscious states. It says they are only knowable in a certain way, i.e. from a particular “point of view”, not from any point of view. There is nothing wrong with characterizing conscious states in this epistemological way, but it should be distinguished from the search for the constitutive nature of such states. There is no incompatibility between the two; they are aiming at different things. The feeling of being that defines a particular kind of conscious state, say a bat’s echolocation experiences, is something that can only be grasped by sharing that feeling, so that subjectivity (in the sense defined) can be added to existence, feeling, and negation that characterize the inner structure of a state of consciousness. Being can be felt (and simultaneously transcended) in different ways, and these ways correspond to differences in epistemic accessibility. There are different things it’s like for organisms and these consist in different ways that being can be felt.

But that doesn’t imply that consciousness itself is a variable commodity in the sense that the property of being conscious itself varies from organism to organism. If what I said earlier is correct, that property is uniform across types of conscious state—within an organism and across organisms. It is the same sensation in all cases—the sensation of consciousness as such. In this sense we do grasp the consciousness of bats, since their consciousness consists in the same thing as ours, viz. that feeling or sensation that makes a state a conscious state. The bat’s echolocation experience is not like anything we possess, but its being conscious is just like what we possess, since that property exists in our experience too—the property precisely of being conscious. If consciousness is a type of sensation, then bats and humans share a sensation (over and above other shared sensations), namely the sensation of being conscious. What we can’t grasp is the nature of the sensory experiences that bats enjoy, but we can grasp what consciousness is for bats, because it is the same for us. All sentient beings are united by a single mental property, i.e. the sensation of being conscious. The bat feels existence by exercising its echolocation sense, and that feeling is subjective (accessible only from one “point of view”); but in addition to that it has a sense of its own consciousness—a certain type of sensation that being conscious consists in. If consciousness consisted in possessing a higher-order thought, we would get the same result, since we know what higher-order thoughts are from our own case; but the same result follows from the sensational theory of consciousness. So there is a sense in which we don’t grasp the consciousness of bats but also a sense in which we do.

What would be a good label for the view I am describing? The label “phenomenological existentialism” suggests itself: it conveys the idea of feeling and the idea of existence, as well as their joining together. But those words carry a lot of baggage and are cumbersome—is there anything catchier and more specific? How about “felt being-ism”? True, it is grammatically awkward, and true it can claim no familiar antecedent; but at least it captures the view briefly and clearly. It’s either that or we appropriate some French or German phrase that resists translation into English, a task I leave to those more linguistically adept than I am.



[1] Of course there can be hallucinations, but the experience is still object-directed—it has an “intentional object”. It is as of an object.

[2] There might be other such constant sensations such as a sense of your own unity or of the presence of space and time. My suggestion is that a sensation of being conscious pervades all waking life: you constantly feel your own consciousness in the mode of sensation.

[3] See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943).

[4] See Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (1972)

10 replies
  1. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    So, a primitive sensation of being (a kind of necessary self-revelation of one’s being the source of one’s experiences ) attends every conscious state? Plausible enough. But what of periods of wakefulness which seem not so readily describable as being a tight series of discrete conscious states? No referential engagement. No sensation of being conscious at all,yet admitting of a remarkable degree of motor responsiveness. How about this: when one is conscious, when one is woke, one instantiates a set of neural causal conditions which, contingently, might flower further into the felt aboutness of conscious mental content and the alleged sensation of consciousness itself?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The case of unconscious pain is relevant: here we could say there is a sensation of pain but no sensation of consciousness associated with it. Or the sensation of consciousness might vary in intensity from the barely perceptible to the vivid and unmistakable.

  2. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    How about “sentimental existentialism” or “existential sentimentalism”?

    Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi writes (both in French and in German):

    “Or la pensée, considérée dans son essence, n’est que le sentiment de l’être.”

    “Nun ist das Denken, in seinem Wesen betrachtet, nichts anderes als das Sein, das sich fühlt, oder das Bewusstsein.”

    (Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich. Letter to Frans Hemsterhuis; August 7, 1784. In Werke, 4. Band., 1. Abteilung, 123-168. Leipzig, 1819. p. 134)

    My translation of the German sentence:
    “Now thought, considered in its essence, is nothing else but the being which feels itself, or consciousness.”

    It’s clear that Jacobi’s sentiment of being is a pre-reflective or pre-conceptual form of self-consciousness:

    “Der Ausdruck ‘le sentiment de l’être’, den mir in dem Briefe an Hemsterhuis die französische Sprache an die Hand gab, war reiner und besser; denn das Wort ‘Bewusstsein’ scheint etwas von Vorstellung und Reflexion zu involvieren, welches hier gar nicht stattfindet.”

    (Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich. Über die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn. Neue erweiterte Ausgabe. Breslau, 1789. pp. 193-4)

    My translation:
    “The expression ‘le sentiment de l’être’, which was given to me by the French language in the letter to Hemsterhuis, was purer and better; for the word ‘consciousness’ seems to involve (mental) representation and reflection, which doesn’t take place here at all.”

    “Jacobi says, in a letter to Hemsterhuis, that the French language has given him the expression ‘le sentiment de l’être’ which he finds much “purer and better” than the German term ‘Bewusstsein’ (consciousness). In fact, this way of speaking is no discovery of Jacobi’s. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had made use of this term repeatedly in order to indicate the same state of affairs of the primitive Being of consciousness not mediated by concepts. In the Profession de foi du Vicair Savoyard, he asks whether there is a specific feeling of my own existence (Dasein) that is independent of the senses. And he answers: “Exister pour nous, c’est sentir.” As we know, the “sentiment de l’existence” also plays another role in Rousseau’s work. What is pertinent for us here, however, is the essential correlation between Being and a type of sense consciousness—all expressions like ‘Empfindung’ (sensation), ‘Wahrnehmen’ (perceiving), ‘Anschauen’ (intuiting), and ‘Fühlen’ (feeling) belong to the sphere of sense representation. And the reason for this, according to the thesis common to Rousseau, Kant, and Jacobi is that Being can only be made accessible by sense consciousness. Jacobi explains the unmediated feeling of Being (sentiment de l’être) which we cited above, by making a reference to Kant’s notions of “transcendental apperception”).”

    (Frank, Manfred. The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism. Translated by E. Millán-Zaibert. New York: SUNY Press, 2004. p. 64)

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Interesting quotes and very much in line with what I was getting at. I like your suggestions for a label, though “existentialism” still has its other meaning–maybe “sentimental existence-ism”.

  3. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    “So the feeling of being is a sensation directed toward being—you sense being, you have a sensation of it. It is not that you believe in being whenever you are conscious or that you make a judgment about it; rather, you have a primitive sensation of being. But this sensation cannot occur in the absence of consciousness, as arguably other sensations can, since it is what consciousness /is/—it is precisely the sensation /of consciousness/ (the consciousness-sensation). If you have a conscious sensation of pain, say, you have both a sensation of pain /and/ a sensation of consciousness. The latter sensation accompanies all conscious mental states uniformly despite their phenomenological variety.” – C. McGinn

    Are the phrases “feeling of being”, “sensation of being”, and “sensation of consciousness” synonymous?

    Are the verbs “to feel” and “to sense” used transitively by you in the sense of “to perceive sth sensorily”?

    In “to feel a feeling” and “to sense a sensation” these verbs are used pseudotransitively, because a feeling and the feeling of it, and a sensation and the sensing of it aren’t really two different things.

    You cannot *sensorily* perceive a sensation or an emotion. I can sensorily perceive my body and other material things; but I cannot sensorily perceive (the experiential contents of) my consciousness. For introspection is not a kind of *sensory* perception. But what is “the sensation of consciousness” then if it is not a sensory perception of it?
    It doesn’t seem to be a *non-sensory* introspective or reflective awareness of one’s consciousness either (as postulated by higher-order theories of consciousness)—in which case “the sensation of consciousness” would be a misnomer anyway, since “non-sensory sensation” is a nonsensical phrase.
    Or is “the sensation of consciousness” a non-sensory *non-introspective*, *non-reflective*, non-conceptual(ized) inner awareness of one’s (mental) being?

    I do understand what conscious sensations are, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what an additional and distinctive consciousness-sensation is that accompanies all conscious sensations.
    “I exist, and I have senses by which I am affected. This is the first truth that strikes me and to which I am forced to acquiesce. Do I have a particular sentiment of my existence, or do I sense it only through my sensations? This is my first doubt, which it is for the present impossible for me to resolve; for as I am continually affected by sensations, whether immediately or by memory, how can I know whether the sentiment of the *I* is something outside these same sensations and whether it can be independent of them?”

    (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile or On Education. 1762. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979. p. 270)

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I think ordinary sensations are transitive, but the sensation of consciousness is not–it’s like the sensation of pain, which is just a pain. This is why I paraphrase it as the “consciousness-sensation”. Language is tricky here.

  4. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    You write that “consciousness is rightly classified as a sensation”, so the sensation of consciousness is the pseudotransitive sensing of a specific sensation called (phenomenal) consciousness, which simply consists in the undergoing or “enjoying” of this specific sensation.

    You also write that “you have a primitive sensation of being”, which “is precisely the sensation of consciousness”; so I take it that you use “sensation (feeling) of being” and “sensation of consciousness” synonymously. Given your statements, I also take it that the feeling/sensation of being/existence is the feeling/sensation of the being/existence of something, particularly the feeling/sensation of the being/existence of oneself/one’s self—with this conceived as a primitive, non-higher-order, non-conceptual(ized), non-reflective, non-introspective form of self-consciousness.

    That feeling/sensation of being/existence (Jacobi’s “sentiment de l’être” and Rousseau’s “sentiment de l’existence”) has an intentional aspect, being an appearance, impression, or presentation of something; and it is not only a presentation of the Dasein (being-there) of objects in general but of one’s own Dasein qua subject in particular, which is what makes it a form of self-consciousness.

    So far, so good. It seems we have an intelligible concept of “the sentiment of being/existence”. But the next question is whether there really is such a distinctive feeling/sensation. You write:

    “If you attend now to your visual experience, you will detect various visual sensations, but in addition to these you will find the sensation of consciousness itself.”

    Well, to be honest, I have a hard time finding it in my stream of experience, and I haven’t yet succeeded in detecting and identifying it introspectively. A possible explanation of my problem with empirically finding that primitive feeling of being is that it might be (temporarily) suppressed or “eclipsed” as soon as my higher-order self-consciousness is activated in the form of introspection or reflection, which gives me a stronger impression of being.

    “Rousseau asks if the sentiment of existence is derived from sensations or if it is independent of them. One could ask further, if there is any evidence for the existence of such a ‘sentiment’ at all. Can it be empirically identified? It seems that the sensibilist accounts, for all their emphasis on experience, simply assert the existence of such a sentiment. If we cannot empirically identify a sentiment of existence but still consider the notion of self-consciousness in this basic sense important, then it is obvious that the purely experiential approach has reached its limits.”

    (Thiel, Udo. “Self and Sensibility: From Locke to Condillac and Rousseau.” Intellectual History Review 25/3 (2014): 1–22. p. 15)

    In case you’re interested, a free PDF version of Thiel’s paper is available here:

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The idea is that you can detect a sensation of red and the fact that this sensation is conscious (it might not be in subliminal perception). So there are, strictly speaking, two sensations at work–a sensation of red and a consciousness-sensation. They are closely intertwined in normal conscious experience. We have the sensation of being conscious during our waking hours.

  5. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    “We have the sensation of being conscious during our waking hours.” No, not necessarily always. Waking hours have their absences, or so it sometimes seems, not merely in retrospect.


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