Degrees of Consciousness



Degrees of Consciousness



Think of the last time you sat opposite someone you know well and talked for a while. You had all sorts of conscious experiences: the look of the person’s face, the sound of his or her voice, and so on. At some point you may have said his or her name and simultaneously heard it. Were you conscious of the person’s name during this period? You certainly were at the moment of uttering it, but were you the rest of the time? We can say that you knew the name all the while, and not in any weak or reduced sense. Was the name on the tip of your tongue? No, but it was hovering somewhere nearby; you were not like someone struggling to recall the name, or someone who had never learned it. I am inclined to say that you were conscious of the name during the period in question—as much as you were conscious of other aspects of the person (his or her lip movements, eye color, accent). You weren’t paying attention to these things, but you were conscious of them—they were within your field of consciousness.  [1] Yet your consciousness of the name was not like actually hearing the name, either perceptually or in the form of an auditory image. There were no “name qualia”, though a name was consciously present. Were you as conscious of the person’s name as you were of his or her face? Probably not, unless you kept recurring to it, but it would be incorrect to say that you were unconscious of the name—that your knowledge of it was unconscious knowledge. You were entirely aware of the name at all times (not unaware)—it was an element of your overall state of conscious awareness. It was like your awareness of the sex or nationality of the person.

            Was there anything it was like to be conscious of the name during this time interval? No—there was no subjective impression of the name, no qualitative feel (except when you uttered the name). It was not part of your sensory field. Nor was there any conscious episode of thought involving the name—no inner act of speech containing it (“George is looking handsome today”). The name did not “pass before your mind”. So consciousness does not require these kinds of occurrence: things can exist in consciousness without existing in those ways. It is quite wrong to say that unless an item belongs to consciousness in either of those two ways it is simply unconscious; on the contrary, the name was an aspect of your current total consciousness of the world—you were conscious of the fact that you were speaking to a person called “George”. This is not a fact of which you were unconscious, like the forgotten fact that you once saw George on the subway, or the Freudian fact that you unconsciously hate him. Similarly, you were conscious of your own name during the conversation, though it likely never crossed your mind—as you were conscious that you exist, are a person, are sitting in a restaurant, and so on. Your consciousness can be populated by many things that go beyond the subjectively sensory and the cognitively episodic: it is not all sensory qualia and inner speech–of what passes before and through consciousness. Consciousness is more capacious than that, more inclusive.

            But names are not always consciously present in this way—ripe for the picking. They do not always trip off the tongue with the greatest of ease, as if crossing a perfectly permeable threshold—as if the transition to full consciousness were nothing. Sometimes names are hard to recall, even impossible to recall. In fact, names vary widely in their ease of recall, as everyone knows: sometimes it can take a whole day to recall a name. It is thus natural to say that different names are more or less accessible to consciousness–they can vary in their proximity to conscious awareness. Just as a name can be conscious and yet not at the center of consciousness, so a name can be only faintly conscious compared to another name (sometimes you can recall only part of the sound of a name). That is, we can introduce the notion of degrees of consciousness to mark these distinctions: we replace the idea of a sharp dichotomy between conscious and unconscious with the idea of gradations of consciousness shading into complete unconsciousness. This is not to say that the mind shades into the material world and so has no distinctive reality (whatever that may mean); it is merely to say that the traditional bifurcation into the conscious and the unconscious mind is simplistic and dispensable. What is called “the conscious mind” is more amorphous, more heterogeneous, than people tend to suppose, merging as it does with memory, language mastery, and background knowledge. The proper metaphor is the penumbra not the spotlight (though all such metaphors are misleading). It is misleading to focus on momentary states of sensory consciousness and assume that these are paradigmatic—they are merely one variety of consciousness. Don’t focus on the bat’s current echolocation experience to the exclusion of all else; remember everything that shapes the bat’s total awareness of the world, including such things as its knowledge of where it lives, of the existence of other bats, and of its own bodily orientation. There are boundaries to consciousness, but they are not so narrow as to exclude everything except the “phenomenal” and the “cognitively episodic”. Knowing someone’s name can be perfectly conscious without being either of these things.  [2]

            Part of the point of recognizing degrees of consciousness—or rejecting a sharp division between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind—is to question the idea that only certain types of mental phenomena pose a serious challenge to science and philosophy. It is not as if anything not conscious in the restrictive sense is not a deep theoretical problem: the mind as a whole is a problem not just some segment of it—that which we are currently conscious of in some limited sense. Relying on the model of perceptual sensations gives a distorted picture of the terrain, since these are just one part the mind, and not characteristic of the whole. That is why I picked on the case of knowing a person’s name, which doesn’t fit the model. Being aware of someone’s name in the normal course of speaking to him is just as much an instance of consciousness as anything else, even if such awareness can come in degrees. It isn’t that the mental differs only in degree from the non-mental; rather, mental states can differ from each other in their degree of consciousness. There is no sharp line separating the conscious mind from the unconscious mind but a kind of interpenetration and continuity; this dichotomous terminology itself encourages a false antithesis. Don’t picture the mind as a radiant conscious region adjacent to an unlit unconscious region; picture it instead as an overlapping series of more or less illuminated regions—from bright to dappled to shady to crepuscular to inky. A name can occupy any of these contiguous regions: from the clearly heard to the explicitly known to being on the tip of the tongue to the momentarily elusive to the maddeningly buried. In our efforts to highlight consciousness we should not oversimplify it or assimilate it to one class of mental phenomena; nor should we suppose that what is designated unconscious belongs to a different family from what is designated conscious. These terms are just rough labels for a more complex reality; they should not be allowed to dominate and distort our discussions of the mind.



  [1] Of course, you were not perceiving the name, as you were other aspects of the person, but that does not prevent you from being conscious of it—as you would be if you kept saying it to yourself inwardly.

  [2] The same might be said of our knowledge of language as a whole, but I won’t go into this—the case of names suffices for my point.

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