The Definition of Consciousness

B. H. Bode

THE definition of consciousness is one of the questions that will not down. For philosophical theory it is a sort of shibboleth ; in psychology it is a ghost that walks at the most inopportune moments, however carefully it may have been buried underneath our working hypotheses and methodological postulates. There is perhaps no more reliable indication that a profound change is taking place in our philosophical attitude and modes of thought than the persistent endeavors to formulate a definition of consciousness. In view of the fact that the question is of a fundamental character and that general opinion regarding it is in a state of flux, no apology seems to be necessary for making another attempt at clear thinking on this difficult topic.

In the interests of brevity I shall adopt at the outset the assumption of naive realism that things exist at times when they are not objects for any finite consciousness. The suggestion lies close at hand that the nature of consciousness will be revealed by a comparison of things as they are when not experienced with things as they are when presented to consciousness. But, as Berkeley pointed out long ago, all the choir of heaven and furniture of earth is idea the moment &rich a comparison is attempted. While this does not prove that all existence is mental, it does indicate a difficulty of procedure which must be kept in view at all stages, if our inquiry is to bear fruit. The difficulty is simply that we can not set down side by side the experienced and the non-experienced, in order to take stock of the difference between the two. That this is done surreptitiously in many of the definitions of consciousness which have been put forth, there is good reason to believe. Theology and epistemology have conspired to induce a habit of mind which shuts us in to the notion of consciousness as a mechanical, detachable entity. While the doctrine that consciousness is a peculiar kind of existence, alongside of, yet "separated by the whole diameter of being" from physical reality is rapidly passing into history, the mode of thinking


( 233) of which this doctrine is the expression is with us yet, a mute witness to the discrepancy between what we believe and what we think we believe.

This limitation of procedure constitutes the problem of consciousness a peculiar puzzle. Whether we identify consciousness with the entire field of what we experience or with some specifiable element within this field, we seem to encounter an insuperable difficulty. If the whole situation is to be called consciousness, the "object" or "real" must necessarily lie beyond, and must by definition remain inaccessible. On the other hand, if consciousness is restricted to some element within the field, so that the distinction between consciousness and object falls within the experienced situation, we have at once the difficulty that consciousness and object are never given in separation from each other. The difference between "in" consciousness and "out" of consciousness must be recognized and in some way the two must be compared with each other. But the comparing must be done within the conscious field. How to go beyond consciousness without going beyond it is the embarrassing question, From this familiar blind alley, filled with the debris of discarded epistemological theory, there seems to be no possibility of escape.

It seems, then, that our analysis must be confined to the experiential situation and that this circumstance precludes in advance the possibility of finding a consciousness at all. As a matter of fact, the work done here has been peculiarly barren of results, so far as a consciousness an sich is concerned, although it may lead, and has led, to a wealth of material of a biological and psychological kind. Instead of consciousness, we find ourselves dealing with reactions of an adaptive sort, instinctive, habitual, and intelligent or experimental. We learn little that is unequivocally consciousness as distinct from things, but we learn much about stimulus and response, about attention and habit, about conflict and adjustment. It is not difficult, therefore, to understand and sympathize with the tendency to regard the problem of consciousness as a pseudo-problem and to identify consciousness frankly with a type of behavior.

Such identification, however, has undeniably the appearance of paradox. Apparently the original question has been permitted to disappear from view. After all, the difficulties of the question are no justification, as the German saying is, for pouring out the baby with the bath. The identification of consciousness with behavior looks like playing with words. If it is to justify itself, the behavior in question is not to be interpreted as a set of muscular contractions, but must be construed in such a way as to include a relationship to


( 234) things. A watch, for example, may be studied in a variety of ways, but until it is studied with reference to its function of keeping time, many things pertaining to the "behavior" of he watch necessarily escape us. Certain adaptations of part to part in the mechanism appear only when considered in relation to cosmic processes which go on outside the watch. Similarly the behavior of the body which is identified with consciousness must be brought into relation with facts pertaining to the object[1] of which there is consciousness, or the identification is nonsense. But if this be the case, the body is no more important for the comprehension of consciousness than the object, and the possibility suggests itself that consciousness may be defined as readily in terms of the object as in terms of the organism. Granted that both are necessary for an understanding of the nature of consciousness, a definition that indicates the part played by the object is likely to be the less paradoxical, as also to bring out with greater clearness what is distinctive in this point of view.

The conditions of our problem have now been determined. A definition of consciousness must be based on an analysis of what is experienced; not on a comparison of the experienced with the unexperienced. In other words, consciousness must not be regarded as a distinct entity or kind of existence, for this implies that the nature of consciousness is to be ascertained by a comparison of presence and absence on the part of this entity. This is a procedure that is condemned by the whole history of the subject. Secondly, the definition must take its clue from the relationship of bodily organism and object, a relationship in which the changes of the organism are properly correlated with certain corresponding changes on the part of the object.

These conditions at once precipitate a difficulty. That objects as perceived, for example, vary with certain changes of the body is too trite a matter to be argued; every case of opening and closing the eyes or of shifting the point of view is an illustration of the fact. These changes, however, are not supposed to be changes in the object, but in our perceptions of them. That is, the same object is found to have different qualities under different conditions, but this does not tell us what changes in the object are correlated with the bodily behavior which is involved in consciousness. The perceived qualities vary in the sense that we have different perceptions of the objects; they do not seem to vary in the sense that the objects themselves are to be regarded as in a state of flux and varying concomitantly with the changes in the perceiving body. The object is supposed to be fixed, and the changes which occur, in so far as they relate to per-


( 235) -ception, are attributed to changes in the relation of the body to the object, not to changes in the object itself.

At this point the suspicious reader will perhaps anticipate a metaphysical dissertation on fixity and change in objects. My purpose, however, is rather to direct attention to a peculiarity of objects which furnishes empirical evidence that the notion of fixity rests on an abstraction. This peculiarity we find discussed in our psychologies under the heading of the "margin" or the "fringe" of consciousness. "Every definite image in the mind," says James, "is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it—or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood." [2]

In his discussion of this topic James says that it is "the rein-statement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention.[3] All experiences have their focus and margin, hence the vague pervades the whole of our mental life. It should be noted, however, that these experiences are vague, not in themselves, but with reference to their leadings or implications. When seen in retrospect, this peculiar mode of being may be construed as tendencies, premonitions, nascent images, etc., but it is only with reference to some standpoint other than itself that it can be called vague. While it is true that psychologists have frequently attempted to reduce the fringe to sensory material of various kinds, it seems to be reasonably evident that these sensory elements merely repeat the situation, unless we bring the regress to an end by postulating elements which are neither experienced nor experienceable. We seem, therefore, forced to the conclusion that in order to give a consistent interpretation to objects, it is necessary to ascribe to them a character which, apart from the goal to which it leads or the function which it performs, escapes formulation and defies description. If objects are fixed with reference to our perceptions, this indescribable character becomes an ultimate fact, which can not be brought into relation with other facts. In this case the attempt to define consciousness appears to be hopeless. If, however, we construe it in terms of process and function, the way seems open to interpret consciousness as a correlation between bodily processes and changes in the object.


( 236)

According to this view, the reason why consciousness presents a problem of such peculiar difficulty is that we ordinarily approach it with false preconceptions regarding the nature of experience. If we fail to utilize that phase or character of things which consists wholly in this peculiar, dynamic relationship to other things, the problem is apparently insoluble. Our analysis in this ease finds objects of various kinds, but never consciousness. We come upon physical things, images, concepts, pains, and desires in endless variety, but throughout we are harassed by the knowledge that these are objects of which we are conscious, and not the consciousness that we seek. If we then put in an awareness as an additional element or constituent, it is merely in order to meet this demand for a consciousness, and not in response to a mandate from introspection or to the requirements of theoretical consistency. The puzzles and contradictions which result, whether we leave out consciousness altogether or place it in mechanical juxtaposition to its objects, are impressive evidence that there is an error in the starting-point. We have left out what James calls the "continuity of consciousness," or the "fringe"; by which expressions he means to designate a peculiar character of objects, which invariably slips through our fingers when we attempt to lay hold of it in description.

That a correlation exists between this "total character" of objects and physical responses, there seems to be no good reason to doubt. James's brilliant presentation of the fringe, it will be re-membered, includes a discussion of cerebral conditions. This correlation takes the form of behavior, if we adopt the view that the function of the brain is simply to coordinate response. Since this "total character" of objects with which the behavior is correlated is in the nature of a reference or relationship that faces the future, the behavior in question differs from other forms of behavior in that it is intelligent and not mechanical. Moreover, this total character or fringe has endless shadings and is never twice the same; from which we may infer that the correlated behavior is not determined by fixed connections in the nervous system, but makes its appearance at the point where instinct and pure habit are inadequate. Consciousness, then, has to do with this particular correlation ; it is guidance or control through this peculiar foreshortening or "implication"; or to put it more briefly, albeit metaphorically, consciousness is the margin or fringe.

If we thus identify consciousness with the fringe, however, it must not be overlooked that the entire significance of the contention rests on the view that the fringe is not a detachable appendage, is not even something other than the object to which it belongs, but is


( 237) a purely metaphorical designation for the "total character" previously discussed.[4] It appears, moreover, that what James says about the knower or the "passing thought" is of fairly direct application to consciousness. We may say of consciousness that its present moment is the darkest in the whole series, that it is always the knower, and not the known, that it is born an owner and dies awned—provided that these statements be construed with reference to this peculiar relationship of the present object to other objects. James's own theory of consciousness, which identifies consciousness with objects in so far as they appear in a certain context or setting, is open to criticism on the ground that it leaves this total character of objects altogether out of account. It distinguishes physical and psychical, a distinction which does not concern the character of things as mediating future experiences, but it does not distinguish consciousness and object. If we identify the two distinctions, we are unable to correlate consciousness with a type of behavior, and we have no explanation of the fact that we are as much conscious of the physical as of the psychical. As Woodbridge says, "The differentiation simply divides the field of consciousness into two parts, but does not isolate a separate field in which alone consciousness is found. Physical objects just as much as personal histories may be objects in consciousness. . . . The differentiation in question thus appears simply to reveal between our objects one of the distinctions of which we are conscious."[5]

This view of consciousness may be harmonized, as a little reflection will show, with Woodbridge's definition of consciousness as meaning. But in order to harmonize the two, it is necessary to interpret meaning in such a way as to avoid the objection that meaning "would seem to be the relation characteristic of discursive consciousness rather than consciousness in general, "[6] Meaning taken in a discursive sense is as much object as anything else. We are


( 238) conscious of meanings as we are conscious of other things. The discursive sense, it seems, is precisely the sense in which the word is not to be taken, if the definition is to prove itself tenable; and for this reason the use of the term in the definition is a matter of doubtful propriety. But this is primarily a matter of words. Consciousness is a kind of implication; it is an aspect or mode of objects which, when viewed retrospectively and in terms of its temporal culmination or realization, may he called a form of connection among objects, a connection by way of representation or meaning. If we distinguish, as Woodbridge does, between objects and consciousness, it would seem to follow that meaning as known, as an object, is not the meaning that is intended when consciousness is defined as meaning.

A word or two may be added with reference to the realistic definition of consciousness as a form of togetherness or unique grouping of objects. Those who advance this definition seem to place the principle of grouping more or less explicitly in the relation of the experiential complex to the bodily organism. So far we can agree. The definition fails, however, to give any clue to the nature of that relation. It does not select a specific character or aspect of objects with which to correlate organic response, and unless this is done the criterion has significance only when applied from the outside and through the agency of a bystander. What is needed is a specific kind of response which can be contrasted with other kinds and can be properly correlated with objects. In order to do this, however, we must reinterpret objects and endow them with a. character the significance of which realism is wont to ignore.

If the view here presented is a defensible interpretation, we are enabled to treat consciousness as a correlation and to deal with it wholly in experiential terms. We can explain why consciousness is so unobtrusive, and also in what sense it may be experienced. The total character or fringe is easily made object-and thus endowed with a fringe of its own-if we take a situation where we are con-fronted with some difficulty, such as recalling a forgotten name. We find ourselves here with a gap that "swims in a felt fringe of relations," an "aching gap," and the peculiar, evanescent sense of something which almost is and yet is not. Similarly, when we introspect for the self we come upon a "warmth and intimacy" which tantalizes and baffles us until it resolves itself into the feeling of certain bodily adjustments. In still another type of situation, when the observer is peacefully aware that he is conscious of an object, the total character or fringe has an undeveloped implication pertaining to various relations between the object and the body, such as the effect of closing the eyes, shifting the point of view, etc. And finally


( 239) we may say that to distinguish between consciousness and object, or to recognize that an object existed prior to our experience of it, is not to assume a comparison between the experienced and the unexperienced, but is to deal with the "meaning" of things, a meaning which must be construed in terms of the fringe on the one hand and of bodily control on the other.

As was intimated previously, the significance of this treatment of consciousness lies in the interpretation which it gives to experience. The pragmatic movement of our day is, above all, an attempt to reinterpret philosophic problems in the light of this conception. It holds out the hope that many difficulties which so far have resisted explanation will be overcome when approached from this new standpoint.

B.H. BODE.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS.

Notes

  1. The word object, it may be noted, is used here as equivalent to the entire situation or complex.
  2. "Psychology," vol. I., page 255.
  3. Ibid., page 254.
  4. It is evident that if consciousness be identified with the fringe, i. e., with a relationship of things to something in the future, a relationship which is organic and vital to things and yet distinctive of the situations in which they occur, the term object, when used as contrasted with consciousness, and not as inclusive of the fringe, must be defined more narrowly. This is not the occasion to enlarge on this topic, but it may be suggested that the "object," in this ease, corresponds to the focus, as distinct from the margin. It is a name for the "resting places." or the "substantive parts"; it designates both the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of the experiential flux, Or we may say that the object properly designates the factor of control in the experiential flux, whereas the fringe designates the factor of control with respect to the bodily organism.
  5. JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, Vol. II., page 124, 1905. Italics mine.
  6. Perry, "Present Philosophical Tendencies," page 278

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2