Introducing consciousness
Introducing consciousness

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Introducing consciousness

2 Defining consciousness

2.1 Introduction

We use the words ‘conscious’ and ‘consciousness’ in a variety of ways. We talk of losing and regaining consciousness, of being conscious of one's appearance and of taking conscious decisions. We speak of self-consciousness and class-consciousness, of consciousness-raising activities and consciousness-enhancing drugs. Freudians contrast the conscious mind with the unconscious, gurus seek to promote world consciousness and mystics cultivate pure consciousness. These various uses reflect the history of the words. The original meaning of ‘consciousness’ was awareness or knowledge, either shared or private, and some of our modern uses reflect this. Self-consciousness is awareness of oneself as an individual; class-consciousness is awareness of belonging to a particular socio-economic group; to be conscious of one's appearance is to be very aware of it; and so on. In the seventeenth century, however, philosophers and other writers began to use the word in a more specific sense, to refer to our inner awareness of our own mental states – our perceptions, sensations, feelings and thoughts. As the philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) put it, ‘Consciousness is the perception of what passes in a Man's own mind’ (Locke 1961, vol. 1, 87). (Previously ‘conscience’ had been used in a similar way, but that word was coming to be used to refer to an inner moral sense.) Again, some of our modern uses reflect this philosophical usage. The conscious mind is the level of mental activity of which we are aware, in contrast to the repressed unconscious; consciousness-enhancing drugs are ones that alter our mental states in various ways; pure consciousness is mental awareness stripped of all particular content. When contemporary philosophers speak of ‘the problem of consciousness’ they too are using the term in broadly this sense, though with a subtle difference. In this section I shall explain in more detail what they have in mind.


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