Introducing consciousness
Introducing consciousness

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

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.

AA308_5

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus