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

2.3 Some distinctions

I now want to distinguish consciousness, in the sense outlined above, from some related phenomena. This should help to clarify the concept further and avoid potential confusion. What follows draws in part on distinctions and terminology introduced by the philosopher David Rosenthal (Rosenthal, 1993).

The first distinction I want to make has already been introduced. When I described your experience at the dentist's I spoke both of you being conscious and of your experiences being conscious. These are different notions of consciousness, of course. When I spoke of you being conscious, I meant that you were awake, as opposed to being asleep or knocked out. When I spoke of your experiences being conscious, I meant that they were of the sort that have a phenomenal character to them. These two sorts of consciousness are sometimes referred to as, respectively, creature consciousness and state consciousness (‘state’ here means ‘mental state’). Of course, in us creature consciousness involves possession of state-conscious experiences, but perhaps in other creatures the comparable condition does not. When a stunned fish comes round, does it start having conscious experiences? I do not know.

As well as talking of creatures being simply conscious, we also talk of them being conscious of particular things – as when we say that someone was conscious of a face at the window. This is sometimes referred to as transitive consciousness, since it is directed at an object. To be conscious of something in this sense is to be aware of it – to be perceiving it or thinking about it. Again, for humans this usually involves having a conscious experience of it, but perhaps for other creatures it does not. Thus, we might say that Cog is conscious of the people around it, in virtue of the fact that it detects their presence and responds to them.

The second distinction is between consciousness, in the senses just mentioned, and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is awareness of oneself as an individual. Fully developed, it involves the ability to think about oneself as a thinking, feeling creature, with a history, future and unique perspective on the world. This clearly requires some conceptual sophistication and it seems unlikely that many non-human animals are self-conscious in anything more than a rudimentary way, even if they are fully conscious in the other senses. Self-consciousness raises some important and difficult philosophical issues, but they are tangential to our main topic and I shall not be discussing them in this course.

A third, more contentious, distinction is between kinds of state consciousness. Here the philosopher Ned Block (b. 1942) has argued that we should distinguish between what he calls phenomenal consciousness and access-consciousnessP-consciousness and A-consciousness for short (Block, 1995). Phenomenal consciousness is consciousness of the sort we have been discussing: a mental state is phenomenally conscious if it has a phenomenal character. Access-consciousness, on the other hand, is a rather different notion. A mental state is access-conscious if the information it carries is directly available to other mental processes, including reasoning, behavioural control and speech. Normally, of course, our experiences are access-conscious. If I see or hear something, then I am usually able to go on to think about it, tell others about it and decide how to react. But there are exceptions. Blindsighted people cannot draw on their blind-field perceptions in this way and can access them only indirectly, by making guesses. Similarly, subliminal perceptions are only partially available to other mental processes (we cannot report them or draw on them in our general reasoning).

Although phenomenal consciousness and access-consciousness typically go together, Block argues that they are distinct and could in principle come apart. As an example, he suggests that blindsighted people might be trained to make spontaneous guesses about what is present in their blind field, thereby improving their access to the visual information from that region. With enough training, they might find that the information popped into their heads automatically without the need for guessing. So when a red circle was shown in that area they would spontaneously think, ‘There is a red circle there’ and be able to report the fact and reason about it – even though they still could not see the circle in the normal sense. (Block calls this imaginary condition ‘superblindsight’.) The information about the red circle would then be access-conscious without being phenomenally conscious. Whether Block is right about this is a matter of considerable dispute. As we shall see, some philosophers hold that phenomenal consciousness is at bottom just a kind of access-consciousness, and that we can explain the phenomenal character of a mental state in terms of its relations to other mental states and processes.

There is one final distinction I want to mention. One can have a phenomenally conscious experience without paying attention to it. For example, all day I have had a slight pain in my left leg. I have not thought about it much, but it has been there, in the background. Occasionally, however, we deliberately focus on our mental states and attend to their features. Now that I have mentioned the pain in my leg, I have started thinking about it and attending to its location, quality and intensity. This sort of inner attention is often referred to as introspection, and I shall say that mental states that are the object of it are introspectively conscious, whereas states that are conscious in the ordinary way are non-introspectively conscious. This distinction is particularly important when thinking about the mental life of non-human animals. It may be that the experiences of dogs, for example, are phenomenally conscious but not introspectively conscious – that dogs do not attend to their experiences in the way that we do.

The seventeenth-century notion of consciousness mentioned earlier (‘perception of what passes in a man's mind’) is close to that of introspective consciousness. In contemporary discussions, however, the focus is firmly on non-introspective phenomenal consciousness – on ordinary routine experience. What seems mysterious is how experience could have a phenomenal character at all. The fact that we can also deliberately attend to this character is a secondary matter. This is why I said that the modern notion of consciousness is subtly different from the older one.

At this point you may be feeling a bit confused. Surely, even non-introspective consciousness must involve inner awareness of some sort? How could a mental state feel like something if one isn't aware of its feel? Some philosophers would agree with this, arguing that even non-introspective consciousness involves inner awareness of some sort. But we should not prejudge the issue here. Many writers insist that the phenomenal character of an experience is not an object of awareness at all, but something that accompanies our awareness of other things. When we gaze at a beautiful sunset, they claim, we are aware only of the sunset, but our awareness of it has a certain phenomenal character. As Mark Rowlands puts it, what it is like to undergo an experience is not something of which we are aware, but something with which we are aware (Rowlands, 2002, 159).

Activity 2

Here is an exercise to help you check your grasp of the distinctions mentioned above. Which meaning of ‘consciousness’ do the authors of the following quotations seem to have in mind? (Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary entry on consciousness.)

  1. It is only to the consciousness of these evils that knowledge and reflection awaken him (F.A. Kemble).

  2. We class sensations along with emotions, and volitions, and thoughts, under the common head of states of consciousness (Thomas Huxley).

  3. [Consciousness is] being aware of oneself as a distinct entity, separate from other people or things in one's environment (C. Evans, Dictionary of the Mind, Brain and Behaviour, quoted in Smith, 1985, 129).

  4. A state is conscious if it has experiential properties. The totality of the experiential properties of a state are ‘what it is like’ to have it (adapted from Block, 1995, 230).

  5. Consciousness is a word used by Philosophers, to signify that immediate knowledge which we have of our present thoughts and purposes, and, in general, of all the present operations of our minds (Thomas Reid).

  6. When the fever left him, and consciousness returned, he awoke to find himself rich and free (Dickens).

  7. Content is conscious in virtue of… reaching the Executive system, the system in charge of rational control of action and speech (adapted from Block, 1995, 232).

  8. [H]ow it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp… (Thomas Huxley).


  1. Transitive consciousness (note the ‘of’).

  2. State consciousness (phenomenal, non-introspective?).

  3. Self-consciousness.

  4. Phenomenal consciousness (the original reads ‘P-conscious’).

  5. Introspective consciousness.

  6. Creature consciousness.

  7. Access-consciousness (the original reads ‘A-conscious’).

  8. Phenomenal consciousness.

These are the only distinctions I shall mention for now. But you should remember that the word ‘consciousness’ has other senses too, both in ordinary speech and in technical writing, and you should always check to see how it is being used. As I explained, our focus in this course will be on state consciousness of the ordinary non-introspective variety – phenomenal consciousness, in Block's terminology. I shall not keep spelling this out, however, and from now on, unless otherwise indicated, the words ‘conscious’ and ‘consciousness’ should always be understood in that way.


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