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[xmca] Consciousness reframed?

Having had a busy week I was amazed at all the consciousness of consciousness trying to get raised here lately. J

I suppose I’ve acquired a habitual suspicion of abstract nouns presenting themselves as concrete phenomena. I don’t generally believe that names name things. The ways we use words are a lot messier and more interesting usually.

The noun consciousness is built on the adjective conscious, requiring us to fill in [What is conscious] for it to make sense. A conscious person? Then the meaning is usually just opposed to an unconscious person, which gives us a pretty limited basis for the meaning of consciousness (i.e. not being unconscious). "The Conscious Brain" would make a clever book title, but it seems a little weird to say that brains are conscious on their own (except in science fiction). Some people talk about the conscious mind, which seems to fit in a discourse that is as much Freudian as Cartesian, going along with and contrasting with unconscious thoughts, unconscious feelings.

The suggestion has already been made here that we ought to be referencing a process rather than a thing. Conscious thinking, conscious feeling? Or perhaps a bit more in the spirit of CHAT: conscious activity, conscious doing. So what makes activity or doing/ feeling/thinking conscious? Again we’ve heard the suggestion that it is symbolic mediation, semiotic doing. So we’d then have something like “conscious activity is acting in ways that make felt-sense to us in terms of symbolic/cultural codes of meaning and feeling, in advance of, during, and in retrospect after our doing”.

I think that’s a reasonable semiotic take on conscious activity. It does not however quite address either the physiological or phenomenological-experiential aspects.

On the physiology side, we can drop back to consciousness/ unconsciousness – as in "etherized upon a table". Or we can push forward toward some emergent feedback loop system in the brain/body process-complex (ala Edelman). And maybe hope to eventually link this to the phenomenological (by which I mean experiential, “subjective”) aspect as a quality-of-feeling that attaches to perceptions, actions, inner speech and imaginings, etc. because all this neural-bodily activity is accompanied by a sort of inner “echo” of that activity in the neuronal re-entrant loops.

But on this logic, I have to then doubt that we are normally experientially aware of our own awareness, that we are conscious of being conscious (as opposed to simply assessing that we are not unconscious). And if so, “consciousness” is not an experiential phenomenon. We are simply conscious of the “contents” of our “consciousness”, along with the putative special feeling from the echo effect.

I think that this, for me at least, relegates “consciousness” to the status of a fancy locution that does not really point me toward a phenomenon about which I could learn surprising and important things that were not already implicit in the discourse usage of the term. I suppose that is equivalent to saying I wouldn’t bother trying to make an empirical study of it as such. What I would study is how activity depends on the ways in which we mediate our doings and feelings semiotically and culturally. Or otherwise just how the echo effect emerges and why it makes us feel the way it does. It’s quite possible that these two research agendas don’t ever converge. Or maybe they do.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

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