Consciousness: Definitions in the Literature

[This writing is a selection from my comprehensive exam in anticipation of my doctoral dissertation.]

Introductory Thoughts

Consciousness was thrust upon the Western psyche with its first use in the late 17th century. Since that time, the word has continued to circulate among philosophical and lay writings, yet often with more ambiguity than clarity. Consciousness in contemporary meaning goes far beyond the common definitions of perception, reflection, awareness, or an awareness of being aware. The multiple and complex meanings encoded in evolutionary and emancipatory philosophers’ use of the term deserves further study. This comprehensive exam will focus on definitions of consciousness in philosophical history during the 20th and the 21st centuries with an eye towards an ecological understanding of the contemporary term. Of primary interest is an evolutionary theory of consciousness as proposed by thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, and Owen Barfield among others and empancipatory and intersectional theories of consciousness as found in the works of Simone de Beauvior, Catherine Keller, Donna Haraway, Gloria Anzaldúa, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others. The ways in which we cognize ourselves and our species is essential for understanding our relationship to the non-human world and for transforming that relationship. By better understanding consciousness, we as humans may be able to consciously create new relationships that are sustainable and life enhancing for our planetary community.

The term consciousness is multivalent, and like all words, continues to evolve and shift in its meaning as it receives continued usage. For simplicity, this paper will explore and distinguish six meanings: 1) Consciousness is often used to describe awareness, or an awareness of being aware, within humans and other non-human beings. This definition is in contrast to being unconscious, for example. 2) Consciousness can refer to the self, the being or core of personhood in humans, which is related to our sense of individuality. 3) The term consciousness is often employed to point toward a particularly human faculty, capacity, or capability. 4) More encompassing of systems and structures outside the human individual or self, consciousness can be used to describe a worldview, comprehensive understanding, or paradigm either within an individual or among a group of individuals. 5) Particularly in the evolutionary thinkers, consciousness can mean a higher spirituality. This usage points to further reaches of potential spiritual progress in humans. 6) Finally, consciousness has been as a synonym for divinity. When used in this way, consciousness is the pervasive divine force at work in the universe. This definition is the most ecologically focused, and encompasses planetary and cosmic systems. The method for determining which of these six an author is referring to is simply replacing the word consciousness with each option in context. Often, authors switch between several meanings throughout the course of their texts, which will be discussed in the sections below.

Consciousness, even well defined, still points towards something that is inexplicable and ineffable. Our attempt to understand ourselves and our world is an ongoing and never-ending process. Studying consciousness and the ways philosophers treat consciousness in their work reflects an awareness of how humans shape our own reality. Each individual’s situation, which is constituted from history, culture, politics, and ecology, is inherent in this process. Many of these thinkers do not include an ecological or social vision, as was typical of their time. Especially as we continue to consider our ecological crisis, a better understanding of how we can use our consciousness can positively affect the world, leading towards a more sustainable future.

Etymological Considerations

Definitional aspirations often begin with an etymological treatment. Owen Barfield reminds us that etymology and meaning are not synonymous given that words are “dead, or petrified, metaphor” leading back to a distinct thing or action.[1] An etymological treatment sheds essential light on the foundations of a word and gives insight into the concepts which form the meaning. The word conscious comes from the Latin conscius, and contains the roots con- and -sci, the former meaning ‘with’ and the latter meaning ‘to know.’ The word is also similar to the Greek sunoida. Conscious in its literal translation means ‘to know with.’ According to C.S. Lewis, this word meant “I know together with, I share (with someone) the knowledge that” as well as both “I know well” and “I know.”[2] Early on, this word took on the meanings of awareness, mind, and understanding, although this meaning does not become common until more recent writings.[3] The word conscientia was also used in the Roman legal system to describe the knowledge a witness has of events that should be shared with the court.[4] Lewis also discusses how in its initial meaning conscious can point to secret knowledge or knowledge shared only with other learned people, which he uses the term ‘consciring’ to describe. A person can conscire with others or with themselves as their internal witness.[5] Though from the same etymology, conscience split in meaning and developed a moral definition or “a man’s [sic] judgement of good and evil.”[6] While these two words have the same root, they are no longer synonymous in common usage.

The move from conscious to consciousness is also significant. Adding the suffix -ness to a word changes it from an adjective to a noun, meaning it now grammatically evokes a state of being. While adjectives are modifiers, nouns describe a reality: a person (human or animal), place, thing, or idea. Nouns name beings in our world, and changing the term conscious from a modifying term to a name gives it a type of reality. When we assert consciousness, we are asserting a real state of being which is characterized by knowing. However, Allan Combs cautions against viewing consciousness the noun as a thing with properties, what Alfred North Whitehead would call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.[7]

Consciousness entered the philosophical literature relatively recently. Lewis calls it initially a “useless synonym” for conscience.[8] The earliest recorded English usage of conscious is by poets using it to modify natural terms, with Sir John Denham writing of the “conscious Groves” in his Cooper’s Hill of 1643 and John Milton discussing the “conscious Night” in Book 6 of his Paradise Lost in 1667.[9] Consciousness proper is introduced to the philosophical canon by John Locke in 1690 with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He defines consciousness as the “perception of what passes in a man’s [sic] own mind.”[10] Locke is using the word with the definition of aware for the first time, which brings with it a revolution in thought. Barfield characterizes this revolution as an internalization, stating, “it is the shifting of the centre of gravity of consciousness from the cosmos around him into the personal human being himself [sic].”[11] The center of consciousness has continued to move both into the interior and personal, as well as outwardly into the cosmos since Locke’s writing.

The definition of awareness is what Lewis calls the “dangerous sense” of the word.[12] This sense is dangerous because the contemporary definition does not apply to earlier historical texts, and reading words in the contemporary sense hazards a misreading of a prior usage.[13] Since Lewis’ writing, consciousness has taken on additional dangerous senses. Invoking a higher spirituality or pervasive divine force using the term is a strong deviation from its original usage. However, these ways of explaining consciousness follow from an evolutionary perspective on human development, which will be explored in detail below.

Throughout the past 300 years, consciousness has been parsed and examined by innumerable thinkers, most frequently in the field of philosophy of mind. This lineage follows materialism in seeking to understand consciousness in the context of the body and physicality with impassable difficulty in explaining the connection between the two. Contemporary thinkers continue to spin theories which attempt and fail to bridge this gap. However, non-materialists thinkers have also developed theories around the term and form an alternate philosophical lineage.

Theories of an evolution of consciousness began to emerge in the early 20th century following the widespread diffusion of biological evolutionary thought. Early thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are still regarded as the most original and revolutionary thinkers in the field of evolutionary consciousness for their wide-ranging and arguably mystical bodies of work. Consciousness has also been a feature in the work of emancipatory thinkers who have also taken theories of consciousness in new directions such as W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands consciousness, as well as the work of feminists such as Simone de Beauvior, Donna Haraway, Catherine Keller, and other emancipatory theorists. The following is an explication of consciousness in six facets that appear in the works of these 20th and 21st thinkers. While many avenues of discussing conscious participation through the work of these thinkers exist, this breakdown is particularly useful for understanding the spiritual implications of consciousness as embedded in the current ecological crisis.

[End of excerpt]

[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 3rd Ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 63–64.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 181.

[3] Ibid., 182.

[4] Allan Combs, Consciousness Explained Better: Towards an Integral Understanding of the Multifaceted Nature of Consciousness (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2009), 1.

[5] Lewis, Studies in Words, 186–187.

[6] Ibid., 194.

[7] Combs, Consciousness Explained Better, 4–6.

[8] Lewis, Studies in Words, 210.

[9] Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 1967), 180.

[10] John Locke in Barfield, History in English Words, 170.

[11] Barfield, History in English Words, 171.

[12] Lewis, Studies in Words, 211.

[13] Ibid., 13.

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