Picture: Hobbes and Descartes. There’s an illuminating new piece in the  SEP about 17th century theories of consciousness. (via) Your first reaction might be ‘what 17th century theories of consciousness?’; the discussion in those days was framed rather differently and it typically requires a degree of interpretation to work out what philosophers of the period actually thought about ‘consciousness’.  In fact, according to Larry M. Jorgensen, who wrote the entry, the 17th century saw the first emergence of the concept of consciousness as distinct from conscience: in many languages the same word is still used for both.

Hobbes apparently sets this out quite explicitly (somehow this interesting bit must have passed me by when I read Leviathan because it left no impression on my memory); he has conscience originally referring to something which two people knew about (‘knew together’), and then metaphorically for the knowledge of one’s own secret facts and secret thoughts. Jorgensen tells us that the Cambridge Platonists had a role in developing the modern usage in English where ‘conscience’ refers to knowledge of one’s own moral nature while ‘consciousness’ means simply knowledge of one’s own mental content.

That idea, of having knowledge of one’s own mental content, seems to have a reflexive element – we know about what we know; and this was an issue for philosophers of the period, notably Descartes. For Descartes it was essential that my having a thought involved me knowing that I had a thought; but for some this seemed to suggest a second-order theory in which a thought becomes conscious only when accompanied by another thought about the first.  Descartes could not accept this: for one thing if knowledge of my own thoughts is not direct, the cogito, Descartes’ most famous argument is threatened. The cogito claims that I cannot possibly be wrong about the fact that I am thinking, but if the knowledge of my thought is separate from the thought itself this no longer seems unassailably true.

It seems that while Descartes accepted that awareness of our own thought required some sort of reflection, he denied that the reflection was separate from the thought. He said that [T]he initial thought by means of which we become aware of something does not differ from the second thought by means of which we become aware that we were aware of it.

This can’t help but seem a little like cheating sneaking in an extra thought for nothing.  I think the best way to imagine it might be through analogy with a searchlight. We can swing the light around, illuminating here a building, there a tree, just as we can direct our conscious awareness towards different objects. Then Descartes might ask: do we need a second light in order to see the first light? No, of course not, because the light is already illuminated; if the light lights up other objects it must itself be illuminated (if perhaps in not quite the same way).

A surprising amount of Jorgensen’s exposition seems to be relevant to current discussions, and not solely because he is, necessarily, reinterpreting it in terms of modern concerns. In some ways I’m afraid we haven’t moved on all that much.


  1. 1. Richard Miles says:

    I have written what I believe is the missing approach to psychology,as to the reason for consciousness.It can be read on the web at: perhapspeace.co.uk On the home page scroll down to the right and click on My philosophy of psychology.

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    Richard: Perhaps I missed your main point, but what I got was that humans are not cookie-cutter products. We are all different. I believe this truth actually contradicts the founding documents of the U.S., which say that “all men are created equal”. I believe it will be a long, hard struggle for society to understand the depth of the fact that we are NOT all equal. In many ways, our laws reflect the statement of the Decl. of Independance. We have to learn how to deal with individuals rather than ideals.

  3. 3. Rodger Cunningham says:

    Lloyd: The Declaration doesn’t state that all “men” are equal, but that they are all created equal. In Lockean/Deist language this means that all humans share a common essence, which has certain consequences, a selection of which are then spelled out. This proposition is of course disputable, but it’s a different proposition from the one you’re disputing.

    Obviously no two humans are exactly equal in any named quality. Jefferson and Adams were rational Enlightenment men, not confused liberals of our time. At any rate, they both believed in all sorts of gender and racial differences that wouldn’t pass muster today, but this didn’t affect their attitude toward what they were actually affirming.

    Forgive my nervousness, but someone that knows history can’t help wondering if you intend to go in the direction of Calhoun’s Speech on the Oregon Bill.

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    Rodger: Yes, I understand (at least some) of the complications of what I am saying. I do not believe in the “common essence”, Lockean/Deist or otherwise. We are all different in the essential ways that our laws, the Constitution, etc would have us believe to be equal. As a single example, I do not believe there can be a rational basis for a judge to cite precedent in making a decision. Yes, obviously, no two cases are alike. But the differences are deeper than that. Defendants differ in just those ways that we would like to believe are the same for all of us.

    I guess you’ll have to fill me in on Calhoun’s speech. I don’t consider myself to be either liberal or conservative. I have much of each.

  5. 5. Lloyd Rice says:

    I would have to add that I believe our laws more or less work because we mostly believe they apply to us. If we really all felt we were different, society would probably fall apart.

  6. 6. Rodger Cunningham says:

    Calhoun’s speech attacked the exclusion of slaves from the newly annexed Pacific Northwest. It includes a theoretical section refuting the idea that all men are created equal. It’s a brilliant piece of argumentation from an age, now hard to imagine, in which several American senators were actually known for their intellect; but of course he was using it as part of a defense of slavery. Obviously this isn’t where you were going, but all ideas whatever can be pursued to evil consequences.

  7. 7. Kar Lee says:

    Perhaps it is better to state it this way:
    We are all created different, but we are all equal in front of the law.
    You commit the crime, you do the time, no matter who you are.

  8. 8. Lloyd Rice says:

    Thank you, Rodger. And to you and Kar Lee I say that there are no doubt valid, rational reasons not to enslave other humans, but it is not that there is a fundamental core of being in which others are equal to me. I do recognize many parallels and many things in common between different people, as one would reasonably expect given the Darwinian processes by which we are made. On that point, I am currently reading Wade’s “Before the Dawn”. And from any practical standpoint as far as implementing laws to deal with humanity, I agree that there must be innumerable assumptions of commonality.

    I would have to say that given 6.x billion versions of the DNA, each having met its own unique set of development experiences, there will inevitably be a great deal in common between any two individuals. But that is not the same as saying that there is a single indivisible identical core that makes us “human”.

  9. 9. Rodger Cunningham says:

    Thank you, Lloyd. Since we’ve already wandeded off consciousness studies into politics and are now wandering off it into the nature of universals, I for one am happy to leave it at this.

  10. 10. Burt says:


    I agree with you vis-à-vis the LAW – people acquiesce to societal controls because they are afraid of their fellow humans (largely because they sense that which they fear in themselves) and want a patriarchal gov’t to ensure that they and others will be kept in line. I have stated here that I obey no laws with which I disagree and break no laws that comport with my values (unless of course flouting a proscription would result in an imminent run in with the legal system.)

    I maintain most laws are enacted out of a misguided sense of “morality” which is due again to FEAR and almost ALL actions are neutral and it’s the perceiver/creator of said action that imbues that action with positive or negative value judgments. I do however subscribe to 2 principles that I consider universal and those principles have been around the block historically.

    They are:

    Do not cause physical harm to another person and do not usurp another person’s possessions. IMO all just laws stem from these principles. I agree that if precedent is used to decide cases, the need for a judge is obviated. Why have judgments at all other than to ascribe guilt which is supposed to be derived from the facts in the case? In any case as I believe everyone is an equal participant in whatever legal drama they find themselves, they are equally guilty and therefore retribution should apply equally as well. I don’t believe in punishment (everyone punishes himself) per se except perhaps to isolate those who inflict violence on others.

    @Kar Lee[7]: I agree that your aphorism is the way the legal system is supposed to work in theory, but it hardly works that way in practice and also is manifestly unjust in many (most) cases. Why do “hate” crimes carry a larger penalty than the same crime sans the “hate”? Why does the murder of a police officer constitute a capital offense whereas the murder of an ordinary citizen only merits jail in many cases? The best way to deal with the legal system is to avoid its clutches. Like Lenny Bruce said: “The only justice in the Halls of Justice is in the halls.”

  11. 11. Lloyd Rice says:

    Rodger, Kar Lee, Burt: Thanks, all. I’m happy to leave it at that.

  12. 12. Vicente says:


    “almost ALL actions are neutral”

    Can you define “neutral” in the context of this statement?

    Can you give me an example of a non-neutral action?

  13. 13. Burt says:


    Neutral in this context means no moral standing absent a value judgment. The value is caused by an entity’s observation (collapsing the wave function). Individuals charge the actions which by their assignment (for them) become negative, positive or remain neutral (don’t care.)

    In the larger (beyond humanity) sense all actions are neutral from a moral stance. In my worldview, violations of the 2 principles described by me above constitute non-neutral actions, and in my opinion all just laws derive from those 2 principles. I’d be interested to hear any exceptions to those rules or putative “just” laws that do not flow from those precepts.

  14. 14. Richard Miles says:

    Lloyd, re. your comment no. 2. Re. my comment no.1. Thanks for reading My Philosphy of Psychology. I am often amazed by the different variety of comments, as your diversion from ‘Old Skool’ consciousness shows. Whilst the U.S declaraion of independence discussion was interesting, it has not moved us on from ‘Old Skool’ consciousness, not that anything should of course. There has been a long standing tendancy to think of the brain, often ignoring the relevance of the body, and vice versa. This has tended to make consciousness an isolated entity from the body, which it is not. Having isolated consciousness, people like Descartes and Spinoza felt the need to introduce something mystical, usually with God and religious connections, which inhibits thought leading to all kinds of confusion, as Galileo found. I believe consciousness is the part which does the practical work required by the internal autonomic nervous system, as well as surviving in the outside world, with its variety of environments and problems. The conscious is in control of the somatic nervous system of the body and brain. This is all kept functioning internally and involuntarily by the unconscious autonomic nervous system in the brain and body, which makes us consciously aware in various ways of its numerous requirements for the necessary assistance of conscious somatic action required in the outside world. How we react or sense this is up to us as individuals. J.O. de la Mettrie realised that he could not think clearly when his body was ill. I hope Lloyd, that if you read my Philosophy of Psychology again, this will help you understand the missing approach, which I have found for me explains my feeling of soul, and solves other problems of the mind and body, without the need for any ‘Old Skool’ mysticism, God or religion.

  15. 15. goggly says:

    When finished, you must have the ability to adjust the cookie cutter on top of the pattern and also the lines should pair up.

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