The Concept of Consciousness

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 170)

The key to the problem of consciousness depends on the obvious fact that ascriptions of consciousness are introduced in significantly different, but conceptually related, ways with respect to human persons and creatures of nonhuman species or infants at phases of development antecedent to their functioning as fully competent persons. The pivotal fact, however, is a naive and simple one: among persons, that is, among ourselves, consciousness is introduced with the admission or recognition of a reporting role shared and understood by the members of a linguistic community. The very difficulty one has in stating this fact in a nonquestionbegging way testifies to its fundamental importance. On the other hand, consciousness is introduced in speaking of creatures that lack language, by way of an observer's attempt to explain satisfactorily the behavior and development they exhibit. Consciousness, therefore, is a theoretical posit of some sort with regard to creatures other than human and with regard to the infant phases of human life prior to the development of linguistic ability and the appearance of actual linguistic performance. It serves an explanatory role with regard to fully human persons as well. But it cannot be introduced in a merely explanatory way, because the very effort to explain and understand the sense in which we are conscious entails our being such. In our own case, we must introduce consciousness reflexively, for it is ineliminably entailed by our ability to report and share our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, intentions, and the like. Human persons, then, serve as the irreplaceable paradigms of what it is to be conscious. Man may not be the center of the universe, but he is the center of every effort to understand it.

To say this, of course, is not to say what we mean by consciousness. It is only to say that, in a certain plain sense, we cannot deny consciousness to ourselves. This perhaps is a way of recovering the Cartesian cogito without the dubious and puzzling certainty that Descartes originally assigned and without the pose of hyperbolic solipsism.1 Nevertheless, we can consider the conceptual eliminability of consciousness at both the explanatory and reporting levels — always recognizing that explanation has a clear linkage with the reporting use of language. B. F. Skinner's attempt at a radical behaviorism2 sought to eliminate, at the level of explaining the molar behavior of humans and other organisms, all use of mental and intentional predicates (except perhaps as a shortcut for the replacing vocabulary). But then, Skinner may be taken to have intended to provide an analysis of consciousness — in certain nonmental and nonintentional ways — rather than to insure its elimination. In a more formal way, W. V. Quine attempted to sketch the general replacement of the intensional features of intentional discourse by an idiom that behaves fully exten-sionally,3 but there is no sense in Quine's program of any need to talk of eliminating mental phenomena — a fortiori, consciousness.


Mental State Human Person Propositional Content Linguistic Ability Linguistic Community 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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