Chapter 5

The form of consciousness

We come now to another one of those facts that hides an effect which looks so innocent and is so sinister:

I am conscious in different ways at different times.

The effect contained in this is the following:

Conclusion 11: One and the same consciousness is different at different times. (I.e., it differs from itself, in the sense of what it was at the other times.) This is actually more of an observation than a conclusion, but I want to separate it out, and let's not multiply categories here.)

Well of course. But that's just another way of saying that I'm conscious of different things at different times, isn't it? It's the same consciousness, but it's not that it is different, it's what it's conscious of that's different. So what's the problem? Why call this an "effect" as if it didn't make sense?

Not so fast. Here is the place where it is most difficult to see that there is a problem at all, so we must be careful, or we will fall into the trap of people like Dewey in the preceding effect who claimed that there isn't any "mind"; all you need is the stream of consciousness, and what's the problem? The problem, as we saw, is that if you say this, you can't admit that you ever go to sleep.

So let us take what was just said as the first way of solving the problem by saying that there is no problem: "To be conscious in different ways" is the same as saying "to be conscious of different things."

But this would mean that when I imagine a unicorn, I would then be conscious of a unicorn. But there is no such thing as a unicorn, and so what could being conscious "of" it mean, when there is no "it" to be conscious "of"?

The only way to make sense out of being conscious "of" the unicorn is that, "Well, maybe there aren't any unicorns outside my mind, but they exist in my mind." Now of course, "mind" here is to be taken in the loose sense, not as if there were unicorns there trotting around inside your brain while you are in a dreamless sleep; and so what must be meant is not that the unicorn exists in the (technically defined) mind, but that the unicorn exists in the conscious act of imagining, but not outside it.

That is, if the unicorn existed in my mind, so that I discovered it by searching through my brain, then we've got a rather large animal with sharp hooves and a pointy horn in our heads somewhere waiting to be looked at when we open the right door--but it doesn't exist anywhere else. But that is absurd, and is clearly not what is meant by the unicorn as "existing in my mind." The only thing that exists is the image of the unicorn; even though it is imagined to have a sharply pointed horn, that horn will never poke its way through anything at all, either as "in my mind" or as "in the act of imagining."

So the first thing to note is that if the unicorn can be said to "exist" in the act of imagining, then there is no distinction between the unicorn which exists and the image of it. My mind does not, evidently, produce a unicorn which it then "looks at," giving me the image of the unicorn which the mind created. In that case, where is the unicorn with its sharp horn? If anything at all is "produced" by the mind, it is simply the image, and in this case the image of the unicorn is the unicorn; it is all there is to the unicorn.

Last step. If what the unicorn as "existing" is is just the image of the unicorn, then in what sense is this being conscious of something as opposed to simply being conscious in a definite way?

Remember, the attempt was to resolve any effect connected with being conscious in different ways at different times by saying that all this was was a poor way of stating that at different times "we are conscious of different things." But the unicorn now is shown not to be something you can be conscious of that is in any meaningful sense different from simply a definite way of being conscious.

Notice, by the way, that if the act of consciousness is conscious of itself and you imagine a unicorn, it would make perfect sense to say (a) that the act of consciousness with this particular form would appear to itself so that you would be aware of the particular form your consciousness is taking at the moment, and (b) that you would be aware that there is nothing "beyond" the act in this case, or that the act was not responding to some "thing" the way you would be aware that your perception of your dog barking out in the back yard is a response to something or other, or is an awareness of the dog.

This long discussion allows us, then, to say the following:

Conclusion 12: Not every conscious act is conscious of something (other than itself).

Those, like Edmund Husserl for instance, who say that consciousness by its nature is "transcendent" and "goes beyond itself" and is always "consciousness-of" and is never just plain consciousness have not tried to see whether this can make any sense out of imagining as opposed to seeing. To say you have "consciousness-of" something that doesn't exist is to say that (since there is no "something" that doesn't exist) you have consciousness-of nothing at all, which is another way of saying that the consciousness is not consciousness-of in this case.

Once again, the attempt to remove the problem as bad formulation reduces itself to gibberish.

But eliminating this resolution of the problem as "bad formulation" carries with it an interesting difficulty in itself: If not every act of consciousness actually "reports" something other than itself, how do we know that any of our forms of consciousness do so? That is, maybe the idealists are right, and all there is is consciousness which has different forms, and there isn't any "real world out there" at all.

We are actually headed toward an answer to this; but the point here is that you can't answer it simply by asserting that all knowledge is "transcendent" (in the sense of "reporting" something "out there" beyond it) just because some or most of it seems to be this way.

What I am going to try to show is that if a person's stream of consciousness takes on more than one form (irrespective of what that form is or seems to "report"), this very fact demands that there be something other than the consciousness or the mind.

But this seems to be saying that when we imagine a unicorn, there must be a unicorn which causes the form of consciousness called "imagining a unicorn"--and this makes nonsense of our classifying our consciousness into imagining and perceiving; and so there must be more to it than just this.

And the solution is that, given that we can somehow store our consciousness in our brains (which has something to do with the mind) to be reawakened, then the cause of the particularity of the form of the "reawakened" consciousness (the whatever-it-is "outside" that forced us originally to be conscious in this way) is now the condition for that act as "reawakened," and its cause as "reawakened" is the "mind-in-the-condition-it-is-in-at-the-moment" (which is part of the reason why we don't say that the act is conscious of something)--while "outside" things are the causes of new experiences, or in general of the ones we refer to as "perceptions" (and which we think of as conscious of something).

But it's not that simple, of course, and we'll have to investigate hallucinations (which are obviously imaginings masquerading as perceptions) and how we can be fooled by them if the conscious act is aware of itself. The answer has to do with the fact that the cause of the beginning of any form of consciousness is the raising of energy in a particular nerve-pattern above a certain level (called the "threshold of perception") and this raising can be done either by outside energy coming into the nerves or by channeling energy that is always there in the brain into a set of nerves. Both of these, however, occur outside consciousness (i.e. below the conscious level), and so consciousness has to interpret whether the "beginning to be conscious" was self-initiated or not--which in some cases is easy (as when you are consciously trying to activate an image) and in some cases isn't (when the mechanics of your brain is doing this for you).

We will also have to deal with "creative imagination," where you are not simply recalling a perception you had, but combining pieces of past perceptions into new wholes (like unicorns) which you never experienced as such; and the answer to this, not to leave you in suspense, has to do with the fact that nerves used in one complex can be connected with nerves used in another complex, and somehow we can channel the energy in our brains.

At any rate, that is where this investigation is going. It is well for you to know this at the outset, because it's going to look as if we're stepping into a trackless jungle.

Let us now state the effect a bit more precisely:

Conclusion 13: One and the same consciousness is different from itself at different times.

This is actually one way of calling consciousness finite, or limited. The fact that something is limited means that it is somehow less than itself, and so is different from itself, which certainly on the face of it sounds like an effect.

What I am going to do is to try to approach this effect from different angles (the first of which is in bold face above), to show that, no matter how you look at it, to be conscious in more than one way means that any given way of being conscious is a contradiction taken by itself. The different approaches will appear to be different contradictions, but actually will be just different formulations of the same one. When we are through, it will perhaps be clear that this is not just a game with words, and there is something funny about a consciousness that "takes on" different forms.

The first examination rests on the supposition behind the effect as stated above that there is no difference between my consciousness at the moment and the form of my consciousness at the moment; or, my consciousness at the moment is precisely this way of being conscious. Obviously, then, my consciousness last Saturday night (which happened to be that of listening to Chopin's Second Piano Concerto), is different from the form my consciousness is in now (which is experiencing what I am typing into the computer). But if there is no difference between the consciousness and the form the consciousness happens to be in, then the consciousness (which is the same one, mine) is different from itself.

You can see why this looks like a game with words. Why make the supposition that there is no difference at all between the consciousness as "my consciousness" and the consciousness as "this way of being conscious"?

So the second examination takes that alternative to see if it works. What it amounts to is to say that the aspect of my consciousness by which it is the same all the time is whatever it is about it that allows me to call it "my consciousness"; and this is really distinct from the aspect we can call the "form" it takes on (the watching the computer screen as opposed to hearing the symphony). One aspect of it is the same all the time, and another is different each time. Where's the problem now?

Let us look to see if this makes sense. The problem with it consists in the fact that this "common aspect" that's the same all the time is the fact that my consciousness at all times is (a) mine (or it would be someone else's sometimes) and (b) consciousness (or it would be unconsciousness sometimes, and that's a different problem). So all the time I am conscious, my consciousness has to be my consciousness, and on the assumption that there are "aspects" it splits up into, then it follows that the "form," the distinctive aspect, must be outside, or "other than" or "different from" the "my consciousness" aspect.

That is, if the form were included within "my consciousness," then of course "my consciousness" would vary each time, which is exactly what this formulation is attempting to avoid. Hence, the "form" must be outside my consciousness.

But in that case, how can I be conscious in this way? That is, if the form is different from my consciousness, then either (a) my consciousness is totally unaffected by it, and so far as my consciousness is concerned, it is always the same, and I am not conscious in different ways at all; any difference would have to be unconscious. Or (b) this form, which is outside consciousness affects my consciousness somehow so that at the moment it is different from what it would be if this (outside) form weren't acting on it.

But alternative (b) simply gets us back to the problem we were trying to avoid. If the outside form makes the consciousness different each time, then it is the consciousness that is different from itself each time, however it got to be that way.

On the other hand, if the form is outside consciousness (not part of it) and affects it in no way at all, then my consciousness is not different in any way at all each time. That is, since the part that "remains the same" must necessarily be the part that is the "my-consciousness" aspect of this pair of aspects, then the form, as unconscious, could not be recognized in the consciousness--because, precisely, it isn't in there.

Thus, if you take the form of consciousness as different from the consciousness itself and still say that it is meaningful to say "I am conscious in different ways at different times", what you get is this:

Conclusion 14: Any given way of being conscious is consciousness as containing what is outside itself within itself, or what is not itself as not different from itself.

That is, the form, as different from consciousness, has to be part of the consciousness itself, so that what is always the same (my consciousness) is different each time. And after all, when I am conscious of my dog out in the back yard, then my dog is outside my consciousness, but the form of my perception can't be. I recognize that the dog is there because the way I am conscious is different from what it is when I look down at the computer screen instead of out the window. So the form of the consciousness itself can't be outside the consciousness the way the dog is, or obviously the consciousness wouldn't be different in each case; if it's "outside" at all, it has to be "outside as inside," whatever that means.

To put this still another way, if the form is not within the "my consciousness," then the consciousness (which is aware of itself, remember) would recognize itself as always the same, and would not know (how could it?) that it was different at different times--because as consciousness it wouldn't be. So it's the consciousness which has to be distinctive, somehow, at this moment.

But this gets us right back to the previous formulation: the consciousness at this moment is different from itself; and this formulation simply describes this difference in terms of "containing what is outside itself within itself" or "containing what is not itself (this consciousness) as identical with itself (consciousness)."

But perhaps this is just a bad formulation, because I am assuming that this "common element" is all there is to the "consciousness," while the actual act of consciousness contains both the "common element" and this distinctive element, the "form." That is, "consciousness-in-the-abstract" is always the same, but "consciousness in the concrete" contains both the abstract (same) element and another abstract, distinctive element, the form. This is the third examination.

The problem with this is that it is this "abstract" common element which makes this concrete act deserve the name "consciousness" and the form has nothing to do with this, unless it alters the consciousness so that the consciousness becomes at this moment just this way of being conscious.

The point is that to talk of the "concrete act of consciousness" as containing the form, while the "abstract aspect of it as the same as my other acts" doesn't, is simply to engage in a word-game that hides the problem which is still there. The only thing about this concrete act which allows you to call it (concrete) consciousness is precisely the abstract aspect which is the same in all concrete acts--unless you want to say that in the concrete, consciousness contains within it the form (so that it always has some form and can't be just "my consciousness") and to talk about "my consciousness" as if it ever existed as such is to reify ("thingify") an abstraction.

But actually, this insight argues for the effect above, not against it. If "my consciousness" as always the same (this common element) is actually just an abstraction and can't exist as such, then my real consciousness, my consciousness as it actually exists always contains some form, and hence always is "united" with something other than itself. My consciousness, apparently, can't even be my consciousness unless it "has" some form, which is not my consciousness.

Interestingly, to take up the fourth examination, there is another sense in which my consciousness contains inside it what is not my consciousness. We could never even recognize that we are conscious in different ways at different times if my consciousness now were not conscious of the fact that at other times I am not conscious in this way.

This is very mysterious indeed. What it means is not that I can recall a past experience and make it part of my present consciousness (as when, looking at the computer, I remember what the concerto sounded like). In that case, my present consciousness just has a more complex form (which is itself a problem, but not the one I am interested in at the moment). In order to recognize that I have been conscious differently from the way I am now conscious, these different ways must be recognized as not now part of my consciousness; that is I must be aware (a) that my consciousness now is not the same as past ways of being conscious (that they are not part of it); but this means (b) that these "past" ways are conscious as being unconscious yet part of my consciousness.

How's that again? Yes. I have to know now that there is at least one way of being conscious that is not part of my present consciousness, and yet is part of my consciousness. If I don't now know both of these facts, it is impossible for me to say meaningfully, "I have been conscious in different ways at other times." If the "ways" are part of my present consciousness, then obviously I am now conscious (in part) in the same way I was conscious, and the statement is false. If the "way" is not known now, then obviously I can't make the statement at all. And if it is not known as a form of my consciousness, then all I would be saying is something like "you have your consciousness and I have mine," and would not recognize differences within my own consciousness.

So my consciousness now contains--explicitly as unconscious--what it recognizes as "my consciousness." Or in other words, it contains within itself the opposite of itself as the same as itself. Or, if you want to put this another way, it contains within itself what is the same as itself (the past consciousness) as the opposite of itself, because it recognizes the past consciousness as not conscious (though as "having been" conscious).

Notice that my consciousness now does not know explicitly what these past forms of consciousness are, because as soon as I name them, they become conscious, and are now part of my present consciousness; so in order to be able to say, "I have been conscious in other ways than this," I must know those other ways as being both conscious and unconscious: they have to be unconscious now, but I have to know now that there is something now unconscious which was (at the time) my consciousness.

But, to take up the fifth examination, perhaps I shouldn't say that my consciousness contains these past acts as unconscious; perhaps the way to formulate this is that my consciousness leaves out the other ways of being conscious, and recognizes that it is leaving out something by being just this way of being conscious. But I also know that what it is leaving out is precisely other instances of my consciousness, which form part of that stream of consciousness called "my consciousness."

But this gives us another formulation of the same effect:

Conclusion 15: My consciousness at any given moment leaves out all of itself except this moment of consciousness (which is just this way of being conscious).

This shows us another interesting fact that we can state as a conclusion:

Conclusion 16: Most of my consciousness is unconscious.

It gets more mysterious the more we probe, doesn't it? All the ways I have been but am not now conscious in, all my past consciousness, is precisely unconscious now; only the present consciousness is actually conscious. And yet you can't say that my present consciousness is all there is to my consciousness, because then a minute from now "all there is to my consciousness" will be unconscious, and so the whole of my consciousness will have gone out of existence--and then what can you call the consciousness that "replaces" it? As a matter of fact, it will then be "all there is to my consciousness."

And the point of this is that my present consciousness both is and is not all there is to my consciousness. How can what is unconscious be consciousness? and everything but my present consciousness is (now) unconscious. And yet this particular "unconsciousness" was precisely my consciousness, and I recognize that my present consciousness is only part of my whole consciousness, though all but this part is the opposite of itself.

So if my present consciousness leaves out all my past consciousness, it leaves outside itself what is itself, in such a way that it recognizes that it is doing this, and so by leaving out part of itself it contains within it the part it has left out as left out (and so recognizes the present as only a part).

I told you this was a jungle.

Let me make a sixth attempt. Let us look again at the form as somehow different from the consciousness: It would follow from this that the "common element" of "my consciousness," which (abstract or not) is always the same, would be less than the concrete act of consciousness, which also contains the form--which is not the same as the "common element." So the concrete act is "my consciousness + this form."

But the concrete act of consciousness (which is aware of itself) recognizes itself as less than what it is "in itself." That is, I know that being conscious in this way is not greater than my consciousness, but is a restriction of my consciousness to being (at the moment) just this particular way of my being conscious, and my consciousness can have all sorts of other forms and still be my consciousness.

That is, my being conscious as looking at the computer excludes my consciousness of hearing the piano concerto (as well as every other form of my consciousness). Hence, this "addition" of the form subtracts from my consciousness, making it less than it otherwise would be. That is, to say that I have this form of consciousness is for practical purposes to say that I lack all the other ways in which I have been conscious; so to "possess" this form is really the same thing as to leave out all the other forms that my consciousness could be taking at the moment.

In the preceding examination, I said that my consciousness leaves outside itself all of the past consciousness (with their forms) I had; what I am saying here is that the fact that at the moment I am conscious in only this way and am not recalling the sound of Chopin's concerto means that right now I could be recalling it and so have that form in addition to the one I am now having; but I do not have that form, and so my having the form I now have means that I leave out all the "additional" forms I could be having even now.

So if the form is not the consciousness, we have a different version of the dual formulation of "what is outside is inside" and "what is inside is left outside." because "adding" this form leaves you somehow with less than your consciousness could be.

But, in the seventh place, not even this is all there is here. Perhaps I could make what I am saying clearer by a comparison. We know that a temperature of 72 degrees is heat; and it seems obvious that the 72 degrees doesn't imply that you take "heat" (one aspect) and add to it 72 degrees of "temperature" (an additional aspect) so that you come up with something greater than just heat. No, the "72 degrees" actually means that there is no more than this much heat here; it isn't as if the "muchness" increased the heat. The particular amount of heat (the temperature), if anything, tells you how much less heat you have than you could be having. Heat as such is not "less than" any temperature at all; if anything (since it can take on any temperature) it is "in itself" greater than any definite temperature.

But the point is that the "temperature" is not a "something" that gets attached to the heat; it is simply a way of expressing the fact that there is no more heat here (at the moment) than this.

Similarly, the form my consciousness has at the moment is not a "something" that is attached to the "my consciousness" part of it; it is simply a way of describing the fact that my consciousness now is no more than just this particular way of being conscious.

Perhaps, then, we got into trouble by supposing that the form was a "something," when in fact all it is is a way of describing the consciousness itself. That was our bad formulation.

But, in the eighth place, the difficulty with this formulation is that it throws us right back to the original formulation of the effect: The way I am conscious now is not anything at all except my consciousness; the "way" is not a "something" in addition to it. But then the way I was conscious last Saturday night is not anything at all except my consciousness; and so what is identically the same as itself is different from itself.

Now don't go saying, "Well, it's not different from itself in the same sense as it's identical with itself," because that is precisely the "two aspects" formulation, which, if they are different from "each other," are not different from "each other"; and our new formulation of consciousness "with" its form as analogous to heat "with" its temperature was supposed to avoid the difficulties in the form's being a "something" different from the consciousness.

At this point, I hear you saying, "For heaven's sake! Will you stop with the word-games already!" That is, a person who is not following closely will quickly become impatient with all my different formulations of the fact that my consciousness somehow differs from moment to moment, while at the same time it is my consciousness and not some other consciousness which is different from moment to moment.

The immediate reaction to this is, "So that's what happens. What's the problem?" This "approach" simply takes what I said just above as a fact and simply alleges that since it is the case, then it's intelligible. This is true, of course.

But what I'm trying to show is that it's not intelligible in itself, and therefore needs something other than itself to make it intelligible.

In other words, what I am doing is getting back to the original "solution": my consciousness is conscious of different things at different times. And it is the thing it is conscious of that somehow restricts it to being this way of perceiving rather than that way. That is, I am proving that the only explanation of the fact that my experience of hearing a concerto is different from my experience of the computer screen I am looking at now is that (a) there really are (or rather were) those sounds "out there," independently of my way of hearing them, and (b) they are different from the reality which is the screen I am now looking at. (This, of course, leaves us with the problem of imagination, which I will deal with later.)

But the point of all this discussion is that this is not now simply a "gut feeling" or an assertion, because what I have been at such pains to prove is that there is no other way to make sense out of my different forms of consciousness but something or other outside it.

It's one thing to say that consciousness "refers to" some being outside itself, and it's quite another to know that it not only does but has to. In the first case, you're open to a "refutation" by someone who simply asserts the opposite as what seems more sensible to him (on the grounds, for example, that he can't see how what is "outside" consciousness--the object "out there"--could ever be "inside" it--i.e. known by it). Well, I'm showing not only how, but why the alternative that there's nothing but consciousness is self-contradictory.

And isn't that what we mean if we say that a given way of being conscious is the effect of the object "out there"?

Finally, consider this: If the form of consciousness is simply, analogously to a given temperature, a way of saying that the consciousness now is just this consciousness, then this gives us a new (and the last, thank God) formulation of the effect:

Conclusion 17: My consciousness at the moment is my consciousness as less than what it is for me to be conscious.

Here we have the limitation notion of the way of being conscious made explicit. The "way" is simply the fact that at the moment my consciousness is less than what it means for me to be conscious; I could, even at the moment, be conscious in a different way or even a "more expansive way" than I now am.

These other ways I could be conscious in are, of course, just my consciousness (since the "way" is just a way of describing my consciousness at the moment and is not a "something"); so the consciousness of the moment is only partially equal to the intelligibility (the "meaning") of my consciousness--or its reality. That is, its reality is somehow greater than its concrete manifestation at the moment, while not actually being any greater than this. That is, the reality of my consciousness at the moment is just this moment's consciousness (in this form), while in another sense my consciousness is really the whole stream of consciousness (with all the other forms, all of which, of course, are now unconscious).

To sum up, then, any given concrete act of consciousness is always less than what my consciousness could be, or is a limited example or instance of "my consciousness," which does not exhaust what my consciousness is. That is why it "leaves some of itself outside itself," or it "contains what is not itself as inside itself" or it "is different from itself."

Now at this point, if you don't see that there is a real problem here, go back over what was said and see if you can formulate things in such a way that "I have been conscious in different ways from the way I am now conscious" can be meaningfully said without somehow involving yourself in a contradiction. I don't think you can.