Chapter 7

The form of consciousness as nothing

If we return now to the form of consciousness, we can now see that the form as such is nothing at all. It is precisely not a little "picture" that the conscious act "produces" and then "looks at," with the "looking-at" presumed to be the consciousness and the "producing" to be somehow "pre-conscious." No, this is not what is going on at all; the form is the "surface," as it were, of the conscious act, and is simply "where the conscious act leaves off."

Let us look at this more closely, since this "little picture" idea of the form of consciousness is (understandably) spontaneously the way we think. So we have to work to get rid of it in order to get at what is really happening in our consciousness.

First of all, the reason why we think this way, and suppose that when (for instance) I am looking at my dog, what I am "really" looking at is the little picture in my head of "the way my dog appears" to me is that when we consider the act of being conscious of the dog (rather than the dog we are conscious of by that act), then of course we are considering the act as an "object" of itself.

That is, suppose you are just looking at my dog chewing at a bone in my back yard. I ask you what you are looking at; and your response will be "The dog back there." In this act, you don't think that what you are looking at is the "little picture you have" of the dog inside your head; you're looking at a real dog, some twenty or thirty feet away.

I now tell you, "Consider how the dog looks to you," and you now "look at" your "act of looking," so that it as such is what your attention is directed toward. Your act, as conscious, is of course aware of itself, and so while you were looking at the dog before, you were aware of how the dog appeared to you; but you were aware of this awareness as how the dog appears, not as something which appears to you.

But when I call your attention to the "how," it automatically becomes a "what," or is the focus of your attention, and is a kind of "object" which you are now "looking at" with the consciousness-of-the-consciousness. Hence, it seems, in this mode of paying attention to it, to be an object which you know, as if it were a "something" like the dog--when in fact it is just the manner of knowing the dog (seeing, as opposed to hearing, say), and is not a "something" at all.

What is going on here, really, is that the limitation of the act of consciousness, when contemplated by the "consciousness of the consciousness" is like the surface of the wood when you look at it. It seemed, remember, as if you could actually see the surface (that real nothing), when in fact all you saw was the wood on the surface or the "surfaced wood." It was the wood you saw, not the surface, but it was the wood as limited; and so you took it that what you were seeing was the limit as if it were something in its own right.

And so here. When you contemplate your own consciousness, this act of consciousness as distinctively this one is, of course, "consciousness-in-this-form," or "consciousness-limited-in-this-way," and it is as if you can see the limit itself, as if it were a kind of "object in your head" or a little picture "produced" by your consciousness. But it's not a "something" at all, any more than the surface is; all it is is the act of consciousness as not being any more than this particular consciousness; the whole reality of the form of consciousness is the consciousness; the form itself is simply the self-negation of the consciousness within the consciousness, not a "something" at all.

Let me state this as another conclusion:

Conclusion 18: The form of consciousness is not "something," still less what we are conscious of. It is simply the manner in which we are conscious: the limitation or the finiteness of the consciousness.

So there's no "little picture" there at all; there's just a limited case of consciousness; it's just that if you pay attention to the consciousness as limited, then the limit itself as "infecting" the consciousness (as if it were "something" that "infected" it instead of just being the consciousness as "stopping") seems to be a something "known by" it instead of the way something else is known--or better, the manner of knowing. By contemplating the consciousness, you've made a noun out of an adverb; you turned a "how" into a "what."

Many many philosophers have been fooled by this. Descartes obviously was, because he thought that the "little picture" was what we knew (and therefore had to "argue to" something outside it); and once you take this view, then the object of consciousness is inside consciousness, and the outside object isn't the object which you know, but is the cause of what you know; and as the history of the philosophy after him has shown, once this initial mistake is made, you're logically stuck, and you have to draw the absurd conclusion that there's nothing really outside us at all.

But when you're looking at the dog, you're not looking at the looking at the dog, except in that "conscious of being conscious" sense, where you recognize with perfect clarity that the appearance of the dog is how the dog looks to you, not what you are looking at. The appearance, in fact, recognizes itself as the restriction of my consciousness at the moment to being no more than seeing the dog. It precisely recognizes itself as a limitation, until you pay full attention to it instead of the dog, in which case it becomes a pseudo-object of itself.

St. Thomas Aquinas saw this with respect to perception, where the "species" (the appearance, the way you are conscious) is not something "expressed by" the conscious act, but is simply the form under which the outside object is known. But he fell into the trap in considering imagining, because he didn't see that you could know without knowing something, and so he considered the imaginary image (the unicorn-as-imagined) to be an "expressed appearance," presumably like a little picture.

But as hallucinations show, there is not any obvious subjectively discernible difference between perceiving and imagining, and if there is a "little picture" in the one case, there must be one in the other; and if there isn't one in the one case, there isn't one in the other. What this implies is not that there is "both an internal and an external object" in perception and only an "internal object" in imagining, but that imagination has no object; there is only the limited act of consciousness, and the fact that it "leaves off" or "leaves some consciousness outside itself"--this fact--is the "image." The image is not an "internal object" or a "little picture" or a "something" at all, any more than the surface of the ball is a "something" in any sense; it is, I constantly stress, an adverb, not a noun; what you "see" in imagining is the (limited) act of imagining, nothing else. What you see in looking at my dog is the dog, not the way of seeing the dog. But we will get to this later. For now, all I am stressing is that you must get this notion of a "little picture which you know" out of your head; it is a falsification of knowledge which misinterprets the "knowing that you know" as if the "knowledge" were the object known by the knowledge, just because it is self-transparent.

Conclusion 19: An imaginary image is the act of imagining; the "little picture" is nothing but the limitation of the act, (i.e. the act as limited): a reawakening of a previous perception.