The Significance of Consciousness

The Significance of Consciousness

The Significance of Consciousness

The Significance of Consciousness


Charles Siewert presents a distinctive approach to consciousness that emphasizes our first-person knowledge of experience and argues that we should grant consciousness, understood in this way, a central place in our conception of mind and intentionality. Written in an engaging manner that makes its recently controversial topic accessible to the thoughtful general reader, this book challenges theories that equate consciousness with a functional role or with the mere availability of sensory information to cognitive capacities. Siewert argues that the notion of phenomenal consciousness, slighted in some recent theories, can be made evident by noting our reliance on first-person knowledge and by considering, from the subject's point of view, the difference between having and lacking certain kinds of experience. This contrast is clarified by careful attention to cases, both actual and hypothetical, indicated by research on brain-damaged patients' ability to discriminate visually without conscious visual experience--what has become known as "blindsight." In addition, Siewert convincingly defends such approaches against objections that they make an illegitimate appeal to "introspection."Experiences that are conscious in Siewert's sense differ from each other in ways that only what is conscious can--in phenomenal character--and having this character gives them intentionality. In Siewert's view, consciousness is involved not only in the intentionality of sense experience and imagery, but in that of nonimagistic ways of thinking as well. Consciousness is pervasively bound up with intelligent perception and conceptual thought: it is not mere sensation or "raw feel." Having thus understood consciousness, we can better recognize how, for many of us, it possesses such deep intrinsic value that life without it would be little or no better than death.


To understand consciousness is to understand something deeply important about us. This may sound truistic to some, but even so, it is not a truism apparently much honored in the past century's leading views of mind, meaning, and behavior. in fact, to judge by such accounts, one might easily think what is most significant about consciousness is just its surprising insignificance. Or one might think what is supposed significant is not consciousness itself, so much as its seeming to create for theories of mind some oddly persistent nuisance.

Perhaps such attitudes have abated of late: at least, books and articles featuring the frequent and unembarrassed use of the term ‘consciousness’ have proliferated enormously in recent years. But I think these efforts have not fully reversed (and some have reinforced) certain habits of downgrading the importance of consciousness. the habits I have in mind find their mildest expression perhaps in the familiar view that, though consciousness plays some genuine part in human psychology, still, the larger portion of this— and what most deserves our attention—lies in what is not conscious: the “unconscious mind.” in another (less mild) expression of such tendencies, one might, while granting the reality of consciousness, maintain it to be quite inessential to mind, psychology, or cognition—and at most, of some peripheral or derivative status or interest. Finally, one may devalue consciousness by failing or refusing to recognize its reality in one's theorizing about the mind; at its extreme, this emerges as the notion (whether disguised or forthright) that consciousness is some kind of illusion.

In speaking of a standing tendency to marginalize consciousness, or to diminish its significance, I speak only of a diffuse, loosely identifiable intellectual trend, not a shared precise doctrine, or a theoretically unified movement. Psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive psychology, and a variety of philosophical approaches stressing the importance of society or language have all displayed in diverse ways the tendency to which I refer. That views from such various sources, as dissimilar as they are, have often persuasively blended some antagonism or indifference to consciousness with hopes to supersede apparent common sense, has helped, I think, to inculcate a vague prejudice we have not yet quite overcome: that any advanced, critical, or scientific way of thinking about ourselves will inevitably tell us that consciousness is, in some way or other, really not as great as we may have supposed.

But I think that, if we are not content to be carried along by some general theoretical drift, and we seriously want to reconsider for ourselves the place of consciousness, we are hindered most not by such powerfully vague and . . .

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