Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Streams Touching Consciousness: Sensoriality and the Ontology of Repetition

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Streams Touching Consciousness: Sensoriality and the Ontology of Repetition

Article excerpt


In David Lodge's novel thinks (2002), the reader encounters a classic and a persistent debate about the nature of consciousness; does this phenomenon actually constitute a "problem", scientific or otherwise? Besides this basic question, the novel also asks us to consider--in many cases to reconsider--what are we actually talking about when we deploy the term "mind", and the related, equally elusive processes: sensation, perception, cognition. A somewhat common intellectual problem deals with linking these later three processes up as if existing on a linear chain, one proceeding from "brute physicality" of stimuli toward the presumably higher domain of cognition and thought, wherein we encounter still other "problems" surrounding languaging.

In the novel, Lodge sets up a contrast between making sense of these phenomena through a classic, what Evan Thompson (2010) calls a 2nd wave, cognitive science approach or through a more classic arts/humanities approach, one in large part inspired by Rene Descartes' framework of rationalism. On one level, the contrast in the novel highlights the problem of materiality and consequently, the location of mind in space and time; can we point to a set of neurological processes, for example, as being specific correlates of consciousness? Can we see grief being manifest on a brain scan? While the current cultural ethos has tilted toward locating both the mind and consciousness in the brain, and even though an extensive amount of brain tissue has by now been both sliced and diced, as well as scanned through various technologies, we still lack any cohesive neurologically founded explanations of either process.

Besides focusing upon the mechanics of neurons themselves, another way of looking at the nature of consciousness deals with taking the phenomenon itself for granted, while paying attention to what can be somewhat colloquially named as "altered states of consciousness". In the Lodge novel we find such approach being deployed by the arts and humanities perspective, wherein one takes it for granted that we as humans are conscious beings. Yet, this consciousness is never continuous or complete, and consequently, it is the gaps between what we are able to notice that are more interesting to interrogate and reflect upon rather than the more mundane, quotidian conscious perception.

Interestingly the latter case aligns with classic anthropological approaches to consciousness that have examined such altered states of consciousness in ritual and trance while, generally speaking, giving sparse conceptual attention to the unmarked, quotidian experiences of everyday consciousness. This situation might in part be a reflection of the somewhat humanist bias of classic anthropology. More recent turns toward 'post-humanity' in anthropology take a more critical distance to that humanistic bias, however (e.g. Kohn 2013). With this post-human turn, we are interested to see how consciousness itself might also become re-examined by anthropologists in the future.

Like classic anthropology, the novel Thinks is (culturally) Cartesian in its treatment of these topics, for example, in the sense of what is being left out from this account and what is thereby being taken for granted. While the novel approaches many of the key issues through highly nuanced exchanges crafted between two main characters--a cognitive scientist and a novelist--what is not addressed is the issue of existence or 'the world itself,' or what English speakers commonly refer to as the 'Real'. In other words, the overall positionality of the organism itself, whether a human or a bat, who experiences and engages with these processes of knowing and perceiving is left out.

Consequently, what such a conceptual move does, whether accomplished through literature, philosophy, or science, is that it dramatically simplifies the issue of sensation/perception, leaving it secondary to the presumably "higher" processes of mind/cognition. …

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