Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind

By Gerald M. Edelman | Go to book overview

C H A PT E R 11
Consciousness: The Remembered Present

Something definite happens when to a certain brain-state a certain 'sciousness' corresponds.

-- William James

Most people, asked what it is about the mind that is truly distinctive and strange, would probably hark back to Descartes' lonely music of the self and say, "Consciousness." We are now at that point in our excursion when we may profitably ask whether we can do better than postulate a thinking substance that is beyond the reach of a science of extended things.

What is daunting about consciousness is that it does not seem to be a matter of behavior. It just is--winking on with the light, multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours. It is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is for ourselves but can only judge its existence in others by inductive inference. As James put it, it is something the meaning of which "we know as long as no one asks us to define it."

Indeed, it is initially best defined by considering some of its properties (of course the temptation is to indulge in a circular definition, made in terms of "awareness"). Consider what I call its "Jamesian" properties (after James, who discussed them): It is personal (possessed by individuals or selves); it is changing, yet continuous; it deals with objects independent of itself, and it is selective in time, that is, it does not exhaust all aspects of the objects with which it deals.

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