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Talking about Consciousness

consciousness n. 1 the state of being conscious (lost consciousness during the fight). 2 a awareness, perception (had no consciousness of being ridiculed). b (in comb.) awareness of (class-consciousness). 3 the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings, or of a class of these (moral consciousness).
(Concise Oxford Dictionary 1992.)

When I use the word “consciousness” I will be using it in a manner that is covered by none of the above dictionary definitions in any strict sense, though some of those uses do hint at it. My use of the word “consciousness” will be synonymous with my use of the phrase “field of experience” and with my use of the word “mind” as described above. I will speak of “instantiations of consciousness” in the same way as I speak of “individual fields of experience” or of “individual minds”.

Since the idea of the field of experience does not have an empirical provenance and is not abstracted from anything that does have an empirical provenance, the success of any attempt to use language to refer to this idea will depend solely upon whether or not it can be consistently associated with some aspect of the objective world (i.e. some aspect of human behaviour). If no such aspect were to exist then any attempt to refer to the idea of the field of experience would not be subject to the conditioning process that goes on within linguistic communities (and by which such communities maintain a practical level of linguistic consistency), and the idea must properly remain outside the domain of language use. Although it seems that the word “consciousness” is often recruited to allude to the field of experience, this use of the word is not strongly subject to the normal mode of communal linguistic conditioning, and the same word is often used to refer to ideas that do indeed have an empirical provenance (such as when the nurse informs the surgeon that the patient has “regained consciousness”). Nevertheless, for the purpose of this discussion I will employ the word “consciousness” synonymously with the term “field of experience” on the pretext that the rich history of discussions along these lines permits sufficient confidence in the conviction that all people are associated with fields of experience (or alternatively with “instantiations of consciousness”).

It may rightly be argued that, because of this weakness of linguistic conditioning, two people discussing consciousness (on this use of the word) can have no confidence whatsoever that they share a mutual understanding of how the word is being used, and this often seems to be the case when attempting to follow debates about consciousness. But in some cases this mutual understanding does seem to obtain, and I submit that this is because some people have acquired the idea of a field of experience and have inferred from context that others are recruiting the word “consciousness” in order to allude to it. It may be the case that some people have not acquired the idea of consciousness and so employ a variant use of the word without realising their shortfall. It may also be the case that some people that have acquired the idea of consciousness have prejudicially discarded it in favour of a variant use of the word. So the hazard in such discussions is that this confidence in a mutual understanding may be misplaced, but I will proceed on the assumption that I have given sufficient context for my use of the word to permit those with a compatible understanding to have a well placed confidence that this use of the word is indeed mutual.

Note that it would clearly be a mistake to claim that consciousness appears within the field of experience as a subjective experience or even as the entire category of subjective experiences, unless we are stipulating a technical definition of consciousness that is at variance with the definition that has been given above. 

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