The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Classical Theory of Consciousness

William James (at the end of the 19th century) was responsible for articulating the "classical" theory of consciousness, the equivalent of Newton's classical Physics. To James, consciousness is a sequence of conscious mental states, each state being the experience of some content. Just like Newton saw a unitary and continuous space, James saw a unitary and continuous consciousness.

James thought that consciousness must have an evolutionary purpose, just like Darwin thought that all features of the body must have an evolutionary purpose. Thinking is useful for our survival, just like eating and mating. James treated consciousness like a function, not an entity.

James was, in part, reacting to the theory of perception that dated from the 19th-century German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, that sense data from the senses are turned by the “mind” into percepts which are conscious experiences of the environment. James thought, instead, that the output of brain processes is guidance of action in the environment, not a conscious experience of the environment.

Furthermore, James realized that every act of perception specifies both a perceiving self and a perceived object. Seeing something is not only seeing that object: it is also seeing it from a certain perspective. The perspective implies a "seer". A sensory act specifies not only the environment but also the self. Self (the "subjective") and the environment (the "objective") are two poles of attention. Each act of perception specifies both the self and the environment.

The self, in turn, is one but is also divided. The self is partly object and partly subject: there is a self who is the knower (the “i”) and a self who is the known (the “me”).


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