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DOES CONSCIOUSNESS EXIST?

Daniel Dennett was trained as a philosopher and studied in Oxford under Gilbert Ryle. Ryle in 1949 published a book called The Concept of Mind [15] in which he famously coined the phrase 'the ghost in the machine' to ridicule the body/soul dualism, the idea that there is, located somewhere in the material body, an immaterial soul. But Ryle, so far as I can see, belongs in the line of the 'empiricist' philosophers for whom sensation or experience and the reality that provoked the sensation/experience are simply one and the same thing understood in two different ways. There aren't two things - an object existing in the external world (Descartes' res extensa) and its reflection existing in a mind (Descartes' res cogitans). That would be dualism. Ryle, as Dennett remarks in an introduction to  the Penguin reissue of the Concept of Mind, declines to mention any other writer working in the field: 'One of the idiosyncrasies of the book is that there are no footnotes and no references. No thinker living in 1949 is mentioned or quoted anywhere in its pages, in spite of the fact–perhaps because of the fact?–that those rollicking pages often purport to be demolitions of contemporary confusions. The only person from the twentieth century who is mentioned even in passing is Freud, and Ryle has nothing controversial to say about Freudian ideas.' [16] (para 6)


[15] Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind, London (Hutchinson's Universal Library) 1951. I have it in an ebook without page references.
[16] Daniel C. Dennett: 'Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind' in the Penguin 2000 edition of The Concept of Mind. I have it from the internet and can only give paragraph not page references.


But Ryle nonetheless follows in a line of English language empiricist philosophers reflecting on the mind and its place in nature, to coin a phrase. Mention might be made here of the American 'pragmatic' philosopher, William James and of Bertrand Russell.  In an essay called Does Consciousness Exist? [17] James denies the existence of consciousness, or at least of an individual consciousness. Starting from the Machian view 'that there is one primal stuff or material world, a stuff of which everything is composed' and that this stuff can be called 'pure experience' he goes on: 

'To consciousness as such nothing can happen for, timeless itself, it is only a witness of happenings in time in which it plays no part. It is, in a word, but the logical correlative of "content" on an Experience of which the peculiarity is that fact comes to light in it, that awareness of content takes place. Consciousness as such is entirely impersonal.'


[17] William James: 'Does "Consciousness" Exist?', Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, No 1, 477-491, 1904. I have it from the internet at the rather remarkable Classics in the History of Psychology site - psychclassics.yorku.ca so I cannot give page references.


He says (I am paraphrasing slightly) 'a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, plays the part of a knower, is a state of mind, of "consciousness"; while in a different context, the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective "content". In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing.'

James coined the phrase 'stream of consciousness' but by it he meant that consciousness is not a distinct place in which things happen; it is the succession of things that are happening. It is not a vehicle carrying a content. It is the content. James's thought was continued by Bertrand Russell in his The Analysis of Mind [18]:

'It is especially sensation, I think, which is considered by those realists who retain only the object. Their views, which are chiefly held in America, are in large measure derived from William James and before going further it will be well to consider the revolutionary doctrine which he advocated. I believe this doctrine contains important new truth and what I shall have to say will be in a considerable measure inspired by it. This is explicitly the case with Mach's Analysis of Sensation, a book of fundamental importance in the present connection. William James's view was first set forth in an essay called Does Consciousness Exist?' (pp.21-2)


[18] Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind, London (George Allen and Unwin) 1922.


After summarising James's argument he refers to 'other modern tendencies, also hostile to "consciousness"' notably the behaviourists:

'in their observation of the behaviour of human being, they have not so far found any evidence of thought. True, we talk a great deal, and imagine that in so doing we are showing that we can think, but behaviourists say that the talk they have to listen to can be explained without supposing that people think. Where you might expect a chapter on "thought processes" you come instead upon a chapter on "the language habit." It is humiliating to find how terribly adequate this hypothesis turns out to be.' (pp.26-7)

Which brings us back to Ryle who, I think, follows Russell quite closely. Russell had said (p.6):

'The stuff of which the world of our experience is composed is, in my belief, neither mind not matter but something more primitive than either. Both mind and matter seem to be composite and the stuff of which they are compounded lies in a sense between the two, in a sense above them both, like a common denominator.' (pp.10-11)

And Ryle says:

'It will also follow that both Idealism and Materialism are answers to an improper question. The "reduction" of the material world to mental states and processes, as well as the "reduction" of mental states and processes to physical states and processes, presupposes the legitimacy of the disjunction. Either there exist minds or there exist bodies but not both. It would be like saying, Either she bought a left hand and a right hand glove, or she bought a pair of gloves, but not both.'

I confess, though, though, that I find Ryle difficult to follow despite the folksy avuncular style in which The Concept of Mind is written. In saying that both mental states and processes and physical states and processes exist and are complementary he is saying that they both exist but what is the 'mental state' if it isn't 'the ghost in the machine'? Throughout The Concept of Mind Ryle seems to be arguing against the existence of an internal mental life and asserting what might appear to be a purely behaviourist approach - we are what our bodies do. He says, for example:

'Overt intelligent performances are not clues to the workings of minds; they are those workings. Boswell described Johnson's mind when he described how he wrote, talked, ate, fidgeted and fumed. His description was, of course, incomplete, since there were notoriously some thoughts which Johnson kept carefully to himself and there must have been many dreams, daydreams and silent babblings which only Johnson could have recorded and only a James Joyce would wish him to have recorded.'

Yet even if Samuel Johnson's internal stream of consciousness was a trivial inconsequential thing compared to his fidgeting and fuming, it still existed and still has to be accounted for.

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