Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement


The Sad and Sorry History of Consciousness: being, among other things, a Challenge to the ‘Consciousness-studies Community’

P.M.S. Hackera1

a1 St John's College, University of Oxford

The term ‘consciousness’ is a latecomer upon the stage of Western philosophy. The ancients had no such term. Sunoida, like its Latin equivalent conscio, meant the same as ‘I know together with’ or ‘I am privy, with another, to the knowledge that’. If the prefixes sun and cum functioned merely as intensifiers, then the verbs meant simply ‘I know well’ or ‘I am well aware that’. Although the ancients did indeed raise questions about the nature of our knowledge of our own perceptions and thought, and introduced the idea of an inner sense, they did not characterize the mind as the domain of consciousness. Aristotelians conceived of the mind as the array of powers that distinguish humanity from the rest of animate nature. The powers of self-movement, of perception and sensation, and of appetite, are shared with other animals. What is distinctive of humanity, and what characterizes the mind, are the powers of the intellect – of reason, and of the rational will. Knowledge of these powers is not obtained by consciousness or introspection, but by observation of their exercise in our engagement with the world around us. The mediaevals followed suit. They likewise lacked any term for consciousness, although they too indulged in reflections upon ‘inner senses’ – in the wake of Avicenna's distinguishing, arguably to excess, five such senses.

P.M.S. Hacker is an Emeritus Research Fellow at St John's College, Oxford. His most important works are his four volume Commentary on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell, 1980–1996), the first two volumes co-authored with G.P. Baker, Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Philosophy (Blackwell, 1996), Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Blackwell, 2003), co-authored with Max Bennett, Human Nature: The Categorial Framework (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), and its sequel, The Cognitive and Cogitative Powers of Man (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).