1. The Problem of Consciousness
Lately, philosophers and scientists
have been looking for mind in all the wrong places. Physicalists of all stripes
have been looking primarily at the physical conditions of consciousness, from
neural activity to computational function. Meanwhile, humanists--historicists,
postmodernists, culture critics--have looked primarily to the cultural
conditions of our discourse, as if consciousness did not exist in its own right
(expressed in art and literature) but is only ‘theorized’ in a cultural
tradition of phenomenology or science or humanistic discourse. Obviously, we
have much to learn from the empirical sciences about boson, atom, organism,
evolution, and brain--and from humanistic observations in art, literature, and
cultural history and criticism. But this learning is informed by further
disciplines that are not ‘empirical’ or ‘naturalistic’ or indeed ‘humanistic’
in the received ways. If we are to understand the mind, we must understand more
clearly the philosophical disciplines of phenomenology and ontology. It is
these disciplines that define the place of mind in a world further detailed by
the scientific disciplines of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and quantum
physics, as well as the humanistic disciplines of literary, artistic, and
Let us begin with a fundamental
principle of ontology. The nature of any entity, I propose, divides into three
aspects or facets which we may call its form, appearance, and
substrate. In an act of consciousness, accordingly, we must distinguish three
fundamentally different aspects: its form or intentional structure, its
appearance or subjective ‘feel’, and its substrate or origin. In terms of this
three-facet distinction, we can define the place of consciousness in the world.
The aim of this essay is to lay out this distinction in the nature of
consciousness, and to draw out its implications for phenomenology and ontology,
as distinct from purely naturalistic philosophy of mind. (I shall not focus
here on humanistic theory, though I think the morals to follow have relevance
for humanistic as well as naturalistic theory of mind.)
Consciousness is the central concern
of phenomenology. While there is more to mind than what we consciously
experience, our theory of mind must begin with the salient part of mind,
conscious intentional experience. Consciousness is characteristically a
consciousness ‘of’ something, as Husserl stressed circa 1900, and this property of directedness he dubbed intentionality. The literature of phenomenology--in Husserl,
Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ingarden, F¿llesdal, and others, with roots
in Kant, Hume, Descartes, and still earlier thinkers--has analyzed a rich
variety of structures of intentionality in perception, imagination, thought,
language, and action, along with properties of subjectivity, intersubjectivity,
temporality, and the unity of the subject or self. For the discipline of
phenomenology, there is no problem about the nature or existence of
consciousness: we experience it first-hand throughout our waking life, and we
have ways of studying it carefully.
For recent philosophy of mind,
however, consciousness has seemed problematic, either in its nature or in its
very existence: because it seems to escape the story told by the physical
sciences. ‘Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really
intractable,’ Thomas Nagel observed, rightly, wryly, and presciently in 1974
(Nagel 1974). As cognitive science developed over the next two decades, moving
from artificial intelligence into neuroscience, consciousness regained center
stage. The function of mind in mediating behavior, in problem-solving
computation, in evolutionary adaptation, etc., did not seem to involve the
subjective qualities of sensation, dubbed qualia, or the felt character of
consciousness as directed toward objects in the world around one. Nonetheless,
by 1990 neuroscientists were measuring properties of neural activity (such as
spiking frequency) associated with consciousness, and so consciousness became a
respectable phenomenon of scientific investigation. ‘Consciousness studies’
emerged with large interdisciplinary conferences in Tuscon in the 1990s. Still,
amid the excitement even in popular media, David Chalmers (1996) echoed Nagel’s
sentiment in declaring consciousness the ‘hard’ problem for our theory of mind.
Chalmers struck a nerve.
Yet is it not odd to find
consciousness problematic? What if someone declared that we do not know what
language is, or that its existence is uncertain? We all speak a language such
as English or Japanese. Grammarians have charted its basic forms such as the
verb or noun phrase, and linguists have analyzed its ‘deep’ structure. How the
brain functions in the production and understanding of language is a further
matter of empirical neuroscience; how speech and writing emerged in our species
is a matter of evolutionary biology; how our language shapes our society and
politics is a matter of social-cultural theory. But the syntax and meaning of
modern English are familiar, more or less, to its speakers. Similarly, the
shape and meaning of our everyday experiences of perception, thought, and
action are familiar to us all, more or less. These forms of consciousness have
been studied by phenomenologists, much as linguists have studied forms of
language. How the brain functions in consciousness, how our forms of experience
evolved in the species Homo sapiens sapiens, how our consciousness is
shaped by our language, culture, and politics--these are further matters. But
how can consciousness itself be thought problematic or its basic forms obscure?
There is a widespread opinion that
science alone will explain the workings of the world, including our own minds
and thus consciousness. This idea goes under the positive banner of ‘naturalism’
or meets the pejorative charge of ‘scientism’. This attitude is expressed with
characteristic verve, in his recent book Consilience (1998), by biologist Edward O. Wilson, famous
for his studies of ants and for his conception of sociobiology. Quoting at
length (the only way to evidence ‘attitude’, albeit in the way of humanists):
Belief in the intrinsic unity of knowledge ...
rides ultimately on the hypothesis that every mental process has a physical
grounding and is consistent with the natural sciences. The mind is supremely
important to the consilience program [of unity] for a reason both elementary
and disturbingly profound: Everything that we know and can ever know about
existence is created there.
loftier forms of such reflection and belief may seem at first to be the proper
domain of philosophy, not science. But history shows that logic launched from
introspection alone lacks thrust, can travel only so far, and usually heads in
the wrong direction. Much of the history of modern philosophy, from Descartes
and Kant forward, consists of failed models of the brain. The shortcoming is
not the fault of the philosophers, who have doggedly pushed their methods to
the limit, but a straightforward consequence of the biological evolution of the
brain. All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and
mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not
to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically
different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world
only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it
must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to
darkness. [Wilson 1998, 96.]
we have here is failure to communicate, between philosophers and scientists.
(1) It was philosophers--Descartes, Kant, and Husserl--who taught us the
principle, ‘Everything that we know and can ever know about existence is
created there [in the mind].’ (2) The history of modern philosophy includes
much more than failed models of the brain; Descartes and Husserl developed
successful models of consciousness, of mind as experienced, precisely what is
now found ‘hard’ for empirical neuroscience. (3) While the brain did not evolve
to understand itself, in humans it seems to be on the verge of producing,
Wilson thinks, a scientific theory of its own physical and evolutionary
function--and, I think, a philosophical theory of consciousness. (4) Most of
the great modern philosophers--notably Descartes, Kant, and Husserl--theorized
in the face of factual knowledge from science cum mathematics
in their day; they also appreciated, however, the importance of introspection
when attending to the mind. (5) It is a hallmark of modern philosophy--and
ultimately philosophy of science--to delimit knowledge of empirical fact and
that of logic and mathematics, and thus to define the limits of both a posteriori and a
priori knowledge; today in
philosophy-and-science of mind we need to understand the boundaries and
interrelations between the more empirical and the more ‘formal’ aspects of consciousness.
A different view, from the formal
side of natural science, is proposed by mathematical physicist Roger Penrose in
Shadows of the Mind (1994). From Kurt Gšdel’s incompleteness theorem
in mathematical logic, Penrose argues that consciousness cannot be a process of
computation in the technical sense originally defined by Alan Turing; then,
from considerations of quantum mechanics and the microstructure of neurons in
the human brain, Penrose argues that we need a non-computational quantum physics
to explain how consciousness can arise in neuronal activity. I cannot evaluate
the controversial speculations in Penrose’s book, but if he is right then
consciousness is defined by a very different kind of ‘formal’ mathematical
structure than anything philosophers of mind have been considering previously.
What I like in Penrose’s vision is this type of abstraction. The mathematical
form of a piece of physical theory is integral to its content, and mathematical
form is suggestive of ontological form. The subtitle of the Penrose book is A Search for the Missing Science of
Consciousness. When we have finished
the ‘science’ of consciousness, its physics and its evolutionary biology, there
will still be something missing in our account of consciousness. What is
missing in all current ‘naturalistic’ thinking about consciousness is the
relevant phenomenology and ontology, and their integration.
The ‘loftier forms’ of naturalism
are what attract the philosopher. I believe in the unity of knowledge. I
believe moreover in the unity of the world: one world in which physical, mental, and
cultural phenomena take their interweaving places. And I believe that every
mental process has a physical grounding and is consistent with the natural
sciences. (In fact, I am quite partial to the metaphor of ‘ground’ in ontology,
as we shall see). So far, naturalism: both methodological and ontological
(these need to be distinguished).
However, the structure of
intentionality--call it ‘formal’ or ‘transcendental’ or something else--does
not flow easily from empirical, ‘naturalistic’ studies of the brain or bodily
behavior or physical system alone. The ‘logic’ of intentionality in
phenomenology, methodically launched from introspection alone, has a powerful
thrust and carries us far (contrary to what Wilson claims in the quotation
above). However, I must concur, the theory of intentionality carries us in
different directions than empirical science: into structures of consciousness
in phenomenology, and indeed into structures of thought and inference in logic
and semantics (concerning how we reason and represent things in thought and
language). ‘Formal’ ontology too moves in different directions, positing
fundamental categories of existence such as Individual, Property, Relation,
Number, Part, etc. Both phenomenology and ontology are crucial to a unified
system of knowledge--of a unified world. And both carry us beyond naturalism:
their results should be consistent with natural science, but the proper results
of phenomenology and ontology are not simply amassed in empirical investigation
in the natural sciences alone.
When we want to see the world as a
whole, and not in the ‘little pieces’ so effectively modelled by physics,
chemistry, and biology,--when we want to see the unity of the world,
we must inform natural science with fundamental ontology. Much as physics needs
mathematics to structure its empirical content, so natural science in general
needs ontology--or meta-physics--to structure empirical content. And when we
turn to the nature of mind itself, the empirical analysis of our own
consciousness is pursued expressly and methodically by phenomenology. Moreover,
it is ontology that must define the type of relation that holds between mind and its
grounding in brain activity. This is a matter of formal ontology, rather than
of empirical investigation per
Wilfrid Sellars (1963) contrasted
two ranges of theory that define respectively the ‘manifest’ image and the ‘scientific’
image of man, that is, ourselves and our world as understood by common sense
and as described by modern science. Similarly, in The Crisis of European
Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1938/1970) Husserl distinguished
the ‘life-world’ from the ‘natural world’, that is, the world as we experience
it in everyday life and as we ‘mathematize’ it in physics. Mathematical physics
(in all its well-earned glory) is an abstraction, Husserl held, from the
world as experienced in everyday life. Consequently, Husserl said, we must
confront ‘the paradox of human subjectivity’: how can I be both subject and
object of consciousness, both a conscious subject and an object in nature?
Husserl did not clearly foresee the ‘mathematization’ of thought in the
computer model of mind. Yet today’s controversy about mind as computer
(whatever the architecture, classical or connectionist) is but the application
of mathematical modelling or ‘mathematizing’ to mind as opposed to physical
activity like planetary motion. Thus, Husserl’s ‘paradox’ foreshadowed what
today is the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness: how can consciousness be both a subjective
character of experience and an objective property of the brain--a
computational structure implemented in neural networks evolved over the natural
history of the human species on the planet Earth in the cosmos that took shape
since the Big Bang over 12 billion years ago amid fields of gravity,
electromagnetism, and quantum superposition?
Husserl distinguished phenomenology
from both everyday knowledge and scientific knowledge, and he distinguished ‘formal’
ontology from ‘material’ ontologies of Body, Culture, and Consciousness (as the
distinction is reconstructed in D. W. Smith 1995). The point to stress here is
that the world is characterized in different parts and levels in these different
ranges of theory, and the philosophy of mind must respect these differences of
Only by understanding more clearly
both phenomenology and ontology, along with the natural sciences (as well as
the humanities), can we understand the place of consciousness in the world.
That is the loftier moral of this essay. The specifics to follow concern the
ontology of the three aspects or ‘facets’ of consciousness, and the role of
phenomenology in such an ontology.
2. Phenomenology and Ontology
Ontology (or metaphysics) is the
science of being: as Aristotle put it, being as being. Where
the special sciences--physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc.--are
sciences of particular kinds of beings, ontology is the general science of what
it is to be a being (and perhaps of what it is to be).
Phenomenology is the science of
consciousness: as Husserl put it, of consciousness as
we experience it. Phenomenology begins in the description of conscious
experience from our own point of view as subjects or agents: ‘I feel angry’, ‘I
see that volcano’, ‘I think that Plato was ironic’, ‘I will [to act so that I]
stroke this tennis ball cross-court’, and so on. The intentionality of
consciousness is evident in our own experience: I am conscious ‘of’ or ‘about’
Now, ontology and phenomenology
interact in our overall theory of consciousness and its place in the world. For
our experience--in emotion, perception, thought, and action--is informed by our
understanding of the world around us, by our ontology, implicit or explicit.
And as we practice phenomenology, we use our ontology, implicitly or
explicitly, in order to describe our experience, its intentional relation to
objects in the world, and the things we are conscious of in perception,
thought, and action. In this way, phenomenology is ontological. But ontology
itself is phenomenological insofar as it recognizes the existence of our own
consciousness--as we must in saying what exists.
It may be surprising to speak of
ontology within the practice of phenomenology. For did not Husserl, in Ideas
(Books I and I, 1913/1969 and 1912ff/1991), enjoin us to bracket the existence
of the surrounding world of nature (and culture) in order to describe the
structure of our consciousness? Here lies confusion. Husserl assumed a good
deal of ‘formal’ ontology--concerning individual and essence, part and whole,
dependence, etc.--precisely as he sought to describe the essence of
intentionality in phenomenology; and bracketing the region of nature (and the
region of culture) leaves the region of consciousness, with the ‘material’
ontology of consciousness as part of phenomenology. (See D. W. Smith 1995.)
Heidegger followed suit, in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology
(1927/1975/1988), assuming his own formal categories in describing structures
of our existence and comportment; indeed, Heidegger insisted that phenomenology
is ‘fundamental ontology’, and so fundamental ontology is essentially
phenomenological. Philosophy today has lost sight of the intimate connection
between our saying what there is and our saying how we experience what is.
Let us approach the nature of
consciousness and its place in the world by laying out a very basic ontological
distinction, a distinction we rarely make explicit but assume deep in the
background of a good deal of our theorizing about the world.
3. Three-Facet Ontology
Everything in the world--every
entity whatsoever--has a nature that divides fundamentally into three aspects
we shall call facets: its form, its appearance, and its substrate. Thus:
(1) The form of an entity is how or
what it is: its whatness or quiddity--the kinds, properties, relations, that
make it what it is.
(2) The appearance of an entity is
how it is known or apprehended: how it looks if perceptible (its appearance in
the everyday sense), but also how it is conceived if conceivable, how it is
used if utilizable--how it is experienced or ‘intended’ as thus-and-so.
(3) The substrate of a thing is how
it is founded or originated: how it comes to be, where it comes from, its
history or genetic origin if temporal, its composition or material origin if
material, its phylogenetic origin if biological, its cultural origin if a
cultural artifact--in short, its ecological origin in a wide sense, and
ultimately its ontological origin in basic categories or modes of being.
three facets of an entity (in this technical sense) are categorially
distinct aspects of the entity, with important relations among them, as we
shall be exploring. This distinction of aspects we may call the three-facet
distinction. The distinction is depicted in a diagram in FIGURE 1.
FIGURE 1: The Three Facets of an
among form, appearance, and foundation or origin have been drawn in philosophy
since its inception. Plato distinguished concrete things from their forms, and
appearance from reality, and posited forms as the foundation of being. Before
Plato, Anaximander assessed the material composition of things and envisioned
their origin or foundation in something more basic (an archaic quantum field?);
he even foresaw biological evolution, 2500 years before Darwin. In more recent
centuries, epistemologists from Descartes to Kant distinguished things from the
ways they are known, while idealists like Berkeley put mind at the foundation
of reality and materialists reduced mind to matter. What I am proposing,
however, is to unify the distinctions among form, appearance, and substrate,
and then to elevate the three-facet distinction itself to an axiom of
fundamental ontology--and so to structure ontology itself (in one way) along
structure < Form, Appearance, Substrate > thus defines a special system
of ontological categories. For the world is structured importantly, at
fundamental joints, by this three-facet distinction. The distinction
presupposes that the world includes attributes (of entities), minds (to which
entities may appear), and contexts of foundation or origin (from or within
which entities may come to be). There may be possible worlds that lack such
things, but our world has this much structure, and our ontology and
phenomenology are accountable to this three-facet structure of the world. These
three categories do not form a sequence of mutually exclusive and collectively
exhaustive summum genera of entities, as do the Aristotelian categories
(roughly, Substance or Individual, Species, Quality, Quantity, etc). Rather,
the categories of Form, Appearance, and Substrate order or rank three
fundamental ways an entity in our world is defined: by relation to its form, to
its being known or ‘intended’, and to its ground or origin. If you think about
it, these categories define three fundamentally important and importantly
different areas within the nature of any entity (in a world such as our
own). Thus, the entity itself is distributed in its being through these
three aspects of form, appearance, and substrate: that is its nature or
are other fundamental divisions in the structure of the world. But the
Form, Appearance, Substrate >,
marks one crucial ordering in the nature of
things. To appreciate its significance, we shall work through some examples
the division among form, appearance, and substrate is a division of structure in the nature of an entity--rather than a division among three
intrinsically distinct types of property. In principle, the same thing might be
part of the appearance, form, and substrate of an entity. The green of a leaf--say,
of a California Live Oak tree--is part of its appearance to the human eye, part
of its intrinsic form, and part of its evolutionary history (in the role of
chorophyll). Thus, the property green plays three different roles in the form, appearance, and substrate of the leaf, and these three
facets are themselves defined by the roles played. That is, Form, Appearance,
and Substrate are defined by roles played in the nature or essence of an
instructive parallel to the three-facet distinction can be drawn in biology: in
systematics, the science of diversity among living things (Mayr and Ashlock
1991). Thus, biologists today define a species by principled reference
to its character, its observed specimens, and its evolutionary descent.
(Exactly how a species is defined in these terms has been vigorously debated; I
abstract the terms of debate only.) Imposing our terminology: the form of a
species is its genotype, its appearance (to the scientific community) is its
phenotype or observable traits (starting with a definitive specimen called its
holotype), and its substrate or origin consists in its path of phylogenetic
descent from ancestor species. These three aspects of a species are given
canonical places in defining the species in modern biological theory, and we
may see in this empirical theory something more like a ‘formal’ division in the
nature of all things, not just of evolving species of living things. (N.b. In
biological systematics, a ‘category’ is defined not as a high-level grouping or
summum genus, as Aristotle originally used the term, but
rather as a rank of taxa or groupings. In the long run I too would define the
term ‘category’ in a more special way, but for present purposes let us mean by
the term simply an important group or classification of things.)
as biological systematics provides one model of three-facet ontology, we are
abstracting or factoring out from the empirical theory of species the formal
structure of three facets, which we would apply to any kind of entity at all
(in a world such as our own). This kind of abstracting is the proper work of
formal ontology, and the three-facet distinction is a formal ontological
distinction, applying by hypothesis to any kind of entity whatsoever. The
significance of the three-facet distinction lies in the different ways in which
something can be defined in its being, in its fundamental nature, by its form,
appearance, and substrate.
is one systematic philosopher who recognized what we are calling the three
facets of an object. The form of an object Husserl called its ‘essence’ (Wesen,
from Was-sein). The sensible qualities of a material object Husserl
called its ‘appearance’ (Erscheinung), or more generally its ‘way of
being given’ to consciousness, which aligns with the ‘object as intended’. And
the substrate of an object encompasses what Husserl called its ‘horizon’, its Umwelt
(surrounding world), and indeed its ontological ‘foundation’, that on which it
is ‘founded’ (by Fundierung).
What is unusual in Husserl’s philosophy is the principle that the essence of any object includes the ways in which it can be known or
intended, the ways it is ‘constituted’ in consciousness. It was Husserl who
first explicitly defined ‘formal’ ontology, as specifying categories (‘formal
essences’) that apply to different ‘regions’ (‘material essences’) such as
Nature, Culture, and Consciousness. (The details are drawn in D. W. Smith
1995.) The three-facet distinction belongs to formal ontology in this sense.
However, Husserl himself did not join the three facets into the canonical
division I am proposing.
three-facet distinction, then, is a higher-order formal structure that orders
the nature or essence of an entity. Since this structure applies to
consciousness itself, we can use the three-facet distinction to look at the
ontology of consciousness. But first we must address the distinction generally.
Three Facets of Diverse Entities
see how the three-facet distinction works, and to begin to appreciate its
scope, let us apply it to some very different kinds of entities.
this piece of quartz found in my garden. Its form includes its shape, its
color, and its type, quartz. Its appearance includes what it looks like from
various angles and under various lighting. And its substrate includes its
physical crystalline structure, as well as its geological genesis from great
heat and pressure in the crust of the planet Earth.
now an electron. Its form includes its mass, charge, and spin. Its appearance
includes its observable position and momentum, its electron-microscope image, etc.
And its substrate includes the matter field (from which it emerges per quantum
field theory). So even a basic physical particle has its three facets.
consider this pencil. The form of the pencil is its structure of graphite in
wood plus its function in writing and drawing. Its appearance includes what it
looks like and what it feels like in my hand in writing. The substrate of the
pencil is its origin. It is made of certain materials, including wood,
graphite, paint, tin, rubber. Each material has its physical-chemical
structure. Moreover, these materials are produced only in specific parts of the
world, in specific cultures, their trade following established routes.
Furthermore, the substrate of the pencil includes the historical development of
writing, writing instruments, and the invention of the pencil. So the pencil’s
substrate includes not only its physical composition (down to quantum
structure), but also its cultural genesis.
consider the Tool of the Century: the computer. The International Organization
for Standardization has defined what is called the ISO three-schema
architecture for database design, distinguishing: a computer program (‘conceptual
schema’), its implementation in hardware (plus operating system, etc.) (‘internal
schema’), and the user’s presentation of what the program does (‘external
schema’). These three aspects of a computer system are precisely what we are
calling its three facets: its form, the program; its substrate, the hardware;
and its appearance, the user-interface. This familiar distinction, we now begin
to see, reflects a deep ontological distinction in the nature of things far
consider a human being, an individual such as Napolean. His appearance is
well-known: his facial structure, his small stature, his posture with hand in
vest. His form is his individual character as a person, an intentional subject
living in a culture in the natural world, his body having various traits. And
his substrate is what makes this individual possible: his genetic heritage, his
birth on Corsica, the French Revolution and the army in which he developed his
power--as well as the wider physical, biological, and cultural conditions of
how naturally the three-facet distinction applies to such diverse kinds of
entities. The concepts of form and appearance are relatively familiar; the
concept of substrate is not. Indeed, notice how wildly different are the things
that serve as substrate for different entities: materials or parts from
which an object is composed; the field in which a physical particle exists; the
genesis of an individual through time; the evolutionary track (or ‘clade’) of a
biological species; the cultural history and use of an artifact; the hardware
that implements a computer program; the life trajectory of an individual human
being; even the cultural genealogy of our values (in Nietzsche’s idiom) and of
our language games and other forms of life (in Wittgenstein’s idiom). What
these things share, what makes these things play the role of substrate in very
different entities, is the form of ontological derivation or emergence
(in different ways!) from things more fundamental, the form of ontological foundation or dependence on things in the wider context of the entity.
Again, the three-facet distinction belongs to ‘formal’ ontology.
let us apply the three-facet distinction to--of all things--consciousness
Three Facets of Consciousness
act of consciousness--my experience of thinking, seeing, or doing such-and-such--is
an entity with three facets:
form is its structure of intentionality, its being directed from subject
toward object through a content or meaning, with inner awareness of itself (‘apperception’).
appearance is how I experience it, ‘what it is like’ for me to live or
perform this act of consciousness.
substrate is its origin or background in conditions including brain
activity, psychological motivation, cultural ideas or practices, and the
biological evolution of this form of mind.
The three facets of an act of consciousness are
mapped in a diagram in FIGURE 2.
structure of intentionality
act of consciousness
neural-physical-biological conditions phenomenological characters of
psychological conditions perception, thought,
cultural conditions emotion, volition ...
FIGURE 2: The Three Facets of an Act
to this three-facet ontology, an act of consciousness is distributed in
its nature through its form, appearance, and substrate. This is not to say
there are three kinds of entities bound together, say, items of brain, meaning,
and ‘feeling’. Rather, a particular mental act is one entity with a nature that
divides into three fundamentally different aspects or facets. There are
systematic relations, including dependencies, among these facets, but that is a
further story. First we must appreciate the fundamentally different roles these
facets play in defining consciousness. As we bring out these differences in
facet, we can carve out the role of phenomenology in understanding mind and its
place in the world.
Structure of Intentionality and Inner Awareness
am assuming a basic theory of intentionality (elaborated in Smith and McIntyre
1982.) This account of intentionality draws on a long history, but the main
ideas were synthesized adequately first by Husserl. In recent philosophy of
mind and cognitive science, Searle (1983) comes closest to this model of
occurs in concrete states or events called ‘acts’ of consciousness: when I see
that bird overhead, when I think that Plato was ironic, when I feel angry about
the President’s speech, when I run with the volition to catch a bus, and so on.
Such an act of consciousness is intentional, or directed toward something, called its object
(the bird, Plato, the speech, my catching the bus). As we say, it is ‘of’ or ‘about’
that object. The object is prescribed by the content of the act. And the act is
experienced or performed by a person, called its subject. This structure is
analyzed by laying out cases and marking distinctions among subject, act,
content, and object (for detail see Smith and McIntyre 1982). The point to
consider here is where this structure plays in the ontology of the act of
consciousness, in the three-facetd nature of the act.
fundamental structure of intentionality, we assume, is this:
The act is distinct from the object (unless the
act is self-referential). The subject is distinct from the act, and from the
stream of consciousness in which the act occurs as a transitory part. The
content is an idea, image, concept, thought (proposition), volition, etc.: a ‘meaning’
which Husserl called noema, updating the ancient Greek term for ‘what is
known’. Importantly, the same object can be ‘intended’ through different
contents in different acts.
practicing phenomenology, when I reflect on an act of consciousness as
experienced, I ‘intend’ the act in a second act of reflection focussed on the
first act. In this reflection the first act ‘appears’ to the second. Classical
phenomenology was much exercised about the best methodology for reflecting on
our experience. However we do it, let us assume, I carry out an act of
reflection--or introspection--on my own conscious experience. And in
phenomenological reflection the intentionality of the given act is part of its ‘appearance’
in the reflective act. So the given act’s intentionality is part of its form,
but also part of its appearance in reflection.
we may directly experience the intentionality of an act of consciousness,
without retreating into a reflection upon it. For when I am conscious of
something, say in perception, I have a pre-reflective inner awareness of this consciousness-of-something. On this
neoclassical view, consciousness is consciousness-of-something and eo ipso
consciousness-of-itself. In inner
awareness, then, intentionality ‘appears’ to me in having a conscious
experience of such-and-such. So intentionality is part of the appearance of the act already in inner awareness. (This form of inner
awareness is analyzed in D. W. Smith 1989.)
contrast, we do not directly experience (in inner awareness) the substrate of an act of consciousness, notably, its grounding in brain process
and cultural history. Nor does the substrate of an experience submit to
phenomenological analysis in reflection or introspection. In modern times we
all have some knowledge of the fact, empirically discovered and pursued in
neuroscience, that what we are thinking, perceiving, or dreaming depends on
what is happening in our brains. And in postmodern times we all have some
appreciation of the fact, frequently observed in the wake of Marx, Nietzsche,
and Freud, that what we think and value depends on longstanding cultural
conceptions, assumptions, linguistic practices, and political institutions. But
these background conditions must be distinguished from the intentional
structure of consciousness itself, thus separating the form and appearance of
consciousness from its substrate. (Compare D. W. Smith 1999b on ‘background
ideas’ in the cultural substrate of intentionality.)
Ontology of Form and Appearance
the preceding model of intentionality, we can say more about the ontological
status of the form and appearance of an entity.
form of an entity, we said, consists of its kinds,
properties, and relations. These are ‘universals’ in the traditional sense. I
shall not here address the full range of issues about the existence of
universals (ably and succinctly assayed by Armstrong 1989, 1997), but a couple
of points stand out in present discussion. First, some universals depend for their
existence on intentional acts of consciousness and associated cultural
practices, though most do not. The property of being a fork, for instance,
could not exist unless people had developed the tradition of eating with a
utensil of that shape. (See Thomasson 1999, on similar issues of dependence.)
Moreover, if I am using a fork to pry open a box, it is not in that context
bearing the property of being a fork. Second, a universal is distinct from any
concept that represents it. The property of being an electron does not depend
for its existence on anyone’s having a concept of it; when someone thinks about
an electron, the concept ‘electron’ is part of the content of the act of
thinking, but is distinct from the property of being an electron. And it is
universals rather than any associated concepts that make up the form of an
entity. Third, a universal is distinct from its instance in a
particular entity. Aristotle called such instances ‘accidents’; Husserl called
them ‘moments’; recent philosophers (following Donald Williams’ usage) call
them ‘tropes’. Strictly speaking, the form of an entity--in the three-facet
distinction--is realized in a complex comprising moments or tropes that are
instances of universals. For simplicity, however, in this essay I shall simply
speak of an entity’s form and its constituent kinds, properties, and relations.
(Still, the distinction between moments and universals, or ‘ideal’ essences,
does important work in an Husserlian philosophy of mind pace D. W. Smith
appearance of an entity, we said, consists of how it is
known or, we may now say, ‘intended’ in appropriate acts of consciousness. This
talk of ‘how’ is ambiguous between the properties that appear or are intended
and the contents through which they appear. (Husserl carefully distinguished
these: see Ideas I, 1913, ¤42.) When I see that green leaf, for
instance, the content ‘green’ in my visual experience is one thing, and the
color itself in the leaf is another thing. Science tells us that the color
green is dependent not only on the wavelength of the light reflected from the
surface of the leaf, but also on the interaction with the observer.
Nonetheless, the color in the leaf is distinct from the sensory-conceptual
content in my experience. Moreover, as Husserl noted, the same color will ‘look’
different under different lighting conditions. The properties in the appearance
of the leaf, in its three-facet nature, are distinct from the concepts or
sensuous qualities (so-called ‘qualia’) that are part of my visual experience
that intends the leaf and presents it as green.
appearance is to be studied in different philosophical disciplines, in
phenomenology (addressing its role in intentional consciousness) and in
ontology (distinguishing an appearing color itself from the intentional
contents that present it).
in mind these amplifications of form and appearance in general, we turn to
phenomenology as the study of the form and appearance of consciousness.
Phenomenology and the Study of Consciousness
has seemed difficult to study in a disciplined way because it is hard to
separate in a disciplined way the different features of consciousness. The
distinction between three facets of consciousness helps to define the domains
of different disciplines that study consciousness. Purely descriptive
phenomenology describes the appearance of consciousness in our own experience: the
character of consciousness as we experience it in different types of
experience. Analytic (‘eidetic’) phenomenology analyzes the form of consciousness: the formal structures of intentionality (already
noted in description of our experience). Empirical sciences investigate the
substrate of consciousness: the conditions in which it arises in different forms
(noted, roughly, in phenomenological analysis). Neuroscience develops the
theory of how neural activity gives rise to consciousness in different forms,
taking these forms somewhat for granted. Evolutionary biology develops the
theory of how different life forms evolved, including animals (and plants?)
with the capabilities of consciousness, which begins in sentience and response
in low-level organisms (perhaps even in DNA structures themselves if we are to
believe some abstractions about the transfer of ‘information’ in very different
levels of physical reality). Cultural history develops the theory of how
particular forms of consciousness evolved in human history, including the types
of conscious and often collective thinking that we call story-telling,
philosophy, mathematics, and empirical science.
is ontology--formal ontology--that distinguishes not only the three facets of
any entity, but the fundamental structures of the world, and so ultimately the
place of consciousness in the world, including its relation to brain, species,
culture. In this way, ontology defines the parameters of the different
disciplines that study consciousness in very different ways.
particular, the three-facet distinction in ontology provides a way of defining
phenomenology that preserves its original insights without contravening the
wonders of today’s neuroscience, not to mention evolutionary biology,
cosmology, and cultural history. There is no denying the relevance of brain,
biology, physics, and culture to consciousness. Yet phenomenology is a
different discipline than the empirical natural sciences and the hermeneutic ‘human
sciences’. Husserl labored hard to distinguish phenomenology as a ‘rigorous
science’ that is distinct from both the natural and cultural sciences. He
called this discipline ‘transcendental’.
practice Husserl (1912-13) defined ‘pure’ or ‘transcendental’ phenomenology as
the study of consciousness while bracketing the surrounding world of nature and
culture. This methodology Husserl allied with an ontology of distinct essences
or ‘regions’ called Consciousness, Nature, and Spirit or Culture. To these ‘material’
essences Husserl applied the ‘formal’ categories of Individual, Moment or
Instance-of-Essence, and State of Affairs. Phenomenology studies
intentionality, the central feature in the essence of an act of consciousness
(formally an individual). But what is ‘transcendental’ about this phenomenology
and attendant ontology?
F¿llesdal (1982/1969) focusses phenomenology on the ‘meaning’ things have for
us in intentional experience. Husserl called this meaning or content the ‘noema’
of an act of consciousness. (‘Noema’ is the ancient Greek word for ‘what is
thought’.) ‘Transcendental’ phenomenology then focuses on meaning. Meaning is, on this view, an objective content of intentional
experience that can be shared by other acts and, in some ways, expressed in
language or in pictures or other media of expression and communication.
Mohanty (1985) has expounded transcendental philosophy and phenomenology,
looking to Kant, from whom Husserl appropriated the term ‘transcendental’. In
the spirit of Kant, phenomenology would study the basic conceptual and sensory
structures of our experience. More precisely, transcendental phenomenology is ‘reflection
upon consciousness in its object-constituting role’, i.e. intentionality,
beginning by ‘delineating the structure of a noema’ (xix). What is ‘transcendental’
are the noematic meaning structures through which consciousness intends
objects. However, we can no longer hold with Kant that such structures are
necessary and a priori (xxix).
Sokolowski (2000) traces the definition of ‘transcendental’ from Kant back into
the Medievals. For the Scholastics, ‘transcendental’ categories apply not to
concepts but to beings: the categories of Unity, Being, etc., are ‘transcendental’
because they pertain to absolutely everything. Kant revised this notion, with
his Copernican revolution, so that what is ‘transcendental’ are our fundamental
concepts: the categories of the understanding, through which alone we can
conceive of objects in the world. (Kant explicitly revised the
Aristotelian-Scholastic categories by pulling them up from objects into
concepts.) Phenomenology then transcends the Scholastic and Kantian conceptions
of ‘transcendental’. As Sokolowski shrewdly observes, ‘Transcendental
phenomenology is the mind’s self-discovery in the presence of intelligible
objects.’ Whence: ‘to think about intentionality in all its forms ... is
concur that transcendental phenomenology is the study of intentionality. But I
propose to rethink the traditional conceptions of ‘transcendental’. We may say
the three-facet distinction in ontology is itself ‘transcendental’, radically
updating the Medieval notion, insofar as this distinction defines a fundamental
formal ontological structure that applies to any entity in our kind of
world (from a biological species to a computer system!). Indeed, in terms of
the three-facet architecture we can re-define the role of phenomenology in
studying the nature of mind.
appearance of an act of consciousness is studied in what Husserl called phenomenological
description, description of experience as lived. The form of an act of
consciousness--the details of its intentional structure--is studied in what
Husserl called eidetic analysis of the act, abstracting or factoring out
its form or ‘eidos’, namely, its being directed from subject to object via
content. These are the two stages of method Husserl (1913) used in the practice
of ‘transcendental phenomenology’. Now, the substrate of an act of
consciousness is studied not by phenomenology, but by the natural sciences (in
neuroscience, evolutionary biology, physics) and the cultural sciences (in criticism
and history). It is precisely these aspects of substrate that are bracketed in
is ‘transcendental’ in phenomenology, then, is its focus on the form and
appearance of consciousness, as distinguished from its substrate. But what
makes this focus ‘transcendental’ is its marking the formal-ontological
distinction among form, appearance, and substrate. For what is ‘transcendental’
in philosophy, in the present scheme, is ‘formal’ ontology: seeking very basic
forms of being. We need not cling to the term ‘transcendental’; what is
important in the study of consciousness is observing the differences among
form, appearance, and substrate. If we observe these differences, we should not
rule out the relevance of neuroscience and biology for the phenomenological and
ontological study of consciousness: empirical studies of brain activity may
reinforce or even help to clarify phenomenological observations by showing
where in the brain a particular process or quality of consciousness is
produced. Still, the analysis of form and appearance in consciousness is the
business of phenomenology, informed by ontology. (Compare D. W. Smith 2000b and
Philosophy of Mind and the Study of Consciousness
lessons of classical phenomenology are being rediscovered in recent philosophy
of mind cum cognitive science, which begins with the
metaphysics of naturalism, holding roughly that everything, including mind, is
a part of nature and so--turning to epistemology--is to be studied following
the methods of the natural sciences. Within this context we need to draw out
the implications of the three-facet distinction in formal ontology.
noted, it is the discipline of neuroscience, not phenomenology, that must teach
us about the inner workings of the brain, how it produces consciousness, how it
implements the structure of intentionality--the form of consciousness--in human
beings and other terrestrials. When neuroscience-minded philosophers like
Patricia Churchland (1986) and Paul Churchland (1995) eliminate the
propositional attitudes of belief et
al. in favor of neuronal activity,
or collapse consciousness into neural flashes, they have limited their view of
consciousness to its neural substrate. But there is more in view: there is form
and appearance, where intentionality and its subjectivity reside.
a wider net, we have a growing scientific story of the network of causal
interactions within which mental activity occurs, interactions not only within
the brain but among brain events and physical events external to the body. This
wider causal ecology defines the causal substrate of consciousness. When philosophers
like Fred Dretske (1981, 1995) collapse intentionality into the causal flow of
physical ‘information’ through environment and organism, they have limited
their view of consciousness to its causal-ecological substrate.
kindred view of mind is the widespread view that mind is a function, especially a computational function, of the brain. Causal or
computational function is a higher-order property of brain activity, of the
brain’s mediation of inputs and outputs of the organism or system. These functional
properties of brain belong to the physical, causal substrate of consciousness.
Philosophers like Jerry Fodor (1975, 1994) and Daniel Dennett (1991) follow
variations on the functionalist theme, as Fodor identifies mental activity with
a ‘language of thought’ consisting in physical symbols processed in the brain,
while Dennett identifies mind with computational brain function viewed from the
‘intentional stance’, and consciousness with a particular function (producing ‘multiple
drafts’ of the brain’s ‘story’ about the world and itself). But functionalism
is restricted to a specific view of the causal substrate of consciousness,
overlooking the proper analysis of intentionality in the form and appearance of
consciousness. (See D. W. Smith 1999a, calling for a wider ontology.)
neural and causal grounding of consciousness is not the only sort of condition
on which our conscious experience depends. As we have come to recognize, our
cultural background also constrains or makes possible, in importantly different
ways, the forms of intentionality we may enjoy. We cannot think about ‘naturalism’
or ‘racism’ or laissez
faire economics except in an
historical context in which other persons, other intentional subjects, have put
forth and debated relevant issues. More basically, we cannot think as we do ‘in
language’ unless we have acquired a language, such as English. (See D. W. Smith
1999b on ‘background ideas’.) Cultural preconditions, then, define a distinct
region of the substrate of an act of consciousness. When philosophers like
Richard Rorty (1979) reduce consciousness to philosophical ‘conversations’
following Descartes, they restrict their view to the cultural substrate of our
philosophical self-consciousness. But there is more to consciousness than what
we say about it, even if our discourse shapes our awareness of our own
experience. The form and appearance of our experience is distinct from its
another kind of precondition of our human forms of intentionality is our
biological heritage. Here is where the evolutionary biologist’s point takes
hold. I quoted Edward O. Wilson (1998) earlier, where I intimated that in the
study of consciousness, physical and biological theory need to be developed in
relation to phenomenology and ontology. Consider the role of biological
evolution. The human organism--its nervous system, indeed its genome or overall
genetic footprint--evolved in the natural environment of the planet Earth, in
the planetary system of the star we call the sun, in this universe which has
developed over some 12 billion years since the Big Bang. These natural
conditions are preconditions for our forms of consciousness: for intentionality
in the form of visual perception (by two eyes two inches apart on the front of
a head), emotion (desire, fear, anger), cognition or thought (about water or
fire or Plato), or volition (to run, using two primate legs rather than two
differently-advantaged lizardly-aviary ‘legs’). Wilson is right that, in some sense, natural science will ‘explain’ mind, consciousness, even the
arts and humanities, even the natural sciences themselves as disciplines that
have evolved in human cultures in the blink of cosmic time here on Earth. And
philosophers such as Ruth Millikan (1984) and Daniel Dennett (1991, Chapter 7)
are right that, in some sense, intentionality and human consciousness
will be ‘explained’ by principles of biological evolution. However, these kinds
of studies of consciousness are limited to the biological substrate of consciousness. The intentional-subjective form and appearance of
consciousness must be ‘explained’ in different ways, in a phenomenological
ontology that observes the three facets of consciousness.
form and appearance of consciousness, featuring structures of intentionality,
are simply different from its substrate, physical and cultural. This was the
force of Husserl’s long argument in the Crisis (1935-38); I resituate the claim, however, in
terms of the three-facet distinction in categorial ontology. In recent
philosophy of mind, John Searle (1992) has sharply separated the irreducibly
subjective properties of consciousness and intentionality from their ‘background’
of neural capacities, arguing thus against the prevailing physical-computational
models of mind in cognitive science; again, I would resituate these differences
within the three-facet ontology.
I want to stress that the form and appearance of consciousness are to be studied in their own
right in phenomenology cum ontology, whereas the substrate of consciousness is to be studied in relevant disciplines in the
physical, neural, biological, and cultural sciences. Given the three-facet
distinction, we see what is wrong with the familiar ontological proposals in
recent philosophy of mind, from reductive to eliminative materialism, from
functionalism to computationalism to causal externalism to evolutionary
psychosociobiology. These ‘naturalistic’ theories are all looking for
intentionality, qualia, subjectivity in the wrong places, in parts of the
substrate of consciousness, rather than its form and appearance.
Ontology of Substrate
understand more clearly what counts as the substrate of consciousness, we need
to address the ontological structure of substrate in general.
entity, we assume, has a substrate, initially defined as its ‘foundation’ or ‘origin’.
But different entities may be founded or originated in very different ways, as
our examples showed, and this fact may distract us from the basic ontological
form involved. Fundamentally, the substrate of an entity consists of what it depends on for its existence, where A depends (ontologically) on B if and only if A could not
exist unless B existed. It is this notion of dependence that we must now look
Aristotle, a quality in a substance cannot exist apart from the substance.
Expanding on this notion, Husserl defined a dependent part as a part that
cannot exist outside the whole, so that the part ‘requires foundation’ by the
whole. But we need to separate part and dependence, as
something may be dependent on an entity of which it is not a part. Thus, from
Husserl’s complicated scheme, we may distill the following definition of dependence:
A depends or is founded on B if and only if A could not by essence exist
unless B exists, i.e., necessarily, by virtue of essence, A exists only if B
We can also say that A is grounded on B, or B is the/a ground of A. While Husserl often used the term ‘foundation’
(Fundierung) instead of ‘dependence’ (UnselbstŠndigkeit), I prefer to speak of dependence because the
term ‘founded’ suggests one-way dependence yet two things may each depend on
the other (neither could exist without the other).
are different kinds of dependence: physical, biological, cultural, etc. But, on
this analysis, the form of dependence is always the same: A could not exist
unless B existed. Husserl adds the qualification ‘by essence’, and Kit Fine
(1995) further explicates dependence in terms of his own conception of essence.
However, there are different kinds of conditions on which something can depend:
causal physical circumstances, evolutionary biological circumstances, social
cultural circumstances, etc. Moreover, there seem to be different kinds of ‘coulds’,
different modes of possibility or necessity: what is physically necessary,
biologically necessary, psychologically necessary, legally necessary, etc. On
the Husserl-Fine analysis, these differences may be attributed to essence: ‘necessarily,
if A has essence EA and B has
essence EB then A exists only if B
exists’. These details of essence and necessity lie beyond the scope of the
present study; for present purposes let us assume the basic account of
dependence as defined above. (Remember that Ôessence’ in Husserlian idiom means
what something is, not what it is necessarily or ‘essentially’.)
of the central problems of metaphysics involve ontological dependence. The in
re theory of universals holds, with Aristotle, that a quality can exist
only if instantiated in an individual (or ‘primary substance’). Causation may
be analyzed in terms of dependence, as: A is caused by B just in case A is
physically dependent on B, or it is causally necessary that if B occurs then A
occurs. Classical idealism holds with Berkeley, and realism denies, that
material objects depend on their being perceived or otherwise projected by
minds: that is to say, a material object, by its essence, can exist only if
perceived or otherwise intended in consciousness. Kant’s transcendenal idealism
holds that certain conceptual categories and certain forms of sensibility are
the ‘necessary conditions of the possibility’ of our knowledge of the empirical
world around us. I would reconstrue this epistemological claim in the idiom of
ontological foundation: our familiar forms of intentionality, or knowledge of
objects in the world around us, could not occur unless we had acquired or
inherited a certain repertoire of conceptual and sensory structures, that is,
our familiar forms of intentionality depend or are founded on these
conceptual-sensory structures. More recent philosophers--from Husserl (1913)
and Heidegger (1927, as interpreted in Dreyfus 1991) and Wittgenstein (1953) to
John Searle (1983, 1993)--have stressed the background social practices that
condition our experience. Searle posits a ‘background’ of acquired skills or
practical capacities (realized in neural structure) on which our intentional
states rest; as Searle puts it, these capacities ‘enable’ our intentional
states to represent what they do. I would explicate this enablement in the
idiom of ontological foundation: our intentional states could not represent or ‘intend’
what they do, our intentional relations could not obtain, unless these
capacities existed in our ‘background’. (Compare D. W. Smith 1989, Chapter VI,
influential view in recent philosophy of mind and cognitive science holds that
mental states are ‘supervenient’ on physical states of the brain (Davidson 1970
and Kim 1994, 1998). While supervenience has been variously defined, the issues
at stake are covariance and dependence: the mental varies with the physical so
that every mental state occurs along with an appropriate brain state and could
not occur unless such a brain state occurred. The core definition is, I think, best formulated
as a doctrine of ontological dependence: every mental state is said to depend
on some brain state in such a way that mental state types covary with physical
Lewis (1986) uses supervenience in the metaphysics of possible worlds. David
Armstrong (1997) holds that a state of affairs (that an individual has a
property or that two individuals stand in a relation) supervenes on its
constituents (the individuals and universals involved). But Armstrong holds that
supervenience brings into the world no new entities beyond those on which the
supervenient ride: supervenience offers an ‘ontological free lunch’, as
Armstrong has put it. Thus, a state of affairs would not be an entity
in addition to the individuals and universals of which it is composed. And if
mental activity supervenes on brain activity, there would be no new, distinctly
mental entities beyond the physical entities, the brain states, on which mind
supervenes. In the theory of ontological dependence outlined above, however,
there is no free lunch. It does not follow from the above definition of
dependence that A is not another entity beyond B. Quite to the contrary, in the
cases that concern us, A and B are distinct entities between which a relation
of dependence obtains, so that A can
exist only if B exists.
important but neglected form of dependence is one I discern in Alfred North
Whitehead’s ontology. In Whitehead’s Process
and Reality (1928), as commonly
interpreted, the Aristotelian notion of substance, or enduring material object,
is replaced by the notion of process (see Rescher 1996). However, Whitehead
himself distinguished what I would call ‘ontological’ becoming from temporal
becoming. Every actual entity, Whitehead maintains, is constituted by its
relations (of ‘prehension’) to other actual entities in its process of ‘becoming’,
or ‘concrescence’. But Whitehead distinguishes two types of ‘flux’: (a) the
temporal flux by which a new entity emerges from others in the ‘transition’ to
the novel entity, and (b) the ‘concrescence’ of one entity formed out of many
on which it depends. It is this latter notion I call ontological becoming. (See D. W. Smith 2000a.) Whitehead’s conception
of concrescence I want to cast as a very fundamental form of dependence: one
actual entity depends on a number of other entities in its existence, its ‘internal
constitution’. Indeed, the doctrine of logical atomism in Russell and
Wittgenstein affords another instance of ontological becoming: a state of
affairs is ‘logically’ formed out of individuals and properties or relations
they bear. This complex entity depends ontologically on its constituents. But
these are not like automobile parts, which are put together in a spatiotemporal
relation to make the whole. A state of affairs is rather put together by ‘logical’
relations of property-instantiation. Whitehead did not adopt Russell’s ‘logical’
atomism; instead, he elaborated an ‘atomism’ where entities are put together by
another kind of bond called ‘prehension’.
pace Whitehead, the ultimate substrate of any ‘actual’
entity or occasion, including an act of consciousness, is its ‘deep’
ontological structure. In this way phenomenological structure rests on
ontological structure. (This, on the model adumbrated in D. W. Smith 2000a).
Substrate of Consciousness
substrate of consciousness is that aspect of an act of consciousness which
consists not in how it is intentionally directed (its form), nor in how it
feels to its subject in inner awareness (its appearance), but in how it comes
to be, how it originates ontologically, how it depends or is founded
ontologically on various conditions in the surrounding world. In the normal
course of events, I could not see or think or will what I do, in a given act of
consciousness, unless certain background conditions obtained. That is, the act could
not be directed as it is--from subject through content to object, with an inner
awareness of the act built in--unless these background conditions obtained. The
substrate of the act consists in its dependence upon these background
conditions. This pattern of relations among the substrate, form, and appearance
of an act of consciousness may be depicted in the following diagram (where the
T-bar stands for ontological dependence and the three facets are given a
slightly different look):
F O R M
conditions |-- < subject--act--content ---------->
noted earlier, an act of consciousness may depend in different ways on a wide
variety of things in the world. But we seek order in this variety. It seems
that there are certain kinds of background conditions on which consciousness
depends in systematically different ways. Thus, I propose, the substrate of an
act divides into its patterns of dependence upon:
psychological or personal history of the subject, which conditions his or her
experience, making it more or less likely that she will see or think or feel or
do things as she does;
cultural context or social history of the subject, which conditions his or her
consciousness, affording her relevent concepts, values, and ‘forms of life’
neural activity in the subject’s brain, including processes of computation in
the neural network, which make possible this form of consciousness, and which
in turn depends on appropriate physical and chemical processes;
biological processes of evolution that allow the emergence of this form of
consciousness, which thus condition the consciousness in still another way, and
which in turn depend on the cosmological processes by which life itself
I believe these are the most basic, and
fundamentally different, realms of being on which consciousness depends, in
different ways. One might argue for a different organization of the substrate
of consciousness, but my aim is first to organize the nature of an act of
consciousness into form, appearance, and substrate, and then to look into the
organization of the substrate. In fact, the above division of substrate--into
psychological, cultural, neural, and evolutionary conditions of dependence--reflects
a fundamental division of labor among the disciplines that have studied mind
over the past century or two. Each of these four domains of study has developed
as a rich and even revolutionary field: psychology, from psychoanalysis to
cognitive science; cultural analysis, from social science to humanistic
critical theory; neuroscience, becoming its own science in recent decades;
evolutionary biology, again gaining salience in recent decades. If you will,
this fourfold division in the substrate of consciousness is simply a
classification of the chief empirical results, or ‘material ontologies’, in the
theory of mind. But these four areas in theory of mind are framed, here, by a
distinction in formal ontology: the three-facet structure of form, appearance,
and substrate, applying this structure to consciousness.
philosophy of mind in recent decades has divided into theories that stress
particular features of mind which I would systematize in the above division of
the substrate of consciousness. Various naturalistic theories, we noted, stress
causal, computational, neural, or biological conditions of those mental states
we experience as consciousness. Culturalistic theories stress the origins of
mental life in social conditions and human history. And psychologistic theories
stress the contingent psychological origins of experience, rather than (as
Husserl demanded) their meaning, or logically formed intentional content.
Phenomenological theories have, by contrast, distanced themselves here and
there from precisely these tendencies. Now, all these dialectical
cross-currents fall into place if we adopt a systematic
ontology of the nature of consciousness: first distinguishing its form,
appearance, and substrate, and then distinguishing these four regions of
dependence within its substrate.
diverse structure of the nature of mind comes into relief only as we look
systematically at form, appearance, and substrate. And the special roles of
ecological conditions of consciousness come to prominence only when we bring
out the role of ontological dependence in the substrate of consciousness. We
must not, then, identify the nature of consciousness with one of these
types of conditions in its substrate, with brain, or computational function, or
causal role, or cultural role, or evolutionary role. To depend on something,
even deeply and fundamentally, is not to be identical with it.
Return of Phenomenology
is indeed what makes the mind-body problem difficult, when we look to the
results of natural science--or indeed cultural theory. It is also what makes
life worth living and philosophy, since Descartes and Kant and Husserl, so
will not fully ‘understand’ consciousness until we see how it fits into the
structure of the world defined by quantum physics, evolutionary biology,
cultural history, and even cosmology. But our understanding of consciousness
must begin with our own experience, as Descartes began to see. Our
understanding will begin with the structure of consciousness analyzed in
phenomenology, and will go on to integrate the results of phenomenology with
those of natural science and cultural analysis in a unified world-picture
framed by basic ontology.
will elaborate (part of) the form of consciousness in the structure of
intentionality, and will detail the appearance of consciousness in
different forms of experience, including our inner awareness of experience.
These analyses of form and appearance will interweave with logic, mathematics,
computer science, and formal ontology, in analyses of forms of various things
including consciousness. This complex of analyses will ultimately tie into
analyses of the substrate of consciousness, comprising conditions under
which the extant forms of experience are realized, conditions mapped out by the
empirical natural sciences and the social or cultural sciences. And the
structure of the world in which consciousness and its empirical background
conditions obtain will be framed by basic formal ontology.
is hard about understanding consciousness is getting our mind around all these
different kinds of structure while keeping straight their differences. We do
this as we delimit phenomenology and its kindred ontology.
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