One of the most important discoveries about human consciousness was made in the early twentieth century by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was appalled at the state philosophy had got into, overgrown with Hegelian abstractions and subject to the relativism of “psychologism,” which argued that philosophical questions could be reduced to psychological ones, and was determined to make a fresh start. He wanted to clear away all the assumptions and presuppositions that had accreted around our experience of reality, inner and outer, and to begin anew. His battle cry was “To the things themselves!” What did Husserl mean by this?
Essentially Husserl meant a return to the phenomena of consciousness, the “things” we are conscious of, either in the world “outside” – trees, stars, other people – or the world “inside” – thoughts, images, ideas – although this very distinction between “inside” and “outside” was one of the presuppositions Husserl said we needed to “bracket.” This meant to temporarily put aside everything we think we know about reality, the world, and our relationship to it, in order to try to see it fresh, as if for the first time, and to describe what we saw.
Husserl developed a philosophical method of trying to see familiar things “anew”; he called it phenomenology. Phenomenology is fundamentally a study of the phenomena that present themselves to consciousness, in the way that they present themselves. So, if you were taking a class in phenomenology, the instructor would point to some object and say “Don’t tell me what that is, tell me what you see.” That is, your task as a phenomenologist is not to define something – which is saying what it is – but to describe it. Seeing things “fresh” and “anew” is the essence of poetry, and most poets are born phenomenologists, although they may not know it.
It was through this method that Husserl recognised something of utmost significance about consciousness. It is intentional. What does this mean? Husserl knew that an earlier philosopher, Franz Brentano, had pointed out that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Consciousness is the cognizing of a “something” by a someone, or to put it abstractly, it is the cognising of an object by a subject. There is consciousness (you) and what it is conscious of (whatever you are looking at or thinking of). A consciousness without an object would be rather like a mirror with nothing in front of it, that is, blank. (Of course this is a mirror in an ideally empty space.) There was, it seemed, no consciousness “in itself,” devoid of content, although certain Eastern ideas about consciousness deny that this is so. But putting aside such reservations, from this perspective, to be conscious of nothing would mean to be unconscious.
What struck Brentano as a logical necessity of consciousness impressed Husserl more profoundly. He discovered that not only is consciousness always consciousness of something, it is intentional. A mirror reflects what is put before it, and a reflection is always a reflection of something. But no mirror intends to reflect anything, it just does. What Husserl recognised was that if consciousness is like a mirror, it is a very odd mirror indeed, because it is a mirror that reaches out as it were to capture things to reflect.
In other words, Husserl saw that the logical necessity of consciousness having a subject and object was the abstract expression of an entirely more active arrangement. If consciousness – that is, our perceptions, either of the outer world or of our inner one – is intentional, then behind it there must be an “intender,” that which “intends” the object of consciousness. Consciousness was not like a mirror, passively reflecting a world that is already there and waiting to be reflected. It is instead more like an arrow shot at its target. And if it is an arrow, then there must be an archer, that which is making the intention.
But even the arrow metaphor falls short of describing the intentional character of our consciousness and our perception of the world. Our consciousness turns out to be more like a hand reaching out to grasp the world, rather than an arrow aimed at a target. But just as an arrow can hit the bullseye or miss the target entirely, our grasp of the world can be strong, weak, or no grasp at all.
This was an entirely different way of understanding consciousness than the one that had been dominant in western philosophy for centuries. We can say that the passive view of consciousness was established by the philosopher Descartes, a few centuries before Husserl. In an attempt to reach some bedrock certainty from which he could lay the foundation of knowledge, Descartes subjected everything he could to radical doubt. The one thing he could not be fooled about, Descartes concluded, was his own existence. He could be tricked about everything else, but not his own existence, because in order to be tricked, he had to exist.
With that settled, Descartes eventually concluded that there were two fundamental different kinds of “things,” what he called res cogitans and res extensa, that is, the mind and the sensory world, inner and outer. He couldn’t figure out how the two worked together and left that to God, and we have inherited this puzzle as the body/mind split. But he believed that our mind, our consciousness reflects the outer world as a mirror does what is in front of it. That is, the arrangement between inner and outer is passive.
Most philosophers following Descartes accepted this arrangement, and went even further to emphasize the passive character of consciousness. Descartes resorted to the notion of “innate ideas” in order to account for some knowledge that seemed to be inherent in the mind, that is, not learned. But the philosopher John Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas and claimed that the mind was tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” empty until something from outside made an impression on it. “There is nothing in the mind,” Locke declared “that was not first in the senses.” So in this view of consciousness, our minds are like empty flats until we go to Ikea and buy a lot of stuff to furnish them with.
Incidentally, it is from the “blank slate” view that we get the idea that “all men are created equal,” on which modern democracy is built. Equally blank, that is, there being no such thing as the “divine right of kings” as was once believed.
Husserl said this was not the case, although he had no interest in the divine right of kings. And although his view of consciousness is very different than theirs, he has some illustrious fellow travellers. Plato, for instance, believed that all knowledge was remembrance, and in the Meno Socrates demonstrates how an uneducated slave nonetheless possesses the fundamentals of mathematics. Not long after Husserl the psychologist C.G. Jung proposed what he called “archetypes,” a kind of inherited psychic stencil that consciousness places over raw experience in order to give it shape and form. There are other examples. The point is that there is a tradition in the west that rejects the “blank slate” view of human consciousness and argues instead that we come into the world bodily but not mentally naked. That is, our inner flats are already furnished with the propensity and equipment to reach out and embrace the world, if you will excuse a mixed metaphor.
Why is this important? In the “blank slate” view, we are the passive recipients of stimuli coming from outside. Without this stimuli, we would be inert, rather as an old candy or cigarette machine is inert until someone puts a coin in the slot and pulls the handle. The candy or cigarette machine will never dispense any of its wares by itself, because it “felt” like it. If it did start dispensing its goods without a coin being inserted, its owners would soon notice this and shut it down. We are rather in the same position. According to the “blank slate” view, we are absolutely dependent on forces outside to motivate us. We are, in effect, robots, or at least machines. What we experience as “free will” is really an illusion.
This is something behavioural psychology recognised long ago when it decided to forget trying to understand what was going on in people’s heads, and to concentrate on what they did, their behaviour. That is, what could be seen and measured. According to behavioural psychology, there is no need to posit any “consciousness” or “inner world” to account for how we act; besides, who has ever seen “consciousness”? All that was needed is to know what stimuli are stimulating us; from that they could predict every bit of behaviour. This was something that advertisers and politicians were very happy to discover. Years ago, the behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed that we forget about “freedom and dignity” and submit to conditioning in order to create a better society. His intentions may have been beneficent, but without freedom and dignity how much “better” could such a society be, made up of mindless individuals, all acting out the conditioning they have been subjected to?