Why on earth is it so difficult to describe the Contents of my Consciousness?

The contents of consciousness are supposed to be what I am most directly aware of – they are the only things I know with certainty and perhaps the only things I really do know. Describing them should be the easiest possible task for anybody – all you need to do is to say what you are aware of and anything you don’t flag up is ex hypothesi irrelevant, since your failure to mention it indicates that it is not among the current contents of your consciousness. So, go ahead. Stop reading for a a minute and just jot down a list of the current contents of your consciousness.

If you try to do this, one problem you encounter is a worry about capturing everything (or indeed anything!): consciousness is this weird, fleeting thing – it never seems to stay still long enough to be captured! Some novelists have tried to capture the stream of consciousness, but even when we read their hard-to-understand narratives, we know that they are not really trying to capture literally everything that was going on in their character’s consciousness. This should give us pause for thought – if there is too much going on for us to capture it all, in what sense are we conscious of it all? How does this sense of an impossible-to-grasp reality relate to the philosopher’s talk of a series of ideas and impressions whose essence lies in their being clearly and distinctly perceived by us?

Another worry arises from the fear that any attempt to capture the contents of our own consciousness inevitably has a distorting impact. This seems a reasonable point. But again it is puzzling in terms of the model we tend to use in approaching this issue. If something is among the contents of my consciousness I must already be aware of it, so what does becoming more aware of it mean? Surely I am either conscious of something or not? Leaving that puzzle to one side, there does seem to be some truth in the idea that the attempt to observe our own consciousness modifies it – when I focus on the question of what can I currently hear, I become much more aware of the sounds around me. It seems tempting to say that not all the contents of my consciousness have my full attention and that when I do focus my attention on them, something sort of changes.

This may seem very trivial and unproblematic (we often hear a sound or catch sight of something and then listen or look more closely), but it is hard to represent this in terms of the content of consciousness model. How can something be among the contents of my consciousness and therefore something I am aware of even when I am not paying it any attention? How can some of the things that are present to my mind be as it were in the full brightness of my attention while others are in reasonable light, some in a twilight zone and others in almost complete darkness?

I have been writing this post in a fairly quite room, but through the open window some noises drift in from the street and others from the rest of the house. If I listen intently, I can differentiate between different noises, determine the direction they seem to be coming from, identify some of them fairly confidently and at least attempt to describe some of the others. Now what should I say about the auditory contents of my consciousness BEFORE I listened intently? Was I hearing the seven different sounds I was later able to differentiate or was I hearing some vague amalgam of them all? Was I consciously aware that one of the sounds was a passing airplane before I listen carefully and recognise it as such? Presumably not, but what should one say about the auditory content of my consciousness at that time – the experience was caused by the passing aircraft, but my awareness wasn’t of a passing aircraft (it only became that after more careful listening and reflection). It would seem that the “content of my consciousness” was an awareness of a passing aircraft minus the awareness of what it was – the same as my later experience, but simultaneously totally different. No wonder it is difficult to describe!

Let’s think a bit about visual rather than auditory experience. If someone rushes pass me so fast that I cannot recognise them, what visual experience do I have? The obvious way to capture my experience would be to say that it is like a blurred photograph. But how blurred was my impression? If I show you a lot of blurred photographs, you could rank them in order of blurriness - now could you put the visual impression you had into this sequence? And can you remember different visual impressions of fast-moving events that you would put at different places in the sequence? Here one might be tempted to say that in this sort of situation my visual impression is blurred but indeterminately blurred – this sounds good, but it is not clearly it really means anything!

Unfortunately, it’s not just perceptions of fast moving events that cause problems. Look at yourself in the mirror. Now examine the degree of similarity between your two eyebrows. You may well discover that they are not as similar as you might have expected (or hoped!). So in your very first visual impression were the eyebrows the same or different or was the visual impression of this barely moving object also blurred and if so, how blurred? Perhaps you will say that you cannot answer this question because that visual impression was a few minutes ago, so you have forgotten what it contained. But did you really know at the point you had it? And if you didn’t, are you now going to say that your visual impressions whose existence consists in being perceived by you have lots of features that you are unaware of and cannot describe?

So far the examples I have used refer to what philosophers (and nowadays lots of other people) call “sense data”. These are certainly the most popular and obvious candidates for being contents of consciousness and, although only an idiot (or a Wittgensteinian) might want to call this concept into question, it is striking that restricting the task of describing the contents of one’s consciousness to that of simply listing the sense data one is currently receiving does not make it that much easier. However, what about the other contents of consciousness – thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, etc? Each of these raise further puzzles – take thought as an example. If a thought of my sister is among the contents of my consciousness does that thought contain the idea that I am sorry she has had to work so hard recently or is that idea something that wasn’t originally in my consciousness but entered very quickly after the initial thought? If I think “I am glad my sister beat cancer” and I know that it was breast cancer she had, was “breast cancer” among the contents of my consciousness or not? It seems very hard to know how to answer these questions and yet we are supposed to be talking about the things I am most intimately acquainted with!

I won’t talk about beliefs, feelings, emotions or sensations but they too raise questions about the consciousness model that seems so self-evident to all of us and seems to be taken for granted in most philosophy of mind and most writing on psychological issues. For me, Wittgenstein calls that model into serious question and the aim of this post has been to suggest to those who didn’t originally question it that it is perhaps not as straightforward and self-evident as it might initially seem. Hopefully, in my next post I will talk a bit how a Wittgensteinian approach seeks to avoid some of these difficulties.


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