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In English "consciousness" has several very different meanings: (1) the neuro-physiological state of not sleeping; (2) the neuro-physiological state of not being in a coma; (3) cognition; and (4) more specific definitions of (4), such as perception, what one's inner self introspects upon, self-awareness, etc. (to be thorough, one more definition might be mentioned: the mutual self-awareness of a collectivity, e.g., national consciousness, class consciousness). The problem with the word "consciousness," then, is just not its ambiguity, but rather its promiscuousness: it is pressed into service to describe neurological processes and subjective experiences that are strikingly disparate. Any work with "consciousness" in the title requires judicious attention to its usage.
Simeon Locke, a neurologist, tackles consciousness by dividing the book under review into 17 chapters, many of which consist of only several pages (the book itself, including the index, is 156 pages long). The very first sentence of this book notes that in any discussion of consciousness, we are confronted with three problems: (1) how to define it; (2) how to measure it; and (3) how to explain it. As for the first issue, Locke postulates "three levels of definition" that are "reflective of three states of consciousness." The first level is one of potential, ability, and readiness. This is intransitive consciousness, since it requires no object and can be measured physiologically and electrographically. The second level concerns registration of input and is transitive (i.e., conscious of something). Locke describes the final level in various ways: consciousness of consciousness, self-consciousness, conscious-awareness, and awareness of awareness.
Using these three levels, the author conflates and thereby confuses many different processes and phenomena. He seems to view consciousness as meaning wakefulness, perception, conception, and the subjective sense of self-reflexivity and self-existence. That is quite a conceptual burden for only one word to bear. The result? The book is peppered through and through with phrases such as "awareness without awareness"; "consciousness without awareness"; "awareness of which the organism is unaware" (called "fore-consciousness"; p. 7); "awareness can be conscious or can be unconscious" (p. 67); "unconscious awareness" (p. 88); "cortical consciousness" (p. 115); "unawareness of unawareness" (p. 89); "awareness without awareness of awareness—or consciousness of without consciousness of consciousness of" (sic; p. 122). We also learn that we can be consciousness but not aware, and a "denial of absent conscious awareness becomes an agnosia for an agnosia, or an absent awareness of an absent awareness—in other words, absent self-consciousness" (p. 106).
To be fair, the argument might be made that with enough intellectual effort, the individual reader can intuitively grasp what these expressions mean. However, these examples of strained phraseology illustrate the impoverishment of our psychological vocabulary.
To this reviewer this book brings up four issues. The first concerns reductionism. Locke is aware that it is always tempting to reduce consciousness (however that is defined) to the most elementary neuro-physiological processes. His precludes charges of such an unwelcome maneuver by describing consciousness as an emergent property, and in the Preface he writes that "many explanations are simply descriptions of an earlier stage of a process" (p. x; emphasis in original). However, consider Chapter 4 ("Where It Begins: Anatomy and Environment") in which the neuro-anatomical structures involved in consciousness are detailed (the descriptions are fairly technical, and here some diagrams would have helped). Chapter 5 ("Where It Began: Evolution") continues the neuro-physiological approach. But if Locke included in his discussion some sociocultural aspects implicated in consciousness then it would be more difficult to accuse him of reductionism. Note that the book's title includes the phrase "the Science of Being Human"; but surely being human, in relation to consciousness, involves more than just brain anatomy and neurons. What about cultural forces and technologies that configure and are configured by the human psyche? Are these not parts of the "Science of Being Human"? Related to non-biological understandings of human psychological experience is our historical development, but Locke assumes that subjective experience has been historically invariant. This is an unwarranted assumption, that if challenged, opens up routes to the richness, subtlety, and complexity of the human psyche, which is as much a product of sociocultural patterning as it is a function of neurology (oddly, Locke suggests that the task of providing a more complete explanation of consciousness falls on the shoulders of philosophers). And if consciousness is socioculturally as well as neurologically grounded, then Locke's opinion that animals may also have self-consciousness becomes untenable (p. 71).
The second issue concerns the purpose of consciousness (again, keeping in mind the problem of how it is defined). Locke writes that the function of the nervous system is to model "reality" (p. 114; another problematic term). Of course, this is true only in the most trivial way. What needs to be stressed is that the nervous system evolved not to reflect reality in any obvious one-to-one relationship. Rather, our neurology adapted to a very human "reality," i.e., the specific demands of navigating complex social interactions and rapidly changing techno-economics.
What about anomalous neuro-psychological phenomena? This is the third issue. Though Locke does give some attention to agnosias, like many writers on consciousness he ignores spirit possession, hypnosis, and sundry forms of trancing that fundamentally challenge our conventional understandings of cognition. He even dismisses the voices heard by schizophrenics as mere illusions rather than hallucinations (p. 50; technically, illusions are triggered by real environmental stimuli, while hallucinations occur without any actual perceptual experiences). This disbelief in hallucinations is not insignificant since it is a denial of ubiquitous and powerful experiences that have often shaped history (e.g., divinely possessed oracles, prophets, religious visionaries, Joan of Arc).
If there is one lesson that can be gleaned from Locke's book, it is that a careful examination of the linguistic tools we rely on to explore psychology is in order. This is the final issue. Rather than allowing conventional and inherited terms to shape our research agendas, we should question our language or at least qualify our terminology, since language usage causes conceptual straitjacketing. The evolution of terminology, after all, characterizes the history of the sciences, both natural and social. Without an appropriate development in terminology, the scientific applicability of certain concepts, such as consciousness, is stretched to the breaking point.
Chapter 3 ("This They Believe: Other Views"), the longest chapter, profitably critiques the arguments of major theorists on consciousness (J.R. Searle; D.C. Dennett; D.J. Chalmers; T. Honderich; F. Crick; C. Koch; Hobson; G.M. Edelman; and B. Libet). However, Locke's book is useful for illustrating the problems associated with the four aforementioned issues.
© 2008 Brian J. McVeigh
Brian J. McVeigh teaches in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Arizona. An anthropologist and Japan specialist, his latest book is The State Bearing Gifts: Deception and Disaffection in Japanese Higher Education. He is currently writing a book entitled The Propertied Self: Politics, Psychology, and Ownership in Global Perspective.
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