Lesson 8.  Conscious Existence

  In a way, consciousness is always there, underlying thought.  Be it in the waking state or in the dreaming state, everything we experience is experienced in and by consciousness.  All our thoughts are located inside consciousness.  Consciousness is like a cinema screen on which the film of our existence is being projected.  It is always there in the background.  Therefore it is always nearby, it is so obvious an experience that it is difficult to define it.  As Pascal would have said, the word consciousness is so basic that wanting to define it only serves to obscure its meaning.  All existence is the object of our reflection inside the consciousness we have of it.


   Consciousness is the starting point of our definition of human being with respect to other forms of existence.  Man, it would seem, has the privilege of consciousness.  But of what consciousness?  Can consciousness have many forms?  What does it mean “to be conscious”? Must one consider consciousness a human attribute?  In order to define consciousness, is it enough to oppose Nature’s unconsciousness to human consciousness?  Would consciousness not rather be something pertaining to all things living?  Is consciousness a specific act or a knowledge existence would have of itself?


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A.  Consciousness, a mark of humanness.


    First of all, does being conscious mean to think, in the sense that man is a thinking being?  A classic approach to consciousness consists in considering it a mark of mankind and to oppose the status of human consciousness to the realm of things or the realm of animals.  In what way does being conscious distinguish man from animal?  What is so specific about human consciousness? 


To answer this question we might begin with recognising in Nature several degrees among the various forms of existence.  Based upon ordinary experience we can distinguish four degrees in Nature:


    1° Minerals merely exist as such in a certain structure.  We would find it a little difficult to allege that they would have any sort of awareness.  The stone has its given shape, which it sustains against the work of erosion; its existence in this form appears inert to us and lacking consciousness.  I don’t detect in it the tremor of a life.  I cannot communicate with it.  For me, a vigilant observer, it is a mere object.  A thing, that’s all.


    2° Plants, on the other hand, exist and feel; they contain a kind of vegÉtative life in the sense that we do not detect in them any principle of motion.  Nevertheless it has been shown that plants are not insensitive, particularly to sounds in their surrounding.  Something manifests in plants and not in minerals, and this thing is life.  Yet does this allow us to speak of consciousness?  How can this basic degree of sensitivity be defined with respect to human consciousness?


    3° Animals exist, feel and know things; they have some memory and can work out a few very elementary connections.  Their cleverness or their sociability can be astonishing. It is hard not to credit them with some degree of consciousness.  Not a human consciousness that is.  If animals have consciousness, then it is ruled by basic needs and conditioned by instinct. 


    4° Man exists, feels, knows and, should we say, above all, knows that he knows.  Man expresses all degrees of consciousness; in addition human consciousness is doubled by self-reflection. If consciousness is cum (with) scientia (science), then consciousness is indeed specific to humans.  It is because it is a knowledge characterised by knowing itself that one identifies it by extension with consciousness.  Man is not only conscious in the sense that an animal is conscious; he has an idea of himself, he knows himself through a representation of himself which he construes with concepts and he knows himself by means of concepts.  The concept is the general idea and the representation is the web fabricated with the concepts.


      Yet what does it mean to know your self through consciousness?  Is it thinking that distinguishes man from the rest of creation?  The idea of a gulf between man and Nature, as a result of the emergence of thinking, is very prevalent in Western culture.  For Pascal, consciousness is the equivalent of thinking (la pensée), which shows us the limits of our existence: “The greatness of man is great because he knows himself to be miserable.  A tree has no knowledge of being miserable”.  A tree can form no idea of what it is, it is content with merely existing.  A man sees himself and therefore measures himself, first of all with respect to his body; realising his bodily limitations, he discovers his own finitude, hence his misery.  Without an idea of finitude, man would have no awareness of finitude; then man would not feel miserable in a universe which surpasses him in all respects.  Yet, paradoxically, the knowledge that reveals misery is itself greatness.  “Thinking makes the greatness of man”.  Hence this paradox sheds a light on the ambiguity of thinking: thinking at once takes the mind out of the inertness of an existence in ignorance, and throws it into the limits traced by its own representations.  Man is his own thoughts.  “I have no difficulty conceiving of a man lacking both hands, feet, head… but I cannot conceive of a man without thoughts: it would be a stone or a brute.”  Facing a nature which seems unconscious – according to this interprÉtation of Nature – man has the privilege of consciousness and must therefore know to make use of it.  If our condition condemns us to thinking, then we are also condemned to rise by means of that very thinking, and for that very reason: “All our dignity therefore consists in thinking”.  Conversely we ought to add that our lack of dignity is also in thinking.  Our existence is nothing other than what our thinking will have produced.  I am my thinking and my thinking makes me what I am.  We could retain this idea as one of Pascal’s most important ones: that the essence of man is his thinking.


      In this analysis man is radically opposed to Nature.  Since we do not find in Nature creatures that, like ourselves, would of their own ability be inclined to gain knowledge, we conclude to a brutal opposition between man and Nature.  Man exists aware of himself, while Nature is content to exist without self-awareness.


      Thus we can, along with Hegel, oppose immediate existence to mediate existence.  Plants or animals exist in themselves, immediately as a single block, because they have no representation of what they are.  As mind man has in himself two degrees, he exists doubly.  He exists and he knows that he exists through representing himself in some manner; he beholds himself, he exists for-himself.  Things only exist in-themselves.  Existence in-itself is immediate and non-reflected, while existence for-oneself is mediated and reflected.  Therefore when one comes across a conscience in Nature other than man, then it will be of the immediate sort. Were it reflected, it would be so in a language using concepts.  I could then discuss with my dog and he would be able to answer me!  Immediate thinking however remains at the level of feeling, images or memories, it has not yet been conceptualised; it is immersed in and not yet distinct from Being.  It is not yet reflected, able to become aware of itself.  Hegel does not consider that there might be at the heart of Being an original self-awareness.  He considers self-awareness to be a by-product. 


   Thus Hegel calls self-awareness the formation of a consciousness, which, referring back to itself, makes possible a knowledge of oneself based on immediate awareness.  This can take place on a theoretical level in the sense that man, through introspection, attempts to describe himself, and detects within himself the meanderings of the human heart. He discovers that he is a subject and what subjectivity means. Self-awareness however is also formed through practical activity, since when man transforms the world of objects he introduces into it something of himself and hence recognizes himself in his doing.  When I move into a new room, I turn this at first alien place into my own interior.  I taint it with my own consciousness.  Thus interiority envelops exteriority and changes it in its own image.  Man’s interiority (the for-itself, position of the thesis) etches its stamp on his exteriority (the in-itself, position of the antithesis) and the result contributes to the formation of self-awareness (position of the synthesis).  Here, in the formative process of self-awareness, we see an illustration of Hegel’s dialectics; this is a highly systematic way of exposition, a logical process following the mediation of the three terms thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  Self-awareness is here the same thing as self-knowledge.  It is a result of the process of reflecting on oneself within the framework of temporality.  This process is a very gradual genesis, a mediation starting out from immediateness.  This genesis begins very early since Hegel himself says that “the little boy throwing pebbles into the water and admiring the rings formed on the surface, is in fact admiring a work in which he enjoys to watch his own activity.”  To consider an act in this self-referral manner shows that the ego is already full-grown and has placed itself at the centre of its world or of a world it intends to appropriate.  Self-awareness is in the making.


   Does this mean that it is late when man’s child gains a sense of self?  Yes, and one could verify this experimentally.  A child does not start out saying “me, me”.  At the stage when he moves indifferently and without attachment from one activity to the next, he is not in the position of an ego centred on itself.  At this stage he refers to himself in the third person, using “he” or his first name.  His identity is not yet established, his consciousness is as yet undifferentiated.  The ego is not yet present.  However there is already an I, the child speaks already.  This means that there is within him a thinking activity, which has begun to discriminate things, to name them, without for this reason positing himself at the centre as a sovereign self.  As Kant says with much lucidity: “the child that already knows how to speak fairly correctly, begins only later (maybe a year later) to say I; before this he speaks of himself in the third person (Charles wants to eat, walk etc…); and it would seem that for him a light has suddenly been lit when he starts saying I; from that day onwards, he never reverts to his former manner of speaking.  Before he only felt himself, now he is thinking himself”.  Effectively, in feeling there is immediacy, the immediacy of sensation and sentiment.  In thinking on the contrary there is a representation of the self, one that weaves a form and yields an identity.  The idea of the self arises against an undifferentiated background, according to the way in which the child situates itself.  The child’s early thoughts sow the first seeds of duality, opposing what is mine to what isn’t, distinguishing between self and others and with this one the comparison with others.  It is at this stage that the total break with the immanence of the little human animal takes place, the child becomes aware that he is an ego, a person, in the sense that he is a unique person who stays the same through time, and therefore identical with himself. 


      The passage from childhood to manhood mimics, in a progressive genesis, the structural distinction which separates the different realms of Nature and particularly the separation between animal and man.  At first the child, in the manner of all animals, is one with Nature; he makes a break through opposing his own self to what is not his own self.  Here we get a clearer picture of what constitutes the specificity of human consciousness, the arising of a duality of the subject (the self) and the object (the non-self); this because it is this duality that the awareness of the ego is gradually built up.  You do not find self-awareness in animals.  Mostly animals put their collective consciousness (the herd, the tribe, the hive) before their individual consciousness; the animal is only dimly aware of himself and his consciousness is unable to form a representation of its own existence.  In this meaning, he exists, but he doesn’t know that he does.  As soon as his sense of self forms, then too the I emerges through defining itself.  It crystallizes into somebody.



B. Approaching the field of consciousness.



   To be conscious is to be a conscious subject.  But it also means being awake and experiencing something.  Let’s try to clarify what actual experiencing is.  This will help us see what a fact of consciousness is.


    “I am aware” is an expression which in one stroke refers to a collection of events that appear in the field of consciousness.  I am aware implies that I perceive the light outdoor, the noise in the room, a thought crossing my mind, a tummy-ache, a desire and so on.  Everything presenting itself to me in this way is an experience of my consciousness.  The apparition of an experience is similar to light shed on an object, a luminous spot which would symbolise the light of Consciousness.  Understood in this way, the field of consciousness has many features.  First of all it has boundaries, since I cannot be aware of everything.  It is relative to my looking at this or that object worthy of my attention.  I pay no attention to what does not interest me.  I feel I am its owner since it is where my experience is written.  A field also has its own geological structure, and in the same way the field of my consciousness contains strata relative to my past experience.  From here we can study the characteristics of conscious experience. 


    1)  To better understand the characteristics of conscious experience, we shall begin with considering the most important property of consciousness: all consciousness is intentional.  One calls intentionality the property of consciousness such that it always presents itself to us, when we are vigilant, as consciousness-of-something, that is directed towards an object which is its intentional design (goal, purpose).  The vigilant subject takes its structure from its relation to its object.  In perception I am conscious-of this door slamming, this cloud in the sky.  When desiring, I am conscious-of what I desire.  When imagining, dreaming, my consciousness becomes an awareness of images.  In love my feelings are directed towards the object of my love.  When judging, my consciousness becomes consciousness of judgement and so on.  In other words, any experience had in vigilance is a consciousness pointing at an object.  It follows in particular that man always thinks of himself from the standpoint of his motivations, in connection with a kind of finality with respect to the goal he seeks; it also follows that we judge others according to their intentions upon acting.  Phenomenology describes consciousness with this discovery as its starting point, intentionality being its central thesis.  In experience Husserl distinguishes the ego cogito, the thinker, the conscious subject, from the cogitatum, what is being thought, the object of consciousness.  “States of consciousness are referred to as intentional.  The word ‘intentionality’ means nothing other than this fundamental and general property of consciousness to be consciousness of something, to carry, as cogito, its cogitatum in itself”.[1] Subject and object form a totality which is thus given at the same time in the experience of vigilance.  A duality is there which structures experience.  When underlining the duality one finds in intentionality one says that consciousness is an ek-stasis in direction of the World.  Indeed, to be conscious of something takes me out of myself and pulls me towards the object.  Vigilant consciousness is naturally extrovert.


    2)  Conscious experience is also characterised by immediacy.   When I am afraid, there is no distance between myself and fear, I am immediately aware of my experience; that is experience is given without a distance.  I do not need to deduce what it is I am aware of, since it is immediately there. On the contrary, to admit of unconscious phenomena, one has to use deduction and say for instance that the nervous manners of this speaker stem from his unconscious.  One can never observe the unconscious; one only observes what is given in consciousness.  The unconscious cannot enter the domain of consciousness, it is hidden, or else it would not be unconscious.  Our immediate experience is always conscious, or pertains to the field of consciousness.  The immediacy of experience also explains the painful character of feelings.  When I am sad, my sadness is wholly there in my experience, there is no distance between myself and my sadness.  Affectivity takes place in this direct relation of oneself to oneself that consciousness carries within itself in the immediacy of its experiences.


    3)  Not only that, but experiences are also characterised by inwardness.  Here the word ‘inward’ could not be understood in a purely spatial sense.  When we say that experiences take place inside, we mean that they are always marked by the seal of a Presence to itself of consciousness.  An experience is real for us only because it constitutes, together with our other experiences, the stream of inner life.  This inwardness easily allows us to situate ourselves with respect to things in the world.  Things appear to exist in a manner that does not admit of this interiority which constitutes a conscious subject.  In interiority our relation to ourselves is established, namely intimacy.  Our inner stream of experiences can have greater or lesser density, greater or lesser emptiness, according to the degree of presence or absence to itself of the subject. 


    4)  Experience is characterised by subjectivity. This word must not be mixed up with the previous term.  We say that experience is subjective.  This means that it cannot be observed by witnesses from outside.  Had that been the case, we would be in the exact situation of objectivity, the very one science is looking for in shared experiences.  Experience has this unique characteristic that it is originally given to one person only.  Peter and Paul may both state that the sky is red, but Peter cannot enter Paul’s consciousness to see what he experiences and vice versa.  Common sense, under the influence of scientific tradition, uses the word “subjective” not without suspicion as regards the content of experience.  “All this is rather subjective…”.  This negative seal, this suspicion towards subjectivity is rather characteristic of our scientific knowledge which gives precedence to objectivity, that which can be observed, measured.  Yet, even if our knowledge gives precedence to objectivity, as subjects, we are subjectivity. Life is subjective, as are all the qualities given in experience.


    5)  The subjectivity of experience also implies personality.  We say that experience is subjective, meaning that it takes place as a personal history, and contributes to construe the identity of the conscious subject.  Ordinary language easily distinguishes between what is “personal” and what isn’t.  In what is personal there is a tight and intimate connection between the ego and certain things, which are like the bricks building the personality.  The word personality by extension refers to the complex structure of the conscious subject, the psychological structure that characterizes individual identity.  It is of its own nature that experience becomes part of the history of an individual; in a way all experience appears in the field of consciousness and, far from being anonymous or impersonal, is marked with the seal of the ego.


    6)  The experience that takes place is marked by temporality.  Thinking is not a fixed thing, but an extremely rapid and mobile flow.  Vigilance is a stream of consciousness in which experience keeps transforming itself to take on different aspects.  It would be impossible to reconstitute the innumerable ideas, images and perceptions following one another in us in the course of just a few minutes.  Our thinking is often agitated and concentration is not our most frequent state.  In vigilance, restlessness constantly tosses us about, and this way it generates thoughts.  Contemporary philosophy acknowledges this fact, while insisting on the temporality which is immanent to the field of consciousness.  Experience takes place inside psychological time and we always exist with respect to time.  This means above all that change is not an appendix to consciousness, something added from outside: the self is in the making, because our thoughts and experiences all take place within us in time.  The subjective modes of desire and of passion are temporal.  There could not be a vigilant consciousness without a preservation of the past in the form of memory.  Perception and memory can not be separated.  Neither could there be consciousness without a push towards the future in the form of a project.  And neither could there be consciousness without the possibility of one’s attention being put on the present.


    7)  The field of consciousness does not confine itself to being a screen facing a hallucinating consciousness, projected on the screen, thrown towards the objects.  In vigilance I am aware-of-something, but I also retain the possibility of detachment from this or that object; there is in consciousness’ witness the essential aspect of being available.  Not only is all awareness awareness-of-something, but at the same time, all awareness is also self-awareness.  Attention is the ability of consciousness to transit from one object to the next, without consciousness ever being able to really stick to any one object.  Voluntary attention is called concentration.  Involuntary attention is proper to a floating quality of consciousness, which entails that one allows oneself to be caught up by an object.  For instance if a pleasant music reaches my hearing, and if I am not entirely absorbed by what I am doing, then my attention will be drawn.  We then say that the field of consciousness is optional.  There we find the origin of consciousness’ freedom with respect to the objects of the world, the flame of attention.  Consciousness is consciousness-of-itself and at the same time consciousness of something; this means that it is originally a Presence belonging to itself.  It is not just drawn to the objects.


C. Vigilance and Lucidity


      We have just located some of the important characteristics of the field of consciousness that allow us to clarify the meaning of our original question.  To be conscious, according to our own everyday experience, is to be vigilant; and to vigilance pertains all the qualities which we have just considered.  If being conscious is to be vigilant, then what exactly is vigilance?


     1)  Vigilance is the waking state’s essential attribute.  The waking state must be understood with respect to two other relative states of consciousness, which are sleeping and dreaming.  Let’s consider the moment when we fall asleep.  To begin with, our awareness continues to busy itself with the surrounding world, with its noise, its scents, its contacts.  The world is then the place which draws our attention, and therefore towards which our awareness is directed.  By falling asleep, our relation to the outside world changes, as does our relation to our body.  While our muscles shiver, our body relaxes and bouts of images occur to us.  We lose sight of the World and dreaming begins.  Consciousness is still intentional, but now it makes its way towards the fictive realm of dreaming, from being conscious of things it becomes conscious of images, while remaining conscious-of-something.  What is striking is that the activity of thinking continues in the absence of a subject who would be aware of the world, that is, in a state of unconsciousness.  This is a lesson we must retain on the nature of awakening:  awakening is not related to thinking activity.  It is precisely at the moment when thinking gets at its most active, and even unbridled, that we are most deeply sunk into unconsciousness.  Agitated thinking does not mean a lucid consciousness, quite the contrary.  Contrarily to a commonly held opinion, to be intensely awake does not mean “thinking a lot”.  On the contrary, it means allowing oneself not to be distracted by useless thoughts which would alter the Presence and our own presence on the level of perception.


   Yet in sleep the collapse of vigilance is even deeper than in dreaming.  Throughout the night in a cyclic manner we sink into a deep drowsiness, which will allow the body to regenerate; that is we sink into deep sleep, which is void of thoughts.  If awakened in this state, we feel very heavy and passably thick.  One must always complete the cycle of sleep.  This torpor from deep sleep teaches us something else as well: in this state, the self disappears.  The sense of self can only appear if a thought manifests; in the absence of thought, there is no sense of self.  This means that the sense of self does not exist in any durable way.  Stranger still, we find that this state is rather pleasant, it is the one in which we are most peaceful and relaxed.  Even an unprepossessing face recovers a certain beauty when asleep, which it owes to the calm of sleeping awareness.  Thus we say “I have slept like the blessed”.  Here is yet another idea we shall have to come back to: the self spends its time awake searching for happiness in the objects of the senses, and oddly it is precisely when the sense of self vanishes that there is a blissful appeasement.  In addition, if thought is thus abolished every night, this means that consciousness is not always intentional.  Consciousness regularly returns to a non-intentional form, withdrawn into itself and without thoughts. 


    2)  When vigilance gets established on exiting sleep, intentionality once more unfolds and consciousness is once more consciousness-of-something.  It comes out of itself, of its intimate rÊtreat into sleep, and is flung into the network of the world, this web its weaves with all its world-oriented thoughts.  We call the natural attitude the manner in which consciousness finds itself in this state.


      We know what vigilance is in this state.  It is a kind of alertness in front of peril.  One has told us time and again “be vigilant!” and this mean “take heed”, and this exhortation is how we normally understand vigilance: a kind of warning which refers to our responsibilities.  So to someone asking us: “what does it mean to be conscious?” we would naturally answer:  to beware, to be careful, to mind our responsibilities, not to be unconscious and make mistakes or idiocies.  This implies that in the waking state, awareness is from the beginning a moral awareness, that the sense of duality in which we live is immediately interpreted in terms of good and evil.


      Vigilance is consequently the very ek-static condition of consciousness, because in vigilance consciousness is pulled out of itself towards the world.  By coming into vigilance, consciousness takes up the position of the natural attitude; it then tends to posit reality in external objects.  In vigilance I feel thrown into a world which precedes me, which is not mine, a world in which I must find my way and my place.  This world immediately creates a tense tangle of musts.  “I must be careful”, “I must do this…I must not do that” and so on.  I feel responsible with respect to the world, put in the position of a watchman because I am vigilant.  My wakefulness is also watchfulness.  We should note here that the word vigilance is itself understood as a call to order, as if there were a constant need for a spur to maintain the vigilance of consciousness, lest it fall asleep.


      Consequently the nature of vigilance is rather consciousness-of-something than a consciousness-of-oneself.   Effectively it pertains to vigilance to pull consciousness towards a world in which I lose sight of what I am.  What matters is the call of all our musts to order directed at the world.  The result is that in vigilance, I forget myself in favour of the world.  Vigilance tends to peg consciousness to the world.  It is not enough to “be conscious” in order to know oneself, since consciousness spontaneously pulls us out towards the world.  Watchful tension also narrows the field of consciousness.  In fact, when one mimics the attitude of someone on the alert on spontaneously adopts the posture of someone on the look-out for possible enemies, one frowns as if in effort, and consciousness is reduced to the object of its worry.  It is no longer spontaneously aware of itself, but thrown beyond itself, stuck at the level of object-awareness.


    3)  Is this the only form of consciousness at our disposal?  Is it possible to be at once vigilant and self-aware?  Perhaps the harassment of vigilance is not the highest form of consciousness?  Let’s suppose for a moment that our attention remains fully awake, yet without tension.  Not vigilance in the ordinary sense of the word, but a passive vigilance, which is neither an alertness on pins and needles nor at the other extreme a semi-stupor, a dozing consciousness.  There exists a state beyond vigilance in which consciousness finds a balance, a state we call lucidity.  Lucidity is a waking state in which the attention is fully alive, a calm, present and relaxed attitude.  It emerges when the attention, instead of being swallowed up by the external, becomes simultaneously aware of both the external and the internal.  The lucid awareness is like a lantern on the threshold of a house, at once aware of the exterior and the interior, it is consciousness in the position of a witness.  This is the state we refer to as lucidity.  It is a constant observation which is sustained in the midst of a feeling of being.  It is consciousness placed in freedom and openness, without presuppositions; it is consciousness welcoming its perception of now. If vigilance is above all looking out, lucidity is at once looking out and looking in.  Lucid awareness does not rÊtreat inwards, a slip into sleeping unconsciousness.  Neither does it fall out into the world and the oblivion of feverish activity.  It is wholly itself all throughout activity.  In this state consciousness, having turned into a witness, carefully observes all that takes place.  An external event, an emerging thought, a worry, are immediately noticed.  A full attention to the present experience allows one to see what this thought is actually bringing, its background.  Also, in action lucid awareness involves the agent unreservedly, without allowing him to slip away.  Hence he gives to each thing its due share of attention and does nothing carelessly.  If I am walking in the wood and that my mind is elsewhere then there is a risk I stumble on a branch.  I miss out on the pleasure of walking and on the feeling of being in the wood, I am elsewhere and not really here.  I am lost in my thoughts, I am split, I am not really present, while lucidity implies investing oneself into each moment without shying away; it is one with the Presence which gives life to the present.


   When lucid, the intellect is identified with seeing, it becomes the act of seeing, it becomes a witness to what is taking place inside the field of consciousness.  It acquires the position of an observer.  In this state of restful alertness the mind is particularly lively and intelligent.  Lucidity allows one not only to discover all the diversity of changing experience, but it also enables one to see the complexity of the self, how quickly the mind takes on a different shape as it wraps itself now in one thought, now in another.  It also has us welcoming other people’s presence without prejudice, it makes us receptive. It is in this open state that I may experience arrogance, shyness, grace, affection, and also aggressiveness, stupidity, equivocation and so on, anything that can present itself to lucid seeing.  So far we have paid very little attention to what other people have expressed.  Carried away by daily vigilance into the sea of our concerns, we end up with only a skin-deep idea of other people since these are mostly judged with respect to their momentary usefulness to ourselves.  Could we only put the tension of vigilance within brackets, while preserving the same degree of self-awareness, we would also be able to listen to what other people’s presence is trying to express.  Only a wide and profound consciousness could teach this, and not the narrow and limited consciousness we experience in vigilance.  Then it is necessary that consciousness maintains this state in which its vision is directed both inwards and outwards.



   Nevertheless, when we say that vigilance is the condition of man in the world, the ek-static condition of consciousness, it does not follow that man’s thinking would be as confused as an animal’s.  In man it is reflection which through and through structures vigilance, and not mere thinking activity.  Reflection involves me in the world through my projects, my desires, my expectations, my fears, prejudice and so on.  When we say of someone that he is thoughtless this means only that he does not make an intelligent use of his own thinking capacity.  It does not mean that he doesn’t think, that he does not have a certain representation of the world.  The world of my vigilance is the one I represent to myself, it is my world.  Is vigilant thinking genuinely “immediate”?  No.  It is permanently influenced by the mediation of the natural attitude.  Becoming vigilant, I posit the relation of subject/object, I posit that I stand face to face with a real world, I think within the framework of a very sharp object/subject duality, that which draws the line between myself and others.  Conceiving of a reality outside the self is typical and natural of thinking in the waking state. 


   Hence we need mind our wording when affirming that philosophy must take us from the level of immediacy and thoughtlessness to that of a mediate reflection.  Common sense is far from being altogether immediate!  Were it so, it would be void of prejudice; in reality, beyond any philosophical culture, common sense rests on all the presuppositions of spontaneous attitude.  This is why it is difficult to pretend that vigilance presents us with “the immediate data of consciousness”, because what we believe to be given without mediation is in fact already mediated.  Thus when I think of myself as thrown into a world which precedes me, I uncritically accept as a starting point a state which is in fact the result of vigilance.  In reality, in my waking state representation of the world I have construed it as external, in front of me and real.  I have also construed myself as one with my body which has a place in this world.  This construction does not take place in the sleeping state and it is different in the dreaming.


   Husserl calls transcendental attitude the position of the philosopher who puts the natural attitude within brackets, in order to examine its suggestions, and in order to describe how consciousness construes its object.  He calls this attitude that of the impartial witness.  We shall call vigilance the natural attitude and lucidity the transcendental attitude.  We shall say that in fact the access to the transcendental attitude is via lucidity beyond vigilance. Where then is the difference between a being who is conscious in vigilance and one who is conscious in lucidity?  Let’s say that lucidity is a unified consciousness, while vigilance is a consciousness marked by duality.  Lucidity does not mean that one judges, rates, condemns or approves.  It is simply a matter of seeing, seeing what is there.  This is being lucid.  This is the penetrating vision, or insight.  Presence has its own language and this language says that which is.  For instance other people express what they are, especially when they do not control themselves or try to “make a good impression”.  If our inner core is quiet, then it is this Presence which will be speaking to us.  This impartial observation that does not judge is lucidity.  It is easier at first to exert it with respect to Nature, since we already look upon Nature without condemning it, then we can look at man and finally at ourselves in this way.  All things can be observed with a free and loving eye, with an eye that has not already decided what should be there, but which merely wonders at the world it is little by little discovering.  This does not imply a distance from facts.  It implies receiving the presence of that which is.  Lucidity is a “constant observation of everything, of every thought, feeling, action, as and when they arise”.


   Our way of looking at things is mostly very different from the lucid way of looking at the same things.  Our prejudiced approach to things and beings acts as blinkers.   We do not pay attention to ourselves, we only see what is of interest to us, and we are as distracted away from our self as we are fascinated by the object.   When peril peaks, our vigilance is sharpest, yet only with respect to a specific object and not in a wide and total manner.  We only rarely reach this state of observation in which we are fully aware of what is going on within us and around us.  In addition, most of the time we are not even entirely vigilant, but slip into a sort of drowsiness using all kinds of strategies of flight and compensation.  We find no opportunity to raise our vigilance to the level of lucidity, one in which the self-awareness of a witness is at last achieved.  However it is possible to apply one’s attention to daily life and to become more aware of what we are, and at the same time be conscious of the experiential situation in which we are.  This is a fascinating study area and also entirely new, it is the field of knowledge of the self.


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    We have given an answer to our question:  what does it mean to be conscious?  Lucidity is doubtlessly a human privilege.  To be conscious, in the highest sense of this term, means to be lucid.  In the sense of vigilance, it means to look at the world carefully.  Man has a vocation: to live in full awareness of the self.  It is his birthright to live in full awareness.  The maturity of self-awareness is the other aspect of being fully present to the world. 


    In fact to say that man is “thought” is not enough.  It is not mere thinking which raises us above the status of animals, and thinking is not wakefulness.  It is self-awareness which is the elevation specific to mankind.  Man is by nature able to reflect a high value of consciousness.  He is not destined to live within the narrow frame of vigilance (ordinary human life), and even less so at the different unconscious levels beneath consciousness (the life of an animal or a plant).


    Yet this answer is so paradoxical that it creates almost more problems than it resolves!  It forces us to be more specific as to what should be understood by self-awareness.  It requires us to say what self-awareness’ specific identity consists in.  Also, we do not know if thought is a simple, and not a composite, phenomenon.  We would need to show to what extent thinking actually belongs to us and examine if in fact it is really ours.


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   Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm


[1] Latin : cogito, from the verb cogere, to think.  Cogito is the first person singular in the present of this verb and therefore means I think. Cogitatum is the noun derived from the verb cogere and means that which is thought.  Hence, Descartes and Husserl speak of cogito and cogitatum to indicate that consciousness is always someone who is thinks – it has no, as it were, independent existence – and it is also always someone thinking of something.  One cannot think without thinking of something (try and see!).  Hence consciousness is always some cogito’s cogitatum (or more simply, the idea of something in somebody’s mind).