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Consciousness and Co-consciousness

Our mind is nothing else than the sum of our inner experiences, than our ideation, feeling and willing collected to a unity in consciousness…. Conscious experience is immediate experience…. Our mental experiences are as they are presented to us. The distinction between appearance and reality necessary for the apprehension of the world without… ceases to have any meaning when applied to the apprehension of the thinking subject by himself. (Wilhelm Wundt, 1892, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, 30.V, p. 451f)

The term consciousness is today generally used to designate the human capacity to have impressions that one can explicitly perceive. This choice of term is problematic, as we shall now see. Some readers, for example, may have asked themselves why I did not just write that for Descartes thoughts are any conscious psychological phenomena. This definition is indeed adequate if one follows the twentieth-century English used in psychology. Yet taking this custom for granted would prevent us from perceiving several important issues and distinctions concerning conscious dynamics. For example, Descartes is often quoted as being the one who introduced the notion of consciousness in philosophy.13 To check this intellectual tradition, I downloaded all of Descartes’s work and searched for the term conscious. I thus discovered that Descartes uses the word only twice, in a particular way I discuss later on. Another important and related example is Freud’s work. He never uses the term consciousness because this word has no direct equivalent in German. The familiar association between Freud and the term unconscious has been introduced by English and French translators. Descartes and Freud use the same terminology: there are psychological events we know of❠(in German, bewusst) and others we do not know of’ (unbewusst). Yet as we shall see, in French, the term conscience exists. The first interesting point pertaining to this linguistic observation is that the general psychological vocabulary used in Freud’s day was probably more influenced by Descartes’s theory than is usually assumed. I am not talking of a direct influence, but of one that has implicitly engraved itself in cultural know-how. In the next sections, I show what theoretical issues can be highlighted by reconsidering how the term consciousness has been used and by differentiating the word from the phenomena that are presently labeled as conscious.

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