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Conscious Thoughts

Aware. Adjective. Having knowledge or perception of a situation or fact. (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1999)

Men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite. (Spinoza, Ethics, 1677a, I. Appendix, p.26)

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. (David Hume, 1737, Treatise of Human Nature, I.1.1, p. 7)

The most sophisticated meaning of the word conscious, in a dictionary of the English language,19 designates the capacity to have reflective thoughts, that is, to be able to perceive the existence of a thought. In this case, the dictionaries recommend the use of the term awareness. This meaning of the word conscious, in the sense of an intimate psychological capacity, appears around 1676, with some of Descartes’s students like Malebranche and Spinoza. Hobbes had announced this tendency when he writes that the French word conscience is about to lose its usual meaning: Afterwards, men made use of the same word metaphorically, for the knowledge of their own secret facts, and secret thoughts❠(Hobbes, 1651, I.7.31, p. 50). The idea of an intimate consciousness❠becomes generalized in the eighteenth century in the writings of popular authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, to designate immediate knowledge, more or less intuitive, of a thing inside or outside of oneself.20 Today, this meaning derived from the French word conscience dominates to the point that we have forgotten its original meaning. In the psychotherapeutic literature, there is yet another complication: Freud’s opposition between the conscious and the unconscious on the one hand, and the use of the term awareness in schools such as Gestalt therapy on the other hand.21 Awareness is then used to designate what Freud would call preconscious dynamics. One cannot be conscious, at a given moment, of more than a few items, but we are surrounded by events we could become aware of if we paid attention to them I may not realize that my fingers are taping rapidly on one of my knees, but if a person asks why I am moving my fingers in this way, I will immediately become aware of it. Or I may meet someone and not notice the color of this person’s eyes, as I was focusing on others aspects of his appearance. If somebody asks me if I noticed this person’s beautiful green eyes, I can then look again and notice them One can also learn to develop a finer perception by using awareness exercises.

After this semantic digression, I use, like everybody, the word conscious to designate the thoughts of Descartes and the bewusst of Freud; but I maintain a clear theoretical distinction between the inner consciousness of an individual and the communication between the consciousness of more than one individual. The relevance of this distinction is evident as soon as we take into account the fact that a thought constructed by two organisms is not of the same nature as a thought constructed in one.

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