Is the experience of consciousness a universal one? If so, how could we ever prove this? When does consciousness begin, or end? These questions remain mostly unanswerable by the greatest minds in the fields of both philosophy and science, whilst their answers may hold the key to explaining the fundamental purpose of human existence. In Headcandy this week, we might not entirely explain the meaning of life; but will walk through some contemporary discussions of what consciousness is.
Consciousness as a concept is often understood as our perception of the external world around us. Our sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and mental activity are all components of what we call consciousness. We’re often not aware of our own consciousness and existence in the world – as we’re running for buses, wasting away in drapers, or just talking with friends; it’s rare to burst out of the usual bubble of experience in order to actually analyse it. This self-reflective study of consciousness, perception, and experience is known in philosophical terms as phenomenology. A key figure at the forefront of enquiry into human consciousness is Hegel, who is famed for the incomprehensibility of his work – ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.
Trying to coherently explain Hegel’s ‘phenomenology’ is like trying to get into the Sainsbury’s local opposite campus at lunchtime. It isn’t really possible. But, in basic terms, Hegel discusses the concept of consciousness in terms of two main categories: meaning and perception. Meaning, or ‘sense certainty’, for Hegel, is the way in which the human mind interprets and understands an object in the outside world. In order to grasp this fundamental acknowledgment of objects, our empirical sensory experience – sight, smell, touch, etc – allows us to gather data on the object, confirming its existence and meaning. Once meaning is acquired, Hegel argues, the element of perception comes into play. This works by contextualising the object in our mind through language. An example of meaning and perception at work would be as follows: You see, smell, and touch a round pastry-like object – you’ve gathered meaning that it is an object existing in the world. Then, you perceive and understand it through language by giving it a name – its a krispy kreme doughnut. Thus, for Hegel, these stages of meaning and perception grant us knowledge that is a necessary condition for consciousness.
This line of thought from Hegel revolutionised the Kantian discourse on consciousness, and ushered in renewed philosophical focus on what it means to be conscious. As Hegel profoundly states in the opening of Phenomenology of Spirit: “the spirit of man has broken with the old order of things”.
Undeniably, this barely brushes the surface of Hegel’s thought. But, hopefully this encourages you, in your everyday experience, to try and set aside a moment to consider how you view the world, and what it means to be conscious.
Mentioned today in Headcandy:
Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit.