The Philosophy of Consciousness: Method, Intelligence, Reality and Performance

By David Oyler

The Present, Phoenix, Arizona



Our first model of reality and consciousness is not really a model since it is natural and implicit. We do not question it until we are older. We simply live it. And that is the orientation of extroverted consciousness. Our initial world is the world of immediacy. It is the already out there now; what we can touch, see, hear, smell and taste. Gradually we are introduced to the mediated world, the world mediated by meaning, as we learn language and come to understand that things exist when I cannot sense them as well as when I can sense them. But the world, with the exception of myself is external to me. Many philosophers of mind retain vestiges of this model in their theories of consciousness. But to understand consciousness we need to get beyond it. We can provide an indication of its limitations by providing sketch of consciousness. The barest notion of consciousness is abstract. It is what conscious operations have in common. So seeing, hearing and smelling are conscious, but we do not see seeing or hear hearing, rather we conscious of them. In this sense we could say that consciousness is nothing since it is not present as a content, rather all contents are present via it. However, consciousness is self-present. If we consider the field of consciousness as operations and their contents, then consciousness is part of its field by virtue of making the field available as a whole. The closest I can get to the notion of consciousness in this narrow sense, is attention. Paying attention heightens the consciousness of that to which we are attending. Attention is that heightened consciousness. Consciousness in the fullest sense is conscious operations and their objects, or everything to which we attend and the means by which we do so (what that means requires an adequate notion of embodiment). That includes our “extroverted” reality. So the situation gets turned on its head. Instead of us living within a world that is outside of us, somehow that world is “within” consciousness. “Within” is not really a valid term here, since consciousness from this perspective does not have an “outside”. How do we explain this? I explain it in terms of the operational situation and the related notion of consciousness as a non-systematic whole. That provides a framework to be developed which includes the valid results of the natural and human sciences. I cannot provide that in an introduction. But I can provide some useful distinctions that I think can help us orient ourselves within this problematic situation. First we can distinguish what is not us from what is us. Thus, I know the tree I see in my yard is not me, but I also know it exists for me by virtue of my conscious operations and sensitivity. Thus, I can hear the wind go through the tree, I can touch it and so on. This existence of the tree for me is intentional existence. Consciousness as intentional is “consciousness of …”. I am conscious of the tree, but as existing independent of me. Qua conscious, then, it has an intentional existence. The possibility of intentional existence is one of the key issues that needs to be explained by a philosophy of mind.


The first major turn to a method in philosophy for understanding consciousness was made by Edmund Husserl and his rigorous, descriptive phenomenology. The second major contribution was Bernard Lonergan’s generalized empirical method. It is dynamic and developmental yielding cumulative and progressive results. Both philosophers have the goal of knowing consciousness, making explicit what we already do, but in a way that we cut through nonsense and noise and get to, in Husserl’s terms, the things themselves or in Lonergan’s, the universe of being. In both cases we face a personal challenge of self appropriation.


We are all intelligent. Intelligence is insight. It is getting the point, understanding that given the evidence X must be true, figuring out what we should do and why. The gifted more frequently get insights in their particular areas and typically are possessed by the desire to understand, learn a set of skills and so on. Animals also are intelligent but typically do not use signs or language to understand. Our use of language permits us to live in a universe mediated by meaning.


Reality is what we know and what is to be known. If you know how you know then you will more frequently get to reality. I like to think of two bumper stickers. The first says “Follow me, I know where I am going!”. The second says “Follow me, I do not know where I am going, but I know how to get there!” Philosophy has moved from being concerned with “content” to method. So we can clear-headedly move into mystery as potentially intelligible which provides the context for the reality we intend.


A performance is the smallest concrete intelligible sequence (unit) of activity in terms of which operations and acts derive their functional meaning. As we develop, performances become more intelligent and meaningful. The body, and particularly the brain, enables performance via the flexibility of processes embodied in performance. In other words, operations are available which can be freely and creatively combined.