On the word “consciousness”

Once upon a time, the word “consciousness” wasn’t endowed with the same profundity/gravity of meaning as it is today. It basically referred to the state that someone is awake and responsive, as opposed to being unconscious. Nowadays it means something like our essential awareness or experience, our very vitality, our inner shining light. Why would the meaning of the term “consciousness” shift in such a way? Was it merely to fill a hole that existed in our language until then for largely incidental reasons?

I think it’s more likely that, in the past, the whole world was perceived by us as being more alive. Everything was, more or less, living—the flesh of our bodies, the plants and the trees, the wind, the sun, the stars and planets, etc. So the life, or consciousness, within our heads didn’t stand out as being special in such a way. It wasn’t as magical and mysterious, or everything was magical and mysterious.

A rationalist/scientistic person might assume that seeing most of those things as living was simply delusion, just an artifact of more-primitive thinking in a time before knew better, before the so-called enlightenment of the scientific age. I believe the truth is something more like, we perceived the world in this more animistic way because we were more connected with the world and to ourselves. We were, on the whole, more alive.

Then the mechanicism of scientific thinking started resulting in everything under the sun as being framed as wholly mechanistic, due to the relatively high efficacy of the scientific method in modeling, predicting and controlling many phenomena, despite the wealth of phenomena and aspects of phenomena that couldn’t adequately be modeled or predicted. It was pure extrapolation.

And, of course, that which is mechanical and predictable can’t possibly be alive, because life qua life comes with freedom and agency. (I’m speaking here of an unconscious level of impression, rather than a scientific-theoretical level of analysis, of the meaning of “being alive” and its implications.) And that which is modeled becomes static and representational in our minds, usurping a previously living and relational mode of consideration.

The problem is so bad and prevalent that we even, on a level below that of articulation, see our own flesh as being mere chemical machinery and therefore non-living, or, more essentially, dead or deadened. So, the life we used to see in the world was increasingly bracketed off from layers closer and closer to home, until the only thing we were left being able to see as alive was that which is undeniably alive: the very core of our being, the spark behind our eyes and thoughts.

I suspect that, for anyone with an iota of true perspective, this is a terrifying frame of reference for a zeitgeist to promulgate. But here we are.

NB: As mentioned earlier, when I use terms like “alive” and “life qua life” in the above, I’m not referring to the scientific definition of life. I’m referring to something prior to and more essential than that, something nearly synonymous with experience, awareness, consciousness and sentience. (I say “nearly” because, while these terms may have somewhat different connotations, the things they refer to are always co-occurring.) See https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2020/10/29/life-is-not-a-scientific-concept/ for justification of the notion that this definition of “life” is more fundamental than the scientific definition involving metabolism, reproduction, growth, etc.

Okay, to be honest, I don’t actually know when the word “consciousness” changed its meaning, so I don’t know whether it was before, after, or during the onset of scientism and the view of the world as mostly nonliving. But even if this essay doesn’t really link up like it’s supposed to, there’s still a lot of truth in the story.

See also Dr Iain McGilchrist: We are living in a deluded world.

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