1.1. Experience

The object of the investigation at this point is to discover how the esthetic experience fits into the general scheme of our experiences; if it can be included in the type of experiences we call "objective," then there is some hope of finding a reality or aspect of reality which deserves the name "beauty" and is not dependent on the experience itself. That is, if beauty is something objective, then the esthetic experience will depend on it, and beauty will not depend on whether someone happens to have an esthetic experience or not.

Note that this chapter will not deal directly with aesthetics; it will treat the characteristics of any experience. We will concentrate on the esthetic experience later, as one class of experiences.


First, then, let us consider our consciousness.

TENTATIVE DEFINITION: Consciousness will be taken to mean awareness, knowledge, thinking, seeing, hearing, feeling, etc, imagining, remembering, emoting, dreaming--any act where "we know what is going on in our minds." It will not include acts of our minds "below" the conscious level, nor any act that would not be called in some sense an act "of our mind." The characteristic of consciousness is that a conscious act is aware of itself (as well as aware of whatever might be its object).

Thus things that you once knew but have forgotten might be "in your mind" somewhere, but are not conscious until you remember them; and when you are remembering them, you are aware of them, and aware that you are aware of them.

It is not our purpose to investigate how an act of consciousness is also conscious of itself; we merely state this as a fact, so that acts of consciousness can be recognized and distinguished from acts (which can be acts of our minds) that are unconscious.

1.2. The mind

We will first investigate consciousness to show what explains why consciousness is subjective.

1.2.1. First effect

The first effect that leads us toward the source of the subjectivity of consciousness is the strange fact that we all know that we are not always conscious: we lose consciousness from time to time (as when we lapse into dreamless sleep).

Now how could we know this? Obviously, we cannot be aware of our unconscious state while we are in the unconscious state, because then (by the definition above) we would be conscious and not unconscious.

Thus, we have an effect. We are (now) conscious of the fact that we were unconscious (last night, say); but while we were unconscious last night, we were not aware of our unconsciousness, because we couldn't have been. As far as our stream of consciousness is concerned, the moment when we lost consciousness and the moment when we regained it would have to appear as the same moment. A little thought will show why this must be the case.

Then how do we find out later that we were unconscious? It must be because the contents of our consciousness after we wake up make no sense unless we assume that we were unconscious for a while.

That is, the cause of our knowledge that we lost consciousness is the fact that our consciousness after waking up is an effect--and the cause of that effect is our loss of consciousness.

What I am saying is this: You went to sleep and it was dark out, and the clock said 12:07. An "instant" later (so it seems), you wake up, and the sky is bright, and the clock says 7:22.

You now have two possible explanations: either (1) you didn't lose consciousness and the earth slipped suddenly on its axis, and the clock spun instantaneously through more than seven hours; or (2) you lost consciousness, and the earth kept turning normally and the clock didn't go mad.

Obviously, the second explanation is the only rational one, and so the cause of the observed difference must be your loss of consciousness.

1.2.2. Second effect

Now we will take our periodic loss of consciousness as a fact, and notice a second effect that arises out of it:

Our single stream of consciousness is actually many separated streams of consciousness.

That is, when you wake up, one and the same consciousness reappears. The consciousness you had before you went to sleep and the one you have when you wake are not simply "the same" in the sense in which your consciousness is "the same as" (i.e. similar to) mine. There is one stream of consciousness which got interrupted by sleep and takes up again where it left off--so that the moment of loss and the moment of regaining are perceived as the same moment, and you can remember yesterday's consciousness, just as you can remember what went on in your consciousness an hour ago. But you can't "remember" anything in my consciousness, however much mine might be "the same as" yours.

But how can one single consciousness be actually many different consciousnesses--because if the periods of consciousness are separated by periods of unconsciousness, that means that the consciousness did not exist as such while you were asleep?

1.2.3. The mind as cause

The answer to this problem is that there must be something that connects the various different consciousnesses into a single stream of consciousness, making this stream yours as opposed to anyone else's.

DEFINITION: The mind is the whatever-it-is that explains why differences in a stream of consciousness are all parts or aspects of one and the same consciousness.

This kind of definition (where no effort is made to find out what it is that you are talking about, but you define a cause as simply "whatever causes" the effect in question) is called an operational definition, because it is used in science to define "what operates" in terms of its being "whatever operates in the way in question." The idea is that you might not be able to observe the operator, but you can observe the operations, and so you can define the operator as what is doing the operations.

What it amounts to is that, since we know that effects must have causes, we can define the cause just as the cause of the effect in question, without bothering to make a search for it. Properties of the mind

But one thing that is known about the cause of an effect is that it has all the properties necessary to explain the effect. Otherwise, it wouldn't be the cause. Hence, we can know a few things about the cause, just because no matter what it really is, if it didn't have at least these properties, it wouldn't be able to produce the effect.

One of the properties that the mind must have, for instance, is that the mind must exist during our periods of unconsciousness. If it didn't, then what would connect the "old" mind with the "new" one that woke up when we did? Obviously, whatever connected the "old" consciousness with the "new" one; but that is what we defined as the "operation" that the mind performed. So this "other" thing that connects would be by definition the mind itself.

So the same consciousness wakes up again because you have the same mind before, during, and after sleep; it is just inactive in sleep, and is reactivated when you wake up.

And this implies that your consciousness is the activity of your mind. That is, consciousness is at least one of the acts that the mind does. Subjectivity

Connected with this is the fact that each person has his own mind. That is, since the mind makes all the parts of a stream of consciousness to be one stream of consciousness, the mind is also what separates one stream of consciousness from another; it is what makes your consciousness yours and not mine.

And since consciousness is the activity of the mind, it follows from the fact that each person's mind is unique to him that the mind is the source of the subjectivity of consciousness.

That is, it is the fact that your mind is only similar to mine and is not the same one as mine that accounts for why your consciousness is "private" to you, and is (probably) only similar to mine.

Since your consciousness is private to you and I can't be directly aware of it, then I can't know what the experiences you are having actually are. In order to do that, I would have to be conscious with your consciousness--and that is impossible. So I can only argue from the fact that our bodies are structured similarly that in all probability our minds are also similar--and so when I see something green, the probability is rather high that you get pretty much the same impression when you look at the same object.

But since our bodies are not exactly alike, then it is also likely that our minds are not exactly alike; and so in all probability one person's subjective impressions of a given object will be to some extent different from another person's subjective impression of the same object.

1.3. Approaching objectivity

It might seem that, precisely because each of our acts of consciousness is an act of a subjective mind, then we are always locked into subjectivity, and can neither know anything about reality as it is "out there" independently of our impression of it, nor can we ever be sure that what we say about things can ever really be agreed to by anyone else. We can only go by the likelihood that we experience things pretty much the same way as others.

But actually, in that case, it's even hard to say that there even are any other people who actually exist. Why? Because my experience of them will be, of course, my consciousness of them; which is an act of my mind. But how do I know that there is any person "out there" that this act of my mind refers to? That is, how do I know that this act of my mind is a reaction to something different from itself? And if I don't even know that, then it's silly even to raise the question of whether this supposed "person" I experience (who might be just a figment of my imagination) is "having" an experience "like" mine or not.

It sounds like this is another of the roads down which madness lies. It's absurd to say that there really might not be any other people, and that everything is just the play of my mind. So the question is not whether we "really" know about things outside of us, but how we know.

1.3.1. Third effect

The effect that lets us "bypass" the subjectivity of our consciousness and know about things as they really are is connected with the possibility that our consciousness of others might be a figment of our imagination.

The fact is that we can classify acts of consciousness into two types: imaginary-acts (and acts--such as concepts of unicorns--that are based on imaginary-acts), and reactions (such as perceptions and perception-based concepts).

Since the contents of an imaginary-act is not different from the contents of a reaction (except sometimes in the degree of vividness), then it can't be that imaginings have some special quality about them (like being in black-and-white) which would distinguish them from reactions.

That is, whatever you can experience as a perception can be reproduced (in, for instance, a dream) as an act of pure imagination. You can even dream that you aren't dreaming, and convince yourself in a dream (by pinching yourself in it, for instance) that you're awake. You dream in color; your dreams can be perfectly logical, and waking life can be fantastic at times--and so on.

So what allows us to distinguish these two classes of experience?

DEFINITION: Imaginary acts are acts where the consciousness recognizes that the mind is acting spontaneously: that is, that the mind is producing the consciousness "on its own," without reacting to anything outside itself. The characteristic of imaginary acts is that we have control over them, and can change them at will.

This is something of an oversimplification, but it is generally true.

DEFINITION: A reaction is an act where we recognize that the mind is acting in response to something, or is reacting to something other than itself. The characteristic of a reaction is that the particular form of consciousness is being forced on us; we see this way because something outside us is making us see this way.

The distinction is based on the fact that the act of consciousness is aware of itself as an act; so it recognizes, generally speaking, when it is doing something by itself, or when it is responding to something else. As I say, there are complications with this (we can have hallucinations); but this is not the place to discuss them, since they turn out to be complications and not falsfications of what was said.

1.3.2. Existence as cause

The fact, then, that we have these two types of consciousness, is obviously only explainable on the grounds that reaction-type consciousness is caused by something outside itself. If it weren't, there would be no way to distinguish the two classes.

DEFINITION: Existence is whatever-it-is that we react to when we have a reactive-experience. And since you can say that by definition a re-action responds to an act, we can say that existence is activity.

That is, take "activity" in its broadest possible sense, so that it would include not only acting on something, but being active without having any particular effect, and would also include "being passive" (i.e. reacting) within it, and you have the sense in which existence and activity are synonyms.

Note that by saying that existence is activity, we don't know what existence "really is, as it is out there;" if you examine what you mean by "activity," you find that your direct experience of it is your experience of your own consciousness (which reacts to itself, as I said); and any other activity is analogous to this (because you react to it consciously when you know it). So all you mean by "activity" is "what I react to consciously"--which is what we mean by "existence."

1.3.3. The object of consciousness

Since, in the reactive-consciousness, the reaction is responding to existence, then it refers to the existence as to what it is "about," so to speak. That is, when you see the field in front of you, your visual impression recognizes that it is a reaction-to something (the field); and so it "talks about" the field.

Thus, existence is the object of consciousness. Existence is what consciousness "talks about" when it "talks about" something, because it is what the consciousness refers to as what caused it.

Note that imaginary consciousness has no object. When you imagine a unicorn, the "image" of the unicorn is simply the form of the act of imagining, and doesn't "talk about" any unicorn. You precisely recognize that there aren't any unicorns, or that the image doesn't refer to anything at all.

So not all acts of consciousness have objects; only reactions do.

Now the real problem of objectivity is connected with the fact that reactive-consciousness is just a reaction. Immanuel Kant got to what we have called "existence"; but he called it "(x)", because, though we might know that there was a something-or-other responsible for what he called our "sensations," we could know nothing at all about what it is; even whether there was one something for all sensations, or whether each one was produced by its own something, and whether the sensation was at all like what produced it.

In general, we can say this: The form under which we react to something is not at all like the existence which we react to. How we can know this is an interesting question which we will get to in a minute; but in general, I think you would be willing to admit that sound-as-you-hear-it doesn't sound like molecules of air hitting each other (which is what the activity is); and green-as-you-see-it doesn't look like inframolecular resonance of 5000 angstrom units wave length--or as only different in degree from heat-as-you-feel-it, as is true of the activities; and the way fur smells is not a copy of little particles of fur--and so on.

1.4. Fourth effect

But there is something that Kant didn't notice that will allow us to say something about the existence as it is independently of our reaction to it.

If we look at two different objects at the same time with the same eyes and the same mind, we notice that we have different visual reactions to them.

That is, as I look at the computer on which I am composing this, I see grey keys, a light grey background for the keybed, and a beige screen with little white letters on it. Now I am using a single visual apparatus, but reacting in different ways. Since I recognize the consciousness as reactive-consciousness, then why do I have different reactions?

1.4.1. The cause

The explanation cannot lie in my visual apparatus, because that is the same, and the reactions are different. It must be that what I am reacting to with my eyes is somehow different; otherwise, the difference in the reactions becomes a contradiction: we would then have the same reactive mechanism reacting to the same thing, and having different reactions to the same thing at the same time. There would be nothing to account for the difference.

Once again, there are complications here, many of which for our purposes we can ignore. But we can generalize what was illustrated above in the following way:

In general, if acts of reactive-consciousness are related among themselves in a certain way, the existences will be related among themselves in the same way. That is, if two reactions (as reactions) are the same as each other, then that means that the activities (existences) that caused them are the same as each other; if two reactions are different, this means that the two existences are different from each other; if things are perceived as beside each other, the activities are in fact beside each other; if a reaction is the result of some other reaction, this is because the existence that produced the first one was the cause of the second existence--and so on.

So we don't know the thing-as-it-actually-exists-in-itself, because we only know it by reacting to it, and the reaction is not like the act it reacts to. But we can know about the thing, based on the way our reactions are related among themselves; this relationship has to be caused by a relationship of the same type among the things, or the relationship among the effects is a contradiction.

That is, we don't know what greenness as an act "really is" out there; but we do know that whatever it is, grass has it, and tree leaves have it, and "go" traffic lights have it, because these all cause the same type of reaction in us--and we have just put the label "greenness" upon "the act that causes the type of reaction I get when I look at grass and trees and go lights and so on." Well, what is that act? I don't know; but I know that grass acts that way, or I wouldn't see it as I see it.

Spend a little time on the paragraphs above, so that you see what they are driving at. It is a subtle concept, but one that is crucial for understanding everything else in this book.

1.4.2. Why we can agree

And this explains why two people (who may not have the same subjective reactions to things) can agree on what they are talking about.

Suppose when you look at grass, your reaction is like this (*), and mine like this (#); the point being that yours is different from mine. Suppose when you look at blood, your reaction is like this (%), and mine like this (@). Then what happens when you look at an emerald? Your reaction will be (*), and mine will be (#); and when you look at a ruby, yours will be (%) and mine (@). And when looking at the leaves of trees, your reaction is (*) and mine (#), and when looking at stop lights, yours is (%) and mine (@).


          grass, emerald, leaf       blood, ruby, stop light

you         *       *       *             %       %     %

me         #       #       #             @       @     @

Thus, even though your reactions are not the same as mine, when your reactions are the same among themselves, mine are the same among themselves, and when your reactions are different from each other, so are mine. So when the objects are the same as each other, each of my reactions will be the same as each other; and this will also hold for you.

Hence, we both will be able to know the same relationship, even though your reactions are not the same as mine. So if "green" means, "whatever grass has in common with emeralds etc.," and is not "green-as-I-see-it," then you and I mean exactly the same thing by "green."

Think about this too. It is also crucial for understanding what follows.

A more rigorous treatment of this can be found in Modes of the Finite, Part One, Section3.]