This post aims to offer new ways of thinking about consciousness, both our own and that of others.
Philosophers often talk of experience in terms of ‘sensations’, but it only takes a little thought to recognise that experience isn’t something put together out of discrete parts: it’s a whole, from which smaller parts can be abstracted. To take vision as the principal form of perception (which many people do), it’s clear that the primitive visual phenomenon is not any ‘little patches of colour’, but the visual field.
The same, it seems to me, is largely true of consciousness in general: for all that it may be convenient to speak of lots of ‘mental states’, lots of ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ co-existing like lego bricks, we can really only distinguish them against the background of the general unity of consciousness.
At any given moment, I have the visual field before me, my body-sense and the various touch-senses across its surface, sounds and smells coming in from around me, possible courses of action stretching out in front of me, short-term memory of the last few minutes behind me, long-term memories informing my awareness of every thing, a mood or moods colouring everything, reflections and imaginations bubbling up on all sides, all as integral components of the single state that is my consciousness.
What this means though is that we may be misleading ourselves when we speak of particular thoughts or feelings as being either ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’. They are components of the overall state, and the overall state is conscious – any further question is just about the details of this.