by Ted Honderich

Summary of a lecture to the Hay-on-Wye 2011 festival How The Light Gets In

            We see, we think, we want -- more generally we are perceptually conscious, reflectively conscious, and affectively conscious. They're different types of one thing, one property we have. Firstly, what is it to be conscious in this one general sense? Secondly, what is it to be perceptually conscious, aware of this tent. You are about to get the right answers to both those questions. Thinking and wanting will get only a mention.

            There is a melee of disagreement in the philosophy and science of consciousness -- a dozen or so theories. Is the melee owed to not answering the same question? Owed to the absence of an initial clarification of the subject, a first approximation to a necessary and sufficient condition, of being conscious -- conscious in the primary ordinary sense?

            Is there an initial clarification in five leading ideas?

            (1) Being conscious is having qualia. -- lots of scientists and philosophers say they're the main thing.

            (2) It is there being something it is like to be a thing -- Sprigge & Nagel.

            (3) It is a subjective state -- piles talk of subjectivity.

            (4) An intentional or representative state, what you can call aboutness -- Brentano & Crane.

            (5) It is two kinds of thing, phenomenal and access consciousness -- Ned Block, David Chalmers.

            Data, metaphorical data, can be had from what is said in passing in the five leading ideas and everywhere else in writing and research on consciousness. Being conscious in the primary ordinary sense is:

something's being had

being direct or immediate

somehow existing

being for something else




all on view




right there


before something else

provided or supplied

a matter of some privileged access

known best by the conscious thing


within awareness

before something else

being to something else

being transparent in the sense of being seen without any medium being seen in between

            These characteristics of being conscious in the primary ordinary primary sense can be summed up -- as something's being actual. That is the initial clarification of consciousness. This consciousness is what can be called actual consciousness.

            Is it the right subject? A word will be said about that at the end.

            Above data and also the summary or name or initial clarification only metaphorical or otherwise figurative, vague or inchoate, rather than a literal one? Of course. Not had in the way of ankles. Not present somebody in a roll call is, or a time. Not open as door is. Not given as 5 is.

            Useless, of doubtful use? Nonsense. Cf initial metaphor in the whole history of science, including main science. Atoms as balls, a microcosmic fact as spin, the mind as telephone exchange or computer. Plain fact is that metaphors have led to theory. There are whole books on the subject.

            For a theory or analysis of consciousness, two big questions to be answered. Two primary criteria to be satisfied. Answers are needed to What is actual? and What is something's being actual?

            More criteria for an adequate theory from (A) reflection on abstract functionalism and its predecessor, traditional dualism, and (B) on objective and scientific physicalism or neuralism generally and in particular physical functionalism.

(1) reality -- my conscious began and will end

(2) causal role -- v. epiphenomenalism

(3) difference-in-kind from objective and scientific physicality -- which takes some defining

(4) subjectivity

(5) etc

            The five leading ideas and a trawl through the dozen or so theories in the melee give other criteria. Theories including naturalisms, mind-brain supervenience theories, Searle's higher order theory, Dennett's explanatory stance theory, the theory of Higher Order Thought, semantic externalism (Putnam & Burge), and, pretty madly, Quantum Theory.

            Let me mention a few of the additional criteria.

(5) Different accounts of the three parts, sides or elements of consciousness -- perceptual, purely reflective, affective.

(6) Response to mind-body problem -- 'the hard problem', 'the explanatory gap'.

(7) An 'intelligible' rather than a 'brute' connection between brain and consciousness. 

(8) Consort with science, to say the very the least.

(9) Intentionality or aboutness must be given some place.

(10) Recognition of our common uncertainty about internalism or cranialism -- Is your consciousness in your head?

            Now question 1  What is actual with your perceptual consciousness now? The answer is: only a tent, a physical world, out there in space and time, not in your head. A more radical externalism than those of Putnam & Burge re meaning.

            Nothing else whatever is actual, including:

qualia (where those are not real properties out there);


direction or aboutness; neurons (as in objective physicalism);

abstract stuff (in dualism and abstract functionalism);

self or subject;

'inner space';

content (where that is not a tent out there);

vehicle of content;

transparent but just discernible medium; accompanying higher- order thought, etc.

            This is all truism?

            So whole pile of stuff from Kant onward that still gets into the science and philosophy is just missing. This externalism a little Copernicanism. Existence of pile not denied -- but seen differently, relocated -- in unconscious mentality.

            Question 2   What it is for the tent, the perceived world, to be actual now?

            It is only for it to exist -- in a well defined sense. It is for it to be a subjective physical world. Each of us has one of these. A subjective physical world, for a start, is:

(1) Spatiotemporal occupant -- out there.

(2) Lawful -- causal or otherwise lawful. Several ways.

(3) Lawfully dependent on perceiver-facts, e.g. neural and location.

(4) Lawfully dependent on objective or scientific physical world. Say the objective physical tent.

(5) Etc.

            So, what is actual is subjectively physical. Partly because of dependency on perceiver facts. Also other large reasons. Differences in subjective physical worlds, etc.

            Subjective physical worlds and the objective physical world comprise most of the physical world.

            Now mention of subjects for another occasion.

            In reflective and affective consciousness, the story is mainly but not only internal and neural. So whole theory of consciousness as actual is both an externalism and an internalism.

            Reflective and affective consciousness about propositional attitudes, at bottom propositions about something's having a property, made up of representations.

            In reflective consciousness, propositional attitudes having to do with assertion and truth. In affective consciousness, having to do with desire. Again subjectively physical.

            Again a subjective physicality, with related dependencies, but an internalism rather than an externalism.

            In affective consciousness, what is actual is propositional attitudes having to do with desires in a general sense. Representations at bottom.

            What it is for both to be actual is again for them to exist in defined sense.

            Again a subjective physicalism.

Satisfying Criteria:

(1,2) Two main questions answered -- no doubt because they shaped theory.

(3) Reality criterion -- consciousness a reality, in fact a kind of physical reality.

(4) Causal role criterion -- causal connection between being conscious and all the physical.

(5) Difference in kind. The theory makes such a difference -- between being subjectively physical and objectively physical.

(6) Very substantal account of subjectivity.

(7) An 'intelligible' rather than a 'brute' connection between brain and consciousness? Etc.

(8) Science. Actualism neither denies nor replaces any neuroscience or psychology or cognitive science. Leaves everything of consciousness itself and also its physicality-relations as subjects of science -- and of the philosophy that is a concentration on logic. Frees science from its residual uncertainty about somehow missing a subject, even the main subject.

            Final question. Is ordinary consciousness, i.e. actual consciousness, the right subject?

            There isn't one. Here as elsewhere, there is freedom to ask the question you want. There can be no objection to considering consciousness together with its basis or bases, taking both to be explanatory of behaviour. Can there be any objection to considering a consciousness separately? Of course not.

            Are there reasons for considering consciousness in the primary ordinary sense -- considering actual consciousness? Overwhelming ones.

            For a start, it stands in unique connection with human life: life itself, the great human goods, ethics, responsibility and personal credit or discredit. Secondly, it is the question that has been and is being asked: what is consciousness in the primary ordinary sense.


Reading now in 2014: Actual Consciousness, a large Oxford University Press book. Earlier reading: On Consciousness, Edinburgh University Press, 2004; Anthony Freeman, ed., Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed, Imprint Academic; review by Colin McGinn of On Consciousness, and a reply, and also other papers, at .