Problems with 'consciousness'

Miira Tuominen, Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä


English technical terms in science and philosophy often are of classical origin - 'science' and 'philosophy' are examples of such terms themselves. This means that a translator typically has an English equivalent for Greek and Latin technical terms easily available. However, such translations become problematic when terms remain but meanings change. This applies to the term 'consciousness'.

One central reason why 'consciousness' as a translation of any classical Greek term is potentially misleading is that it is a loaded term in today's philosophy of mind. A central problem in this context is the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness'. The core of the problem is that human consciousness has an inner quality that cannot be explained away by objective descriptions of brain processes. If 'consciousness' is used as a translation of Greek sunaisthêsis or suneidêsis, this implies a connection with modern discussions such as the one concerning the hard problem of consciousness. However, it is a difficult question whether the hard problem of consciousness was or even could have been formulated in the ancient philosophical context. These questions cannot be settled on the level of terminology; context and arguments where the terms appear must be considered as well.

1. Introduction

Central philosophical terms in English are often of classical origin. Typically they travel from Greek to Latin and from Latin to English, directly or via French. The common history behind Latin and English often makes Latin terms easy to translate into English - easy in the sense that an English equivalent looks so much like its Latin predecessor that a student quickly guesses the meaning of the term. If the student knows the origin of the Latin term as well, the Greek equivalent will not be difficult to find either.

For example, the English noun 'cognition' [1] has such an origin. It comes from Latin cognoscere, which embraces two letters that show us the way to its classical Greek equivalent. The Greek verb root -gn- is productive of central terms expressing forms of cognition or knowledge. The most common noun derived from it is gnôsis; the present stem of the correspondent verb is reduplicated gignôsk-. Therefore, to translate the Greek gnôsis by the English 'cognition' is just a reflection of the very history of the term. In this case the translation is not a problem; 'cognition' makes a fairly good translation of gnôsis.

However, the very ease of translating such terms can also be a peril, since the meaning of a term might undergo radical changes while the term itself persists. For example, the Greek epistêmê, which comes to be translated in Latin by the derivatives of scire, gives rise to the word 'science'. Translating epistêmê by 'science', however, is often misleading. Science as an institutionalized activity aiming at acquiring knowledge through certain limited methods does originate from Greek discussions of epistêmê, and such works as Aristotle's biological treatises can be called 'scientific' without major problems. However, epistêmê also means simply 'knowledge' and, for example, in Plato's Theaetetus and in many passages in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, 'science' would be an entirely inappropriate translation (e.g., in An. Post. II 19, 100b5-10 epistêmê is a state of the soul, not a science).

Being a philosopher, it is not my task to study the linguistic features or the more detailed language history of English philosophical terms. Rather, I shall reflect upon one term, 'consciousness' that is particularly precarious in translations of ancient Greek texts. Because of the central role the term has gained in recent philosophical discussion, it is hard to resist the tendency to utilize this term in translations of ancient Greek texts. In the following, I shall explore what problems can be expected if one unquestioningly brings in 'consciousness' in translations of Greek philosophical texts. I shall not give an overview of whether the notion of consciousness can be found there at all. Rather, I shall show why the term 'consciousness' is in danger of leading to over-interpreting the material. To bring the problems to the surface, I must engage in some more specific philosophical considerations.

At this point, it is useful to note that the English 'consciousness' has a complex history of its own. The term itself comes from Latin conscientia, which again involves the verb scire 'to know' with the preposition cum 'together with'. The Latin conscientia is used to translate several Greek technical terms such as sunaisthêsis and suneidêsis and it gives rise to two central English terms, 'conscience' and 'consciousness'. [2] 'Consciousness' as a technical philosophical term was introduced into English by a Cambridge Platonist, Ralf Cudworth, in his True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), but at first the term did not have a clearly defined application: it was used to denote several mental phenomena. [3] To a certain extent, this remains the case today.

2. The hard problem of consciousness

During the latter half of the 20th century, consciousness became a heated topic in philosophy. Philosophy in general is mainly concerned with formulating problems - answers to the problems typically prove to be controversial rather than conclusive. Accordingly, the most conspicuous result of the discussion of consciousness that philosophers have reached is a problem, the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness'. [4] Philosophers have found out what it is that is especially difficult to explain in human consciousness.

A lot of work has been done to establish that human cognitive processes allow for what is called 'naturalization'. This means that such processes can be explained by reference to brain events, and this feature often opens up the possibility to simulate the processes by computer models or programs. However, descriptions of brain processes such as 'a synapse is activated' always pertain to things, processes or objects to which we have open access in the sense that they can be independently observed by many different observers. As such they differ on a very basic level from descriptions of an inner feeling or experience: such inner feelings are not open to objective observation, but only the person having that feeling or experience can access them. When studying brain processes, we do not say anything about what it is like - or what it feels like - to undergo these processes; that remains outside the reach of objective, scientific scrutiny. This is the core of the hard problem: what it is like, or what it feels like, to have an experience is not captured by the scientific descriptions of brain functions, or any physiological functions for that matter.

Spotting the hard problem of consciousness does not entail that one should deny that our experiences are connected with brain processes. Rather, the point is that a description of a brain process is not all there is if we want to describe experiences: experiences have a certain inner quality or feel to them (philosophers call this 'phenomenal consciousness'), [5] and this quality has proved to be resistant to naturalization. In brief, our experience cannot be exhaustively explained by reference to physiological processes. Or, to recapitulate the point, recognizing the hard problem of consciousness does not mean that one should deny that biology and neuro-psychology to some extent explain our consciousness. [6] Recognizing the hard problem of consciousness means that biology and neuro-psychology do not explain away our consciousness.

At this point, it must be observed that 'feel' and 'feeling' do not here refer to emotions. The contrast between cognitive processes that can be naturalized and inner qualities or feelings that cannot is not the popular contrast between reason and emotion. Emotions such as anger, sadness and joy certainly do have strong experiential qualities (it feels like something to have them), but not all inner qualities or feelings are emotions. My seeing of this computer now has an inner feeling to it even though I am not particularly emotional about it.

Even though the standard formulations of the hard problem of consciousness refer to inner feelings and experiential qualities of human mental life, the main point of the problem can be made without these somewhat complicated notions. No matter how much progress natural sciences make in analyzing and explaining our mental life by reference to occurrences in our brain, there remains a basic, almost logical, difference between scientific statements and statements of one's own experience. It is a different thing to experience seeing a tree ('I see a tree') and to report what goes on in my brain when I see a tree.

3. Consciousness in ancient texts?

3.1 Methodological problems

Since the hard problem of consciousness is such a central problem for philosophy today, it is tempting to suppose that ancient Greek philosophers, when they dealt with human mental functions such as emotion and perception, were primarily interested in this problem as well. If we followed this supposition, we would ask for example: How did Aristotle react to the hard problem of consciousness? However, to approach the texts with this question in mind would be dubious from a methodological point of view. It would imply a supposition that philosophical problems are constants that remain exactly the same through history. Since this supposition encounters obvious problems, we need to ask something else. A better starting point would be: Are there any traces of the hard problem of consciousness in ancient philosophical texts? When we ask this question, however, language and terms become a problem.

To begin with, there is no Greek term that could unquestionably be translated by 'consciousness'. Greek philosophers talk about perceptions (the Greek for perception is aisthêsis), intellectual thought or apprehension (nous), emotion or feeling (pathos), and many other mental processes, but no Greek equivalent exists to refer to the general idea that we are conscious beings. More specifically, it is difficult to find a word that would capture the idea that experiences have an inner feeling or quality to them. Some authors employ terms like suneidêsis and sunaisthêsis, [7] which could be taken to refer to the inner quality of these processes. However, even if we find one of these terms, we cannot, without further consideration, jump to the conclusion that the hard problem of consciousness is at issue. We need a further argument to show that the terms refer to the feeling aspect of experiences.

3.2 Sunaisthêsis

Let me explain why the occurrence of sunaisthêsis is not an incontrovertible proof of the idea that experiences are felt. To put the reason as simply as possible, the passages in which the term is used typically refer to the fact that we are aware of the world and have experiences of it. For us to be aware of objects is one thing, for the awareness to have an inner quality another. To express this in terms of the hard problem of consciousness, awareness could in principle be analyzed as a cognitive process reducible to objective scientific language. Therefore, we cannot safely conclude that occurrences of sunaisthêsis point to phenomenal consciousness that forms the core of the hard problem of consciousness.

The term sunaisthêsis often has the connotation of self-awareness. In a Stoic text by Hierocles (flourished around 200 CE), it refers to simple awareness of one's bodily parts and their functions.

We should realize that as soon as an animal is born it perceives itself (aisthanetai heautou). - - The first thing that animals perceive is their own parts - - both that they have them and for what purpose they have them, and we ourselves perceive our eyes and our ears and the rest. So whenever we want to see something, we strain our eyes, but not our ears, towards the visible object. - - Therefore the first proof of every animal's perceiving itself is its awareness (sunaisthêsis) of its parts and the functions for which they were given. The second proof is the fact that animals are not unaware of their equipment for self-defence. When bulls battle with other bulls or animals of different species, they stick out their horns, as if these were their congenital weapons for the encounter. Every other creature has the same disposition relative to its appropriate and, so to speak, congenital weapons.

(1.34-39, 51-57, 2.1-9; transl. from Long and Sedley 1987; text number 57C slightly modified by MT.)

In their translation of the passage, Long and Sedley do render sunaisthêsis, in the middle of the quoted paragraph, as 'consciousness'. Since, as I have explained, this is a pregnant term in today's philosophical discussion, I have altered the translation into 'awareness', which is more neutral and does not induce us to suppose without further consideration that today's notion of consciousness is at issue.

Sunaisthêsis can also refer to the idea that we are aware of our perceptions and other mental functions. This is the role in which we find the term in Alexander of Aphrodisias, a commentator on Aristotle's works in the late 2nd and early 3rd century CE. In his treatise on the soul, Alexander writes:

But this activity of self-perception, wherein the sensory agent is aware of his own acts of sensation (kath' hên gignetai sunaisthêsis tois aisthanomenois tou aisthanesthai), belongs to the highest and dominant sense power, which we call the 'common sense'.

(Alexander of Aphrodisias, De anima 65,9-10; transl. Fotinis 1979) [8]

A few lines earlier than the passage just quoted, a similar discussion point is made but in different terms. Athanasios Fotinis has inserted the term 'consciousness' into his translation made 1979:

For it is a fact that when we see or hear, we are conscious that we are engaged in these activities; and this perception of ourselves in the act of sensing cannot be attributed to any sense other than the common sense.

(Alexander of Aphrodisias, De anima 65,4-5; transl. Fotinis)

The Greek reads: ho gar horôn aisthanetai hautou horôntos kai akouôn akouontos, "that who sees perceives that he is seeing and that who hears [perceives] that he is hearing". Therefore, instead of the language of consciousness Alexander employs the language of perception.

What has been said so far is by no means a complete account of how sunaisthêsis is used. However, it serves to illustrate an important point. It is likely that awareness of one's perceptions or bodily parts always has an inner feel to it, i.e., that it feels like something to be aware of things, one's bodily parts or one's own perceptions. It is also possible that the ancient writers supposed it to be so. But even if we grant both these things, we do not yet have what we would need in order to claim that the texts explicitly formulate consciousness as a philosophical problem, let alone that they contain reactions to the hard problem of consciousness. In order to make this claim, we would need an explicit discussion about the inner quality of experience and an explanation of why it is problematic. This is exactly what is difficult to find in the texts, and this is the core of the methodological problem: we cannot pinpoint a particular term or expression that would necessarily pick out just the inner quality or feeling of the experience.

3.3 Feeling?

One candidate in Greek that could be supposed to offer us an unmistakable indication that inner feelings are concerned is pathos. Pathos is the noun that is used for emotions, and Greek philosophers seem to suppose that it feels like something to experience emotions, such as desire, anger, sadness or joy. Would it then not seem natural to suggest that the same word that is used to refer to emotions as a general category could be used to refer to the phenomenal feel of all human experience? This suggestion sounds initially appealing, but encounters severe problems.

First of all, pathos is not exclusively a noun for feeling. It also denotes all processes that one undergoes as opposed to things that one is an agent of. The very distinction between activity and passivity derives from Greek, where the verb behind pathos, i.e., paskhein, comes to be translated in Latin as patii, which produces as offspring, e.g., the English 'passive'. Therefore, if we find a passage where it is said that someone paskhei something when perceiving, for example, it is not safe to conclude from this that an instance of a discussion of inner feelings has been found.

One example is Aristotle's theory of perception. In his treatise on the soul (De anima), Aristotle describes perception as a process where the perceptive power does something that is called in Greek paskhein (e.g., II 5, 418a5). If we suppose that the verb paskhein and its derivatives always refer to feelings of some sort, this seems to show us that perception for Aristotle involves feelings. However, this is not at all what Aristotle is saying in the relevant passages. Rather, Aristotle's point is related to the contrast we just mentioned between activity and passivity. By saying that perception involves paskhein Aristotle is making the claim that perception is a passive process in the following sense. We perceive through undergoing effects that external perceptible objects induce upon us. For Aristotle perception is a receptive process - and this is what paskhein and the related terms mean in the context.

4. Concluding remarks

Up to this point we have detected what kind of difficulties there are in using 'consciousness' in translations of ancient Greek texts. However, our diagnosis of these complications should not be taken as an entirely pessimistic verdict that the notion and problems related to it are completely absent from the ancient discussion. Such pessimism could come in two forms, both of which are exaggerated.

First, the evidence that we have discussed above and similar evidence elsewhere in the sources has led some to conclude that ancient philosophers in general were eliminativists, i.e., that they denied the existence of inner feelings related to human experience and analyzed experience solely in objective scientific terms. [9] I find this suggestion problematic for several reasons that are too detailed to be discussed in the present context. Suffice it to say now that what the evidence shows is not that ancient philosophers would answer the hard problem in the eliminativist manner. Rather, the very restricted evidence we have discussed suggests that the hard problem of consciousness was not an explicitly formulated philosophical problem for the ancients.

Second, we might be inclined to conclude that ancient philosophers were not at all interested in problems similar to those we relate to the notion of consciousness. However, this would be an overstated conclusion as well. We have seen why it is complicated to pinpoint the notion of consciousness or a discussion of anything like the hard problem in ancient texts. A more detailed study of in what sense the notion is involved or to what extent the ancient discussions presuppose that our experiences have a phenomenal quality in them is a question that needs to be studied on another occasion. Our present discussion has focused on the problems involved in such a project. It has been shown that when attempting to find traces of the notion of phenomenal consciousness in ancient philosophy, the inquiry cannot be limited to the level of words and terminology. The context, explanations and analysis must also be taken into account. [10]


[1] In this essay, I employ the normal philosophical practice according to which terms, when they are mentioned are in quotation marks. When they are used they are not. 'Perception' refers to the word, but when I want to talk about the phenomenon, I merely use the correspondent noun, e.g., perception was a prominent topic in ancient philosophy. I shall not use quotation marks for Greek and Latin nouns in italics. To distinguish words or expressions that are emphasized from Greek and Latin, I have used boldface rather than italics. Double quotation marks are used for non-indented quotations.

[2] For conscientia and its philosophical use, see Lewis (1967:181-213).

[3] See Heinämaa, Lähteenmäki & Remes (2007:6-10). For the occurrence of 'consciousness' as a philosophical term, see also Davies (1990:1-21).

[4] The name for the problem comes from Chalmers (1996:4), his first main work on the topic. Since then, the term and the problem have been standard in philosophy of mind.

[5] However, a philosophical position called 'eliminativism' can be formulated that denies the existence of phenomenal consciousness. In the present context it would unnecessarily complicate matters to include a broader discussion of eliminativism. We shall return to this position briefly in the concluding section 4.

[6] This is why neuroscience as such is not necessarily eliminativist. For example, the work of Antonio Damasio does not contradict the hard problem of consciousness (e.g., 1999).

[7] For suneidêsis in Stoic sources, see, e.g., Diogenes Laertius VII 85; for sunaisthêsis in Plotinus, see, e.g., Enneads V.3.13, 21-27.

[8] AA 1887. The page and line numbers are according to this edition. For Fotinis's translation, see Fotinis (1979).

[9] E.g., Stephen Everson.

[10] I am grateful to my colleagues Timo Kaitaro and Vili Lähteenmäki for comments on an earlier version of this essay.


AA = Alexandri Aphrodiensis praeter commentaria scripta minora: De anima liber cum mantissa (= Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, suppl. II 1-2). 1887. Ed. by I. Bruns. Berlin: Reimer.

Chalmers, David. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, Antonio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London: Heinemann.

Davies, Catherine G. 1990. Conscience as Consciousness: The Idea of Self-Awareness in French Philosophical Writing from Descartes to Diderot. Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation.

Fotinis, Alexander P. 1979. The De anima of Alexander of Aphrodisias: A Translation and Commentary. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.

Heinämaa, Sara, Vili Lähteenmäki & Pauliina Remes, eds. 2007. Consciousness: From Perception to Reflection in the History of Philosophy. (= Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind, 4.) Dordrecht: Springer.

Lewis, C.S. 1967. Studies in Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, A.A. & D.N. Sedley. 1987. Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Useful links

Chalmers, David & David Bourget, comp. 2007-. "Online papers on consciousness". MindPapers: A Bibliography of the Philosophy of Mind and the Science of Consciousness. Canberra: Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

Van Gulick, Robert. 2008. "Consciousness". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), ed. by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University.