2 Sep 2013

Ch.2 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “Unity, Introspection and Awareness”, summary

by Corry Shores
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Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 2: 
Unity, Introspection and Awareness



Brief Summary: Dainton will examine the synchronic unity of co-conscious experiences. There is a sort of ‘glue’ that binds all diverse acts of awareness; it is a passive and non-introspective awareness of the concurrence of these different acts.



2.1 Awareness

In this chapter Dainton will “be concerned only with synchronic unity, with the way simultaneous experiences are related to one another within a stream of consciousness.” (28)

Dainton distinguishes some uses of the term awareness. Awareness as:

1) not directly concerned with experience: “I wasn’t aware that Britain has so few high mountains.”

2) indicating simply the presence of experience in any form: “Consciousness first appeared on the scene with simple organic lifeforms, previously the universe was wholly devoid of awareness”. This use is virtually synonymous with Dainton’s use of the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘experience.’

3) recognition / paying attention: “I watched a dog stroll across the street, but I wasn’t aware it was Seamus.” “‘It had been getting dark for some time, but I only became aware of it when I started to read the newspaper”. Sometimes but not always recognition requires we have a concept for the recognized thing.  (28-29)

4) introspection: “When we want to find out about our current experience, we introspect: we deliberately focus our attention and see what we find. Think of what you do when you wonder whether your toothache is getting better or worse. As you scrutinize your toothache, you become introspectively aware of it.” (29)

5) purely philosophical uses, for example, “According to one influential doctrine, consciousness has a two-level structure: all experiencing consists of an awareness of some content.” (29)

Regarding unity of consciousness, we are concerned primarily with the last two uses of ‘awareness’.

So far as the unity of consciousness is concerned, only the last two uses of ‘awareness’ are of direct relevance. If all experiencing consists of an awareness of some content, then presumably the unity of consciousness is a product of different experiential contents falling within the scope of a single centre of awareness. (29)

2.2 The phenomenal background

We might not be able to remember everything that we perceive or notice explicitly, but these marginal phenomena still contribute to the phenomenal experience we have. (29-30) Also we need not recognize everything we perceive in order for things to contribute phenomenally; “content of our experience at a given moment is not restricted to whatever it is we are paying attention to at the time in question.” (30)

This is an example of marginal awareness. We are not noticing things directly, but we would take notice if they for some reason called for more of our attention.

I will call this sphere of experience the phenomenal background. The phenomenal background goes largely unnoticed because it is constantly present for as long as we are awake (and often while we dream). Most experiences that go on long enough for us to become habituated to them (but which do not cease altogether) will sink into this background, for example the sound of a refrigerator, or the noise of a car engine. (31)

The phenomenal background has three main components:

1) The diverse range of bodily experience

2) The world-presenting perceptual experience, “what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The content of this experience is nothing less than the surrounding world: the ground underfoot, rooms, walls and furniture, streets, fields and trees, animals and people, the sky above—these are all parts of the phenomenal background, they all feature in our experience, for the most part unnoticed, as we go about our ordinary business.” (31)

3) Our overall mood, our sense of self, what it feels like to be the conscious being we are. It is the most elusive component.
For example, we do not notice our body or familiar parts of our daily lives and routines. Also our stream of consciousness itself lies in the background, and as well the ‘what it feels like to be ones own self’.

This reveals a further flexibility in the notion of ‘awareness’: we can be inattentively aware of things, ourselves and our surroundings. Switching to the informed phenomenological mode, this means we can be inattentively aware of our experience. I will refer to this mode of consciousness as passive awareness. (32)

Exploring the phenomenal background

There are ways to make phenomenal judgments about “the peripheral regions of our experience.” (33a) We can use short term memory to reply the experiences. Or we can maintain our central focus to a slightly lesser degree, still hoding it front and center, while making judgments about peripheral phenomena. Dainton calls this procedure passive introspection.

On this basis Dainton distinguishes primary from secondary attention:

Primary attention is what we ordinarily mean by attention. The objects of secondary attention are the parts of the phenomenal background we choose to register or make a judgment about while deliberately keeping our (primary) attention fixed elsewhere. (33)

2.3 Unity and introspection

Dainton discusses the way that introspection and unity are intertwined, offering Strong and Weak I-theses.

[…] experiences are co-conscious when or because they could be introspected. On the face of it, although the vast majority of our experiences go by without being the objects of introspective scrutiny, all these nonintrospected experiences were available to introspection as they occurred, they were all introspectible. What is the connection between unity and introspectibility? I will call the claim that synchronic co-consciousness and | introspectibility are essentially bound up with one another the I-thesis. The I-thesis comes in two forms:

Strong I-thesis Co-consciousness is constituted by introspectibility: experiences are co-conscious because they are introspected or introspectible. A group of token experiences are co-conscious if and only if they are either the actual or potential objects of a single introspective awareness.

Weak I-thesis Co-consciousness is not constituted by introspectibility, but the two are correlated: if a group of experiences are co-conscious they are all actual or potential objects of a single introspective awareness.

Since for both theses the sort of introspectibility at issue can be active or passive, there are really four distinct theses to consider. The Strong I-thesis, in either form, is not a plausible one, but is nonetheless worth considering. For in coming to understand exactly why the Strong I-thesis is false, a significant aspect of the unity of consciousness comes into clearer focus. (34-35)

The Strong I-thesis

The unity of the background, and hence co-consciousness, is a feature of our experience that seems to be more basic than any sort of introspection. (35)

The phenomenal background is not just a constant presence in ordinary experience, it is a unified presence. (36)

the overall unity of consciousness is independent of both passive and active introspection. (36)

Dainton gives this example to show that the unity of consciousness is independent of both passive and active introspection:

Imagine walking through a park. As you stroll along, various things and happenings attract your attention. You see a shrub that you do not recognize in the border; you stare at it for a minute or two, trying to identify it. As you do so a child a few yards ahead starts to cry. A little while later you hear a birdcall which may have been a cuckoo; you pause to listen to it more carefully. Now imagine what your experience would be like, as a whole, on these two occasions. When you pause to concentrate on the mysterious shrub, what happens to the various plants surrounding the shrub, the ground underfoot, the | sky above? Well, nothing happens to them; they do not vanish as your attention becomes focused on the shrub; you see the shrub and you also see whatever surrounds it, even if only in a blurred fashion. While this is going on the child starts to cry; after an initial moment of annoyance, you manage to return your attention to the shrub. But the child’s crying does not disappear; you continue to hear it, even though you have succeeded in not paying attention to it. Similarly, when you strain your ears trying to identify the birdcall, you continue to see the park all about you: the trees, the path, the fields, the sky—they do not all suddenly vanish into thin air. What of bodily experience, does this vanish when you pay attention to what you are seeing or hearing? Of course not. You are standing upright, weighted to the ground as you always are, perhaps leaning forward slightly to get a better look—it feels like something to be in this condition, and you continue to have these feelings. Then there is what you are thinking—‘What sort of shrub is it? I think I’ve seen that shape of leaf before’—and your overall mood. But I shall not go on. We all know what it is like to walk through a park and pause to look at something. The point I want to get across is that the overall experience here is unified. As your attention flits from one thing to another, you perceive more than you attend to, you continue to have thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations, and you have these while feeling situated in your environment. The phenomenal background is not just a constant presence in ordinary experience, it is a unified presence. (35-36)

From the naive standpoint, the unity of your experience is a consequence of the fact that you are part of a unified world. The things you see, hear and touch are things in your environment; they are all things in the space surrounding you, the space within which you are situated. From the informed standpoint, this unity is in the first instance a feature of your experience: you are having a variety of co-conscious experiences. Your bodily experiences are co-conscious with your perceptual experience, and these are both co-conscious with your conscious thoughts, decisions, imaginings, memories and emotions. The co-consciousness of these various experiences registers only in passive awareness.  (36)

As this example makes clear, the overall unity of consciousness is independent of both passive and active introspection. (36)

Yet when we introspect our current experience either actively or passively, the introspected experience remains co-conscious with much of the rest of our experience. But it cannot be introspection that brings the unity of the introspected with the non-introspected experiences, because introspecting on a background will mean taking out of introspection what is in the foreground:

When you focus your active attention onto the shrub your thoughts, bodily feelings and auditory experiences all remain co-conscious with your visual experience. These experiential relationships cannot be explained in terms of introspectibility, for they are not even potential objects of introspection. If you were to try to actively introspect these relationships you would have to stop introspecting your experience of the shrub. As this example makes plain, the co-consciousness of experiences which are not being actively introspected with experiences which are, is not something which can be actively introspected. (37)

The Weak I-thesis

According to the Weak I-thesis, introspectibility and co-consciousness are correlated: any experiences that are co-conscious could be introspected. We have just seen that in one case at least, this is not true. (37)

Dainton goes on to discuss attention-dependent phenomena, active and passive introspection, and concludes: “in the case of passive introspection, the Weak I-thesis may well be largely true—for beings whose minds are like ours.” (39)

The unspeakable

Dainton now uses the term wholly passive awareness (WP-awareness) “to refer to the sort of non-attentive and nonselective awareness that we have of the unity of the phenomenal background.” (39) The awareness of the relationship between foreground and passive awareness cannot itself be introspected and is thus WP-awareness. But so long as we have this mode of awareness, any other sorts of awareness are able to be co-conscious, as it is like the glue between them, or the common consciousness to diverse awarenesses.

WP-awareness is more closely bound up with co-consciousness than any other form of awareness: not only is the awareness we have of the phenomenal background when we are not interrogating it of the wholly passive kind, as we have already noted, but when we do interrogate our experience, either by actively or passively introspecting some part of it, the introspected experience typically remains co-conscious with non-introspected experiences. This experiential relationship cannot possibly be introspected, passively or actively, since attention (whether primary or secondary) is directed elsewhere, hence the awareness we have of the unity of introspected and non-introspected contents is of the wholly passive kind. If anything could be said to constitute co-consciousness, it is WP-awareness. This sort of awareness seems both sufficient and necessary for co-consciousness. (39)

Dainton concludes:

it seems that all versions of the I-thesis are false. Neither active nor passive introspection or introspectibility are constitutive of co-consciousness, so the Strong I-thesis is false. Since there is a general limitation on introspectibility—due to the impossibility of introspecting the unity of introspected and non-introspected experiences—the Weak I-thesis is also false. This general limitation aside, the phenomenon of attention-dependence means that a good part of our experience is not actively introspectible, even if most of it is passively introspectible. As for co-consciousness itself, it is independent of introspection in all its forms. | If co-consciousness is correlated with or constituted by anything, it is WP-awareness. But since the latter is wholly independent of introspection and attention, nothing said so far takes us closer to a positive understanding of what this sort of awareness involves. (39-40)

2.4 Pure awareness

Dainton writes:

Any conscious episode, whether a single token sensation or a cross-section of an entire stream of consciousness, consists of the sensing of some experiential content, where the sensing and the content are distinct (or at least clearly distinguishable) aspects of the episode as a whole.  The passage below (Deikman 1996:351) is a clear exposition of the doctrine:

[block quoting Deikman] Awareness cannot itself be observed, it is not an object, not a thing. Indeed, it is featureless, lacking form, texture, colour, spatial dimensions. These characteristics indicate that awareness is of a different nature than the contents of the mind; it goes beyond sensations, emotions, ideation, memory. Awareness is at a different level, it is prior to contents, more fundamental. Awareness has no intrinsic content, no form, no surface characteristics—it is unlike everything else we experience, unlike objects, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or memories. Thus experience is dualistic, not the dualism of mind and matter, but the dualism of awareness and the contents of awareness. To put it another way, experience consists of the observer and the observed. Our sensations, our images, our thoughts—the mental activity by which we engage and define the world—all are part of the observed. In contrast, the observer— the ‘I’—is prior to everything else; without it there is no experience of existence. If awareness did not exist in its own right there would be no ‘I’…no transparent centre of my being.” (41)

Dainton in this section will be referring to this sense of awareness.

If two or more phenomenal objects are presented to a single | awareness these objects will automatically be co-conscious—they will be experienced together. Moreover, if we take it that there is no other way for phenomenal contents to be experienced together, falling under a single awareness turns out to be both sufficient and necessary for co-consciousness. I will call the doctrine that consciousness has an awareness-content (or act-object) structure, and that the unity of consciousness consists of diverse contents falling under a single awareness, the awareness- or A-thesis. (41-42)

The A-theorist need not take the view that the awareness is
owned by some agent.

The A-theorist is not obliged to take the view that the posited awareness is an entity which has the experience, or which the experience is for, or alternatively, that the awareness in question is owned by a something whose awareness it is. The A-thesis, considered as a doctrine concerning the nature and unity of consciousness, is ontologically neutral on the topic of the subject/experience relationship. (42)


there is an obvious kinship between the A-thesis and the ownership doctrine. Given the plausibility of the ownership doctrine, it would be quite natural for the A-theorist to ascribe the posited awareness to a subject, conceived as something over and above any phenomenal content. (42)

One objection to the A-thesis is that because awareness has no phenomenal features of its own, we seem unable to detect such a thing in our experiences.

2.5 The A-thesis and common sense

Some of the intuitive appeal the A-thesis has may derive from a natural but mistaken way of thinking about how we are aware of our experiences when we notice them or pay them attention. (44)
We can turn our attention from phenomenon to phenomenon, moving from one of the 5 senses to another, and it seems as if we have one inner eye that looks around at the different things.
This inner ‘eye’ is quite unlike the other sensory faculties, since it can apprehend experiences of different kinds—it is not restricted to sound, vision or touch. Just like the ordinary eye, the field of ‘vision’ of the inner eye has a centre or focus and a periphery. Unlike the ordinary eye, the inner eye’s focus can be any kind of experience, and the periphery consists of the remainder of our experience—the entire phenomenal background. So when I focus my attention on the bodily feelings in my ankle, my auditory and visual experiences retreat to the periphery of my awareness, the periphery of my inner eye’s field of vision. (45)

But regarding introspection as a form of sensory perception on par with ordinary sense perception leads to absurdities. “We have experiences, we can direct our attention onto them, and we can form beliefs about them; it is wrong, however, to think that in directing our attention at experiences we are turning a multi-modal sensory organ onto them. There is no such thing.” (45)

Dainton continues with a discussion of the A-thesis and naïve realism. (46-47) He notes how we might come to think that there is an awareness-content dualism in our phenomenal experiences.

Suppose now that I take hold of the vase, in a slow deliberate way; I feel my fingers gradually closing in, until the vase’s narrow neck is completely encircled. It now seems as though this part of the vase is contained within my field of bodily awareness. But as soon as I actually touch the surface of the vase this changes: I now feel something which seems completely external to me, for my bodily awareness does not extend into the vase, it stops at the surface. When we look at things in this way it can seem quite natural to think that consciousness as a whole has an awareness-content structure: the awareness component consists of everything that seems inner, i.e. thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, whereas the corresponding contents are those outer things we perceive through sight, hearing and touch. (47)

2.6 Variations on a theme

Dainton continues the discussion of the idea that consciousness has a bi-polar awareness-content structure. He begins by considering how to assign components of experience on either side of the divide. He first considers how “seemingly inner items such as thoughts, decisions, memories and emotions, to be just as separate from awareness as the immediate objects of perceptual experience. The resulting awareness is divested of all ordinary phenomenal characteristics; it is the pure contentless awareness* that we have already encountered”. (48) The leads to four positions to evaluate:

S1 awareness* cannot exist independently of content, and content cannot exist independently of awareness*

S2 awareness* cannot exist independently of content, but content can exist independently of awareness*

S3 awareness* can exist independently of content, and content can exist independently of awareness*

S4 awareness* can exist independently of content, but content cannot exist independently of awareness* (48)

Dainton continues with an evaluation of these positions. First he finds reason to reject S1 and S2. (48-53) While evaluating S3 and S4, he discusses the Buddhist concept of ‘cessation’. (54-55) He then addresses the possibility that the content-awareness distinction can be collapsed by considering awareness as the substance and phenomenal objects and properties as modifications of that substance. (55-57)

2.7 Simplicity

Since “no version of the A-thesis looks to be viable, we should reject the idea that consciousness harbours a dualism of awareness and content.” (57) He now considers alternatives.

Whenever phenomenal properties are realized, or phenomenal objects come into existence, conscious experience occurs. I shall call this non-dualistic model of consciousness the Simple Conception of experience. (57)

Dainton continues by evaluating this conception, and concludes:

there are limits on how simple a subject’s experience can be. Whenever pains or patches of blue occur, they do so as components of a more complex experience.

However, while the Simple Conception may look viable in the light of the discussion thus far, there are considerations, notably concerning temporal awareness, which may alter the picture, and we have not yet exhausted the topic of synchronic unity. (59a)

Barry Dainton. Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.


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