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Defining “Consciousness”

February 17, 2013

One of the issues that’s come up a few times in the occasional writings and in conversations during class is definition. We can’t really say whether, say, Pris or HAL is conscious unless we can define consciousness. Something similar might be said with regard to knowledge or free will. I’m sympathetic, of course, but there are real questions about just how far we can go with such definitions. English is full of vagueness and ambiguity. That’s probably true of all natural languages. It’s tempting to want to transcend such languages, strictly speaking. Stanley Cavell is one philosopher who is deeply skeptical about our ability to do so. Charles Petersen, in a recent piece in N+1, summarizes Cavell’s position this way:

A philosopher who limits the meaning of her words to carefully set out definitions, attempting to root out all ambiguity, in effect says, “I say, and you should hear, only what I mean.” Cavell insists that language cannot be limited in this way.

The rest of the article is here. Those who want to check out Cavell’s work might start with the book Must We Mean What We Say?. Somewhat more easily digestible is this interview which Cavell did for Conversations with History:

By the way, I don’t think you’d be entirely wrong to associate the desire to transcend natural language with the desire to transcend humanity. They’re not the same desire, obviously. But both plausibly spring from a single disenchantment with our condition. Like Roy Batty, we want to be more than we are. The danger is that in trying to become more, we might become less.

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