Saturday, 14 February 2015

CONSCIOUSNESS

The Lecture on Friday evening, Sept. 11, was delivered by G.G. Stevens,Esq. "Consciousness" the subject selected for discussion by Mr. Stevens must always be regarded as one of high importance, connected, as it is, with the ordinary operations and varied functions of the mind, and forming, as it does, the great foundation of all metaphysical research ; while, at the same time, it possessed at the present moment peculiar interest.

 It may, indeed, be argued that topics, so recondite and abstruse, are, from their very character, studied and understood but by few, and are therefore unsuited to a general audience. We confess we see no force in the objection. The same argument might be urged against every branch of science and every department of philosophy. Besides, if we mistake not, the proper object of public lectures, is, not to amuse by expatiating on subjects with which an audience is already conversant, but to impart knowledge and induce enquiry. Nor do we think it either consistent or wise to investigate diligently and minutely the material world around us, and to pass over, in utter neglect, the noble powers by which we are enabled to comprehend it—the immaterial principle within. In the present instance, moreover, there was the desirableness, if not the special necessity, for counteracting the pernicious tendency of doctrines previously taught and sentiments promulgated, ex cathedra, with preceptorial authority and in the spirit of dogmatism—doctrines and sentiments alike adapted to unsettle and mislead.
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 With reference to the importance of his specific subject, he observed that Consciousness is the very fountain of mental phenomena. Hence is manifest the necessity of guarded care in investigating this fundamental principle of intellectual science. Before entering on his subject, he should, therefore, advance a few cautionary remarks in relation to the dangers to be encountered, especially by the young, in the study of these abstruse branches of metaphysics, and to the impediments mental, moral, and conventional—which, if not removed, would inevitably obstruct their successful prosecution.

In treating consecutively these dangers and difficulties, as arising from the structure and habits of the mind—from the character of a disposition—and from the nature, use, and abuse of the symbols of communication employed, the lecturer expatiated on the pride of intellect frequently disguised under the name of mental independence, and mistaken for the intellectual freedom and manliness which may be found, but which are characterized by humility and courtesy. He enlarged, too, in the same reference, on the imperfections of language, notwithstanding the improvements which it has received, and the terms in which it has been deservedly lauded as the noble vehicle of thought. A strict adherence to the accredited and well-defined phraseology of mental science, becomes, therefore, essentially necessary. From this it results, he observed, that any system, coming clothed with an entirely new set of terms, must be received with suspicion. Of his meaning, he could not furnish a better illustration than by reading an extract from the analysis of Mons. Vericour—the expositor of modern French eclectic philosophy—of the system of Cousin. After a course of attentive and earnest enquiry into the doctrines of this writer and of others of the continental school, he could find little of original discovery, amidst the densest fog of ontological abstraction injudiciously mixed with mental philosophy, and but imperfectly concealing the worst Pantheism—that is, that God and the Universe are one. The analytic development of the views of Cousin, which he adduced, seemed to contain nothing, beyond a few of the tritest elementary truths of the science, but misty abstractions, most remotely related to the philosophy of mind, and rendered almost unintelligible by the capricious use of language. From these writers he turned, therefore, with reverence to the Lockes and Stewarts and Brownes who were content to write so that they could be understood, and felt more than ever proud of the national characteristics of British common sense.

After this necessarily-extended introduction, Mr. Stevens proceeded to the main subject of discussion. In entering upon this, he referred, in the first place, to the most popular definitions of Consciousness, and then to the notion itself. The former differ not merely in terms, but in sentiment; while the latter has, as might be expected on a principle of such high importance, elicited a variety of views. Many of these he stated ; commencing with the opinion of Locke, whose work, Mr. Stevens remarked, will live, when continental philosophy has expired. On this point, however, Locke seems to have fallen into error, in including memory in consciousness ; while Lord Kames, Dr. Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Dr. Abercrombie, with clearer conceptions, viewed these faculties as separate and distinct. But, advancing further, it was assumed that consciousness is altogether a distinct act or power of the mind, mainly on the ground that it is comparatively independent of volition. The absurd consequences which would result from the admission of this doctrine, Mr. Stevens exhibited by a train of fair and conclusive deduction.

After adducing various alignments and illustrations on this point, the lecturer quoted the opinion of Dr. Browne, with which he expressed his full concurrence, that "consciousness is not a distinct power of the mind, nor the name of a distinct class of feelings ; but only a general term for all our feelings of whatever species they may be—in short, all those states and affections of the mind in which its phenomena consist." The effect of this argumentation, is, that sensation and consciousness are one. Hence is acquired the notion of personal identity. These views are supported by clear and simple illustrations that seem demonstrative of the question.

Consciousness, Mr. Stevens incidentally added, is thought by some to be a species of exceedingly rapid reflection ; but this would manifestly resolve itself into a mere act of memory.
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 The Courier 19 September 1846,

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