UserpicThe Chautauqua Lecture 10

A Wind Blowing Towards The World

Why would my memories be like this? Why would they show themselves to me in such a way that my ownership of them should sometimes strike me as a “faintly surreal discovery”? When I remember, I am – so I’m told – aware of the content of my memories – of what my memories depict. And, far from making me what I am, I suspect the content of my memories really is not part of me at all. The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, reached a similar conclusion.

In his classic investigation of the nature of consciousness, Sartre defended a rather remarkable claim, one that, I am beginning to suspect, few since have really understood. He wrote:

“All consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something. This means that there is no consciousness that is not a positing of a transcendent object, or if you prefer, that consciousness has no ‘content’”.

Consciousness has no content – there is nothing in it. Consciousness is nothing – a little pocket of nothingness that has insinuated itself into the heart of being. Sartre’s rather large book, Being and Nothingness, is, I think, nothing more than an attempt to work out the implications of these two sentences.

“All consciousness is consciousness of something”. This has a clear, but striking, consequence: nothing I am aware of can be part of my consciousness. Everything I am aware of is outside my consciousness. At one time, many years ago, I would have been standing on a beach with Brenin and Nina, watching them run around in the teeth of an Irish gale, as I donned my wetsuit and got ready to climb into some of the best surf of the winter. Obviously, Brenin and Nina are not part of my consciousness. But Sartre’s idea applies much more generally. Not only are Brenin and Nina outside my consciousness, so too is my memory of them.

What would it be to remember Brenin and Nina on the beach at Inchydoney? Does an image flash before my mind, like an old photograph? But the image, in itself, could mean anything at all. This was a theme championed by the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein:

It is not common to think of Wittgenstein and Sartre as having the same ideas or concerns, but I think there is close connection between them. Wittgenstein would have pointed out that the image might depict two dogs on a beach. It might depict play. It might depict happiness. In principle, the image might mean any number of things. Nothing much is changed if we replace a static image, like a photograph, with a moving one – such as a film. Certain possible ambiguities would be closed off, but others remain; yet others might be engendered by the transition from static to dynamic images.

Sartre would have put the issue in these terms. Whether static or dynamic, the image has no intentionality. Taken in-itself it is not about anything. It can be about something – it can mean or signify something – but not in-itself. What it means is a function of how it is interpreted. And, for Sartre, what provides the interpretation is consciousness.

Consciousness is intrinsically of or about something. It is, as philosophers call it, intentional. But the content of memory is not about anything – not taken in itself. The conclusion, Sartre realized, is that the content of memory is not part of consciousness. And, if I am consciousness, this means the content of my memory is not part of me. The same point applies to anything I am aware of.

Think of Sartre as supplying a challenge: try to point to consciousness – try to point to something that is in consciousness. As you say “Here it is!” – mentally pointing to something you remember, or something you think, or believe, or feel – this becomes an object of your consciousness and so is, if Sartre is correct, precisely not a part of your consciousness; it is not part of you. The entire world is outside you – for the world is simply a collection of things of which you are aware; or, at least, of which you can be aware if your attention is suitably engaged. Therefore, consciousness can be nothing at all. Consciousness, Sartre concludes, is simply a pure directedness towards the world – a “wind blowing toward the world” as he once put it. Consciousness is a directedness towards things that it is not and it is nothing more than this. If I am consciousness, then everything I am aware of is outside of me, irreducibly alien to me. If am aware of the content of my memories, then they cannot be part of what I am.


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