Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXV.: CONSCIOUSNESS IN GENERAL. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER XXV.: CONSCIOUSNESS IN GENERAL. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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CONSCIOUSNESS IN GENERAL.
§ 99. Thus we have arrived at the result that consciousness consists of changes combined in special ways. Successive decompositions of the more complex phenomena of intelligence into simpler ones, and these again into still simpler ones, have at length brought us down to the simplest; which we find to be nothing else than a change in the state of consciousness. This is the ultimate element out of which alone are built the most involved cognitions. Difficult as it seems to realize the fact, yet analysis leaves us no alternative but to hold that the perception of a vast landscape consists in a multitude of co-ordinated changes; and that of co-ordinated changes also, consists the most abstract conception of the philosopher.
This result, reached by taking to pieces our cognitions, is, indeed, the one indicated by à priori considerations. To be conscious is to think; to think is to form conceptions—to put together impressions and ideas; and to do this, is to be the subject of internal changes. It is admitted on all hands that without change, consciousness is impossible. A uniform state of consciousness is in reality no consciousness. When the changes in consciousness cease, consciousness ceases. If then, incessant change is the very condition on which only consciousness can continue, it would seem necessarily to follow that the various phenomena of consciousness are all resolvable into changes; that changes are the constituent elements of every thought; that every intuition, every conception, every conclusion, is made up of changes arranged in a particular manner, and is decomposable into changes. So that even from a general view of the facts, may be prophesied the issue to which a detailed analysis has led us.
Still more clearly may this same issue be foreseen, when it is remembered that we cannot become conscious save through the changes produced in us by surrounding things. Here is an organism placed in the midst of objects. If it is totally uninfluenced by them, it can know nothing of them, think nothing of them. The only way in which it can be rendered cognizant of their existence, is by the effects they produce on it—the changes they work in it; and then it can proximately know nothing but these changes. Only through changes can it be made conscious of objects; and only out of changes can be constructed its knowledge of them.
However we regard the facts, therefore, we see that they confirm the conclusion come to, that the primordial element of all intelligence is simply a change; and that every complex mental phenomenon is a co-ordinated group of changes. But a complete realization of this truth will best be gained by arranging synthetically a few of the results lately reached by analysis. By contemplating in their order of genesis, a few of the primitive cognitions treated of in recent chapters, both the particular conclusions there reached, and the general conclusion based upon them, will be clearly understood.
§ 100. As already sufficiently explained, a continuous or homogeneous state of consciousness is an impossibility—is a no-consciousness. A being that is totally quiescent, that is undergoing absolutely no change, is dead: and a consciousness that has become stationary is a consciousness that has ceased. To constitute a consciousness, however, incessant change is not the sole thing needed. That sentient something whose affections we call consciousness, may readily be conceived as the subject of perpetual and infinitely varied changes, without anything like consciousness, in our sense of the word, being evolved. If the changes are altogether at random—if sensations of different kinds and intensities succeed one another in entire disorder; no consciousness, properly so called, can exist. Consciousness is not simply a succession of changes, but an orderly succession of changes—a succession of changes combined and arranged in special ways. The changes form the raw material of consciousness; and the development of consciousness is the organization of them. This premised, let us consider under what conditions consciousness becomes nascent.
The lowest form of consciousness that can be conceived, is that resulting from the alternation of two states. While some state A, of the sentient subject, persists, there is no consciousness. While some other state B, persists, there is no consciousness. But when there is a change from state A to state B, or from state B to state A, the change itself constitutes a phenomenon in consciousness, that is—a consciousness. Not that such a consciousness is one which we can in any sense realize to ourselves; or one which would in ordinary language be termed consciousness. We must regard it simply as the first step towards the evolution of a consciousness, properly so called—a step such as we may imagine to have been taken in the lowest animals that manifest sensibility. But now let us inquire what is given in this first step. By the hypothesis, the second state B differs from the first state A—constitutes a second state only in virtue of being different; that is to say, A and B are unlike. Not that there can yet, or for a long time to come, exist any cognition of them as unlike. Such a cognition implies a complicated mental act, that becomes possible only after a considerable development. All which it now concerns us to note, is, that this first phenomenon is one of the experiences out of which are ultimately elaborated the ideas of change, of sequence, of unlikeness. Suppose now that there occurs the change B to A. Here are the materials for a second relation of sequence—a second relation of unlikeness. But this is not all. There has now arisen a second state A, like the first state A. Data have been presented, which, in an advanced consciousness, would constitute a relation of likeness. At present, however, even supposing a latent capacity for thinking such a relation, it cannot be thought, from lack of experiences to class it with. Let there now occur another change, A to B. This constitutes a second relation of unlikeness, of the same nature as the one first established—a change or relation like the before-experienced relation. There are now given the materials which, did there exist a power of co-ordinating them, might compose a thought. There have arisen two relations of likeness between primitive states of consciousness, or sensations—between A and A, and between B and B; and also a relation of likeness between two changes—between two relations of unlikeness. By a practised consciousness, this second change or relation would be thinkable as like the first—might be classified with it, or assimilated to it. Let another change B to A arise. A further relation of unlikeness becomes known as like a foregoing one. And by a perpetual repetition of these changes A—B, B—A, the two states and their two relations tend to become more and more cognizable. Thus, even in a consciousness of the lowest imaginable type, there are foreshadowed the relation of sequence, the relation of unlikeness among the sensations, the relation of likeness among the sensations, the relation of unlikeness among the changes, and the relation of likeness among the changes. The earliest possible experiences are those supplying the raw material from which these cognitions are developed.
Suppose now that a third species of state, C—a third order of sensation, is joined to the others. Further relations of likeness and unlikeness between states and between changes, are the consequence. But it is not simply that there can occur a greater variety of phenomena of the same kind: new kinds of phenomena become possible. The two states A, B, we have assumed to alternate with equal facility in each direction A—B, B—A. If however the new state C, frequently follows B, but never precedes it; there results an experience of two orders of change, which become known by mutual contrast: the duplex change A—B, B—A, answering to the relation of co-existence; and the single change B—C, answering to the relation of sequence proper. Moreover, instead of there being, as at first, no possibility beyond that of perpetual alternation between two states, the introduction of a third state not only renders several combinations possible, but it becomes possible for some particular combination to be established as one of more frequent recurrence than the others; and the recurrence of such particular combination, B—A—C for example, supplies the material for a relation of likeness, not between one single change in consciousness and previous changes, but between a group of changes and previous groups. And yet further, the more varied experiences that now arise of the relations of likeness and unlikeness, which subsist between several kinds of primitive states, several kinds of single changes, and several kinds of compound changes, afford data for the consciousness of likeness and unlikeness in general, apart from the particular terms between which they were first established.
Supposing this introduction of new sensations, new changes, and new combinations among them, to be carried on, step by step; let us mark what must result from that universal law of all mental changes, that the more frequently they have occurred in a certain order, the more easily and rapidly do they follow one another in that order. In proportion as the specially-combined changesD—B—A—C, have been repeated, in the same proportion does the time occupied in the transition from the first to the last become abbreviated; and ultimately, the result is, that this succession of changes takes little or no more time than one of the constituent changes originally did. One consequence of this is, that these compound changes tend to become more and more clearly thinkable as single phenomena in consciousness—more and more readily classable with the like previous phenomena, and distinguishable from others. But now observe further, the important fact, that in proportion as a chain of such changes is consolidated into a single change, in the same proportion do the several sensations which form the antecedents and consequentsof the changes, become present to consciousness together. When the compound change D—B—A—C, takes place, as it ultimately does, almost instantaneously, it results that before the first sensation or idea D, has ceased, the others B, A, C, have severally arisen. Hence there is produced a consolidated consciousness, in which many sensations appear to be simultaneously presented—a consolidated consciousness which answers to some outward object that habitually gives this group of sensations. And we have but to conceive an endless progress in this consolidation of changes, to comprehend how there can arise the consciousness of complex things—how the objects with which human intelligence deals become thinkable as like and unlike—how the highest acts of perception and reason become possible.
§ 101. Of course the actual genesis of intelligence is incomparably more complex than it is here represented to be. This description is intended simply to shadow forth the nature of the process—to exhibit the fundamental principles of it. The successive complications above suggested in rapid succession, cannot in reality arise save by insensible degrees. Each order of experiences must be organized by long-continued habit, before any higher order can be dealt with. Each constantly-united group of states of consciousness, must be more or less completely fused into one state, before any further complexity can be reached by the combination of such groups. In respect of its progress, this organization of experiences must conform to the laws of organization in general; and must therefore be extremely slow.
Taking the above description, however, simply as exhibiting the method of the process in its most general outlines, it will serve to show that at the very outset, in the very first phenomena of a nascent consciousness, there are involved the materials of those fundamental relations to which analysis has, from the very beginning, pointed. It will serve to make more comprehensible, how, out of change, kind of change, degree of change, facility of change, arrangement of change, &c., the infinitely varied states of consciousness may be elaborated. And it will serve to suggest how, by the ever-progressing consolidation of changes—the running together of larger and larger groups and series of them—there can arise, out of a linear succession of internal phenomena, the means of representing those extremely complicated phenomena of coexistence which constitute the external world.