[Presented at the Toward a Science of Consciousness (Tucson III) Conference, April 30th 1998. (Abstract published in Consciousness Research Abstracts (3) 1998 p. 36.)]
A somewhat revised version of this article
has now been published in Danish translation as:
Thomas, N.J.T. (2006), "Fantasi, Eliminativisme og Bevidsthedens Forhistorie," Slagmark: Tidsskrift for Idéhistorie (46) 15-31.
Classical and medieval writers had no term for consciousness in anything like the modern sense, and their philosophy seems not to have been troubled by the mind-body problem. Contemporary eliminativists find strong support in this fact for their claim that consciousness does not exist, or, at least, is not an appropriate scientific explanandum. They typically hold that contemporary conceptions of consciousness are artefacts of Descartes' (now outmoded) views about matter and his unrealistic craving for epistemological certainty. Essentially, they say, our belief in consciousness is a residue of once pressing, but now irrelevant, intellectual tensions between religion and the rising new science of the Early Modern period. With the attempts of Descartes and his successors to resolve these tensions, Western thought began down a track toward the conceptual cul-de-sac of the "hard problem". Plausibly, the problem will only be (dis)solved, and the onward march of science assured, when we are able to shake off the pervasive influence of the Cartesian tradition in a way that goes far beyond the mere rejection of dualism. But when we do so, eliminativists contend, the distinctively Cartesian notion of consciousness will simply drop out of our world-picture, like phlogiston or the vital entelechy.
However, few of us find eliminativism toward consciousness plausible: our own conscious experience is just too vivid and immediate, and consciousness is a much more intuitive and generally accepted notion than phlogiston or entelechy ever were. I argue that it really is not a Cartesian invention after all. Once we realize that many aspects of consciousness and the mind-body relation were discussed in former times, under the rubric of "imagination", we escape having to defend the absurd position that consciousness, though people always had it, was just never remarked upon by writers before the 17th century. We may also then find a place outside the Cartesian tradition, but still integrated into the Western world view as a whole, for our continuing investigation of the subject.
In Aristotelian, Hellenistic, and various Early Modern philosophies, and in Roman and Medieval neuroscience, imagination and the closely related technical notion of sensus communis played conceptual roles closely related to those played by consciousness today, and if a "hard problem" was not recognized, that was more because of pre-Cartesian conceptions of matter rather than anything missing from conceptions of mind.
Recovering this 'pre-history' of the development of the concept of consciousness will allow us to answer the historicist arguments for eliminativism, and recovering our sense of the kinship between consciousness and imagination should help us to improve our understanding of both of these deeply contested concepts, and to get a better sense of just what questions science can meaningfully ask about them. "The problem of consciousness" may be largely coextensive with that of understanding how imagination (in the old-fashioned sense) can work. This problem was not solved in pre-Cartesian times, but modern Cognitive Science has already made significant inroads on it.
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