What Is Consciousness?
An Overview of Various Definitions

By: Mark Bancroft, MA


Attempts to define consciousness can be most readily traced back to the writings of William James (1842-1910). What consciousness is and how it originates has received a multitude of possible explanations throughout the last century and beyond. In the article Metanalysis of definitions of consciousnesswriter I. Baruss shares that there are at least 29 varying definitions of consciousness [Wallace & Fisher, 1991]. A definitive definition does not exist; therefore, a survey of various definitions may prove to be the ideal method for understanding what consciousness is and how it originates.

William James defined consciousness as the "function of knowing". He considered consciousness a tool which, by its nature, is selective, fluid, and personal- a tool founded upon logic which serves to create an inner coherent reality. James also believed consciousness to be a continuous process. He considered sleep a "time-gap" during which consciousness subsides, but remains in tact; for, upon awakening people are the same person they were before sleep. James' theory of consciousness denotes consciousness as being most closely related to thought, and awarenessof oneself in the world during waking moments.

More recent definitions of consciousness supports the writings of William James. The joint or mutual knowledgedefinition considers consciousness to be an expression closely related to the ability to share thoughts with others. Through learnt interaction a person develops the ability to be aware of her/himself. Associated with this definition is the radical behaviorists' view which claims that without the ability to express one's inner experience with other people (sharing of mutual/joint knowledge) self-awareness would not exist. Thus, the expression of conscious awareness is a learnt phenomenon dependent upon social interaction and conditioning.

Contrary to the above definition is one in which consciousness is seen as the ability for internal knowing. Rather than being considered a social construct consciousness arises from within an individual. A combination of the mutual/joint knowledge definition and that of internal knowing is the definition that consciousness is a state of awareness. This definition considers consciousness to be a state in which knowledge of one's internal domain, as well as the outside world coexist. External knowledge is derived from the senses allowing a person to be aware of her/his inner and outer worlds.

Consciousness has also been defined as: "the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings which make up a person's conscious being." This general definition postulates that consciousness is the sum of all which occurs within the mind. The American Heritage Dictionary offers an equally vague definition of consciousness, "The state or condition of being conscious"; conscious being defined as: "Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts."

Due to the dynamic nature of consciousness the most recent definitions consider consciousness to exist at many levels- defining consciousness as the processing of information at various levels of awareness. Rather than excluding all phenomenon outside the realm of rational thought, this more inclusive definition allows for the existence of altered states, paranormal occurrences, as well as multiple levels/ degrees of consciousness. An expanded view of consciousness may be the only way to really begin to understand what consciousness is and the forms that it takes.

Definition, by its nature, aims at simplifying objects, concepts, and experiences into their most fundamental and essential elements. In the above definitions consciousness is most often equated with the ability to know one's thoughts- to experience an I within who experiences a world without. To define consciousness in simplistic phrases results in vague, general descriptions which offer marginal value in understanding what consciousness is. At this time a universal definition of consciousness does not exist. Apparently consciousness is too dynamic to be reduced into a six-word phrase such as all that occurs in the mind. Therefore, a clearer understanding of the multiplicity's surrounding consciousness may need to be arrived at by an investigation of the different theories associated with consciousness.

More definitive explanations of consciousness are offered through a wide variety of theories and models. From the discipline of neurology, in particular the work of Daniel Dennett, we are offered the theory that consciousness in itself is nothing special- it arises from the ordered complexity of neurons firing throughout the brain. The brain theoryconfines consciousness to physical matter exiting within the boundaries of the physical body, in particular, the head. This and other similar theories seek to resolve the mysterious question of what consciousness is by isolating it as a phenomenon generated by an organic brain. This reductionistic approach is a clear reflection of the Cartesian worldview. "Pinning consciousness to some biological structure has long been a favorite pastime for scientists and philosophers alike. For example, over four centuries ago, French philosopher René Descartes concluded that the peniel gland, a small organ located at the base of the brain, was the seat of consciousness."

Physics, the hard science of the twentieth century, has developed a bitter-close relationship with consciousness. Through the advancements made in subatomic physics (quantum physics) scientists have partaken of experiments which seem to insist upon the inclusion of consciousness in order to be explained. The Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) is the standard interpretation of the quantum world. It offers a rare explanation for the otherwise incredulous experimental outcomes of the famous two-slit experiment and the EPR experiment. The theory maintains that reality exists in the form of probability waves. Physical objects only "appear" due to the collapse of their probability waves by a consciousobserver. Thus, according to the majority of quantum physicists, consciousness can, and does, affect matter existing beyond the boundaries of the physical body.

More inclusive theories describing what consciousness is have existed for more than a century. Though not formulated upon the scientific method, the following theories may offer important material for consideration in understanding consciousness. Theosophy, an esoteric school of thought, views consciousness as a multi-dimensional Oneness that cannot be consciously known. The Secret Doctrine reads:

The Boundless (absolute consciousness) can have no relation to the bounded and the conditioned. In the occult teachings, the Unknown and the Unknowable mover, or the Self-Existing, is the absolute divine Essence. And thus being Absolute Consciousness, and Absolute Motion- to the limited senses of those who describe this indescribable- it is unconsciousness and immoveableness…Consciousness implies limitations and qualifications; something to be conscious of, and someone to be conscious of it. But Absolute Consciousness contains the cognizer, the thing cognized and the cognition, all three in itself and all three one [Blavatsky, 1888].

The above model offers three potentially critical clues that may be need to be considered for a more comprehensive understanding of consciousness. 1.) Consciousness may consist of multiple, perhaps infinite "levels". An accurate description of one level may not constitute a description of the totality. 2.) Our ordinary means of perception may not be capable of offering an absolute understanding of consciousness. Rational/ logical thought may currently be incapable of offering a complete understanding. 3.) Consciousness has a paradoxical nature. It is an expression of many levels, yet it is all one expression.

The 1946 book, Thinking and Destiny,by H.W. Percival was written while the author was in an altered state of consciousness. While in an ASC the author perceived himself to be conscious upon another level of consciousness sometimes referred to as the Buddhic Plane. It was upon this expanded level of consciousness that the book was dictated. While perceiving what consciousness is Percival explains:

Consciousness is the ultimate, the final Reality. Consciousness is that by the presence of which all things are conscious. Mystery of all mysteries, it is beyond comprehension. Without it nothing can be conscious; no one could think; no being, no entity, no force, no unit, could perform any function. Yet Consciousness itself performs no function: it does not act in any way; it is a presence, everywhere. Although there are countless degrees in being conscious, there are no degrees of Consciousness. Consciousness has no properties, no qualities, no attributes; it does no possess; it cannot be possessed. Consciousness never began; it cannot cease to be. Consciousness IS [1946].

Percival's explanation of consciousness, as well as the explanation found in the Secret Doctrine consider consciousness as being greater than, yet including, the individual. To be conscious is a derivative of something far greater- this something greater is called consciousness.

The diverging views between Daniel Dennett (consciousness being a neurological phenomenon contained within the brain) and those of religion reflect our collective understanding of consciousness in the West. Currently that understanding may be more accurately depicted as a fragmented set of opposing theories and meanderings most of which claim to offer a correct interpretation, yet none of which resolve the obvious contradictions surrounding the question "What is consciousness?"

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Blavatsky, H.P. (1888). The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Volume I. Cosmogenesis. London: Theosophical University Press.

Guiley, R.E. (1991). Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.

McGreal, Ian P. (Ed.). (1992). Great Thinkers of the Western World.New York: Harper Collins.

Percival, H.W. (1946). Thinking and Destiny.Dallas, TX: The Word Foundation, Inc.

Wallace, B. & Fisher, L.E. (1991). Consciousness and Behavior. (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA

Article: Copyright (C) 1998. Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT, Nevada City, CA, 95959. All rights reserved.