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Pure consciousness

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Experience of anything can be spelled out as ‘consciousness of something’. The ‘of something’ part indicates the intentional nature of experience, or its being about some sort of content. The ‘consciousness’ part relates to the subjective feeling of experiencing something, or to the quality of having a certain experience. In this (ordinary) scheme, the idea of consciousness is thus naturally intertwined with two other ideas: intentionality and subjectivity. This view might be spelled out further by saying, for instance, that consciousness has an intentional structure, or (inclusive) is shaped by a subject-object polarity.

However, assume that it is possible to switch off the intentional component of experience. To imagine how this might work, you can posit increasingly subtler and fuzzier objects of experience, until one reaches a state in which experience seems no longer to have any proper object. To avoid the objection that ‘no object’ is still a sui generis object of experience, one might go even further and imagine that intentionality turns away from any object at all, it simply ceases. What would the implications be?

If one maintains that, with the cessation of intentionality, all experience whatsoever ceases as well, then one could argue that consciousness and intentionality are essentially related, and in fact consciousness has an intentional structure. If one switches off intentionality, one is actually switching off consciousness.

However, one might also contend that the experience of no intentional object or content count as a proper and distinguishable experience, precisely because it is the experience of the cessation of intentionality. This experience cannot be easily objectified in a description because, by definition, it lacks any object that could be easily described as its typical feature. But the experience of the cessation of intentionality does not necessarily have to be a complete experiential black out or a deep anesthesia. It can be just this: an experience in which no intentional activity takes place and no target object is taken up.

This non-intentional experience reveals a form of ‘pure’ consciousness. In the ordinary view of intentional consciousness, the consciousness element is used to express the subjective side of experience. However, when the objective side is removed, one can say that also the subjective side (at least, in its most common understanding) is removed, since the idea of ‘subject’ is correlative to that of an ‘object’ and it is also an intentional construction. Pure consciousness, or the 'experiencing side’ of experience, is more fundamental than the ‘subjective side’ of experience. It represents a feature that is in fact so fundamental that whenever it is objectified or represented by a concept, it ceases to work as pure consciousness (i.e., we can arrive at a notion of ‘pure consciousness’ but this notion is not pure consciousness itself). This element of pure consciousness does not add a ‘subjective’ flavor to experience, since also that subjective flavor is part of what is constructed through intentionality. And not being intentional by itself, pure consciousness also lacks a function or a purpose to fulfill (which are again intentional constructions). We cannot ask: what’s the role of pure consciousness in the structure of experience? Pure consciousness does not have any role to play anywhere. All that can be said and pointed at in this respect is this: pure consciousness is just the fact that there is experience, its appearing as such.

This picture leads to a modified account of experience. Instead of the ordinary scheme in which experience of anything is presented as ‘consciousness of something’, we can now think instead of ordinary experience as ‘pure consciousness + some intentional structure (i.e., subject+object)’ (with pure consciousness itself being a sui generis experience). In other words, pure consciousness and intentionality run on two separate layers, and by being superimposed upon each other, they give the impression that consciousness itself is intentional by nature.

One question that emerges at this point is what is the experiential difference in blending these two layers (as it would ordinarily occur) or rather discerning their relative independence and difference. When consciousness and intentionality are conflated, then experience is prominently about objects. And since intentionality proliferates on itself, experience tends to proliferate as well. Intentionality proliferates in the sense that aiming at a certain object most often entails reactions to that object, which elicit new intentions and thus feed the same process. If the two layers are seen as separate, instead, the unfolding of intentional reactions can be experienced as relatively independent from the fact of experiencing as such. Intentionality might or might not disappear from experience, but experiencing as such is not affected by its presence or absence.

Since intentional attitudes aim at objects, they evoke also a correlative subjective perspective. The proliferation of intentionality thus entails not only a proliferation at the objective level, but also at the subjective level. This means that the more entangled intentionality becomes with objects, the thicker also the notion of subjectivity is. However, the notion of subjectivity is predicated upon the assumption that the subject of experience is somehow the ground of experience, or that for which experience appears. A perhaps coarse but common way of expressing this view is that the subject is consciousness itself, or that consciousness is inherent in the subject of experience, or that consciousness expresses the subject as it experiences something. The clear discernment that intentionality and consciousness are in fact separate domains undermines this assumption and thus undercuts the proliferation of intentionality at the subjective level. While intentionality can still move from one object to the next (based on connections, relations, implications between those objects and related intentional acts), the correlative proliferation of a subjective side of experience will be consistently countered. Hence, insofar as intentionality keeps unfolding, it will be progressively purged from its subjective side precisely because of the recognition and clear discernment of the difference between intentionality and pure consciousness.

While the experience of pure consciousness is consistent with a minimal or completely empty intentional content, it is also consistent with a more robust unfolding of intentionality. However, insofar as there is no confusion of pure consciousness as such with intentionality, then this very discernment will undercut the subjective proliferation of intentionality, allowing the objective stream of intention to unfold as if it was following a spontaneous and autonomous drive.

But what does make the conflation between pure consciousness and intentionality in the first place? This too is an intentional construction, based upon and fed by intentional proliferation on both objective and subjective fronts. Hence, the countering of this form of intentional proliferation undermines the conflation between pure consciousness and intentionality, which in turn undermines the subjective proliferation of intentionality, until the whole flow of experience reduces to a spontaneous flow of intentions amidst an unaffected landscape of pure consciousness.

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