Inventing Consciousness: Literature, Philosophy, Psychology

Spring 2018-2019


Tim Harrison

What is consciousness? What is it like to be conscious? What is the relationship between personal identity and consciousness? How do historically determined and culturally specific ways of knowing impact human self-understanding? This course attempts to answer these questions by examining the historical emergence and development of consciousness as a concept. We will begin with a hypothesis: consciousness is an historical achievement. As a phenomenon, consciousness probably came into being somewhere deep in evolutionary time. Yet as a concept consciousness is relatively new: the Western European notion of consciousness emerges only in the late seventeenth century. This course draws on the resources of literature, history, philosophy, and psychology to examine how the concept of consciousness came to possess the explanatory dominance it currently holds. We will start by acquiring a sense of what consciousness now means in philosophy, psychology, and the neurosciences, paying particular attention to how the Western concept differs from similar ideas in traditions like Buddhism. After examining the pre-history of consciousness by reading such authors as William Shakespeare, we will then turn to two historical moments that were central to the concept’s development. First, we will train our attention on the interplay between philosophy and literature in the late seventeenth century, reading texts by René Descartes, John Milton, Thomas Traherne, and John Locke. Second, we will focus on how, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the psychology of William James contributed to the development of “stream of consciousness” techniques in the novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Throughout this course, we will stress the historical contingency of this concept—consciousness has a birthdate—in order to determine the nature of a consequence that follows from this fact: the extent to which current uses of this concept are still shaped and constrained by the historical circumstances that conditioned its appearance and development. (1650-1830, 1830-1940, Fiction, Poetry) This is a 2018-19 College Signature Course.