ENGL 12720 Inventing Consciousness: Literature, Philosophy, Psychology

What is consciousness? What is it like to be conscious? This course answers these questions by examining the emergence and development of consciousness as a concept. As a phenomenon, consciousness probably came into being deep in evolutionary time. Yet as a concept consciousness is relatively new: the European notion of consciousness emerges in the late seventeenth century. This course draws on literature, history, philosophy, and psychology to examine how the concept of consciousness came to possess its explanatory dominance. We will start by acquiring a sense of what consciousness now means in philosophy, biology, neuroscience, and fiction, paying particular attention to how the concept differs from similar ideas in ancient Indian philosophy. We will then turn to two important historical moments. First, we will examine 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 relates to the “stream of consciousness” techniques in the work of Virginia Woolf. This course stresses historical contingency—consciousness has a birthdate—in order to explore a consequence that follows from this fact: the extent to which current uses of this concept are still shaped by the historical circumstances that conditioned its emergence.

2020-2021 Spring