What actually is the ‘world’ of consciousness? There I’d like to say: ‘What goes on in my mind, what’s going on in it now, what I see, hear….’ Couldn’t we simplify that and say ‘What I am now seeing’? (LW2, p. 95)
Wittgenstein’s arguments on privacy show that a reassessment of our approach to the Inner is necessary; however, the attempt to carry out this task clashes with some of our deepest philosophical prejudices. The main source of resistance is the feeling that Wittgenstein’s approach denies the essence of our experience. The notion of consciousness, for example, seems to force the idea of privacy upon us, for the natural way to view it is as an inner realm made up of a continuous succession of private experiences. On this approach, the difference between the various psychological concepts is that each corresponds to a different ‘content of consciousness’. But what does this actually mean? If we consider specific cases, the idea of a content of consciousness suddenly seems less plausible. Take belief, for example. What is the content of consciousness when someone believes something? The natural suggestion is that believing something involves having a mental image which corresponds to the belief. The problem, however, is that images are often ambiguous, and with some beliefs it is far from clear what image would correspond to them. The alternative suggestion that the proposition itself is present to the mind is just as unclear. Indeed, it is hard to see how we could explain what being present to the mind means without recourse to the notion of an image, and yet believing that the earth
is round does not involve constantly having a image of this proposition nor occasionally having one. The example of belief shows both that the idea of a content of consciousness is far from clear and that the most obvious candidate for such a content is an image. In fact, the notion of an image exercises a pervasive influence over our understanding of consciousness and has dominated philosophical thinking about it since the beginning of modern philosophy. When Hume, for example, divides experience into ideas and impressions, he takes the example of the mental image as his model for an impression and treats ideas as copies of these impressions. In this way, sense-impressions, and more particularly visual sense-impressions, come to be treated as the paradigm of inner experience. What lies behind the idea of consciousness as a succession of experiences is the idea of a succession of images; in its essence, the inner realm is a realm of pictures, real and imaginedthe world of consciousness is a space peopled with impressions (RPP1, para. 720). The best way therefore to explore the notion of consciousness is to examine the idea of sense-impressions and in particular the concept of vision. This will enable us to confront the suggestion that Wittgenstein is denying a key aspect of our experience and by demystifying the notion of consciousness will show how the concept of the Inner can be treated in a clear but non-reductive way.