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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Pratik Bahekar, MBBS [2]


Historical Perspective

The origin of the modern concept of consciousness is often attributed to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.[1] Locke defined consciousness as "the perception of what passes in a man's own mind".[2] His essay influenced the 18th-century view of consciousness, and his definition appeared in Samuel Johnson's celebrated 'A Dictionary of the English Language|Dictionary (1755).[3]

The earliest English language uses of "conscious" and "consciousness" date back, however, to the 1500s. The English word "conscious" originally derived from the Latin conscius (con- "together" +scio "to know"), but the Latin word did not have the same meaning as our word—it meant knowing with, in other words having joint or common knowledge with another.[4] There were, however, many occurrences in Latin writings of the phrase conscius sibi, which translates literally as "knowing with oneself", or in other words sharing knowledge with oneself about something. This phrase had the figurative meaning of knowing that one knows, as the modern English word "conscious" does. In its earliest uses in the 1500s, the English word "conscious" retained the meaning of the Latin conscius. For example, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (book)|Leviathan wrote: "Where two, or more men, know of one and the same fact, they are said to be Conscious of it one to another."[5] The Latin phrase conscius sibi, whose meaning was more closely related to the current concept of consciousness, was rendered in English as "conscious to oneself" or "conscious unto oneself". For example, Archbishop Ussher wrote in 1613 of "being so conscious unto myself of my great weakness".[6] Locke's definition from 1690 illustrates that a gradual shift in meaning had taken place.

A related word was :la:conscientia|conscientia, which primarily means morality|moral conscience. In the literal sense, "conscientia" means knowledge-with, that is, shared knowledge. The word first appears in Latin juridical texts by writers such as Cicero.[7] Here, conscientia is the knowledge that a witness has of the deed of someone else.[8] René Descartes (1596–1650) is generally taken to be the first philosopher to use "conscientia" in a way that does not fit this traditional meaning.[9] Descartes used "conscientia" the way modern speakers would use "conscience". In Search after Truth he says "conscience or internal testimony" (conscientia vel interno testimonio).[10]

For many decades, consciousness as a research topic was avoided by the majority of mainstream scientists, because of a general feeling that a phenomenon defined in subjective terms could not properly be studied using objective experimental methods.[11] In 1975 George Mandler published an influential psychological study which distinguished between slow, serial, and limited conscious processes and fast, parallel and extensive unconscious ones.[12] Starting in the 1980s, an expanding community of neuroscientists and psychologists have associated themselves with a field called Consciousness Studies, giving rise to a stream of experimental work published in books,[13] journals such as Consciousness and Cognition, and methodological work published in journals such as the Journal of Consciousness Studies, along with regular conferences organized by groups such as the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.[14]

Modern scientific investigations into consciousness are based on psychological experiments (including, for example, the investigation of priming effects using subliminal stimuli), and on case studies of alterations in consciousness produced by trauma, illness, or drugs. Broadly viewed, scientific approaches are based on two core concepts. The first identifies the content of consciousness with the experiences that are reported by human subjects; the second makes use of the concept of consciousness that has been developed by neurologists and other medical professionals who deal with patients whose behavior is impaired. In either case, the ultimate goals are to develop techniques for assessing consciousness objectively in humans as well as other animals, and to understand the neural and psychological mechanisms that underlie it.


  1. Locke, John. "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter XXVII)". Australia: University of Adelaide. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
  2. "Science & Technology: consciousness". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
  3. {{cite book|title=A Dictionary of the English Language |authors=[[Samuel Johnson |publisher=Knapton |year=1756 |url=}}
  4. {{cite book |title=Studies in words |author =[[C. S. Lewis|year=1990 |publisher=Cambridge University Press |chapter=Ch. 8: Conscience and conscious |isbn=978-0-521-39831-2}}
  5. Thomas Hobbes (1904). Leviathan: or, The Matter, Forme & Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. University Press. p. 39.
  6. James Ussher, Charles Richard Elrington (1613). The whole works, Volume 2. Hodges and Smith. p. 417.
  7. James Hastings and John A. Selbie (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 7. Kessinger Publishing. p. 41. ISBN 0-7661-3677-9.
  8. G. Melenaar. Mnemosyne, Fourth Series. 22. Brill. pp. 170–180.
  9. Boris Hennig (2007). "Cartesian Conscientia". British Journal for the History of Philosophy. 15: 455–484.
  10. Sara Heinämaa, Vili Lähteenmäki, Pauliina Remes (eds.) (2007). Consciousness: from perception to reflection in the history of philosophy. Springer. pp. 205–206. ISBN 978-1-4020-6081-6.
  11. Horst Hendriks-Jansen (1996). Catching ourselves in the act: situated activity, interactive emergence, evolution, and human thought. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. p. 114. ISBN 0-262-08246-2.
  12. Mandler, G. Consciousness: Respectable, useful, and probably necessary. In R.Solso (Ed.)Information processing and cognition: NJ: LEA.
  13. Mandler, G. Consciousness recovered: Psychological functions and origins of thought. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 2002
  14. Stuart Hameroff, Alfred Kaszniak, David Chalmers (1999). "Preface". Toward a Science of Consciousness III: The Third Tucson Discussions and Debates. MIT Press. pp. xix–xx. ISBN 978-0-262-58181-3.