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Changing constructions of consciousness

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No fresh-minted concept like the fluid genome or indeed sexual harassment (neither concept being available thirty years ago), consciousness has become immensely fashionable, but this time round as part of the new found cultural popularity of the natural sciences. However, what is immediately noticeable about the proliferation over the past decade of books and journals with ‘consciousness’ in their titles or invoked in their texts is that they seem to be drawn to the cultural glamour of the concept, but with little sense that the concept of consciousness has an entirely other history. Consciousness seems to lie around in the culture like a sparkling jewel, irresistible to the neuro-theorists. There seems to be no recognition amongst the many biologists, artificial intelligencers, physicists and philosophers who have played in print with their new toy that consciousness is part of another discourse and has an entirely other history. Above all, I want to underline that while for these neuro-theorists, consciousness is located within the individual human organism (and sometimes just the brain within that), the older tradition, coming from the humanities and social theory, sees consciousness as located in subjectivity and inter-subjectivity in historical context. The methodological individualism expressed in the objectivist language of the natural sciences erases both ‘me’ and ‘you'; by contrast, in social theory, both agency and structure are crucial. For social theory there can be no development of individual consciousness without a social context.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Sociology, The City University, 4 Lloyd Square, London WC1X 9BA, UK.

Publication date: 1999-11-01

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