Transformations in Consciousness:
Continuity, The Self, and Marginal Consciousness
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 3, 2000, pp. 3-26
P. Sven Arvidson
Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy
Seattle University, Seattle, WA, USA
(There are slight differences between this version and that found in JCS. The latter is the
definitive version. To cite appropriately, please go to original in JCS)
The term “consciousness” is usually reserved only for the focus of attention. This
restriction empties the phenomenology of consciousness of some of its richness. Rather than
conceiving of consciousness as one-dimensional, researchers should consider that consciousness
has a three-dimensional organization. Conscious presentations are structured in a focus, context,
and margin pattern. Inclusion of these other dimensions of consciousness as consciousness
(rather than, e.g., as unconsciousness) is important for an adequate relation between scientific
method and phenomenology. The problem becomes especially acute when transformations in
consciousness--attentional and temporal continuity--are considered. Using Aron Gurwitsch‟s
work, this paper presents an alternative to Galen Strawson‟s view of consciousness and the self,
as an example of the usefulness of this fuller conception of consciousness. I argue here that there
is significant attentional and temporal continuity in consciousness, and that this continuity
provides for a sense of the self as a distinct, but continuous experience.
Transformations in Consciousness:
Continuity, The Self, and Marginal Consciousness
One of the most fascinating things about the way that conscious presentation is organized
is that it does not just have a center or focus. Relevant contextual items and irrelevant marginal
items are presented with the central item in attention. Good work can be done in consciousness
studies without including context and margin within the concept of consciousness. A number of
authors consider these two to be a sort of “unconsciousness” or non-consciousness. But the
fuller conception of consciousness as organized multi-dimensionally accords better with a
phenomenology of consciousness. Articulating this fuller conception, and explaining how it
relates to the continuity of consciousness and the experience of the self, is the focus of this paper.
Recently, Galen Strawson (1997) has claimed that consciousness often lapses or goes on
holiday. This claim suggests two interesting questions. First, how or where is the self when it is
not the focus of attention? Second, and more fundamentally (ignoring cases of deep sleep, coma,
etc.): is there always consciousness or does consciousness come and go?1
In his considerations of the self and time, Strawson (1997, p. 421) comes to ask “How
does the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness relate to the sense of the self? Does it
underwrite [it]?”. In other words, does consciousness somehow underpin the human sense of
self, the self we experience as a long-term continuity? Strawson answers No. His reason is that
consciousness does not have continuity--it goes on holiday--therefore it cannot underwrite any
perceived continuity of self. He writes, “When I am alone and thinking I find that my
fundamental experience of consciousness is one of repeated returns into consciousness from a
state of complete, if momentary, unconsciousness” (1997, p. 422). The argument is that if
consciousness does not have continuity, then it cannot provide continuity to the sense of self.
And he proposes that consciousness is radically “gappy” or disconnected, and so, not having
continuity, it does not provide us with a sense of the self as continuous.
Strawson‟s answer should have been Yes; consciousness is structured in such a way that
it provides for a sense of the continuity of the self. More importantly, consciousness does not
often go on holiday--it is not ordinarily radically disconnected. I will argue that (1) focal or
thematic attention waxes and wanes and transforms, but does not necessarily disappear, (2) there
is a sense of experiential duration or phenomenal time, the stream of consciousness, that is
almost always at least marginally present in consciousness, and (3) the self is marginal
phenomenal temporality (the “stream”) occasionally made thematic. In short, my argument is
that there is significant attentional and temporal continuity in consciousness. The claims are
based on an articulation of the phenomena and on a three-dimensional model of consciousness
presented in the next two sections. Let me add that Strawson (or anyone) can hold this view of
the continuity of consciousness through time and still claim that the self is all of the things (or is
the thing) that Strawson claims it is.2
When describing conscious organization, it is useful to distinguish between the field of
consciousness (all that is presented or intended in consciousness) and the consciousness of field
(the presenting or intending activity). Outside of the phenomenological frame, this distinction
refers to that between the contents and acts of consciousness. Although they are correlated,
continuity in the field of consciousness is articulated in terms of attentional transformations, and
continuity in the consciousness of field in terms of temporal transformations.
II. At Play in The Field of Consciousness
It is amazing how pervasive figure and ground are in experience. At each and every
moment of experience, with few exceptions,3 there is a figure and a ground, a focus of attention
and a context for that focus. A recent 20th century phenomenologist, Aron Gurwitsch, wrote The
Field of Consciousness in 1964 to describe how figure and ground, which he expanded as
“theme” and “thematic-field,” work in our conscious life.4 Gurwitsch (1966, pp. 267-8) writes
that the total field of consciousness can be symbolized by a circle, “The theme with which we are
dealing occupies the center of this circle; it stands in the thematic-field, which--to abide by the
metaphor--forms the area of the circle; and around the thematic-field, at the periphery as it were,
the objects of marginal consciousness are arranged”. For the purposes of this paper, figure, focus
and theme are taken as roughly equivalent terms, as are ground, context, and thematic-field.
An Example: Bob‟s Tie
Suppose you sit in a small business meeting. Although the CEO is talking, you are not
really listening. Your attention is on the red tie that Bob has worn to today‟s meeting. The tie
stands out for you in your field of vision, your attention is captured by it. But it is not presented
as a bare fact of some sort, “a red tie” and nothing else. Many other perceptions, musings and
wonderings can surround the tie as it is presented to you. If Bob‟s tie is the focus of your
attention, it is situated within a context or situation; it is presented within a certain attitude or
brings with it a meaning. That is, there is something going through your mind as you look at
Bob‟s red tie. Perhaps you muse about the kinds of ties that Bob buys. Or perhaps you wonder if
it is really silk. Also, Bob‟s tie may be perceptually connected to Bob, and to the suit he is
wearing. The theme presented is never a bare theme, it is always presented contextually. So
Bob‟s tie as figure may be presented against the background of the kinds of ties that Bob buys,
the suit he is wearing and so on. These other items are not the focus of attention, they are not the
theme. The theme is the red tie. Nonetheless these other items are also presented (i.e., co-
presented). They are relevant to the theme, but are not themselves thematic. They are items in
But what else is presented as you focus on Bob‟s tie? Are you not also at least marginally
aware of being in a room, at a table, sitting? Indeed, you are marginally aware of these things
and also of the placement of the room in the building, the hardness of the table, the hum of the
overhead lighting, the droning of the CEO, etc. You are even marginally aware of the streaming
of your consciousness, the duration of time as it is experienced (not clock time necessarily).
None of this is crucial or even relevant to Bob‟s red tie, but it is co-presented nonetheless. Since
these items are not relevant for the red tie in the sense that Bob‟s choice in ties or his suit is
relevant background (according to our imagined scenario), these items are not presented as part
of the thematic-field. And since they are not relevant contextually, they must be irrelevant or
marginal. The third term of conscious experience is the margin, the area of irrelevant co-
The Field of Consciousness: Theme, Thematic-Field, Margin
So no matter where we play in the field of consciousness, excluding certain limit cases,
there are always three dimensions to what we experience: theme, thematic-field, and margin.
Each region or dimension has its own type of organization. 5
The theme is organized by a Gestalt connection called Gestalt-coherence, where each
constituent of the theme is interwoven and interdependent such that the theme is presented as a
unit (a tie, the thought of Descartes‟ cogito, a crowd of people, the memory of ripping one‟s
pants in grade school, and so on). For example, in the theme “a crowd of people,” the formative
constituents (i.e., those most dominant) will likely include some of the people themselves, but it
is wrong to suppose that they are singled-out from the Gestalt in any substantial manner, i.e., as
thematic. Or in the memory of ripping one‟s pants in school as theme, the formative (i.e., most
dominant) constituents may include the (replay of the) sound of the fabric seam splitting, and so
on, with formed (i.e., less dominant) constituents taking their cue from these few. It is Gestalt-
coherence, a functional significance or thoroughgoing interrelation of each constituent for each
other, that marks off the theme as a unit from the thematic-field (Gurwitsch, 1964, pp. 354-58).
A theme can also be presented as partially formed, so that the process of integration of
constituents is interrupted, resumed, half-completed, etc. Nonetheless there is a focus of
attention in these phases of consciousness. The coming into and going out of thematic presence
continuously occurs in the field of consciousness. As will be shown, most scholars (including
Strawson) give presentational credit in consciousness only to fully formed or intensely
The thematic-field is organized by a Gestalt connection called unity of relevance
(Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 341), where items are presented in the field as wholly or vaguely formed
Gestalts, but none are central in the way that the theme is. Instead thematic-field items are all
relatively intercoherent with each other, and relevant to the theme, providing a context for the
theme. The thematic-field can be presented as more or less clear, even as dim or compact, and it
is rarely given in full clarity. The thematic-field extends indefinitely into a vague domain
through presented pointing references (Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 379). Many researchers would call
context (and margin) “unconscious”. But the thematic-field as context is attended to, we are
conscious of it, so it is a part of consciousness.
The margin entails all that is presented as irrelevant to the theme; and the organization
between items in the margin, and between the margin and the theme, and the margin and the
thematic-field, is one of mere co-presentation, addition, or co-temporality (Gurwitsch, 1985; and
1966, pp. 267-86; and 1964, pp. 414-20). In other words, marginal items just happen to be
presented with the theme and thematic-field, and with other marginal items. There is no internal
relatedness of content between marginal items themselves or between marginal items and the
theme or thematic-field. In the next section, independently of Gurwitsch‟s account, I will
develop an articulation of how marginal items can have a dynamic connection with the theme,
although not a connection of material relevance. Also, some marginal items can be externally
related to the theme or thematic-field, without being relevant to their content. Gurwitsch (1966,
p. 268; cf. 1985, p. xliii) writes, “To exemplify this difference, for which we use the terms „halo‟
and „horizon‟ respectively, consider the case that, while dealing with a mathematical proposition,
we recall our having already thought about this proposition before, having demonstrated it, etc.,
and simultaneously experience a wish arising (e.g., to go outdoors)”. It is the marginal “halo”
(the remembrance in this example) that will be the primary focus when I later discuss
temporality. The margin, like the thematic-field, constantly presents potential themes
(Gurwitsch, 1985, p. 50; 1964, pp. 365-75). For example, the distant roar of the airplane
overhead I now hear as marginal. But now that I allow it to, it has replaced my current theme and
the whole field of consciousness has also transformed--a new theme, a new thematic-field, and a
Elsewhere (see Arvidson, 1992b) I have pointed out the differences in field-theory
between William James and Gurwitsch, but it is worth summarizing here because James‟ name is
usually associated with any discussion of these matters. James recognized the division of the
field of consciousness into what is central (a “focus”) and what is not (a “margin”). He also
realized that each has a separate function. But what interested him was the temporal flow and
perceptual flux of the phenomenal field. Thus he stressed temporal structure over other inherent
organizational structures in the field. In short, Gurwitsch articulated a distinction in James‟
“margin” between what is relevant and what is irrelevant for the theme, that is, between a
thematic-field and a margin in the narrower sense (1964, p. 22). James‟ notion of “fringes” has
the promise of representing this distinction, but James does not fully develop the fringe as a
separate dimension of consciousness, treating it as just one type of transitory part among others
(James, 1981, p. 249; see Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 301-31).6
III. The Role of Attention in Theme, Thematic-Field, Margin
The previous section has already suggested one way in which humans are always
conscious in ordinary waking life, but it remains to be made explicit. This section introduces a
typology of attention, a typology that is adapted from Gurwitsch (1966, pp. 223-67; also see
Arvidson, 1996). One of the main points of this section is that a break or lapse in consciousness,
if it ever occurs, would be truly extraordinary, rather than commonplace as Strawson (1997)
claims. If shifts of attention in consciousness are essentially typical and regulated
transformations of presentation, and if the three-part pattern of theme, thematic-field, margin is
stable and continuous throughout even the most seemingly discontinuous transformations, then
with respect to attentional shifts consciousness does not necessarily go on holiday.
By typical transformation I am referring to the directional and dimensional change in the
phenomenal presentation necessary for it to be a transformation of a specific type. It is supposed
that these transformations are typical but not exhaustive of the possible attentional
transformations of presentation in consciousness. Because each type of attentional change is
distinct, there is not one type of attention. This fact deserves highlighting because it is generally
not recognized in current scholarship. The four types here are duration, simple succession,
radical succession, margin to theme succession.
By regulated transformation I mean that a theme may admit transformations of a specific
type or types. Gurwitsch (1966, p. 248; see Husserl, 1970, pp. 166-7) postulates “The General
Transformation Law,” stating “To every phenomenal datum there correspond others into which
the former can be „transformed‟”. Gurwitsch (1966, p. 223) states, “[D]efinite essential
possibilities for thematic modifications are pre-traced by the peculiar nature of the theme and the
structural organization of its constituents, by the place which the theme has in its field, by the
specific structure of the field, and its distinctiveness within the domain of the co-given. The
possibility of thematic modifications is grounded in the essential situation that the theme has
constituents and lies within a field”. For example, not every theme will admit of what is called
below “restructuration”. Also, that same theme, and any theme since a theme is presented in a
thematic-field, must admit of the transformation described below called “synthesis”. Whether or
not a particular thematic presentation undergoes the transformation of synthesis, for example, is a
contingent possibility based on internal conditions (the growth and development of the subject‟s
stream of consciousness) and external conditions (see Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 103). However, the
fact that the theme and thematic-field are structured in such a way that they may undergo this
transformation is an essential or “eidetic” possibility (Gurwitsch, 1966, p. 248).7
Duration (of the theme)
In this least radical type of transformation, the theme remains essentially unchanged,
perhaps except for its orientation within the thematic-field, which itself undergoes some change
(Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 223-7). Consider, for example, the following three types of duration of the
theme, enlargement, elucidation, context-shifting.
Enlargement is sometimes referred to as “zooming out” in the psychological literature
(and thus unfortunately not distinguished from synthesis discussed below). Enlargement is when
the context or thematic-field for the theme grows in significance while the theme remains
essentially the same. For example, while working on this manuscript the given context for the
word “grows” in the previous sentence could enlarge. While considering “grows” as theme, and
its place in the sentence as the context, the context could enlarge to include the place of that
sentence in this whole paragraph or section. Or the context (the thematic-field) could expand to
include the manuscript as a whole, or the art of writing. What is important to remember about
enlargement (and elucidation below) is that the theme remains essentially the same through these
attentional modifications; the theme is still the word, although perhaps appearing under a
different light or perspective (on this change of perspective see Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 364). So the
continuity of consciousness is not an issue. That is, there is still the flow or ripple (in this case,
enlargement) around the same metaphorical stone (i.e. the theme) in the stream of consciousness.
Enlargement is also essentially involved in certain types of aesthetic experience where the
relevance of the aesthetic object in the field of consciousness rapidly and persistently enlarges
Elucidation involves the clearing, to some extent, of an obscurity in the thematic-field.
For example, the context for how the previously mentioned word “grow” fits into the sentence
(when this word is considered as thematic) moves from vague to relatively clear. Again, the
theme remains constant as the thematic-field changes. The presented context for the first line of
a play may become clearer upon the unfolding of the first act as context for this line. What little I
know of my new colleague becomes more clear as I begin to talk to her. The thematic
presentation becomes contextually clarified.8
Context-switching is a more radical modification of attention than enlargement or
elucidation (and may well deserve to be separated from them in terms of grouping, although this
is resisted here). In this case the theme remains constant but the context switches, sometimes
dramatically. In elucidation and enlargement, the context changed but only along the same lines
of implication already dictated by the theme and what was contextually presented. However, in
context-switching, the entire context is replaced by another. So the contexts are apparently
discontinuous with each other, but the theme is still constant, and hence so is the continuity of
consciousness. For example, consider how different an approaching bus or trolley appears when
you need it for your ride home versus when you realize you don‟t need it and it threatens to block
your walk across the street. The theme itself doesn‟t change. But the light or orientation under
which it is presented, derived from the new thematic-field, does change (Gurwitsch, 1964, p.
Simple Succession (of thematic content): Serial Shifting
Serial-shifting occurs when the theme is replaced by a new theme that is relevant to it
(Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 345). Essentially, the shift here is that the relevant context for the old
theme provides the item that will become the new theme. So in serial-shifting, the new theme
comes from the thematic-field of the old theme; and the old theme becomes a part of the
thematic-field of the new theme. For example, the current step of computing the family budget,
say step three, may have been part of the thematic-field of the former theme, which was step two.
The family‟s budget is not itself made a theme (this transformation is possible, but is a synthesis
not a serial-shifting). Although the theme is switched out in the serial-shifting modification,
there is no lapse or gap of consciousness here. And the switched out theme remains a presented
Gestalt, but now in a different dimension, namely, as a relevant thematic-field item. There is
always a theme, whether it is a theme as coming into presence (e.g., in the transition from step
two to step three) or the theme as fully present (e.g., step three itself). Other examples might
include listening to a story or musical composition unfold.
Radical Succession (of the theme)
These three modifications of attention--restructuration, singling-out, synthesis--are
“radical” because they involve a substantial change in the presentation of the theme (Gurwitsch,
1966, pp. 237-48).9 These three shifts of attention are the least understood in the history of
experimental attention research, even though selective attention (“singling-out”) is the most
researched. The reason is that attention research by psychologists and neuroscientists, with few
exceptions, has attended only to the theme or focus of attention, and not to the relation of
relevance between the theme and thematic-field. Historically, the shifts that occur in attention
are not seen to involve the presentation of a new theme with a new thematic-field in the course of
achievement (on achievement see Gurwitsch, 1964, p. 103).10 I am claiming that even in these
more radical transformations of consciousness, it is not necessary to postulate a lapse or gap in
consciousness, or an “unconsciousness,” in order to explain the shape of experience.
Restructuration is descriptive of a transformation confined to one dimension, the theme.
As in the “crowd of people” and “ripping one‟s pants” examples, a given theme may have a
dominant or formative constituent, and other constituents that are dependent upon this one; these
others are formed constituents. Restructuration involves the presentation of a new theme through
the transformation of formed constituents into formative ones, and formative ones into formed
ones. Consider the “spontaneous reversal” of ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit figure
or the vase-faces figure. Restructuration involves the transformation of a formative constituent
of a theme (e.g., the lips in the faces figure) into a formed constituent (e.g., the ornamental
protrusion on the stem in the vase figure) in the process of the presentation of a new theme, in
this case the vase (Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 237-40 and p. 14; also 1964, pp. 118-9). Other
formative or dominant constituents may also become formed or less dominant in the transition to
a new theme. What is noteworthy here is that there is a new theme presented in this
transformation. The vase figure is a different theme than the faces figure. Also, there is a new
thematic-field. Still, as I will argue, there is not necessarily a gap or lapse of consciousness or
“unconsciousness” anywhere in this transformation.
Singling out, as stated above, has been studied by psychologists and neuroscientists more
than any other modification of attention, but not within the context of a phenomenology of
attention. It is the area of research called selective attention, and the act of singling-out is
sometimes called “zooming-in”. Here one finds suspect metaphors of attention, such as
spotlight, window, channel, and so on.11
Singling-out occurs when the constituent of a theme becomes itself a theme (Gurwitsch,
1966, pp. 240-3). For example, when I am considering the long row of bookcases in the
university library, the row as a whole is my theme. However, it is possible that the second
bookcase in the row becomes salient, it is singled-out now as the focus of my attention. What
was a constituent (the second bookcase) in the theme of the row of bookcases has now become
the theme itself. What is missed by all but a few researchers on attention is that this attentional
shift involves the replacement of one theme by another. That is, the new theme, the second
bookcase, has a radically different appearance than it did before (when it was just a constituent),
and has radically different relations than it did before to the rest of the bookcases. In fact, those
other bookcases are now likely a part of the thematic-field for this new theme. So the transition
is complete. Even the color, shape, and other details of the second bookcase itself have changed.
Another example involves singling-out a table in a living room, then singling-out the pictures on
the table, then the family picture, then a mother‟s face in that picture. Listening to a speech, one
can single-out the point of the speech or an accent or the nasal tonality. Each time, the new
theme brings with it new relations with the thematic-field. Finally, turn out your hand and look
at it (as if you were admiring a ring on your finger, but focus more generally on your hand). Now
focus or single-out your index finger. The shift is a change of theme (from hand to finger) and a
change of thematic-field.12
Synthesis, which is sometimes referred to as “zooming-out” in the literature, is discussed
with no recognition that (1) a new theme is presented, (2) with new internal relations and (3) with
new relations to a new thematic-field. Synthesis involves the transformation of a theme into a
constituent of a new theme (Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 243-8). This is the inverse of singling-out. For
example, I could start with the second bookcase as my theme, and what is presented could
transform so that the whole row of bookcases is presented as my theme. In this new theme, the
second row would be a constituent. This synthesis could continue. I could be presented with the
library as a whole as the theme, and the row of bookcases may be a constituent in that new
theme. The point of a speech, say a political point, could become a constituent in a more
inclusive theme, say politics in Central America. Using the hand/finger example above, moving
in attention from the thematic finger to the thematic hand is a synthesis. Synthesis is also the
essential transformation of attention involved in a type of intuition usually called insight
One might argue that in these different types of transformations, especially in
restructuration of the theme, each view excludes the other discontinuously. There is a view of
the vase and there is a view of the faces. Each is a distinct phenomenal presentation, even if the
objective area in which the transformation occurs is the same (on problems of objectivity see
Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 239-240; and Drummond, 1990). Furthermore, each presentation occurs in
a separate time, that is, each is distinct in the stream of consciousness. The conclusion one might
draw, then, is that this is not some transformation of consciousness marked by continuity, but is
instead an example of a gap or lapse of consciousness, or that it involves an “unconsciousness”.
In responding to this possible objection it is useful to introduce the notions of dynamism
(or movement) and tension in the field of consciousness.13 There seems to be a sort of
movement or motion presented in the restructuration of the Gestalt, say from vase to faces. I am
not referring to the subject being “moved,” or a physical movement that Varela et al. (1991)
incorporate into the concept of “enaction”. I am referring to the dynamism in the phenomenal
presentation of the multi-stable object, a motion or movement in the field of consciousness. The
object as presented, the phenomenal object, is dynamic. With respect to scientific instruments of
measurement, the object does not move. But the almost instantaneous transformation or
transition into another appearance is experienced as a movement or motion within the field of
consciousness. The dynamism is not separate from the two presentations. It marks a central
feature of the transformation of the presentation of the object. It is correct to say that the vase
presentation “pops out” and is a new achievement. Also, that the vase presentation is not
dependent upon the faces presentation. But to say that there is no connection between the two is
to go too far.
First, they are connected by almost simultaneously occupying nearly the same space as
each is presented in the field of consciousness. Second, they are connected by being closely
subsequent to each other in phenomenal time (the stream of experience). Third, the new
presentation is new (e.g., vase) only in relation to the old (e.g., faces). Fourth, certain objective
segments of line are conserved in the new presentation, even if they function differently. Note
that the constituents in question may change function completely, like, e.g., the contour that
marks the face lips or the ornamental vase protrusion, but they would have some function in the
restructured presentation (Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 243).
So to say that there is Presentation 1 (P1) at time 1 (t1) and P2 at t2 and that there is a
severe gap or lapse between P1 and P2 is to cut out, without warrant, all of these kinds of
connection which appear to be logically and phenomenologically built into this type of
phenomena. We should not link this presented dynamism to a gap or lapse in consciousness. It
seems more economical and appropriate to admit that there is a trans-formation of what is
presented in consciousness. In other words, motion or movement in the consciousness of what is
presented, the change of one phenomenon into another, as evidenced in restructuration, is
presented as a dynamic process from one terminal “view” to another. If the movement is
presented as a characteristic of the phenomenon, and each will have to test the logic and
phenomenologic for themselves, then this characteristic of presented dynamism should not be
explained away or ignored.14
Another way to refer to a reversible or multi-stable phenomenon is to say that it involves
a tension between the “views” that wholly includes each. There is some theoretical and
experimental correlation with this way of referring to the continuity of consciousness in
multistable presentations. For example, Kelso et al. (1995) have measured the strength of this
tension by varying the type of Necker cube used. The dynamism or tension between what is
presented as thematic is positively correlated with the reversibility or restructurability of the type
of cube that is presented. These researchers aren‟t concerned in these experiments with testing
hypotheses about the phenomenal field, they are concerned with brain structures, and so they do
not report their findings in these terms. Yet I would say that their research gives correlative
experimental data about this tension, this dynamism, as a central feature of the phenomenon in
question, once restructuration has been achieved.15 Rather than postulating or focusing in on
what is discontinuous in the two views, it is equally possible to focus in on what is continuous.
Where there is tension there is connection, and it is hard to deny that multistable objects involve
a tension in the views, to the extent that they are multistable. I prefer to describe the
transformation in consciousness in attending to multistable phenomena as full and alive, rather
than as involving emptiness or unconsciousness.16
I suspect that singling-out and synthesis likewise involve dynamics and tensions in the
field of consciousness, and not just in the consciousness of field (acts of consciousness), but
perhaps in distinct ways. In singling-out, the constituent that becomes the theme was already
presented, for instance in the singling-out of the index finger of the hand example considered
above. So there is conservational continuity and connection in this sense, although the
constituent is no longer functioning in the same way since it is now itself the theme. In synthesis,
the original theme has become a constituent in a new theme, and as such continues in this new
theme. As mentioned above, there also appears to be temporal continuity between this coming
and going in thematic consciousness. Temporality is discussed in what follows and in the next
Margin to Theme Succession
It is possible for a marginal item to become thematic. This transformation was indicated
in the above example of the previously marginal overhead light popping and hence becoming the
theme, replacing Bob‟s red tie. In the context of showing that temporality is a necessary but not
sufficient condition for consciousness, since temporality cannot account for the difference
between presented relevance for the theme (the thematic-field) and presented irrelevance (the
margin), Gurwitsch (1966, p. 327) gives the following example.
When a proposition appears as a conclusion, previous phases of thought are retained.
When we interrupt our dealing with a scientific topic to pay attention to something which
happens in our environment, we also retain a certain awareness of our previous activity, at
least at the beginning of the present one. There is, however, a sensible difference
between the two cases. In the former case, what is retained is experienced to be relevant
to what we are dealing with presently; whereas from the latter case any such experience
of relevancy is altogether absent.
Gurwitsch means to speak here of the continuity between the thematic presentation of the
scientific theory and the thematic presentation of the environmental object only in terms of
temporality. As the transformation occurs, as the previously marginal item becomes thematic
and a new theme with a new thematic-field is born, the previous theme is not yet dead. The
previous theme is retended marginally as “having-been-thematic”. In the margin to theme
transformation, the themes (e.g., the red tie and the “popping” light) themselves are
discontinuous in their presented content, or as Gurwitsch would say, the second theme is
irrelevant to the first.17 Yet there remains a dynamic tension between them such that in their
movement out of and into thematic presence they are connected precisely as discontinuous.
There is a dynamic push or pull that involves the two (formed or partially formed) Gestalts, one
as going out of, one as coming into, thematic presence. This connection makes sense since one
would suspect that the continuity of temporality in the consciousness of field (“we retain a
certain awareness of our previous activity”) has its correlate in the field of consciousness.
Still, if the reader can not allow that there is tension or dynamism in the field between
these otherwise distinctly presented items that connects them, but also includes them, the case of
continuity of consciousness is fully proven by experienced temporality (mentioned in the above
example by Gurwitsch and also below), or also by the abiding presence of the world. Consider
the following example of the most radical transformation of margin to theme succession.18
Suppose that suddenly, as I am writing, the deafening home alarm system sounds--
WONK! WONK! WONK! Eventually I will get a thematic grip on this rude sonorous
interruption. But is there not at least some evidence of a gap between the previous theme and the
present one, a gap perhaps marked by fright and adrenaline?19
Even in this extreme case there is connectivity in consciousness. The alarm almost
immediately supplants what was previously thematic. I say “almost” because there is still some
quickly fading retention of the previous theme. To deny that this is the case would be to deny
that the event has a temporal aspect. In discussion of the two views of reversible figures as
“object-events,” Varela (1999, p. 126) states “The link joining both as two-of-the-same
demonstrates the basic fact that there is an underlying temporalization which has a relative
independence of the particular content of the views”. Gurwitsch (1966, p. 302) is instructive
here also, “The transition from one phase of conscious life to another never has the character of a
sudden break; as though on the one side there were a brusque end, on the other side a no less
sudden beginning, and between these two brusque events a breach which had to be bridged.
Heterogeneous and indifferent to each other as the contents might be which fill two consecutive
phases of conscious life, there is, at least at the beginning of the second phase, a certain
awareness, though vague, dim, and indistinct, of what has just gone”. The point here is that even
if one denies that there is continuity in terms of the field of consciousness (attentional
transformations, presented dynamism or tension), there appears to be a continuity in terms of acts
of consciousness (temporality, the consciousness of field). When the alarm sounds, there is a
sort of phenomenal resistance or inertia that must be overcome, just as the reversals of the
Necker cube take time, an incompressable “„depth‟ in time” (Varela, 1999, p. 115).20
It must be granted that the sonic power of the alarm is great and a reorientation of the
field of consciousness towards it is very rapid. But where does the alarm sound come from?
Where was it before it sounded, that is, how is it connected to my present field of consciousness
which has, say, my unfolding sentence on the computer terminal as thematic? (The answer to
this question will parallel the answer to the question below of where the self is, or what it is,
when it is not presented.) Gurwitsch, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Sartre might all respond to
this question in somewhat similar ways.
In Gurwitsch‟s terms, the answer might be that if the alarm was not a part of the thematic-
field (and it wasn‟t in this case), then the alarm, or the possibility of the alarm, was either a part
of, or indicated as a part of, the ever-present marginally presented perceptual world. In Marginal
Consciousness, Gurwitsch (1985, p. 50) writes,
The appearance of the facts pertaining to these realms in marginal consciousness means
that they are disconnected and detached [in terms of relevance] from the thematic activity
of the moment. Though given in marginal consciousness, the facts in question do not
present themselves as scattered and isolated but, on the contrary, as pertaining to some
coherent order or other, as fringed by pointing references, the term fringe being
understood as experience of context, no matter how vague and inarticulate.21
I am not claiming that the alarm must be in any way fully or explicitly presented in the field of
consciousness, even as a marginal possibility. But the marginal presence of the perceptual world
implies at least the possibility of the alarm sounding, so that when it does sound it is not
perceived as utterly novel, disconnected from everything possible in the world.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 328) writes that the natural world ”...persists on the
horizon of my life as the distant roar of a great city provides the background to everything we do
in it”. The presentation of the alarm, and the presentation of the previous theme which
(thematically, contextually, or marginally) involves the perceptual world, but in some way
irrelevant to the alarm, are both connected within the horizon of the permanently presented
world.22 “The natural world is the horizon of all horizons, the style of all possible styles, which
guarantees for my experiences a given, not a willed, unity underlying all the disruptions of my
personal and historical life” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 330). In our imagined case of the alarm,
the “disruption” involves the insertion into the focus of attention (almost at an instant) of
something that is (almost immediately recognized as) a part of something (the world) already
marginally presented. Experimental psychologists have studied this reaction in detail under the
heading of orienting response, but without this phenomenological framework to give a larger
meaning to that work. The continuously present margin of consciousness, here a sector of the
perceptual world as marginal, actually supplies the horizonal connections to the item that
Every transition from one conscious moment to another that has been considered here has
been articulated as a shift of attention involving the modification of content and relations of
consciousness, within the continuous theme, thematic-field, margin structure of the field of
consciousness. I suspect that these attentional transformations are not exhaustive of the
possibilities of consciousness. But I also suspect that further articulations of attentional
modifications will be regulated and grouped in types. The possibility of such a regulation and
taxonomy may open up a vista for experimental consciousness research, especially on attention.
IV. Is There Always a Theme or Focus of Attention?24
The replacement of half-formulated or transitory themes with sustained and well-
formulated themes is possibly intense or surprising or affective. But such crystallization of
certain contents as thematic in a dramatic or particularly focused way need not require that there
was previously a gap or lapse of consciousness. As Sartre (1956, p. 745) observed,
consciousness is always projecting, always on the move, always sliding forward, as a skier must
slide down the slope. It is not surprising that since consciousness is essentially active, themes
can replace each other in rapid, partially-formulated presentations. Or that some themes are
presented with more intensity than others. Or that a certain theme might get “stale,”
transforming weakly into a relatively loose Gestalt, still faint. Or that the stale theme then
suddenly emerges again but as tightly coherent and thematic consciousness is refreshed but with
the same thematic content. In these transformations, the theme, thematic-field, margin structure
does not come and go.
But what about the case of reverie or relaxed thinking? Strawson (1997, p. 421) writes
that descriptions of the stream of consciousness, like that of William James, fail to take account
of detours and breaks in trains of thought: “This is especially so when one is just sitting and
Writing is an endeavor that demands or encourages just this. Moments ago I sat in
reverie apparently attending to nothing in particular. And as I “come to” the present reality of
sitting here looking out the window, should I say that there was a gap or lapse in consciousness,
that consciousness went on holiday? Strawson (1997, p. 422) writes:
When I am alone and thinking I find that my fundamental experience of consciousness is
one of repeated returns into consciousness from a state of complete if momentary,
unconsciousness. The (invariably brief) periods of true experiential continuity are usually
radically disjunct from one another in this way even when they are not radically disjunct
in respect of content. (It is in fact often the same thought--or nearly the same thought--
that one returns to after a momentary absence.) The situation is best described, it seems
to me, by saying that consciousness is continually restarting. There isn‟t a basic substrate
(as it were) of continuous consciousness interrupted by various lapses and doglegs.
Rather, conscious thought has the character of a (nearly continuous) series of radically
disjunct irruptions into consciousness from a basic substrate of non-consciousness. It
keeps banging out of nothingness; it is a series of comings to.
It is not from “non-consciousness” or “out of nothingness” that thematic awareness “irrupts”. In
reading his description, I suspect that Strawson is giving too much weight to clear and distinct
thematic presentation. Thematic consciousness is always in operation, no matter how faintly or
intensely presented, or partially or fully formulated, the theme is. It is from thematic
consciousness that thematic consciousness is born. Types of birth have been described in the
As I sit and write, thoughts, images, perceptions, beliefs, sensory cues, feelings, and
whatever else it is possible for a human being to experience may be presented in the center of my
conscious field, presented as faint or intense, partially or fully formed. They may be presented at
such a fast pace that no one thing seems to be prominent for an appreciable length of time. Or it
is also possible that these contents present themselves slowly in consciousness, lingering almost
to the point of transparency. A thought may very slowly move its way into (and out of) thematic
consciousness, the way an ocean liner slowly docks in port. But neither ever actually stops
completely, even when “docked”. And (at the risk of carrying the metaphor too far) the ship and
the docking complex itself do not disappear because a ship is docked, or because ships race
through without docking.
Thematic consciousness does not start and stop. It grows and fades.25 All of the
described attentional modifications of consciousness were modifications along different
dimensions (not just of the theme), and they were not a creation of consciousness ex nihilo. One
could argue that to say there are degrees of consciousness is not to say that there is no
unconsciousness. But I am claiming that it is possible that there are only degrees of
connectedness and implication with respect to consciousness, and that such connectedness and
implication, however slack, precludes the necessity of unconsciousness or a lapse of
Some of Strawson‟s descriptions fit in well with what has been said here. He (1997, p.
421) gives a description of human thought, “It is always shooting off, fuzzing, shorting out,
spurting and stalling”. Although hardly a systematic description (and he does not mean it to be),
Strawson is describing attentional modifications in which what is thematic is transformed, or the
thematic-field is transformed. For example, “shooting off” or “spurting” could be the
modification of attention described above called enlargement or perhaps synthesis, and “fuzzing”
could be a reverse elucidation or perhaps an obscured singling-out. Strawson (1997, p. 421)
writes about thought or experience, “But it may still seize up, fly off, or flash with perfectly
extraneous matter from time to time, and reflection reveals gaps and fadings, disappearances and
recommencements even when there is a stable succession of content”. I hope I have conveyed
enough of the sense of a phenomenology of the field of consciousness for the reader to be able to
conceive of how Strawson‟s descriptions may fit into the transitions and transformations
previously discussed, at least generally.
The problem is that Strawson is treating consciousness and attention a lot like many
otherwise very good thinkers on the subject. The theme or focus of attention is taken to be the
whole of what consciousness is about. Consciousness is defined only in terms of the focus of
attention; that which is not focal is not consciousness (it is unconscious, non-conscious or, at
least, unimportant). In psychology, this approach to attention can be traced to William James.
He (e.g., 1983, p. 19) often makes the distinction between the selected and the unselected:
attention concerns what is selected as focal, and the unattended is what is not focal (see
discussion in Arvidson, 1992a). Although it was a good start for discussing the issue of
attention, this is a form of unwarranted reductionism. In current research, contents of the
thematic-field and margin are taken to be unconscious, non-conscious, pre-conscious,
unattended, a flanker effect, implicit, noise, or interference, and in general, not conscious.26
What does not fall under the “spotlight” of attention is unattended, according to Baars (1997). In
context or scene analysis experiments, Ballesteros and Manga name the scene “irrelevant
information”, and it is the “unattended visual field” (1993, p. 61). For Churchland,
Ramachandran et al. (1994, pp. 25-6) objects that are nonetheless presented in vision are
unattended objects. What has been called here thematic-field or context is not a part of attention,
according to Eriksen et al. (1979) and Miller (1991) because it is unselected, it is a “flanker
effect”. Posner (1980) holds that processing of nonfocal cues is covert and the cues are
considered unattended or pre-attended. For others, a pre-attentional level is hypothesized for
features that must somehow be attended to: Treisman (1993) postulates a pre-attention process in
which actually presented features (of objects) are joined in an integrative window; while Rock
and Mack (1993) claim that there is a preattended or nonattentional level of attention that yet
involves field presentation.27
The claim being made here and elsewhere (Arvidson, 1996; 1998) is that the presentation
of a theme in a thematic-field marks the thematic-field as also attended to, although differently
than the theme. Gurwitsch himself did not think of attention in this expanded sense, although his
insights (and my own experience) lead me to this conclusion. In the quest to make consciousness
into something that can be studied experimentally, researchers have to be careful. Identifying a
presentation as a conscious presentation if and only if it is given in the focus of attention leads to
problems in fully accounting for transformations and achievements in conscious life. The failure
to recognize singling-out and synthesis as radical transformations of consciousness, that is, as
transformations across dimensions (theme and thematic-field) of what is presented in the field of
consciousness, are examples of this problem.
So when Strawson and others describe gaps and fadings and disappearances and
recommencements, or the breaking of trains of thought by detours, they appear to be attending
only to the given theme (and then not to the complexities of thematic development), and not to
consciousness as a tense, dynamic, multi-dimensional whole. I have also attempted to show that
the phenomenon of thematic development can be accounted for as attentional transformations
rather than as “gaps” in thematic consciousness. What I am suggesting, following Gurwitsch‟s
work and expanding on it, is that the shiftings and transitions of attention in consciousness can be
described and studied in some detail, and rigorously, in order to arrive at articulations of
consciousness that show how transformations are regulated and grouped. This is at least one
sense in which phenomenology can be a science (Wissenschaft) of consciousness.28 Also, since I
suspect that most experimental psychologists would suppose that phenomenological processes
must be completely compatible with neurological findings (see Gurwitsch 1964, pp. 99-101), the
possibility of neurologically articulating the correlates of regulation and taxonomy of
transformations challenges the narrowness of most present research on attention.29
V. The Marginal Stream of Consciousness and the Self
Philosophers differ as to whether there is such a thing as a self that functions as the
metaphysical hub of human experience. If there is one, as Plato and Descartes would argue, then
continuity of consciousness is assured, at least at some level. If there is no continuous self, as
Buddhism and Hume claim, then perhaps consciousness is not a continuity of transformations but
is radically gappy. This section clarifies how we might think of continuity and discontinuity of
the self in light of the continuity of consciousness.
The margin of consciousness, that area of consciousness that is co-presented with the
theme but is contingent or irrelevant to it, is made up of at least three realms. These domains
help to sustain the continuity of consciousness. Gurwitsch (1964, p. 415) writes,
Marginal consciousness does not deserve attention on account of the eventual occurrence
of irrelevant thoughts. It is of interest and importance because, whatever our theme, our
mental activity is always accompanied by an awareness of facts and data belonging to the
following three orders of existence: 1. The stream of our conscious life; 2. our embodied
existence; 3. the perceptual world. If our theme belongs to none of these orders of
existence, as when our attention is engrossed by a scientific theorem, the awareness of all
three orders of existence assumes the form of marginal consciousness.
With a few possible exceptions mentioned above that are unimportant for this paper, I think it is
reasonable to claim, and phenomenologically reliable to observe, that one is always conscious, at
least marginally, of these three domains: for example, that time is passing, that one is sitting
rather than standing and that one is inside rather than outside the house.30 A discussion of the
role of the marginally presented stream of consciousness (phenomenal temporality) in the sense
of self as a continuity follows.31
The form of the stream of consciousness is temporality, an inner awareness of the activity
of consciousness.32 (The methodology will shift here to consider primarily acts of consciousness,
i.e., the consciousness of field, rather than mainly the field of consciousness as has been done so
far.) Following Edmund Husserl‟s (1991) analysis of inner time consciousness, Gurwitsch
(1985, p. 13) writes,
The experience of every act, whatever its object, carries marginal consciousness of
phenomenal time with it. Included in it is an awareness of the act in question as
enduring, viz., the „impressional‟ awareness of its present phase, the „retentional‟
awareness of past phases, and the „protentional‟ awareness of phases to come, i.e.,
eventual expectancies as to the continuation of the act. Furthermore, retentions of acts
which have preceded the act experienced at present are included.
Look at the last sentence again. This possibly far-ranging retention (and protention) of acts of
consciousness is how the stream of consciousness is experienced as continuous. When a
supposed lapse or gap occurs between dealing with the present theme and the next one that is not
immediately related to it (what I have accounted for as a transformation rather than a true
interruption), there is a temporal connection and continuity between them. “This connection
appears because a marginal awareness of our having dealt with the previous theme accompanies
at least the initial phases of our dealing with the present theme” (Gurwitsch, 1985, pp.10-11)
And there can be a retention of the retentions, etc. In fact, it is the experience of such succession
that seeds the development of the temporal order of the stream of consciousness as a whole.33
Gurwitsch stresses that this inner (temporal) awareness of the acts of consciousness is not
reflective (1985, p. 5). Reflection is the thematizing of one of these acts. This thematizing of
one act by another presents the self (as the thematized act).
Strawson calls his model of self a “pearl view”. Perhaps he should say “pearls” view,
since he is referring to a string of pearls, how pearls are arranged on a string. I make a point of
this because the “string” is the stream of consciousness, marginally presented. “According to the
Pearl view, each [self] is a distinct existence, an individual physical thing or object, though they
may exist for considerably different lengths of time” (Strawson, 1997, p. 424). Following
Gurwitsch, I agree that each self is a distinct existence, just so that the overall connecting
function of the marginally presented stream of consciousness is recognized. (I am not sure that I
agree that the self is a material thing, but what I say here is not in conflict with that claim.)
When the stream of consciousness itself is made thematic, or more correctly any certain
segment of it, we have a consciousness of the self--we have made a pearl. This is reflection. But
the connecting function of the stream of consciousness does not disappear. There is still an inner
awareness that is phenomenal temporality, i.e., there is still a stream of consciousness. One
could say that while the self is not continuously present in consciousness, its well-spring is. This
well-spring is the stream of consciousness as marginally presented. Experienced temporality or
phenomenal time stays “on” whether or not a particular segment of the stream of consciousness
has been thematized. That is, there is a stream of consciousness whether a self (a pearl) has been
made or not.
So the view being presented here, in line with Gurwitsch‟s thought, is a non-egological
conception of consciousness (also see Sartre, 1956; Varela et al., 1991). There can be a self, and
it is presented in consciousness, but it is not foundational. Just like the pearl string suspends
distinct pearls, so the stream of consciousness connects distinct selves as distinct themes. These
themes are not necessarily connected to each other with respect to their intrinsic content, just like
the nacre of one pearl is not intrinsically relevant in its formation to the nacre of another. But
like other themes, any self as theme is at least briefly retained, is presented as linked to other
mental states in retentions and protensions, and can be remembered or forgotten as consciousness
grows and transforms. In this sense, consciousness is structured in such a way as to provide
continuity for a sense of the self as continuous. It is a weak continuity compared to the naive
view that the self is the center and source of all conscious activity (see Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 296-
However, there is a middle ground, so to speak, between this weak and a very strong
sense of continuity. The self need not always be presented within a thematic-field that is neutral
with respect to self-development. We speak of personal growth, virtue or character, self-concept,
“back to being our old self,” and negatively, we speak of lacking self-confidence, falling apart (a
disintegration of self) and other developments of self. The possibility of some stronger
continuity between presented selves implied by these kinds of locutions marks the limit of the
“pearl view” model, because this model does not allow for intrinsic relevance between distinct
selves. A self may be given in a thematic-field that includes previously thematized selves. This
material relation between a currently presented self as theme and a previously presented self or
selves as context, allows the comparisons needed for the kind of self-development and self-
concept statements listed above. It is also possible to have another kind of connection in the field
between two selves, a connection previously described as dynamic tension, e.g., if two selves, a
presently given and a remembered or imagined one, were vying for thematic presence.
It is not being claimed that there is always a continuity between presentations of self, or
that the self is always in the stream of consciousness. The self is occasional. Yet sometimes, in
reflection, we live or relive our human development, especially our social virtues or vices as they
have been revealed in past thematizations of self as context for, or in dynamic tension with, the
present one. It must be remembered that a thematization of self is really a thematization of a
certain segment of the stream of consciousness. Perhaps this segment is marked by characteristic
sedimentations, presenting swirls and eddies, depths and shallows, rushings and lingerings.
Speaking now outside of the metaphor but in concert with it, perhaps the presented self is marked
by characteristics such as grace and stubbornness, sobriety and greed, impatience and care. The
stream of consciousness grows and changes in time as we mature, and sometimes reflection as a
thematization of a segment of the stream of consciousness is a revelation of the nature of this
dynamic process and its products.
For clarity and provisional completeness, a word more about reflection is needed. In a
chapter originally published in article form as “A Non-egological Conception of Consciousness,”
Gurwitsch (1966, p. 292) writes, “By reflection is meant the grasping of an act A by an act B, in
order to make the former the object of the latter. The act B, however, in its turn is not grasped by
a third act and made its object. The grasping act itself is experienced with a non-reflective
attitude, exactly as in the case of an act bearing on some object other than a mental fact
belonging to the same stream of consciousness”. So, as Gurwitsch (1966, p. 294) states, “Since
the grasping act is not itself grasped, the act continues having no egological structure....Hence the
ego in question is that of the grasped, not of the grasping act”. Reflection, then, is an act like any
other act of consciousness, except that its object is another act that belongs to the same stream of
consciousness. The self as theme is a Now that is the terminal member (presently) of a chain of
retentions of mental states in principle infinitely extended. So a remembered experience (or self)
is connected to the currently given self, and vague or clear links between the two are also
presented.34 There may be some “mist,” as Gurwitsch calls it, between links in the chain, but
they only serve to mediate, not separate or interrupt.
Strawson and Gurwitsch are actually in agreement about much concerning the self. One
of Strawson‟s main points about the self is its singularity. He (1997, pp. 412-3) writes “...one
might say that the mental self is conceived of as something that has the kind of strong unity of
internal causal connectedness that a single marble has...” as compared to a pile of marbles. This
unity can only be described as a Gestalt-coherence of a theme---exactly what Gurwitsch would
call it. Phenomenologically, it is this concept of unit that marks the theme off from the thematic-
field, i.e., through the Gestalt-coherence or functional significance of the theme‟s constituents.
This unity is also what marks off a sector of the stream of consciousness as thematized self from
the stream of consciousness as a whole.
The self need not be thought of as having permanent continuity in any very strong sense.
But the stream of consciousness from which it arises does. Gurwitsch (1985, p. 22) writes,
[A]t every moment of conscious life we have a marginal awareness of a certain segment,
more or less extended, of this very life. Obviously this does not purport the omnipresence
of the Ego, not even in marginal form. At the utmost, there is the pervasive marginal
presence of certain facts which, when grasped in reflection and followed out along certain
lines, prove to be points of departure for the apprehension of the Ego. The privilege of
omnipresence belongs to that segment of the stream of consciousness which, at a given
time, is experienced as “present” (in a broad sense), but not the Ego. The latter proves in
our account to be an empirical object like any other, such as a perceptible material thing.
I am not sure whether Gurwitsch would share Strawson‟s version of materialism, but the two do
seem to be in agreement about the singularity, distinctness and “thinghood” of the self. The
stream of consciousness consists of “real events and actual happenings” for Gurwitsch (1985, p.
17); and the thematization of the self is of a part of (and is part of) this whole stream. So perhaps
herein lies a clue to the “factual question” of ontic distinctness that Strawson (1997, p. 426)
poses: “...I propose that there is some sort of part-whole relation to be discerned, although there
is more to be said in description of the whole of which the self is a part”. I agree that there is
more to be said about this whole, but I think that the stream of experience is the place to visit to
possibly find the words.35
When one recognizes levels of organization of consciousness, one is able to see that
consciousness is not an all or none, one-dimensional affair. In fact, consciousness is three-
dimensional. This is the point that I believe is missed by many researchers. By concentrating on
the focus of attention (the theme), they miss the sense in which the other two dimensions of
consciousness (thematic-field and margin) are dimensions of consciousness (not
“unconsciousness”), and should be involved in discussions of attention, and they also miss how
these dimensions contribute with the theme to the continuity of consciousness.
Inspired by Aron Gurwitsch‟s work in the phenomenology of consciousness, I have tried
to show three things.
Specifically, I have argued that the focus of attention, and the field of consciousness as a
whole, undergo sometimes radical transformations. In addressing a question that Gurwitsch did
not, I have articulated how these transformations can be accounted for without resorting to the
notion of “gaps” or lapses in consciousness. Also, an incomplete or seemingly idle theme, or an
intense thematic presentation, does not necessarily indicate a current or previous lapse in
consciousness. Speaking metaphorically, themes grow and die: they emerge, merge and
submerge, giving way to each other, with various degrees of intensity and faintness, fully or
I have also argued, following James, Husserl, Gurwitsch, and others, that a sense of
duration or phenomenal time is an ever-present fact of consciousness in daily life, at least
marginally. This stream of conscious experience connects acts of thematization with others by
protentions and retentions. This connection constitutes the growth and shape of the stream of
Finally, following Gurwitsch, I have claimed that when a segment of the stream of
consciousness is thematized we have made a self. A self is a thing that comes and goes.
However, a self, the thematization of a segment of the stream of consciousness, can also be a
clasp binding itself to the strand of conscious life in general. This is the weak sense of continuity
of self that is described by Gurwitsch. Going beyond Gurwitsch, and adding something that
appears incompatible with Strawson‟s view, I have described how under another perspective a
self can be a clasp binding itself to the strand of co-presented selves and so present a measure of
growth and self development. This is a stronger, but not very strong sense of self as continuous.
In neither sense is the self foundational for consciousness. Yet in both senses the structure of
consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the self being presented as continuous.
I thank Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear for helpful comments on this paper.
These cases are interesting but very difficult. For example, every couple of months I laugh out
loud in my dreaming at some hilarious episode; and I laugh into being awake and continue
laughing (to my wife‟s bewilderment!). From sleep through wake I laugh at the episode. Given
the same content (the episode) presented as focal throughout, what is the mark of this passage
from dreaming to wakefulness, and how is it a passage from unconsciousness to consciousness?
Two things may hamper how the claims here connect with those made by Strawson. One is that
Strawson sometimes seems to conflate consciousness of the self with conscious experience in
general (e.g., 1997, pp. 424-5). Also, and more importantly, the whole issue of interruptions of
consciousness, which Strawson acknowledges as “important for my purposes” (1997, p. 413) and
which in essence is what the present paper is about, is not well worked out in his article. He
acknowledges the vagueness of “uninterruptedness” in a footnote (1997, p. 425n), but I suppose
it is part of the challenge of the present paper to be more phenomenologically precise about this
Possible limit cases include thematic chaos (as described by James), thematic boundlessness (as
described in Kant‟s notion of the sublime), certain altered states of consciousness (e.g., samadhi)
and some meditative states. The limit cases mentioned are not developed by Gurwitsch and have
yet to be fully worked out. But they are possible experiences, and intriguing and important for a
complete phenomenology of consciousness. For example, the first just mentioned is thematically
presented chaos: James‟ “too-much-at-once,” a shattered or fragmented total field, all figures and
no ground, in which “raw reality” is presented and the phenomenon of embodiment is given in an
original way. The other end of the continuum, thematically presented boundlessness, is Kant‟s
sublime, the presentation of pure ground and no figure, as may happen in deeply aesthetic or
mystic experience. It may reveal a moral sensibility in a special sense of human autonomy. So
the first limit case has no Gestalt-coherence because of thematic fragmentation, and the second
has none because of thematic openness. For a brief discussion of the latter, see Arvidson
Aron Gurwitsch taught at the New School for Social Research and has been credited (along with
Dorion Cairns) for bringing phenomenology to the United States (see Embree, 1989). He had the
fortune to study with Edmund Husserl (phenomenology) and Adhemer Gelb (psychology) and
was an astute interpreter, scholar, and critic of William James‟ work. When Gurwitsch taught at
the Sorbonne, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was among those present in his lectures on Gestalt
psychology, and he came to Gurwitsch‟s house every other week for discussions (Grathoff, 1989,
p. xxii). For a comparison of James and Gurwitsch on the field of consciousness, see Arvidson
1992b. Edmund Husserl may also have made this three-part distinction in the field, but
Gurwitsch made it central in his philosophy and so developed it fully (see Gurwitsch, 1964, p.
The best thorough introduction to this phenomenology of the field of consciousness are
Gurwitsch‟s 1929 dissertation, reprinted in Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 175-286 or Gurwitsch, 1964.
On “fringes” see Arvidson 1992b, Mangan 1993, Bailey 1999.
It should not be thought that the pertinence or impertinence for the theme of a co-presented item
is a judgment of some sort, or a derived conclusion. The relevance or irrelevance of the item is a
function of the structure of the theme-thematic-field relation, namely, the perspective or
orientation of the given theme as it is positioned in the thematic-field. See Gurwitsch, 1964, p.
It is possible that elucidation is one of the essential attentional shifts involved in the Buddhist
practice of mindfulness/awareness since this practice seems to involve some clearing up of the
context with respect to what is momentarily given as theme in the conscious field (cf. Varela et
al., 1991, p. 79)
Unlike restructuration, singling-out and synthesis are interdimensional and hence more radical.
They involve a change in material relevance, an internal relatedness between presented contents
(on material relevance see Gurwitsch, 1966, p. 212; and 1964, p. 340).
Note that it won‟t do to call any of these transformations by the vague term “Gestalt-shifting,”
as has become vogue in the philosophy of science, especially with “restructuration,” since these
three transformations are distinct within this type, yet are all in some sense “Gestalt-shifts” (see
For a recent example of the spotlight metaphor see Baars, 1997. See the discussion of this
metaphor by Gurwitsch, 1966, pp. 265-267, originally written in 1929; see also LaBerge, 1995.
For an example of the window metaphor see Treisman, 1993. A discussion of window and
spotlight metaphors of attention is given in Arvidson, 1996.
The finger, now presented as thematic, has a different appearance. The wrinkling around the
knuckle, the pores or hair, even the color and other details are likely new. It would be wrong to
agree with current researchers in calling this shift simple. The presentation of this finger and its
relation to the hand is now quite different.
Gurwitsch (1964, p. 123-31) mentions these notions in the context of a discussion of the “step
phenomenon,” which concerns noticed differences between successive stimuli, in praise of Kurt
Koffka and in critique of William James and Carl Stumpf. I use the idea of dynamism or tension
here in a sense that projects beyond Gurwitsch and Koffka. Simple perceptual framing
experiments structuring temporal simultaneity, motion, and succession parsings appear to
measure the sensori-motor correlative to dynamic tension in the phenomenal field. See a
description of these experiments by Varela et al., 1991, pp. 73-75.
For those who at this point disagree with this account, we are at an impasse. Perhaps our only
alternative is that we each check the logic, and go back to our own experience, and continue the
conversation another day. Some preliminary empirical support for what I say here is also given
below in discussion of “tension”.
Kelso, et al. (1995) state that ”...the perceptual system is intrinsically metastable, living at the
edge of instability where it can switch spontaneously among perceptual states” which themselves
may be metastable (1995: 182). As Gestalt principles might predict, “[M]any apparently “noisy”
natural events (such as the transition times between Necker cube reversals) have recently yielded
unexpected deterministic patterns under nonlinear dynamical analysis beyond the reach of
traditional linear analysis” (Varela, 1999, p. 128). These findings are taken to mean that,
experimentally, it is reasonable to assume an “object-event” or content correlative to this
temporal pattern in a multistable phenomenon that is also dynamically “patterned,” but
Sartre considers this question of lapse versus fullness in a famous scene in his novel Nausea
(1964, p. 132). While in a park, the protagonist is contemplating the wind‟s effects on the
treetops, before its arrival, during the shaking, and after, and concludes that even becoming is
being. That is, even a “gap” between two clear and distinct presentations (of the tree-top as still)
is full (of movement, becoming, the shaking) and is itself a presentation and connotes no
emptiness in what is presented. A more philosophically interesting discussion is undertaken in
Being and Nothingness when Sartre (1956, p. 42) analyzes the case of Pierre present(ed) as
absent in the cafe. Pierre has not yet arrived but is expected, and this “emptiness” (a different but
related sense of “emptiness” than Strawson‟s) is active in the searcher‟s field of consciousness.
So even when no thing is presented (Husserl‟s “empty intending”) some thing (as absent) is still
presented, and consciousness is attending to it as figure and so is not itself gappy or empty.
So when Gurwitsch (1964, p. 345) states that this interruption involves a “break” in continuity
of context, he means that there is a break or discontinuity in the material relevance between the
two presented contents, not the kind of break Strawson has in mind.
Gurwitsch was not concerned with showing the continuity of consciousness in the way that this
paper is, so he doesn‟t dwell much on the nature of abrupt transformations of consciousness that
involve the margin. In the present context these transformations are the most challenging to
Although the realms of marginal consciousness are more formally introduced in the following
section, the discussion of this case of thematization belongs here. For now, suffice it to say that
ever-present in consciousness, at least marginally and perhaps excluding certain limit cases, are a
certain segment of the stream of consciousness, a certain sector of our perceptual environment,
and our embodied existence.
This resistance to perceptual shifting is called “hysteresis” in the experimental literature. I am
not claiming that these two types of phenomenal transition, the Necker cube reversal and the
marginal item becoming thematic are the same. Yet it is useful to use the Necker cube research
at hand to help make the overall concept of continuity clear.
“The fact that some sector or other of the perceptual world appears at every moment, that
whatever the subject matter of our thematic activity we never altogether lose sight of the
existence of the perceptual world, is permanent and abiding” (Gurwitsch, 1985‟ p. 41; see also
Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 331 and 338.
Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 328) writes, “My experiences of the world are integrated into one
single world as the double image merges into one thing, when my finger stops pressing upon my
eyeball. I do not have one perspective then another, and between them a link brought about by
the understanding, but each perspective merges into the other and, in so far as it is still possible
to speak of a synthesis, we are concerned with a „transitional synthesis.‟”
There is no sense in which we lose contact with the world, even approaching the limit case of
the world presented as chaotic or too much to bear with respect to perception (see Gurwitsch,
1974, p. 204; Sokolowski, 1974, p. 96; cf. Husserl, 1967, p. 137). Sartre (1956) puts it this way:
“Nothingness [i.e. consciousness] carries being in its heart”. Amidst interruptions of thematic
consciousness of the most abrupt kinds, there is still a continuity between the outgoing and the
incoming with respect to the theme.
This question is asked in response to Strawson‟s claim that often in ordinary everyday life there
is no theme. There may be extraordinary limit cases, as mentioned in a note above, in which the
theme is not presented, or at least not as a Gestalt. As far as I can tell, Gurwitsch never directly
asked or responded to a question like this in his writings. Still, I do not suppose that he would
find my presentation faultless, and it needs to be said that I do not offer the whole of my
argument up until now, or here, as an account that Gurwitsch would necessarily embrace.
Gurwitsch (1985 p. 9) describes only the temporal corollary in this context, “Every act of
consciousness, when actually experienced, grows in time and displays itself in temporal phases.
Experiencing an act, we are then aware of it prior to reflection and even without grasping the act
at all as a temporal phenomenon, as beginning, enduring and growing, and fading”. Compare
Varela (1999, p. 126) “Consciousness is an unceasing background where distinct temporal acts
and events with their own duration appear”. Also “If the specific place in phase space is a
correlate of the intentional content of an object-event, the system never dwells on it, but
approaches, touches and slips away in perpetual, self-propelled motion. Cognitively, this
corresponds to the observation that in brain and behavior there is never a stopping or dwelling
cognitive state, but permanent change punctuated by transient aggregates underlying a
momentary act” (Varela, 1999, p. 128). I do not know whether to take Varela in this work as
solving the ancient Buddhist problem (he says nothing about it) concerning gaps, a problem
brought up in Varela, et al. (1991: 265). This problem concerns different schools of thought on
whether consciousness is continuous or not in the sense with which this present study is
The following examples are discussed in Arvidson, 1998.
Experiments on the relation between “local” and “global” attending show promise: for
example, the use of a “global” block letter made up of a smaller “local” letter in perception
experiments to determine dimensional differences in what is presented (Rafal and Robertson,
1995, p. 638). What is important here is that there is an explicit concern with how contextual
(“global”) attending marks a level of attention distinguished from, yet integrated with, focal
attending. But even in these experiments the full notion of relevance is not discussed or applied.
Wissenschaft is science in a larger sense than the English “science,” that is, not necessarily a
natural science, but compatible with it in terms of rigor.
See Arvidson 1998 on the relation between phenomenology and experimental psychology and
philosophy of science.
Somewhat in concert with this, Strawson (1998, p. 423) states that we are “experientially in
touch with a great pool of constancies and steady processes” of environmental change, including
our body. He has two out of three of the necessary marginal constancies listed here (I would add
temporal experience, the “stream”). But Strawson‟s focus on the focus of consciousness does not
allow him to include the more abiding marginal consciousness of these three realms.
The marginally presented perceptual world was discussed above in the alarm example. For
more on embodiment, see Gurwitsch, 1985, pp. 53-63.
Immanuel Kant (1969) in The Critique of Pure Reason, especially in the “B edition,” was the
first to bring notice to inner awareness as temporality, and as a necessary condition for
consciousness. Gurwitsch (1966: 326) gives credit for the fuller development of the idea to
Gurwitsch (1985: 9-10) writes, “This awareness of the fact that our previous theme is not the
same as our present one must not be confined to the initial phase our present dealing. It may well
happen that our dealing with the present theme is accompanied throughout its duration by a
retentional awareness of our having dealt with a previous theme. Such retentional awareness
may even survive the duration of the present act and creep into the experience of a subsequent
act. Thus the experience of an act may be accompanied by the retentional awareness both of the
act which has immediately preceded it and that which in turn had preceded the preceding act. In
cases like these we become immediately aware of succession, i.e., of acts succeeding each other.
It must be stressed that we do not need to resort to reflection for this awareness. The relation
between the mentioned two aspects of the temporality of consciousness becomes apparent.
Immediately experienced succession is a special case of the intrinsic temporality of duration.
Succession is experienced when, instead of abiding by the theme we pass to a different theme. It
is in this immediately experienced succession that we have to see the germ out of which the all-
inclusive temporal order develops as the form of the stream of consciousness as a whole and as a
coherent unity in its temporal expansion”.
Gurwitsch (1966, p. 274) writes, “A chain of remembered distinct experiences leads from the
Then to the Now, the Now being the experience of „reflecting on the chain,‟ an experience which
by means of a reflection of the second degree can be rendered explicit and, in this sense,
objectivated”. And later (p. 280) ”...the chain with which we identify the ego terminates in the
In criticism of David Hume‟s notions of temporality in consciousness, Gurwitsch critically
anticipates Strawson‟s “pearl view”. Gurwitsch (1966, pp. 312-3; emphasis added) writes,
“When consciousness is considered as composed of self-sufficient perceptions, unrelated to,
distinct and separable from, each other, the “flux and movement” which characterize conscious
life appear as a sequence of beaded entities”. Instead of a pearl view, Gurwitsch might endorse a
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