Transform by 259iZhe


									                      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

                                           I. Introduction

       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

the thematic-field.

        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

experienced themes.

        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

new margin.

       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

(Arvidson, 1997b).

        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

(Arvidson, 1997a).

       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

becomes thematic.23

       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

previous section.

       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 “

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

                                           VI. Conclusion

       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

partially formulated.

       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

crucial concept.
    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

Arvidson 1998).
     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

pearls view.

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