Conscientia bei Descartes
Although Descartes is often said to have coined the modern notion of 'consciousness', he nowhere defines the according Latin term (conscientia), neither explicitly nor implicitly. This may either imply that he used the word in a sense that he did not make sufficiently clear, that he was not the first to use 'conscientia' in its modern psychological sense, or that he still used it in its traditional sense.
In this paper, I argue for the third assumption: Descartes used 'conscientia' according to the traditional meaning that we also find in the writings of St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas and later scholastics. Thus for Descartes, conscientia is not a kind of speculative self-knowledge, inner observation or reflexive awareness. Rather, it is a kind of practical knowledge.
This is a bold claim. I will argue for it (1) by closely examining the key passages in the Cartesian writings and (2) by re-evaluating the traditional use of the Latin 'conscientia'. Then I will (3) draw some consequences.
1. Descartes makes rather clear what consciousness (conscientia) is not. To take only the most likely candidates. Consciousness is not a thought (cogitatio), since every thought must be accompanied by consciousness. Further, it is not a disposition. Descartes claims that the object of our consciousness never is a possible, but always must be an actual thought. It would be difficult to see how a disposition could be about an actual thought rather than a possible one. But consciousness is also not an attribute of a thought, since Descartes always ascribes it to the thinker herself.
2. In classical and mediaeval Latin, 'conscientia' did not mean 'consciousness', but also not exactly the same as 'moral conscience'. Three aspects are involved in the traditional meaning of the term. First, conscientia is shared knowledge. At least since Augustine, this knowledge is said to be shared between particular human agents and God. Second, conscientia concerns the specific (moral) value of an action. Even more, as Aquinas maintains, actions acquire their rationality and normativity only by being subject to conscientia. On this basis, later scholastics thirdly defined conscientia as a kind of practical knowledge. As such, conscientia is in some sense the cause of what it understands. Put in late scholastic terms, it is the formal cause of its moral being (esse morale).
This account of the meaning of 'conscientia' will be shown to be largely compatible with the Cartesian use of the term; the only change to be made being that it deals with thoughts (cogitationes) and their specific value rather than with actions. Hence for Descartes, consciousness is a kind of practical knowledge about thoughts that is shared with an ideal observer (God) and that causes the specific value of the thought that is its object.
3. This reading has several important implications. For instance, it provides us with a reason for the claim that the consciousness is not itself a thought of the thinker who has it. Our the consciousness turns something into a thought by taking it as its object and thereby endowing it with the specific value that it has as a thought. This value might be truth, correctness, adequacy or something along these lines. Now every particular judgment of value can itself be false, incorrect, or inadequate. Hence, every particular reflexive thought would itself be subject to a further consciousness. The only conscientia that can stop this regress is Gods knowledge of our thoughts. This knowledge cannot be wrong.
As a consequence, the suggested reading directs us away from the assumption that the mind contains only incorporeal thoughts that are privately known to the thinker. As for the first, Descartes himself claims that most of our thoughts depend on the body. The object of our consciousness may then be some event happening in our brain. Consciousness turns this event into something that is also in some respect incorporeal by endowing it with a value. As thought, it is then not a mere corporeal thing. (The modern reader may add: as thought, but not as bodily event, it is equivalent with other brain events.) As for the second part of the above claim, the Cartesian mind must be radically public, since we always share our conscientia with an ideal observer.
Finally, we come to see why Descartes proceeds so easily from his cogito, sum to a proof of the existence of God. Since every thought must be subject to a conscientia, there must always have been an ideal observer. God's existence can be shown because it must already have been presupposed. In fact, the Cartesian meditator was never alone.