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From Martha Nussbaum’s “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” located here if you have access to this sort of thing.

Mrs. Ramsay protects her private self. But we notice that it is not the same neatly shaped conscious self that she might communicate to others. Her solitude is not formed for or toward the outer world. We reach here an especially deep difficulty in the way of knowing another mind. What we usually think of as “the mind”–that is, its conscious mental acts, acts that could at least putatively be rendered in language and communicated to another- -are only, perhaps, a part of the mind, a part bound up with the outer world of “being and doing,” a sort of marshaling of the mind preparatory to communication.

Woolf’s depiction thus supports a view of consciousness similar to the one advanced by Nietzsche in Gay Science, where he depicts self-consciousness as a relatively late evolutionary arrival, useful only in connection with communication. Most of our mental life, he plausibly stresses, could be carried on without it, at a level of experience and awareness more like that we are accustomed to attribute to other animals. This account has recently received strong support from research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Question: where would I look for some of this “research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology”? Any sort of Dawkinsite popularizations that would do the trick?

In addition to the Nietzsche, Nussbaum might have cited the fantastic stuff in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, toward the end, when he discusses consciousness as a somewhat superfluous late arrival on the scene (like life itself, like death). I’ll get the full quote when I can get upstairs to where the book is without waking up the teething infant, but for now, some of the surrounding materials:

For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching the aim of death.


The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli (the ‘Nirvana principle’, to borrow a term from Barbara Low).

Obviously, I’ve been thinking about all this a bit lately…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 3, 2006 at 10:54 pm

Posted in consciousness, woolf

5 Responses

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  1. Dawkins wouldn’t be the place to go; Dennett’s a better bet for the basics…although it won’t quite be “the latest” in neuroscience or evolutionary biology. The best place to go for popularizations of evo. bio. is Scientific American’s new publication Mind. It’s the People of the neuroscientific community.

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    April 5, 2006 at 12:38 pm

  2. Thanks, Scott. Which Dennett do you think would be the best to start with? I’ve got Freedom Evolves sitting here… Would that do the trick?


    April 7, 2006 at 12:37 am

  3. You should read Gazzaniga, Damasio, or Edelman before Dennett if you’re interested in neuroscience per se. Several literary critics have been exploring this for a while now, including Norm Holland. He has an essay called “Where is a Text?” in a 2002 issue of NLH you might want to look at, in addition the syllabus for his “Brain and the Book” seminar.


    April 8, 2006 at 10:39 am

  4. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the pointer. (And sorry – I snipped you a bit to protect the guilty).

    But more than neuroscience per se, I am interested especially in the issue that Nussbaum / Nietzsche raise: the sense of consciousness as a late arrival, and a not particularly necessary one at that. Do these cites get at that point?


    April 8, 2006 at 11:03 pm

  5. A definitive source of half-crankery for that, and one which Dennett is fond of, is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

    But you’re framing the question in an unnecessarily specific way.


    April 9, 2006 at 3:51 pm

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