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Jul 1 18

Sartre’s Bad Logic

by Bill Meacham

Last time I asserted that being conscious of something does not always or necessarily include or entail being conscious of being conscious. French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre thinks it does. Since the Monday evening group of the philosophy club is studying Sartre, it seems appropriate to examine his argument. It’s a bad one. Sartre falls prey to faulty logic.

In the introduction to his influential Being and Nothingness, Sartre asserts that “every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself.”(1) He says that “the necessary … condition for a knowing consciousness to be knowledge of its object is that it be consciousness of itself as being that knowledge.”(2) Let’s ignore the somewhat mysterious usage of the term “consciousness,” as if consciousness were an agent who is conscious. Let’s ignore also the fact that he seems to conflate being conscious of and being conscious that.(3) Instead, I want to focus on the logic of his argument. Here it is in its entirety:

This is a necessary condition, for if my consciousness were not consciousness of being consciousness of the table, it would then be consciousness of that table without consciousness of being so. In other words, it would be a consciousness ignorant of itself, an unconscious—which is absurd.(4)

The form is a reductio ad absurdum. From the premise that consciousness of a table is not consciousness of consciousness of the table he purports to derive a contradiction, that consciousness is unconscious. Hence, the premise is false, and consciousness of a table is consciousness of consciousness of the table. But the argument fails because Sartre begs the question.

The passage contains four phrases, the first three of which have the same meaning:

  • consciousness [that is] not consciousness of being consciousness of the table
  • consciousness of that table without consciousness of being so
  • consciousness ignorant of itself

So far, he just says the same thing in different words. But then he asserts something else:

  • an unconscious

The movement from the third phrase to the final one is not explained, nor is it authorized by reference to any rule of logic. Sartre just asserts that consciousness ignorant of itself is the same as an unconscious. But that is just what he wants to prove! His premises include his desired conclusion, so the inference proves nothing.

Not only does Sartre fail to prove his point, it is patently false that consciousness ignorant of itself is an unconscious. Rephrasing the idea, Sartre asserts that an instance or episode of being conscious of a table that does not include being aware of being conscious of the table is thereby unconscious. But that episode of being conscious is certainly not unconscious! The contents of that episode of being conscious include the table, focally, and a great number of other things that are not in focus: the floor, the ambient temperature, perhaps objects on the table, etc. It is quite the opposite of unconscious, a state in which none of those contents would be present to one.

It is peculiar that Sartre, examining experience in the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, should rely on logic for such an important assertion about the nature of experience rather than on direct observation. But he does, and he gets some other things wrong about Husserl as well. But that is a topic for another time.


(1) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(2) Idem, p. lii.

(3) The phrase “as being that knowledge” indicates what Dretske calls awareness of fact, having an idea or concept. In this case, the concept seems to be that one knows or is a knower. Again, Sartre’s language is less than perfectly clear.

(4) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. lii.


Dretske, Fred. “Conscious Experience.” Mind, New Series, Vol. 102, No. 406 (Apr., 1993), pp. 263-283. Online publication as of 18 December 2015.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Jun 10 18

Being Conscious of Being Conscious

by Bill Meacham

Last time we looked at the surprising ability of plants, which seem to be agents in their own right, to seek goals and act so as to achieve them. A recent popular survey of environmental scientists and philosophers asks a similar question, whether plants are conscious.(1) Some say they obviously are because they respond to their environment, gather information and act with discernment in a way that non-living things such as rocks do not. Others insist that plants are not conscious because they have no ability to be conscious of themselves. Being conscious, in this view, requires being aware of oneself as well as of one’s surroundings.

But that assertion raises a number of issues. Is being conscious different from being aware? What is it to be conscious, or aware, in the first place? And what is this self, of which, some assert, we must be aware in order to be conscious at all?

Many people use the term “aware” to mean something different from “conscious.” For instance, professor Heidi Appel says “Are plants conscious? My view is that they are not, even though they are aware of many aspects of the environment in which they live.”(2) The problem is that in English the two terms mean roughly the same thing. “Conscious” is from a Latin root, and “aware” is from Old Saxon, but otherwise they are each defined in terms of the other.(3) Many other languages have only one term for both the English words: “bewusst” in German and “consciente” in Spanish, for instance. Others have two, but they do not translate directly to the two in English. We find “consciente” and “ciente” in Portuguese and “conscient” and “au courant” in French.

If we substitute “conscious” for “aware,” then, what Appel asserts is that plants are not conscious even though they are. That can’t be what she means. What Appel seems to be getting at, perhaps, is that when one is conscious, what one is conscious of is more intense or clear or in focus than it would be if one were merely aware of it. I say “perhaps” because what she means is not at all clear. Does she mean that the world appears to us more vividly or more in focus than it does to plants? How could we possibly know?

Sometimes “aware” connotes being informed or knowledgeable in a way that “conscious” does not. If you want to say that someone knows the rules, “She is aware of the rules” sounds better than “She is conscious of the rules.” Does Appel mean to say that plants know many aspects of their environment, but not in the same way or as much or as well as humans do? Maybe by “aware” she means only that plants respond to their environment. Again, her meaning is not clear.

What are we to make of this confusion? My preference is to use the terms interchangeably.(4) If nothing else, it makes translation into other languages easier. Many times we can dispense with the problematic terms altogether. If you want to emphasize the intensity or vividness of someone’s experience, just say that she is intensely or vividly conscious of what is before her. If you want to emphasize someone’s knowledge of something, just say she knows it.

Maybe Appel means that humans have a second-order capability that plants lack, that we are, or can be, conscious of being conscious, but plants aren’t and can’t. There is a surprising amount of controversy about whether and to what extent one must be conscious of being conscious in order to be conscious at all, and the nuances of the debate are instructive.

Does being conscious always include some element of being peripherally aware, if not fully conscious, of one’s own process or activity of being conscious? Sometimes being conscious of an object does include thinking about one’s experience in addition to focusing on and thinking about the object itself. (By “object” I do not mean to imply something existing external to the one who is conscious, as naive realism would have it. I mean only whatever appears to one. The tree in a hallucination of a tree is as much an object as it is in a perception of a tree or in a mental image of a tree.) At such times one puts some attention on the fact that one is conscious of something, as well as on the object of which one is conscious. That this type of experience is always vivid and always leaves memories leads some to believe that being conscious always includes some degree of being aware of being conscious.

One of them is contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson. In an extended essay on the subject, he tries to tease out ways of speaking that adequately express the assertion that being conscious always includes some degree of being aware of being conscious. He expresses it in various ways:

(1) All awareness involves awareness of that very awareness.(5)

Substituting synonyms, he gets the following:

(1a) All consciousness involves consciousness of that very consciousness.(6)

(1b) All experience involves experience of that very experience.(7)

“Awareness” and “consciousness” are both nouns, and so is “experience” in this context. But “experience” can also be a verb, as in “She experienced the concert with delight.” Strawson changes “experience” to the gerund form of the verb, which has the advantage of emphasizing its active, processual nature:

(1c) All experiencing involves experiencing of that very experiencing.(8)

(1d) All experiencing involves experiencing that very experiencing.(9)

He does not so much argue for his assertion as hope that at least one of his formulations will appeal to and convince his readers. Concerning the last, he asks us to “listen for the sense in which (1d) is necessarily true.”(10)

Well, I’ve listened, and I don’t hear it. I contend that not all instances of being conscious include some degree of being aware of being conscious. Only some of them do. Before I argue for that position, let’s look more carefully at what is being asserted.

There are other ways of expressing Strawson’s thesis, and he helpfully lists a few from other authors: Alvin Goldman: “In the process of thinking about x there is already an implicit awareness that one is thinking about x.” René Descartes: “When I will or fear something, I simultaneously perceive that I will or fear.” John Locke: “Thinking consists in being conscious that one thinks.” Sartre: “Consciousness is conscious of itself, that is, the fundamental mode of existence of consciousness is to be consciousness of itself.” Aron Gurwitsch: “Consciousness … is consciousness of an object on the one hand and an inner awareness of itself on the other hand. Being confronted with an object, I am at once conscious of this object and aware of my being conscious of it.”(11)

Canadian philosopher Leslie Dewart puts it this way:

[An] invariable element of experiencing an object consciously consists in experiencing, moreover, that the object is being experienced. … Careful introspection reveals that we can never be consciously aware of anything without being thereby—through the same act and at the same time—aware that we are aware of it. … In every conscious experience the act of experiencing is present to itself.(12)

In all these different ways of putting the matter no one is arguing that every instance of being conscious involves two separate things, focusing on whatever one is conscious of and in addition focusing on the act or process of being conscious of it. Strawson says that “we’re rarely in a state of awareness taking a state of awareness as an express object of reflective attention.”(13) Rather, they say that being conscious is all one thing (using the term “thing” loosely). They say that the state of being conscious of being conscious is “non-positional,” “nonreflective,” “pre-reflective,” “low-level,” “non-conceptual,” “non-observational,” or “non-thetic.”(14)

So what is this non-observational, nonreflective state? Two different things are asserted about it:

A. That being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious.

B. That being conscious always involves being aware of being conscious.

These assertions are not identical. Being conscious or being aware that means having an idea or concept. If someone says she is aware that her car is in the driveway, it means that she knows that her car is so located, that she has an idea of where her car is. If someone says she is aware that she is conscious it means that she has at least a dim idea that she is conscious (of whatever she is conscious of).

Being conscious of means being in direct perceptual contact with that of which one is conscious. Being conscious of one’s car, for instance by seeing it, is not the same as knowing its location. Nor is being dimly aware of one’s car, for instance by seeing it out of the corner of one’s eye. I suppose it would be difficult to be conscious of something without knowing its location, but certainly one can know something’s location without directly perceiving it. The two are not the same.

Being Aware That One is Conscious

I’ll return to being aware of shortly. Let’s first examine assertion A, that being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious. The thesis, as I said, is not that whenever one is conscious of something one is also explicitly and focally conscious of the thought of one’s being conscious. Certainly most of the time we are not. The thesis rather seems to be that in every moment of experience something is present that counts as knowledge that one is experiencing. Such knowledge is said to be non-thetic, meaning that it is not in the focus of attention. The thesis is that being conscious always contains some element—sometimes more pronounced and sometimes less so—of knowledge that one is conscious.

I think careful observation of experience will show that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

What we call conscious experience does indeed sometimes contain some element of knowing that one is conscious. One can be dimly aware, if not fully conscious, of the idea that one is conscious, that is, of oneself as being conscious. Such an idea may be verbal or visual or some combination or present in some other mode; the exact mode may well vary from person to person. It has the ability to lead one in some way to action or further thought about oneself or one’s experience.

But such an idea is not always present. What is always present in vivid experience that leaves memories is, in addition to the object being paid attention to, thinking that bears some relation to the object of attention. The more such thinking is present, the more vivid is one’s ordinary experience and the stronger one’s memory. The thinking may be about the object or it may be about the subjectivity of one’s experience or both. But it is not necessary that it be about one’s subjectivity. It is enough that it be about the object.

I am willing to grant that every instance of being conscious has the potential of including knowledge that one is conscious, but not that every instance does in fact do so. At best we may have tacit knowledge—knowledge that is not presently thematic but could become thematic, or attended to—that we are conscious. But that knowledge is not always present in experience, even dimly, in the form of thinking or having an idea. It is often just not there at all. Phenomenologically, we are not always in fact aware that we are aware.

Of course, whenever one thinks to “look,” one finds oneself knowing that one is conscious. If one is engaged in questioning whether being conscious must entail or whether it always includes being aware that one is conscious and one examines one’s experience, then one will naturally find such thoughts and observations in the background. The trick is to examine one’s retention of what one was conscious of just before one thought to “look.” In a great many cases, one will find no such conceptual content. (Or, to be precise, in most cases, I, the author, have found no such conceptual content.)

Being Aware Of Being Conscious

Being aware that one is conscious is not a universal characteristic of being conscious. What of assertion B, that being aware of being conscious is? Again, the assertion is not that we are always explicitly and focally conscious of being conscious, for obviously most of the time we are not. Instead, our mode of being aware of being conscious is said to be “pre-reflective, “non-reflective,” “low-level,” “non-conceptual,” “non-observational,” “non-positional” or “non-thetic.” The thesis seems to be that something that is reasonably described as being conscious of being conscious is present in one’s experience at all times at least dimly. But what is that something?

A clue is found in an activity that does entail being conscious of being conscious in an explicit and focused way: the practice of mindfulness meditation, which Strawson recommends.(15) The practice consists of “paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides.”(16) One sits quietly with spine erect and simply pays attention to what is happening. Typically one focuses on one’s breath, specifically on the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils.(17) As one does so, one notices not only the breath but also the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and other subjective events that occur. One does not, however, follow or cling to any of them; instead, when one notices that one’s attention has wandered, one returns focus to the breath. The effects are said to be a sense of calmness, a heightened sensitivity to one’s own subjective thoughts and reactions to events when one is not meditating, an insight into the essential nature of reality, and ultimately release from suffering.(18) Be that as it may, what one focuses on is what we can metaphorically call the contents of our experience, including those we take to be subjective. The more one pays attention, the more one finds all sorts of things that one normally overlooks: thoughts, feelings, incipient actions and even structural features such as what C.S. Peirce calls “perceptual judgments.”(19) Being conscious of being conscious in this case means bringing to explicit attention the subjective elements in one’s experience.

The question is whether there is an attenuated form of such mindful being aware in every instance or episode of being conscious. I think not. In my (the author’s) own case, I find lots of times when nothing of the sort is present. Indeed, the reason one practices such meditation is to increase the quantity and duration of moments of mindfulness. Most of the time I—and, I suppose, most of us—am not at all mindful of a great deal of the contents of my experience.

If that sort of mindfulness is not what Strawson and others mean by being aware non-thetically of being conscious, then, sorry, I don’t know what such being aware is. I have never observed it. I don’t find it in my experience at all. And Strawson himself agrees that it is not obvious to everyone: “It can seem natural to say that we’re often not aware of our awareness—not only when we’re watching an exciting movie but also in most of daily life.”(20)

Whence the Confusion?

If it is not all that obvious, one wonders how the idea arose that being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious or being aware of being conscious. Perhaps there are elements in experience that are constant enough that one might take them to be evidence for these assertions.

One such element is the self-sense, the background sense of oneself that is present all the time, whether one pays attention to it or not. The self-sense is what gives one a feeling of continuity, extending far into one’s past; is what lets one know, without thinking about it, when one gets up in the morning that one is the same person who went to sleep last night. It is the confluence of one’s bodily feelings, one’s moods and emotions, beliefs, evaluations of oneself, and the feelings concomitant with one’s actions. It is present continuously, though most often unnoticed, in all one’s experience, reflective and unreflective. My (the author’s) investigations lead me to believe that such a self-sense is continually present; at least it is there whenever I “look.” That it is a subjective sense, not available to observation by others, might lead some people to use the term “consciousness” to denote it, taking that term to mean subjectivity. But this self-sense is something of which one is or can be aware. It does not count as something that is reasonably described as the activity or process being conscious. (We can say that the self is conscious, but not that the self-sense is.)

Another element is self-consciousness in the ordinary sense, a state in which one knows or senses that one is being observed or might be observed by others. Self-consciousness often includes feelings of embarrassment or fear of being judged, but sometimes it can include feelings of confidence or enjoyment of the attention of others. Since we humans are highly social animals, some might postulate that in each of us a minimal form of self-consciousness is present all the time, even in the absence of other people. And the feelings of embarrassment or pride are subjective, so a sense of “consciousness” as roughly meaning subjectivity might be thought appropriate to denote it. But again, thinking that one is or might be observed is not the same as being conscious of being conscious. And besides, people are generally not self-conscious in this sense all the time, even minimally.

Perhaps there are other elements in experience that might lead someone to think that “being conscious of being conscious” is appropriate to describe them. If so, I suspect that such descriptions will be amenable to clarification through using more precise language and that they too will prove untenable.

Problem: How to Adjudicate

I assert that it is not the case that every occasion of being conscious includes some pre-reflective or pre-conceptual thought that one is conscious, nor does it include some element of being aware of being conscious. This assertion is controversial, as it disagrees with a number of very prominent phenomenologists. My disagreement with them reveals a systematic weakness in the first-person point of view, whether that be phenomenological in the Husserlian sense or merely introspective: there is no way to tell who is right! Strawson and others say introspection always reveals something that I say it doesn’t. How can we decide which one of us is correct?

We can do several things. We can “look” again and describe as clearly as we can what we find. We can ask others to examine their experience and tell us what they find. Both of these efforts will be helped by using language in a standard way, as I advise.(21) In addition, we can describe as clearly as we can the process by which we have examined our experience. Such processes include, for instance, examination of experience while the examined experience is going on, of retained experience immediately afterwards, of remembered experience some time after, of imagined experience in the manner of Husserl’s eidetic variation, etc. And we can ask others to describe their process in order to see whether different processes lead to different results. But ultimately it is up to each one of us to find what we find and remain true to it.

So What?

If you have read this far, you might think that the whole issue is rather arcane, even too arcane to care about. Whether or not our experience is always “present to itself” as Dewart says seems to have little relevance to our everyday life. And, in a way, you are right. It doesn’t really matter whether or not you end up believing that every occasion of being conscious somehow includes or involves or entails being conscious of being conscious. But what does matter is how you arrive at your conclusion. If you just take someone’s word for it, you have basically wasted your time. But if you investigate for yourself by examining closely your own experience, you will learn some things. You will learn how your mind works: the ways it influences how you see the world and how it affects your ability to operate in the world. Conceptually, if you are interested, you can find some answers to questions such as what being conscious and what the self which is conscious actually are. Practically, you will have a chance to become more effective in your chosen pursuits and even, perhaps, gain insight into what pursuits are worth choosing. You will learn to know yourself, as the Oracle at Delphi advised, and gain the benefits of an examined life.


(1) Kolitz, “Are Plants Conscious?”

(2) Ibid.

(3), “Conscious” and “Aware.”

(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity.”

(5) Strawson, “Self-Intimation,” p. 139.

(6) Idem., p. 143.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Idem., p. 148, 149, 150, 152.

(12) Dewart, Evolution and Consciousness, pp. 38-39, emphasis in original.

(13) Strawson, p. 142.

(14) Gallagher and Zahavi, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness,” section 1.

(15) Strawson, p. 154, fn. 51.

(16) Wegela, “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation.”

(17) Thanissaro Bhikkhu. “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice.”

(18) Ibid.

(19) Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. V, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, pp. 38, 114-115.

(20) Strawson, p. 142.

(21) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity.”


Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice.” Online publication as of 29 February 2015.

Dewart, Leslie. Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. “Aware.” Online publication as of 4 May 2016. “Conscious.” Online publication as of 4 May 2016.

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed. Online publication as of 26 October 2015.

Kolitz, Daniel. “Are Plants Conscious?” Online publication as of 30 May 2018.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Journal of Consciousness, Vol. 19, No. 62, 1 January 2017 – 30 June 2017 (forthcoming). Online publication

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volumes V and VI. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965.

Strawson, Galen. “Self-Intimation.” In The Subject of Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 136-164.

Wegela, Karen Kissel. “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation.” Online publication as of 29 February 2016.

Feb 27 18

Do Plants Have Goals?

by Bill Meacham

The topic this time is plants, specifically, whether plants have goals, as sentient agents do. Contemporary philosopher Scott Sehon, echoing the intuitions of many, says they don’t. I’m not so sure.

Sehon’s concern is the concept of teleology, the attempt to explain things in terms of goals or purposes. (The term comes from the Greek telos, which means an end, purpose or goal.) In trying to untangle the nuances of the concept he asks whether and to what extent any of the following can reasonably be said to have goals:(1)

  • A rock remains motionless on the ground.
  • A marble rolls down the inside of a bowl.
  • A heat-seeking missile turns toward the north.
  • A plant turns toward the sun.
  • A spider runs across its web.
  • A cat climbs up a tree.
  • A person, Jackie, goes to the kitchen.

We can explain Jackie’s action by saying that she goes to the kitchen to get a drink. Getting a drink is her goal, or intention. We do not explain the rock’s remaining motionless by saying that it does so in order to maintain a constant velocity. The rock has no goal, it just responds to external forces, which at the moment are in equilibrium. The other cases are in between. The marble does not roll down in order to get to the bottom; it just responds to gravity. The heat-seeking missile acts as if it has a goal, but its goal is not its own; rather, someone has programmed the goal into it. The spider runs across its web to get to the prey ensnared there, and the cat runs up the tree to get away from a dog. These two seem to be clear-cut cases of having a goal, much as Jackie has the goal of getting a drink. But what about the plant?

We can explain the plant’s action by saying it turns toward the sun to get the most sunlight. But Sehon objects, saying "we are not comfortable with [the] apparent suggestion that we view the plant as an agent aiming for a particular goal."(2) He views the plant’s movement as a mere tropism, mechanical and not agential.

Now, the first thing to note is that while Sehon himself is uncomfortable, it is not at all clear that everyone else is. My wife, a gardener and landscape designer, would have no problem at all with saying that the plant moves in order to get more sunlight. Philosophers often appeal to their intuitions about what words mean or what one would say in a certain situation, but their intuitions may well be biased.

Sehon is a philosopher, not a scientist, but his appeal to intuition is a type of informal research using himself and his peers as subjects. As such a researcher he is susceptible to a criticism of contemporary behavioral science, that it uses research subjects who are not representative of the human population world wide. A recent review of behavioral science research finds that "subjects are taken largely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies" and that "members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans."(3) Sehon himself, a philosophy professor in Maine, is firmly among the WEIRD,(4) so the fact that he has an intuition that plants don’t have goals does not carry much weight as evidence. What would an indigenous hunter-gather in Brazil have to say? How about a pastoral nomad in Mongolia? A farmer in Uzbekistan?

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that plants differ from animals in significant ways. (Or so it seems to me, also a WEIRD person.) Plants are less like us, who clearly have goals, than animals. To the untrained eye, it is clear that animals can do a number of things that plants can’t, most notably move around freely and perceive things at a distance.

But the untrained eye can be deceived. Aristotle, for instance, characterized plants as being able to grow and reproduce, but not to perceive, going so far as to say that they have no sense of touch.(5) Nowadays we know that plants do perceive, and some have quite an obvious sense of touch. For an example, watch this video of a Mimosa Pudica, aka Sensitive Plant, whose compound leaves fold inward and droop when touched:(6)

There are many other parallels between plants and animals. It has been known for over 25 years that plants, even though they lack an animal nervous system, send nerve-like messages through their bodies via electrical signals.(7) Newer research finds much more evidence that plants have features analogous to nervous systems and brains:(8)

  • Plants have genes that are similar to those that specify components of animal nervous systems.
  • These genes specify proteins that behave in ways very similar to neural molecules.
  • Some plants have synapse-like regions between cells, across which neurotransmitter molecules facilitate cell-to-cell communication.
  • Many plants have vascular systems that look like they could act as conduits for impulses transmitted throughout the plant body.
  • Some plant cells display action potentials, events in which the electrical polarity across the cell membrane does a quick, temporary reversal, as occurs in animal neural cells. The behaviors of the Sensitive Plant and the Venus Flytrap are examples.

So plants send nerve-like messages within themselves. Does that mean they are intelligent enough to have goals? Are they, in other words, agents? Consider some additional evidence. Monica Gagliano, an animal ecologist at the University of Western Australia, did an experiment with the aforementioned Mimosa Pudica, here recounted by science journalist Michael Pollan.

Gagliano potted fifty-six mimosa plants and rigged a system to drop them from a height of fifteen centimeters every five seconds. Each "training session" involved sixty drops. She reported that some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that the stimulus could be safely ignored. "By the end, they were completely open," Gagliano said to the audience. "They couldn’t care less anymore."

Was it just fatigue? Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up. "’Oh, this is something new,’" Gagliano said, imagining these events from the plants’ point of view. "You see, you want to be attuned to something new coming in. Then we went back to the drops, and they didn’t respond." Gagliano reported that she retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they "remembered" what they had learned. Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten.(9)

This experiment certainly suggests that plants learn and remember. But are they really agents, with intentions, goals, desires and the like? We think they just stand in place like so much green furniture, but that’s because they move too slowly for us to notice. Consider this video of a bean plant shot with time-lapse photography provided by researcher Stefano Mancuso:(10)

I wonder if you will agree that the plant’s activity seems to be directed rather than flailing around aimlessly. To me (admittedly a WEIRD observer) it certainly seems to have a goal and to make efforts toward that goal. Pollan says

Mancuso’s video seems to show that this bean plant "knows" exactly where the metal pole is long before it makes contact with it. Mancuso speculates that the plant could be employing a form of echolocation. There is some evidence that plants make low clicking sounds as their cells elongate; it’s possible that they can sense the reflection of those sound waves bouncing off the metal pole.

The bean plant wastes no time or energy "looking"—that is, growing—anywhere but in the direction of the pole. And it is striving (there is no other word for it) to get there: reaching, stretching, throwing itself over and over like a fly rod, extending itself a few more inches with every cast, as it attempts to wrap its curling tip around the pole. As soon as contact is made, the plant appears to relax; its clenched leaves begin to flutter mildly.(11)

In addition to cultural biases, we humans have a generic bias: we see things easily in our time scale but not at all or only with difficulty in other time scales. Our invention of time-lapse photography enables us to see features of the world that we normally overlook entirely. One of these features is the agential, goal-directed nature of plants.

There is quite a bit of controversy among botanists about what all this means. That’s why, out of caution, Pollan puts words such as "knows" and "looking" in scare quotes. Some have called for the creation of a whole new field, to be called "plant neurobiology" because plant signaling is so much like animal neural activity and because plant behavior is too sophisticated to be explained by genetic and biochemical mechanisms.(12) Some, less confrontationally, call the field "plant signaling and behavior."(13) Others strongly disagree, going so far as to say that plant neurobiologists are from "the nuthouse."(14) The issue is largely semantic, since nobody questions the data, but it strikes at the core of our concept of ourselves. Are humans a special category of the living, different enough to be considered distinct from other animals and especially from plants? Or are we one end of a continuum of life that ranges without sharp demarcations from tiny, single-celled bacteria to extraordinarily complex human beings?

My own preference is the latter. The view that we are part of a continuum of life seems to fit the data better than the opposite view. And if widely adopted, it might prompt us to have more empathy for our fellow living creatures and to stop the ecological devastation that threatens our survival.

(1) Sehon, p. 160.

(2) Sehon, p. 161

(3) Henrich, et. al., p. 61.


(5) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 413a 26 – 413b 13. To be fair, he does not explicitly say that no plants have a sense of touch, but implies that assertion by contrasting them with animals, all of which do.

(6) Íñiguez, “Mimosa pudica – Sensitive Plant.”

(7) Yoon, “Plants Found to Send Nerve-Like Messages.”

(8) DeSalle, “Do Plants Have Brains?”

(9) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

(10) Pollan. “Plant Neurobiology.”

(11) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

(12) Brenner, et. al., “Plant neurobiology.”

(13) Baluska, et. al., Plant Signaling and Behavior.

(14) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

Aristotle. On the Soul, tr. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition ed. S. Marc Cohen, et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011. Another translation is available online at

Baluska, Frantisek, et. al., eds. Plant Signaling and Behavior. Online at as of 24 February 2018.

Brenner, Eric D., et. al. “Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling.” Trends in Plant Science Vol. 11 No. 8 (2006), pp. 423-418. Online publication as of 24 February 2018.

DeSalle, Rob, and Ian Tattersall. “Do Plants Have Brains?” Natural History. Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Henrich, Joseph, et. al. “The weirdest people in the world?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 33 (2010), pp. 61 – 135. Online publication as of 23 February 2018.

Íñiguez, Ángel Daniel Alfaro, videographer. “Mimosa pudica – Sensitive Plant.” (video) Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Pollan, Michael. “Plant Neurobiology.” (video) Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Pollan, Michael. “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.” The New Yorker, 23 December 2013. Online publication as of 15 February 2018. I highly recommend this piece. It has far more to say than what I have quoted.

Sehon, Scott. Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “Plants Found to Send Nerve-Like Messages.” New York Times, 17 November 1992. Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Nov 19 17

A Harmful Ambiguity

by Bill Meacham

Massimo Pigliucci has written an entertaining book, Answers For Aristotle, about how recent scientific discoveries can shed light on perennial problems of philosophy and how philosophy can make sense of surprising new knowledge. Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and other disciplines, he shows that we need both science and philosophy to make sense of who we are and how best to live our lives. Pigliucci is a skillful wrier, and the book is enjoyable and informative. But it has an annoying flaw: historical inaccuracy and conceptual confusion stemming from ambiguous language.

Pigliucci contrasts three approaches to deciding what to do in morally problematic situations. Deontology, from a Greek word meaning duty, tells us to follow moral rules because they tell us the right thing to do. Moral rules may be taken to come from divine decree or from the dictates of rationality or from a special faculty of intuition; but however we come to know them, they are to be followed regardless of their consequences. This principle is taken to the extreme by Kant, who asserts that it would be wrong to tell a lie to a murderer who asks whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer has taken refuge in our house.(1) Most of us find such rigid honesty morally repugnant.

Consequentialism, by contrast, tells us that the consequences of our actions are of primary importance, regardless of the rules. Its best-known variant is Utilitarianism, which says that we should try to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Consequentialism evaluates moral choices in terms of the consequences of our actions regardless of whether they are in accord with moral rules. Taken to the extreme, this approach would have us sacrifice one healthy man to harvest his organs for several others who need them. This too we find morally repugnant.

Both deontology and consequentialism, despite seeming differences, are actually quite similar. Both are in what I have called the Rightness paradigm, being ways to find the right thing to do.(2) The third approach, virtue ethics, is in the Goodness paradigm. It gives us advice about how to live a good life by cultivating morally laudable traits of character such as honesty, courage, moderation and the like. This approach does not tell us what to do in particular quandaries. Instead it tells us what kind of person to be such that we will do what is morally appropriate almost automatically. We will act because of who we are, not because we have figured out what to do by consulting a moral system. Virtue ethics originated in ancient Greece and found its fullest flowering in Aristotle. The point of cultivating virtues, according to that famous philosopher, is to be able to live a life of eudaimonia, that is, a life of happiness or, better, flourishing or fulfillment. It’s not just the feeling of being happy that is the goal, but really functioning well in all areas of life.

Now consider this statement by Pigliucci:

According to virtue ethics … human beings need to steer themselves in the direction of virtuous behavior both because that is the right thing to do and because the very point of life is to live it in a eudaimonic way.(3)

There are two different assertions here, and only one of them is historically accurate. Aristotle does indeed claim that, as a factual matter, human beings seek happiness (eudaimonia) above all else since “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”(4) That is, we choose, for instance, health over illness because health makes us happier, but we choose happiness just for itself, not for any other reason. Aristotle goes on to claim that what makes us happy is the exercise of our distinctly human function, which is the ability to reason.(5) And not just to reason, but to reason well, that is, excellently. (The Greek word areté, often translated as “virtue,” also means excellence.) Life is activity, so the happy life is an active one that is governed by reasoning well: “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.”(6) (Again, read “excellence” for “virtue”, and nowadays we would say “mind” instead of “soul.”) Happiness is to be found in activity governed by excellent reasoning. The activities in life that were taken to be characteristic of an excellent man—and it was free men that Aristotle addressed, not slaves or women—were virtues such as courage, moderation, generosity, honesty and so forth. Aristotle has a lot to say about the nature of these virtues, which need not concern us here. The point is that Pigliucci is correct in saying that we are well advised to steer ourselves toward virtuous behavior because doing so will bring us a happy—that is, a flourishing or fulfilled—life.

But Pigliucci’s other assertion, that behaving virtuously is the right thing to do, misunderstands how rightness figures into Aristotle’s thought. The term “right” is ambiguous. It can mean to be in accordance with a moral law; that’s what we moderns mean when we speak of doing the right thing. But it can also mean to be appropriate or fitting, as when we speak of wearing the right clothes for a social occasion. Aristotle does speak of rightness. Famously, he says that virtue of character entails feelings and actions that are had or done “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way….”(7) But “right” in this context means what is generally accepted and approved by Athenian gentlemen of the time, not what accords with what a moral rule dictates.

As Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out tersely and Alasdair MacIntyre much more comprehensively, our concepts of moral obligation, duty, rightness and wrongness are holdovers from a conception of ethics that no longer holds much power; and, says Anscombe, those concepts are harmful without it.(8) That conception, which arose with Judaism and Christianity, is the idea of divine law, a legal code issued by God and to which all God’s creatures are subject. Certainly the idea is not dead. Lots of people believe in a law-giving God, and most of them insist that their idea of what God commands is the right one, an attitude that promotes much strife. But for many, perhaps most, others, the idea of God has little relevance, and Anscombe’s point is well taken. It is peculiar that Pigliucci uses “right” in this sense, because he devotes three chapters to debunking belief in the existence of God.

I have argued that confusing the concepts of goodness and rightness is harmful because it inhibits clear thinking.(9) I have also argued that it makes more sense to think in terms of goodness, but that is not my point here. My point is that it is a shame to see such an otherwise cogent thinker make such a basic mistake.


(1) Kant, “On A Supposed Right To Lie.”

(2) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(3) Pigliucci, Answers For Aristotle, p. 72.

(4) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b1, trans. Irwin.

(5) Ibid., 1097b22-29.

(6) Ibid., 1098a16.

(7) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1106b18-24.

(8) Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” MacIntyre, After Virtue.

(9) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”


Anscombe, G.E.M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy No l. 33, No. 124, January 1958. Online publication as of 27 October 2015.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition, ed. S. Marc Cohen et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.

Kant, Immanuel, “On A Supposed Right To Lie Because of Altruistic Motives.” Online publication as of 19 November 2017. Also as of 19 November 2017.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Philosophy, Third Edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and The Right.” Online publication

Pigliucci, Massimo. Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Aug 20 17

How To Talk About Subjectivity

by Bill Meacham

I continue to advocate for using clearer language about experience, consciousness, awareness, subjectivity and the like, in hopes of promoting clearer thinking. Back in May I presented a paper to the International Congress on Consciousness in Miami titled “How To Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” It is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Consciousness, Vol. 19, No. 62, and you can read the entire text here:

This paper revises my earlier recommendations for using the terms “being conscious” and “being aware.” I now use them as synonyms. Many other languages have only one word for “conscious” and “aware.” Others have two, but the two do not translate directly to the two in English. So now I call being conscious wakingly and explicitly “being focally conscious” or “being focally aware.” I call being conscious of vague and indistinct or subliminal objects “being peripherally conscious” or “being peripherally aware.”

I still recommend avoiding the terms “consciousness” and “awareness,” as they are dreadfully ambiguous. If you must use them, please specify the meaning you intend. The paper lists quite a number of them.

May 11 17

Cuttlefish Dream

by Bill Meacham

CuttlefishThree and a half meters below the surface of the sea off the east coast of Australia a giant cuttlefish, about a meter in length, lurks in its den.(1) A human floats quietly nearby in his scuba gear, observing in silence and making no disturbance. The cuttlefish shows no signs of alarm at the human’s presence, and there are no others of its kind around. As usual, a restless display of colors ranges across its “face,” the area between its eyes and down its top pair of tentacles. Reds, browns, greens, blues and yellows cascade in ever-changing patterns, punctuated by veins of silver.

ChromatophoresCuttlefish, like octopuses and other cephalopods, have special pigment cells called chromatophores in their skin. A giant cuttlefish has about ten million of them; we can think of its skin as, roughly, a ten-megapixel screen. By controlling the size of the cells the animal can quite rapidly vary its color and create changing patterns. The static photo shown here does not do it justice; the colors constantly change and shift. Moving patterns and shapes — stripes, clouds and other shapes — play over its entire body. Here is a video of a smaller cuttlefish changing color.

Having no internal skeleton, cuttlefish and octopuses can change shape as well. Octopuses are well known for being able to mimic the shape of rocks and sea-plants around them, and they can squeeze through very small holes. This video shows an octopus escaping through a small hole.

Cuttlefish have a bone-like shell under their skin, so they can’t squeeze as small as an octopus can, but they can change their shape by extruding and retracting portions of skin and elongating their tentacles.

The abilities to change color and shape are thought to have evolved for camouflage, to protect the animal from predators, and for signaling, to communicate with other animals. But according to philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who has studied the animals in depth, the colors go way beyond such biological functions.

Many patterns seem to be anything but camouflage, and are also produced when no obvious “receiver” of the signal is around. Some cuttlefish … go through an almost continual, kaleidoscopic process of color change that appears disconnected from anything going on outside them, and appears instead to be an inadvertent expression of the electrochemical tumult inside them. … [The changes seem to be] an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes, … a kind of ongoing chromatic chatter.(2)

Down by the cuttlefish den, the human, Godfrey-Smith, continues to observe:

As I watched, I realized that these colors were changing in a concerted way …. It reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other. He would shift several colors in sequence or together … and end up with a new pattern, a new combination, which might stay still for a time or immediately start shifting into another. … What was he doing? It was slowly getting darker in the water, and under his ledge it was already quite dark. …

It occurred to me that he was paying so little attention to me that all of this might have been going on going on while he was asleep, or half-asleep in a state of deep rest. Perhaps the part of his brain that controls the skin was turning over a sequence of colors of its own accord. I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream. He made almost no movement, except small adjustments of siphon and fin that kept him hovering in the same place. …

Then things began to change. He seemed to stiffen or pull together and began going through a long series of displays. It was the strangest series I have ever seen, especially as it seemed to have no target or object. … He pulled in his arms and exposed his beak. He tucked his arms below him in a missile-like pose, then produced a yellow flare. I kept glancing out to see if he was looking at someone—another cuttlefish or some other intruder. There was never anyone there. … Then he pulled himself into the most extraordinarily contorted shape, his skin suddenly white, with arms pulled back both above and below his head. This sequence then quieted down. … And then, instantly, he seized into a wild aggressive pose, with arms straight out, sharp like thin swords, and his whole body a bright yellow-orange. It was as if the orchestra had suddenly hit a wild clashing chord. The arms ended in needles, his body became covered with jagged papillae like armor. … I wondered again if this was all directed at me, but if it was a display, it seemed to be aimed in directions all around. And I had been back from the den when this sequence started, when he exploded into yellow-orange and the needle-arm pose.

Still facing away, he began to ease back from this fortissimo. Though he moved through a few more permutations and poses, they were subsiding. And then he was still—his arms hanging down, his skin a quietly shifting mixture of the reds, rusts and greens that he had been producing when I arrived. Turning, he looked at me.(3)

The human, by now rather cold, swims away, wondering what it was all about. Was it the exterior of a dream? Was it some kind of communication with the human, as if to say “Look what I can do?” Or, as long as we are anthropomorphizing here, maybe its aggressive display expressed irritation, as if to say “Get the hell out of here! Go away and leave me alone!”

Here is a speculation: It was a bit of ecstasy in the Mind of God expressing itself through this strange animal.

The mystics say that every individual mind is known from the “inside,” as if by telepathy, by an overarching and unifying mind, the Mind of God. In Hindu yoga philosophy this mind is called Paramatman, Supreme Self. More precisely, it is the mind of God conceived pantheistically as the entirety of the universe. Sufi mystic Inayat Khan explains it this way:

The whole universe is nothing but particles of God’s life and the Absolute is one Being. God therefore is all, and all is God.(4)

The One Being is, in this view, something like a person whose body is all the physical matter of the universe and whose mind is the combined mentality of all that physical matter. This view entails panpsychism, the idea that every element of physical matter has also a mental aspect. Additionally, it entails the notion that the mentality of all the various elements combine to form one mentality, one interior, subjective reality, which we can call the Supreme Self. As Inayat Khan puts it,

The infinite God is the Self of God, and all that has been manifested with name and form is the outward aspect of God.(5)

If that is true, then the cuttlefish is one of the outward aspects of God. And if Godfrey-Smith’s conjecture is true that the animal’s colors are an expression of its inner state, then they are the expressions of the Mind of God individuated into a single animal.

The cuttlefish, a solitary creature having little interaction with others of its kind, floats alone in its world. Perhaps it senses a large, mobile creature nearby, perhaps not. If so, it detects neither food nor predator and ignores it. Lost in its thoughts, it amuses itself by putting on a light show. It hums to itself, as it were, in colors rather than sounds. Tripping out in its fantasy, it finds delight in the sheer exuberance of color and movement. God, in this instance conscious of the light show both from the point of view of the cuttlefish and of the human, finds dual delight. That delight is felt, however dimly, in the emotional background of the experience of every sentient being in the universe.

The mystic finds bliss in union with the One. The One finds delight, not only in the mystic’s union, but in the delight of every one of the creatures that make up its being. Every time we experience love, harmony and beauty we contribute to the love, harmony and beauty felt by God. In so doing, we contribute to the well-being of every sentient entity. Every time we experience anger and discord, though, we contribute to ill-being.

God is looking through your eyes, hearing through your ears, and feeling what you feel. What does God experience? How does God feel?


(1) All accounts of cuttlefish and other cephalopod behavior and physiology in this essay are taken from Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds.

(2) Ibid., pp. 126 – 128.

(3) Ibid., pp. 133 – 135.

(4) Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals, p. 58.

(5) Ibid., p. 101.


Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, 2016.

Khan, Inayat. The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume IX: The Unity of Religious Ideals. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1963.

Photo of cephalopod: as of 1 May 2017.

Photo of cuttlefish: as of 2 May 2017.

Video of cuttlefish display: as of 4 May 2017.

Video of octopus escaping: as of 4 May 2017.

May 4 17


by Bill Meacham

Happy Beltane! (Or Samhain, depending on where you live.)

May 5, 2017, is a cross-quarter day, the exact midpoint between a solstice and an equinox. In the northern hemisphere, it is Beltane, half-way between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. In the southern hemisphere, it is Samhain (pronounced “sowan”), half-way between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. (The names come from ancient Celtic seasonal festivals.)

My essay “The Wisdom of the Cross Quarters” in revised and expanded form has been reprinted here: I invite you to have a look.

Paying attention to the rhythms of nature helps us realize that what happens in the large affects each of us, and what affects each of us affects the whole of which we are a part. Now is a good time to contemplate: What qualities are being brought forth now? What changes are in the wind? What can you align yourself with to promote vibrant peace, happiness and good health for you and the humans and non-humans around you?

Mar 6 17

Soul Function

by Bill Meacham

The basic premise of my book, How To Be An Excellent Human, is that human happiness is found in functioning well:

Functioning well means doing what we are good at and doing it in a good way, a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it. When we function well, we experience happiness [and] fulfillment.(1)

This essay is an attempt to explain what I mean by that passage and to answer some objections. The idea that functioning well is important for human well-being goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. My account of the matter takes inspiration from their insights but differs in some details. I suppose you could call me a neo-Aristotelian.

In Book I of The Republic, Plato gives a brief account of how human happiness has to do with performing a specific function well.(2) A much fuller account is found in Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics:

[A clearer account of happiness] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.(3)

Aristotle’s aim is to find the function of the human being. We’ll take up that idea shortly, but first we need to get clear on a few concepts. The first is happiness, which the Greeks called eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing.” The second is soul, the Greek word for which is psyché (pronounced “psoo-khay”). We get words such as “psyche,” “psychology” and the like from this Greek root. The third is function or work, the word for which in Greek is ergon. We get the word “ergonomics” from this root. And the fourth is excellence, areté in Greek.


Eudaimonia literally means being accompanied by a good (eu) spirit (daimon). If one is accompanied by a eudaimon, a sort of guardian angel, then one’s life goes well; hence, the translation “happiness.” Nowadays we find the notion of guardian angels fanciful, but there is a spirit that does accompany each one of us at all times: our own spirit, our own soul. By extension of the Greek idea we can say that eudaimonia means wellness of soul.(4)


But what is soul? The word psyche is often translated as “soul,” but it does not mean a single enduring entity, such as Descartes’ res cogitans (thinking thing). It is not the entity said to live on after death in many religious theologies. The Greek word is derived from a root meaning to breathe and, by extension, to live. We can think of it as the animating spirit or vital breath of a living being.(5) Living beings, we can say, are ensouled. Instead of saying that a person has a soul, it would be more correct to say that he or she simply has soul, or perhaps soulness.

Soulness has two aspects, objective and subjective. Greek thinkers before Aristotle recognized two characteristics that distinguish what has soul in it from what does not: movement and sensation.(6) Objectively, from the outside, we observe that living things are animated; they grow and maintain their form through metabolism. and have their source of motion in themselves. Soul in this sense is the animating principle by virtue of which a living being is alive. Aristotle says that “what has soul in it … displays life.”(7)

Subjectively, from the inside, we observe our own life, and we find that the world appears to us, and that we engage with it. The world, we surmise, does not appear at all to nonliving things, but it does appear to living beings. We recognize that some elements of what we experience—trees, chairs, people and the like—are experienced by others as well; and others—thoughts, feelings, emotions and the like—are experienced directly by each of us alone. Soulness in this sense is a coherent world appearing to a particular point of view. Soulness is coherence of interiority. If that interior coherence is rich, full and harmonious, we call it happy and say that in such a state we flourish.

And what causes our interior state to be harmonious, fulfilled and happy? Both Plato and Aristotle say that such a happy state comes from doing our function well.


The term “function” (ergon, also translated as “work”) has been the subject of much analysis. It basically means what something does or what it is there for(8), what good it does.(9) It may also mean how it works.(10) Plato says that a thing’s function is what only it does or what it does better than anything else.(11)

There are two kinds of function, and unfortunately both Plato and Aristotle confuse them. The first is biological. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of the eye is to see; legs and feet function to enable an organism to stand and move around. In all these cases the function of the part is to contribute to the ongoing life of the living being. Aristotle assumes that if there is a structure in an animal, it is there to do something. The part contributes to the well-being of the whole.

The second kind of function is instrumental, and instrumental functions most often involve a deliberate purpose. For instance, the function of a hammer is to drive nails. It does not drive nails on its own, but rather requires a human to pick it up and use it to do so. The human drives nails for some purpose, such as to build a house. The purpose of building a house is to provide shelter. And the purpose of shelter is to contribute to the ongoing life of the human being.

In both cases we end up with a contribution to life, but in the biological case the contribution is direct and need not involve any deliberate purpose, whereas in the instrumental case the contribution is indirect and does involve deliberate purpose.

As I said, Plato and Aristotle confuse the two meanings, sometimes referring to biological function and sometimes referring to instrumental function. In The Republic Plato gives the example of a pruning knife, the function of which is to trim branches. Other kinds of knives would work, but pruning is best done with a pruning knife, so that is what the pruning knife’s function is.(12) This is clearly an example of instrumental function. Aristotle at times uses similar examples. He says that a good horse is one that is good at running, at carrying its rider and at standing steady in the face of the enemy.(13) In this context a horse is a military instrument to be used by its rider. But in other places Aristotle speaks of biological function:

As eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the [bodily] parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function …?(14)

It is in the biological context that we can understand the function of the human.


The final concept we need to understand is areté, often translated as “virtue” but more properly rendered as “excellence.” (“Virtue” is used in its somewhat archaic sense of power or potency, as in “a potion with the virtue of removing warts.”) A thing is excellent if it does what it does in a very good way, that is, if it is effective at performing its function.(15) For instance, the function of a rabbit’s legs is to enable it to run. The better they are at this function, the better for the rabbit. Excellence promotes the animal’s well-being.

The Function Argument

Aristotle’s assertion is that an excellent human, one who performs the human function well, is a happy (eudaimon) human. But what is this human function?

In Aristotle’s view the human function is what human soul does, and not just what human soul does but what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else. Aristotle contrasts human soul with two others, that of plants and that of (non-human) animals. Plants, animals and humans are all alive. All have soul. Soulness in plants enables them to take in nutrients, grow and reproduce. Soulness in animals enables them to do those things and, in addition, to perceive their world and, in most cases, move around. The soulness of humans is that humans do all that plants and animals do and even more. Humans have, in addition, the power to think rationally.(16)

The connection between functioning well and well-being is not magical and not arbitrary. A plant that absorbs nutrients well does better than one that absorbs nutrients poorly; that is, it has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing. An animal that perceives its world and gets around in it well has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing than one that does these things poorly. Similarly, human beings who think well have a better chance of surviving and thriving (for humans, reproducing is optional) than those who think poorly.

We humans partake of all three kinds of soulness, all three ways of sensing and engaging with the world, but the specific excellence of human soul, Aristotle says, is found in thinking rationally:

The function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle. … human good turns out to be [this] activity of soul in accordance with virtue [areté, excellence].(17)

By “in accordance with virtue” he means doing so well. In other words, when you think well, then you function well and flourish.

Aristotle says a lot more than this, of course. He discusses virtues such as courage and temperance, the need for sticking to a middle ground between excess and deficiency, the obvious influence on happiness of having friends and enough material goods to sustain yourself, and so forth. But he ends up saying that the life of pure study, such as is enjoyed by philosophers, is the best.(18)

Beyond Aristotle

Coming from a philosopher, perhaps this conclusion is not surprising. But is it correct? I think not. Leaving aside the difficulty of comparing lives, Aristotle seems to confuse what is best for a particular person and what is best for human beings generally.

Aristotle does recognize that there is more than one kind of thinking. Two of them are practical reason (phronesis), which is directed at accomplishing things in the world, and theoretical reason (theoria), which is aimed at disinterested understanding. The ability to think well in practical terms is obviously useful. But not everyone is suited for a life of theoretical contemplation.

Some of us are good at that sort of philosophical thinking. Some of us are good at other things: sports, music, crossword puzzles, mathematics, caretaking, fixing things, gardening and many more. But few of us are good at all of those things. On an individual level, each of us is well advised to find out what he or she is good at personally, or idiosyncratically, and to pursue and develop those talents. By and large, we will be happier doing what we are good at than doing something else. (Perhaps not universally. I know someone who is good at plumbing, but does not much enjoy it. In his case I suspect he is even better at other things.)

Aristotle wants to know the good for humans generally, for all humans considered just as humans. His conclusions are based on observation of the similarities and differences among living things. He was a sharp observer of the natural world, but modern scientific knowledge has far surpassed his elementary classifications. The distinctions between animals, plants and humans are not nearly so clear-cut as he thought. We know that some plants can sense quite keenly what is going on around them and even seem to have a form of intelligence.(19) Many can move, in most cases slowly compared to animals, although some, such as the Venus Flytrap, quite rapidly. And we now know that some animals—birds, octopuses, and chimpanzees, for instance—are far more intelligent than we had previously thought.(20) The ability to think is not limited to humans. Perhaps humans do it better than every other kind of being, but we are certainly not the only ones who do it.

But we humans do have an ability that goes well beyond what any other animal can do: we can turn our attention to ourselves. Even more than intelligence, the capacity for self-reflection—that we are able to turn our attention to our own experience, to take ourselves as an object of thought and perception—is what makes us uniquely human. Variously called self-knowledge, self-awareness, higher-order thought, and metacognition, the ability to take ourselves as objects of concern enables us, within limits, to develop ourselves and improve our functioning. I like to call this capacity second-order thinking, the first order being thinking directed at the world. The second order is thinking directed at oneself, and it, not thinking alone, is the uniquely human function. It enables us to improve and enhance all our other functions.(21)

Here is an example. One of the objections to the function argument is that it can be oppressive. One of the obvious functions of women is to have babies. Hence, the oppressive argument goes, they should be confined to that role. The Nazis advised women to stick to Kinder, Kirche und Küche (children, church and kitchen). Patriarchal prejudice punishes women who try to succeed in business, politics or any other role traditionally assigned to men. Not only is this attitude damaging to women, preventing them from reaching their full potential, it is a mistake. The mistake is to think that human nature is exhausted by its biological functions, that humans are only their biology. And it is our ability to think about ourselves that enables us to recognize the mistake.

Every human being is indeed a biological organism. Every biological organism has three goals built in, so to speak, to its very being: to survive, to thrive and to reproduce. So you might think that those are the built-in goals of every human. But they aren’t. Some of us do not choose to reproduce; some do not choose to thrive; and a few do not even choose to survive; instead, they commit suicide.

Of those who choose not to reproduce there are those who feel no sexual attraction to the opposite sex; and there are those who do, but for various reasons choose not to have children. Of those who choose not to thrive, there are those who are addicted to harmful behavior such as smoking cigarettes, and there are those who devote their efforts to a cause at some cost to their own well-being. I do not know how many types there are of those who commit suicide. For many of them, I suppose, life has become unbearably painful; and the urge to avoid pain, which is an element of the urge to thrive, overcomes the urge to survive.

Our animal nature is strong. Even those who choose not to reproduce cannot choose to be unaffected by the drive to reproduce; we all feel sexual urges. Even those who choose not to thrive cannot choose to have no desire for what is pleasant and nurturing. And those who commit suicide have to make a lot of effort to overcome the powerful urge for self-preservation.

What is it about humans that enables us to overcome these built-in biological drives and to pursue other ends instead? It is second-order thinking, our ability to think about ourselves.

Much more could be said about this human function, including how best to deploy it, and I do say more in my book. We humans have lots of other functions, skills and talents. We have a place in the broad scheme of things. There are ways our functioning is impaired, and there are ways to correct that impairment. The more we know about all these things—that is, the more we examine our lives, as Socrates recommended—the better our chances are for a flourishing life.


(1) Meacham, p. 6

(2) Plato, The Republic, 351e – 353d.

(3) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 22-29.

(4) Wikipedia, “Eudaimonia” and “Eudaimonism.”

(5) Bible Hub, “5590. psuché.”

(6) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 403b 25.

(7) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 413a 20.

(8) Wright, “Functions,” p. 146.

(9) Foot, Natural Goodness, p. 32.

(10) Korsgaard, “Aristotle’s Function Argument,” p. 138.

(11) Plato, The Republic, 353a.

(12) Plato, The Republic, 353a.

(13) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II.6, 1106a 20

(14) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 30.

(15) Wikipedia, “Areté (moral virtue).”

(16) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2-3, 413a 20 – 415a 10.

(17) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097a 5 – 15.

(18) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.7-8, 1177a 10 – 1179a 30.

(19) Wikipedia, “Plant perception (physiology).”

(20) See for example Ackerman, The Genius of Birds, Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus, and the many works of Franz de Waal.

(21) There are actually a number of functions that humans do better than other species. Long-distance running is one. Hairless bodies that sweated heat away enabled our ancestors to run down game animals that were faster than we were but could not keep going as long without overheating. Cooking is another. Cooked food is more digestible than raw; eating it freed up calories to grow our brain. Tools and language are other ones. Other animals use tools and have rudimentary language, but ours are far more developed. See Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body, and Wrangham, Catching Fire. Second-order thinking surpasses these functions by enabling us to augment and improve them.


Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Tr. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Aristotle. On the Soul. Tr. J.A. Smith. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Bible Hub. “5590. psuché.” Online publication as of 28 February 2017.

Foot, Phillippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Korsgaard, Christine M. “Aristotle’s Function Argument.” Online publication as of 3 December 2008.

Lieberman, Daniel E. The Story of the Human Body. New York: Random House Vintage Books, 2013.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus. New York: Atria, 2015.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wikipedia. “Areté (moral virtue).” Online publication as of 1 March 2017.

Wikipedia. “Eudaimonia.” Online publication as of 16 December 2008.

Wikipedia. “Eudaimonism.” Online publication as of 16 December 2008.

Wikipedia. “Plant perception (physiology).” Online publication as of 1 March 2017.

Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Wright, Larry. “Functions.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 139-168. Online publication as of 22 May 2012.

Dec 10 16

Published: Don’t Say “Consciousness”

by Bill Meacham

I am happy to announce that my paper, “Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity,” has been published in Sociology and Anthropology, an online open-access journal. Earlier this year I gave a presentation on the same subject at the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, and this is the corresponding paper.

You can view the article information here: The paper itself is freely available at

The language we use to talk about consciousness, experience, mind, subjectivity and the like is ambiguous. Different people use common terms in different ways without realizing it, and thereby foster confusion. In this paper a terminology is proposed for speaking of subjectivity. An operational definition is given of the term “subjectivity,” and from that standpoint usages of the terms “experience,” “consciousness” and “awareness” are proposed. The approach is both phenomenological in the tradition of Husserl, examining that which is given directly from a first-person point of view while holding in abeyance interpretive theories, and analytic in the British tradition, attempting to clarify terminology used to discuss what is found in such phenomenological investigation. After proposing definitions of salient terms, suggestions are given for reframing confusing language. To make the speaker’s meaning clear it is recommended to avoid the term “consciousness” altogether.

Consciousness, Subjectivity, Philosophy of Mind

Cite this paper
Bill Meacham (2016). Don’t Say “Consciousness”: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity. Sociology and Anthropology, 4 , 1099 – 1107. doi: 10.13189/sa.2016.041209. Online publication

Nov 17 16

Leaning from Masters

by Bill Meacham

I recently presented a paper titled “Learning from Masters: Ethics and Cosmology in Zarathustra and Hazrat Inayat Khan” to a conference on Zoroastrianism and Sufism. Zarathustra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, founded the religion that bears his name. Hazrat Inayat Khan is the founder of what is now the Inayati Order of Sufism. In both we find a kind of virtue ethics, a concern for building admirable character rather than obeying moral rules or calculating the consequences of our actions. And in both we find intriguing hints of a cosmology of pantheistic panpsychism.

The paper is a bit too long for a blog essay, so I have posted it on my website at You can watch my presentation on YouTube at