Consider the following line of thinking:

If consciousness refers to that which experiences, then the idea of being conscious seems to always entail being conscious of something.

For example, it is easy to understand what it means to be conscious of a red ball.

It is also easy to understand what it means to be not conscious.

Question: But what does it mean to say to be conscious of nothing? And is that any different from to be not conscious?

If there is a difference, then to be conscious of nothing seems to refer to consciousness without experience, or "pure" consciousness without qualia.

Another way to phrase it might be: if you know what it is like to be conscious of only two red balls, and you know what it's like to be conscious of only one red ball, then what is it like to be conscious of zero red balls and is that different from not being conscious at all?

  • 1
    The idea that to be conscious is to be conscious of something, an intentional object, is called intentionality of consciousness and goes back to Brentano. It is controversial, some believe that there are non-intentional mental states, such as moods, being in pain (different than reflecting on the pain one is in, just experiencing pain), etc. See SEP's Is intentionality exhibited by all mental phenomena?
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 6:17

2 Answers 2

  1. Conscious of nothing : I am in a state of awareness but contingently there is no object, event, or state of affairs of which I am aware - even the state of affairs of my not being aware.

  2. Not conscious : I am not in a state of awareness and there is necessarily no object, event, state of affairs of which I am or even could be aware and, a fortiori, necessarily not the state of affairs of my not being aware.

However, I doubt if 1. is logically possible. Isn't consciousness always and necessarily consciousness of something ? I can't make clear to myself what an objectless awareness would be like.

In ordinary language one might say though it would sound odd, 'Sure, I was conscious - but not of anything'. This would just mean, 'I wasn't conscious of anything particular or of any significance'. That's certainly possible but philosophically uninteresting. (My example - not a point against you ;)-.)


Underlying assumption of consciousness is that one must be first conscious of himself. Cogito, ergo sum and other similar stuff. This is not a hard definition, or set in stone. Yet, practically all philosophical schools or religious traditions, implicitly if not explicitly, assume that one must be present, aware of himself and his mindstream before reflecting on anything else.

Parallel to this, definition of unconsciousness is simply of a state where person is not being aware of himself, therefore not being aware of his surroundings either. Again, this is not a strict philosophical definition, but it is used for example in medicine or in legal matters.

Now we come to the main question, being conscious of nothing. We must assume that person being conscious of nothing is still conscious (otherwise he would be simply unconscious ) . Therefore, he is aware of himself and he does exist in Cartesian sense. But, other than that, he experiences nothingness. This could be part of meditation, or Brain in a vat scenario with every empirical source of data (every sense) being cut off. But such person would still retain sense of I am, I exist here and now (even if I don't know where and when this exactly is) . He would also retain ability to reflect on ideas already existing in his mind . This is fundamental difference between him and someone who is unconscious, not being aware of himself, therefore not being able to track his own mindstream, therefore not being able to reflect.

There is also interesting question about lucid dreams where dreamer has certain degree of awareness, but not on the same level as in woke state. This is borderline state between consciousness an unconsciousness with "false" empirical data coming from the senses (if we assume that world in a dream is not real) . Therefore, if a dreamer knows he is dreaming, then he is aware of illusion, therefore at least partially aware of nothingness.

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