I recently come across books on the study of consciousness per se which seems to use a multidisciplinary approach similar to how cognitive science was studied about 30 years ago (being a joint effort between philosophy, psychology, A.I., biology, and linguistics to study cognition before the advent of neuroscience):

There are also journals and societies dedicated to the study of consciousness:

What is an overview of the differences between the study of consciousness with the more traditional disciplines below, in terms of the faculty (the major / university department), the method, the goal, etc?

  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Psychology of consciousness

To put the question in another way: what makes "consciousness studies" unique compared to the previous ways of studying consciousness?

2 Answers 2


The "Hard Problem of Consciousness", which is that consciousness is not a phenomenon that makes any sense or is predictable from a physicalist framework, has dominated much of Western philosophy since the rise of materialism/physicalism as a dominant ontology.

This Hard problem has not yielded yet to any of the methodologies applied to address it.

Of the categories you list, Philosophy of Mind, at least, has multiple schools of thought within it. The philosophic approaches to consciousness are all over the map, ranging from eliminative reductionism, thru dualism, idealism, and pan psychism. The dominant philosophic view, for nearly a half century among Anglo-Americans, was behaviorism -- which is to simply ignore consciousness. The dominant position has shifted over time, with neurologic identity theory replacing behaviorism, then functionalism replacing that, then emergent non-reductive physicalism replacing that.

Continental philosophy was highly influenced by phenomenalism, which did not deny consciousness, and treated perception as a reductive absolute. Phenomenalism is most compatible with neural identity theory, of the anglo-american movements.

Psychology has a similar spectrum of approaches taken to mind. These range from behaviorism, thru neuro-reductionism, to a cognitive holism. Psychology is interested in behavior, and internal motivations, not in placing these in a worldview. We know that psychology is a useful and valid discipline -- HOW that discipline fits into a worldview -- is not actually critical to being able to DO psychology.

But despite the diversity, there are some patterns to how your three categories do investigations of consciousness.

Cognitive neuroscience is primarily committed to an assumption of neural reductionism, so that constrains the sorts of things it can discover about consciousness. Mostly, the neuroscience project has NOT discovered neural correlates of consciousness, which was their original goal, but instead discovered neural processes that do our unconscious processing. That is why it has been renamed "cognitive" neuroscience, as the investigators have settled for characterizing unconscious cognition, and have mostly abandoned their initial goal of characterizing the neurology of consciousness.

Psychology, as I noted earlier, is focused on behaviors and motivations.

Anglo-American philosophy tends to be analytic in style, and rely upon modal reasoning, and philosophers' intuitions. Thought problems like "The Chinese Room" or "Mary the Color Scientist" serve as key drivers of this kind of modal/analytic/intuitive thinking.

In contrast to these three modalities, consciousness studies is pursued by philosophers with an empirical rather than analytic approach to philosophy. Some of the experimental work of psychologists sheds light on the nature of consciousness, as does the tiny fraction of neuroscience studies that look at consciousness. The consciousness studies philosophers have collated this data, and use it to test theories of mind. This is what distinguished consciousness studies from the other three related disciplines -- the presumption about HOW one should study this problem.

BTW, I recommend Blackmore's Very Short Introduction to Consciousness as the best single book on philosophy of mind I have read. Here is a review I posted on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1C1TJFIWBZ8ZQ/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0198794738 While I gave her book 5 stars and high praise, I also say I think she is insane...

  • This is exactly the kind of compare / contrast I'm looking for between the 3 older approaches and consciousness study. Thanks for the recommendation. Apr 20, 2022 at 11:48
  • lol Mary the Color Scientist. I like that! :D And you may have the stronger claim about NCCs not reflecting on consciousness at all. Che bravo!
    – J D
    Apr 20, 2022 at 14:23
  • @GratefulDisciple -- I consider the methods of analytic philosophy to be a poor approach to philosophy, and am instead an empiricist and a pragmatist. Blackmore's VSIC is very much of an empiricist's approach to understanding consciousness. The book notes what experiments refute -- basically every physicalist model of consciousness. Her conclusion, that consciousness must not exist, because physicalism is unquestionably true - is clearly not the ONLY conclusion one can draw from this... Physicalism has enough problems that only a bare majority of philosophers still are either P or P-leans
    – Dcleve
    Apr 20, 2022 at 15:06
  • @Dcleve Thanks for sharing your view, as well as the warning that Susan Blackmore reached that conclusion (I was about to read the book, actually), although I'm sure the book is valuable as an overview to the current state of consciousness study (as of 2017). My motivation is actually to provide a larger context for an unabashedly Christian approach to consciousness, for example the Catholic Thomistic Personalism approach (an example introduction is in this thesis). Apr 20, 2022 at 15:11
  • @GratefulDisciple - Most outstanding philosophy will be done by people whose conclusions you disagree with. Philosophical reading is best done critically - identify the pearls, AND the missteps of the work. Learn from Blackmore, and learn to question her. Aside on "Christian" - lots of Blackmore's data shows consciousness is not unified, and most C thinking treats souls as intrinsically indivisible. I am a dualist, but do not consider building a dualist model of consciousness to be easy ... On "Thomist" - that is even MORE analytic and LESS empirical/pragmatic than modern philosophy
    – Dcleve
    Apr 20, 2022 at 15:36


Obviously, all of the topics are closely intertwined, but if one wanted to draw distinctions, they are as follows:

  • Not all of the mind is conscious, so any study of consciousness need not include aspects of the mind that are not about consciousness. These might include the subconscious mind, intuition, the neural basis of thought, etc.

  • Consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, and while many philosophical claims attempt reduce it to physicalism, some philosophers like Jaegwon Kim (IMNSHO) have refuted a causal relationship between mind and body.

  • Disciplines of neurology and psychology tend to aspire to being physical sciences though the latter has an aspect of being a social science with cross disciplinary studies such as social psychology.

So, it might be helpful to think about the topics moving across a spectrum of very philosophical, such as Phenomenology which purports to be a scientific study to philosophy of mind which generally looks to understand the connection between the physical and non-physical, and neurology which historically has essentially ignored the study of consciousness altogether. In fact, one of the reason that cognitive science came about is that the traditional hard sciences often have had nothing to do with the study of consciousness because it lacks a physical basis. This of course reached a zenith in radical forms of psychological behaviorism which denied the existence of consciousness altogether.

Today, the notion of the neural correlate of consciousness has done wonders to provide cognitive scientists a physicalist basis to make claims. Simply put, when people think, things seems to reliably happen in the brain. While this may not really seem to be a radical claim to the average person, in philosophy, there can be stiff opposition to the notion that the brain causes the mind. A hundred fifty years ago, the reverse position a la various forms of idealism were more popular. In fact, mind-body dualism positions are far more numerous and richer than Cartesian duality.

As for modern programs, I'll speculate not being a professional academic, that it's largely where one's programs place an emphasis. A consciousness study would seem to be a place where the calculus of neural firing patterns might not be found in studies, but a discussion of the impact of consciousness on aesthetics and art might. On the other hand, one simply can't study cognitive science without neurology, as it's one of the core disciplines. According to Simon Critchley, there are essentially two tribes of philosophical thinkers, the analytical and Continental philosophers, who for reasons of political identity segregate themselves by method and focus.

It might help to recognize that some professionals prefer a reductionist approach to the mind teasing apart distinctions in language and neural encoding patterns, and others are holistic. They look to culture and human relationships. I think one might see that philosophical anthropology would lend itself to "consciousness studies" where as a neurology has a much more restricted concern regarding consciousness, mainly how it is produced (whatever that means). I think the more one studies consciousness, the more likely one draws from philosophical and interdisciplinary thinking.

  • Bringing idealism into the picture is very helpful. From what I read so far, one distinguishing characteristics vis a vis cognitive science is by bringing in the unavoidable first-person perspective as a legitimate method. Another characteristics, as you mentioned in the last paragraph, is the tendency to bring in more and more outside disciplines rather than reduction in more narrow neurological studies. Apr 19, 2022 at 19:19
  • @GratefulDisciple I didn't explicitly make the claim, but I suspect, setting aside the political benefits of tribalism, really, the disciplines are trying to find a balance in regards to the dualism which is directly a challenge posed by naive realism. OTOH, intuition says there is the first and third-person, mind and body, and OTOH, there's an intellectual drive to reconcile them satisfactorily. In this way, in essence, philosophy of mind is largely animated by Chalmer's HPC.
    – J D
    Apr 19, 2022 at 20:40
  • To me, Kantian forms, are the philosophical best starting place to deal with phenomenon/noumenon. And from there, to borrow from the Hegelian Dialectic, the synthesis lies in embodied cognition as a model for reconciliation. Idealism and physicalism are just extensions of the intuitive appeals of mind and body as ontological entities... to those whom idealism appeals, consciousness studies is the modern program, and to those who physicalism appeals, cognitive science. But in the end, all are still left grappling with intuitive duality.
    – J D
    Apr 19, 2022 at 20:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .