Consciousness, Phenomenology and Phantom Limb

March 7, 2007


There were six siblings and we each experienced it differently. I was in my first year of university when he had the third and final operation which meant that both his legs were gone. The weekend I brought Dave home to meet the family, during his sleep my Dad, not yet used to the shortness of both stumps rolled out of his hospital bed- which was set up in what used to be our living room. He didn’t want to wake my Mom so he reached up to his bedside table for his pipe. When my Mom saw the empty bed in the morning, for an instant she thought he had died and gone to heaven, literally. But then she saw the familiar trail of the smoking pipe. She called for Dave. Dave had been working all summer as a lifeguard and he lifted my Dad back into his bed effortlessly clinching my Dad’s admiration for him.

Creeping gangrene, war wounds and phantom limbs were part of everyday life vocabulary during my teen years. He never complained. He was always so grateful for my mother’s care. He was gentle. They spoke of the phantom limb phenomenon with visitors as just another small detail of interest in an otherwise routine life. He didn’t speak of pain but of an itch. I think he even chuckled at the thought.

As I try to piece together the disjointed readings on consciousness that have consumed me lately, I was surprised at how often the phantom limb phenomenon entered into the conversations. It challenged assumptions about the relationship between mind and body.

In 1637 René Descartes referred to the phantom limb experience of a young girl to argue for the dualism of mind-body where the body is fragmented while the mind is unified See also Wade (2006).

In the late 20th century these dynamic neural processes became the topic of more detailed investigation (Ramachandran 1993). Neuroscientists using powerful sophisticated MEGs and MRIs are challenging scientific assumptions about the neural plasticity of the adult brain. Phantom corporeal embodiment is one of the areas of investigation.

I am not attempting to trace a complete history of the debates around the concept of consciousness. I am concerned with what is being done in the name of consciousness studies that may impact on memory work, ethics, self and the Other-I, at-risk populations and most importantly the political implications of the study of consciousness on the way mental health is constructed. During the1970s academic disciplines became increasingly fragmented. With the study of consciousness various disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology (qualia, Folk psychology), psychiatry (pharmapsychiatry), psychobiology, pharmacology and literature (chroniclers of consciousness) and philosophy (phenomenology) and even neuralphenomenology will hopefully benefit from more collaborative inclusive research projects. This will perhaps lead to the dissemination of useful academic research in stages which will include articles written for those outside individual distinct disciplines. At the end of the twentieth century philosophers of the mind have also been more open to investigating what has been done in the name of consciousness studies in religious practice.

Phenomenology studies conscious experience from the first-person point of view. See Smith (2003).

Something must have triggered or stimulated a similar pattern from Dad’s memory, something from the past, and suddenly he could feel something that wasn’t there. Following major wars there were many of them and they must have talked among themselves. But this was just a disorder of bodily perception. The concept of feeling pain in a missing limb was counter-intuitive. It could only be reported through first-person experience, qualia.

Selected Webliography and Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1953 [1972]. Le Degré Zéro de l’écriture, Paris, Editions de Seuil.

Barthes, Roland. 1957 [1987]. Mythologies. http://www.merip.org/mer/mer214/214_silverstein.html

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Death of the Author. London: Fontana. http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/whatis.htm

Burge, Tyler. 1992. “Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990.” The Philosophical Review. 101:1.

Burge, Tyler. 1992. “Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990.” Philosophy in Review: Essays on Contemporary Philosophy (Jan., 1992), pp. 3-51.

Wolfe, Charles T. 2007. “De-ontologizing the Brain: from the fictional self to the social brain.” 1000 Days of Theory. 2007-02-14. CTheory.

Clark, Andy, Chalmers, David J. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis. 58:10-23.

Clark, Andy, Chalmers, David J. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” P. Grim, P. Ed. The Philosopher’s Annual, vol XXI.

Damasio, Antonio. 2003. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Du Bois-Reymond, Emil. 1872. “About the limits of natural knowledge.”

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Google Docs. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Goldman, Alvin I. 1993. “The Psychology of Folk Psychology.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 16:15-28.

Henry, Charles. 1992. “The Vertices of Consciousness and the Biology of a Machine.”

James, Henry. 1898. The Turn of the Screw.

Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago.

Johnson, Mark, Lakoff, George. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Kluger, Jeffrey. 2007. “The New Map Of The Brain.” Time. Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007.

Lemonick, Michael D. 2007. “The Flavor Of Memories.” Time. Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007.

McGaugh, J. L. 2000. “Memory: A Century of Consolidation.” Science. 287:248-251.

McGinn, Colin. 1989. “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?Mind. 98:391: 349-366.

McGonigle, David J. 2005. “The Body in Question: Phantom Phenomena and the View from Within.” The Phantom Limb: a Neurobiological Diagnosis with Aesthetic, Cultural and Philosophical Implications.

McGinn, Colin. 1993. Problem of Consciousness: essays towards a resolution. Blackwell Publishing.

Nadeau, Robert L. 1991. Mind, Machines, and Human Consciousness. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Penrose, Roger. 1989. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2007. “The Mystery of Consciousness .” Time. Friday, Jan. 19, 2007.

Ramachandran, V. S.; D. C. Rogers-Ramachandran & M. Stewart. 1992. “Perceptual correlates of massive cortical reorganization.” Science. No. 258/5085: 1159-1160.

Ramachandran, V. S., and Blakeslee. S. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain. London: Fourth Estate.

Smith, David Woodruff. 2003. “Phenomenology.” > Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Van Gulick, Robert. 2004. “Consciousness” > Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Van Gulick 2004)

Wade, Nicholas. 2005. “The legacy of phantom limbs.” The Phantom Limb: a Neurobiological Diagnosis with Aesthetic, Cultural and Philosophical Implications.

Wilson, Edward O. 1971. Insect Societies. Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-45490-1.

Wilson, Edward O. 2006. The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-81621-8

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” Forbes. 158:13. pp.210.

Consciousness and the Novel http://www.powells.com/biblio?show=0674013778#synopses_and_reviews

Debord, Guy. 1961. “Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life.”

Lefebvre, Henri. 1961. “Perspectives de modifications conscientes dans la vie quotidienne” Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961). Translation by Ken Knabb from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006).

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.


One Response to “Consciousness, Phenomenology and Phantom Limb”

  1. charles Says:

    Hi, not to claim my piece is any more interesting than those you cite, but it addresses, in a more polemical way perhaps, issues of phenomenology, 1st-person perspective, illusion etc. with respect to phantom limb syndrome (and overall to materialism, my general interest); see http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=572
    regards Charles


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