The brain is a facilitator. It enables perception, meaning, judgment, and action as an ongoing flow of engagement. Its genius is in guiding selection of what we pay attention to, evaluate in comparison to other options (that is, judge), and subsequently act upon.

When a routine is effective, the brain makes it easy for us to do more of the same. We come to think in terms of routines in our repertory so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. The essence of consciousness is in turning new problems into effective routines we can count on when one such problem comes up again.

Speech is a tremendous saver of brain space, whenever possible substituting fine muscle movements of jaw, tongue, and lips in place of gross movements of trunk and limbs. Language is a code for reducing the brain space we need to get by with, using a limited set of words over and over again in new contexts, always with new shades of meaning.

Which is what Peter Mark Roget did in producing his Thesaurus. And Plato did in pondering the parallels between the stars in their heaven and the activities of people on Earth below. He was working on that question for the rest of us, and did his best to come up with a workable understanding.

The Timaeus is a record of the trouble Plato went to on our behalf. As every World Series game is a record of the skill and effort players on each team expend on behalf of their fans in particular, and all fans of stellar performances beyond them. The same is true for Olympic athletes. And outstanding thinkers and doers of all kinds.

Individual minds matter. Consciousness matters. Brains matter. Engagements matter. Families matter. Communities, cultures, and nature matter. All as aspects of a planet that matters in a solar system that matters in a galaxy that matters in a cosmos that matters. Not to fulfill a set of universal laws, but to make an effective response to conditions and situations that come up and need to be dealt with.

None of these levels of interaction and engagement are governed by rules or laws. Each is determined by the energy available and forces bearing on fraught situations of every size and nature throughout the whole system.

We are all parts of that system: particles, nuclei, atoms, molecules, bases, chromosomes, amino acids, proteins, cell walls, plasma, organelles, organs, organ systems, organisms, species, genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, kingdoms, life, planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, and whatever lies beyond.

We can do nothing but respond to the situations and conditions that put pressure upon us in every ways from every direction with whatever energy is available. We strive to do the best we can under those conditions in those situations.

And what we do best is engage the world around us on as many levels as we can manage because that is what we have evolved to do because we don’t have a choice. Either we make it or we don’t. The system will go on without us.

We are the leading edge of a spreading and evolving wave of energy that spurs us to be who we are in our own time and do what we find it best to do. That is our job; our only job. To be good citizens of the precinct of the universe we find ourselves in at the time—on the playing field, in the library, out at night ogling the stars in their sky.

So, yes, minds, brains, bodies, engagements—all matter, whether we understand them or not. The particular piece of the puzzle I have claimed for myself is nothing less than the challenge of understanding my own mind as well as I can.

This blog is the best I can do. It is my performance in the last play of the last game of the World Series for mindfarers. There will be Series after this one, with fresher farers as players.

Having come this far, I can’t add anything to this discussion with myself that I haven’t said several times over. I will move on to whatever conclusions I can take from my journey this far.


What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

(Copyright © 2010)

I’ve been posting this blog since early October 2008. My original plan was to update my thinking about consciousness, which I’d first explored when writing my dissertation in 1980-1982 at Boston University’s School of Education. In the interim, I had moved to Maine from the Boston area, and revitalized my relationship with the natural world. In the process, I learned a great deal about my natural self, and about natural consciousness as opposed to the more scholarly, culturally-approved variety taught in schools. It has taken me over twenty-five years to strip academic mannerisms and bad habits from my thinking. That done, feeling human again, I took up blogging to gain a fresh perspective on consciousness, not as it is supposed to be, but as it actually reveals itself in my mind.

When I began blogging, I knew very little about how to go about it. I haven’t learned much about blogging along the way because I haven’t really been blogging. I consider myself a terrible blogger because I’m long-winded and far from topical. I don’t pick up on events in Washington so much as in my head—whatever occurs to me. Which is the point of my blog—to serve as a kind of diary for my life reflections. One post leading to another (or not leading anywhere), I follow what comes to my mind—which reveals the irrational connections and associations my mind actually makes when I sit down to write. I blog about things few others see because that is the nature of my mind in particular, and the human mind in general. Each of us abides on her own private planet.

My initial aim in blogging was to update thoughts I’d had in writing my dissertation twenty-eight years ago, but I quickly found I wasn’t in that place any more. I was more interested in discovering what I didn’t know than rehashing what I already did. Nothing is more tiresome than going over the same old ground again and again, trying to find new ways to say the same old thing. Speaking of death watches, that’s a sure sign you’re watching over your own demise. If I’m not making new discoveries every day, what’s the point of my using up Earth’s precious resources just to stay alive so I can play solitaire?

I converted this blog into a voyage of discovery, and posted whatever I found exciting and challenging at the time I sat down to write. I didn’t resort to an outline because that would imply I knew where I was going. Instead, I wanted to get wherever my series of reflections would take me, then look around to find out where I was.

That’s an apt description of how I lead my life. I’ve just finished a 70-slide PowerPoint on the 90% eelgrass dieback in Taunton Bay in 2001. It took me eight years to put it together because I used it as a vehicle of discovery—my personal spaceship headed into the future toward planet Wherever. Well, that’s just where I found myself when I opened the hatch. After reflecting on the various aspects of the dieback, and the details fit a coherent pattern, I knew I was there. Here’s what I wrote about my methodology in the abstract of my presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society’s upcoming meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick:

This is not a scientific study in the traditional sense so much as an experiential exploration relying heavily on human consciousness to match its characterizations and understanding to patterns it perceives in sensory phenomena. When the balance in awareness is judged to be appropriate to the problematic situation, the resulting conclusion about the cause of the dieback is more a product of aesthetic approval of cohesiveness than rigorous statistical analysis.

Some people might say I am talking nonsense, but that’s a good example of my private planet sending signals into space to see if there’s anybody out there. Which is a pretty fair description of how we go about trying to reach people who might understand us so we feel we’re not just talking to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point of having tongues, teeth, and lips, and making all this noise?

Or of typing away at computers and posting blogs? What is it, exactly, the Internet allows us to do that we couldn’t do in the old days B.C.—before computers? These days we certainly do more of it faster—whatever it is. It’s whatever all those folks walking and driving along are doing with their whole minds devoted to not being where their bodies are because they’re so busy twittering or gabbing on cell phones. They’re doing what I’m doing writing this blog—living in their heads where the action is. We can’t tell the difference between physical and mental reality, so come to think that whatever crosses our minds is as real as it gets. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s that everybody’s crazy and always has been since the first ape walked upright. We think of our personal planet as terra firma, and all those extraterrestrials from other planets are misguided pretenders, wild beasts, or infidels.

Which is pretty much the message my life has impressed upon me, and I’m trying to deal with in this blog that I’ve made the central focus of my life. I’ve got to have a little talk with myself, just between me and me. Here I am in my 193rd post trying to pull it all together as a coherent project to see what I’ve learned. That’s what life is, an opportunity to learn what’s going on, and the role I play in the process. I am none other than Peter Mark Roget determined to get his thesaurus in order as his contribution to posterity before he dies.

I just now came across a sentence I wrote at the head of a yellow pad while working on Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness: “We characterize situations in such a way that we relate to them by preserving our sense of self.” That way, we stay who we are, no matter what. Consciousness is all about self-preservation, about inventing a future to ensure we stay the same no matter how much our surroundings may change. A Post-it note stuck on the pad says “family, preschool, early childhood education.” That’s where we start. Exploring who I am, I keep coming across who I was as the leading character of my early life. My belly button hints at an even earlier life in the womb. Those formative months in my original matrix was the slow-motion big bang that led not only to my own conscious sense of self, but to the imaginary planet I wrap myself in as the so-called real world.

At the end of last night’s meeting, a frustrated fisherman looked like she was going to cry, then said through taut lips something to the effect, ‘I just realized that I’m the only one here trying to make a living and every one in this room is trying to keep me from doing that.’ Looking into her face, I saw her child self (in me) accusing her elder brothers (in me) of picking on the essential her (in me).

She was sending signals from her planet, which I interpreted in such a way to preserve my self-identity on my own planet. So do we relate one to another.

That’s what this blog is about, interplanetary communication. There’s no escaping it. To be heard, we all must address it—me on my planet, you on yours, Peter Mark Roget on his, Emily Dickinson on hers. The notion of “free speech” makes it sound easy—all we have to do is open our mouths and say whatever comes to mind. But if we want to count ourselves in the same solar system, there’s way more to it than that. I now see that “way more” as the point of our respectively being here with, and reaching out to, one another. Making that extra effort is the topic of this blog.

So that’s why I’m looking for a vocabulary that will allow my consciousness to speak with your consciousness. The words we inherit from our respective cultures are based on the assumption that we live in—and have equal access to—the same physical world. Which I don’t think accurately describes our true situation. If, from the outset, we don’t account for our unique personal identities and outlooks on what is real, then we will never be able to account for or address the true source of the general discord and unhappiness so rampant in what we experience of today’s world. Which makes it far easier to blame everyone other than ourselves for contributing to the problem.

We need new ways of looking at and talking about world situations from inside personal consciousness itself, not as we do now as if they were somehow external to ourselves. John Weir gave us percept language—the “you in me” and the “me in you”—to help us deal with personal relationships. That is, to create a framework for reporting on situations from our disparate perspectives. But we need a complete overhaul of the language we learned at our mother’s breast if we are to deal with people who learned other languages at other breasts. Is such a universal language of consciousness possible? Having come this far in 193 posts, I believe it is. For starters, here are thirty-seven words I have tried (or intended) to use meaningfully in this blog:

  1. Attention—the act of reaching out with full awareness
  2. Arousal—one’s level of biological excitation
  3. Expectancy—the view ahead of what might happen
  4. Action—engaging the world, the upshot of consciousness
  5. Acting in the world—an ongoing sequence of action
  6. Making ourselves happen—inventing the future
  7. Engagement—a flow of behavioral give and sensory take
  8. Loop of Engagement—acting and perceiving in the now
  9. Planning—figuring how to reach a desired goal
  10. Perception—the parade of patterns in sensory awareness
  11. Salience—the quality of being noticeable
  12. Perspective—one’s outlook within a particular situation
  13. Memory—residue of living a life
  14. Conceptual memory—ideas useful in many situations
  15. Episodic memory—mental replay of life-changing events
  16. Categorization—fitting concepts to percepts, & vice versa
  17. Integrity—Consciousness as a functional system
  18. Coherence—All of consciousness working together
  19. Judgment—what seems appropriate in a given situation
  20. Intentionality—habitual categorizations
  21. Meaning—achieving parity of percept with concept
  22. Idiom of being in the world—system of cultural belief
  23. Self—seat of biological values; the basic unit of survival
  24. Values—sex, food, sleep, health, shelter, safety, etc.
  25. Valence—positive, negative, or neutral regard
  26. Reflexive consciousness—introspection
  27. Assumption—unexamined belief
  28. Attitude—bias or emotional coloring of behavior
  29. Dream—consciousness without action or perception
  30. Aesthetic—whole consciousness in all its parts
  31. Emotion—hormonal coloring of awareness
  32. Feeling—self-awareness of attitude
  33. Motivation—driving urge to deliberate action
  34. Project—consciousness dedicated to achieving a goal
  35. Situation—an occasion for active consciousness
  36. Culture—the fitting of individuals to their surroundings
  37. Future-building—the point of consciousness

If there were to be a final exam for this blog, it might consist of identifying instances in which a few such terms are found to be meaningful to or relevant in your own inner life. That would be a test of the usefulness of what I have been blogging about. If they—such terms—are not applicable to your case, then I have been writing more for myself than for you. Leaving you free, as always, to create your own blog and live your own life.

I have had enough of living in a world where Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor make a display of not being able to talk, work, or live with one another. Which requires me to critique the way we do business as usual in today’s world. I sincerely believe that throwing grenades, stones, or epithets at each other is a sure sign we are not taking responsibility for our own ignorance of how the world really works. My conceit is that I am onto something in writing about consciousness inside-out. Something profoundly important in providing a new perspective for viewing our relationship with a world that is unknowable in and of itself apart from our personal outlook upon it. I want fishermen and eaters of fish to be able to carry on a sensible discussion that is meaningful to both sides in more-or-less the same way. That’s why I am working on this project week by week, post after post. I thought you ought to know. Particularly if you live in somewhat the same world on a planet similar to mine.

We might as well fly as high as we can


(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C






Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E






Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

(Copyright © 2010)

The upshot of consciousness is a course of action appropriate to various life situations as characterized by one individual or another. Put more briefly, the point of consciousness is effective interaction with the world. Which makes it possible to track the workings of consciousness by following the trace it leaves in the works we strew across the landscape of our lives. Dante’s Divine Comedy presents one such landscape. The plays of Shakespeare portray another. The consciousness of Pablo Picasso is clearly evident in his collected paintings, drawings, sculptures, and studies. In the musical idioms of their times, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have annotated their respective streams of consciousness in forms we can still respond to today. Frank Lloyd Wright lives on in his buildings: to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York is to enter his mind.

I am not speaking in fanciful metaphors here. Just as deer can be tracked by following their prints in the snow, the pellets and stains they deposit, the branches they chew off, the hollows they leave when they sleep—so can the structure and workings of the human mind be pursued by paying close attention to the spoor it leaves in interacting with its world. There for all to see are the doings of consciousness. Whatever form they take, here are traces generated by the human brain as both enabler  and substrate of extended, conscious behavior.

Personal libraries speak volumes of the minds that have collected—and actually read—them. My thirteen bookcases hold a record of my engagement with Hancock County, Maine, since 1986. Photographs, maps, notes, books, magazines—collectively, they tell what I have concerned myself with for the past twenty-four years. If they were put in chronological order (rather than the hodgepodge they are now), there would be a diary of my consciousness. Somewhere in my travels I picked up a copy of Thesaurus of Book Digests: Digests of the World’s Permanent Writings from the Ancient Classics to Current Literature, edited by Hiram Haydn & Edmund Fuller (Crown Publishers, 1949). I have dipped into it only once or twice, but this will be the first time I have put it to use by quoting the following paragraph excerpted from the entry under “WALDEN (1854), by Henry David Thoreau”:

This is the spiritual autobiography of a rebel wearied by the machine age, but too much of a practical Yankee to escape into the fog of mysticism. Thoreau gave up his trade of pencil maker and set up house at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He hoped to prove to the world that the tyranny of many things is necessary, that man can live with very little and find contentment. At Walden the author lived in elegant simplicity. He was wonderfully able with his hands—an excellent carpenter, mason, surveyor and mechanic. For two years he stayed at his hermitage. His book is a record (in the form of eighteen essays) of his life, his painstaking observations of nature, and his reflections about the world’s troubles.

What strikes me about that capsule description is how little it captures the style of Thoreau’s mind as it makes its rounds through the days he actually lived on the shore of Walden Pond. That is, how little it invites me to engage such a mind by reading this particular text. I don’t generally seek out “painstaking observations of nature” and “reflections about the world’s troubles.” I want personal challenge and adventure told in readable English, and I certainly find them in Walden, but not even hinted at in this categorization of the book. The best parts—the meat of Thoreau—are left out. A direct quote of Thoreau’s own words—say, the paragraph depicting his digging his cellar hole—would make a better advertisement.

I have another book, though, that is a perfect digest of a man’s living consciousness in being a nineteenth-century site map of his mind at work on a particular project. Peter Mark Roget could be characterized many ways, such as living in England from 1779 to 1869, being a scholar and perennial student, physician, lecturer, founding member of many institutions, and so on. But the work I call a site map of his mind is his masterwork,

Thesaurus of English Words & Phrases

classified and arranged so as to

facilitate the expression of Ideas and

assist in Literary Composition

issued in 1852 when he was 73 years old, and, updated, is still in print 158 years later in 2010. In his twenties, Roget had worked out a system of verbal classification to aid his own speaking and writing. Well into his retirement, he expanded that system for broader use by the public.

The system is based on the classification of ideas divided into or embedded within four distinct levels of analysis. The broadest level is that of six classes somewhat similar to Aristotle’s categories (in two cases split into divisions):




IV—INTELLECT, including Division (I) Formation of Ideas, and Division (II) Communication of Ideas

V—VOLITION, including Division (I) Individual Volition, and Division (II) Intersocial Volition, and


Each class is further divided into sections, and each section into headings which include the individual words and phrases Roget intends us to distinguish between and choose among to suit our individual projects.

To take one example, Class III MATTER is broken into three sections: 1) Matter in General, 2) Inorganic Matter, and 3) Organic Matter. Section 3) Organic Matter is further subdivided into 1—Vitality, and 2—Sensation. Subsection 1—Vitality contains 16 headings:

358 Organization

359 Mineral

360 Life

361 Death

362 Killing

363 Corpse

364 Interment

365 Animality

366 Vegetability

367 Zoology

368 Botany

369 Animal Husbandry

370 Agriculture

371 Mankind

372 Male

373 Female

Here we begin to see Roget’s genius in distinguishing polar, intermediate, and related aspects of meaning (life-death-killing-corpse-interment-animality) as reflected in his systematized associations between concepts and words. Heading 371 Mankind includes, among 155 other terms under six other subheadings:

person, individual, human being, everyman, everywoman; creature, fellow creature, mortal, body; a being, soul, living soul; God’s image; one, somebody, someone, so and so, such a one; party, customer, character, type, element; chap, guy, bloke, fellow, cove, johnny 372n. male; personage, figure, person of note, VIP 638n. bigwig; star  890n. favorite; dramatis personae, all those concerned  686n. personnel; unit, head, hand, nose.

And that is only a small part of one heading out of the 990 in my edition. In keeping with the then current rage for reason, Roget’s original scheme contained an even 1000 headings. Clearly, Peter Mark Roget was a systematic thinker, a quality of mind credited to his mother (his father died when he was a child). At over 770 pages, the index of words and phrases in my 1966 Dell edition takes up over half the entire book (I can’t tell the exact length of the index because the back cover came off years ago, and with it an unknown number of pages).

In his introduction to the original 1852 edition, Roget wrote:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, . . . a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express. The purpose of an ordinary dictionary is simply to explain the meaning of the words; and the problem of which it professes to furnish the solution may be stated thus:—The word being given, to find its signification, or the idea it is intended to convey. The object aimed at in the present undertaking is exactly the converse of this: namely,—The idea being given, to find the word, or words, by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed. For this purpose, the words and phrases of the language are here classed, not according to their sound or their orthography [spelling], but strictly according to their signification.

Imagine having the mind and discipline to create such a work. Roget’s Thesaurus is aimed at improving expressive language, not language as received by eye or ear. It facilitates converting concepts and feelings into meaningful sounds—one of the basic requirements of speaking or writing in English. When the right word for a particular audience does not spring readily to mind, the word search becomes conscious, and one word or phrase from a number of options must be chosen as the most appropriate. The Thesaurus, then, is a tool for converting conscious intentions into overt speech acts suitable to the writer-speaker’s specific situation at the time.

The challenge of such situations is to achieve order among the many elements that bear on a speaker in a given situation so that her vocabulary, categorizations, meanings, and intended emphases are fulfilled by an utterance whose word choice, syntax, and intonation are all of a piece in keeping with the situation she is engaged with insofar as she can anticipate the role she is about to play in the lives of her audience. Which is a tall order because the only way to learn to do that is through trial and error, alternating with self-correction, study, and further rehearsal.

After taking a writing workshop in 2001, I was consumed by the question, Where do words come from? They seem to be just there on the tip of our tongues when we need them, but how do they get there? It is now clear to me that meanings and categorizations are primary, and the words used to express them arise from a sense of the situation and the urge to make a fitting verbal response. I see that now as being essentially an aesthetic (rather than a strictly rational) problem. In getting our speech acts together, we have to be clear which valence we mean to express—positive, negative, or neutral—and where on the gradients of emphasis, clarity, and detail we wish to position ourselves. Will easy, broad, general terms suffice, or do we have to exert ourselves to become more discriminating than that? How specific must we be? How experientially detailed or conceptually inclusive? These complex decisions are rooted in the sense we have of our own experience in relation to the situation we are engaged with—that is, with what we are asking of ourselves on that occasion under those particular circumstances as we construe them.

This is essentially the problem Peter Roget faced when he compiled his original system for putting meanings into words. And that compels us today to take his Thesaurus off the shelf when we’re not sure what to say because the words aren’t there on our tongues where we need them to be. I would hazard that Roget’s drive to systematic thinking originated from just such uncertainty during his formative years as a speaker of English (his father was born in Geneva and was not a native speaker). Fortunately for us, young Roget faced into the problem and produced a masterly system for turning incipient categorizations into speech acts through word choices appropriate to various situations as he understood them. He was exceptionally well-schooled by his mother and early teachers.

Having a site map of Roget’s mind at our elbows, we are direct beneficiaries of his nineteenth-century consciousness. Bloggers and twitterers probably don’t devote that much time to diagnosing their situations or choices of words—which is why they are bloggers and twitterers. They prefer to speak from the hip, as it were. But spontaneity isn’t everything, particularly in touchy situations or when dealing with complex issues. Which is when having wide ranges of both meanings and terms to select from is a definite advantage in achieving an appropriate subtlety of expression. If the world is seen in black and white, then perhaps bold or brazen speech might be deemed appropriate—as in war or clashes between street gangs. But there’s usually more to a situation than is readily apparent, and a simplistic approach is apt to stir up more trouble than it can deal with. I truly believe that suiting our behavior to the various situations we find or place ourselves in calls for aesthetic judgments unimagined in the OK Corral. Aesthetics is a matter of putting every aspect of consciousness into play, attending to the subtleties as well as the overall landscape, acknowledging the role of every part in creating the whole, the integrity and dignity of the whole in relation to every part—and acting only when the full dynamic richness and complexity of the experience have been savored. Then the appropriate words appear on the tongue as called up by the fullness of the experience, and the speaker effectively matches outward words to the inner occasion.

Roget's Thesaurus