(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



(Copyright © 2009)


First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.


For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.


Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:


I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.


Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.


Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.


The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.


The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.


There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.


If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.


If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.