Meaning and the Structure of Consciousness: An Essay in Psycho-Aesthetics

Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (1991)
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Abstract
This study explores the interface between conscious and nonconscious mental processes using phenomenological analysis, information processing cognitive psychology, connectionism and traditional aesthetic theories. It attempts to explain how global, evaluative information--especially the primitive feeling of 'rightness' or 'making sense'--is represented in consciousness. ;Many lines of evidence confirm and extend William James' nucleus/fringe model of consciousness: surrounding clear experience in focal attention is a fringe of vague experience. Context information in general, and the feeling of rightness in particular, occupy the fringe. The fringe is vague because it works to finesse consciousness' limited capacity to articulate experience, and the fringe is elusive or 'ungraspable' because it helps to call new information into consciousness. The phenomenology of the fringe is thus a consequence of its cognitive functions. ;Meaningfulness is proposed to be a summary index of cognitive integration, signalling consciousness about the degree of global compatibility or 'fit' between a given content in the focus of attention and its nonconscious context. Though very similar to goodness-of-fit in a connectionist network, Meaningfulness is proposed to play an active feedback role in cognition, while goodness-of-fit, as currently used, is a passive measure of network integration. ;This analysis predicts that an intense feeling of Meaningfulness will have a characteristic 'profile,' and this profile is evident in many accounts of aesthetic experience: a feeling of unity and coherence that cannot be captured adequately in words, but which nevertheless seems to be a source of profound, and often "spiritual," knowledge. ;Many philosophical theories try to explain the unistic, ineffable, noetic, and transcendent aspects of the aesthetic. Platonic and Aristotelian traditions are considered, but the primary focus is on Kant. The Critique of Judgment created modern aesthetics, and in many ways it is remarkably compatible with current cognitive analysis. ;Beyond clarifying the cognitive foundation of aesthetic experience, this study offers new arguments against epiphenomenalism, provides further reason to doubt rule-based accounts of nonconscious processing, explains the isomorphism in aesthetic and mystical phenomenology, and develops a method to investigate consciousness called convergent phenomenology.
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