Research Group
in Analytic Philosophy

No inertia in consciousness

14 December 2022  |  15:00  |  Online/Zoom


Sartre claims that there is no inertia in consciousness. Like many of his claims, this seems patently false. However, also like many of his claims, it can be interpreted in way in which it is both true and illuminating.  Consciousness, for Sartre, is the ability to “negate.”  As I will understand this, it includes the ability to entertain and answer questions.  Our “consciousness,” thus understood, will include our beliefs and intentions (regardless of whether we are aware of them “consciously”).  It is tempting to think of our beliefs and intentions as states of mind that are produced, at a time, by a discrete episode of mental activity, which then persist, in the mind, until revised or eliminated at some later point, by some later episode of mental activity—as if they were documents on computer.  So understood, belief and intention possess their own inertia, so to speak.   I will argue that this way of thinking about belief and intention badly distorts both our relation to them and our responsibility for them.  Rather than think of them as if they were items stored in memory on a computer—as something you might act upon intermittently to run, update, or delete—we should think of them instead as something more like our posture: they rely, at each moment, on our on-going activity, and so are, themselves, a kind of activity, for which we are constantly responsible.  Thus understood, there is, in fact, no inertia in (this aspect of) consciousness.