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Foto Heidelberg: Thaddäus Zech
 
       

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Our consciousness discloses the world to us. Through our consciousness we experience both the world around us - our natural, cultural and social environment - and ourselves, our own subjectivity and sense of individual uniqueness. Our consciousness contains our feelings, thoughts, touches, smells and sights. It defines our awareness and perception, our personal experiences and ground of being. Consciousness is at once intensely individual and private and at the same time an aspect of, and in fact essentially conditioned by, larger socio-cultural processes of the environment we grow up and live in. Despite its personal character it is very much a cultural phenomenon: our dominant worldviews inform and structure our awareness and perceptions, and through this the way we experience the world.

Despite the fact that consciousness has been under philosophical discussion since Aristotle and Plato, and now is also under the sway of the natural sciences, it remains elusive and difficult to grasp. Philosophers have struggled for millennia with this concept and until fairly recently most scientists refused to study it or rejected the idea of any such thing as consciousness completely. This age-old question of human consciousness, of what makes humans self-aware, reflective individuals having subjective experiences, has recently been rediscovered as a legitimate, and even crucial, scientific problem and thus is now receiving much attention with various results. ‘Consciousness studies’ are flourishing at the beginning of the 21st century.

Roughly one could speak of two opposing camps: on the one side the materialists who believe that consciousness can be reduced to physical processes within the body, for example neural activity in the brain; that there is nothing transcendent about the individual such as an immaterial consciousness or soul; and that subjective experience is based on mental illusions resulting from complex brain chemistry. On the other end of the spectrum are those scientists who believe the human being is more than the sum of his/her molecules; that subjective experience is as valid as physical facts; and that consciousness is an immaterial ingredient transcending the brain or the body. In between these two opposing camps are various other positions oscillating among them.

In recent years though, it has become more and more obvious that conscious subjective experience needs to be included in the study of the human mind one way or another. Whether it is an illusion or a reality, it certainly is an important aspect of what it means to be human and as such needs to be taken seriously. Seeking to understand consciousness is seeking to understand the way it moves us to think, feel and act in the world.

At the Institute priority is given to phenomenological, first-person perspective approaches to consciousness in order to explore and understand it in its lived immediacy. A main focus is processes of self-reflection and transformation of consciousness leading to the cultivation of a so-called ‘meta-perspective’: the ability to observe occurring mental phenomena – thoughts, feelings, sensations – without identifying with them. This capability is an essential condition for understanding our socio-cultural conditioning in all its consequences, whether in everyday life or in the context of scientific research.

 

Foto Aborigine:
Landmark Media / interTOPICS