Private Thoughts

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

Here’s what’s very strange about private thoughts:  there aren’t any!

If that’s so, it’s not only very interesting, but it’s also disturbing. If you feel initial resistance to it, that’s undoubtedly because you fear a violation of your privacy. The more you identify with “your” thoughts, the more fear you may have about this idea.

Resistance like that to any idea can undermine your ability to consider it clearly or even to take it seriously. If you feel any such resistance, it’s just your ego/I at work trying to protect itself. Even if the thesis that there are no private thoughts is true, it’s no threat to you even though it is a threat to your ego/I.

Stipulating that private thoughts are in principle only accessible to one person, to whom would private thoughts be accessible if there are no separate, substantial selves? That question points in the right direction.

Franz Brentano initiated the relevant modern discussion among western philosophers. His book Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint was published in 1874 and an English edition was published in 1973 [Routledge & Kegan Paul]. Here’s the critical passage [p.88]:

“Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content direction toward an object . . . or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself . . . In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.”

This view, Brentano’s thesis of the intentionality of consciousness, has been discussed by philosophers ever since. The alternative view is usually known as the mental-contents view. Do episodes of consciousness (awareness) have contents or not? Brentano claims they don’t.

Major philosophers such as G. E. Moore, L. Wittgenstein, M. Heidegger, J-P Sartre, M. Merleau-Ponty, and P. Butchvarov have all sided with Brentano. Of course, they could all be wrong, which is why you should decide for yourself. After all, nobody would have better access to the contents of consciousness than you!

Brentano’s idea is a very simple one: every episode of consciousness (awareness) is correlated with some object [thing, anything singleoutable] or other. There is no restriction on the kind of object required: it could be a perceptual object or a memorial object or an imaginary object. It may or may not be real. It may or may not be taken to be real.

It’s important to realize that a judgment itself is an object “external” to consciousness itself. It, too, is merely something consciousness may be about.

Abstracting (separating) an object from an episode of consciousness yields unequivocally nothing! There is nothing to consciousness but “directedness upon” some object or other. If so, there are no private thoughts “in” consciousness, in other words, private thoughts are not contents in consciousness because consciousness has no contents.

In other words, as Butchvarov clarifies Sartre, “to take the intentionality of consciousness seriously is to recognize that consciousness is perfectly transparent, that it has no contents, that it exhausts itself in its object, that its being (though genuine) consists in the revelation of its object” [Panayot Butchvarov, Skepticism about the External World (N.Y.: Oxford, 1998), p. 55.].

If so, this obliterates the usual picture, the commonsense view of mind. For example, the usual picture of perceiving is that there is a mind here, a perceived object there, and some relation of perception between them. If we accept the intentionality of consciousness, this picture cannot be right because the mind is no-thing, not something that stands related to other things.

If so, thoughts in a mind are not its contents and cannot be private! There can be no private thoughts.

I have personally accepted this view for decades. What’s been very interesting in recent years is that I have discovered that it is a view that has been held by spiritual teachers – and some a long time ago.

A recent example is from Dr. Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles: “There are no private thoughts.”

Another example, though from many centuries ago, is from Jainzhi Sengcan, who died in 606. He was the Third Ancestor of the Zen tradition.  “Faith in Mind” is attributed to him. It’s the oldest extant Zen document.

According to its translation by the Rochester Zen Center: “If all thought-objects disappear, / the thinking subject drops away. / For things are things because of mind, / as mind is mind because of things. / These two are merely relative, and both at source are Emptiness.”

From Andy Ferguson’s translation: “duality / Is originally one emptiness . . . Being tied by thought runs counter to Truth . . . The duality of existence / Is born from false discrimination . . .”

If, as is usual, the mind is identified with the personal subject or ego/I, there’s a problem: when mind and object disappear, they do so simultaneously, which means that no-thing, emptiness, is left! Mind and object really are correlative.

In other words, where is the consciousness, the awareness? It’s not itself a separate substance. It’s not a relation between a separate substance and an object external to it. Butchvarov concludes that “consciousness can only be a monadic characteristic, though not a characteristic of the subject but a characteristic of the object” [Ibid., p.55. Cf. Appendix B of his Being Qua Being.].

This view is a radical challenge to common sense. We have this widely accepted belief that we are over here, the world is over there, and, in order to make good decisions, we try to base our judgments on evidence that we collect on the basis of our experience of the world.


What if reality is grounded on the primary, noninferential use of the concepts of identity and existence? “Reality (existence) is not a matter of knowledge or evidentially based judgment, it is a matter of decision” [Ibid., p. 134.]. Once we make the primary decisions, secondary and inferential judgments based on firmness and coherence come into play.

In other words, ultimately “we are not logically bound by our past or present applications of the concept of reality” [Ibid., p. 135.]. This is a conceptual irrealism with respect to the fundamental concepts of identity and reality.

If this interests you, I encourage you to read Butchvarov’s book and determine for yourself whether or not his argument is sound.

My chief purpose here is simply to draw your attention to two similar, important, and fascinating conclusions from two widely different philosophical traditions in very different ages. Sengcan is no less a philosopher than Butchvarov. I find their views complementary.

Anyone who understands them and takes them seriously may be disturbed by them. If so, good!


Both views permit a breathtaking kind of freedom or liberation, a bursting of conceptual fetters that is really exhilarating.

What really happens when both consciousness and object drop away? Genuine awakening.

In other words, if anything here about private thoughts seriously interests you, there may be a way to experience directly the answer, namely, a spiritual breakthrough (satori). Conceptualizing may get you to the doorstep, but meditation or some similar spiritual practice may enable you to cross the threshold.


As always, if you know someone who might be interested in reading this, please pass it along.

Related posts: Define Reality and Define Identity.

Recommended reading:  Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Butchvarov’s Skepticism about the External World, Schucman’s A Course in Miracles, and Andy Ferguson’s Zen’s Chinese Heritage.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

BigTuna September 11, 2012 at 9:53 am

I’m not sure I understand all of the theory in this post, but I think the main idea is that in order to have consciousness there must be something to be conscious about (for example some object). You have to be conscious about something. If there are no separate substratum then isn’t consciousness just another process?

To quote Dr. Bradford in his coaching program “Theory is endless”. All this conceptualizing tires me out and makes me want to go sit.

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D. September 11, 2012 at 10:33 am

There’s never a problem with going and “sitting”! However, if when you are not sitting, you stay stuck on thoughts that foster separation, you’ll undermine efforts to reduce suffering. So it’s important to detach from thoughts, especially those that yield indefensible conceptions.

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