Health worker standing with mother and son.

Conscience and Consciousness


Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Shakespeare (1600)


Amongst tens of thousands of photographs there are naturally some that need circumspection; should they be shown? The health worker wished me to take a photograph. But the mother manifestly has a different opinion. A matter for conscience? The complexities of conscience/conscious/consciousness at Shakespeare’s time were legion. Centrally a main meaning of conscience was consciousness, but in the same year Ben Jonson was already using conscious as we now do. While not all scholars agree, many feel that Hamlet’s subjugation is as much from his ‘awareness’ of what is without, as from the promptings of a spirit within. But our metaphysic, too, has evolved. Then good and evil were not only add-ons or qualifiers, they were also other facts about the world; part of its very warp and weft; out there waiting for an encounter with consciousness. Why is it we have come to give the mother’s discomfort, and the health worker’s notepad, such different ontological status?

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Hamlet III i 83. The picture was taken while on a visit to learn about health promotion work in a suburb of Bangalore.

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