A German question

What’s the deal with the final syllable of Bewusstsein, the German word for “consciousness”? It seems as though the more natural formation would be something like Bewusstenheit — I’m not aware of other words that substitute a -sein. Does anyone have any insight here, or any passages to cite where a German philosopher makes a big deal about it, etc.?

9 thoughts on “A German question

  1. Given the obsession of German philosophy with being, one does wonder if possibly German philosophers had some influence on this usage. But I suppose that would only be plausible if the word came into widespread use relatively recently. Admittedly, a lot of obsessing about consciousness is recent; but I presume people centuries ago were at least talking about people passing out and waking up; if they already spoke of that as losing or regaining Bewusstsein, then that would completely demolish my speculation.

  2. Bewusstheit is a word, and seems to consistently mean “awareness,” conscious attention to a fact. It hardly ever has the generic implications of “consciousness.” Bewusstsein is fuzzier in its usage. It seems to encompass Bewusstheit, and also include what we might call “unconscious” awareness along with general awakeness. It’s like “mentality,” the having of a mind or the shape of one’s particular mental set, where Bewusstheit is pointedly “mindfulness.”

    Of course, I’m not a native-speaker, and in practice, this seems to be like langue vs langage.

  3. I’m a native speaker, but I honestly first thougt there was no such word as “Bewusstheit” – it doesnt sound right. I think often you would use “Bewusstsein” for what Matt described as the meaning of Bewusstheit, awareness, etc. But that’s probably just sloppy usage, I guess.

    Anyway, I can think of other examples that include a -sein: Alleinsein, Freisein – nominalizations of to be + adjective. But I dont know why these particular phrases became “single words”: “Frei sein ist gut/Allein sein ist schlecht” are correct also, as are “Einsamkeit” and “Freiheit” of course. Hm. Bewusstenheit sounds funny, though!

  4. I haven’t seen those other -sein compounds in my reading so far, though I did come across a couple -haben compounds in Freud today — perhaps I should have taken that as a hint.

  5. As you’d expect, Heidegger makes something of this. There’s an index entry on Bewusstsein in Sein und Zeit worth chasing up, but you find him referring to this at various times throughout his work. For instance in the essay on “Hegel’s Concept of Experience” in Off the Beaten Track he notes Hegel’s use of the term. I imagine Husserl’s Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins might be of interest as well as another background to Heidegger’s interests here.

  6. “Bewusstsein” (as a noun) is indeed a rather late addition to the German lexicon. It was coined by Christian Wolff in the early 18th century as a translation for the Latin “conscientia”, or rather, as a nominalization of the translation “(seiner selbst) bewusst sein” for “(sibi) conscium esse”, to be aware of oneself (rather than: to have awareness of oneself), which had been around since the humanists. “Bewusst” is a preterite participle of the verb “bewissen”, now obsolete but still current in Wolff’s time, and which meant “to be in the know about s.th”, “to be familiar with”, “to know one’s way around s.th”.

    Wolff first used (and developed) Bewusstsein in his 1712 book “Rational Thoughts on the Powers of the Human Understanding and their Correct Employment in the Cognition of the Truth”. According to him, Bewusstsein is (to put it very roughly) quite simply the being aware of change or being aware that change occurs, experiencing change-as-change, which nevertheless is one of the basic features of being human (animals just change). In other words, it is something processual so it makes sense to describe it with a nominalized verb. The suffix “-heit”, OTOH, is itself derived from a noun, Old/Middle High German “haid”/”heit”, meaning “faculty”, “mode”, “kind” and is normally used to nominalize properties.

    Interestingly, of the other Germanic languages, the Danish and Norwegians went with the -heit suffix (“bevidsthed/bevissthet”), while the Dutch followed Wolff’s version (“bewustzijn”). Bewusstheit does exist in German, too, but its use is limited to some areas of educational psychology (“phonologische Bewusstheit”), and it has also gained some currency in Gestalt therapy, meditational practice and similar fields.

    Hope this helps.

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