conscientia vs. syneidesis


Senior Member
English UK
conscientia vs. syneidesis

The English word “consciousness” in the modern sense was apparently coined sometime in the 17th century and is derived from Latin cōnscius, itself from con- (a form of com- (“together”)) + scīre (“to know”).

Latin cōnscius seems to have meant “to know together with another” but also “to know together with oneself” (conscius sibi), i.e., “to know (or be aware) that one knows”.

Ancient Greek similarly used words like συνείδησις, συναίσθησις, σύνεσις formed from a syn- (“with”) prefix (= Latin con-/com-) and a word meaning “knowledge”, “perception”, etc.

According to Wiktionary, Latin conscientia is “from cōnsciēns (“conscious”) +‎ -ia, a calque of Ancient Greek συνείδησις (suneídēsis)”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give any sources.

Given that Greek grammar seems to have influenced Latin grammar, could the Latin word be a translation or calque of the Greek or otherwise have developed under its influence?

If the two words developed independently of each other, which is the earliest?
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  • Sobakus

    Senior Member
    I barely know any (ancient or modern) Greek, but the word συνείδησις is clearly an action noun to σύνοιδα, based on its infinitive stem συνειδέναι. The latter ultimately goes back to a prefix meaning “with, together, beside” and *weyd-to see, to know”, and this is reflected in the Greek verb, whose meaning is “to know as witness, to be able to testify”. The word clearly goes back a long way.

    Latin natively has no corresponding verb at all, although there have been some attempts to coin cōnscīre as a calque from Greek (these have had much more success in Russian). Correspondingly, the participle cōnsciēns doesn't exist either in normal Latin. What does exist is the adjective cōnscius “privy to, aware of”, and the noun cōnscientia “the state of being aware of”. These are clearly formed after the pattern of and as antonyms to nescius/īnscius and īnscientia. The latter is transparently scientia + noun-negating prefix, but the bare adjective scius looks suspiciously like a backformation from nescius.

    From the above it's evident that cōnscientia is a relatively recent formation, and Greek συνείδησις is the only candidate as the prototype for it. This is especially likely if we consider the abstract, psychological, morally-philosophical nature of this word.

    cōnscientia is apparently first attested in Cicero, but I doubt it was coined by him as a technical philosophical term especially to translate the Greek (something he's famous for). I would think the word was already in common circulation at least in the legal sphere, where it was needed to discuss guilt.
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    Senior Member
    English UK
    it's evident that cōnscientia is a relatively recent formation, and Greek συνείδησις is the only candidate as the prototype for it

    That’s what I thought, too.

    Obviously, there is a difference between consciousness and conscience. Consciousness is awareness in general, whereas conscience refers to the capacity for critical reflection on one’s actions. You must have consciousness or awareness before you have conscience, and the term conscience seems to have developed from consciousness, at least in Greek.

    Greek writers like Plotinus (Enneads) use words for consciousness in the sense of awareness of cognitive and perceptual states, e.g., συναίσθησις (synaisthesis), σύνεσις (synesis).

    This goes back to earlier authors like Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, where the verb σύνοιδα (synoida) is used to express the awareness of one’s internal states.

    For example, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates says:

    I am aware (σύνοιδα ἐμαυτῷ, synoida emauto) that I am wise neither in great things nor in small things (21b4-5).

    Of course, consciousness or awareness of what we know is only part of it. Equally important is consciousness or awareness of the limits of our knowledge. This is the beginning of philosophy in the original sense. The awareness that there are realities “out there”, i.e., outside our everyday experience and knowledge, that we don’t know and don’t understand and that it is our task, as intelligent beings endowed with awareness and understanding, to inquire into these realities.

    Hence Socrates says:

    I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either(21d)”

    As it turns out from the Dialogues, Socrates actually knows quite a lot. But it is the awareness of the limits of his knowledge which impels him to embark on the quest for wisdom, that makes him a true philosopher, i.e. a "lover of, or seeker after, wisdom" or φιλόσοφος (philosophos) proper.

    In any case, there seems to be a close connection between the emergence of the concept of consciousness and the practice of philosophy.

    Cicero seems to be using conscientia in the sense of conscience at De Finibus 1.16.51 and 2.22.71:

    So your school undoubtedly preaches the pretence of justice instead of the real and genuine thing. Its lesson amounts to this – we are to despise the trustworthy voice of our own conscience, and to run after the fallible imagination of other men (2.22.71).

    But, again, to speak of a "conscience" presupposes having consciousness or awareness of it, in the first place. So, consciousness or awareness may be implied in “conscientia”.

    Incidentally, unlike Romance and Latin-influenced languages, German has Bewusstsein for “consciousness” which seems to go back to Martin Luther, but it isn’t quite clear where he got it from. It may have been formed under Latin (or Greek) influence.

    At any rate, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems that even though the Greeks may not have invented consciousness as such, they certainly coined a word for it, at least as far as European languages are concerned ....


    Senior Member
    English UK
    The original meaning of συνίημι (syniemi) – sometimes spelled with an “ξ” (/x/) - was “to bring/to come together” as in Homer’s Illiad:

    Who then of the gods was it that brought these two [Agamemnon and Achilles] together (ξυνέηκε, xyneike) to contend? (Il. 1.5).

    But it also occurs in the sense of “perceive, hear”:

    So spake he [Ajax to his brother Teucer], and the other hearkened (ξυνέηκε, xyneike), and ran, and took his stand close beside him, bearing in his hand his bent-back bow and the quiver that held his arrows (Il. 15.442).

    And, significantly, in the sense of “be aware of, take notice, observe, understand”:

    Hieron, if you are skilled in understanding (ξυνάονες, xynaones) the true essence of words, you have learned and know the saying of former times: “The immortals dispense to men two pains for every blessing (Pindar, Pythian 3.80).

    σύνεσις (synesis), the abstract noun derived from συνίημι (syniemi), seems to have followed the same pattern as the verb. It occurs in the sense of “uniting” or “union” in Homer, where the goddess Circe (Kirke) speaks of the “meeting place” or “union” (ξύνεσίς, xynesis) of two rivers (Odyssey 10.515).

    But also in the sense of “comprehension, sagacity, wisdom”, as in Pindar:

    But to you, Thearion, she [Fate] gives a due measure of prosperity, and while you have gained a bold spirit for fine deeds, she does not impair the wisdom of your mind (σύνεσιν φρενῶν, synesin phrenon) (Nemean 7.59-60).

    By the time of Plato, σύνεσις (synesis) definitely occurs in the sense of “consciousness, understanding, intelligence”, as in Cratylus, where Socrates himself discusses the etymology of the word:

    Σύνεσις (synesis, “intelligence”) in its turn is a kind of reckoning together (συλλογισμός, syllogismos); when one says συνιέναι (synienai, “understand”), the same thing as ἐπίστασθαι (epistasthai, "to know, be conscious of, understand") is said (Crat. 412a).

    It is interesting to note that Socrates (or Plato) is not only fully aware of the psychological meaning, function and importance of consciousness, but also discusses its etymology.

    It is also clear that the capacity of being aware, perceiving, thinking, understanding, knowing, etc. is identified as a function of the intelligent soul (psyche) i.e., of that part of man that is endowed with consciousness, awareness, and intelligence:

    And ἐπιστήμη (episteme, “knowledge”) indicates that the soul accompanies (ἕπεται) things in their motion, neither falling behind them nor running in front of them (Crat. 412a).

    Consciousness or σύνεσις (synesis) here refers to the soul’s capacity (1) of standing in a relation of conscious togetherness or unity with itself and with other things (things other than soul) and (2) of bringing things together into a harmonious and coherent whole.

    In other words, a union, bringing together, or synthesis of cognitive and perceptual elements resulting in understanding.

    Moreover, to be endowed with consciousness, awareness and intelligence, meant to possess an ability to act intelligently which, for Greek philosophers, translated into acting justly.

    As Socrates puts it:

    It is easy to conjecture that the word ‘δικαιοσύνη’ (dikaiosyne, “righteousness”) applies to the understanding/intelligence (σύνεσις, synesis) of the just (τοῦ διαίον) (Crat. 412c).

    As justice was the highest of the four cardinal virtues, it was naturally associated with the highest element in man, i.e., consciousness. Perhaps by association with “acting rightly or justly”, the word “consciousness” (σύνεσις, synesis / συνείδησις, syneidesis) acquired “conscience” as a secondary meaning.

    In practical terms, being conscious ultimately meant being conscious or aware of what is right or wrong and acting accordingly. Conscience was implicitly recognized as a function of consciousness.

    "Conscience" seems to have been the primary sense in which Latin cōnscientia was used and this was later adopted by Christian and, in particular, Western Europe.
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    Senior Member
    English UK
    “Consciousness” (synesis or syneidesis) seems to have no equivalent in the Hebrew Old Testament (Masoretic Text) but it does occur a few times in the Greek OT a.k.a. Septuagint (LXX), specifically, in later books. Ecclesiastes (450 BC – 180 BC) uses syneidesis in the sense of “inner consciousness” for Hebrew מַדָּע (madda, “thought”):

    “Do not curse the king even in your thoughts (ἐν συνειδήσει σου, en syneidesei sou), or curse the rich even in your bedroom, for a bird of the air may carry your words, and a winged creature may report your speech (Ecclesiastes 10:20)”.

    Here it seems to be used in association with conscience or awareness of wrong doing, and in even later OT books like Wisdom (1st century BC - 1st century AD), composed in Greek, it appears in the sense of “awareness of right and wrong” or “conscience”:

    “For wickedness, condemned by her own witness, is very timorous, and being pressed with conscience (συνειδήσει, syneidesei), always forecasteth grievous things (Wisdom 17:11)”.

    Early Christian texts like the Didache use synedeisis in the same sense:

    “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life (4.14)”.

    A similar meaning is found in the Epistles (Letters) of St Paul:

    “But not all have this knowledge. Some, through habit, even now when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been offered to a god (other than the One God), and their conscience (syneidesis) being weak, it is defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7)”.

    This use of syneidesis, i.e., as equivalent to Latin conscientia, becomes standard in later Greek Patristic literature and is sometimes adopted even by Latin writers. For example, Jerome writes:

    “And they place the fourth part, which the Greeks call syneidesis, above and beyond these three [the basic aspects of the soul: desires, emotions, reason]. This is the spark of conscience (scintilla conscientiae) by which, even when conquered by pleasure or by rage, deceived by the very similitude of reason, we realize that we sin” (Commentariorum in Hiezechielem CCL 75, 12).

    Interestingly, although syneidesis is the prototype for Latin conscientia and, ultimately, for English “consciousness”, it isn’t used by Plato or Plotinus.

    Following the Classical philosophical tradition, Plotinus (3rd century AD) continues to focus on the cognitive aspects of consciousness for which he employs words like synesis and synaisthesis, but notably, not syneidesis.

    Could the reason for this be (1) that the cognitive-psychological aspects of consciousness became increasingly less studied (the emphasis having shifted to the moral aspects of it) and (2) that by Plotinus’ time syneidesis (and its Latin equivalent conscientia) was used in the sense of “conscience” instead of “consciousness”?

    Christian writers seem to have elevated syneidesis to the level of spirit (pneuma) which occupied a position higher than the soul and roughly corresponded to the νοῦς (nous) of the Greek philosophers.

    Although nous is often translated as “intellect” or "mind", it comes close to Christian “spirit”, especially when used in the sense of divine intelligence or active principle of the universe:

    “For, in truth, this Cosmos in its origin was generated as a compound, from the combination of Necessity and Nous (Plato, Timaeus 48a).”

    "There is in the universe a Cause which orders and arranges years and seasons and months, and may most justly be called Wisdom (sophia) and Intelligence (nous) … Now do not imagine that this is mere idle talk of mine; it confirms the utterances of those who declared of old that Intelligence (nous) always rules the universe (Plato, Philebus 30c-d)."

    From the philosophers’ point of view, of course, consciousness was ontologically higher than conscience, the latter being a function of the former operating in the “sensible world” or kosmos aisthetikos (the world of appearance) as opposed to pure consciousness that was at home in the “intelligible world” or kosmos noetikos (the world of reality).

    Similarly, the spirit of the Christians was not the highest metaphysical category, spirit (as in the Holy Spirit) being subordinate to the mind of God which could be seen as a higher form of consciousness.

    For non-Christian philosophers, in embodied life, while the higher part of the nous stood outside the soul, the lower part remained in contact with it and communicated to it its moral judgement concerning the soul’s thoughts and actions. Thus, the nous was the originator of the phenomenon of conscience (syneidesis).

    So, consciousness as (a) self-awareness and (b) moral conscience were two sides of the same one consciousness, (b) being a mere subset of (a). Despite the different conceptions of consciousness, the Christian and non-Christian positions were similar.

    In any case, it seems that syneidesis initially referred to consciousness in the general sense of awareness, after which it became associated with "bad consciousness"/"consciousness or awareness of right and wrong" and, eventually, came to be used in the sense of conscience. Although this trend had been initiated by Greek thinkers, it may have been additionally encouraged by the Christian emphasis on guilt.

    According to Wikipedia, Latin conscientia was used for centuries in the sense of conscience, and only later formed the term “consciousness” in the modern sense. Latin-derived French uses conscience (< Lat conscientia) in both senses, of "consciousness" and "conscience". German is more exact, using Bewusstsein (from bewusst, "aware, conscious”) for consciousness and Gewissen (apparently, a calque of Lat conscientia) for conscience.

    In sum, it may be the case that, after the Classical Era, (Western) Europe ended up with a “conscience” but without “consciousness”, the latter being “rediscovered” in the late Middle Ages or Modern Era ….
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