The difference between "aware" and "on purpose"

© Feb. 2011 Paul Cooijmans


A sad confusion that has crept into verbal communication between humans is the erroneous use of "aware" (or "conscious") in the meaning of "on purpose" (or "deliberate"), when describing, linguistically modifying, an act.

A few examples demonstrate this semantic aberration:


Example 1

Person A: "Are you aware that just handed me the salt instead of the sugar? Was that a conscious act?"

Person B: "Yes, I was aware of it while executing the act of handing it over. But it was too late to stop it, my arm had already been set in motion by my motor nerves when I realized the error".

Example 2

Person A: "Are you awarely shaking your head all of the time?"

Person B: "Yes, I am fully conscious of doing that, in many instances even at the very moment the involuntary tic is taking place."


In cases like these, Person A often really means to ask whether Person B acted on purpose, intentionally. Because of the mistaken use of "aware" and "conscious" though, this leads to a tragic misunderstanding if the question is taken in its literal meaning; Person B will then answer "yes", and Person A will incorrectly interpret the act as deliberate, thus doing great injustice to Person B. In these examples, Person B is experienced enough to catch off Person A's linguistical error, but in practice, wrong will often be done to those in the role of Person B who take words in their proper meaning.

The background of the problem may be that many people do not by themselves perceive or sense a distinction between "aware" and "on purpose", and as a result feel no resistance to using the first word in the meaning of the second. An even deeper cause may be that for some there truly is no such distinction; that some never take a decision, make a choice to do something, but function more or less like automata, or carry out tasks that "voices" give them. In other words, some may not know and recognize the concept of intentionality as a result of not possessing it.

The Imperial Seal

Finally, it might even be that deliberation - free will - does not exist altogether but is merely a useful delusion, and awareness a byproduct of neural activity. In that case, the difference between "aware" and "on purpose" would be imaginary, and the use of the one for the other an indication that the illusion of having a free will is not as omnipresent as we self-obviously assume.