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Consciousness
In his book Consciousness, Christopher Hill demonstrates his mastering of analytic methods and techniques in a well-written and thoroughly researched study. The work pertains to the paradigm of analytic philosophy, although the general argument is occasionally informed by certain discussions in cognitive science.
The current review is one from a bird's eye angle aimed at the general reader with no pre-knowledge in analytic philosophy. In this short note, a few remarks on Hill's treatise will be made without any claim of exhaustiveness. In conclusion a recommendation to possible readers will be suggested.
The book contains nine chapters but sadly enough no preface. Regarding this omission, I would like to say, with Dummett, that "I am always disappointed when a book lacks a preface: it is like arriving at someone's house for dinner, and being conducted straight into the dining-room." (Dummett M (1981) Frege: Philosophy of language. Second Preface. Second Edition. Duckworth.) To write a preface, it seems to me, is to try to attune the expectations of the guest as to the kind of dinner to be served. In Hill's book, the reader, without any delay of personal acquaintance, steps inside a thick and complex structure of reasoning that contains both small intermissions as well as large interventions, each move executed in the analytic spirit.
Hill conducts quite a detailed examination of quite a set of interrelated key notions: consciousness, experience, awareness, introspection, propositional knowledge, qualia, appearance. The notions are then treated in relation to a variety of issues such as physicalism, functionalism, property dualism, conceivability, the knowledge argument, Nagel's what-is-it-like, Levine's explanatory gap, and other fashionable debates in contemporary philosophy. The considerations are coming to the fore in clear language, relying on formal reasoning and rigorous analysis.
Initially, Hill delineates six forms of consciousness which are called agent consciousness, propositional consciousness, introspective consciousness, relational consciousness, phenomenal consciousness, and experiential consciousness -- the latter form may be seen as an addition on Hill's part as completing the display (ch 1). This opening discussion provides a valuable theoretical survey of plausible concepts of consciousness.
The book contains an intriguing discussion of pain which is followed by an extended analysis of the transparency thesis regarding the nature consciousness. This is a very interesting and revealing treatment of Moore's classic statement on the transparency of mind (G E Moore "The Refutation of Idealism" 1903). I also find the discussion of introspection (ch 8, passim) of special interest, which is a subject that oftentimes is dismissed on non-conclusive grounds. Hill concludes the first half (roughly) by stating that a certain form of awareness may be understood as purely experiential consciousness (ch 4 -- 6) which thesis is defended against different objections throughout the latter part of the book (ch 7-9).
In delineating a monistic picture of consciousness, it seems to me, Hill assumes the validity, and the non-questionability, of a certain naturalistic understanding of mind, which is hinted at rather than explicitly spelled out and described. Certain forms of dualism are to be refuted, Hill contends, if an adequate theory of consciousness should be described and accepted (ch 4).
Having undertaken detailed clarifications of the notions of 'awareness', 'phenomenal experience', 'visual experience', and related concepts in the first five chapters, in the sixth chapter Hill writes as follows: "It is generally possible to distinguish between the appearance of an empirical phenomenon and the corresponding reality." (p.169)
To my light, this statement succinctly expresses the implicit epistemological vision that informs Hill's inquiry, perhaps unnoticed. Possibly, a person may sustain severe injury without being in pain. And possibly, a person may be in pain without having sustained any related injury or disease. Thus, we may distinguish between the empirical phenomenon (being or not being in pain) and the corresponding reality (having or not having severed an injury). This distinction, I would say, bears certain affinity to the Kripkean demarcation between epistemic and metaphysical modalities.
A significant motive underlying Hill's investigation seems to be based on a certain understanding of philosophy as a field composed by a number of relatively autonomous subfields, such that proper research in one subfield should not intermingle with proper research in another subfield. For instance, in his discussion of propositional attitudes (p. 5) Hill remarks that certain issues should be seen as belonging to the epistemology whereas other issues pertain to the study of consciousness proper. He writes: "a philosopher of consciousness is interested principally in the nature of the mind, not in the ability to acquire knowledge of the world." Thus, Hill understands that epistemology is concerned with issues not necessarily considered in a philosophy of consciousness. I do not agree. Certainly, a researcher cannot cover but a small subfield of some subfield. Nevertheless, philosophy of consciousness, at some stage or other, has to face the issue of adequacy and soundness of the metaphysical system engaged. This means to confront epistemic issues. (How do we know that consciousness may be characterized as such and such?) Now, certainly epistemology may take different routes and some of these may not traverse consciousness studies. Nevertheless, a philosophy of consciousness should comply with certain imperatives that urge the attention of the thinker to consider the actual moment of experience. Hill's inquiry cannot proceed secluded from the question of whether the key notions are applicable on actual experience, which as such activates an epistemological as well as an ontological quest, or so I would like to think. The investigating agent (for instance, the reader of Hill's book), in the attempt to assess the validity of a certain metaphysical statements (for instance, that consciousness is transparent), has to attend to actual consciousness in order to 'see' or 'intuit' or 'affirm' or 'disfirm' the alleged transparency of mind. The consideration of the transparency thesis thus carries into the consideration of decidability: to inquire whether certain knowledge claims may be warranted (or confirmed not to be). Hill makes sure the adequacy and soundness of his own described position by rigorous semantic and logical treatment of the terms and the arguments. It is up to the reader to supply the experiential import that may decide whether the Hill's discussion makes sense or not.
As for myself, I would say that Hill's book provides an excellent context that may be employed in inter-disciplinary discussions on consciousness, mainly due to the clarity and coherence of the nomenclature presented in the book. As to the possible validity of the overall argument of the book in relation to the discussions within the analytic field proper, I cannot really say. A first reading is not enough to pass any judgment but a premature one, from which I refrain.
To summarize: Hill's book is a valuable contribution to the field and it deserves careful study. The text should be seen as calling the attention of graduate students and researchers within consciousness studies, not only in analytic philosophy but also in phenomenology, psychology, and cognition science.
© 2011 Kyriakos Theodoridis
Kyriakos Theodoridis, PhD theoretical philosophy, Senior Lecturer Faculty of Health and Society, Malmö University, Sweden