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Rocco Gennaro's Routledge Handbook of Consciousness aims to "introduce the uninitiated," be they researchers or senior tertiary students, to "cutting-edge interdisciplinary work" with the simultaneous goal of making its "philosophical import understandable" (1). It is this emphasis, Gennaro claims, that makes this collection of essays distinct from competing anthologies and monographs operating at the intersection of Psychological Philosophy with Cognitive and Neurological Psychology. Twelve such rivals are nominated, ranging from the 1997 anthology edited by Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Güven Güzeldere, The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates, to the 2017 monograph, Consciousness, contributed by Gennaro himself to the New Problems of Philosophy series.
The three parts of this collection consist of seven chapters dealing with the history and "background metaphysics" of consciousness; nine chapters covering "contemporary theories" of consciousness; and eighteen chapters comprising "innovative and provocative debate" when dealing with major topics within "the research community" (4). Its strengths include a list of related topics at the end of each chapter and the willingness of several contributors to clarify arguments at stake syllogistically (notably in the first four chapters) or anchor their summaries by citing earlier philosophical loci classici (René Descartes, William James and G.W. Leibniz figuring most frequently).
Over a century ago, in the 31st March 1910 issue of The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, G.H. Mead issued a challenge to psychological investigations of consciousness that continues to resonate:
Objective consciousness of selves must precede subjective consciousness, and must continually condition it... Subjective self-consciousness must appear within experience, must have a function in the development of that experience, and must be studied from the point of view of that function, not as that in which self-consciousness arises and through analogical bridges and self-projections we slowly construct a hypothetically objective social world in which to live. Furthermore, meaning in light of this recognition has its reference not to agglomerations of states of subjective consciousness, but to objects in a socially conditioned experience. When in the process of introspection we reach the concept of self, we have attained an attitude which we assume not toward our inner feelings, but toward other individuals [through their gestures, actions, and speech] (1910, 179).
Mead then concludes that, if "meaning" is tied to "consciousness of attitude,"
I would challenge any one to show an adequate motive for directing
attention toward one's attitudes, in a consciousness of things that were
merely physical… It is only in the social situation of converse that
[others'] gestures, and the attitudes they express could become the object
of attention and interest. Whatever our theory…[about] the history of
things, social consciousness must antedate physical consciousness. (1910,
Although Mead does not figure in the Routledge Handbook of Consciousness, the vast majority of its contributors can be seen wrestling with the implications of his challenge, albeit in terms of their specific disciplinary perspectives and prevailing hypotheses.
Owing to constraints on length, we cannot simply summarise all thirty-four chapters of the Handbook under review. In fact, Gennaro already provides such a summary from the outset (3-7). Instead, we shall outline the implications of at least two crucial issues in the anthology that its "uninitiated" readers should ultimately take into account. First of all, what kind of history have its readers been given? Even in chapters devoted to contemporary debates, are "uninitiated" readers exposed to the history of these interdisciplinary debates? If not, why not? Secondly, given that thirty-five of the thirty-eight contributors hold academic positions in Philosophy, to what extent are they mindful of the underlying conceptual and methodological difficulties bedevilling psychological and neuropsychological enquiries into consciousness?
The first chapter sees Amy Kind probing the role of consciousness in relation to personal identity over time. The terrain is associated with the largely empirically developed stance adopted by John Locke and she has no hesitation quoting the much cited "consciousness always accompanies thinking" passage from the fourth 1700 edition of An Essay concerning Humane Understanding and how episodic memory establishes the continuity of "the same self" (Bk. 3, Ch. 27, §9). Upon mentioning counter-arguments (in reverse order) first articulated by Joseph Butler in "Of Personal Identity," appended to his 1736 The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (439-450), and Thomas Reid in his 1785 Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (Essay 3, Chapter Six), Kind shifts our attention to alternative hypotheses, including cerebral and robotic transplantations, formulated by such recent philosophers as Derek Parfit and David Chalmers (15ff.) regarding continuity of consciousness. Are "uninitiated" readers left to assume that nothing of substance in the interim had been contributed to the debate? Kind almost casually remarks:
Philosophers in the Lockean tradition have made various attempts to solve [Butler's] problem [that memory presupposes personal identity]. One particularly promising line of defines invokes a causal theory of memory. On this kind of theory, there must be an appropriate causal connection between a mental state and an experience in order for the mental state to count as a genuine memory of that experience… Perhaps this defines is successful, perhaps not (14).
No reference is made to other recent efforts to develop causal theories as reviewed in, say, the tenth chapter by Francis Fallon (138ff.) on causality and neurological mechanisms and the nineteenth chapter by David Pitt (261ff.) on consciousness and intentionality. Nor, for that matter, are readers advised why the third chapter by Janet Davis on modern materialist theories (40ff.) and the fourth by W.S. Robinson on three major dualist theories (53ff.) are directly relevant or not to questions of causality (and, as Robinson also notes, to those of personal identity (62)).
The next chapter by Larry Jorgensen focuses upon the historical quest for a naturalised theory of consciousness amongst occidental philosophers. Once again, we find the same type of sudden shift in references. Here, after raising some possible implications emerging from various dialogues of Platon, especially the Apologia Sokratous, the Menon, and the Philebos, as well as from Aristoteles' Peri psykhes [De Anima] (425b11-15) on the nature of reflexive perception, Jorgensen directs our attention to the conceptual and linguistic shift from the moral connotations of conscience collectively associated two millennia later with Descartes, Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant (28ff.). Why are such abrupt leaps to later debates so evident--with the obvious exception of the many chapters exclusively introducing contemporary theories of consciousness? Is it possible, by pursuing the needs of "uninitiated" readers, we have misconstrued the nature of The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness?
Perhaps, it might be objected, we have failed to recognise the contrast between perspectives taken by those appealing to scientific endeavours and those appealing to philosophical ones. After all, as Robert Merton in the enlarged version of "On the History and Systematics of Sociological Theory" contends, "scientists ordinarily publish their ideas and findings not to help historians reconstruct their methods but to instruct their contemporaries and, hopefully, posterity about their contributions to science" (1968, 5). Hence, we cannot look to conventional scientific texts alone as a means of reconstructing the actual history of scientific enquiry, let alone its indebtedness to precedents, especially precedents grounded in the practice of generations past. In fact, it should not prove surprising that scientific enquiries of the kind investigated in the Handbook of Consciousness can, from an historical point of view, be characterized in Merton's terms as follows: firstly, as re-discoveries involving "substantive identity or functional equivalence"; secondly, as anticipations where "earlier formulations overlap the later ones but do not focus upon or draw out the same set of implications"; or, thirdly, as foreshadowings which, in extreme cases, proclaim "the faintest shadow of resemblance between earlier and later ideas as virtual identity" (1968, 13 & 21). Moreover, it could also be objected, the bulk of scientific enquiry can function successfully without any knowledge of foundational precedents in the field. Louis-Sébastien Lenormand's conception of the parachute in 1783, for example, apparently owed nothing to such precursors as Faust Vrančić in 1595 or Leonardo da Vinci in 1483. As succinctly stated by Merton, the physical and life sciences can function through a "process of obliteration by incorporation" unlike the humanities and social sciences where "previously unretrieved information is still there to be usefully employed as new points of departure" (1968, 35). Yet, despite the interdisciplinary character of the Handbook of Consciousness, we are ultimately dealing with the contributions of philosophers, not scientists per se.
Now, let us turn to the other issue seemingly ignored in an anthology constantly foregrounding contemporary scientific research into consciousness. The issue at stake is the underpinning conceptual and methodological difficulties encountered by such research. Certainly, the editorial introduction provides a timely reminder of how "notoriously ambiguous" conceptions of consciousness can be to the point of engendering "unnecessary confusion" (2). In a short section entitled "Terminology," Gennaro wastes no time distinguishing between intransitive and transitive expressions of the notion: "Antonia is conscious" and "Andreina is conscious of Antonia" respectively. The intransitive, in turn, leads us into construing "being conscious" as tantamount to being in one or more wakeful mental states and it is this latter sense which the anthology's contributors attempt to explain. Gennaro then declares that all contributors to his anthology "primarily" interpret being in "a conscious mental state" in Thomas Nagel's widely disseminated terms of the October 1974 issue of The Philosophical Review, namely, "there is 'something it is like' for me to be in that state from the subjective or first-person point of view" (2). This core contention of the anthology is briefly elaborated by way of "a cluster of other expressions and technical terms associated with Nagel's sense" (2), more commonly discussed as the "phenomenal" (or "qualia"), "qualitative," or "subjective" characteristics of consciousness (2-3) which are also regarded as features of awareness, feeling, or sentience (e.g. 179f., 189, 210, 310ff., 368ff.).
Notwithstanding these prefatory remarks, there still remains the problematic nature of the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of this volume. Conceptually speaking, a close reading of the anthology reveals little critical evaluation of its persistent appeal to a conscious mental state explicated as "what it is like" for one to be in or experience that state. Indeed, only one direct remark is aimed at Nagel's 1974 definition. When Wayne Wu begins to pursue the relationship between attention and phenomenal consciousness in the eighteenth chapter, he asks, "how does one 'operationalize' that definition to allow it to guide empirical study of consciousness?" (249). Although (unspecified) scientists are said to complain that Nagel's definition effectively lacks rigour, Wu believes that empirically speaking "philosophers and sympathetic scientists will rely on introspection" (249).
More pertinently, what neither Wu nor his fellow contributors do is engage the logico- linguistic confusions and shortcomings more broadly identified by Tyler Burge in the January 1992 issue of The Philosophical Review (29ff.) and more specifically by Peter Hacker in the April 2002 issue of Philosophy. For Nagel,
the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something that it is like to be that organism…. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something it is like to be that organism--something it is like for the organism (1974, 436).
To what extent are we furnished here with two conceptions: one about what constitutes a conscious being and the other about what constitutes a conscious experience, be it a feeling or a perception? In using the clause "something that it is like to be," are we saying, for example, when applied to Andreina having conscious experience, it resembles or differs from some other experience or only what it is like for Andreina to have it? If it does not function comparatively, then is the phenomenal, qualitative, or subjective experience or feeling to be considered unique to each and every distinct experience? "How does [did] [will] it feel to see Antonia?" might well vary radically: "strangely awkward" or "overwhelmingly relieved" if Andreina had not seen her for several years; quite other, should any feeling subsist whatsoever, if the two of them were repeatedly washing and drying dishes side by side. Are not personal relationships and social circumstances part and parcel of attitudinal or affective responses to the objects of sight? Again, if the clause "something that [or what] it is like for" is not an invitation for a comparison, then is it not a request for a characterization? To ask Antonia "what is [was] it like for you to return?" (namely, to Andreina after all those years), are we not, despite the inclusion of an expression of resemblance ("like"), asking Antonia for her affective or attitudinal characterization of her actual experience of returning. Furthermore, is there not a non sequitur at work in the kind of conclusion to be drawn from such questions as "What is it like for a human [an organism] [Andreina] to be a human [an organism] [Andreina]?"? Why? Because it lacks the contrast at play in "What is it like for Andreina [Antonia] [you] to be a surgeon?" with its emphasis upon the role, activities, and responsibilities of a surgeon which is quite unlike "What is it like for a human, as opposed to any other being, to be a human?" or "What is it like for Andreina, as opposed to any one else, to be Andreina?" Neither of the latter even if intelligible necessarily illuminates the nature of consciousness.
Finally, has the undoubted wealth of surveys of cognitive psychological and neurological experiments compiled for its "uninitiated" readers in the Routledge Handbook of Consciousness omitted a reply to methodological concerns raised by European intellectuals? Surely, the accusation of Jaan Valsiner, for example, in his introduction to the 2005 volume Heinz Werner and Developmental Science demands a response from philosophers critically reflecting upon interdisciplinary hypotheses and practices:
Psychology as a whole has become empirically hyperproductive and theoretically mute--ideas that are currently presented as "theories" are local, data-driven, and methods-based…rather than pertaining to general questions about the basics of the human psyche…. What has become changed are the relations between theory, data, and phenomena …[into the] dominance of method over phenomena… (2005, 5).
© 2018 R.A. Goodrich
R.A. Goodrich is affiliated with the A.R.C. Centre for the History of Emotions (University of Melbourne) and the A.D.I. Philosophy & History of Ideas (Deakin University), co-edits the online refereed arts journal Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating linguistic, cognitive, and behavioural development of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum and related disorders.