Read this review by Colin McGinn of Ted Honderich's book On Consciousness, and then, if you want, Honderich's reply to it. Also McGinn's rejoinder together with Honderich's response of one sentence. The review is the subject of many comments on the website Leiter Reports: A Philosophical Blog and also the website philos-L. It appeared in the Philosophical Review, 2007. Is the 2014 book Actual Consciousness much better because of this rough tutoring of its author? Could be, but I doubt it.
Ted Honderich, On Consciousness. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. vii + 230 pp.
This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent. The structure of the book consists of a series of previously published papers, somewhat modified, with short introductory sections, going back to 1981. The first half criticizes Davidson's anomalous monism, Putnam and Burge on anti-individualism about meaning, the identity theory, and functionalism. The views advocated include: the existence of lawlike correlations between mental and physical events (without identity -- which Honderich repeatedly qualifies as "Leibnizian," as if there were some other kind); something called the "union theory," which attempts to paste the mental and physical together inside the brain, with mental events declared spatial and physical (though not neural); and the efficacy of the mental. The second half tries to develop a new theory of consciousness, according to which the positive theses of the first half of the book are all wrong (not that this was signposted while the first half was assertively in progress), and the fact is only slyly acknowledged toward the end of the discussion -- hence the radical inconsistency I mentioned. Throughout, the book is woefully uninformed about the work of others and at best amateurish. Honderich's understanding of positions he criticizes is often weak to nonexistent, though not lacking in chutzpah. And the view he ends up defending is preposterous in the extreme and easily refuted.
Honderich begins by reprinting an article of his that makes a point made by nearly everybody writing about anomalous monism, namely that it is difficult to see how the mental qua mental can have causal efficacy on this view since the identity is only between tokens not types; the mental properties appear to dangle. A sophisticated discussion of this well-worn issue might try to see whether adding supervenience, a part of the Davidsonian package, might put the mental properties in a stronger causal position since it makes mental differences physically significant. Honderich at least mentions this possibility in passing but dismisses it uncomprehendingly. He also persistently ignores Davidson's explicit qualification that there are no strict psychophysical laws, though there may well be less-than-strict such laws, thus setting up a nice straw man to pelt. It is repeatedly insisted, as if it might be controversial, that there are correlations between mental and neural properties and that this somehow amounts to a theory of the mind-brain relation. The aforementioned "union theory" is quickly established by asserting that anything causal must be spatial, so that mental events -- which are held to be distinct from neural
Note at foot of page: The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to "soften the tone" of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.
events -- are also in the head next to their neural correlates, as well as being physical (because spatial). Why this is not just intracranial token dualism (with the usual epiphenomenalist consequences) is not explained.
But now Honderich senses danger from views that question whether the mind is in the head, so he must ward off this danger. Putnam is treated to a critique in which he is reprimanded for not noticing that you can vary the extension of 'page' by changing the actual pages in the world, without changing the meaning of 'page'. Nowhere does Honderich note that meaning is what determines extension for Putnam, not actual extension itself, and the whole discussion goes by without even broaching the classic twin-earth argument. The treatment of Burge is no better, as Honderich struggles to understand the difference between causation by the environment and individuation by it. To say that these authors emerge unscathed is to misidentify the locus of the scathing -- Honderich is a master of the self-scathing critique. And then, after all this, the second half of the book turns round to defend a version of anti-individualism that rejects the union theory and with it the notion that consciousness is in the head!
After a banal and pointless chapter on seeing and sense-data (even the author refers to it as "this faltering paper" ), we finally reach the crux and, presumably, the excuse for the book. Here I must quote: "The difference between me now and a chair in this room, it can be said, is that for me a world exists, and for the chair a world does not exist. Or rather, as I prefer to say, my consciousness now consists in the existence of a world" (his italics, 130). That may not sound too strange since perceptual consciousness (Honderich's focus) is surely the presentation of a world (or at least a bit of one) to a conscious subject; but no such obvious thought is what Honderich is advocating. He thinks such an account would be "circular" since it is tantamount to saying that perceptual consciousness is the awareness of a world, and we were trying to say what awareness is. No, his view is that consciousness is the world we are aware of -- it is what we would normally say that our perceptual consciousness reveals. Your consciousness is actually identical to a state of affairs outside your head in the perceived environment! He says, clarifying: "The new account is that what it is for you now to be aware of your surroundings is for things somehow to exist [note that 'somehow']. To speak a little grandly, what it is for your [sic] to be perceptually consciousness [sic] now is for a world somehow to exist, a certain changing totality of things. Mine now consists in things in this room and outside the window" (150). Again: "The theory of consciousness as existence makes perceptual consciousness into a state of affairs that is akin to the state of affairs that is the perceived world. It is spatial and so on" (151). One more time: "what it is for you to be aware of the room is for an extra-cranial state of affairs to exist" (184), like a chair being next to a table. In case we are in any doubt, Honderich assures us that he is not defending the innocuous view that perceptual awareness is intentional directedness to the environment, and in an excruciating discussion of Searle on perception and intentionality, he totally rejects the whole notion of intentionality. His view is that consciousness is the state of affairs around you; it is the room you are seeing. Is he perhaps an idealist about rooms? No, he thinks rooms are objects in space, physical things of a sort, made of matter, and indeed counts this fact as buttressing his claim to be a kind of physicalist about consciousness. Consciousness is not the awareness of the room (Honderich can make no sense of such "ofness"); it simply is the room -- that very spatial, physical object.
One might venture the following objection: the room could exist without you existing, so how can the room be your consciousness? To this rather natural objection, Honderich has an ingenious reply: it is a necessary condition of the room existing that you be in a certain neural state, so it can't exist without you. Is it then a purely intentional object, a mental product? Not according to Honderich since it is also dependent for its existence on the world of atoms, which can exist without your neural states. There is, we are assured, nothing spooky about this room, nothing beyond common sense -- it is a physical thing in space that you see. To the question how this ordinary object can depend for its existence on your neural state, Honderich has no reply, not managing to consider the question. He also appears to be a direct realist about perception, supposing that we see objects that exist independently of us; again, how this is consistent with those peculiar neuron-dependent objects is not explained. Note that there is no sufficient neural condition for those objects, so that they certainly cannot be regarded as mental products of some kind: they are not supervenient on what is in the head. Indeed, they also have a foot in the objective, material world outside; yet they are what consciousness is.
Another objection may strike one: if consciousness is a state of affairs existing in the perceived environment, doesn't it follow that hallucination is impossible? Honderich finally gets round to considering this critical question, wondering whether his theory might implausibly rule out the brain-in-a-vat that seems to see things beyond itself. His answer is that his theory refutes any such possibility—there simply cannot be perceptual hallucinations. He modestly refrains from announcing the good news that skepticism has finally been vanquished, though his theory has that consequence -- now we know that it follows from being conscious that we perceive veridically since consciousness just is the existence of the state of affairs apprehended. Appearance entails reality.
With perceptual consciousness thus taken care of, Honderich tries to extend the theory to thinking. Here, to sum up, his theory is that thinking is the perceiving of external representations like pictures and words, plus some inner representations. Two problems: first, you can think about something and perceive no external representation of it -- indeed you might not perceive anything at all relevant to your thought; second, those latter inner representations, introduced by Honderich in a sudden moment of sanity, undermine the entire picture he is promoting. He has thereby acknowledged the importance of intentionality and is now invoking a relation between subject and object, not just the object considered in itself, collapsing his theory into something familiar. But he sternly reminds us that there is no such impurity in his account of perceptual consciousness; it is still just the external state of affairs itself, with no relation between the subject and the object invoked. Why exactly he still resists inner representations for perception is left unexplained—except that it would be an abandonment of his wonderful new theory.
The short reply to Honderich's existence theory is of course that he is confusing vehicle and content, act and object. My experience of a room is the vehicle of a certain content, rather as a word is a vehicle of meaning. My seeing the room is not the room I see but the means by which I see it; the seeing is not its own object. There is no commitment to sense-data here or odd introspective relations between the subject and the subject's experiences; there is just the simple fact that an experience is an event or state that carries a content. Honderich has to deny that seeing an object is a relation between perceiver and object since seeing, for him, is the object. This is absurd, of course, and the truth is just that seeing is a relation to an object, rather as referring is.
Commendably, Honderich has his moments of uncertainty. "I own up to doubts about the details of all this, and a residual worry that some inconsistency has gone unnoticed. But not enough doubts and worry to stand in the way of my main proposal in this paper" (144). Just the details? In the final paper of the book, we read: "It [the existence theory] does not purport to give what we ordinarily have in mind in talking of being aware of this room, and in talking of perceptual consciousness generally. We do not have in mind a state of affairs outside the head. Cranialism has a hold on us and our language. .. . The enterprise in hand, rather, instead of being only conceptual or linguistic analysis, is one of conceptual reconstruction, of which a little more will be said at the end" (207). Are we to assume, then, that he has simply decided to call a state of affairs in the environment "consciousness"? In which case, the obvious reply is that this is not what we call consciousness, and we'd like a theory of that. (Let me call determinism "free will"; now I have reconciled free will with determinism!)
Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others).
University of Miami
McGinn's Rejoinder to it together with Honderich's brief response
Honderich on McGinn in the past
Seeing Things -- a paper in the book On Consciousness
Intentionality -- another paper in On Consciousness
Reviews of On Consciousness by Barbara Hannan & Paavo Pylkkanen
Articles on Radical Externalism by E. J. Lowe, Stephen Priest, Paul Snowdon
Excerpts from articles by Harold Brown, Tim Crane, James Garvey, Stephen Law, Derek Matravers, Paul Noordhof, Ingmar Persson, Barry C. Smith
Andrew Ross, First-Person Consciousness: Honderich & McGinn Reviewed
Andrew Ross, Hitting on Consciousness: Honderich Versus McGinn
Four Newspaper Stories and a Letter to an Editor
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