Ted Honderich entry for Wikipedia
James Garvey
3 July 07

Ted Honderich, British philosopher, Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College London, and Visiting Professor, University of Bath. His books so far have mainly been about five things: determinism's truth and its consequences for our lives; the nature of consciousness and its relation to the brain; right and wrong in the contemporary world and in particular with respect to terrorism; the supposed justifications of punishment by the state; the political tradition of conservatism.

Western Philosophy
20th, 21st Century philosophy
Name: Ted Honderich
Birth: 1933
School/Tradition: Analytic Philosophy
Main Interests: determinism and freedom, philosophy of mind, ethics in international relations, justification of state punishment, conservatism.
Notable Ideas: for you to be conscious of the room you are in is for the room in a way to exist; 'determinism is compatible with freedom' and 'determinism is incompatible with freedom' are both false; Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism within historic Palestine against ethnic cleansing by neo-Zionism; the old problem of the justification of punishment collapses into the problem of the justification of a society; conservatism's self-interest is uniquely amoral.
Influences: A. J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, John Watling, Bernard Williams, Richard Wollheim.

Determinism and Freedom
Mind and Brain
The Principle of Humanity
International Right and Wrong, Democracy, Terrorism
Other Writing
See Also
External Links


Ted Honderich was born Edgar Dawn Ross Honderich on 30 January 1933 in Baden, Ontario, Canada, of Scots and German lineage. An undergraduate in the University of Toronto, he came to University College London in 1959 to do graduate work with the Logical Positivist A. J. Ayer at University College London in 1959 rather than go to Harvard. Went native in England and has since lived there as a British citizen.

After briefly being a Lecturer at the University of Sussex, he became, successively, Lecturer back at UCL and then, successively, Reader, Professor, and then holder of the Grote Professorship, previously Ayer's chair. He was visiting professor at the City University of New York and Yale. He has written many books. Some of his journal articles have been on the correspondence theory of truth, Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions, time, causation, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, and against John Searle on free will and G. A. Cohen's defence of Marx's theory of history. He  has also been editor of several series of philosophy books.

He has been involved in controversy for his moral defence of Palestinian terrorism, despite his justification of the founding and maintaining of Israel in more or less its original 1948 borders -- for which Palestinians have attacked him.

His papers in philosophical journals have been collected in three volumes by Edinburgh University Press. He has made use of his philosophical views on radio and television, is the editor of the leading encyclopedia The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, has written a philosophical autobiography, and is the chairman of The Royal Institute of Philosophy. His wife is Ingrid Coggin Honderich.

Determinism and Freedom

A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes, spoken of as a magnum opus by the publisher, first expounds a theory of causation as well as other lawlike connection. This is used this in the formulation of three hypotheses of a deterministic philosophy of mind. They are argued to be true, mainly on the basis of neuroscience, and despite common interpretations of Quantum Theory. Also, the clarity of determinism is contrasted with the obscurity of doctrines of free will or origination.

The philosophical traditions about determinism and freedom dominant for several centuries, Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, are closely examined. The first is that determinism is perfectly consistent with our freedom and moral responsibility, the second that it is inconsistent with them. Determinism is found to have more consequences than those mentioned in these traditions, including consequences for our life-hopes.

There is close consideration of Compatibilism's argument that our freedom, or the only freedom that matters, consists in voluntariness, essentially doing what we desire and not being coerced, and hence that determinism and freedom evidently can go together. There is also examination of Incompatibilism's argument that our freedom consists in origination or free will, our choosing in a controlled way without our choices being caused, and hence that determinism and freedom are inconsistent.

It is maintained and maybe proved that both traditions are plainly mistaken, since freedom as voluntariness and freedom as origination are each as fundamental to our lives. The real problem of the consequences of determinism is not choosing between the two traditional doctrines, but a more practical one: trying to give up what must be given up since we do not have the power of origination. The rejection of the two traditions has now been taken forward by other philosophers.

The theory is summarized in Honderich's How Free Are You: The Determinism Problem?, the most translated of modern works on the subject. In 2002, however, Honderich contemplated a further position. We feel, despite accepting determinism, that we cannot escape a kind of moral individuality or responsibility which is akin to the one hitherto attached to what does not exist, origination. Can this be accomodated within determinism?

Honderich's theory of the nature consciousness is a near-physicalism partly based on the proposition that the many existing theories of consciousness divide up without serious remainder into two large categories that deserve to be known as devout physicalism and spiritualism -- the latter being Cartesian or historic dualism. The first category, however sophisticated its members, reduces consciousness to no more than the physical. The second takes consciousness or part of it out of space and into mystery, even when that is proposed to us, as it sometimes is, in cool philosophy informed by science.

They fail to satisfy a true and complete list of criteria for an adequate theory of consciousness. These include the subjectivity of consciousness, one criterion that rules out devout physicalism but is an attraction of spiritualism. Other criteria are the reality of consciousness and its causal interaction with the physical world. These rule out spiritualism and seem to demand the physicalism.

The theory of Radical Externalism, which for a while had the name of Consciousness as Existence, begins from a question and an answer. What does it seem for you to be conscious of the room you're in? It is for the room in a way to exist -- to exist in a specified sense. It is for things to be in space and time outside your head, a world of perceptual consciousness dependent both on an external sub-world and on only you neurally.

This analysis of perceptual consciousness issues in connected analyses of reflective and affective consciousness. These analyses give a place to the cranialism that the account of perceptual consciousness goes against. The theory is argued to do best at satisfying the criteria.

It is expounded in some of the papers in the book On Consciousness, and has been defended against 11 philosophers in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, republished as the book Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed, ed. Anthony Freeman (Imprint Academic). The theory baffled most of the 11 philosophers. E. J. Lowe describes it as 'a genuinely new idea in the history of philosophy'. It is developed and defended in a coming Oxford University Press book.

Mind and Brain

What is called the Union Theory of mind and brain, different from the Identity Theory, was expounded and defended in A Theory of Determinism. The Union Theory takes it as possible that such conscious events as our choices and decisions are in a way subjective but are none the less physical rather than near-physical events. They stand in a kind of lawlike connection with neural events, sometimes called the supervenience of mental events on neural events. These psychoneural pairs are just effects of certain causal sequences, and are causes of our actions.

This physicalism, a predecessor of much philosophical attention to the idea of the supervenience, has been succeeded by the near-physicalism of Honderich's theory of consciousness. That theory includes the proposition that perceptual consciousness, consisting in extra-cranial worlds of perceptual consciousness, does not have a nomic sufficient condition in a head but only a necessary one. Reflective and affective consciousness are different.

This is taken as consistent with contemporary neuroscience. It is also taken to have an incidental advantage. It rescues us from the argument from illusion or a brain-in-a-vat, and hence such conclusions about perception as sense-data theory and phenomenalism.

The Principle of Humanity

The Principle of Humanity is that what is right always consists in what according to the best available knowledge and judgement are actually rational steps, effective and not self-defeating ones rather than pretences, to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. Bad lives are those somehow deprived of six fundamental human goods, frustrated in the great desires of human nature. These are for a decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedom and power in various settings, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and the goods of culture.

It is a wholly consequentialist principle, but evidently not any principle of utility, or the principle that the means justifies the end. What justifies the end is the end and the means. The principle is fundamental to but not all of a morality of humanity. The morality also includes certain policies, of equality and inequality, and also certain practices, one being a democracy superior to our hierarchic democracy.

The morality of humanity is philosophically informed and so does not pretend any principle consists other than an attitude. It maintains the Principle of Humanity can be better supported than anything else, on the basis of fact and consistency. As an attitude, it requires further characterization. The morality of humanity takes supposed non-consequentialist reasons for action not to be reasons at all. Nor does it grant any sufficient distinction between acts and omissions.

International Right and Wrong, Democracy, Terrorism

An inquiry into right and wrong in the world prompted by the attack of 9/11 was carried out in the book After the Terror. It first lays outs facts of bad lives and good lives, both in Africa and in the rich countries. With respect to bad lives, it speaks of our omissions with respect to 20 million years of possible living-time lost by a certain defined sample of Africans. It considers the creation of Israel in 1948, and records in particular the bad lives of Palestinians as a result of what is called the neo-Zionist expansion of Israel since the 1967 war.

It asks whether we in the rich societies do wrong in our omissions with respect to bad lives. To judge this, it considers the use of our natural morality and also worked-out or philosophical moralities of relationship. Such outlooks as political realism and such ideologies as liberalism and libertarianism are also considered. So too is our hierarchic democracy. Instead, the Principle of Humanity is used to judge our moral responsibility, which is said to be great.

The principle also condemns the terrorist killings of September 11 as hideous, partly in terms of the natural fact of morality. More particularly the killings were not rational means to an end that was partly defensible. The West's subsequent attack on Afghanistan is excused. But the taking from the Palestinians of at least their freedom in the last fifth of their homeland, historic Palestine, is condemned. '...the Palestinians have had a moral right to their terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state.' 

It is claimed we need to see the reality of our societies as deadly. Americans first of all, because of their unique power, need to think better. We also need to supplement our democracies with transformations of the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Bertrand Russell, and those in Eastern Europe who started to bring a wall down and end an empire.

The later book Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... asks if analytic philosophy in considering large questions of right and wrong should proceed by something separate -- international law, human rights, just war theory, or the like. Should it proceed by way of our hierarchic democracy? Having found these means of judgement wanting or imperfect, the inquiry embraces the Principle of Humanity

After considering the unimportance and importance of definitions of terrorism, and of terrorist war, the book justifies and defends Zionism (Israel in its original borders), but also reaffirms that the Palestinians have had a moral right to their liberation terrorism within historic Palestine against the ethnic cleansing of neo-Zionism. There is reflection on differences between understanding, endorsing and inciting violence,

After a further consideration of 9/11, there is an analysis and weighting of 10 reasons for what is named our terrorist war on Iraq. The war is condemned as morally barbaric for the foreseen and thus intentional killing of many innocents.

In the condemnation of the 7-7 terrorist attack on London, there is consideration of the importance of horror to morality. Blair and Bush are judged to be friends rather than true enemies of such terrorism as 7-7. True enemies act on 'Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism'.

After reflections on our societies, and their not recommending our War on Terror, and on moral uncertainty and the necessity of judging despite it, the book ends with a postscript on the charge of anti-semitism against critics of neo-Zionism -- a charge said to be principally a side of neo-Zionism or insufficiently detached from it.

Palestine, Israel and Terror, ed. Stephen Law, will contain papers on Honderich.


Honderich exhaustively surveys and analyses 14 traditional backward-looking reasons for the justification of punishment by the state. Most have to do with desert or retribution, others with annulment or consent. All are found to be weak or worse. It is then argued that the strong tradition in question must have in it some real content of argument. This is found to be that punishment is justified by giving satisfaction to grievance-desires -- doing no more and no less than satisfying them. This consequentialism is the reality of retributivism, but it cannot possibly be an effective justification of punishment.

The Utilitarian prevention theory of punishment is also rejected, by way of an argument concerning its justification of particular victimizations. Mixed theories of punishment, bringing together backward-looking considerations and also considerations of prevention, sometimes in terms of the reform of offenders, are also found to be untenable. Robert Nozick's theory in particular is subjected to examination.
The conclusion is that the long-running problem of the justification of punishment itself is now a dead one. Its justification must be in terms of its consequences -- in discouraging and licensing kinds of behaviour. That leaves the live and larger question of what these are. The answer advocated by Honderich is in terms of his Principle of Humanity. Punishment is or would be justified when it rationally takes forward the humanization of our societies. Many or most of our punishments are in fact wrong.

The book Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, said to be the most cited of philosophers' book on the subject, was published in several editions before being greatly revised in 2006.


Honderich has carried out an inquiry seeking to establish the actual distinctions of British and American conservatism. One has to do with eternal values and hence with reform rather than change, shared by Edmund Burke in his condemnation of the French Revolution and all conservatives since. Other distinctions have to do the right kind of political thinking and with human nature, and with particular doctrines of incentive and reward. Still others have to do with certain freedoms, including those of private property.

The inquiry, however, is not only into the distinctions that set conservatism apart, but into what underlies and brings these together. What is the rationale or underlying principle or best summary of conservatism? There must be such a thing Could it be a principle of desert?

The answer given to the question is not the familiar one that the conservative tradition is selfish. Its self-interest, it is said, does not distinguish it from other political traditions. What does distinguish it is that it lacks a moral principle to defend its self-interest. It is unique in its amorality.

The book Conservatism was much discussed not only by political philosophers but also by politicians in 1990. It was enlarged as Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? in 2005 in order to consider whether Britain's New Labour Party was in the conservative political tradition.

Other Writing

Honderich wrote a number of cited papers in criticism of Donald Davidson's Anomalous Monism, and in particular made the objection that on certain assumptions this philosophy of mind is epiphenomenalist. The papers are reprinted in Mental Causation and the Metaphysics of Mind, ed. Neil Campbell. Earlier journal papers have such subjects as Austin's correspondence theory of truth, causation, time, Russell's theory of descriptions, and John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty. Honderich's philosophical autobiography, Philosopher: A Kind of Life, is both personal and a general picture of English academic life over several decades. An encyclopedia edited by him, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, is perhaps the most used one-volume summary of the subject in English.


Honderich arranged with Oxfam in Britain and the publisher of After the Terror, Edinburgh University Press, to have the £5,000 advance on royalties come to the charity along with more money from the publishers. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail proposed to Oxfam that it was taking money from a terrorist sympathizer and it declined the contributions -- for which it was judged adversely by the British media.

The book was published in a German translation. Mischa Brumlik, director of a holocaust centre and professor of pedagogy at Frankfurt University, demanded publicly that the book be withdrawn from sale by the publisher Suhrkamp Verlag. Despite the declaration of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who had recommended the translation, that the book was not anti-semitic, it was withdrawn from sale.

Honderich demanded the dismissing of Brumlik from his professorship for violation of academic principle. There was a 'media firestorm' in Germany. The book was retranslated and republished by another Jewish publishing house, Melzer Verlag. Riot police were needed at Honderich's lecture in Leipzig.

Lesser controversies have included an imputation of anti-semitism by a student newspaper in London, against which Honderich took successful legal action. There have been attacks by Palestinians on Honderich's justification of Zionism, including the disruption of meetings.

See also  

free will
philosophy of determinism
retributive justice

External Links

Ted Honderich website with c.v.

A Theory of Determinism, a review by A. J. Ayer

A Theory of Determinism, Daniel Dennett review

Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed, excerpts

On Consciousness, review by Paavo Pylkkanen

After the Terror, Oxfam G.B., £5000, Neo-Zionism, and Medical Aid for Palestinians

The Fall and Rise of a Book in Germany

On Being Persona Non Grata to Palestinians Too

Are Suicide Bombings Morally Defensible? by Richard Wolin, Chronicle of Higher Education

A Reply to Richard Wolin

After the Terror, review comments

Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, review by Steven Poole

Punishment, The Supposed Justifications Revisited, review by John Williams

Conservatism, review by Michael Foot

Conservatism, review by Enoch Powell

Ted Honderich: Thunder at the Garrick Club, by Sholto Byrnes

Philosophy With Attitude, by John Crace

Real Friends of Terror and No Excuses for Terror, a look at a Honderich tv program and a programme in reply, with transcripts of the programmes

Philosopher: A Kind of Life, discussion by Catherine Wilson

(1) Principal Books

Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7,7..., UK edition, Continuum, 2006. Right and Wrong and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., US edition, Seven Stories Press. Greek translation.

Punishment, the Supposed Justifications Revisited, Pluto Press, 2006. Greatly revised edition of various previous editions.

Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? Pluto Press, 2005, enlarged edition of various previous editions. Spanish, German translations.

On Determinism and Freedom, collected papers from journals etc, Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

On Consciousness, collected papers, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy, Pluto Press, 2004. Revised and retitled edition of various earlier editions.

On Political Means and Social Ends, collected papers from philosophy journals etc, Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

After the Terror, Edinburgh University Press and Columbia University Press, 2002. Expanded edition, 2003, Edinburgh University Press and Queen's McGill University Press. 1st German translation, Sukrkamp Verlag; 2nd German translation, Melzer Verlag. Chinese, Greek translations.

Philosopher: A Kind of Life, Routledge. 2001.

How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem, Oxford University Press, 1993. Edition with new final chapter, 2002. French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, Romanian translations.

Conservatism, Hamish Hamilton, Westfield, Penguin, 1990, 1991. Spanish, German translations.

A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes, Oxford University Press, 1998. Republished as two paperbacks Mind and Brain and The Consequences of Determinism.

Three Essays on Political Violence, Blackwells, Political Violence, Cornell University Press, 1976. Original terrorism book, later revised in several editions.

Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, Hutchinson, Harcourt Brace, 1969. Various later editions.

(2) Edited Books

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1995. New edition 2005. Arabic, Polish, Spanish translations.

The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers, excerpts from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1999.

A. J. Ayer: Writings on Philosophy, 6 volumes, Palgrave Macmillan Archive Press, 2005.

Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Philosophy Through Its Past, anthology, Penguin, 1984.

Philosophy As It Is, anthology, co-ed. with Myles Burnyeat, Allen Lane, Penguin.

Social Ends and Political Means, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Essays on Freedom of Action, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.


British philosophers
Canadian philosophers
University College London philosophers