Blunder around for a while

Richard Rorty

  • Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett
    Little, Brown, 514 pp, $27.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 316 18065 3

For more than forty years, starting with the publication of Ryle’s very influential The Concept of Mind in 1949, some of the best of the analytic philosophers have devoted themselves to the question of whether we can find a satisfactory substitute for what Ryle sneeringly called ‘the ghost in the machine’ – Descartes’s picture of human beings as divided into a material body and an immaterial mind. Philosophy of mind is one of the few clear instances of intellectual progress which analytic philosophy has to its credit. If one reads the contributions of post-Rylean anti-Cartesians in chronological order – Wilfrid Sellars, J.J.C. Smart, David Armstrong, Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, Ruth Millikan, Patricia and Paul Churchland – one gets a clear sense of a developing consensus. There is increasing agreement about which moves will and won’t work, which strategies are dead and which still alive. Bad questions have been gradually set aside and better ones posed. Discussion has become steadily more sophisticated.

Until now, however, no book in this area has matched the freshness, originality and power of Ryle’s. The Concept of Mind was a brilliant attempt to undo what Descartes had done and substitute a view of human beings more like Aristotle’s. Aristotle, Ryle thought, had sensibly seen that to talk about someone’s mind is to talk about features of her intellect and character, not to talk about something incorporeal mysteriously lodged within her. Ryle wrote with wit and bravura, in prose which was accessible to non-philosophers. His book toppled settled philosophical convictions like ninepins, and was rightly taken as the showpiece of post-war British philosophy.

Daniel Dennett, who was one of Ryle’s students, has spent the last twenty-five years writing about the topic – consciousness – which has always been the great obstacle to the acceptance of Ryle’s non-Cartesian account of mind. Most of this work, however, has been in the form of articles, each of them incisive and Vigorous, yet hard to fit together into a coherent doctrine. Now, however, he has brought off a remarkable feat: he has written a book with all the boldness, originality and panache of The Concept of Mind.

Consciousness Explained is a triumph of perspicuous organisation, as well as a fine piece of philosophical writing. If one were asked which contemporary philosopher crafts the best English prose, Dennett would be one of the first to come to mind. Like The Concept of Mind, this book can be read with genuine pleasure by a non-philosopher; anyone who picks it up will be swept up in the excitement of Dennett’s project. Even a reader who has never looked into a psychology book, or taken an interest in computers, will find herself absorbed in summaries of complicated psychological and physiological experiments, and in brief but clear accounts of curious computer programs. Dennett integrates all these into the development of his ‘Multiple Drafts’ model of consciousness with great skill, and moves smoothly back and forth between laboratory results and philosophical generalisations. Whereas The Concept of Mind was essentially the product of one man’s armchair reflections, Consciousness Explained is the upshot of active co-operation, of two decades’ worth of conferring, arguing and consensus-building by cognitive scientists – by the psychologists, linguists and philosophers who have been thinking about the resemblances and differences between computers and people.

The greatest difference between the two books, however, is methodological. Ryle thought that ‘conceptual analysis’ (the sort of thing which, in Ryle’s day, analytic philosophers were supposed to be skilled at – detecting the ‘real’ meaning, or the ‘real’ grammar, of linguistic expressions) sufficed to dethrone Descartes. Dennett realises that nothing will do that job except a brand-new description of ourselves, one whose use will gradually dissipate our tendency to build Cartesian presuppositions into our questions about the mind. The difference between Ryle and Dennett is the difference between saying that, since Descartes bamboozled us, we should get back to good old common sense (and to Aristotle, who embodied it), and saying something less bluff and more nuanced: that Descartes did a reasonably good job, a job which needed to be done. He developed a non-Aristotelian description of humans which harmonised with the corpuscularian, anti-Aristotelian tenor of 17th-century science. It was a description which worked well for some purposes. But it also produced a lot of philosophical headaches, and a lot of weird theories. We can avoid these headaches and that weirdness if we can come up with a new way of talking about our distinctively human abilities, one which will improve on both Aristotle’s and Descartes’s.

The heart of Dennett’s book is his attempt to persuade us that we can safely give up questions which presuppose what he calls ‘the Cartesian Theatre’ – presuppose that ‘I’ names a sort of observer of the events which are ‘present to consciousness’. As Dennett says, ‘the idea of a special centre in the brain’ – the relic of Descartes’s suggestion that mind and body interface at the pineal gland – ‘is the most tenacious idea bedevilling our attempts to think about consciousness.’ It seems as natural to contemporary psychologists as it did to Descartes to suggest that, ‘however difficult it might be to determine in practice the precise location of the Continental Divide in the brain’, still there must be ‘a highest point, a turning-point’, a place in between the afferent and the efferent nerves where a quasi-person sits. This quasi-person is the real, incorporeal you – the you that might, conceivably, survive even after the brain rots.

When Hume pointed out that no such quasi-person, no referent for the term ‘I’, was introspectible, Kant rejoined that the fact that ‘the “I think” can accompany all my representations’ showed that there was a ‘transcendental ego’ for which neither empirical psychology nor physiology could possibly account. German idealism, the great bulwark which the 19th century erected against scientific naturalism, owed its existence to Kant’s success in thus rehabilitating the ghost Descartes had postulated. The conviction which idealists shared with Husserlian phenomenologists – that consciousness must for ever remain opaque to natural science – has been the basis of an enormous amount of bad philosophy from Kant’s day to this. Many people have claimed that human dignity would somehow be compromised if psycho-physiology should ever succeed in de-transcendentalising the ego – if we should ever be revealed to be ‘mere machines’. Many others have claimed that we must drastically revise our self-image now that we have realised that we are just Turing machines made out of protoplasm.

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[*] MIT, 226 pp., $9.95, April, 0 262 03148 5.