Thursday, December 27, 2007

Honderich on consciousness

I’m very amused (and slightly rueful) to read of the “academic spat” between philosophers Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn. Honderich has proposed a theory of consciousness in a recent book, and McGinn has reviewed it scathingly:

"This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent."
The ending isn't much better: "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…"

Harsh. But possibly fair.

For a calmer discussion, see Stephen Law, who perhaps tactfully describes Honderich’s view as “ingenious and radical” but not, in the end, adequate. He also suggests that the theory as explained is hard to understand.

Honderich summarises his view as saying that:

to be perceptually conscious is only for an extra-cranial state of affairs to exist -- for there to be a spatio-temporal set of things with a dependence on another extra-cranial state of affairs and also on what is in a particular cranium.

(A Wikipedia piece (caveat emptor) notes that in a collection of 11 critical reviews of Honderich’s work, “The theory baffled most of the 11 philosophers.”)

I know the feeling.

In 2000, as a PhD student, I wrote a paper on Honderich’s approach to consciousness. Certainly he’s developed his thinking since then, but I took a very - brutally - critical view. I was drawn to his theory not because I thought it was important or interesting, but because I was angry that one of philosophy’s big names could get away with getting such empty, circular, obscurantist drivel published.

I said that his view was “quite unlike anything else in the literature” and that his articles were, “for the most part, maddeningly cryptic”. I called it “unhelpful” that he didn’t offer a definition of what he was trying to explain (‘consciousness’ is one of those terms that covers a lot of things). I argued that his theory proceeded:

in a circular manner. It has no explanatory power, and so cannot help us to understand how it is that consciousness can exist… or even to characterise its nature informatively.

The politest conclusion I could bring myself to write (him being a bigshot professor, me being a lowly postgrad) was: “Honderich’s approach is a bold and imaginative move, but ultimately it proves unsustainable and unilluminating.”

What I actually thought was that Honderich’s bad writing concealed the fact that his thinking was even worse. At the time, I couldn’t find any responses to him in the journals or online. I should have published my paper. Oh well. Nice to find out I was ahead of my time…


Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia. I dont have a blog. My references say it all.

Please check out these related references on Consciousness from an author who really knows what He is talking about.


Plus how this understanding relates to the possibilty of a radically new politics.


Matt M said...

I got lost at "extra-cranial".

It took a little while at to figure out it meant what I thought it meant.

That just made it more confusing.

Maybe if he'd followed anon's example and underlined more words it would be better?

Tom Freeman said...

I got lost at "extra-cranial".

Yeah, the guy's out of his head, really.