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by Mark Rowlands
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Ion Georgiou on Jul 11th 2002

The Nature of Consciousness

The philosophical and scientific study of consciousness is somewhat of a black sheep in contemporary thought. The brain, for instance, is designated legitimate for scientific study, presumably because it can be empirically dissected. The mind, too, has been awarded its own philosophical pedestal – philosophy of mind – partly in response to the scientific pretensions of psychology, and partly in response to the need for a philosophical recycle bin wherein that ‘loose collection of topics and issues that didn’t fall neatly into any one of the traditional subdivisions of philosophy’may be chewed over (See C. Echelbarger, (2002) Mind and Morals, Philosophy Now, Issue 36, June/July, p. 6). Consciousness, by contrast, remains unqualified: its intangibility renders it off-limits to science and the term philosophy of consciousness raises too many philosophical eyebrows. Rejected by both science and philosophy, it has been relegated to consciousness studies.

Now the study of consciousness, as opposed to the mind, is relatively new: philosophy of mind can be dated back to Ryle’s influential The Concept of Mind of 1947, whereas consciousness studies take off only in 1974 with the publication of Thomas Nagel’s famous article ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Philosophers, therefore, notorious as they are for their reluctance (fear?) to accept anything new (and anything less than thirty years old is considered infantile), might be excused for not endowing consciousness with the honorific philosophy of.

Their reluctance, however, does betray, at times, a more sinister angle. Consider, for instance, the roundtable discussion, comprised of ‘those esteemed individuals deemed important enough to be included in the Library of Living Philosophers,’ during the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy in 1998.  (All citations regarding the roundtable discussion are taken from The Philosophers’ Magazine’s special issue on the World Congress (Issue Five, Winter 1999, pp. 40-42)). Although the discussion was somewhat of an overall disappointment, strictly concerning the matter at hand consciousness was not even mentioned – except by Marjorie Grene, a philosopher who, like all those of whom the Library has dedicated a volume, has risen to the ‘philosophical equivalent of sanctification.’ In what has been described as a ‘brief and witty intervention,’ Grene ‘added bite to the proceedings with some spiky, provocative comments,’ which were neither contested nor endorsed by her fellow living saints:

I do think it’s wrong to be a Cartesian. What I sometimes say about Descartes is that the only true statement he made was, ‘I was born 1596’ (sic). I hate to say anything good about Heidegger. He was evil and we ought to forget him if we can, but he was right in wanting to get rid of consciousness as a central philosophical term. I’m just sick and tired of consciousness.

If Grene is to be taken literally, philosophy is to revert to its medieval scholasticism, the value of philosophical works is to be judged by the character of their authors, and human beings, if they are to be an object of philosophical investigation, are to be approached as consciousness-less beings, that is, as dead. If such is the bite and, significantly, the silent reaction of the ‘great minds’ at the end of the twentieth century, consciousness finds lined up against it the greatest intellectual (conscious?) powers in contemporary philosophy and so will most likely remain worthy of studies, as opposed to philosophy, for a long time to come.

Interestingly, consciousness studies is very much like philosophy. It has a well-developed complex jargon, the level of argument is extremely scholarly, each new book proposes new insights founded upon a critique of previous works, and most authors in this area are philosophers. In fact, the only reason why it has failed to win the honorific philosophy of may lie due to its seeming over-reliance on thought experiments, some of which have acquired cult status: Chinese rooms, Chinese nations, Zombies, Giant Lookup Tables, Abused scientists, Deviants and Demons. Philosophy is, of course, strewn with thought experiments and even the face of science was changed forever through Einstein’s pure thought experiments. The difference in consciousness studies, however, is that intuitive conceivability is held up as the condition to accept any particular conclusion. Such conceptual possibility, justified on the basis of what seems conceivable to our present position on thought’s evolutionary path, is hardly a reliable measure for accepting any apparent novel insights – as the history of scientific thought shows.

Enter The Nature of Consciousness, a book filled with scholarly argument, well-developed -- but also well-defined -- complex jargon, excellent critique of all the previous important works of the field (thought experiments included) and written by a philosophy lecturer. This book is required reading not only for those wanting to get to grips with what is going on in consciousness studies, but for those who are dissatisfied with the current accounts which, as Rowlands points out, tend to base themselves on an objectualist thesis. In treating and successfully demolishing the current approach to consciousness as object, Rowlands simultaneously resurrects the consciousness-as-activity thesis which was buried with the last of the great Husserlian-inspired French phenomenologists, Jean-Paul Sartre. In arguing for the fissured, hybrid nature of consciousness, moreover, as well as in concluding his book with an argument about human freedom based directly on such a nature, Rowlands is more Sartrean than perhaps he recognises or cares to mention. Any Sartrean affiliation, however, is not so important, and neither is Rowlands’ somewhat superficial treatment of Sartre. What is important is that his style and arguments are much tighter and stronger than those of either Sartre or Husserl. Due to this, Rowland’s book demands attention from the reader and there are enough frequent pauses, interspersed between the detailed analyses, to allow for recuperation and the maintenance of the overall picture.

There is only one weakness – and this it shares with all books in consciousness studies. Consider that, of all phenomena in the world, consciousness is the only one that may be said to enable knowledge: it is the only epistemological phenomenon. Yet, no one in this field has yet to treat it as such – including Rowlands. In contrast to his predecessors, however, Rowlands’ take on consciousness at least opens the door to such a treatment. Moreover, it is a take that attracts phenomenology, not least the one school of thought which defined twentieth century philosophy. Coupling this with Rowlands’ skilful avoidance of the trap of intuited conceivability, one can justifiably conclude that he may have single-handedly transformed consciousness studies into philosophy of consciousness.


© 2002 Ion Georgiou


Ion Georgiou is Visiting Professor at the Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia, Brazil, and Senior Lecturer at Kingston University, England, having also taught and undertaken research at the London School of Economics. His main interests are Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory, Phenomenology, in particular the philosophies of Husserl and Sartre, Management Methods and Problem Structuring Methods. Fluent in five languages, he has consulted on commercial and academically-linked public projects across Europe and Brazil and has taught at universities in Russia and Spain.