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by George Mandler
John Benjamins Publishing, 2002
Review by Kenneth Einar Himma, Ph.D. on Jan 27th 2003

Consciousness Recovered

Consciousness Recovered provides a synthesis and overview of psychologist George Mandler’s research on the psychological functions and evolutionary origins of consciousness.  As Mandler explains in his introduction, his interest is in giving psychological, as opposed to neurophysicological or philosophical, explanations of consciousness.  Mandler subscribes to what he calls the “principle of phenomenal priority,” according to which “phenomena at a more complex level need to be discovered and defined before they can be explained/interpreted at a lower (usually ‘simpler’ and more physical) level” (ix).  His task in the book, then, is to discover, define, and explain the more complex conscious phenomena in psychological terms – a prerequisite, on his view, for more basic neurophysiological explanations of consciousness.

Chapter 1 reproduces the content of “Consciousness: respectable, useful, and probably necessary,” a 1975 paper in which Mandler argues against the then-behaviorist bent to psychological theorizing that regarded the concept of consciousness as unhelpful in empirical theorizing about behavior.  Behaviorist-minded psychologists believed that the proper domain of psychological investigation and theorizing is the observable outward manifestation of inner events.  Indeed, some went so far as to regard all inner physiological events as utterly beyond the scope of proper psychological theorizing.

While Mandler’s paper is widely credited as having revived interest among psychologists in consciousness, it is primarily an exposition of some of the more promising research of the time.  A number of researchers had already begun, with considerable success, to investigate various dimensions of consciousness and its relationship to human thought and behavior.  Mandler summarized these projects and tied them together in a way that highlighted the importance of consciousness in understanding thought and behavior.  Considered separately, none of these projects were sufficient to call into question the prevailing behaviorist assumptions of the day; taken together, they made a compelling case for the altogether sensible claim that complex mental phenomena, such as are involved in thought and behavior, cannot fully be understood from a psychological perspective without investigating consciousness.

In Chapter 2, Mandler rejects the very natural idea that what explains the evolution of consciousness is that it makes possible the experience of qualia and hence survival-conducing behaviors like pain-avoidance behaviors.  Though Mandler believes that consciousness makes it possible for us to learn and hence has an adaptive function, he argues that “the qualia aspect, the subjective conscious experience may have come along as an initially fortuitous aspect of one of the two (or more) mutational moves” (38).  On his view, consciousness evolved because it provides a mechanism for organizing and limiting the amount of information that must be processed by the organism, which would otherwise be overwhelming:

What would happen if there were no conversion to serial limited consciousness?…  We would be overwhelmed by parallel-produced thoughts and possible actions, close to indiscriminately cascading in our consciousness.… [W]e would be conscious of all our possible thought all at once – we would know everything about ourselves and all our past experiences contemporaneously.  But I know of only one being for whom such possibilities are claimed, and therefore in the absence of these limitation and seriality mechanism we would be God-like – or close to madness (36).

In Chapter 3, Mandler offers a theory of how the contents of a conscious state are constructed with the help of unconscious mechanisms.  Unconscious schemas organize the materials of raw sensory experience into useful categories.  For example, instead of seeing a meaningless collection of colors, as a newborn infant might, we organize those colors into shapes that have meanings to us: this particular collection of colors is categorized and perceived as a human being, that one is categorized and perceived as a dog.  These unconscious schemas, which are learned and activated through experience, enable us to make sense of sensory input that would otherwise be meaningless to us.  Additionally, Mandler believes that these schemas enable us to bind inputs from different senses into one unified conscious experience, which may include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels.

Chapter 4 is a cursory survey of various philosophical positions on consciousness.  Mandler makes it very clear in this chapter that he believes philosophers of mind have contributed little to the understanding of consciousness: “The difficulty with philosophy is not only with the content of what many of its practitioners say but with their acceptance of a method that is designed to generate insight as well as nonsense, discoveries as well as banalities” (65).  Mandler then goes on to evaluate, in a span of fewer than fifteen pages, a variety of philosophical views on consciousness that include epiphenomenalism, eliminative materialism, and functionalism – most of which he dismisses as unhelpful in less than flattering terms.

Chapter 5 sets out Mandler’s view on a number of mental operations related to consciousness.  Attention, for example, is “a mechanism that determines the organism’s spatio-temporal orientation to currently interesting or relevant events” (81).  Most of the chapter, however, is devoted to explaining different types of memory and the role that memory plays in dreams.  Particularly noteworthy is Mandler’s intriguing view that the function of dreams is to “clean[] up unnecessary, unwanted, and irrelevant leftovers from daily experiences” (90).  Dreams, on this view, perform an “excretive” function by removing various elements of day-to-day experience from memory where they would otherwise accumulate and inhibit clarity of thought and perception.

Chapter 6 provides a sketch for a theory of emotions.  Mandler argues that emotional states involving a felt quality of visceral arousal, such as anger, fear, and romantic attraction, are “constructed out of autonomic arousal and evaluative cognitions” (100).  On Mandler’s view, the body has learned through experience to respond in certain ways to various sensory input; these responses constitute the autonomic component of emotional experience.  The cognitive component of emotional experience is determined by the value judgments and schemas that we assign to various sensory inputs.  He concludes that “visceral emotions are generated by the experience of [environmental] discrepancies, whether negative or positive, which release autonomic reactions, together with an evaluation of the situation which determines the quality of the emotion” (103).

In general, the book does a nice job of achieving its modest aspirations.  The discussions are interesting, informative and usually accessible to readers who, like myself, lack a background in psychology.  While the researcher is not likely to find a great deal of depth in these pages, the volume provides a useful summary and synthesis of the theories that Mandler has developed during his distinguished career.

Even so, I must confess that the book’s frequently aggressive tone is a turn-off.  Though Mandler warns the reader that the book contains a number of discussions that will come across as “jaundiced” and “outspoken,” those discussions are no less unprofessional for the gesture.  Consider what he has to say about philosophers of mind, whom he believes have “mainly muddied the waters” (xi): “I believe the search for an understanding of consciousness has been seriously impaired by the speculative floods that philosophers started dispensing some 20 years ago.  I have great respect for many strains of philosophy and particularly for many philosophers of science, but philosophies of the mind have gone over the top – with little regard for evidence or for the functions of consciousness” (65).

As it turns out, these remarks all-too-often rest on serious misinterpretations of the various issues and positions.  For example, Mandler proclaims that “[t]here is, strictly speaking, no mind-body problem” (75) and cites Colin McGinn’s position that we lack the conceptual resources to solve the problem of mental causation as one of a number of “over-the-top” philosophical views that can be dismissed as lacking any foundation in the evidence (66).  As any graduate student in philosophy knows, however, the problem of understanding mental causation cannot be resolved by empirical evidence; no one disputes that conscious mental states correlate closely with physical events in the body in exactly the way that one would predict if mental states caused those physical events.  Indeed, that much is pretty obvious from introspection: I instantiate a volition to raise my hand and, lo and behold, my hand goes up in the air. 

The difficulty is a conceptual one.  While David Hume may be correct in thinking that the specific mechanisms of physical causation are forever beyond human understanding, there is no great mystery in seeing how physical items and states could interact causally.  Understanding how a human hand can catch a baseball does not seem to take us beyond the reach of our nomological concepts and conceptions: baseballs and hands are both solid and extended in space; and it is not particularly mysterious, as a conceptual matter, how one extended object in space can impede the progress of another extended object.  Mental causation, however, poses a conceptual difficulty: it is as difficult to understand how a mental state, which lacks the properties of extension and solidity, could produce an effect in a physical body as it is to understand how a ghost could catch a baseball.  The problem is not evidentiary; it is conceptual: our existing concepts don’t seem to furnish a framework rich enough for us to be able to understand, apart from some intuitively unsatisfying identity theory that equates mental and brain states, how mental states could – even in principle – causally interact with physical entities.  This is McGinn’s point, and this is why there is a mind-body problem.

While there is much to be learned in Consciousness Recovered, Mandler’s intemperate discussions of philosophy of mind should serve as a salutary reminder of why we should all resist the temptation to publicly write off other academic disciplines as confused or unhelpful: such criticisms are far more likely to expose embarrassing shortcomings in the critic’s understanding than any genuine problems in the relevant disciplines.


© 2003 Kenneth Einar Himma


Ken Himma received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and is a lecturer in the Information School and the Philosophy Department.