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The Nature of Mind

A review by Tim Chappell.

It’s been a busy thirty years in the Philosophy of Mind – as is immediately apparent when you pick up Rosenthal’s book. If you have back problems, be careful how you do this. This is a volume over 650 pages long when prefaces, etc., have been counted, and, according to the Wolfson College Lodge scales, it weighs in at only one gramme short of a kilo. Here is, as some bloodshot aristocrat said of Decline and Fall (Gibbon, not Waugh), “another great, fat, damned thick book”: the kind of volume that induces guilt complexes while in your In Tray (experto crede) and half holidays once in your Out Tray.

It’s been a busy thirty years: has it been a productive thirty years? In a speech to the Royal Institute of Philosophy which he gave in 1976, Gilbert Ryle compared philosophy as studied in his youth to philosophy as studied in post-Wilson universities which, then, were still untouched by the dead hand of Thatcherism. What he saw as the biggest change of all was the professionalisation of the subject. Philosophy was no longer something which not just dons and divines, but gentle amateurs everywhere, might attempt on pretty well equal terms. Just as much as (say) chemistry or economics had always been, English-speaking philosophy had become, a firmly university- and curriculum-based activity in which little patience was displayed for uninitiated outsiders (unless they came bearing gifts).

Notice two consequences of this professionalisation. The first is that the amount written on philosophy has increased n fold (where n is large but almost impossible to assess). Consider, for one thing, the rate at which journals on the subject have multiplied. The second consequence is that, again like economics or chemistry, anglophone philosophy has evolved, from the slightest beginnings, a technical subject-matter, and language, which might have been expressly designed to repel intruders.

As to its subject-matter, analytical philosophy – if Richard Rorty is right, perhaps we should say late analytical philosophy – has become increasingly obsessed with formal-logical and semantic questions, and has shown a growing tendency to what Freud might perhaps have called Physics Envy: the wayward, intuitive, imprecise Muse wants to become a butch, rigorous, hard Science. And as to its language, modern analytical philosophy began precisely at the point where the baroque edifices of Late Hegelianism were demolished by the studiedly colloquial, metaphysically down-to-earth style of philosophising which G.E.Moore invented. Yet the recent trend in writing analytical philosophy suggests that Baroque is Back. Compare the pellucidly, blissfully clear prose of J.L.Austin, or Bertrand Russell, or Ryle himself, with the tortuous convolutions of abbreviation, formal notation and special usage found in much even of the best recent writing in the philosophy of mind. (If you think Heidegger is hard going, try reading Chisholm, or Churchland, or Fodor.) If the excuse is that good philosophy is bound to be difficult, perhaps the reply is “Yes, but is it bound to be difficult in this way ?”

The point is that these twin developments really make it rather hard to answer the question raised above, about whether all this hectic activity in the philosophy of mind has been productive. It will take time for it to become clear which parts (if any) of all the current industry are genuinely and historically fruitful and worthwhile. Nonetheless, at the (usual) risk of being proved wrong, it is interesting to ask how the history of the last thirty years in philosophy of mind might be written in a hundred years.

Of course, in a hundred years’ time, some new cataclysm will no doubt have overtaken philosophical debate. Wittgenstein’s injunctions to simply give up philosophy may have been heeded; or (perish the thought) perhaps the price of closer British cultural integration into Europe will be that the triumph of Heidegger, Derrida and Gadamer banishes ‘Anglophone’ philosophy to the prairies of North America.

Still, and even allowing for changes in the canon of philosophical excellence, there are some names which (it already seems evident) will be revered by the analytical philosophy class in philosophy of mind of 2092. A cluster of names of those who worked around Wittgensteinian approaches (Malcolm, Ryle, Kripke, Crispin Wright), and another cluster around AI-ish strategies (Dennett, Searle, Fodor, Churchland); Donald Davidson’s work on the individuation and causation of mental events, the nature of the mental/physical distinction, and the idea of intention; Peter Strawson’s insistence on talking about persons first and minds second; Christopher Peacocke’s work on the theory of content; Kripke’s denial that the mental and the physical could be necessarily identical; Nagel on bats and Putnam on vats and Searle on Chinese rooms; these, perhaps, will be a few of the favourite themes in philosophical anthologies one hundred years from now.

It is a merit of David Rosenthal’s splendidly compendious collection that all of these greats, or greats to be, are represented in it to a greater or lesser degree. It is not hard to imagine a morethan- adequate philosophy of mind course which could be built almost exclusively around Rosenthal’s selections. Certainly anyone who read, and took in, all the material in this book would be in a very strong position indeed if confronted with an undergraduate Finals paper on philosophy of mind.

The problem for the non-specialist is, of course, that alluded to above, the problem of Accessibility: a problem which Rosenthal’s introductory passages alleviate only insofar as they are themselves more accessible than the material they introduce, which is not always very far at all. Much of the material here, with some honourable exceptions (Elizabeth Anscombe, Norman Malcolm, Saul Kripke), is written in Late- Analytical Baroque. To give an example, chosen at random: “In this global microdeterministic picture there is no place for irreducible macrocausal relations. We expect any causal relation between two macroevents (x’s being F and y’s being G, where F and G are macroproperties) to be micro-reductively explainable in terms of more fundamental causal processes.” Even a specialist can only read so much of this sort of thing before a cup of tea becomes an urgent necessity. As for the nonspecialist, while she can grasp single sentences of this sort without too much trouble, ten pages or so of it tend to make the eyes swim somewhat, and the effect of six hundred pages plus, taken in one go, might well be downright traumatic.

But of course it’s hardly Rosenthal’s fault, it’s just a result of the way debate has gone, that this collection has such a daunting appearance. This is by any standard a splendidly edited and presented collection of very important work. It is a book to treasure; to contemplate; to refer to casually at dinner parties; and even, when you’re feeling up to it, to read.

© T.D.J.Chappell 1992

The Nature of Mind : David Rosenthal, 642 pages, pub. Oxford University Press at £15.00 paperback

Tim Chappell is a Junior Research Fellow in Ancient and Mediaeval Philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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