Mental Reality. – book reviews

Mental Reality. – book reviews

Gregory McCulloch

by Galen Strawson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. Pp xiv + 337. H/b 24.95 [pounds sterling], P/b 12.50 [pounds sterling].

Much current philosophy of mind is Cartesian, but the usual tendency is to emphasise its causal, behaviour-generating strand and to play down its celebration of consciousness. Books do keep coming out about consciousness, but most comprise attempts to tame it (or kill it) for physicalism. Somewhat in the manner of Searle (only more so, as it were), Strawson swims against both currents in defending “naturalized Cartesianism”. This “couples belief in materialism with respect for the idea that the only distinctively mental phenomena are the phenomena of conscious experience” (p. xi): phenomena which are “as real as rabbits and rocks” (p. 103). I agree that there is a substantial streak of truth in this, though not (as we shall see) under the interpretation that Strawson puts on it. He organises his discussion around the question “what part does reference to nonmental phenomena, publicly observable phenomena, and behavioural phenomena play in a satisfactory account of the (essential) nature of mental phenomena?” (p. 2). By “account” Strawson means good old conceptual analysis: the methodology is to drive home claims about the essence of the mental on imagined and strongly described cases of what is held to be at least logically or conceptually possible. And his answers to the parts of the question are nuanced, qualified, and scattered through the book (somewhat revealingly, he describes his own conscious life as “bitty, scatty and saccadic. It skips and jinks. It is always shooting off, shorting, and fuzzing” (p. 134)).

Two designedly inconclusive chapters set the scene, followed by two in which Strawson discusses the experience-body problem. Typically, he spares little in going through the options, concluding–rightly, I think–that: if the assumption that all is physical is combined with realism about experience and also a claim about the dependency of experience on the nonexperiential (but not vice versa); then (i) there must be some ideal physics that reduces the experiential, even though (ii) we have no conception of how this could be, so that (iii) the experience-body problem looks like “the greatest unsolved problem of science” (p. 91). It’s not just that we have a first-rate philosophical problem of fitting experience into the scheme of things: we have also to admit that “our knowledge of the physical [has] a huge hole in it, given its own internal standards of explanation and understanding” (p. 92). Sensibly enough, Strawson inclines towards this “agnostic materialism” (p. 98), though in the following chapter he defends the coherence of idealism, albeit in a form hard to distinguish from materialism. But this gives him his answer to the first part of his organising question: “one cannot actually prove that the existence of mental phenomena requires the existence of non-mental phenomena, even if one can prove that the existence of certain sorts of experiential phenomena … requires the existence of nonexperiential phenomena” (p. 142). This is reinforced in a later chapter on pain, which also sets the scene for the answer “none” to the second and third parts of his question.

The book is very well written, packed with argument and insight, deeply historically informed, and a very worthwhile read: good old conceptual analysis doesn’t come any better than this. Strawson painstakingly (sometimes painfully) edges through logical space, carefully distinguishing and giving each view a decent (sometimes indecent) run for its money. It’s not always pretty but it is usually challenging and sometimes compelling. Nevertheless, the project seems to me to have a flaw. This is partly a matter of the methodology. Learning to imagine logically possible scenarios and counterexamples is an important intellectuall skill, but I am not so sure that it is a reliable route to truth in matters of deep metaphysics (rather than a spur to further enquiry). Of necessity, the cases remain under-described–howsoever vivid they may be–and there is a real question over how far we can take our philosophical imagination as a guide to how things can really be, especially with respect to questions as puzzling as the one about the physicality of experience. That aside, I have a greater worry attaching to the bold intuitions which inform Strawson’s imaginings. He assumes a hyper-Cartesian conception of “purely experiential content” (p. 16). On this conception

one can detach experience considered as such … from

everything that is supposed (a) to be necessary for

its existence and (b) to have some nonexperiential

aspect or character. … Purely experiential

content is just a matter of `what it is like’

for a subject of experience

… . (p. 17)

Moreover, he is concerned

only with the overall qualitative or experiential

character of experience: with everything about one’s

experience that could possibly be just the same if one

were not located in a physical world as one

thinks, but were rather a Berkeleyan mind or a

“brain in a vat” or something even stranger….

Experiential phenomena are … entirely

constituted by experiences’ having the experiential

character they have for those who have them as they

have them… . (pp. 45–6)

Now this sort of thing is not, of course, unfamiliar, but it is by now pretty controversial. Yet Strawson does surprisingly little to motivate it beyond employing the intuition-pumps that drive egocentric-predicament epistemology (again and again we are told that because we cannot “prove” we are not vat-brains or whatever, we are entitled to claim no more of our own experience than could be claimed of the vat-brain’s (alleged) experience).

But in simply assuming for the sake of his discussion that “all the main candidates for the status of mental phenomena are `in the head'” (p. 145), Strawson already puts himself out of contact with a good deal of work inimical to his intuitions about what is really possible. For example, although he is of course not ignorant of externalistic approaches to the content of propositional attitudes, his response is simply to introduce the idea of a narrow style of content that is supposed to characterise the common conscious contentful core shared by the ordinary subject and (say) the vat-brain (pp. 195-6). But one of the apparent lessons to be drawn from the theory of content is that there is a real problem about articulating such narrow contents (think of Fodor’s conclusion that narrow content is “radically inexpressible”). And if we cannot articulate them in public words, we surely cannot articulate them explicitly to ourselves in the peace of our own minds either. This in turn puts pressure on the coherence of Strawson’s intuitions. Conscious thought is not (usually) inarticulable.

Another way of approaching the point: Strawson deserves much credit for stressing that there is more to the content of experience than sensations, qualia and the usual Cartesian paradigms. There is also what he calls “understanding-experience” or “meaning-experience” (pp. 5-13): “thinking a thought or suddenly remembering something or realising that the interval between the perfect squares increases by 2 is as much of an experience as feeling pain … Episodes of conscious thought are experiential episodes. Experience is as much cognitive as sensory” (pp. 3-4). And he is emphatic that this is not to revert to the empiricist philosophy of mind according to which thinking is to be modelled on imaging or feeling. The point is a very important one: it suggests that the notion of the content of propositional attitudes is a phenomenological notion, just as pain is. It is not that pain is a model for content: rather, our conception of the phenomenological needs to be sufficiently sophisticated to include contents of thoughts as well as stabs of pain. Coupled with externalism about contents, however, it also yields a powerful result concerning the possibility of conscious thinking subjects who do not satisfy the externalistic constraints on being entertainers of content. There cannot be any.

Meaning-experience, coupled with externalism about meaning, thus puts pressure on Strawson’s Cartesian intuitions. In so far as he tries to evade this with the move to narrow content mentioned in the paragraph before last, he seems to lose contact with his own phenomenological insight, as mentioned. And there are other signs that he does not have the ideas fully under control. Sometimes he seems clear that meaning figures in experience as meaning: thus the last passage quoted from him, and also his claim that conscious thought “is structured in something like the way in which language-articulated thought is structured” (p. 256). Against this, though, we also have such suggestions as that content as experienced is just a matter of “a certain qualitative character” (p. 194); and also claims like “conscious thought … can seem so abstract and insubstantial–intangible and diaphanous–while still being indubitably part of the course of one’s experience” (p. 182). None of this hedging seems to me to be necessary if the phenomenological insight about meaning-experience is kept properly in place. But then further thoughts about the conditions of meaning point away from Cartesianism.


Department of Philosophy

University of Birmingham


Birmingham B15 2TT


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