Actual Consciousness by Ted Honderich
Review discussion by Alastair Hannay
in the journal Philosophy, April 2015
Whether or not deliberately, Honderich’s title suggests that here at
last we have a work on consciousness that really deals with its topic. As it
happens that is not
entirely off the mark. A large part of the book is devoted
to forging a path to a result, actual consciousness, that the more salient
writers have either failed to reach or
not attempted to do so. For various
reasons of focus, their eyes have been averted from what is in plain view to
all, namely consciousness ‘in the ordinary primary
ordinary sense’. Being ‘actual’ is Honderich’s key-word in the unwrapping of what it is to be conscious in this sense, nailing the nature of this ordinary consciousness
from an openly phenomenal (i.e. experiential) and at the same time in, among others, an everyday sense, a physical beginning.
One aim of Actual Consciousness is to do justice to consciousness as we have it, to ordinary consciousness, the kind at the root of our watching buses approach, getting on them -- or even perhaps that most physical thing of all being run over and possibly killed by one. Physical? Yes of course, the causes of my death or injury are a matter of objective biology and more basically physics; but then, let’s face it, all we know in any immediate sense as physical is phenomenally so; that much we must give to Bishop Berkeley. And so long as they last, the phenomena in question occur at or with me, me alone. So whatever the physics here, it has a ‘subjective’ aspect, very much so. Physics is in some still not fully explained way a thoroughly basic constituent in ordinary consciousness. This I take to be a rough summary of one part of Honderich’s project. Another part concerns the centrality of the project itself.
On the choice of topic the Introduction says that some will agree that it is central, others not. As for the author, he is ‘confident that the subject of consciousness as picked out by our ordinary and primary idea of it is no mistake’ (p. 15); thus picked out, the topic of consciousness is the right one with regard to explaining consciousness in general. Confidence in this view is something that the book as a whole aims to impart to its readers. The conclusion to be shared is, in effect, that, in whatever way we analyse perceptual experience, taking account both of its objective physical dependencies and of its subjective phenomenal aspects, the red bus ‘trundling down Muswell Hill Road’ (p. 1) is out there in the only way anything in the relevant sense of ‘out there’ can be. The bus, or the room we are in, or the table we are writing on, are as the publisher’s press release conveniently has it, ‘constitutive’ of my perceptual consciousness at the moment of perception.
Actual Consciousness slices consciousness into three broad categories on the latter two of which the first depends (any reverse dependency, though in any ordinary context surely not unthinkable, is not on Honderich's agenda). Besides perception our ordinary consciousness embraces both reflective or cognitive and affective consciousness: ‘thinking about what you see isn’t the same as seeing itself’ (p. 1), and ‘you can in some way be subject to want and desire or to things into which want or desire enters’ (p. 3). All three involve what can be called, in so far only a figurative sense, ‘there being something actual’. The way in which something actual occurs in the latter two categories of ordinary consciousness differs from that in perception. What is actual in perception can be, in a central kind of case, the room in which you now find yourself, while what is actual in ‘cognitive consciousness’ is a representation or sequence of such. That might be some thought of the room itself or of something in it but almost anything that comes to mind, for instance what the room lacks, while the room remains there in some less focused way. What is actual in ‘affective’ consciousness is again representation. Subjectively physical, like the two others, it is related to valuing rather than truth. The long-term aim is to move from these figurative uses of ‘there being something actual’ to ‘literal and explicit answers’ to two ‘main’ questions: ‘what is actual [in consciousness]?’ and ‘what is it [for it] to be actual?’ From the combined answers we are promised ‘a theory of the nature of consciousness’ (p. 150; cf. p. xiii).
Honderich’s confessedly colloquial style (p. xv) teeters on the edge of academic correctness, but hardly more so than if he were conducting a Socratic seminar with colleagues (i.e. readers) understandably resistant to the demolition of cherished considerations that stand in the way of his theory. The case is argued with the force necessary for defending a view against ‘adversaries’ who are ‘not only mistaken but also ‘acute’ (p. 368). The latter is an accolade also conferred on his persistently questioning travelling companion (p. 341). The book is ‘in part a tour of the philosophy and science of consciousness’ (p. xiv) with Honderich our ‘guide’. We are given a multi-referenced map of the recent landscape with a critical but fairly focused ‘bird’s eye view of the more established theories of consciousness’ (p. 138; cf. p. 146). Naturally enough, the highlights on the landscape are theories that bear on our guide’s goal and completeness is not claimed even there. As the Introduction modestly but prudently notes, this inquiry ‘is not near to doing general justice to other inquiries and inquirers’ (p. xiv).
Most of these theories have been concerned with the status of secondary qualities, the privacy of experience, having ‘intentionality’ reach the outside world, whether or not to ignore raw feels, and the like, most of it against the background of well-advertised developments in cognitive and neuroscience. Qualia, for instance, come into the picture as an embarrassing but necessary afterthought following scientifically inspired explanations of everything about consciousness except its phenomenality. Although the press hand-out tells us that Actual Consciousness is ‘perhaps more respectful of science than philosophy’, in practice greater emphasis is placed on ‘the ordinary logic of intelligence’ (pp. xiv, 13) – on ‘clarity’ (about what is being asked), ‘consistency and validity’, and also ‘completeness’ (p. 13). What counts at the start, rather than any theory, is the ‘hold’ each of us has on our own consciousness (pp. xv, 5--7). As regards the disputational sequel, Honderich’s ‘hope’ is the Humean one expressed less tentatively by Hume himself, that ‘if the premises of the inquiry are accepted, the elaborated conclusion of theory or analysis cannot be avoided’ (p. xiv; cf. p. 150), maybe this even if, as in a later quotation from Hume, the conclusion ‘be a most violent paradox, extravagant and ridiculous, and needs to overcome the inveterate prejudices of mankind’ (p. 150).
‘[L]ike the rest of philosophy’, that of mind ‘commonly aspires to a condition higher than it can achieve.’ By its ‘several means’ it aims at ‘proof’ when all it can obtain is ‘persuasive or sound argument’ (p. 40). With these less ambitious means, but with their more visceral appeal to the ‘hold’ they may have on us, the strengths and weaknesses of five ‘leading ideas’ informing recent and current literature are brought into the open (chapter 2). The resulting distillation forms an ‘initial clarification’ (p. 52) that provides ‘data’ on which actualism is based, giving it a certain scientific aspect. Belonging as it does to ‘mainstream philosophy’ (p. xiv; cf. p. 13), the argument is, on the other hand, initially free of the antecedent scientific assumptions that form premises for much recent work on consciousness. Moreover the data are such that scientific as well as philosophical accounts of consciousness will have to account for them. The book’s use of traditional terms from both philosophy and science in their tackling of this topic is thus freed from constraints that might force the theory prematurely into one or other pre-existing ‘ -ism’. This is an important point, since given the theory’s ready recognition of the ‘subjective’ and even ‘individual’ aspects of consciousness, actualism’s claim to ‘make consciousness physical in a fully defined way’ is the book’s most provocative claim. One test for those challenged by this will be its ability to impart the hold its arguments have on its author for just that conclusion. But a part of that test will also be their willingness to go along with what will have to count as ‘physical’.
For these an encouraging start will be found in a premise of the actualism project. It is that whatever is special about consciousness cannot be supposed to take it beyond the bounds of nature: ‘an irresistible criterion of an adequate theory of the nature of consciousness … is that while consciousness is a natural thing, it is also different from other natural things.’ (pp. 137--138, original emphasis). Here actualism is in league with biological naturalism. But current such naturalism, like Searle’s, by identifying consciousness without further ado as a higher-order state of the brain, comes to a halt at the point where it ought to begin were it out to explain consciousness in the primary sense. Accounts of this kind remain programmatic (compare Carruthers’ self-revelatory catch-all summary of his own hard-won result in this genre: ‘A disposition to get higher makes consciousness phenomenal’). ‘Might he not have taken [property-dualism in his wholly defensible sense] further?’ asks Honderich of Searle (p. 137). There are other naturalisms, for instance eliminative materialism. This has no reason to raise the question of consciousness in the primary sense, since by requiring us to go deeper than the neural correlates of conscious episodes it ensures that the consciousness of which it is a theory is not ‘explicitly the consciousness that is something’s being actual’ (p. 141). Similarly with logical behaviourisms and Clark’s ‘extended-mind externalism’. These are about ‘what it is to have a mind’ (p. 145). Then there is abstract functionalism, essentially a revival of Cartesian dualism (see pp. 98-105). In taking what is actual to be or include relations to other things, functionalists in general seem to be avoiding the real issue (p. 211).
In their nevertheless pointing in the direction of what [not sure what this refers to] these and other theories fail to deliver, the discussion of those five ‘leading ideas’ allows the positive account to begin. These are ‘qualia’, ‘something that it’s like to be that thing’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘intentionality’, and ‘phenomenality’. Although each fails to arrive at what is actual, they do succeed separately and severally in capturing recognizable aspects of what it is to be ordinarily conscious. But each leading idea, as the following chapter 3 goes on to say, also implies something more, namely that in ordinary consciousness something is ‘somehow being had’ (p. 52). For instance, what the focus on qualia loses sight of is that what we ‘have’ in consciousness is not the experience, or consciousness itself but some thing. Similarly with Brentano’s ‘content’ (or Husserl’s noema for that matter) along with those alleged (noetic) acts involved in the various cognitive or affective modes of consciousness. Whatever roles may be found for these, they are not ‘had’. The same is true of any self identified as the supposed source of such acts. In talk of ‘mental paint’ we hear an echo of Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 disposal of the ‘mental screen’; the paint is out there on the wall (p. 195), the room is what my perceptual consciousness amounts to in the moment of perception. A synoptic way of looking at the theory might be to see it as interposing non-fugitive macroscopic matter between the twin options offered by views that make qualia the way things ‘seem to us’ (p. 17) and that even tend to equate qualia with consciousness (p. 18). Things, on views of that kind, motivated by causal theories where seeing (etc.) is a final link in a causal chain beginning in what cannot be seen (etc.), exist somehow ‘in themselves’ out of reach of Block’s ‘raw feels’, McGinn’s ‘technicolour phenomenology’ (p. 19), and what Sherrington once referred to as the ‘visual field “in all its distances, its colours and chiaroscuro’’’. Actualism, with its more generous taxonomy, admits a ‘subjective physical world’, a world dependent in a law-like manner on an objective physical world, with the two forming the physical world as such.
What does actualism say if asked whether the red of the paint is on the wall enduringly? I suspect its reply would be that doesn’t really matter. In detailing the properties of subjective physical worlds, Honderich says their existence is ‘the fact of objective physical things of the ordinary or macroscopic kind being perceived -- as we ordinarily and unreflectively speak of their being’ (p. 231, second emphasis added). What we unreflectively take to be actual in the case of the bus trundling down Muswell Hill Road is a means of public transport, something any of us can board. It is a ‘thing’ that remains red even when the wavelengths it irradiates meet no suitably turned-on neural system. For the unreflective majority the red of the bus is not just a passing episode in a purely private seat of sensation; nor is the bus itself something in an ‘unperceived microcosmic objective physical world’ (ibid.). What then is the relation of actualism to naïve realism?
At one point Honderich wonders challengingly whether we readers are the kind who incline to believe that the desktop is not green because it depends as much on us as on it (p. 236). One response might be this: Well, certainly anything I would call a desk must have a top, if not clear glass then of some colour; but that is because I realize that if I am being asked to describe something shorn of all that normal brains provide to its identity there would be no desk to describe in any aspect. To talk of the desk at all, I must talk of something with a top. In fact I must speak out of two things: (1) the habitual realism that, with the help of Humean association, lets me get off with my untutored belief that the table as it appears keeps its appearances even when no conscious brain is tuned into it, and (2) the reflection that what we mean by its being a table is unavailable in a world denuded of all that a spatially situated and perceptually sensitive brain adds to such a world.
If, on this basis, actualism seems to us no more than the naïve realism that we need science and philosophy to correct, its plausible enough rejoinder could be that it is at least a way of grasping reality that science can easily explain. Further, it is one that science may even justify in its own terms by pointing to its ‘naturalness’ and thus its counting towards the smooth running of life. The scruple seems, however, to be one which actualism either takes in its stride or is at least ready or eager to accommodate (see pp. 235--238). In one place Honderich identifies naïve realism as ‘the previous and most natural and defensible theory of perceptual consciousness’ (p. 334). But although it and actualism have ‘a couple of things in common’, unlike naïve realism ‘[a]ctualism … is a theory about an adequately clarified subject’ (p. 359). Would it be unfair to say that the principal way in which actualism differs from naïve realism is that it is not naïve and it casts its net wider (cf. pp. 359--60)?
That the green of the table should literally depend on ‘me’ is a laughable suggestion but Honderich gives the colloquialism some rein as in this usefully summative passage:
Being perceptually conscious consists in the existence of a subjective physical world as defined, a world out there in space and with other characteristics of physicality, but not independent of the perceiver. My subjective physical world now has a dependency on me. (p. 340)
Earlier the idea that the dependency is on me personally has been quickly dismissed (p. 237) The dependency is on any particular location of that mobile piece of nature, the perceiver, this latter being an entity out of which any genuine reference for the ‘I’ has still if possible to be fashioned. And yet, if location in general is in this way a defining feature of subjective physical worlds, nevertheless with regard to actual locations, that is to say to locations at some particular time in a particular place, a dependency on ‘me’ is not out of the question. Of the ‘myriad’ subjective physical worlds (as many as there are ‘sets of perceivings of single perceivers’ [p. 192]) Honderich allows that of any one of these we can ‘without too much strain’ say that it is ‘a world in being a life-place’ (p. 242, original emphasis). For, he asks, isn’t this ‘where your desires at least mainly operate?’ and ‘where your pure thinking has one kind of ultimate test’? Later, further in this direction, he says that were it not for the temptation into ‘misunderstanding and feelingfulness’ that it places before others, subjective physical worlds might have been called ‘personal worlds’ (p. 334). What the ‘feelingfulness’ is that should be avoided is not made clear but a little later there is a suggestion that questions of personal identity and ‘the idea of the living of a life’ are associated with ‘tender-mindedness’, which Honderich disputes. He allows that something still within range of philosophical and scientific respectability may still be said for that idea as a ‘counterpart’ to that of ‘unity over time’ (p. 342, original emphasis).
These last few remarks bring the project’s undercurrent to the surface. We are being ushered away from those philosophical traditions that tend to make science a cultural variable. These would include existentialism, certainly, or what Lukács, thinking perhaps of Paris in particular, once called a ‘permanent carnival of fetishized inwardness’, but also the structuralisms that replaced it and make scientific discourse one among others. Behind this concern with what is due to the mind are the neo-Kantians, and Kant himself for that matter. Honderich says the history of philosophy is not his ‘forte’, but in the context nor need it be. His sights are set firmly in the present on what is ‘external’, and his concern is to assure us that we are right in thinking that it is perceptibly so. Locating Honderich’s actualism within the history of philosophy in a way that might surprise him would be to invoke a parallel in both Descartes and Hegel, both of whom, in their respectively theistic and pantheistic ways, have the deity bring us that assurance, one to which more recently J. L. Austin thought a simpler way is to stay within the epistemic safety net of ordinary manners of speech. Honderich’s puts his money on ordinary intelligence and science. The promise lies in a more generous notion of physicality, one that admits that physicality may not be just an objective matter. This would mean that any hesitation we have about taking consciousness (in the primary sense) being physical, even if ‘objective physicality cannot consist in or include consciousness however conceived’ (p. 178), was unjustified (see pp. 182 and 186). Behind this lies a clearly stated faith in a scientific approach. In referring, as he does, to ‘the’ method of science (p. 155) it seems Honderich does not mean a particular scientific procedure (see pp. 352—353) but rather a generally systematic approach employing definitions, observation, and hypotheses, and sticking to time, space, law-like dependency and causality (see. 164--165). His ‘Humean hope’ rests on the possibility of actualism-friendly developments in what counts as physical (see pp. 156 ff. and 160), these possibly arising from the ground-zero of Chomsky’s pessimism (pp. 156--157) about there being anything at all called ‘physical’ to theorize with or about. A synopsis shorn of the history might go as follows: instead of looking towards the world through the lens of phenomenality, making ‘out there’ problematic, and in any case corrupting a pure externality of which we naïvely assume we have some experiential glimpse, actualism posits the unquestionable physicality of what is objectively external and has it come within range of ordinary consciousness, thus ‘mak[ing] consciousness physical in a fully-defined way’ (p. 344, original emphasis). In a lecture on his website Honderich refers to the objective physical world as a ‘single all-inclusive subset’ of the ‘single all-inclusive world that there is, the physical world [original emphasis], that totality of the things that there are’.
The same place says that subjective worlds are ‘a vast subset’. The earlier reference to what counts as the ‘existence’ of subjective physical worlds occurs in the sixth item in the second of three ‘checklists’. Each list contains sixteen such items, these providing Honderich’s wide-ranging discussion with a welcome home-base. This particular list (pp. 230--232) details the characteristics of subjective physical worlds, taking their physicality and subjectivity in turn. Among its items we are told that they are ‘physical in being open to inquiry by way of the scientific method’ and that they ‘occupy spaces and times … as clearly as do properties of the objective physical world’ (p. 233). The properties of that world have already been detailed in the first checklist (pp. 184--186).
The third list (pp. 323-324) provides properties of ‘subjective physical representations’. ‘A representation’, says Honderich, ‘is an aboutness. It stands for something, means something, has a content, is semantic’ (p. 301). Suppose we stay within the room. Something can be ‘there’ that is not part of the vista before me. What is there and actual in this other way is a representation of something. We all know that the history of the term ‘representation’ once led to what were called representations getting entirely in the way of the world they supposedly represented. Today it is a frequent occurrence in accounts of how the brain, or whatever else, produces meaningful utterances and behaviour. These latter can never be ‘actual’ in Honderich’s sense. In an ‘anticipation’ of where he is taking us (pp. 254--255), we are told in effect that conscious representations differ from representations in general by being ‘actual representations’. It is only when we read a word in a dictionary that it is actual. To be actual, a representation must be, well, let us say, ‘activated’.
An example drawn from perceptual consciousness might go like this. I am standing close up to a huge billboard painted in black and white shapes. The shapes are actual and objectively as well as subjectively physical in Honderich’s sense. Retreating, I see the shapes forming letters, then words, then a grammatically well-formed sentence, and finally a meaning I can grasp, a message of some kind. Unlike the plain shapes, the letters they form, the words, the sentence and the content are each in their way ‘representations’ by virtue of being recognized as tokens of types or grasped as bearers of meaning. Or does the requirement of being ‘semantic’ exclude all but the last? Well, mere tokens, when seen as such, do after all represent their types. So perhaps the property of being semantic can extend to single letters and numerals. But if so, what about the room seen as such? Isn’t it too a token of a type? In another place, a decade ago, in explaining the aboutness of an experience, in that case one of trees, Honderich wrote ‘Part of what makes an experience an experience of this rather than that is that it represents this rather than that.’ Applied to actualism, this would imply that the room that is ‘had’, assuming this means that it is seen as such, is in ordinary consciousness ‘had’ in the form of representation. It may be an implication Honderich would accept, and being clearly physical in actualism’s terms it would seem to pose no problem. In the case of cognitive and affective consciousness, though, the physicality has to be further defended. In our example they are obviously in some sense physical, just as when I am reading a novel I need to be picking out actual sentences in an actual book. But much cognitive and affective consciousness has no such objectively perceptual basis in the present. As I dream of other places, try out solutions to a cross-word puzzle, anticipate, hope, and fear, the room slips into the background. In each case there is something in mind that is not there while the medium of my thought is in the present and is ‘actual’.
Actualism describes these as ‘subjective physical representations’, their claim to physicality being summarized in terms of their belonging ‘in the inventory or taxonomy of science’, ‘open to discovery and clarification by way of the scientific method’, and ‘occupy[ing] spaces and times despite their spatiality being only uncertainly actual’. They are in law-like connection with other such representations, recent and past, of the same representer, and with ‘other categories of things’ that have to do with the conscious subject and the ‘objective physical world’ (p. 323). They are not physical ‘in the sense of being perceived in the ordinary sense’, but depend on subjective physical worlds (p. 324). I take it that this latter dependency can be taken in both a personal and a non-personal way. An actual representation can occur only in a conscious being like myself although what particular representations occur can depend in some sense on ‘who’ I am, or on what ‘I’ am up to. As indicated, Honderich’s eye stays firmly on the former.
We note the ‘uncertainty’ Honderich attaches to the spatial actuality of actual representations. This uncertainty might be that of where to place ‘actual’ mental images, an uncertainty that led Dennett long ago to wish them away. Or it might be the more general uncertainty of where to place meanings or contents: on the page or in the head? By the same token, as in the light of a recent remark, it might be worth inquiring into the spatial credentials of what we see when we see trees out there, this room, that table, the bus coming down the hill. Isn’t such an experience precisely a token of a type? It is at any rate a token of the type that is the thought that would find expression in the words with which you tell others, or yourself, what it is you perceive. Thoughts are supposed to be inherently sharable, in principle at least. Ask Frege. But it is possible that the analytical philosopher’s focus on ‘logical’ content leaves much in experience out of the reckoning. Honderich notes Searle’s suggestion of a ‘background of practices and assumptions that are not representative states themselves’ (p. 289); they are ‘thematized’ only when disappointed, as in Searle’s example when lifting a mug of beer ‘thought’ to be made of glass but which turns out to be plastic. But ‘background’ is a leaky notion and might we not expect some infiltration into the ‘what’ of experience? Indeed might not the ‘what’ be an abstraction from experience?  Hubert Dreyfus has said we ordinarily spend our lives absorbed in situations in a way that excludes representations, these occurring only when the flow of routines deployed in everyday ‘coping’ is interrupted. Were actualism to confine itself to cases of ‘thematizing’, we would have to conclude from this that we are not ordinarily conscious when, say, crossing a street, though ordinarily we would think this was a situation in which being ordinarily conscious was quite vital. If there is no representation in such a case, then there is much else, surely more than, say, the changing vista and some raw feels.
Extending actualism to less static scenarios would, for good or ill, bring it within range of Dreyfus’s Heidegger. Thus compare, in what Dreyfus calls a ‘more fancy Heideggerian terminology’ than his own more accessible presentation of Heidegger’s thought, ‘Dasein is its world existingly’ (keeping in mind that ‘Dasein’ is impersonal) with Honderich’s ‘there being the world as it is for something’, offered as part of his project’s ‘database’ (p. 67).
Honderich’s thought in Actual Consciousness is as always entirely accessible. It is also open in another way. An attraction as well as virtue of the book is that it
presents its theory as ‘unfinished’ and itself as a ‘workplace’ (p. 330). Where
current naturalisms about consciousness are programmatic on phenomenality,
Actual Consciousness carries the
programme further into the difficulties faced by theories that take the
subjectivity of consciousness seriously. There are
unresolved issues of
‘uncertain actuality’ regarding spatiality and so on, but it is liberating to
have these neatly placed on the in-trays of philosophy and science.
genre this is an unusual book, not least, though engagingly, for the virtually
‘actual’ presence of its author on every page. Honderich’s checklists and
their interrelations should provide themes for many seminars to come.
 Peter Carruthers, Phenomenal Consciousness: a Naturalistic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 329.
 My reference here is from John. R. Smythies’ essay ‘The Experience and Description of the Human Body’, Brain, Vol. 76, part 1, 1953, p. 134.
 Georg Lukács, Existentialisme ou marxisme? (Paris: Nagel, 1948), p. 84.
 As argued by Frederick A. Olafson, in The Dialectic of Action: A Philosophical Interpretation of History and the Humanities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
 Ted Honderich, ’Seeing Things’, Synthese Vol. 98 (1994), No, 1, p. 55
 It is worth recalling in this respect Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’imaginaire: Psychologie phénomenologique de l’imagination (Paris: Gallimard, 29th ed. 1948).
 D. C. Dennett, Content and Consciousness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 132.
 John R. Searle, Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 157,
 See ‘The “What” in the “How”’ in Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard and Philosophy: Selected Essays (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), ch.8.
 See Hubert L. Dreyfus, ’Responses’, in Mark Wrathall and Jeff Malpas (eds.), Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), p. 334. The quotation is from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 416.