Actual Consciousness: An Oversight, The Tyranny of the Present, Grandiosity

Ted Honderich

My book Actual Consciousness, for good or ill,  has in it just about every contemporary and recent philosopher of mind many of us are likely to think of -- Block, Burge, Chalmers, Churchlands, Clark, Crane, Davidson, Dennett, Dretske, Fodor, Heil, Jackson, Kim, Lycan, Martin, McGinn, Nagel, Noe, Papineau, Peacocke, Putnam, Robinson, Rosenthal, Searle, Snowdon, Tye. It also has in it quite a few other philosophers of mind with a claim to attention, some a lot, but who have not seized it.

The book (Oxford University Press) arrives by way of a database at an adequate initial clarification of consciousness, of course figurative, as something's being actual. Then Actualism, the eventually resulting literal theory or analysis of this consciousness, in its perceptual, cognitive and affective parts, has as a principal uniqueness that what it is for you to be conscious in perception now is for a room to exist. It is for a part, piece, stage, phase of a subjective physical world to exist, one related to you as perceiver. It is for something to exist that takes up space outside you, is in time, has in it causal and other lawful connections, stands in lawful connections with other things, is within the inventory and method of science, is more than bound up with perception, and so on, these being characteristics of its physicality.

The myriad subjective physical worlds, each related to a perceiver, each as entitled to being regarded as real as transient entities in science, together with with the very different subjective physicality of cognitive and affective consciousness, a matter of representations, make up subjective physicality. It, together with objective physicality, which has related but somewhat different characteristics, comprises the physical world in general.

My concern here and now is only the account of consciousness in perception, of course not all of the subject of perception, which thing includes mentality other than that of actual consciousness.

In the book, an amount of attention is given to alternatives to and denials of the Actualism theory in much contemporary philosophy and science of consciousness, in particular alternatives to the proposition that your perceptual consciousness very likely now consists in a subjectively physical room, dependent on the objective physical world and on you neurally. These contemporary alternatives and denials are to the effect that your consciousness consists in or includes internal items spoken of as internal content, internal objects, representations, stuff of phenomenality, qualia, images, mental paint and so on -- maybe as well as items not presently so relevant, including a kind of self, aboutness or intentionality, maybe what it is like to be something, maybe consciousness as vehicle or medium, and so on.

Yesterday I found myself in a conversation, for the purposes of a radio programme, about A. J. Ayer, best remembered as the English exponent of Logical Positivism, essentially the principle that statements, utterances or the like with truth-values, include only those utterances that in brief are either empirical or a matter of logical necessity. Logical Positivism was of course quite mistakenly spoken of by its proponents and others as having to do with all meaning, with all meaningful utterances, as distinct from just statements.

The conversation also included something else. That was phenomenalism, as Freddie and others called it, different from but related to the stuff above of contemporary philosophy and science of consciousness. Phenomenalism too was to the effect that perceptual consciousness is a matter of internal items -- such as those called ideas, impressions, sense-data, sensa, percepts, and whatever Freddie in a late stage of his philosophical progress proposed to construct the world out of.

But this phenomenalism, as all philosophers a little in touch with history know, is in fact the main history or fundamental to the great history of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Mill. Not to mention Moore, Russell, Broad, Lewis, Goodman -- and Ayer. But Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Mill are themselves no less than British Empiricism, the historic alternative to Continental Rationalism, above all to Kant.

So Actualism is against a lot. It purports to be a refutation of a great, long pile of philosophy. The great history of Empiricism. I more or less passed that by in the book. It is mentioned on pp. 19, 41, 205-6, 360 and maybe one more, but it is never contemplated and given attention.

Is grandiosity then a fate of the working philosopher, at least some working philosophers? This one? At least grandiosity now if not earlier?

My own first response to the charge is that Actualism has the safety of first getting clear what it is on about, what its subject is, what question it is answering. That subject is consciousness in the primary ordinary sense, the core sense as established by any decent dictionary. Further, it initially clarifies that consciousness by gathering a database from leading contemporary philosophers and indeed just about all reflective thinking and speaking. This consciousness is what you can  call actual consciousness. Phenomenalism or empiricism did not distinguish this subject and question. No doubt all or many of those great fellows were on about more than that.

So I am a little abashed this morning in my theory of Actualism, but not more than that, not bruised. A little abashed and also thinking about the tyranny of the present.

I still pretty confidently propose Actualism to you.  If you accept the reasonable premises you're stuck with the conclusion, aren't you? Read the stuff without deference to present or past. Forget about democracy about truth, certainly bloody hierarchic democracy about truth. Forget about the consensus that science talks piously of but throughout its history dismisses. Keep to the imperative of philosophy. Concentrate on ordinary logic. Go on. You can do it.