langsamHarold Langsam’s new book is a bold attempt to put philosophy of mind back on track. For too long, he declares, we have been distracted by the challenge from reductive physicalism. Its dominance means that those who disagree have spent all their time making arguments against it, instead of developing and exploring their own theories of mind. The solution is that, to a degree, we should ignore the physicalist case and simply go our own way. Of course, as he notes, setting out a rich and attractive non-reductionist theory will incidentally strengthen the case against physicalism. I can sympathise with all that, though I suspect the scarcity of non-reductive theorising also stems in part from its sheer difficulty; it’s much easier to find flaws in the reductionist agenda than to develop something positive of your own.

So Langsam has implicitly promised us a feast of original insights; what he certainly gives us is a bold sweep of old-fashioned philosophy. It’s going to be a priori all the way, he makes clear; philosophy is about the things we can work out just by thinking. In fact a key concept for Langsam is intelligibility; by that, he means knowable a priori. It’s a usage far divorced from the normal meaning; in Langsam’s sense most of the world (and all books) would be unintelligible.

The first target is phenomenal experience; here Langsam is content to use the standard terminology although for him phenomenal properties belong to the subject, not the experience. He speaks approvingly of Nagel’s much-quoted formulation ‘there is something it is like’ to have phenomenal experience, although I take it that in Langsam’s view the ‘it’ that something is like is the person having the experience, which I don’t think was what Nagel had in mind. Interestingly enough, this unusual feature of Langsam’s theory does not seem to matter as much as we might have expected. For Langsam, phenomenal properties are acquired by entry into consciousness, which is fine as far as it goes, but seems more like a re-description than an explanation.

Langsam believes, as one would expect, that phenomenal experience has an inexpressible intrinsic nature. While simple physical sensations have structural properties, in particular, phenomenal experience does not. This does not seem to bother him much, though many would regard it as the central mystery. He thinks, however, that the sensory part of an experience – the unproblematic physical registration of something – and the phenomenal part are intelligibly linked. In fact, the properties of the sensory experience determine those of the phenomenal experience.  In sensory terms, we can see that red is more similar to orange than to blue, and for Langsam it follows that the phenomenal experience of red similarly has an intelligible similarity to the phenomenal experience of orange. In fact, the sensory properties explain the phenomenal ones.

This seems problematic. If the linkage is that close, then we can in fact describe phenomenal experience quite well; it’s intelligibly like sensory experience. Mary the colour scientist, who has never seen colours, actually will not learn anything new when she sees red: she will just confirm that the phenomenal experience is intelligibly like the sensory experience she already understood perfectly. In fact because the resemblance is intelligible – knowable a priori – she could work out what it was like before seeing red at all. To that Langsam might perhaps reply that by ‘a priori’ he means not just pure reasoning but introspection, a kind of internal empiricism.

It still leaves me with the feeling that Langsam has opened up a large avenue for naturalisation of phenomenal experience, or even suggested that it is in effect naturalised already. He says that the relationship between the phenomenal and the sensory is like the relation between part and whole; awfully tempting, then, to conclude that his version of phenomenal experience is merely an aspect of sensory experience, and that he is much more of a sceptic about phenomenality than he realises.

This feeling is reinforced when we move on to the causal aspects. Langsam wants phenomenal experience to have a role in making sensory perceptions available to attention, through entering consciousness. Surely this is making all the wrong people, from Langsam’s point of view, nod their heads: it sounds worryingly functionalist. Langsam wants there to be two kinds of causation: ‘brute causation’, the ordinary kind we all believe in, and intelligible causation, where we can just see the causal relationship. I enjoyed Langsam taking a pop at Hume, who of course denied there was any such thing; he suggests that Hume’s case is incomplete, and actually misses the most important bits. In Langsam’s view, as I read it, we just see inferences, perceiving intelligible relationships.

The desire to have phenomenal experience play this role seems to me to carry Langsam too far in another respect: he also claims that simply believing that p has a phenomenal aspect. I take it he wishes this to be the case so that this belief can also be brought to conscious attention by its phenomenal properties, but look; it just isn’t true. ‘Believing that p’ has no phenomenal properties whatever; there is nothing it is like to believe that p, in the way that there is something it is like to see a red flower. The fact that Langsam can believe otherwise reinforces the sense that he isn’t such a believer in full-blooded phenomenality as he supposes.

We can’t accuse him of lacking boldness, though. In the second part of the book he goes on to consider appropriateness and rationality; beliefs can be appropriate and rational, so why not desires? At this point we’re still apparently engaged on an enquiry into philosophy of mind, but in fact we’ve also started doing ethics. In fact I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Langsam is after Kant’s categorical imperative. Our desires can stem intelligibly from such sensations as pain and pleasure, and our attitudes can be rational in relation to the achievement of desires. But can there be globally rational desires – ones that are rational whatever we may otherwise want?

Langsam’s view is that we perceive value in things indirectly through our feelings and when our desires are for good things they are globally rational.  If we started out with Kant, we seem to have ended up with a conclusion more congenial to G.E,Moore. I admire the boldness of these moves, and Langsam fleshes out his theory extensively along the way – which may be the real point as far as he’s concerned. However, there are obvious problems about rooting global rationality in something as subjective and variable as feelings, and without some general theory of value Langsam’s system is bound to suffer a certain one-leggedness.

I do admire the overall boldness and ambition of Langsam’s account, and it is set out carefully and clearly, though not in a way that would be very accessible to the general reader. For me his views are ultimately flawed, but give me a flawed grand theory over a flawless elucidation of an insignificant corner every time.



  1. 1. Hunt says:

    “I take it he wishes this to be the case so that this belief can also be brought to conscious attention by its phenomenal properties, but look; it just isn’t true. ‘Believing that p’ has no phenomenal properties whatever; there is nothing it is like to believe that p, in the way that there is something it is like to see a red flower.”

    On the other hand, there is the case of “feeling that something is true” or “gut instinct” or intuition. These seem to be phenomenological aspects to belief, though certainly unlike seeing red.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    The human mind being what it is, we never just believe that p without some accompanying associations or feelings floating around in the background, it’s true. But in my view, believing that p has, in itself, no phenomenal character. I can go on believing that p while unconscious, in fact.

  3. 3. Hunt says:

    You go on knowing what it is like to be alive while unconscious too (to the extent that you go on believing that p).

  4. 4. Philosopher Eric says:

    Langsam is trying to fight off the physicalists, and I’m only too pleased with his opportunity. As you alluded Peter, while my side does at least have physical dynamics to work with, he’s in the position of either “showing us some magic,” or going “a priori” (which of course was his decision). This specific physicalist has a separate position again however — I believe that the question here is “inconsequential.” What wonders might we discover, if we could somehow know whether or not it’s possible to construct a computer, for example, which feels pain?

    Instead we might consider “the nature of good,” which I see as humanity’s greatest uncertainty. If we were to attain such an understanding, we would gain a theoretical position from which to lead our lives and structure our societies “properly.” Of course this quibbling might seem only “academic,” since we philosophers have NO general understandings to our credit so far. But if our failure happens to mandate failure in Psychology, Psychiatry, Sociology, and so on, which trend should ultimately prevail? Will our millennial failure in philosophy cause things like “consciousness” to never be understood? Or will the very recent and unprecedented revolution of science, prevail instead?

    Peter this is now my second comment, and I do hope that you’re ready for more. I plan to challenge suspect assumptions in order to help the ancient field of Philosophy, augment the very new and unprecedented rise of science. Please do consider the work provided here under my name.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Thanks, Eric, you’re most welcome.

  6. 6. scott bakker says:

    Does he offer any account of the miserable track record of transcendental argumentation, Peter? And more importantly, does he offer any reason not to simply assume that his will be just another failed transcendental approach?

    A good chunk of philosophy turns on the assumption that the requisite metacognitive resources and information are ‘there,’ and that we need only ‘get our concepts right.’ How many more centuries should we give this approach before we start rooting around elsewhere?

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Not a lot of history, Scott; and ‘getting our concepts right’ characterises his project fairly well.

  8. 8. Vicente says:

    Hi Scott, could you specify a bit the precise sense in which you use “metacognitive”? is it in the usual sense of the resources needed to know how we know.

  9. 9. scott bakker says:

    Vicente: “could you specify a bit the precise sense in which you use “metacognitive”?”

    I use it in a manner broader than Flavell (because I have a broader understanding of cognition). Pertaining to deliberative second-order cognition of concepts/phenomena typically referred to as ‘semantic,’ ‘intentional,’ or ‘first-personal.’

  10. 10. Philosopher Eric says:

    I’m in full agreement with your concerns Scott. Here is how I like to consider this issue. Science and philosophy have the same objective: “To illuminate reality.” The only real difference is that over the past few centuries the scientific community has developed a vast field of accepted understandings (which we’ve used to become quite powerful), while the philosophy community has gained no associated understandings of reality sufficient to become accepted.

    Our problem now, I think, is that there are philosophical elements of reality that “mental/behavioral” scientists will need to understand in order to progress. This presents quite a problem given the failure of philosophy, and especially since associated scientists generally deny that they even have this deficiency.

    As I see it my first challenge it is to demonstrate how similar our “mental/behavioral” fields are to, for example, “Physics before the rise of Newton.” My second challenge is to use the theory which I’ve been developing for more than half my life, to indeed “become this Newton.”

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Well, Philosopher Eric, the point is that except for a very prosaic boring range of applications, lacking of interest for most physicists, Newton’s physics have been blown away (allow me the retoric exageration)by: Einstein’s, Bohr’s, Heissemberg’s, Feynman’s, Schrödinger’s, Higgs… etc etc…

    Modern physics, relativity and quantum theories, are a conundrum almost as complex as the problem of consciouness…. so I don’t know if it is really worth the effor to become “this Newton”, try better becoming “these Einstein and Planck” for example… so that we will remain as far as we already are from a true understanding of reality…

    The problem is based in HOW the problems found in both fields: science and “mind studies” can be tackled. Certainly, one is within the scope of the other, but there is a remaining part, the most important one that is going to require much more that Newtonian physics analogies.

  12. 12. Philosopher Eric says:

    I’m very pleased to gain your attention Vicente, as I have indeed enjoyed your commentary. Physics is actually my first love, and though my feeble mind prevents me from taking it as far as I’d like, I do carry this torch quite prominently. My point with the Newton analogy is that this is where Physics really began to be understood in a practical sense. For Einstein to develop his theory without the theory of Newton, I think, is simply unthinkable. Sorry for the arrogance, but my goal is that if our “mind studies” are ever to produce “an Einstein,” it is my theory that he or she will be improving.

    I hope that you’re able to sit down with my three mental chapters to evaluate whether or not I have indeed unlocked “the great mystery of consciousness.” But public forums are obviously contentious places. We love the theory of mind sport of it all, though this can also have detrimental effects for rational evaluation. Therefore I’m also available for private discussion with intelligent people like yourself, Vicente, at

  13. 13. scott bakker says:

    Vicente: “Modern physics, relativity and quantum theories, are a conundrum almost as complex as the problem of consciouness…”

    Agreed, but there is the detail that the mysteries of physics are an achievement, and the mysteries of psychics seems pretty much the same mystery Aristotle was born into.

  14. 14. Vicente says:


    Yes, the other detail is that the mysteries of physics wouldn’t be there without consciousness… actually an observer is a central actor in quantum theory as the responsible of the wave function collapse (when performing a measurement), that otherwise would keep the system in an indetermined fuzzy state, funny huh.

    Physics only exists in the frame of conscious states. About the true stuff out there… I don’t know.

  15. 15. Philosopher Eric says:

    I suppose that I’m not psychic enough to know why “psychics” were thrown into this discussion (or “transcendentalists”). But go ahead and dismiss the theory of Newton as “boring” and assume that mental science is populated with a great deal of great theory. If you like you can add the names of these theorists and I’ll peruse them on Wikipedia with a smile. One person who was not so arrogant was the great Einstein himself — his career taught him to detest such views. Of course history does repeat, so I expect no less of the scientific community today.

    Consciousness may now seem like an impossible concept, but only because we do not yet have a functional model of it. Some years ago when my utilitarian theory was getting quite good, I said to myself, “OK… if your so smart Eric, go ahead and use your new theory in order to solve the mystery of consciousness.” This is something which I believe that I’ve done… and I also believe that history will repeat. A century from now smug scientists should be asking “What kind of “dark age idiot” would you have to be, to not understand consciousness?” Like today, many will assume that if they were born in an earlier time, they would somehow understand nonetheless.

    I’m still figuring out who has what interests in this community, since I am new here, but most of all I wonder about our host. For the sake of objectivity it is important that he be a journalist/commentator rather than another theorist, as many of us are. But what I’d like to know most is, if a person were indeed to come along to illuminate the nature of consciousness, would he try to cling to his past? (Is that now a decade? Happy Birthday!) To use a word which I’ve been loving since he taught me it, I do hope that Peter is “a priori” all the way!

  16. 16. Peter says:

    I think we all have a theory of our own really, Eric, much the way we all have a novel in our bottom drawer (except Scott, of course!)

  17. 17. Philosopher Eric says:

    Perhaps it isn’t right to question the “philosopherhood” of a philosopher, and I admit that it is good to hear that you’re not just the media, but one of us. So I will indeed try to win you over with the virtues of my brand of Epicureanism while attempting to understand exactly what it is that you believe — and I do also promise to stay out of whatever it is that you keep in your bottom drawer!

  18. 18. scott bakker says:

    Vicente: Well, something between consciousness and measurement, anyway.

    Peter: I do have a novel in my bottom drawer!

  19. 19. Jesus says:

    This is how the world works: nothing is real until someone looks at it. Even the subatomic fragments of our own bodies don’t exist except as probability waves; it takes an act of conscious observation at the quantum level to collapse those waves into something solid. The whole universe is unreal at its base, an infinite and utterly hypothetical void but for a few specks where someone’s passing glance congeals the mix. It’s no use arguing. Einstein tried. Bohm tried. Even Schrödinger, that hater of cats, tried. But our brains didn’t evolve to cope with the space between atoms. You can’t fight numbers; a century of arcane quantum mathematics doesn’t leave any recourse to common sense. A lot of people still can’t accept it. They’re afraid of the fact that nothing is real, so they claim that everything is.
    -Peter Watts, ‘Bethlehem’.

  20. 20. Jesus says:

    “C-Rex?” asks Karl.
    “Yeah, C-Rex, consciousness is king, as opposed to U-Rex, universe is king, which is the reigning paradigm we all know and love.”
    Karl reads through my notes. He takes his time.
    “No,” he says, “I don’t think so.”
    We discuss it for a few minutes.
    “The difference between U-Rex and C-Rex is simple,” I explain to him. “Imagine a sheet of white paper and put a dot somewhere in the middle of it. The white page is infinite, it goes on forever in all directions. Okay?’
    “Yes, okay.”
    “Now, label the infinite sheet of paper Universe, and label the dot Consciousness. Okay?”
    “That’s what I’m calling U-Rex, our shared paradigm of reality. Regardless of any other consideration, that’s how everyone understands their reality. I am conscious, and my consciousness is one small thing in a great big universe. Agree?”
    “Certainly,” he says.
    “And that universe is just as we know it. It has time and space, energy and matter, everything we all experience all the time. It’s full of people and planets and stars, incomprehensible vastness and complexity, everything we mean by universe, right?”
    “Fine, yes.”
    “That’s the reigning paradigm of reality. Universe is king, U-Rex. Your consciousness is a dot, one small thing in an infinite universe.”
    “Got that piece of paper in mind?”
    “Yes.” He smiles indulgently, but his eyes are bright with intelligence. “So how do we arrive at this other paradigm of yours?”
    “Just switch the labels.”

    -Jed McKenna, ‘Theory of Everything’.

  21. 21. Jesus says:

    Please allow me to share a fervent recommendation: Marcel Theroux’s “Strange Bodies”. One of the best and most disturbing novels I’ve ever read, hands down. It is up there in my personal mount olympus of brilliant contemporary neuro-science-fiction along with ‘Neuropath’ by Scott Bakker, ‘Blindsight’ by Peter Watts, and short stories as ‘Learning to be me’ by Greg Egan and ‘Understand’ by Ted Chiang. Don’t miss it!
    USA editon:
    U.K. edition:

    ‘Strange Bodies’ is in some manner a story literally told from the point of view of a ‘philosophical zombie’ (a truer word was never said, since this narrator used to be a philosophy scholar..)

  22. 22. Andy says:

    Let us be clear: to distinguish between “sensory experience” and “phenomenal experience” is counter progress in understanding. Experience is strictly phenomenal. Just like observed demonstrations of intelligence, information processing and language are not consciousness itself, despite their association with human consciousness. Philosophy of mind is hopeless because there are so few philosophers that demonstrate a desire for said progress. Publishing one’s own pet, mutated definitions is more important than communication in this profession.

  23. 23. Philosopher Eric says:

    Hello Andy,
    I do sympathise with your frustration, though I do not share it. If you accept that all philosophers have failed to date, you might instead take this as a personal opportunity to grab “the low hanging fruit” (and especially, I think, if you are able to question “standard beliefs”). The following is my “Physical Ethics” interpretation of your assertions:

    As you seem to favor, “experiences” are indeed all classified under the same heading in my work, and this dynamic is referred to as “sensations.” (Two other varieties of “pure input to the conscious processor” are called “senses” and “memory” — elements which may indeed invoke sensations, though they are defined to be distinctly separate in themselves.) My theory seems to diverge with your ideas however, regarding “the conscious processor,” or what I call “thought.” In my work this seems quite useful to define as “the manifestation of consciousness itself.”

    Though consciousness is by far my most involved model, it does nevertheless seem quite comprehensible. In a discussion with my brother a couple of years ago, he simply couldn’t fathom why this business meant so much to me. So I told him “Read my consciousness chapter alone, and perhaps you will understand.” He did end up doing this for me, and I was extremely gratified to find that he could indeed understand. If you would also consider this model Andy (and my work may be found here under my name) this would be an honor as well.

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