Harold 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.