honderich 3Ted Honderich’s latest work Actual Consciousness is a massive volume. He has always been partial to advancing his argument through a comprehensive review (and rejection) of every other opinion on the subject in question. Here, that approach produces a hefty book which in practice is about the whole field of philosophy of consciousness. There is a useful video here at IAI of Ted grumpily failing to summarise the whole theory in the allotted time and confessing with the same alarming frankness that characterised his autobiography to wanting to be as famous as Bach or Chomsky, and not thinking he was going to be. If you want to see the whole thing you’ll have to sign up (free); but they do have a number of good discussions of consciousness.

The theory Honderich is advancing is a further version of the externalism which we discussed a while ago; that for you to be conscious is in some sense for something to exist (or to be real, hence the ‘actual’ in Actual Consciousness). At first sight this thesis has always seemed opaque to the point of wilful obscurity, and the simplest readings seem to make it either vacuous (for you to be conscious is for a state of consciousness to exist) or just evidently wrong (for you to be conscious is for the object of your awareness to exist). He means – he must mean – something subtler than that, and a few more clues can only be welcome.

First though, we survey the alternatives. Honderich suggests (and few would disagree) that the study of consciousness has been vastly complicated by differing or inadequate definitions. This has led philosophers to talk past each other or work themselves into confusions. Above all, Honderich thinks virtually everyone has at some point fallen into circularity, smuggling into their definitions terms that already include consciousness in one form or another.

He sets out five leading ideas: these are not actually the five parts into which he would carve consciousness himself (he would analyse it into three: perceptual, cognitive and affective consciousness) but these are the ideas he feels we need to address. They are: qualia, ‘something it is like for a thing to be that thing’, subjectivity, intentionality, and phenomenality. More normally these days we divide the field in two initially, and at first glance four of Honderich’s views look like the same thing from different angles. When there is ‘something it is like’, that’s the phenomenal aspect of experience as had by a subject and characterised by the presence of qualia. But let’s not be hasty.

Having reviewed briefly what various people have said about qualia, Honderich notes that one thing seems clear; that it is always conceived of as distinct from, and hence accompanied by, another form of consciousness. Some people certainly assert that qualia are the real essence of consciousness or at any rate of the interesting part of it; but it does seem to be true that no-one proposes conscious states that include qualia and nothing else. That in itself doesn’t amount to circularity, though.

The next leading idea is something it is like to see red, or whatever. Nagel’s phrase is unhelpful but somehow powerfully persuasive. We all sort of know what it is getting at. Honderich notes that Nagel himself offered an improved version that leaves out the suggestion that a comparison is going on; to be conscious, in this version, is for there to be something that is how it is for you (to see red or whatever). What does this all really mean? Honderich suspects that it comes down to there being something it is like, or something that is how it is, for you to be conscious (of something red, eg), once again a case of circularity. I don’t really see it; it seems to me that Nagel offers an equation; consciousness is there being something it is like; Honderich pounces: Aha! But there being something it is like is being conscious! That just seems to be travelling back from the second term of the equation to the first, not showing that the the second term requires or contains the first. I’m simplifying rather a lot, so perhaps I’ve missed something. But so far as I can see while Honderich justly complains that the formula is uninformative, the only circularity is one he inserted himself.

Subjectivity for Honderich means the existence of a subject. The word, as he acknowledges, can often be used as more or less a synonym for one of the two senses already discussed: in fact I should say that that is the standard meaning. But it’s true that consciousness is tied up with the notion of an experiencing self or subject (and those who deny the existence of one are often sceptical about the other). Honderich suggests that it is implicit in the idea of a subject that the subject is conscious, and though we can raise quibbles over sleeping or anaesthetised subjects, he is surely on firmer ground in seeing circularity here. To define consciousness in terms of a subject is circular because to be a subject you have to be conscious. But nobody does that, or at least, no-one I can think of. It’s sort of accepted that you need to have your consciousness sorted out before you can have your conscious agent.

With intentionality we come on to something distinctly different; this is the quality of aboutness or directedness singled out by Brentano. Honderich bases his comments on Brentano’s account, which he quotes at full length. It’s only fair to note in passing that Brentano was not talking about consciousness; rather he asserted that intentionality was the mark of the mental; but there is obviously a connection and we might well try to argue that intentionality was constitutive of consciousness.

Honderich notes an intractable problem over the objects of intentionality; they don’t have to exist. We can think about imaginary or even absurd things just as easily as about real ones. But if we are not thinking about a real slipper when we think of Cinderella’s glass one, then surely we’re not really thinking about the actual one the dog is chewing in the corner, either; perhaps the real objects are just our ideas or images of the slipper, or whatever. If we don’t take that path, suggests Honderich, then this intentionality business is no great help; if we do suppose that thinking about things is thinking about a mental image, then we’re back with circularity because it would have to be a conscious image, wouldn’t it?

Would it? I’m not totally sure it would; wouldn’t the theory be that it becomes a conscious image when it’s an object of conscious thought, but not otherwise or in itself? Otherwise we seem to have a weird doubling up going on. But anyway, it’s too clear, in my opinion, that thinking about a thing is thinking about that thing, not thinking about an idea of it; we have to find some other way round the problem of non-existent objects of thought. So we’re left with the complaint that intentionality does not explain consciousness – and that’s true enough; it’s at least as much a part of the problem.

With phenomenality we’re back with a word that could be taken as meaning much the same as subjectivity, and referring to the same stuff as qualia or something it is like. Honderich draws on Ned Block’s much-cited distinction between access or a-consciousness and phenomenal or p-consciousness, and attacks David Chalmers for having said that qualia, subjectivity, phenomenality and so on, are essentially different ways of talking about the same thing. I’m with Chalmers; yes, the different terms embody different ways of approaching the problem, but there’s little doubt that if we could crack one, translating the solution into terms of the other approaches would be relatively trivial. Oddly, instead of recapitulating the claimed important distinctions, which woulod seem the natira;l thing to do at this point, Honderich seems to argue that if Chalmers thinks all these things are the same thing, they must in fact all be examples of something more fundamental, in which case why doesn’t Chalmers talk about the fundamental thing?

If there are the grammatical or subtle differences between the terms for the phenomena, the things do make up ‘approximately the same class of phenomena’. What class is that? To speak differently, what are these things examples of ? In fact didn’t we have to have some idea of that in order to bring the examples together in the first place? What brings the different things together? What is this general fact of consciousness? It has to exist, doesn’t it? Chalmers, I’d say, has credit for bringing the things together, but he might have asked about the general fact, mightn’t he?

This is strange; to assert that a number of terms refer to the same thing is not necessarily to assert that they are all in fact yet another thing. My best guess is that Honderich wants to manoeuvre Chalmers into seeming circularity again, but if so I don’t think it comes off.

Honderich goes on to an extended review of the territory and what others have said, but I propose to cut to the chase. Cutting to the chase, by the way, is something Honderich himself is very bad at, or rather pathologically averse to. He has a style all his own, characterised by a constant backing away from saying anything directly; he prefers to mention a few things one might say in relation to this matter, some indeed that others have at times suggested he himself might not always have been committed to denial of, that is to say these considerations might be ones – not by any means to characterise exhaustively, but nevertheless to bring forward as previously hinted – perhaps to be felt to be most significantly indicated or at any rate we might choose, not yet to think, but to entertain the possibility, of considering as such. Sometimes you really want to kick him.

Anyway, to get to the point: Honderich is an externalist; he thinks your perception of x is something that happens out there where x is real and physical, not in your head. There is an extension to this to take care of those cases where we think about things that are imaginary or otherwise non-physical; in such cases the same thing is going on, it’s just that the objects perceived are representations in our mind. In a sense this is externalism simply redirected to objects that happen to be internal. Of course, how anything comes to be a mental representation is itself a non-trivial issue.

Honderich says that for you to be conscious of something is for something to be real, to exist. This puzzling or vacuous-seeming formula is underpinned by the eyebrow-raising idea of subjective physicality. This is like a kind of Philosopher’s Stone; it means that what we perceive can be both actual and physical in a perfectly normal way, yet subjective in the way required by consciousness. How can we possibly eat our cake this way and yet still have it? It’s kind of axiomatic that the actual qualities of physical things don’t depend on the observer (yes, I know in modern physics that’s a can of worms, but not one we need to open here), while subjective qualities absolutely do; my subjective impressions may be quite different to yours.

How is this trick to be pulled off?

The general answer to the question of what is actual with your perceptual consciousness, putting aside that in which it may issue immediately, is a part, piece or stage of a subjective physical world of several dependencies, out there in space, and nothing else whatever. Your being conscious now is exactly and nothing more than this severally-dependent fact external to you of a room’s existing…

It looks at first sight as if this talk of worlds may be the answer. The room exists subjectively for you and also physically, but in a world of its own, or of your own, which would explain how it can be different from the subjective experience of others; they have different worlds. This would be alarming, however, because it suggests a proliferation of worlds whose relationships would be problematic and whose ontology profligate. We’re talking some serious and bizarre metaphysics, of which there is no sign elsewhere.

I don’t think that is at all what Honderich has in mind. Instead I think we need to remember that he doesn’t mean by subjectivity what everyone else means. He just means there is a subject. So his description of consciousness comes down to this; that there is a real object of consciousness, whether in the world or in the brain, which is unproblematically physical; and there is a subject, also physical, who is conscious of the thing.

Is that it? It seems sort of underwhelming. But I fear that is the essence of it.  Helpfully, Honderich provides a table of his proposed structure:

honderich table

Yes, that seems to me to confirm the suggested interpretation.

So it kind of looks as if Honderich has used a confusingly non-standard definition and ended up with a theoretical position which honestly sheds little light on the real issue; yet these were the very problems he criticised in earlier approaches. I can’t deny that I have greatly simplified here and it might be that I missed the key somewhere in one of those many chapters – but frankly I’m not going back to look again.


  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    ” So his description of consciousness comes down to this; that there is a real object of consciousness, whether in the world or in the brain, which is unproblematically physical; and there is a subject, also physical, who is conscious of the thing.”

    I happen to agree with this way of putting it. Of course the essential details are missing in this very general formulation. For what is, perhaps, a more helpful unpacking of the general idea, see “Where Am I? Redux” here:


  2. 2. Andy says:

    > …no-one proposes conscious states that include qualia and nothing else.

    Qualia are consciousness as far as I’m concerned. Perceptual qualia, cognitive qualia, and affective qualia if you will (or combinations). Everything else is parallel correlate.

  3. 3. Sci says:

    From Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn, tying together some of the natural law stuff with consciousness:

    “The problem of qualia, or consciousness, seems unanswerable by science because it’s an aspect of the world that is not encompassed when we describe all the physical interactions among particles. It’s in the domain of questions about what the world really is, not how it can be modeled or represented.

    Some philosophers argue that qualia simply are identical to certain neuronal processes. This seems to me wrong. Qualia may very well be correlated with neuronal processes but they are not the same as neuronal processes. Neuronal processes are subject to description by physics and chemistry, but no amount of detailed description in those terms will answer the questions as to what qualia are like or explain why we perceive them.”


    “We don’t know what a rock really is, or an atom, or an electron. We can only observe how they interact with other things and thereby describe their relational properties. Perhaps everything has external and internal aspects. The external properties are those that science can capture and describe – through interactions, in terms of relationships. The internal aspect is the intrinsic essence, it is the reality that is not expressible in the language of interactions and relations. Consciousness, whatever it is, is an aspect of the intrinsic essence of brains.

    On further aspect of consciousness is the fact that it takes place in time. Indeed, when I assert that it is always some time in the world, I am extrapolating from the fact that my experiences of the world always takes place in time. But what do I mean by my experiences? I can speak about them scientifically as instances of recordings of information. To speak so, I need not mention consciousness or qualia. But this may be an evasion, because these experiences have aspects that are consciousness of qualia. So my conviction that what is real is real in the present moment is related to my conviction that qualia are real.”

  4. 4. Arnold Trehub says:


    I don’t agree with Smolin about consciousness. Here are my comments in response to Smolin’s essay on the EDGE:


  5. 5. Sci says:

    @Arnold: Thanks for that link! Very enjoyable, and much to ponder.

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