The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is twenty years old. It gives me surprisingly warm feelings towards Stanford that this excellent free resource exists. It’s written by experts, continuously updated, and amazingly extensive. Long may it grow and flourish!
Writing an encyclopaedia is challenging, but an encyclopaedia of philosophy must take the biscuit. For a good encyclopaedia you need a robust analysis of the topics in the field so that they can be dealt with systematically, comprehensively, and proportionately. In philosophy there is never a consensus, even about how to frame the questions, never mind about what kind of answers might be useful. This must make it very difficult: do you try to cover the most popular schools of thought in an area? All the logically possible positions one might take up? A purely historical survey? Or summarise what the landscape is really like, inevitably importing your own preconceptions?
I’ve seen people complain that the SEP is not very accessible to newcomers, and I think the problem is partly that the subject is so protean. If you read an article in the SEP, you’ll get a good view and some thought-provoking ideas; but what a noob looks for are a few pointers and landmarks. If I read a biography I want to know quickly about the subject’s main works, their personal life, their situation in relation to other people in the field, the name of their theory or school, and so on. Most SEP subject articles cannot give you this kind of standard information in relation to philosophical problems. There is a real chance that if you read up a SEP article and then go and talk to professionals, they won’t really get what you’re talking about. They’ll look at you blankly and then say something like:
“Oh, yes, I see where you’re coming from, but you know, I don’t really think of it that way…”
It’s not because the article you read was bad, it’s because everyone has a unique perspective on what the problem even is.
Let’s look at Consciousness. The content page has:
consciousness (Robert Van Gulick)
- animal (Colin Allen and Michael Trestman)
- higher-order theories (Peter Carruthers)
- and intentionality (Charles Siewert)
- representational theories of (William Lycan)
- seventeenth-century theories of (Larry M. Jorgensen)
- temporal (Barry Dainton)
- unity of (Andrew Brook and Paul Raymont)
All interesting articles, but clearly not a systematic treatment based on a prior analysis. It looks more like the set of articles that just happened to get written with consciousness as part of the subject. Animal consciousness, but no robot consciousness? Temporal consciousness, but no qualia or phenomenal consciousness? But I’m probably looking in the wrong place.
In Robert Van Gulick’s main article we have something that looks much more like a decent shot at a comprehensive overview, but though he’s done a good job it won’t be a recognisable structure to anyone who hasn’t read this specific article. I really like the neat division into descriptive, explanatory, and functional questions; it’s quite helpful and illuminating: but you can’t rely on anyone recognising it (Next time you meet a professor of philosophy ask him: if we divide the problems of consciousness into three, and the first two are descriptive and explanatory, what would the third be? Maybe he’ll say ‘Functional’, but maybe he’ll say ‘Reductive’ or something else – ‘Intentional’ or ‘Experiential’; I’m pretty sure he’ll need to think about it). Under ‘Concepts of Consciousness’ Van Gulick has ‘Creature Consciousness’: our noob would probably go away imagining that this is a well-known topic which can be mentioned in confident expectation of the implications being understood. Alas, no: I’ve read quite a few books about consciousness and can’t immediately call to mind any other substantial reference to ‘Creature Consciousness’: I’m pretty sure that unless you went on to explain that you were differentiating it from ‘State Consciousness’ and ‘Consciousness as an Entity’, you might be misunderstood.
None of this is meant as a criticism of the piece: Van Gulick has done a great job on most counts (the one thing I would really fault is that the influence of AI in reviving the topic and promoting functionalist views is, I think, seriously underplayed). If you read the piece you will get about as good a view of the topic as that many words could give you, and if you’re new to it you will run across some stimulating ideas (and some that will strike you as ridiculous). But when you next read a paper on philosophy of mind, you’ll still have to work out from scratch how the problem is being interpreted. That’s just the way it is.
Does that mean philosophy of mind never gets anywhere? No, I really don’t think so, though it’s outstandingly hard to provide proof of progress. In science we hope to boil down all the hypotheses to a single correct theory: in philosophy perhaps we have to be happy that we now have more answers (and more problems) than ever before.
And the SEP has got most of them! Happy Birthday!