cakeThe 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!


  1. 1. Sci says:

    I also like the IEP, I usually try to read both as it usually gives you a perspective from at least two different authors.

  2. 2. Callan S. says:

    Do you think a lack of a mutual starting point of interest is an issue? If we were talking about a study of anatomy, it’d be easy enough to cover the various parts because we can see most of them (like hands, feet, etc) and tie them into a whole.

    But in terms of things reported as ‘concious experience’, where is the mutual understanding? If we talk about hands, I think we all get that right away. But particular experience? Where is the starting point for that, like we easily have with hands?

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    The starting point is that we see a world out here all around us.

  4. 4. Callan S. says:

    Mmm, I think that’s like an examination of telescopes starting by discussing the things the telescope happens to be aimed at. It’s not very self reflective.

  5. 5. Arnold Trehub says:

    Consciousness is not aimed at the world around us. But if we ask how it is possible to see a coherent 3D world around us, given that we have no sensory receptors to detect the volumetric space in which we live, we are on the path to understanding consciousness.

  6. 6. Callan S. says:

    Well that raises the question, why doesn’t such a listing start at that question, then?

    If you were to ask 1000 philosopher the starting question, would they all say it’s ‘how do we see a coherant 3D world?’. Probably not – which is my point.

    However, actually it’d be interesting to see if the 1000 philosophers would ask a starting question which could be broadly categorized into groups. Perhaps there might just be a handful of overall groups, which would be a start.

    But that might be getting some science in the philosophy!

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:

    I suggest that the reason consciousness has been such a vexing problem is because it took so long before the right question was asked.

  8. 8. Callan S. says:

    Rather than solving the problem I’m merely looking at difficulty in discussing the question – a central pinion to work from that then leads to various investigations, rather than an encyclopaedia as described above which is just an abstract and largely non sequitur listing.

    Possibly a questioning of a large sample of philosophers might grant, if not one central pinion, a handful of overall groups of approach. This might be more welcoming and engaging than a big alphabetical list of essays.

  9. 9. Cognicious says:

    Arnold Trehub: “But if we ask how it is possible to see a coherent 3D world around us, given that we have no sensory receptors to detect the volumetric space in which we live, we are on the path to understanding consciousness.”

    Perhaps there’s more than one path. I don’t know a reason to take the individual’s construction of a visual world as primary. After all, blind people are conscious; and prenatally, humans have auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic experiences before there’s anything to see.

  10. 10. Arnold Trehub says:


    We needn’t take the visual world as primary, but it is the best example to get a grasp of what consciousness is in terms of brain processes. See the relevant publications online my Research Gate page here:

  11. 11. Jorge says:

    Callan: I think the natural starting point is asking what kinds of things are conscious. I think Tononi would agree, I think ancient medieval philsophers would agree (if asked about “spirit” or “soul”) and I think it explains why AI has revived interest in the question.

    From that point, it naturally leads us to ask “what the hell are we even talking about?” and then you can get to things like phenomenology, Arnold’s coherent 3D world, and metaphors about streams or magic tricks and illusions.

    To me, that’s the main draw of asking the question to begin with. I want to know what is structurally necessary and sufficient to “cause” consciousness. If I could answer that question, then maybe I could answer really thorny questions like “why does pain hurt?” or “if I copy my brain into a digital simulation, is that me or a copy convinced it is me?”

Leave a Reply