Actual Consciousness, by Ted Honderich

Roberta Locatelli on an audacious venture to elucidate representations of thoughts and desires

October 9, 2014

The debate about consciousness is haunted by the idea that consciousness is an unsolvable mystery. Moreover, even when optimism prevails, little consensus can be found. Ted Honderich, Grote professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic at University College London, disagrees with this pessimism and identifies the source of the obscurity surrounding the study of consciousness with the failure to adequately clarify the subject matter of the enquiry.

His first endeavour is thus to circumscribe the object of his study to what he takes to be consciousness in its primary ordinary sense: “seeing, thinking, wanting in the ordinary sense of the verb”. No doubt clarifying the phenomenon one undertakes to elucidate is commendable, yet it is unclear whether we can identify, in ordinary language or even in the intellectual enquiry, a primary sense of “consciousness”, and (if any) whether this corresponds to what Honderich suggests. Still, arbitrary circumscription is probably a step forward from the confusion and vagueness plaguing so much of the debate on consciousness.

Honderich’s proposal is very ambitious: he wants to provide an analysis of consciousness in terms of something else. His main complaint against competing theories is that they fail to do so, by sneaking into the definition of consciousness something that presupposes it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that most of the authors he scrutinises do not intend to provide an analysis of consciousness – and this is not because of the particular intractable nature of consciousness, but because many philosophers nowadays do not share Honderich’s trust in conceptual analysis, at least for most concepts (can you define, for instance, “red” in terms of something else?).

The book’s early chapters offer a survey of the leading ideas and theories in the study of consciousness. Doubtless as a side-effect of the impressive amount of material covered – and the author’s determination to entertain the reader with an informal dialogic style – blunt criticism and caricatures of opponents’ views prevail too often over substantive arguments.

What of Honderich’s proposal? “Being conscious”, he says, “is for something to be actual.” If this does not strike you as particularly informative (if what is actual is what exists in fact, this seems to apply to many things that have nothing to do with consciousness), things become clearer when Honderich explains what it is that is actual in different types of consciousness. In sensory perception, what is actual is a subjective physical world: something that is physical (like the table out there) but that also depends on facts about the subject (those facts being physical through and through, such as its neural states and its location). What is actual in thought, desire and the like are representations. For Honderich, representations inhabit the subjective physical realm too and, as such, are both physical and subjective.

The notion of a subjective physical world offers an ingenious new solution to the problem of consciousness – a solution that promises, among other things, to overcome the classical opposition between dualism and materialism and to preserve both the subjective nature of consciousness and its causal efficacy. Despite this, the details and the implications of such a view remain largely unexplored here. The reader is left wondering how the objective and subjective physical world relate, and what the spatial and temporal location of representations might be.

In Actual Consciousness, the author has made an attempt to elucidate consciousness, this aspect of our life so familiar and still so recalcitrant to theoretical thinking with a bald and original proposal. This audacious venture should certainly be praised. If, as it stands, it creates more questions than it solves, this is no reason to disregard it. Quite the contrary: good philosophy presses readers to think for themselves, and Actual Consciousness gives us much food for thought.

Actual Consciousness

By Ted Honderich
Oxford University Press, 432pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780198714385
Published 10 July 2014

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.