Fellow philosophers give their undivided attention

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. First edition - Elements of Mind

May 31, 2002

Introductions to the philosophy of mind are pretty thick on the ground, reflecting the popularity of the subject both with students and with professional philosophers. So do we need three new ones? Only if they each have something distinctive of value to offer. And all three of these books do.

They do not compete directly with each other. K. T. Maslin's is the one that most closely conforms to the standard idea of a textbook and it is genuinely directed at beginners: A-Level students and first-year undergraduates. David Cockburn's is more sophisticated but manages to be accessible to newcomers without being condescending. Tim Crane's is still more sophisticated and has much of interest for professional specialists while enabling students to get a clear sense of what is going on at the cutting edge of current debate.

Almost inevitably, each is selective in the topics it chooses to focus on. Maslin's concentrates on the metaphysics of mind and especially on the various "isms" - dualism, behaviourism, functionalism, reductive and non-reductive physicalism, and so on - while also including useful discussions of the problem of other minds and theories of personal identity. The menu on offer here is fairly similar to that of many other introductory books on the philosophy of mind, but the material is presented in a particularly accessible way. In general, the exposition of alternative theories is reasonably sound and clear, but critical evaluation of those theories tends to be, perhaps unavoidably, somewhat superficial.

The book is well laid out and well organised, with an extensive glossary, helpful suggestions for further reading and an excellent index. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the "exercises" interspersed throughout the text are all that useful and feel that the "objectives" listed at the beginning of each chapter are too much of a concession to modern teaching fashion. Even a genuinely introductory book in philosophy should not, I feel, treat its readers as "learners", but as fellow philosophers. For the most part, Maslin does not fall into this trap, but the textbook format has an unwelcome whiff of condescension about it.

There is no air of condescension at all in Cockburn's book. He achieves the remarkable feat of writing a book about the philosophy of mind that is perfectly accessible to newcomers to the subject while also presenting a distinctive and coherent vision of how the philosophy of mind should be pursued. This is no mere textbook. It encourages readers to think through the issues for themselves by engaging their interest rather than by direct exhortation. As with Maslin's book, there is much discussion of the nature of the mind, with consideration of the pros and cons of dualism, behaviourism, functionalism and identity theory, as well as discussion of the problem of other minds, questions of personal identity and the issue of freedom of action.

However, there is also a unifying theme to the book, with Cockburn's suggestion that dualism and the various forms of physicalism have in common an assumption that persons are somehow divided into "inner" and "outer", or mind and body. In place of this, Cockburn gently nudges his readers towards a Wittgensteinian view of persons as whole and undivided human beings - human animals - indissolubly bound to a social context. Thus Cockburn conveys a fairly detailed and accurate picture of prevailing orthodoxy in the philosophy of mind, while challenging that orthodoxy and stimulating independent thought on the part of his readers.

Crane's book, of the three reviewed here, makes the most demands on its readers, being densely argued and engaging in direct debate with leading figures in the field. Fortunately, he writes with enviable lucidity and economy, so that there is little danger that he will lose the attentive reader. And such is the interest of the issues that he discusses that few readers with a philosophical bent could fail to have their attention sustained from beginning to end. The book is more selective than many of its competitors in its choice of topics, but is refreshing in not placing the various "isms" centre stage. Instead, the unifying theme is the thesis of the intentionality of the mental: the idea that what is distinctive about mental states and processes is their "aboutness". What thoughts, beliefs, desires, emotions and sensations all have in common is that they are "about", or "of" objects, events and states of affairs in the world. Thus, an emotion, such as fear, may be about or of spiders, and a thought or belief may be about or of Vienna or the state of the weather tomorrow.

Around this theme, Crane builds an immensely well-informed and up-to-date discussion of the mind-body problem, the problem of consciousness, and the nature of thought and perception. Replete with controversial and original insights, it is sure to stimulate the interest of students and specialists alike. Here is proof, if proof were wanted, that those best qualified to write introductory books in philosophy are those who have contributed most to the advance of original thought in the subject. That said, the students who will be stimulated by Crane's book are not those who will be helped to find their feet by Maslin's. Only Cockburn's book could hope to serve both audiences.

E. J. Lowe is professor of philosophy, University of Durham.

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind: Souls, Science and Human Beings. First edition

Author - David Cockburn
ISBN - 0 333 78637 8 and 96122 6
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £42.50 and £13.99
Pages - 157

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