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Recently philosopher David Chalmers published his second book. As the first one, the main theme is consciousness. This collection of papers is divided into six parts by the author. They are the problems, the science, the metaphysics, the concepts, the contents, and the unity of consciousness. They cover most aspects of consciousness discussed in philosophy of mind. Part II (the science) and part IV (concepts) can be seen as the epistemology of consciousness; part V (the contents) and part VI (the unity) can be seen as further aspects of the metaphysics of consciousness. Thus, we can invoke the familiar metaphysics / epistemology distinction to conceptualize Chalmers's project of understanding consciousness. What's more, the author's own favorite piece 'The Matrix as Metaphysics' (p.xxvi) deals with both metaphysics and epistemology in a more general sense, i.e., about the 'external world' and our places in it. As those pieces on consciousness as such, this one provides stimulating and substantial perspectives for readers to engage. Since the author provides a detailed 17-page Introduction, it will be redundant to expatiate on the structure and contents of the book here. So in what follows I will do two other things. First, I will situate the book in larger contexts in order to highlight aspects that are easily neglected by some readers. Secondly, I will raise some questions about the relations between parts of Chalmers's thoughts.
One context is provided by the author's other projects, notably his views on intentionality / meaning. In recent years, the relations between consciousness and intentionality have been more and more emphasized in philosophy of mind. The author is in the broad 'intentionalist' camp, holding (roughly) that 'phenomenal properties are…identical to certain…representational properties' (p.349; I shall ignore different formulations of this broad idea). Besides, his application of the two-dimensional framework (i.e., two layers of meaning) on perception is also in this vein. Moreover, his postulation of 'Edenic content' (still another layer of meaning) also belongs to similar consideration: some might worry about the 'phenomenological adequacy' of Fregean content as phenomenal content (p.392), and Chalmers's solution is to invoke another kind of content to explain phenomenology. So we can see that the author's views on consciousness and intentionality are tightly connected. Thus, readers might want to explore his view on intentionality and meaning as such in order to engage his view on consciousness more deeply. The author's book on intentionality (tentatively entitled The Multiplicity of Meaning) is still in preparation, but readers can find his papers on relevant topics in extent anthologies on philosophy of language in general and two-dimensionalism in particular.
Another context is the debate between rationalism and empiricism. This one is explicit in some of the author's works, and I believe this is a fruitful way to conceive the author's place in larger philosophical topology, but still it is relatively downplayed by some readers who focus on philosophy of mind only. The rationalist / empiricist debate has lasted for several centuries, so it is impossible to do justice to all aspects of it when talking about it, but roughly, we can say that typical rationalists defend innateness in mind, analyticity in language, necessity in metaphysics, and / or apriority in epistemology. Empiricists tend to deny one or more of them. Representatives for this debate in the twentieth century are W. V. Quine (empiricist) and Saul Kripke (rationalist). In the long run, it seems that it is Kripke who wins the game: in particular, his revival of modality animates many projects in later analytic philosophy (to be sure, this is not to say that no one defends Quinean positions now or empiricism is dead). Contemporary rationalists, including Robert Brandom, Christopher Peacocke, and many others, have substantially developed their projects based on modality and related notions. Now we should notice that Chalmers is one among them. He is probably best known as a philosopher of mind, but I believe that to conceive him as only a philosopher of mind is not fair. A more interesting and complete conception of his projects is to view him as a rationalist who theorizes about modality and related notions, with an emphasis on issues concerning consciousness. Chalmers is a systematic philosopher in the sense that he contributes not only to a single branch of philosophy (e.g., philosophy of mind). In addition to the book on intentionality, another forthcoming one (tentatively named Constructing the World after his 2010 John Locke Lecture) is on metaphysics and related issues in epistemology. This is also connected to the author's view on consciousness, since the author is sympathetic with a version of panpsychism (or more broadly, Type-F monism, p.133), and this view has it that consciousness or proto-phenomenal qualities are fundamental features of the world; this is metaphysics if anything is. As a result, although one can understand Chalmers's view on consciousness in a relatively isolated way (since those works are more or less self-contained), I highly recommend readers to explore his views on intentionality and fundamentality as well in order to have a more profound understanding of his overall picture.
Towards the end of this short review, I offer some worries about this gigantic book. The main one concerns the author's approach to consciousness in this collection. Chalmers is a naturalistic philosopher; in part I and II of the book he discusses plenty of ideas in the sciences of consciousness. Later in the book, however, he proposes a broadly intentionalist view: to rehearse, intentionalists hold (roughly) that consciousness should be explained somehow by kinds of intentionality. Versions of intentionalism are often regarded as naturalistic, since they are paired with naturalistic theory of intentionality, e.g., Jerry Fodor's causal theory, Fred Dretske's developmental theory, or Ruth Millikan's biological theory. Chalmers holds two-dimensionalism for meaning, but this position is not clearly naturalistic (i.e., although it seems compatible with sciences, it does not obviously gain any empirical support from sciences, and it cannot be stated by normal scientific terms such as causation). Now there seems to be an over-determination problem: on the one hand, the author is optimistic about the prospect of the sciences of consciousness, which seems to imply that consciousness can be explained exclusively by scientific terms. On the other hand, two-dimensionalism is not typically formulated with scientific terms, but it is invoked by the author to explain consciousness. In both cases, the author seems to regard the explanation in question sufficient. But this cannot be the case, since if one story is sufficient then we do not need another one. There are some ways to address the worry; for example, the author can insist that the two-dimensional framework is not meant to be sufficient in explaining consciousness. It would be good if he can address this worry more directly in future works. A related worry is about his 'semantic pluralism' (p.xxiii), which holds that we can postulate kinds of content as long as we assign them appropriate explanatory tasks. On the face of it, this seems unproblematic, since this is what people do in theorizing in general. However, it raises the question of naturalizing all those contents. People who postulate only one kind of content (e.g., Fodor, Dretske, Millikan) already have hard time naturalizing that single kind of content; as a semantic pluralist, Chalmers's naturalistic task will be even more challenging. To be sure, the author is not a physicalist (i.e., naturalist in the narrow sense), so he has more resources than other naturalists like Fodor, but I believe the worry stated here is one interesting and critical way to push his fuller answers.
This huge collection is very well written and organized. The author provides an informative guide for his readers in the Introduction, and relations between chapters are often clearly flagged in the texts. Readers can start their intellectual journey from virtually any chapter, and try to broaden their understandings by reading related chapters. The technicality is limited so that it does not thwart understanding in general. It is written for both professional philosophers and serious lay people. If I have to say something negative about the style, it would be a small complaint about the size: although the clear writings make reading this book enjoyable and not cognitively expensive, still the size is a bit daunting, especially given that nowadays the literature on consciousness is itself huge, and readers need to cover other authors' writings if they want to know the subject better. I will not say this is a drawback of the book, but surely more concise prose will be even more preferable.
© 2011 Tony H. Y. Cheng
Tony H. Y. Cheng is a graduate student at CUNY Graduate Center. He is investigating varieties of content, especially their instantiations in varieties of experiential episode, and therefore their relations to varieties of awareness. He is interested in metaphysics and epistemology in general, with a derivative interest in ethics, in particular secondary qualities as an analogy to values, and the constitution of agency.