Book title: Consciousness in Contemporary Science

Clarendon Press, 1992, ISBN 0-198-52237-1

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1993) A Review of Marcel and Bisiach: Consciousness in Contemporary Science. The Psychologist, 6(4), 162-163.

Though contemporary psychology is dominated by a concern with cognition (however defined) there is a sense in which the term consciousness makes psychologists uneasy and seems somehow inappropriate for them to discuss. In this way the concept has been left largely to philosophers while psychologists have coined an alternative rhetoric from information processing to handle their theories of the human mind. But that which goes around, comes around and according the the editors of this book, we are witnessing the revival of interest in the concept and the increased need to tackle it seriously within the interdisciplinary framework of cognitive science.

The present book emerged from a meeting of interested scholars covering the usual range of disciplines who felt they had something to say about conciousness. This paperback edition follows the hardback version of four years ago with corrected (though not updated) versions of their presentations. While it is always possible to publish a ragbag from such efforts, it is a pleasure to report that the present volume is a wonderful collection of papers from a variety of psychologically–relevant perspectives that are actually written to address the issue of consciousness head-on. Thus we get papers from philosophers, psychologists, neurologists and linguists all tackling the question of what is or could conciousness be, and what level of discourse might best support its explanation.

Most refreshing is the honest statement of personal belief that runs through these chapters. Thus we get Richard Gregory stating that he believes Wittgenstein to be wrong on the private language argument and advocating the analysis of mind in terms of brain language. Gazzaniga makes it clear that he believes the human brain has a special capacity that insists on interpreting events and Johnson-Laird bravely states that the computer is the last metaphor we will have for the mind because it is the correct one. The reader is invited into the arguments rather than lectured at and data from a range of experimental and clinical settings are used sparingly and supportingly at appropriate points rather than thrust centre-stage to be dissected inexorably.

High points are found in all chapters but for me, Dennett’s thought experiments on our ability to understand and describe experiences are the best. Using such immediately recognisable scenarios as the taste of beer and how it or our description of it changes over time as we become seasoned drinkers, he neatly raises philosophical issues and allows complex ideas to be grasped in most meaningful ways. A close second is Wilkes argument that as psychologists we best not bother at all with this woolly thing called consciousness. But this is merely a flavour of the contents, the book is full of memorable and challenging statments and while none of it may be particularly new, the spirit of presentation and their collection in one volume singles this out as that most rare of beasts, a book that nearly all psychologists will find of interest.