Review of Modern Philosophy of Mind

Chris Eliasmith

Lyons, William (ed.) (1995). London: Everyman. ISBN: 0-460-87558-2. $8.50.

To summarize before I begin, this is an excellent collection of essays. Lyons has done a masterful job of choosing clear, concise, easy-to-read and seminal papers in philosophy of mind. The only reason not to use this collection in a course is because of a difference in topic. In other words, the job this book has been designed to do it does very well. It is, of course, difficult to critique the arguments presented in such papers without writing a book of one's own. So, I set the task of this review as one of description, not of argument or insight.

The title Modern Philosophy of Mind might mislead some to think the essays are on current trends in philosophy of mind. This is not the case, as a quick glance at the table of contents will show (see appendix A). Essays from William James, J. B. Watson, and Rudolf Carnap begin the discussion which then continues to the middle of this century with pieces from U. T. Place, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson and concludes with some early work from Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland and Jerry Fodor. Presumably, the term 'modern' designates the historical period (as opposed to post-modern), not the recency of the publication of the chosen essays.

This text would be an excellent reader for a number of possible courses including, at the undergraduate level, a first philosophy of mind intensive course, or perhaps a more general course which includes a section on philosophy of mind. At the graduate level, the book could serve as an excellent background or overview piece. The collection has all the basics of a good course reader including an index, suggestions for further readings, a clear introduction to the area and an extremely affordable price tag. What makes it stand out as above-average are the comprehensive chronology, which parallels important events in philosophy of mind to the political climate and scientific discoveries, and more importantly, careful organization which leads the reader naturally from one topic to the next while retaining near chronological order. Thus, together with the introduction, this group of essays forms a coherent picture of the development of many of the theses which comprise the philosophy of mind. As well, each essay is a clear expression of the central tenets of the philosophy of its author, providing the reader with the customary name connected to various '-isms' and theories. For example, we have Hilary Putnam telling us of functionalism, U. T. Place and J. J. C. Smart describing the identity theory and Paul Churchland trying to convince us that eliminative materialism is our best possible theory of mind.

For those more familiar with the territory of current philosophy of mind, these essays do well to remind us of the historical roots of various issues. For example, Thomas Nagel's 'What is it like to be a bat?' contains the central contentions of those defending the existence of a 'hard problem' of consciousness . Similarly, there are instances of Wittgenstein's anticipation of prototype theory and James' expecting something like a dynamic systems approach to be successful in describing conscious behavior. In this respect, Lyons has compiled an excellent review of the philosophical and psychological thought which serves as a precedence for much current discussion in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

In themselves the essays focus on the classic problems and themes of philosophy of mind such as behaviorism, the mind-body problem, subjective experience, functionalism, intentionality, and consciousness. However, in the course of the discussion of these subjects a wide variety of others are introduced, including introspectionism, folk psychology, materialism, propositional attitudes, the medium of thought, and artificial intelligence. Nothing so recent as concerns about non-conceptual content, symbolic versus distributed representation, computation, or embeddedness are mentioned. Nevertheless, these essays provide a necessary introduction to the concepts being used (and often challenged) by more contemporary discussions. In all, the scope of the book is admirably broad but not so much so as to result in a watered-down, uninteresting or confusing survey.

There are a few minor details which could be improved upon. The introduction, for example, has a somewhat misleading discussion of both functionalism and the hardware/software distinction. However, I suggest these inaccuracies are minor as they may as much be a product of writing a summary as of any imprecision. Similarly insignificant are the twenty or so typographical errors throughout the text, none of which result in misunderstanding of any consequence. Perhaps some of the contributions could have been shortened (in particular Carnap's piece) without loss of content, but it is understandable that Lyons may have wanted to preserve the originals as near complete as possible. Finally, one may argue that the book presents an unbalanced picture of philosophy of mind as it delves solely into the analytic tradition for material. As true as this may be, any attempt to include an equally continental view of the field would result in either a work of unmanageable length, or the watered-down, confusing text Lyons has so masterfully avoided.

As is evident from the trivial nature of these comments, I find it difficult to fault Lyons' work. The Everyman library has a mission to provide high-quality, low-priced, classic works. With Lyons' help, they have unmistakably succeeded on this occasion.


Chalmers, D. (1996). The conscious mind: in search of a fundamental theory. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Appendix A - Abridged Table of Contents

This is a list of all essay titles, dates and authors in the order they are included in Modern Philosophy of Mind.

William James (1892) 'The Stream of Consciousness.'

John B. Watson (1913) 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.'

Rudolf Carnap (1931) 'Psychology in the Language of Physics.'

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953, 1958) 'On Believing.'

Gilbert Ryle (1958) 'A Puzzling Element in the Notion of Thinking.'

U. T. Place (1956) 'Is Consciousness a Brain Process?'

J. C. Smart (1959) 'Sensations and Brain Processes.'

Hilary Putnam (1975) 'Philosophy and Our Mental Life.'

Donald Davidson (1971) 'Psychology as Philosophy.'

Thomas Nagel (1974) 'What is it Like to Be a Bat?'

David Armstrong (1980) 'A Causal Theory of Consciousness.'

Daniel Dennett (1971) 'Intentional Systems.'

Paul Churchland (1981) 'Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.'

Jerry Fodor (1987) 'The Persistence of the Attitudes.'

Colin McGinn (1989) 'Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?'