Brian O'Shaughnessy:

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British philosopher Brian O'Shaughnessy: has written a 700-pages book that is an old-fashioned philosophical speculation. Therein lie both its virtues and its drawbacks. The virtue is quickly told: it is an inquiry on an impressive scale.
The drawbacks, unfortunately, are many. First and foremost, O'Shaughnessy seems to be unaware of modern neuroscience. He does not mention a single neuroscientist (unless you consider Descartes and Freud as neuroscientists). Nonetheless, he proceeds to make extravagant claims about the way the brain works. We are treated to lengthy discussions of stream of consciousness, self, emotions and dreams, without ever being told that neuroscientists have found out quite a bit about where, when and why those phenomena happen. When O'Shaughnessy writes "the obvious enough fact that dream and waking experiential streams are instrinsically... dissimilar" (page 234). Well, they are "obvsiouly" dissimilar the same way that the Sun "obviously" turns around the Earth. Hobson and Winson have provided evidence to the contrary, just like Copernicus provided evidence that maybe it was the Earth to turn around the Sun. There are literally hundreds of statements that fly in the face of modern neuroscience. Either O'Shaughnessy has not read any contemporary book on the mind or he doesn't believe neuroscience (but then he should explain why, and that would be a much more interesting book). As it stands, this is a 700-page book on the fact that the Sun turns around the Earth, written after Copernicus proved that this is not a "fact" at all.
On page 92, he speculates about the cause of dreams and their contents, but seems totally unaware of Jouvet's big discoveries: we already know what causes dreaming, so it is a little silly to speculate.
At one point, O'Shaughnessy recognizes three mental states: consciousness, sleep and unconsciousness (page 70). Whatever happened to R.E.M. sleep, which is significantly different from non-R.E.M. sleep and happens to be one of the most studied states of our times? And why not just use Hobson's classification, and maybe Hobson's analysis of the different chemical systems that implement each state?
True, O'Shaughnessy examines a few "cases" (thought experiments) to prove his theories. But why should a philosopher "imagine" an abstract case when neurobiologists can offer a whole library of millions of cases? Why not take some real cases and see if his theory works?
Needless to say, even when one tends to agree with O'Shaughnessy's sentences, it is difficult to go along with his reasoning, precisely because he provides no hard evidence. It is just his personal opinion, which is as good as any of the six billion opinions on this planet. Unless he provides a bit of scientific evidence for it, which he doesn't. So one advances page after page without ever being fully convinced by the statements on the previous page, and eventually one is floating in a tide of unproven statements.
The second problem with the book is the language. I scoured the Internet for reviews of this book, and couldn't find any text that would summarize what this book's conclusions are. Now that I finished reading the 700-pages, I know why: it is difficult (if not impossible) to understand several key passages. Either they are frustratingly vague or they are frustratingly naive or they are frustratingly obscure. In my opinion, the reason that noone has posted a brief summary of this book is that noone has understood the English (not even the ones who define it "an indispensable contribution to the field" but then fail to tell us what that contribution would be).
It is also obvious from the tone of the conversation that O'Shaughnessy is unaware of which of his conjectures are pretty much mainstream today (so maybe you don't need to write dozens of pages to prove them) and which could be highly controversional (and therefore would need to be justified with some hard evidence).
Last but not least, O'Shaughnessy's theories are just not convincing, even if one is willing to deal with pure unscientific speculation. He begins by claiming that only mental objects are sensations (page 16), which is not what I feel in my mind (in fact, I am rarely aware of my sensations, un less they are truly painful or pleasurable). He believes that consciousness is first extensionality and only later intentionality (page 17). Consciousness is directed to the world, and perception is our access to the world, so perception is key to consciousness. So, I guess, blind people are less conscious than people who see.
He claims that the function of consciousness is to keep us in touch with the world, to get out "attention" about what is going on in the world. It is a claim that one could accept just because it seems reasonably, but even for philosophers this is a well-known problem: who is the "us" that consciousness is acting upon? If it is not consciousness itself, who is consciousness informing about the world?
After explaining what consciousness does for us, he claims that "consciousness is without direction, without content, without significance" (page 81).
He argues that self-awareness is a precondition for awareness of the world (page 154), so the function of consciousness can be rephrased as keeping us in touch with the world "from the vantage point of a mind which knows itself" (page 155). Again, who is the "us" that consciousness helps out if it is not consciousness itself?
He claims that "perception is an irreducible mental event" (page 338). Of course a neurobiologist can easily reduce perception to a sequence of neural processes.
He explores the relationship between perception and action, but, again, seems to be unaware of biological research in that field. Ditto for the lengthy part on vision.
In concluding, I failed to understand most of the book, and what I understood did not interest me much because it either started from premises that conflict with the findings of science or it made claims that may well turn out to be truth but they were not justified by any scientific data.
Perhaps the most frustrating pages of this frustrating book were the 16 final pages of conclusions. Far from being a summary of the book (as they claim to be), they introduce new language and new concepts and new statements, thus further confusing the whole issue.
Comments by Larry Fike:
  1. I think when O'Shaughnessy writes, he's primarily operating at the level of "lived experience," and so dealing with the phenomenal experience of the subject. Some writers in moral philosophy proceed this way as well, so that "shared intuitions," given the descriptions offered, is indeed essential.
  2. I think this is just one way of doing philosophy, and its purpose in part is to offer a subjectively rich theory that doesn't actually rely upon scientific norms. That's rare for somebody who's capable of philosophical analysis, of course, but I think that's one of the things that makes both his writing style and content relatively unique.
  3. I think often O'Shaughnessy is talking about *mentally* irreducible states, and therefore not actually addressing the *other* question of whether mental states can be reduced to particular physical states. Of course, he did some of the latter work in his 2-volume work on the will.
  4. If 3 is roughly right, it would at least make sense that he's not even asking or trying to answer the questions that confront neuroscientists. It's just not a desideratum for him in this book.
  5. When you remark that you guess blind people are less aware than sighted people for O'Shaughnessy, my hunch is that you may be circumscribing "perceptual awareness" in such a way that it is equated with only one way of perceiving, viz. seeing. Touching, for example, or hearing, are also obviously modes of perceptual awareness.
  6. As for the other 6 billion of us being as equipped as is he to write about subjective experience, I seriously doubt that. He's a trained engineer, and a trained analytical philosopher, and he brings that training to bear on his own experience.
  7. So while I agree with you about the speculative nature of many of his assertions, and likewise disagree with conclusions he reaches, I find his philosophical style refreshing and engaging and certainly often thought-provoking. I tend to think of him as a "philosopher's philosopher."
  8. I think people like Nagel and Searle probably feel similarly about O'Shaughnessy as I've characterized him in 7. above. I find his style and insights mesmerizing and suggestive, but I would hate to try to write a critique of his views. And yeah, he does seem to have a moving target so that you never quite know exactly what it is you've learned, if anything. For me, reading him is simply to be engrossed in a good conversation.