Philosophy, Philosophy of mind

Course date

8 July - 19 July, 2002
Application deadline
15 February, 2002
Course Director(s): 

Tim Crane

University of London, Philosophy department, Salford, UK

Katalin Farkas

Philosophy Department, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
Course Faculty: 

Gergely Ambrus

Miskolc University, Philosophy, Hungary

Ferenc Huoranszki

Department of Philosophy, Central European University

Nikola Grahek

University of Belgrade, Philosophy department, Serbia

Marie McGinn

University of York, UK

Tadeusz Szubka

Catholic University of Lublin, Philosophy department, Poland

Consciousness is one of the most widely discussed research topics in contemporary philosophy of mind. A recent (selected) bibliography lists no less than 999 philosophical papers on the subject written in the past few decades. The present course offers an orientation in the key problems of consciousness through lectures and discussions, in order to help participants to design curricula on the subject, as well as to offer a range of research topics of current interest. The specific aims of the course include

  • situating the problem of consciousness against a historical background in the philosophy of mind
  • placing the problem of consciousness in the context of other issues in contemporary philosophy of mind providing an overview of the most important debates concerning consciousness
  • engaging participants in an in-depth discussion of some recent results in the study of consciousness (these include research done by the resource persons)

Course level

The course is offered to junior faculty and advanced graduate students (mainly in philosophy, possibly in psychology or cognitive science) interested in the philosophy of mind. Participants are required to read and understand papers prior to the course. Therefore some general knowledge of 20th century analytic philosophy is necessary.

Course format

The course offers a combination of lectures and seminars, including student presentations, some prepared in advance. As it is customary in the analytic philosophical tradition, the course will focus on analysis of arguments that can be offered for and against various positions in the debate on consciousness. Participants are expected to take an active part in the discussions.

Course content

Consciousness refers to an aspect of our mental life. Conscious creatures are those who experience the world in such a way that it make sense to ask (to use Thomas Nagel's famous phrase), what it is like to be this creature. Paradigmatic examples of conscious phenomena include the subjective experiential features of sense-perception, sensations and feelings.

"How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp" said T. H. Huxley in 1866. More than a century later many philosophers still consider consciousness as the biggest mystery which stands as an outstanding obstacle in our attempt to achieve a scientific understanding of the universe. There are many problems waiting for a solution in physics, biology or neuroscience, but in these cases we have at least an idea about what these solutions might look like. But the scientific explanation of consciousness, it is suggested, is something about which we are entirely in the dark.

The course is built around the following interconnected themes:

  • In the modern tradition, the agenda of discussing philosophical issues about the mind was set largely by Descartes' work. One panel in the course aims at a problem-oriented reconstruction of Descartes' legacy, partly through a comparison of Descartes' views on the mind with the views of philosophers in the medieval and ancient tradition.
  • The broadly Cartesian conception of the mind received various criticisms in the twentieth century, famously - among others - by Wittgenstein. There will be one panel in the course devoted to the discussion of Wittgenstein's views on the mental, including his anti-private language argument.
  • One of the most knotty problems inherited by the modern tradition from Descartes, and often called The Mind-Body problem, concerns the interaction between minds and bodies. In the twentieth century many philosophers became convinced that the only solution to this problem is adopting some version of physicalism, that is, the view that the mind - and everything else in the world - is physical. One variety of physicalism tries to exploit the notion of the supervenience of the mental on the physical - this issue will be examined in detail in one panel of the course.
  • The problem of consciousness, however - which is often regarded as another, or even "the" major aspect of the mind-body problem – presents an apparently formidable objection to physicalist theories. The problem, in short, is what puzzled Huxley: there seems to be no intelligible connection between whatever neural basis gives rise say to a feeling of pain on the one hand, and what the pain feels like on the other hand. This puzzle, which is often called the explanatory gap, served as a starting point to a number of influential arguments - the so-called knowledge and the conceivability arguments - for the conclusion that consciousness cannot be accounted in a physicalistic framework. Several panels deal with these and other classical arguments; there will be a general overview of the arguments, and one lecture specifically devoted to conceivability arguments.
  • As our earlier example suggests, pain is often taken as the paradigm case of the qualitative or phenomenal state that is in principle resistant to purely physicalistic or naturalistic accounts. One panel in the course discusses the prospects of objectivist and subjectivist accounts of pain and considers the chances of closing the explanatory gap.
  • A number of philosophers replied to anti-physicalist arguments from consciousness by acknowledging that certain aspects of the mind, the subjective qualities of experience - also known as qualia - resist physicalistic reduction. Defenders of this view often compartmentalize the mental into a qualitative and an intentional realm, arguing that the problem of consciousness and anti-physicalism emerges mainly for the first type of phenomena. This issue will be discussed and critically assessed in a separate panel of the course.