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Book Review - Consciousness in Action
Consciousness in Action
by S. L. Hurley
Harvard University Press, 1998
Review by Jordi Fernández
Aug 9th 2002

In Consciousness in Action, Susan L. Hurley attacks a popular picture of thought in contemporary philosophy of mind. According to this picture, for any given subject, thought is what mediates between perception and action. More specifically, perception is viewed as a mechanism that provides the subject with inputs of information from the environment, and action is constituted by those bodily movements that the perceptual inputs generate as outputs. The mind, then, is the set of mechanisms that transforms those perceptual inputs into behavioral outputs. Let us call this the "input-output picture" of mind.

The main thesis of Consciousness in Action is that the input-output picture of mind is the result of conflating two different levels of description of subjects as information-processing systems. In order to explain cognitive behavior, one may attribute certain states that we individuate partly by reference to their content to the relevant subject (typically, beliefs and desires), and view her behavior as what a rational subject would do if she were in such states, given the laws of folk psychology. This is the "personal level" of description. Alternatively, one may see the subject as a mechanical system, purely governed by causal laws. This is the "sub-personal level" of description. (Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the sub-personal level, since one may take the subject to be the object of different "special sciences", such as biology or chemistry.) Now, Hurley's main tenet regarding the input-output picture of mind is that it conflates the distinction between perception and action, which applies at the personal level, and the input-output distinction, which applies at the sub-personal level.    

This thesis is argued in connection to one problem through the book, namely, how to explain the unity of consciousness. The unity of consciousness is the feature of some of our mental states whereby they are experienced as united. Thus, for instance, when I see a bus approaching, its shape and color, as well as its movement, are experienced by me as properties of a single object. In Consciousness in Action, Hurley argues that the unity of consciousness has both personal and sub-personal elements. At the personal argument, the unity of consciousness is partly constituted by the fact that a minimum consistency of the intentional states that we attribute to the subject in order to make sense of her behavior is necessary for her to experience them as united. The rejection of the input-output picture of the mind manifests itself most clearly in the explanation of the sub-personal elements of the unity of consciousness. For it is argued that both action and perception are, at the sub-personal level, complex functions that include not only functions from inputs that originate in the environment to outputs that originate in the subject, but also feedback functions whose outputs return back to the subject as inputs. The idea then seems to be that, at the sub-personal level, both perception and action share some of these dispositions, which makes them codependent. This codependence is what we experience as "having a perspective" when we act on the basis of our view of the situation we are in.

The position that Hurley argues for is extremely original and most interesting. The book is well argued and clearly written. It is divided into ten essays that are, to a large extent, self-contained. (In fact, some of the issues above and some of the arguments involved appear repeatedly in different essays.) Its intended audience is interdisciplinary, with some passages that will be more accessible to philosophers and some passages that will be more accessible to scientists. No matter what group you are in, this is definitely a book that you will find worth reading.


© 2002 Jordi Fernández


Jordi Fernández is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Philosophy Department at Bowdoin College.