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Book Review - Physicalism and Its Discontents
Physicalism and Its Discontents
by Carl Gillett and Barry Loewer(editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Jeremy Wanderer, Ph.D.
Sep 4th 2002

Bold metaphysical claims of the form ‘everything there is is X’, where X could be something such as water or mind or matter and such like, are familiar features of the philosophical landscape. In a certain sense, the doctrine of physicalism involves just such a bold claim, to the effect that everything there is is physical, or, as it is more often put more precisely in contemporary parlance, everything supervenes on the physical. In another sense however, physicalism is less bold than other such metaphysical claims, since most formulations of physicalism fail to prescribe just what the physical is, beyond transferring responsibility for answering this question to the findings of the physical sciences. (In this sense, physicalism differs from materialism, for the latter does prescribe just what the X is, involving a distinct conception of matter).

As the editors of this collection of essays note in the preface, some tacit acceptance of physicalism has exerted an influence over much contemporary philosophy, and the aim of the collection is to subject this doctrine to a degree of critical scrutiny. The seventeen essays are divided into three sections. The first contains essays sympathetic to physicalism, including attempts at a precise formulation, tracing its historical development, an account of its relationship with physics and a justifcatory defence of its doctrinal status. Essays in the second section are largely critical of aspects of physicalism, including a focus on its metaphysical presuppositions and methodological implications. The third section focuses on the ramifications that the doctrine has for the study of consciousness, containing essays both for and against the possibility of a physicalist account in this area.

The relative lengths of the sections is revealing, with the first section lasting almost two hundred pages as opposed to the seventy or so pages of the second. Crude though such a measure may be, it reflects the fact that there is a distinct disparity in the depth of the discussion between the two sections. The first section contains a series of arguments in favour of physicalism and  poses problems facing prominent ‘physicalist opponents’ such as Davidson, Burge, McDowell and Hornsby. Neither the arguments nor the problems are addressed in the second section. Further, well-known challenges for physicalism, particularly questions that arise from the issues of meaning and intentionality, are largely ignored. (Indeed, the terms do not even feature in the book’s index). Whilst it may justifiably be claimed that such arguments are well discussed elsewhere and need no duplication here, these issues nonetheless motivate much current physicalist discontent and their complete omission makes the project of a critical evaluation of ‘the reigning physicalist weltanschauung’ significantly incomplete.

Reflection on essays in the first section suggests a distinction between what could be called a ‘minimal ontological physicalism’ and a broader ‘doctrinal physicalism’. The former sees physicalism as nothing more than the ontological claim highlighted above, whilst the latter sees physicalism as comprising a series of related claims forming a fuller worldview. Doctrinal physicalism thus combines the metaphysical claim with others, including a commitment to reductionism, methodological naturalism, the unity of science, the causal closure of the physical world and so on. Most of the essays in the first section focus solely on matters of metaphysics; some (e.g. papers by Papineau, Loewer) explicitly deny that such minimal physicalism has any implications for methodology at all, whilst others (e.g. papers by Rey, Robinson) do consider the implications of a physicalist ontology for questions methodology and reductionism. Either way, it is the ontological question that dominates the essays in this collection and therein lies its great strength and contribution to contemporary discussion in philosophy of mind.

The lay reader looking for a clear overview of the current debate surrounding physicalism may be best advised to look elsewhere; no introductory essay is provided and some of the discussion is technical and assumes a great deal of background knowledge. However, anyone looking for a state-of-the-art collection of essays discussing current issues in metaphysics of mind and its implications for consciousness and mental causation will find this collection useful, rich and provocative in places - even if it does full short of providing the overall critique of physicalism that it promises.


© 2002 Jeremy Wanderer


Dr. Jeremy Wanderer is a lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town.