William Seager

The Philosophy of Consciousness of the last Century, or, There and Back Again

The last one hundred years of philosophy’s engagement with consciousness is quite peculiar. We teach our students an ossified tale of the evolution of materialist views of the mind, typically in opposition to the old adversary René Descartes. Much of the story ignores consciousness. It gives very short shrift to the vigorous theorizing about the problem of consciousness of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And yet, as the 21st century dawned there was a strange resurgence of interest in the problem of consciousness and recognition of the deep abiding tensions between traditional materialism (or physicalism) and any adequate account of the place of consciousness in the natural world. New interest in, and a flurry of publications on, such views as Russellian monism, panpsychism and emergentism (and radical materialist replies, such as illusionism, which asserts that consciousness as a distinctive feature of the world simply fails to exist) all testify to how the problem of consciousness has recast philosophical thought in the first quarter of the 21st century.

William Seager will discuss this history and how it led to a new appreciation of some seemingly outdated radical views such as panpsychism and, in particular, neutral monism. The latter is associated with Ernst Mach, William James and Bertrand Russell. But it can be developed in a modern context, leading to a highly interesting account which promises reasonable integration with modern science allowing a kind of active role for consciousness in the world, though leading to some perhaps disturbing conclusions about the nature of the self and temporal experience.

William Seager is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and has taught there for more than thirty years. He mostly works in the philosophy of mind, especially consciousness studies but also has interests in metaphysics, philosophy of science and early modern thought. His most recent book is the edited Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism (2019).