Mon Jul 28, 2003

Completely Mental

Over the past few weeks, many analytic philosophers—including my wife and several of her colleagues—have received a free copy of a book called The Elements of Mentality: The foundations of psychology and philosophy by David Hume. Not, you understand, the David Hume who wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and other well-known books. He has been dead for some time. This David Hume, as is discreetly noted on the inside back flap is a pseudonym. Why pick “David Hume” out of all possible noms de plume? I suppose it can’t hurt to have your book shelved along with ones written by the most influential English-speaking philosopher in the past three hundred years.

The book is one of those Fundamental Theory of It All books. The letter accompanying the freebie copies says, in part:

The Elements of Mentality is a momentous undertaking, offering a unique articulation of the foundation or first principles of psychology. It does so by identifying the elemental mental experiences … and by describing “mentation”—the cyclical organization of those elemental experiences. The author contends that the resulting elemental model of mentality provides a basis for the analysis of any psychological phenomena. Showing how the structure of all knowledge emerges from this model, the author concludes that the model is also the foundation of philosophy.

Woah. Pretty heady stuff. A quick skim of the book reveals the author as the kind of person who Lays Out His View as opposed to providing anything much in the way of argument. The exposition gets underway immediately, the tone is confident throughout and there is a refreshingly complete absence of footnotes, endnotes, bibliographical references, or passing mentions of any philosophers living or dead, with the exception of (the real) David Hume who gets a quote before the table of contents and Rousseau, who gets a line in the Conclusion. This style is not unknown amongst some great philosophers, but is not by itself sufficient to make a book a great work of philosophy.

“David Hume”—a Google search suggests that Sid Barnett is the author’s real name—argues that there are five elements of mentality, viz, external sensory experiences, internal bodily experiences, emotional experiences, intellectual experiences and experiences of the will. These are the irreducible, fundamental building blocks of mental life. “There are no other types of experiences, no intermediate categories, no hybrids.” This doesn’t sound very plausible. (How to classify experiences such as this?) These five elements combine in a particular unvarying cyclic order to form a “unit of mentation.” The goal here is an analytic description of the flow of consciousness, I think. From here, for reasons which remain unclear to me, the author believes he can get to “a grand philosophy … of the structure of all knowledge.” He attempts this in the short Part Two of the book, which seems to be the most confused bit of the whole thing. It consists mainly of a string of definitions and little argument. Then he moves quickly on to the “Mind/Matter Problem” where further confusion ensues. Even a non-philosopher like me can see problems with, for example, his analysis of how to distinguish causation from mere correlation:

Probable causation … is suggested by a history of consecutive occurences of C[ause] and E[ffect] about T[ime], provided that the occurences of C are indeterminate in time and varied in circumstances. It is the varied and indeterminate occurences of C that suggest the consecutive occurences of E are not mere coincidence…

Alas, the co-occurence of Cs and Es about Ts is what produces correlation in the first place, so it’s not much use citing this condition as the way to discriminate between it and causation. Later, Barnett notices that causation is closely related to constitution:

For example one might say the that the properties of H2O molecules cause the properties of water. Water is composed from H2O molecules; therefore the properties of water are the properties of H2O molecules.

This is false as well. Water can have many properties (volume, color, wetness) that H2O molecules do not have. Here Barnett seems to be reaching for some concepts—like constitution or supervenience—that are out there in the literature. But relying on them might necessitate actually citing someone, which would spoil the sui generis feel of the enterprise.

I got a bit sick of the book at this point. It’s all very reminiscent of the A.M. Monius affair a few years ago. This was the (slightly less pretentitous) pseudonym of a New Jersey businessman with a hankering for metaphysics. His “Institute” offered well-known metaphysicians a lot of money to write “serious” (by which was explicitly meant “favorable”) reviews of his longish paper “Coming to Understanding.” A bunch of them took the bait, with varying degrees of publicly-acknowledged guilt about prostituting their critical faculties. David Hume appears to want to attract the attention of philosophers in a similar way. I wonder whether this sort of thing is becoming a trend? And why is Sid Barnett using a pseudonym in the first place? Is he under a cloud for some other reason? Or is using the name “David Hume” just a cheap way to attract undeserved attention?

The letter sent out with the book says the publisher would “value any brief comments … about the thesis advanced in the book and your analysis of the course adoption possibilities for it.” I doubt it’ll get adopted in any Philosophy courses, partly because he’s not offering any hard cash but mostly because the book doesn’t seem to be any good at all. Perhaps someone teaching a seminar on “Boundary Maintenance on the Fringes of Academia” would be interested. But that’s just what a career academic like myself would say, “David Hume” might reply. Go read the Prologue or look at the Table of Contents for yourself, and see what you think.