Years ago, I was a different person. I looked different, thought differently, acted differently. And yet I am also the same person; there is no doubt in my mind that the “I” of, say, 10 years ago is fundamentally the same person as the one now writing this review.
Evidently “I” cannot be identified neatly as this set of muscles and bones, thoughts and feelings—although all those are certainly a part of me. Actions and experiences, states of mind and of body: take them altogether, and still they do not add up to the “I” I recognize. Where is that “I,” that elusive self?
Yeats asked the question in poetic language in “Among School Children”: “O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Now William Barrett turns the question on modern philosophers and finds their answers consistently inadequate. Since the beginning of the modern epoch, philosophers have found themselves frustrated, stymied, and at last driven to increasing lengths of absurdity in their attempts to explain human consciousness.
Ironically, Yeats makes a cameo appearance in Death of the Soul, as an illustration of the nonsensical propositions to which modern philosophy has given birth. In a devastating argument against the notion that a computer could write poetry, Barrett points to the dramatic development of Yeats’s art, the palpable effect that age brought to his poetry. Could a computer be similarly influenced by its experiences? Of course not, because a computer is not conscious.
But there it is again: consciousness—the “I” behind my thoughts. David Hume insisted that human consciousness is no more than a collection of sense impressions. Translated into contemporary scientific idiom, perhaps we could say that Hume’s consciousness is simply a matter of electronic impulses. And if that is true, then of course a computer could do anything that a man can do. So the silly notion that a computer could write poetry is not simply a product of vapors in Silicon Valley. On the contrary, as Barrett demonstrates, it is a logical outgrowth of the ideas that have dominated philosophy since the 17th century.
At the outset, modern philosophy earnestly imitated the methods of the “New Science” that had revolutionized our understanding of the world. But Barrett points out that the principal heroes of the “New Science” were deeply religious men. Isaac Newton, in particular, spent more time meditating on theology than on physics. These men had learned to study nature as a series of empirical, material objects and forces; still they never doubted the simultaneous existence of a spiritual realm. Only when Descartes retired to his solitary room, to emerge with his “Cogito,” did philosophy cut human consciousness loose of its moorings in the soul.
To trace the history of modern philosophy from that point of origin to its present predicament would require unusual insight. But William Barrett is equal to the challenge. And Barrett is not only an acute analyst but also an engaging writer. He skips lightly from one thinker to another and back, viewing each philosopher through the prism of this one question: the nature of consciousness. Occasionally he interrupts his own argument and launches onto what seems a tangential issue; careless readers might not notice how artfully those tangents are devised. Of course any serious student of philosophy will find flaws in some of his observations. (1, for one, cannot accept his conclusion that Descartes and Locke were sincerely religious thinkers.) But Barrett’s goal is not to summarize all of modern philosophy; he is concentrating on one particular theme, and in that context his analysis is remarkably incisive.
So the reader follows Barrett’s thesis as one follows an adventure. The work of Locke or Berkeley takes on life in the space of a few pages. Viewed through Barrett’s lens, Leibnitz is a surprisingly sympathetic philosopher, while Hume seems wholly inadequate. Kant—on whom Barrett rightly concentrates—looms as the single prodigious genius to dominate the discussion of consciousness; yet even Kant’s system is fundamentally flawed. As he approaches our own time, Barrett finds philosophy diverging ever further from sanity. Hegel is impossibly vague, Sartre is superficial, Wittgenstein muddled on the question of consciousness. Finally, with the deconstructionists and the patrons of “artificial intelligence,” modern philosophy clearly reveals the death wish which, Barrett persuasively argues, it has carried within itself since Descartes.
Although he speaks of “consciousness,” “mind,” and “self” interchangeably, Barrett reveals something in his subtitle: “Death of the Soul.” On several occasions the author contrasts the disembodied consciousness of the modern philosophers with traditional Christian notions about self and identity. So although the message of the book is negative—a demonstration that modern philosophy has reached the point of exhaustion—Barrett suggests that a philosophical solution may be found in the restoration of Christian sensibilities, in particular the rediscovery of the soul. Better yet, he leaves his reader with the tantalizing hope that he himself will soon turn his attention to that ambitious project.
[Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer, by William Barrett (New York: Doubleday) $16.95]