It seems to me that we have come this way before. Some of the signposts are new, perhaps — “Bacteria,” “Bach,” and so on — but the scenery looks very familiar, if now somewhat overgrown, and it is hard not to feel that the path is the same one that Daniel Dennett has been treading for five decades. I suppose it would be foolish to expect anything else. As often as not, it is the questions we fail to ask — and so the presuppositions we leave intact — that determine the courses our arguments take; and Dennett has been studiously avoiding the same set of questions for most of his career.
In a sense, the entire logic of From Bacteria to Bach and Back (though not, of course, all the repetitious details) could be predicted simply from Dennett’s implicit admission on page 364 that no philosopher of mind before Descartes is of any consequence to his thinking. The whole pre-modern tradition of speculation on the matter — Aristotle, Plotinus, the Schoolmen, Ficino, and so on — scarcely qualifies as prologue. And this means that, no matter how many times he sets out, all his journeys can traverse only the same small stretch of intellectual territory. After all, Descartes was remarkable not because, as Dennett claims, his vision was especially “vivid and compelling” — in comparison to the subtleties of earlier theories, it was crude, bizarre, and banal — but simply because no one before him had attempted systematically to situate mental phenomena within a universe otherwise understood as a mindless machine. It was only thus that the “problem” of the mental was born.
The modern scientific novum organum — as Francis Bacon dubbed the new rationality that he hoped would replace classical and medieval sophistries — achieved its first systematic expression in the seventeenth century. With its ambition to perfect a method of pure induction, it proposed to the imagination the idea of a “real” physical world hidden behind the apparent one, an occult realm of pure material causation, utterly devoid of all the properties of mind, most especially intentional purposes. From at least the time of Galileo, a division was introduced between what Wilfrid Sellars called the “manifest image” and the “scientific image” — between, that is, the phenomenal world we experience and that imperceptible order of purely material forces that composes its physical substrate. And, at least at first, the divorce was amicable, inasmuch as phenomenal qualities were still granted a certain legitimacy; they were simply surrendered to the custody of the immaterial soul. But mind was now conceived as an exception within the frame of nature.
In the pre-modern vision of things, the cosmos had been seen as an inherently purposive structure of diverse but integrally inseparable rational relations — for instance, the Aristotelian aitia, which are conventionally translated as “causes,” but which are nothing like the uniform material “causes” of the mechanistic philosophy. And so the natural order was seen as a reality already akin to intellect.
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