Review of Thomas Metzinger's Being No-One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity
Graham (George) & Kennedy (Ralph)
Source: Mind - 113/450 (April 2004)
Paper - Abstract

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Excerpts

  1. In the book under review Thomas Metzinger attempts to provide a naturalized account of consciousness, subjectivity, de se attitudes, the first-person perspective1, the phenomenal self and kindred matters. A unifying thread, announced on the first page of the book as its main thesis, is 'that no such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever was or had a self.' But though we are no one, we have the experience as of being some one. Explaining the nature and possibility of this sort of experience is a key part of Metzinger's project.
  2. An interesting feature of Metzinger's book is that it incorporates a sustained attempt to test the proposed account's ability – see the two chapters devoted to 'neurophenomenological' case studies – to contend with the aberrant and the deviant: agnosia, neglect, blindsight, hallucinations, dreams, anosognosia, identity disorders, phantom limbs, lucid dreams, and so on.
  3. As is perhaps to be expected of a work of virtually limitless scope and ambition, Metzinger's book is not an unqualified success. It is certainly not the easy read the author says he aimed to produce. We anticipate that its great length, repetitiousness, and obscurity – particularly in the philosophical passages – will discourage many readers. A prospective reader would be well-advised to construct and use a glossary while reading the book to keep track of the various meanings of, for instance, 'introspection', and of the welter of different 'constraints' individuated only by subscripts. Coping with references to, say, 'introspection2/4' hundreds of pages beyond the relevant definitions seems a lot to ask of the reader, ... And then there's a virtual blizzard of neologisms- 'mereological intentionality', 'convolved holism', 'Metzinger qualia', and many more that contribute little to the readability of the book. Finally, Metzinger has a penchant for making extraordinarily peculiar assertions which, though they make varying degrees of sense in context, do nothing to facilitate the reader's progress …
  4. Still, an author's failure to produce a readable book is not ipso facto a failure to produce a good book – the history of philosophy bears witness to this – and there is some value in the book Metzinger has given us. It offers an overview of a staggering amount of empirical and theoretical work in the brain sciences and in cognitive psychology, and there are moments when Metzinger seems on the verge of connecting some of this work in an interesting way with some of his own philosophical speculations. Unfortunately, this never comes to much, perhaps because of the author's inadequate sense of the difficulty or even the general shape of the philosophical terrain. More charitably this is the author's own suggestion it may be due to the nature of the enterprise itself. In striving to find a middle way between the humanities and the hard sciences of the mind, the author anticipates that he may please neither the humanist nor the scientist, saying in particular that his treatment of philosophical issues 'will strike all philosophers as much too brief and quite superficial' (p. 4). Excessive brevity is not among this book's faults, but we're inclined to grant Metzinger his second point: the philosophical parts of the book, in so far as we can make sense of them, seem quite superficial and will surely strike many other philosophers as being so.
  5. In our view a major problem with the book is that it falls seriously short of establishing what it calls its main thesis, namely that no such things as selves exist in the world. That a philosopher has denied the existence of the self is not news, as Metzinger certainly knows. What is new in his book is his particular way of explaining why we find the illusion of there being a self so seductive and intractable. But is there really anything to be explained here? Is there really no such thing as the self?
  6. We agree that it would be deeply problematic for scientific psychology and cognitive neuroscience if selves turned out to be numbered among the basic constituents of the world. And we know also that there are philosophers who, for various reasons, find it appropriate to say of anything not in this sense basic that it simply does not exist. Metzinger, though, is not among them. He is happy to say that conscious systems, organisms, and many other things besides, exist in the actual world though they are not fundamental constituents of it.
  7. It may be that Metzinger's denial of the existence of the self is rooted in a deep but unacknowledged Cartesian assumption that only the sort of thing Descartes called a mind or soul should ever count as a self. If this were true, the job of being a self would be bound to remain forever unfilled: the qualifications – being an unextended, indivisible, unique substance with an unchangeable essence could not be met by anything. But why should we think a self had to be anything of the sort? Metzinger is not alone in thinking it should, but we see no reason to agree. Certainly he does not give us any such reason. In particular we find nothing in his book to undermine the thought that, for example, a normal human being is an actually existing subject of experience and as such is a strong candidate for being a self.

Comment:

Review of "Metzinger (Thomas) - Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity".

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