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Galen Strawson

Things That Bother Me

Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc.

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book contains a number of essays (and an interview transcript) on philosophical questions. It isn't meant to be read straight through, which partly explains why there is some overlapping and repetition. The essays vary in difficulty and technicality, some having been written for a professional audience, but Strawson writes clearly and informally and he sustains the reader's attention because he is talking about things that matter for how we think about ourselves.

The essays revolve round a number of themes. One of these is free will, on which I have long found Strawson to be particularly illuminating (see my review of his Freedom and Belief (1986).

Much writing about free will centres on determinism—whether all events, including our moral choices, are completely determined by pre-existing causes. Strawson holds that this is the wrong question; whether determinism is true or false, ultimately free choice is impossible because what we do depends on our character, and that is something we cannot choose. So there can be no ultimate responsibility for our acts.

Almost everyone finds this conclusion very difficult to accept psychologically, as does Strawson himself, although he is sure it is true. Asked by an interviewer whether he has found Buddhist meditation helpful in achieving some degree of acceptance. Strawson replies that he tried this as a Cambridge undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was a "flower child" with hair down to his waist (a phase which he describes in a short memoir at the end of the book). He tried again quite recently, using a secular form of meditation, but failed to persevere. He finds philosophy more effective.

Insofar as I've got closer, it's just living a life and the long and devoted practice of philosophy. I think philosophy really does change one over time. It makes one's mind large in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy is itself a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of "spiritual"; or at least that it can be and has been for me. It would be very surprising if intense training of the mind couldn't change the shape of the mind as much as intense training of the body changes the shape of the body.
No doubt as a result of my Catholic upbringing, I've had a long-standing interest in the free will question throughout my adult life and I've read everything I could find on it. I've had more help in this from Strawson than from anyone else.

Another philosophical topic that I've been equally fascinated by is the mind–body problem. Strawson tackles this an essay titled 'The Silliest Claim'. The claim in question is the denial of conscious experience. "Next to this denial…every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green."

Strawson traces the historical development of this denial beginning in the twentieth century. It has become widespread among philosophers of mind, neuroscientists, and workers in artificial intelligence. There have been two main causes: the rise of the behaviourist approach in psychology and "the general triumph of a wholly naturalistic approach to reality". Both were good things in their way (and Strawson identifies himself as a thorough-going naturalist) but they have "spiralled out of control".

In describing the denial as "silly", Strawson is quoting the philosopher C.D.Broad, who wrote: "by a 'silly' theory I mean one that may be held at the time one is talking or writing professionally but which only an inmate of a lunatic asylum would think of carrying into daily life." Strawson also cites Bertrand Russell, who remarked that philosophers can say absurd things because they have "a long training in absurdity".

Strawson himself takes the centrality of conscious experience to be essential to a genuinely naturalistic viewpoint. His own answer to the mind–body question is a form of panpsychism, as he explains in another essay, 'Real Naturalism'.

Another contemporary idea that Strawson attacks is the view that we are all constantly engaged in "self-making narrative" and in the end we become this autobiographical narrative. This relates to the idea that there is a psychological distinction between people who think of their lives as extended over long periods of time and stretching into both past and future, and those who live in the present. Strawson himself is in the second category. I had never thought about this myself and it's something I want to reflect on.

This is a short book but I hope I've conveyed that it is an extraordinarily rich one. It demands multiple readings.


%T Things That Bother Me
%S Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc.
%A Strawson, Galen
%I New York Review of Books
%C New York
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-1-68137-221-1
%P 239pp
%K philosophy
%O notes and references
%O kindle version downloaded from Amazon 2019

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