Raymond Tallis is a staunch believer in the uniqueness of human consciousness and maintains that no computer or other artificial intelligence can replicate it. Besides being a philosopher he is also a scientist but has no truck with scientism. He is squarely on the side of the quest for objective truth and against relativism and other postmodernism fads.
This article, intended to introduce his work to Portuguese readers, was first published in Episteme, Lisbon, Year II, Second Series, N^5-6, AutumnWintere 2000.
Enemy of Despair
Presenting Raymond Tallis
By Patrícia Lança
RAYMOND TALLIS IS LITTLE KNOWN in Portugal and yet he has been described in The Times HigherEducation Supplement as one of the most intriguing figures in the current intellectual scene. His central project—affirmation of the uniqueness of human consciousness—would seem at first sight to be a restatement of the obvious. After all, never before in history has mankind been so surrounded by evidence of this uniqueness: from space travel to information technology, from the conquest of disease to the mapping of the human genome, and so much more. All these are products of human consciousness—of the intentional endeavours of individual human beings to work with one another in applying their capacity for rationality—and might be expected to lead rather to hubris than despair. And yet never till the past century, and with mounting stridency in recent decades, has the uniqueness and power of human consciousness been so questioned, or rationality and the possibility of objective knowledge so denigrated. Tallis believes that both in Science and the Humanities there exist influential trends which, from altogether different perspectives, all converge in emptying or at least marginalizing consciousness: either by (in Science) reducing human beings to animals or machines, or else (in the Humanities) by portraying them as helpless victims of social structures. These ideas have seeped out into the media from the laboratory and the academy to become part of received opinion among the educated public. Tallis thinks that what lie at the heart of the problem are erroneous thinking and ignorance of Philosophy.
All those whose interest in current debates in the field of epistemology and what Americans call the ‘culture wars’ was aroused by the Sokal hoax will find in Tallis’s works ample material for reflection. Copious quotations from a number of humanist intellectuals were the main arms of Sokal and Bricmont, thus subjecting certain literary gurus to a wave of ridicule whose ripples may still be observed. Tallis shares with Alan Sokal similar antipathies and the same capacity for documenting the arguments of his adversaries. However, Tallis’s scope is vastly wider: he is also a sharp critic of some trends in Science. He makes every effort to present the positions of those he criticizes as fairly as possible. His use of ridicule is sparing and his arguments are both historical and philosophical
There can be no better introduction to his work than Enemies of Hope. As the author says, this book does not claim to be a work of primary scholarship but a survey and critique of documented arguments and counter-arguments of influential thinkers from the Enlightenment to the present day. As a practising clinician (he is Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and the author of numerous medical works) and knowledgeable in the latest developments in a variety of scientific fields, Tallis is an uncompromising defender of Science against its present and past detractors. But he is severe in his critique of ‘scientism’ and of all forms of reductionism which overlook essential characteristics of what it is to be human. He is unsparing of what he regards as negative trends in evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology and ‘artificial intelligence’ theory (AI), all of which lead to reducing Mind to events in the brain. He is equally critical of the relativism so fashionable among scholars in the Humanities: marxists, freudians, structuralists, post-structuralists and other post-modernist theorists—whose concern seems to be with form rather than with content and who also end up marginalizing and misrepresenting consciousness.
Tallis is no enemy of technology and he is convinced that Science is the most internationally-minded and universalist of all intellectual activities. More than anyone else, its practitioners are able to talk to one another on equal terms across the barriers of language or of ethnic and national origin. As a literary critic and author of both poetry and fiction Tallis also concerns himself with Art, that third activity of the human mind, and where crisis is no less apparent. It is not surprising that here too he is solidly on the side of realism and impatient with its adversaries among practitioners and critics of art and literature.
All of Tallis’s targets have encountered cogent and mounting criticism from others, many of them specialists in the areas concerned. What make his work singularly illuminating and productive are four characteristics. First, he is a trained and thoughtful scientist with an impressive bibliography in his own speciality. He is also sufficiently familiar with quantum physics to have no hesitation in approaching the origin of matter (and of Mind) as an essentially metaphysical question. Second, unlike the majority of scientists, he is not only philosophically educated but possesses a massive erudition in the literature. He is impressively (and unusually) familiar with both modern and contemporary Continental and Anglo-American philosophy, which so often in the past century have had their backs turned on each other. Third, he makes no use of religious or ‘idealist’ arguments but anchors his position firmly in the real world, from which all his thought proceeds, though in no traditional way. His criticisms of certain aspects of neo-Darwinism, for instance, will bring no comfort to creationists. Fourth, he is deeply humanist, passionately concerned with the tragic condition of humanity.
Tallis places chief blame for present intellectual confusion on the continuing divide between the ‘two cultures’ of Science and the Humanities, famously denounced by C.P. Snow half a century ago. However, he remains an optimist and believes it is in the coming together of the ‘two cultures’ that there is hope for a better future.
It would, of course, be self-contradictory for scientists to denigrate the Enlightenment. Tallis devotes considerable attention to its defence against those fashionable libels of what Isaiah Berlin called ‘one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind’. He examines the diversity of Enlightenment as well as of Counter-Enlightenment thinkers and the positive and negative aspects of each side. Nevertheless, he has no doubt that it is among the latter, from Joseph de Maistre onwards, that we can find the intellectual roots of tyranny and not in the allegedly arid area of reason, science and technology to which the Enlightenment gave rise. The heart of what leads to fascism, Tallis is convinced, is hostility towards rationality and nostalgia for a mythical past.
In Part I of Enemies of Hope Tallis examines what he calls ‘mythohistory’ or the metamythology of writers such as Dudley Young who, borrowing from Darwinian evolutionary theory, look to mankind’s simian ancestry to explain irrational behaviour in contemporary humans. Young presents an idealized view of primitive man who, he alleges, succeeded in overcoming animal brutality and developing social order through ritual and a generalized sacralization of all aspects of life. This author recommends as a cure for today’s ‘disenchantment’ some sort of return to pagan irrationalism to compensate for the ‘spiritual aridity’ fostered by science. Tallis dissects the arguments presented in Young’s widely-read book and shows their inherent contradictions. After all, the author in his attacks on science and rationality has recourse to both: evolutionary theory, anthropological findings (often dubious) and much (though often vague) ‘recent research’.
Tallis presents a detailed examination of ‘mythohistory’ because he sees it as paradigmatic of the kulturkritik which manifests itself in many other fields. As a medical doctor, in his daily practice in touch with the miseries of many of the aged, and with experience of medical practice in Africa, Tallis has very little patience with those comfortably installed academics who mourn for the alleged virtues of a bygone age and look on science and technology as responsible for current woes. It is singularly inappropriate, he thinks, for people who would not for a moment tolerate in their own flesh the discomforts and ills so common until very recently, to sentimentalize over the imagined delights of pre-industrial life. Tallis does not believe that ‘the spiritual price of rational societies outweighs the material and other gains associated with them’.
…few critics of modernity would prefer untreatable cystitis to anomie, chronic malnutrition to alienation, and few would find being under the thrall of the priest, the local squire, an unaccountable government or an unchallengeable workplace bully in an organic community better than living in an atomic society.
And though it is true that the horrors of the pre-industrial world have been replaced by the horrendous consequences for the planet of unregulated technology (nuclear weapons, pollution, threats to the ozone layer, extinction of species, etc.) it is no less true that it is in science and technology that the tools to remedy these ills can be found if political will exists to do so. Tallis’s provocative views include disagreement with the third-worldist misconception that improved affluence in the West has been bought at the cost of a deterioration in conditions in other parts of the world. Such affluence, which owes itself to ‘western’ science and technology, will only be available to all mankind when there is universal access to what some humanist intellectuals so busily denigrate and this is a political question which cannot be used to criticize Science and its achievements.
Though Tallis believes firmly in the possibility of a better world, his defence of reason does not make him an orthodox adept of utopianism. He endorses Popper’s opposition to holism, adding that: The critique of blueprint rationalism on the grounds that no one can calculate the overall effects of social intervention has recently derived striking support from developments in the application of mathematics to dynamical systems. Chaos theory has shown how the effect of small inputs into complex systems may be totally unexpected and quite out of proportion to the size of the input. These effects may also be wide-ranging and long-lasting. Uncontrolled instabilities—as well as surprising stabilities—emerge in unexpected ways.
Though the philosophes of the Enlightenment entertained Utopian dreams, and some of these led to disaster, it is not to these that the responsibility for dystopias must be attributed, for there existed any number of utopian fantasies before them, from Plato’s Republic onwards. Indeed it is also true that some twentieth-century horrors have to do neither with Enlightenment nor Counter-Enlightenment ideas.
The recent genocide in Rwanda—in which, in just over 100 days, nearly one million men, women and children in a small country suffered a Stone Age death at the hands of their fellow-countrymen—is equally illustrative….The preferred weapon of the Hutus was not the atomic bomb nor even the machine gun, but the machete…. Genocidal bloodbaths have been sickeningly common in history and are not peculiar to advanced, industrial societies.
Tallis’s main works are an elaboration of arguments persuasively introduced, in considerable depth, in Enemies of Hope. His work in Philosophy of Mind: The Explicit Animal, A Defence of Human Consciousness brings to bear both his specialized knowledge of neurology and his profound study of the writings of philosophers in this field. His concern is to tease out the differences between animal and human consciousness and to show that neither can be reproduced by machines, however much cognitive theorists and neuro-philosophers may have found certain useful parallels in information technology.
In Not Saussure: A critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory Tallis analyses the misuse by his successors of the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. The humour with which the author so frequently makes difficult arguments accessible is present in the punning title, which an English reader would have no difficulty in recognizing as ‘not so sure’. This is meant to indicate that the theories of Saussure’s epigones are dubious indeed and constitute quite unwarranted extrapolations from the original hypotheses put forward by Saussure regarding language. Tallis regards the lucubrations of a whole series of maîtres à penser, from Lévi-Strauss to Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and their Anglo-American disciples, as ‘theorrhoea’ and demonstrates the errors and internal incoherence of their views.
In one of his latest works, On the Edge of Certainty: Philosophical Explorations, Tallis explains his theory of knowledge and examines various approaches to the problem of Truth. Here again he shows the grounds for his opposition to ‘neuro-philosophy’ and the conclusions of cognitive psychologists.
One of Tallis’s earliest non-medical works is In Defenceof Realism. This is an examination of the flight from realism in contemporary art and literature, the theories and ideology that attempt to justify this flight and an elaboration of his own position that aesthetics has more than a little to do with truth and epistemology. It may well be that the concerns in this work, first published a dozen years ago, were what propelled him into developing his positions in the more specifically philosophical books that were to come later. But his concern with art has persisted. In Newton’s Sleep he returns to artistic and aesthetic problems and examines the anti-science bias so prevalent in the arts.
Realism, Existence and Truth
No serious scientific worker can for a minute play with the self-defeating idea of solipsism. Descartes’ thought experiment about a malign entity who causes us to believe in a world that does not exist and in which the individual self is alone in the universe, for all its apparent logical coherence, simply does not work. Scientists in their professional activities, and all of us in our daily doings, base our actions on the assumption that the world and its contents are real, even if some of our beliefs about them may be untrue. Tallis stresses that before we can even begin to talk about truth or falsehood we must assume existence. Truth or falsehood (TF) are properties of propositions and not of the things about which propositions are made.
As a critical admirer of Wittgenstein he cites the remarks made three weeks before that Anglo-Austrian philosopher’s death: ‘It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better, it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back.’ Tallis adds his own comment that ‘the problem with most theories is not that they start too far back, but that they don’t start far back enough.’
The philosophical debate, at least of late, has been entered too far downstream. Discussion of the nature of truth overlooks the extraordinariness of the fact that, for us humans, there is something called the truth and that this, just as the existence of something called falsehood, requires thinking about before one engages in the business of establishing criteria for differentiating the true from the false.
Tallis, who in his The Explicit Animal elaborates his ideas about the importance of explicitness, exposes the emptiness of certain concepts of truth exemplified in the ‘null possibility universe’ discussed by Derek Parfit. This leading British philosopher suggested that even if there were nothing at all in the universe, no human beings, no atoms, no stars, there would still exist the truth that this was so. Tallis points out that what is ignored here is that truth-bearers are a precondition of truths. He maintains that no ‘descriptions—and consequently the truthscorresponding to them—have discrete existence prior to the existence of human consciousness(es) making them explicit.’ He shows that overlooking explicitness leads to conceptual mistakes which arise in ‘deflationary’ theories of truth thus rendering them ‘trivially analytic or empty’. The work of Tarski and Frege was used by philosophers such as the Cambridge mathematician F. P. Ramsay to make the notion of truth redundant. The aims of the two great logicians were, however, narrowly technical ones: ‘of defining the notion of truth for the sentences of formal languages in terms of the referents of their primitive names and predicates’. To imagine that the formulas of Logic cover the entirety of the notion of truth is to reduce this to a trivial tautology. In closely argued pages in which he examines classical theories of truth, Tallis concludes that existence conditions must be taken account of before looking for criteria to differentiate truth from falsehood. Tallis’s main concern, however, is to examine pragmatic theories of truth which relativize truth and knowledge to organic need (as in neo-Darwinism) or to social pressures as do the postmodernist relativists.
Tallis examines the implications of developments in modern physics and extrapolations from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which have led to a bolstering of relativism with some thinkers, sometimes to the risible extent demonstrated in the Sokal hoax. A number of such intellectuals, mainly non-scientists, have concluded from a misunderstanding both of recent developments in physics and of scientific method itself that science has proved there to be no such thing as truth or objective knowledge. This notion has met with wide acceptance especially in the mass media where a smattering of deconstructionist theory and ignorance of science conspire to propagate superficial and harmful ideas. In this respect, of course, partly unjustified extrapolations from Kuhnian interpretation of science have been especially influential.
A vulgarization of certain of Karl Popper’s positions has also been similarly misused. However, (whatever criticisms may be made of some aspects of his epistemological approach) Popper in fact argued that rather than trying for absolute truth what science does is to develop better and better theories. He did not himself regard this principle as opening the way to relativism. On the contrary it precisely did not imply that one theory was good as another. Nor does Popper’s insistence on the priority of theory over observation diminish the importance of facts. ‘The theories drive us to unearth the facts but they do not determine them…facts are made explicit, are uncovered, by theories, but they are not internal to them.’ To recognize that truth is never absolute, does not mean we must regard it as relative. Objective knowledge is possible and the pursuit of it, the search for truth about the world, is the noblest aim of science and should, indeed, be that of philosophy.
Brain and Mind
As has been indicated, Tallis is no adept of Cartesian dualism. Neither is he a monist for he is deeply opposed to the notion that everything can be reduced to the physical. He himself admits that he inclines towards neutral monism, as for a time did Bertrand Russell. That is, he believes that nature has both a physical and a mental aspect and the latter, consciousness, cannot be reduced to the physical. He devotes an entire book to elaborating on what he means by calling man an ‘explicit animal’ and this concept is central to his theory of Mind and to his conclusion that consciousness exists as a uniquely human attribute, which cannot be replicated in any conceivable computer.
As the biochemist Behe says at the beginning of his notable work on the challenge of molecular biology to the Darwinian paradigm ‘understanding how something works is not the same as understanding how it came to be.’ Now, Tallis knows a great deal about how the brain works but he acknowledges frankly that neither he nor anybody else really knows how consciousness works and even less how it came into being. Brain science can tell us a great deal about how various components of consciousness work through perception and the neural networks: smells, colours, spatial dimensions, etc. as the brain interprets them, both in human beings and many other animals. Neurology has provided considerable knowledge in these areas and there can be no doubt that the advances in brain-mapping will do much for medicine. But this is a far cry from explaining consciousness and its human variety—self-consciousness.
Tallis approvingly quotes one of Nagel’s arguments against physicalism. It is entirely conceivable that science could discover everything about a bat, its physiology, nervous system, etc. What it can never discover is what it is like to be a bat. Neither can the bat tell us this. In the case of man, it is also conceivable that scientists may come to be able to tell us everything to be known about man as a physical organism (his physiology, his nervous system, a map of the brain, the human genome and so on) but technology cannot put into algorithmic form what it is like to be a man or a woman. The individual human being, however, unlike the bat and other animals, which certainly do have a form of consciousness, can tell one another about this. They can reflect upon their own consciousness and adduce theories, as the author and his reader do. They experience ‘qualia’ i.e. they know what it is to have an experience (pain, joy, seeing redness and so on) as distinct from the material things which provoke these experiences. Humans are intentional beings, able to make complex plans, short and long-range, and are capable of explaining them. In other words human beings have a consciousness of self. However, that essential part of human consciousness, the self, (the ‘knowing that I know’, the ‘knowing that it is I who does the knowing’) has not been scientifically explained. Indeed cognitive scientists seem to disregard or at least marginalize the problem. Those who do deal with the question have a physicalist approach, believing that while they cannot yet explain consciousness or the self, that it will eventually be explained in physicalist terms precisely how Mind can be reduced to events in the brain. Tallis, in considering the differences between consciousness and the impressive performance of computers (so often superior in some capacities to the human brain) cites the well-known thought experiment of the Chinese room proposed by the American philosopher J.R. Searle. Here an individual who knows nothing of the Chinese language is placed in a room where he is provided with a large number of inscriptions in Chinese. He is given instructions in his own language about how to give answers in groups of Chinese characters to certain sets of questions also in Chinese characters. He knows nothing of their content or meaning and proceeds only according to their form. With a little concentration he is able to perform this task but of course knows no more about the Chinese language than he did to start with. Searle concludes that this is a fair description of what a computer actually does. AI theorists have subjected Searle’s position to much criticism and in responding to these Searle conceded that perhaps his argument would not apply if ‘wetware’, or some biological element, were introduced into computer technology. However, this would not appear to resolve the objections put forward by Tallis. If the programmer knows neither precisely what consciousness is nor how it comes into being he cannot programme with consciousness either the hardware or the ‘wetware’. He cannot put into algorithmic or any other form what he knows nothing about. Tallis devotes many pages to careful consideration of the claims of AI theorists including those who suggest that when a certain degree of complexity is reached consciousness somehow ‘emerges’, a notion that has just about the same explanatory force as the ancient belief in spontaneous generation.
In his critique of AI and cognitive science Tallis discusses the confusions that arise from the use of the ‘transferred epithet’. ‘Both biological and computational models of consciousness depend for their apparent plausibility upon the use of terms that have a multiplicity of meanings.’ We become so accustomed to the use of certain common terminology that ‘we have ceased to notice how we are conferring intentionality upon systems that are themselves only prosthetic extensions of the conscious human body.’ It is thus forgotten ‘that seeing a computer as anything other than an unconscious automaton is crude animism.’ ‘If you make machines into minds by describing them in mental terms, you are already half-way to making minds into machines.’ And this is ‘what lies at the root of the myth that modern neurological science has somehow explained, or will explain, or has advanced our understanding of, what consciousness truly is.’ He catalogues a number of these terms and shows how they misrepresent what machines are doing. In other words there is an element of Orwellian ‘newspeak’ in ‘computerese’.
Addressing himself to the claims of cognitive theorists such as Johnson-Laird and the Churchlands Tallis raises two key questions: first, whether the mind is essentially a calculator and, second, whether computers actually calculate. ‘Calculating machines are extensions of the mind, yes; but they are mind-like (or perform mental functions) only in conjunction with minds. They are mental prostheses or orthoses, not stand-alone minds. In the absence of a consciousness derived from somewhere else, the electrical events occurring in computers are just that—electrical events—and not calculations.' Tallis elaborates on these premises to refute the unwarranted claims of cognitive scientists. He demonstrates the close connection between these and those of the AI theorists who tend to use each other’s discoveries and arguments for mutual reinforcement.
Evolutionary approaches to consciousness
Evolutionary psychology is in a similar predicament to that of the AI and neuro-philosophers. Its problems, however, are rather more complex and, given generalized adoption of the neo-Darwinian paradigm, its arguments seem so plausible as to have gained wide public acceptance. It has one foot in scientism, in that it has pretensions to scientific method (without testability), and another foot in the pragmatism that informs the stance of relativist humanists, namely the notion of interest behind or underneath consciousness. Moreover, the position of cognitive scientists, mentioned earlier, is itself in accord with the core idea of evolutionary psychology that living organisms came to develop consciousness, culminating in its particular human manifestations, in consequence of the struggle for survival. In sum, consciousness somehow emerged in certain organisms because it has survival value. Though he does not question Darwinian theory insofar as micro-evolution is concerned, Tallis thinks it necessary to question this basic assumption. Even from the neo-Darwinian perspective, does consciousness really have survival value? Evolution has produced a multitude of organisms with exquisitely tuned mechanisms which enable their survival. We humans also possess these, and often consciousness interferes, with disastrous results, in their functioning. It might well have been a more successful development if evolution had gone in the direction of ‘advanced mechanism’ to ‘very advanced mechanism’. Some neo-Darwinists such as Humphrey see consciousness as ensuring social cohesiveness. However, it has been pointed out by Weiskrantz that the contrary is more likely to be the case:
Man is the only creature that perversely gets into social difficulties of any really serious kind, and one reason for this is that he is conscious and thinks about all the social complications he might confront or deviously try to exploit for gain or for protection.
Tallis adds: ‘Consciousness—and consciousness of others’ consciousness—is the necessary precondition of paranoia and other abnormal and maladaptive psychological states.’
Another big problem for an evolutionary explanation of consciousness (and indeed of all bodily organs) is that it is of the essence of neo-Darwinism that development was gradual. Even if the pace of gradualness were to be speeded up along the lines of Dawkins’s contention that while mutation is random, natural selection is very non-random, this still leaves us with an incommensurable rate of gradualness. This raises the question: how can an incipient development towards a doubtlessly useful organ necessarily be useful in its early stages? In other words, what ensures the survival value of the early steps towards something that only turns out to be useful later? Dawkins answered Hitchings’s example of the eye (which functions whole or not at all) by claiming that even a single photosensitive spot would confer advantage on its owner and thus would begin the evolutionary process ending in eye-hood.
Tallis believes that there are huge difficulties in applying Dawkins’s eye argument to consciousness (the mind) whose nature is quite unlike that of physical organs. ‘Consciousness,’ he says, ‘is either there or not: you can’t be a little bit conscious any more than you can be a teeny-weeny bit pregnant.’ How could an organism benefit by having a tiny bit of mind? From one point of view it would be a positive handicap, as we see with those humans now who are in just that position. To clarify this question it seems necessary to distinguish between, on the one hand consciousness in the sense that animals have it of alertness to their surroundings and, on the other, of self-consciousness as possessed by humans. What use would a little bit of self-consciousness be? seems to be the crucial question.
Tallis gives careful consideration to Dawkins’s arguments, which he criticizes with considerable subtlety. However, says Tallis, Dawkins not only does not deal with the problem of how consciousness could have emerged, he does not appear to be at all interested in the question: the index to Dawkins’s important book has no entries under ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’.
Crisis in the Humanities
The very expression ‘post-modernism’ is itself a catch-all expression for a whole number of different schools of thought. Tallis discusses, in turn, many of these and their forerunners: Marx and neo-marxists; freudians, (from the master to Lacan); kulturkritik (from Nietzche to the Frankfurt school and meta-mythology); structuralists such as Durkheim and Levy-Strauss; the neo-Saussurians and literary theorists. He shows the threads linking them and their eclectic borrowings. Because these thinkers are so many and varied it is not easy, without misrepresentation, to summarize their positions or Tallis’s criticisms elaborated in several of his works. What characterizes the Humanities figures he criticises is their engagement (intentional or not) in an enterprise, which began with Marx, of undermining the concept of individual autonomy and responsibility, a movement that has gained momentum in the past half century. Tallis cites the words of the American literary critic Lionel Trilling written over thirty years ago: There is a particular theme of modern literature which appears so frequently and with so much authority it may be said to constitute one of the shaping and controlling ideas of our epoch. I can identify it by calling it the disenchantment of culture with culture itself—it seems to me that the characteristic element of modern literature, or at least of the most highly developed modern literature, is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.
Marx, who believed he was turning Hegel on his head, was not as original as he thought when he uttered his famous dictum that it was the social existence of men that determined their consciousness and not the other way round. Tallis points out that Hegel did, in fact, radically criticize individualist models of agency, especially self-conscious rational agency. Marx’s original contribution was his stress on changes in the social order being governed by changes in the mode of production, and the class relations of production determining the consciousness of class members. Marx viewed people as in the grip of ideology, unable to see the world except in terms of their class position, and adopted the concept of ‘alienation’ to describe the position they were in. Marx’s admiration for science, however, was such that he called his thought ‘scientific socialism’ and he regarded the Enlightenment, though an emanation of ‘bourgeois’ class interest, as a positive historical step. Nevertheless as Tallis and others before him have pointed out:
Once it is accepted that ideas (about the world, about society, about ourselves) are not powerful because they are true, rather that they seem true because they emanate from the powerful—‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’—the way is open for the undermining of reason in argument and, more profoundly, for the decentring of the self.
The way was indeed opened. Over a century later one of the most radical of the deconstructionists, Michel Foucault, was to dismiss his critics with his well-known response: D’ou parles-tu? That the notion of concealed interest behind or underneath any argument is subject to the accusation of pragmatic self-refutation is, of course, a facile rejoinder, and is dismissed as such by deconstructionists and others. Tallis believes it is more useful to examine their positions by means of empirical verification where this is possible and, where it is not, by looking at their internal coherence. And this he does over many chapters and in connexion with figures who preceded and, like Marx, paved the way for deconstructionist aberrations.
Tallis gives considerable attention to Freud, whose ideas and methods are now largely discredited in scientific psychiatry but who still exerts keen fascination on literary intellectuals. Here again we observe the same idea that the contents of consciousness are hidden from us and that what we say, or what we believe that we think, is not really what is going on in the hidden realms of the subconscious. Freud, who was not a political thinker, did not attribute false consciousness to class interest but to something rather more titillating for everybody: the repression of sexual experience in early childhood, especially of the more scabrous variety. As Freud’s stature as an icon of literary theory, the media and Hollywood, has grown in inverse proportion to his shrinking status as a scientist, there is now scarcely a literate person in the Western world for whom some of his expressions have not become household words.
Tallis is in no way indifferent to the significance of many questions raised by Durkheim. What he disagrees with are some of Durkheim’s answers.
The cumulative impact of Durkheim’s ideas upon the notion of a controlling, self-possessed consciousness at the centre of the individual’s life is devastating. It goes far beyond exorcising the Cartesian ghost in the machine. In the collaboration between the individual and society that determines the individual’s understanding of the world, the individual is a minor partner. “The individual is born of society and not society of individuals”.
Durkheim was not, however, anti-science and believed his approach to be scientific, objective and eliminatory of all that is subjective. His ideas were to prove enormously influential giving rise to functionalism and eventually behaviourism:
Durkheim paved the way to a structuralist sociology, which takes social science further along the path leading from a recognition of the sociality of individuals (society being the result of individual interaction which then reshapes individuals) to one of the reduction of individuals to functions of society.
A combination of Durkheim’s ideas and those of Saussure found their apogee in the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss. Tallis quotes the latter’s well-known words in connection with the analysis of myths:
We are not claiming to show how men think the myths, but rather how the myths think themselves out in the men and without men’s knowledge.
There were many differences between Durkheim and Levy-Strauss, but Tallis thinks they ‘have in common a profound conviction that mind does not know itself; that individual consciousness has an opaque heart, namely the collective unconscious.’
From a different direction came another significant influence for the formation of the structuralist outlook: Saussurean linguistics. Founder of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure recognized that behind the arbitrariness of linguistic signs their significance arises from the system to which they belong. It is the system which gives linguistic sounds their meaning. ‘…behind every speech-act—indeed, every discourse act—lies a language system of which speakers are largely unconscious.’ However, post-Saussureans seized on this seminal idea to ‘confuse the language system with the use of that system by an individual on a particular occasion in generating a particular speech-act,’ This is not warranted by Saussure’s thought, for he made the express distinction between langue (language as a system) and parole (the speech of persons). Soon the post-Saussureans went further to conclude that ‘discourse is closed off from the extra-linguistic world.’ And here the rot set in to culminate in what Tallis calls the ‘post-Saussurean dissolution of thespeaking (or discoursing) subject’. He identifies three types of claims coming from the deconstructionists:
1. The denial (associated in particular with Barthes) of the originality and unitary nature of the author. 2. The denial (associated with Derrida) of the presence of the speaker (or his/her intentions) in the speech-act. 3. The assertion (associated with Benviste) that the self, the self-present I, the centred ego, is the product of language and (according to Lacan and Derrida) is therefore illusory.
It would be supererogatory to catalogue here the many incongruities produced by deconstructionists in sociology, literary studies and women’s studies or Tallis’s criticisms of them. That there is no such thing as an author of a text; that we do not use language but that language speaks through us; that we are not in control of the meaning of our utterances; that writing has priority over speech; that a work of literature is only about literature; that there is no such thing as objective knowledge; that scientific discourse has no privileged status but is just one more myth reflecting power relations in society: these are just a few. They are dealt with in exhaustive detail in Not Saussure, where Tallis fully exposes the radical relativism and anti-humanism that informs them.
At first glance there would not seem to be much connection between the marginalizers of consciousness in scientific fields and its denigrators in the Humanities. Certainly there are striking differences. The scientific marginalizers base their positions on scientific methodology, which of course assumes rationality, logic and the possibility of objective truth. They state their positions clearly and usually welcome discussion and peer review. Most of Tallis’s targets in the Humanities (though not all) are, on the other hand, essentially anti-Enlightenment in their denial of rationality and the possibility of objective truth. Many, (though again, not all) are openly hostile to science and its methods, including peer review. Many of them tend to a posture of ex cathedra pronouncements, the maître à penser or guru pose as ‘soul doctors to a sick civilization’ in the apt words of Merquior. The positions assumed by many are insulated by their own premises from criticism.
Nevertheless, there do exist certain common denominators. One is the marginalization of explicit human consciousness and its uniqueness. Another is the way that effluents from both areas have seeped out into society generally to create a kind of zeitgeist in which pessimism has become generalized. Both the concepts of human beings as machines or mere animals and that of denial of individual autonomy lead to political passivity and moral irresponsibility among the governed. Moreover the dominance of relativist and reductionist attitudes in the Humanities (from which most members of our governing elites and opinion-makers are recruited), together with scientism among technocrats, are unlikely to foster true humanism or value-convictions among those who govern. Viewing men and women as pawns of uncontrollable biological or social forces may not lead inexorably to the establishment of concentration camps or the gulag, but it is a dangerous step in that direction. Perhaps Tallis is harder on the Humanist intellectuals than he is on the scientific marginalizers of consciousness. But then, the latter are usually willing to debate their theories. While the former, ex hypothesi, see no point to it: after all, if there is no possibility of objective knowledge, then anybody’s ideas are as good as anybody else’s, except, of course if you are a white European male, in which case your ideas are to be condemned. In Tallis’s own words:
If we are to believe—as I do, in opposition to many of the thinkers whose views have dominated intellectual life in Europe in the twentieth century—that the hope of progress is well founded, we must also believe in the central role in human affairs played by the conscious, responsible, individual human agent, and refuse to cede this role to unconscious social, historical or linguistic forces. Clearly, if we do not believe in the reality or the beneficence of the conscious autonomous, rational individual human being able to work together with other such individuals towards the common good, then there is no certain way forward for humanity. Maistre’s universal bloodbath seems as likely an outcome as any other, and there is nothing we can do to influence how things turnout. Consequently, if there is a moral obligation incumbent upon intellectuals at present, it must be to oppose the prevalent trahison des clercs—deeper even than the one that Benda deplores—of humanist academics who deny (or pretend to deny) the uniquely non-animal nature of humanity and who refuse to recognize the superiority of reason to irrationality, of science to magic, of accountability to unaccountable power, of hard-won factual knowledge to myth.