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Dernière modification : 23 octobre 2017

Alexander KLEIN

Université d’État de Californie, Long Beach (États-Unis)
Invité du CAPHÉS – juin 2017




Lecture 1 : The Curious Case of the Decapitated Frog
Physiologists have long known that some vertebrates can survive for months without a brain. This phenomenon attracted limited attention until the 19th century when a series of experiments on living, decapitated frogs ignited a controversy about consciousness. Pflüger demonstrated that such creatures do not just exhibit reflexes ; they also perform purposive behaviors. Suppose one thinks, along with Pflüger’s ally Lewes, that purposive behavior is a mark of consciousness. Then one must count a decapitated frog as conscious. If one rejects this mark, one can avoid saying peculiar things about decapitated animals. But as Huxley showed, this position leads quickly to epiphenomenalism. The dispute long remained stalemated because it rested on conflicting sets of intuitions that were each compatible with the growing body of experiments. Understanding this controversy in physiology is a necessary background to grasping James’s evolutionary account of consciousness.


Lecture 2 : Consciousness as Caring : James’s Evolutionary Hypothesis
Play Between 1872 and 1890, William James developed a neglected form of interactionist dualism. He contended that to be phenomenally conscious is actively to evaluate what is in (or might be in) one’s environment, attending to what one decides is important, and ignoring much else. To be conscious is to care about one’s own actual or potential circumstances, in short ; and James hypothesized that this caring capacity was selected (in the Darwinian sense) because it regulated the behavior of vertebrates with highlyarticulated brains. He did not argue directly for this hypothesis, however. Instead, James recommended the hypothesis as a way to explain the surprising results concerning purposive behavior in decapitated frogs. I reconstruct and evaluate James’s evolutionary hypothesis, showing how it would explain those surprising experiments.


Lecture 3 : The Death of Consciousness ?
Like heartburn, a pronounced discomfort with the very idea of consciousness followed the early days of experimental psychology. Received wisdom has it that psychologists (and allied philosophers) came to mistrust consciousness for largely behaviorist reasons. But by the time John Watson had published his behaviorist manifesto in 1913, a wider revolt against consciousness was already underway. I begin by canvassing some of the lesser-known, pre-behaviorist angst about consciousness. Then I delve into the case of William James—an important early source of unease about consciousness. James’s rejection of consciousness grew out of his critique of perceptual elementarism in psychology. This is the view that most mental states are complex, and that psychology’s goal is in some sense to analyze these states into their atomic “elements.” Elementarism came in for intense criticism in James’s Principles of Psychology, and I argue that his later rejection of consciousness is an extension of the earlier critique. Just as we cannot (according to James) isolate any atomic, sensory elements in our occurrent mental states, so we cannot distinguish any elemental consciousness from any separate contents.


Lecture 4 : The Road not Taken
In my final lecture, I argue that James’s early, evolutionary account of consciousness is compatible with his later rejection of the container/content view. The upshot is that James offered a sophisticated treatment of consciousness over the course of his lifetime that represents a road not taken. Behaviorists who were impressed by the negative part of his argument unwittingly discarded a panoply of interesting, positive results that are worth excavating and taking seriously again, today.

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