Jager, "Can We Talk About Consciousness Again?: (Emergence, Natural Piety, Wordsworth)"

Romantic Frictions

"Can We Talk About Consciousness Again?:
(Emergence, Natural Piety, Wordsworth)"

Colin Jager
Rutgers University


1.        Talk of consciousness has largely disappeared from Romantic studies and, indeed, from literary scholarship more generally. As a symbol of this disappearance we might look to Harold Bloom’s edited volume Romanticism and Consciousness (1970). While the volume was officially dedicated to the proposition that to talk about Romanticism simply was to talk about consciousness, its inclusion of Paul de Man’s essay “The Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image” (written in 1960) in fact marked the beginning of the end of the association between Romanticism and consciousness. Some years later de Man could retrospectively mark his own deconstructive turn as a swerve, however imperfect, from consciousness-talk. Writing in 1983, looking back on his landmark 1969 essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” de Man remarked that the essay was “still uncomfortably intertwined with the thematic vocabulary of consciousness … that was current at the time, but it signals a turn that, at least for me, has proven to be productive.” [1]  One could note other similar “turns” at about this same time, for example within the Yale School and its turn away from phenomenology (in the careers of Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller), and also in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Literary Absolute (1978).

2.        Meanwhile, the historicism that has dominated Romantic studies for the past-quarter century has likewise had little patience with consciousness talk. Inspired by Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, it has tended to identify consciousness with “false consciousness.” There is a complicated intellectual history here that would have to be traced in some detail. Perhaps we can simply note, first, that some of the foundational texts for this turn date, like de Man’s turn, to an approximately 10-year period from 1965-1975 [2] , and second, that like The German Ideology before them their attack was aimed at speculative idealism, which was assumed to represent philosophy of consciousness in general.

3.        And yet, as sometimes happens in academic discourse, the preoccupations that disappeared in one quarter have popped up in another. As consciousness-talk was disappearing from literary study (especially from versions of literary study that referenced Continental philosophy), it was re-emerging in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Under the influence of behaviorism, Anglo-American philosophy had gone through its own skepticism about consciousness in the early years of the twentieth century, but the demise of behaviorism after the middle of the century and the rise of what we now know as cognitive science has resulted in a rich, varied, and completely unresolved conversation about the mind’s relationship to the brain and how that relationship might produce conscious experience. Thus Jerry Fodor, from a recent essay in the London Review of Books:

Consciousness is all the rage just now. It boasts new journals of its very own, from which learned articles overflow. Neuropsychologists snap its picture (in colour) with fMRI machines, and probe with needles for its seat in the brain. At all seasons, and on many continents, interdisciplinary conferences about consciousness draw together bizarre motleys that include philosophers, psychologists, phenomenologists, brain scientists, MDs, computer scientists, the Dalai Lama, novelists, neurologists, graphic artists, priests, gurus and (always) people who used to do physics. Institutes of consciousness studies are bountifully subsidised. Meticulous distinctions are drawn between the merely conscious and the consciously available; and between each of these and the preconscious, the unconscious, the subconscious, the informationally encapsulated and the introspectable. There is no end of consciousness gossip on Tuesdays in the science section of the New York Times. Periodically, Nobel laureates pronounce on the connections between consciousness and evolution, quantum mechanics, information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and the activity of neural nets. Everybody gives lectures about consciousness to everybody else. But for all that, nothing has been ascertained with respect to the problem that everybody worries about most: what philosophers have come to call ‘the hard problem’. The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious? How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey tissue have experiences? [3] 
Literary scholars have paid little attention to this conversation. Committed in various ways to the assumption that what goes on in the mind is an effect of something else—rhetoric, history, ideology—we have largely missed out on one of the interdisciplinary intellectual discussions of our era. Can we change this? Do we want to? [4] 

4.        It may seem that talking about consciousness will re-open the very Pandora’s Box of dualism that literary scholars have spent the last 40 years trying to close. One might posit, moreover, that the Romantic writers themselves were anti-dualist (something not always appreciated by their later admirers) and thus that talking about consciousness again would be like turning back the clock. And yet a substantial number of cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind writing today agree that consciousness-talk and physicalism are not, in principle, mutually exclusive. Indeed, as Fodor’s comments suggest, this is precisely the issue around which a good deal of the current conversation circles: whether one can both be a physicalist and grant the legitimacy of our phenomenal experiences. The fact is that we have conscious experiences (C); the perplexing question is how those experiences relate to a neural substrate (N).

5.        As Fodor indicates, how we get from N to C has become known in philosophy of mind as the “hard problem.” [5]  And although the hard problem has gotten a lot of attention lately, its roots go back to the beginning of modern philosophy. Descartes worried about the causal interaction between brain and mind and eventually settled on the pineal gland as the place where they came together, though this didn’t convince some of his contemporaries. With the famous analogy of the mill in his Monadology, meanwhile, Leibniz suggested that materialism couldn’t account for perception. By 1866 Thomas Huxley had posed the hard problem in a recognizably modern form: “[H]ow it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” In 1985 Thomas Nagel reiterated the point: “The strange truth seems to be that certain complex, biologically generated physical systems, of which each of us is an example, have rich nonphysical properties.” This happens, Nagel continued, “in some way that we do not now understand.” [6] 

6.        We can group responders to the hard problem as follows: (a) those who think that the hard problem is not really a hard problem; (b) those who think that the hard problem is really hard but is solvable in principle; (c) those who think that the hard problem is so hard that we can’t solve it, not even in principle; (d) those who think that the hard problem is solvable only through an appeal to some form of dualism. Mind-body dualism is largely out of fashion now, and I won’t be talking about it here. After some preliminary discussion of the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness, I’ll discuss position (a), particularly a version of it that tends to appeal to neuroscientists, and position (b), which admits of a variety of possible approaches and tends to occupy philosophers of mind. Through an engagement with Alan Richardson’s recent work on Romantic brain science I’ll explore the Romantic-era analogues of (a) and (b). Then in the second half of the essay I’ll discuss one variant of position (c), which is held by a small minority of philosophers today but has an interesting historical track record that also takes us back to the Romantic period.

1. Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

7.        We need first to distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness. Literary scholars tend to use the terms interchangeably; we might speak about a character—Prufrock, for instance—as being overly conscious, by which we mean excessively self-aware. This is essentially the same state that Coleridge calls “Dejection,” and that Wordsworth analyzes in the opening 200 lines of The Prelude. A more accurate title for Bloom’s volume would have been Romanticism and Self-Consciousness. When philosophers and cognitive scientists speak of consciousness, by contrast, they mean something more basic. Here is John Searle’s definition: “those states of sentience or feeling or awareness that begin when you wake up from a dreamless sleep and continue on throughout the day until you fall asleep again, or otherwise become unconscious. Dreams are also a form of consciousness.”  [7]  Consciousness is the thing we lose when we go under general anesthesia.

8.        Consciousness in this strict sense is sometimes referred to as “phenomenal consciousness” because it seems to have phenomenal qualities: there is a redness to the red rose that I see in my garden; there is a painness to the pain I feel when its thorn pricks my finger. There is something that it is like for me to see or feel these things. In his classic 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel helped to put this subjective character of experience at the center of the reviving consciousness conversation. According to Nagel, we can safely assume that bats have experiences; but bats are neurologically different enough from humans that we can also assume that their experiences are quite different. So what is it like to be a bat, then? Nagel argues that there is no way we could know, because the facts of experience are only accessible from one point of view: in this case, the bat’s. If this is right, then there is no way that an objective physical description—of the way that sonar works, for example—could capture the subjective character of the experience that sonar delivers.  [8] 

9.        Now it might be that the notion of consciousness in this sense isn’t very interesting for literary studies; its focus on first-person phenomenal experience would seem to require attention of the sort that disappeared from literary study with the collapse of phenomenology. Thinking in terms of self-consciousness and its deconstruction, by contrast, allows us to bring culture and history and biography into the mix and this is where most of the action has been for literary studies. [9]  It is commonly asserted, for example, that the Romantic period witnessed an unprecedented level of historical self-consciousness. The gamble of this essay, however, is that students of literature and culture have something to learn from the challenges involved in grappling with the “hard problem” of consciousness rather than simply overleaping it on the way to issue of self-consciousness. Having now distinguished consciousness from self-consciousness a little more fully, I turn in sections two and three to the position often described as “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC), a position that tends to avoid strictly philosophical considerations. I will suggest that Alan Richardson’s recent work on Romantic-era brain science overlaps with the NCC position. In section four I turn to emergence theory, a variant of position (c) with important Romantic-era roots; in section five I consider Alan Liu’s recent writings about emergence. In sections six and seven I distinguish my position from Liu’s by identifying “natural piety” as the characteristic attitude of emergence theory, and I extrapolate natural piety’s importance for thinking about the relationship between Romantic culture and mind-body questions. At stake is a Romantic physicalism that can only be recovered, I argue, when literary study turns its attention to the mind-body problem and the question of phenomenal consciousness that makes that problem so hard.

2. Neural correlates of consciousness

10.        Many neuroscientists would fall into my category (a); they think that the hard problem is not so hard and that neuroscientists (unlike philosophers) are getting to work solving it. They are busy searching for what they call the “Neural Correlates of Consciousness” (NCC). It should be noted that everybody thinking about the mind-body problem takes it for granted that conscious states and neuronal states correlate in some way. The question is whether an accurate description of that correlation is all that is required to explain consciousness. The NCC proponents are betting that the answer is “yes.” If we map the NCC, their thinking goes, we will either get consciousness along the way (which will indicate that the hard problem wasn’t such a hard problem after all) or we’ll discover that we don’t really need a theory of consciousness at all (which will indicate that the hard problem was a pseudo-problem). The late Francis Crick and his colleague Christof Koch have been among the most prominent exponents of this approach, arguing for example that identifying neural correlates could make the hard problem “appear in an entirely new light. It might even disappear.” [10]  For an NCC program to succeed, all that would be needed would be to locate exactly where and how a particular group of neurons fires when I see red, or prick my finger with a needle, or smell my coffee in the morning: “locating the neurons in the cerebral cortex that correlate best with consciousness, and figuring out how they link to neurons elsewhere in the brain,” as Crick and Koch put it (84). We may not have the technology to map NCC so precisely right now, but in principle it certainly seems possible.

11.        Even if it were possible, however, this might not make the hard problem disappear. Just because a particular group of neurons fires when I see a red tomato does not explain why the tomato appears to me in the way that it does, and not in some other way or in no way at all. In some respects this is a disciplinary issue; neuroscientists tend to be more interested in finding NCC than in pausing over the precise relationship between N and C; many philosophers, meanwhile, have insisted that if we ignore the philosophical issue of how we get from N to C we ignore the very thing that is interesting about consciousness, namely that it has about it a first-person, “what it is like” quality. Here are two quick examples of the philosophical issues that an NCC program tends to ignore. Crick and Koch hold to a theory they call “explicit neuronal representation” in order to explain why subjective experience is private. Mental representations, they think, can’t be adequately communicated in language. But representationalism is a hotly debated topic within philosophy of mind, and it entails other metaphysical and epistemological positions (about the nature of the content of mental states, for example); Crick and Koch can’t just have “representation” for free. In a similar manner, they propose that “meaning” (our recognizing a certain face, say, as belonging to a loved one) is the result of networks of association spread throughout the cortical system. But association and meaning are also loaded terms; again, Crick and Koch can’t simply help themselves to these concepts without discussing the philosophical positions they entail.

12.        From a certain perspective, then, the NCC program seems both philosophically unsophisticated and methodologically uninterested in the first-person quality of phenomenal experience. In his famous article “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Frank Jackson formulates these objections with somewhat greater precision by calling attention to the qualitative dimensions of experience—what have become known in the literature as “qualia.” Jackson’s argument depends on a thought experiment. He asks us to imagine Mary, a neuroscientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of vision. In particular, Mary knows exactly what happens in the visual cortex when it encounters the different wavelengths that produce the experience of color. However, for perverse and unexplained reasons, Mary has spent her entire life in a black-and-white room. So Mary knows everything there is to know about color, but she has never seen color. Then, one day, Mary leaves her black-and-white room and encounters color (for some reason it is almost always red in these examples) for the first time. The question is how we describe what has happened to Mary. Jackson argues that at the moment she sees red Mary learns something that she didn’t know before: she learns what red is like—she experiences its qualitative character. But Mary already knew everything that there was to know about the physical facts of color. So the physical facts must not be all the facts. [11] 

13.        The advantage of Jackson’s argument is that it sharpens Nagel’s focus on the subjective character of experience by zeroing in on qualia. Jackson is not interested in what it is like to be Mary (the way that Nagel is interested in what it is like to be a bat). Probably most of what it is like to be Mary can be described through reference to neural correlates. But Jackson isn’t interested in Mary’s internal life; he is interested in what it is like to see red. And what it is like to see red, he thinks, cannot be captured by even a complete knowledge of the physical facts. He thinks that qualia, uniquely, cannot be explained by physics.

14.        If, impressed by these or other arguments, we accept that the hard problem is just that, we must then face up to just how we might get from N to C—from knowing everything physical that there is to know about how we experience red to actually experiencing red. This brings us to group (b), and the many and varied attempts to face up to the hard problem: behaviorism, functionalism, the “identity thesis,” epiphenomenalism, and panpsychism, to name only the most celebrated contenders. [12]  The various technical aspects of these positions are very interesting in their own right, and each has well-respected defenders and detractors. A terrific amount of ink has been spilled on these issues in the past quarter-century; as Jerry Fodor notes, “consciousness is all the rage right now.” The technical aspects of the debate need not concern us, though, because I want to keep the focus on the broader point that ties all the positions in group (b) together, which is simply that the NCC program misses both how important and how hard the hard problem is. That is, the NCC program doesn’t appreciate just what is involved, theoretically, in trying to link the physical to the mental; and it doesn’t appreciate just what is involved, subjectively, in our phenomenal experience, namely the fact that it is like something to be in a particular mental state. Each of the contenders in group (b) tries to account more adequately for both of these things.

15.        Now I will turn to Alan Richardson’s important work on Romantic-era brain science. I will suggest that Richardson shares some of the limitations of the NCC program.

3. Richardson and Romantic Brain Science

16.        Alan Richardson’s pathbreaking 2001 book British Romanticism and the Science of Mind has done a great deal to make neurological history important for Romantic studies. Through careful archival work and impressive scholarship, Richardson reveals the importance of a number of brain scientists of the period, including F. J. Gall, Charles Bell, Erasmus Darwin, and Sir William Lawrence. In many ways, he argues, the early nineteenth century saw the birth of what we now call cognitive science. Richardson shows that Romantic-era writers were much more deeply read in this material than has been previously assumed, and that many of them felt compelled to respond—negatively, positively, ambivalently—to the development of new brain-based psychologies.

17.        Despite its unassuming stance, however, Richardson’s book aims to do more than simply recover a neglected influence on Romantic-era culture. The polemical thrust of his book—understated but nevertheless present—is that the entire “German swerve” of Romantic studies has been misguided. Our traditional intellectual histories of the period (encouraged by Coleridge, DeQuincey, and Carlyle) typically move from Hume to Kant to post-Kantian German Romanticism and idealism; we read Romantic literary production in light of these continental developments. Even scholarship that has resisted this procedure—either through deconstructive criticism of the symbol or materialist criticism of the German Ideology—has moved within the orbit of post-Kantian Continental philosophy. Perhaps we now substitute non-identity for the logic of identity postulated by an earlier generation of Romantic humanists, but we continue to take our bearings from the questions and concerns that surfaced in Kant’s wake. In consequence, the dualism of subject and object comes to displace mind-body dualism as the chief philosophical problem, and it becomes difficult to disentangle questions of consciousness from questions of self-consciousness. [13] 

18.        Richardson’s procedure, by contrast, is to stay closer to home by examining the (predominantly) British empirical tradition that continued chugging along in Hume’s wake. [14]  In his narration, the associationist paradigm derived from Locke eventually ran aground with Hartley and Priestley, who conceived of the brain as passive. But a new emphasis on the brain as an active participant in experience developed in the post-associationist empirical tradition. Biologically rather than mechanically inclined, Bell, Gall, Lawrence, and others emphasized the brain’s plasticity rather than simply, like Hartley, treating it as a passive receptacle for impressions. [15]  Thus, Richardson suggests that Coleridge’s extended diatribe against Hartley in the Biographia Literaria is a clever sleight-of-hand. By lumping all empirical work on the brain under the banner of associationism, Coleridge is able to dispense with the whole lot and then turn his attention to Schelling’s idealism. But Richardson argues that this ignores what is really going on in British brain science during the time that Coleridge is writing, and in the process it transposes the mind-body problem into a much more abstract and fuzzier subject-object problem. The apparatus of self-consciousness, identity, and non-identity (and their eventual deconstruction) follow in turn.

19.        In asking us to resist this German swerve, Richardson’s work is bracing and—its professed modesty notwithstanding—revolutionary. If he is right, we need to rethink Romanticism’s privileged relationship with Continental philosophy and its various obsessions, turns, and counter-turns. And even if Richardson is not entirely right, the historical yield of his method is obvious. My question, however, is a bit different: what is gained conceptually by relating Romantic literary culture to the culture of Romantic-era brain science? To answer this question we need to get a clear grasp of how Bell and Lawrence and the other Romantic brain scientists relate phenomenal consciousness to its neural substrate. And unfortunately this is far from clear.

20.        I suspect that this is simply a limitation of the historical material Richardson is working with. All of the writers that he treats were anti-dualist, were intensely interested in neurology, and with the exception of Bell all were attacked as “materialists.” If they were alive today, all of them would have held to NCC. But as I have been emphasizing, NCC does not address the philosophical question of the relationship between phenomenal consciousness and its neural substrate. Lawrence, Darwin, Bell, and the others seem not to have posed the hard problem to themselves; apparently, they were content with the extraordinary neurological discoveries they were making, and with the physicalism (tempered in some cases with religious orthodoxy) that those discoveries seemed to indicate. And, of course, who can blame them?

21.        The difficult methodological issue for literary studies, however, is how we use this material. How can we think through the relationship between a brain-based psychology that accepts NCC and the Romantic literary production that arose alongside it? Richardson, it seems to me, largely avoids this question—or rather, he gives it an answer roughly analogous to the empirical one that the NCC program itself pursues. Just as NCC either ignores or dismisses the hard problem, so, lacking a conceptual account of how N relates to C, Richardson treats his literary texts as simple outgrowths or results of the contextual material he brings to bear upon them. As a result his book must for the most part settle for tracing paths of influence between various brain scientists and Romantic writers. Some of these influences are tighter than others, and all are interesting. But the payoff is limited; because the question of how phenomenal experience is possible at all never comes up, Richardson is unable to produce a “reading” of the literary artifacts he discusses and must settle instead for contextualizing them. A revealing moment appears in the chapter on Coleridge: “it seems appropriate to consider,” Richardson writes,

whether Coleridge’s concerns with mind-body interaction, unconscious cognition, and volition … seep into the text of “Kubla Khan.” The result would be not another interpretation of the poem, but rather a supplement to the work of contextualization… (57).
One can of course sympathize with the desire to avoid adding to the huge bibliography of “Kubla Khan” commentary. And yet what this passage suggests is that any treatment of the literary object’s novelty or uniqueness (however attenuated and hedged) will not appear here. Indeed, Richardson names the site of that novelty (“interpretation”) only to tell us that this is not his goal.

22.        What Richardson’s book has helped me to understand, then, is that the relationship of N to C that occupies the consciousness literature is a tight analogue of the relationship of context to text. That second relationship is of course the continuing and eternal bête noir of literary studies—it is our own version of the hard problem. Like partisans of NCC, Richardson (and many historically-minded scholars of Romanticism writing today) favors context to the virtual exclusion of text. Now I don’t pretend here to be making a point of which Richardson is unaware. My point rather is that in avoiding the philosophical issues at stake in brain-based psychologies, Richardson’s book contributes perhaps inadvertently to a continuing split between empirically-inclined historical “contextualization” and theoretically-inclined textual “interpretation.” Despite his resistance to Romanticism’s “German swerve,” then, the implication of Richardson’s book is that when it comes to literary criticism, interpretive or philosophical questions only emerge within the context of Continental theory, with its apparatus of self-consciousness and subject/object dialectics. The work of historical contextualization, meanwhile, falls into the (largely British) domain of the mind-body problem. I hope I have demonstrated that this is incorrect; as the explosion in consciousness literature has demonstrated, the mind-body problem remains a matter not solely of neurological explanation but also of philosophical interpretation.

4. Emergence

23.        I come now to position (c), which I described above as the position that the hard problem is so hard that we can’t solve it, even in principle. Here I will add a corollary to that position, (c1): the fact that we can’t solve the hard problem of consciousness is a good thing, because by deflating the importance of getting the answer it re-orients our relationship to philosophical questions and thus saves us from anthropocentric epistemological arrogance. [16] 

24.         Emergence theory is the example of (c1) that I will consider here. Emergentism flourished in Britain between 1850 and 1925. John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843) is generally cited as its founding text; other famous emergentist works are George Henry Lewes’ Problems of Life and Mind (1875), Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity (1920) and C. D. Broad’s The Mind and Its Place in Nature (1925). Many other intellectual giants of the period, including A. N. Whitehead, William James, Arthur Lovejoy, and Henri Bergson espoused versions of emergentism. In his thorough overview of the British Emergentists, Brian McLaughlin argues that the advent of quantum mechanics in the late 1920s signaled the end of the emergentist tradition. In particular, quantum mechanical explanations of chemical bonding in terms of electro-magnetism made emergentist explanations of chemical laws irrelevant. [17]  Until the advent of quantum mechanics, however, emergence seemed like a highly plausible explanation for a variety of phenomena.

25.        According to emergence theory, some properties “emerge” from a physical substrate in a way that cannot be explained from the perspective of that substrate (eg. from the perspective of physics). Furthermore, these emergent properties cannot be reduced to the properties of their physical substrate. In a familiar though imprecise analogy, neither bees nor ants possess intelligence, and yet a bee-hive or an ant colony could be said to possess intelligence; somehow intelligence “emerges” from the way in which each individual ant or bee goes about its task. [18]  Consciousness, accordingly, is sometimes said to be an emergent property in that it arises from a physical substrate (the brain) and yet cannot be reduced to the brain, nor fully predicted by the sciences of the brain. The issue of prediction is important here: for a property to be emergent, no amount of knowledge about the substrate will enable us to predict facts about the emergent property. Consciousness (to stick with this example) emerges from lower-level systems, but however much we might learn about those systems we will not be able to say what consciousness looks like before it actually arrives on the scene.

26.        In a slightly more technical idiom, emergence proposes that higher-level mental properties are determined by and dependent upon lower level properties—yet are not reducible to the lower-level properties. The delicate balancing act required here is particularly tricky when it comes to the idea that emergent properties must be not only unpredictable but novel. Of course, objects can have properties that their parts do not have; a watch, for example, tells time, while a random heap of springs and gears does not. The novelty required for a property to be emergent must be of a different order than this. At the same time, how can a property be truly novel and yet determined by its physical substrate? This will require both that the arrangement of parts brings something new into existence and that nothing new is actually added to the mix from the outside. (Thus the soul is not emergent in classical theological accounts because it is added to the body.) In this sense emergent properties must supervene on their physical substrate—but it must be supervenience such that C is determined by N but not identical to it. [19]  Given this description, it seems fair to say that emergentism is an attempt to formulate a truly non-reductive physicalism. C.D. Broad, for example, referred to his position as “emergent materialism.”

27.        “Non-reductive physicalism” might seem like an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. [20]  The conceptual coherence of emergentism is not really my concern, however. What interests me, rather, is what we can learn from the very existence of the emergentist option. Indeed, a number of philosophers, including Tim Crane, Jaegwon Kim, and Brian McLaughlin, have written about emergence in recent years not because they are themselves emergentists but because they think that the problems and difficulties faced by emergence tell us a good deal about what we need from an adequate physicalist solution to the mind-body puzzle.

5. Local Agency

28.        As an idea, “emergence” lends itself to analogical extrapolation. Though the British Emergentists focused particularly on chemistry, Broad and Alexander at least were willing to extend their notion of fundamental chemical laws in such a way as to make mentality an emergent property. More recently, emergence theory has found new life in the cultural zone. In his essay “A Forming Hand: Creativity and Destruction from Romanticism to Emergence Theory,” Alan Liu notes the presence of emergentist thinking in current models of information theory, management theory, ideas about artistic autopoesis, complexity, and self-organization, and especially in notions of “creative destruction” prominent in the business world. One of the goals of his essay is to critique the one-size-fits-all picture of emergence that these various cultural domains offer. Liu zeroes in particularly on their relentless anti-historical bias: “[w]estern cognitive, artificial-intelligence, new-media, business, and other theories of emergence,” he writes, “celebrate their cause as a way to swear allegiance to democracy without seeming also to swear to any old-fashioned individualism, nationalism, or industrialism able to pull puppet strings in the background.” [21]  Emergence—in its current status as all-purpose explanation in the increasingly fragmented world of late capitalism—is in this sense an ideology; like all ideologies it covers up actual material and historical conditions (individualism, nationalism, industrialism) and wows us precisely because it seems stripped of all the tiresome conversations that such terms necessitate. [22] 

29.        Yet if emergence in this vein seems an appropriate object of critique, there is a Romantic side to this story, as well, that is rather more complicated. Following some of the recent work of Anne-Lise François, Liu locates two distinct models of creativity in Wordsworth’s Prelude. One is the familiar model of “egotistical transgression” and intensive lyric exceptionalism, as in the Spots of Time or Simplon Pass. The other is found in those large sections of the Prelude that we typically skip over, the more discursive, everyday, extensive give-and-take of life, imaged most powerfully by the Infant Babe and what Liu calls the “forming hand” passage of Book 2:

A plastic power
Abode with me, a forming hand, at times
Rebellious, acting in a devious mood,
A local spirit of its own… (2.381-84)
Characterized by what Liu calls a “distribution of inspiration along a whole chain of temporal transmission” (11), this alternate mode of creativity is sprinkled liberally over broad patches of the Wordsworth that we usually don’t read. For Liu its “local spirit” becomes a Romantic anticipation of emergence, a picture of lower-level agency that does its thing without any inkling of a larger project: “There is agency, nothing but agency… but no one at the control stick that would be identified as the agent. Agency is a cascade of local agencies,” he writes (18). In this respect the amorality of emergence does seem to capture something of our contemporary world situation, in which things can go terribly wrong and there is no one around to blame, just a cascade of local agencies going about their very limited business. [23] 

30.        Liu is however also verging on a philosophical point, which he makes somewhat casually a bit later in the essay. For emergence theory, he writes, “[t]here is no transcendental manager of choices named ‘consciousness’ that sits above local choices” (30). Now this is true if we are dualists and think of consciousness as some additional thing over and above its material substrate. But it is not true if we think of consciousness itself as emergent (or, for that matter, if one holds to at least some of the positions that I gathered under category (b) above). Any non-reductive physicalism will try hard to accommodate both the cascade of local choices that make up our neurological reality and the first-person, phenomenal experience that makes up what we call “consciousness.” Thus in Liu’s dismissal of consciousness—as though any talk of consciousness is inevitably dualist—I find a surprising similarity to Richardson’s approach (surprising because they are quite different kinds of critics). Both give little attention to the philosophical issues surrounding consciousness, because both in their different ways are intent upon moving from neurological wiring to cultural product. For Richardson that means moving from Romantic theories of the mind/brain to the historical contexts of Romantic literature; for Liu, it means moving from emergent computer programs to contemporary management theory. Neither is terribly interested in pausing along the way to consider the mind-body problem. Both seem to assume that our only options are dualism or some version of position (a); they ignore those responses I’ve gathered under headings (b) and (c)—even though Liu is for his part talking about emergence theory.

31.        Liu’s description of emergence as amoral is important for his larger project of identifying elective affinities between emergence theory and the business culture of postmodernity, with its command to innovate ceaselessly. But if we shift our attention to philosophical versions of emergence a rather different picture appears. Alexander and Broad, for instance, both elaborated metaphysical systems in which the world was a basically meaning-full place; emergence became a way to be a physicalist (“there is only one fundamental kind of stuff,” writes Broad [77]) without committing oneself to a picture of the universe as fundamentally amoral and directionless. And it is in the context of this elaboration that Alexander in 1920 has recourse to a resonant phrase:

The existence of emergent qualities thus described is something to be noted, as some would say, under the compulsion of brute empirical fact, or, as I should prefer to say in less harsh terms, to be accepted with the ‘natural piety’ of the investigator. It admits no explanation. [24] 
The remainder of this essay will be taken up with unpacking the relationship between natural piety and emergence. I will argue that the relationship is a Romantic one, and that we need to grasp it in terms of the hard problem of consciousness—the very problem that, as I have tried to demonstrate, tends to slip away from literary and cultural critics.

6. Natural Piety

32.         For readers familiar with Romantic literature, of course, the phrase “natural piety” summons not the debates of early twentieth century metaphysics but rather a canonical, if not necessarily beloved, poem:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
I have not been able to determine where Alexander got the phrase “natural piety.” It might have come from “My heart leaps up” itself, or from Book 3 of The Excursion, [26]  or (least likely) from The White Doe of Rylstone. [27]  All three uses of the phrase are roughly equivalent, and each suggests an affective disposition characterized by reverence and calm acceptance. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that Alexander got the phrase not from “My heart leaps up” itself but from the “Intimations” Ode. In the 1815 edition of his Poems Wordsworth made the final three lines of “My heart leaps up” the epigraph to the Ode. [28] 

33.        I say this is the “most intriguing” possibility because it allows us to push the Romantic provenance of the natural piety/emergence relationship a bit further. The figure who links Wordsworth to emergence theory is John Stuart Mill. In Chapter 5 of his Autobiography (1873), Mill described an intellectual and spiritual crisis: “[M]y heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. … I seemed to have nothing left to live for.”  [29]  As is well known, in the autumn of 1828 Mill worked his way out of this crisis with the help of Wordsworth, specifically the 1815 Poems, which “proved to be the precise thing for my mental wants at that particular juncture” (151). Mill then relates that by 1830 he had begun writing what would become the System of Logic, eventually published in 1843. In his description of that work, Mill revisits his crisis in a more intellectual vein. In particular, he describes how he turned his attention to what he called the “Composition of Forces”:

On examining, accordingly, what the mind does when it applies the principle of the Composition of Forces, I found that it performs a simple act of addition. It adds the separate effect of the one force to the separate effect of the other, and puts down the sum of these separate effects as the joint effect. But is this a legitimate process? In dynamics, and in all the mathematical branches of physics, it is; but in some other cases, as in chemistry, it is not; and I then recollected that something not unlike this was pointed out as one of the distinctions between chemical and mechanical phenomena, in the introduction to that favorite of my boyhood, Thomson's System of Chemistry.  [30] 
As McLaughlin shows, Mill’s discussion of the “Composition of Forces,” and particularly the distinction between mechanical and chemical causes, comes in that part of the System of Logic that became central to the emergentist tradition.  [31] 

34.        With Mill, in other words, we have an emotional crisis solved in part by reading Wordsworth, and, running parallel to that, an intellectual crisis solved in part by reading a chemistry textbook. What the chemistry textbook gave Mill was the first intimation of emergence theory. Is it too much to suppose that Wordsworth might have given him a similar intimation? To be sure, chemistry and poetry seem tightly related in Mill’s account. Inspired by Wordsworth’s own self-description in the “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, Mill ascribes Wordsworth’s effectiveness as a spiritual guide to something almost chemical in the writing itself: “What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (151). If we want to picture this familiar Wordsworthian effect, we could do worse than imagine the invisible chemical bonds (“states of feeling”) by which atoms (“mere outward beauty”) stick together. We might remember too that for the emergentists these bonds were the result of fundamental chemical forces—proof that chemistry was its own special science.

35.        What makes the connection between chemistry and poetry more than simply an interesting possibility, however, is that the poem that Mill singles out for treatment in this section of the Autobiography is none other than the “Intimations Ode” in its 1815 edition—the edition, remember, with the epigraph from “My heart leaps up”:

At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous “Ode,” falsely called Platonic, "Intimations of Immortality:" in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that [Wordsworth] too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. (153)
What Mill zeroes in on here is not the poem’s dualism (dismissed as “bad philosophy”) but rather its description of the “compensation” that comes after dualism has been abandoned. To see what that compensation is we need look no further than the “chemical causes” that would become the foundation of the emergentist tradition.

36.        This is a reading of the “Ode,” then, that takes the epigraph seriously:

The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety
Central to emergence theory is the idea that reality exists in increasingly complex layers, each of which has its special science: physics, then chemistry, then biology. Accordingly, to say that the man is father to the child is to assert a biological relationship—and presumably to open the door to vitalist or dualist speculations about the origins of life. To abandon the mysteries of the paternal relationship altogether, however, is to commit oneself to mere mechanical causation in a meaningless universe—and Mill had already been through that spiritual crisis. By contrast, to say as the poem does that the child is father to the man not only reverses the usual claims about paternity but actually asserts a fundamental law such that manhood emerges out of childhood in a way that has to be accepted with natural piety because, as Alexander was to put it, it is not susceptible to another explanation. Emergence allows Mill both enchantment and physicalism. In this reading of the “Ode” and its epigraph, which I am suggesting was Mill’s reading, natural piety is the appropriate attitude to take toward the fundamental laws that are not susceptible to further explanation. The power of this emergence/natural piety complex is demonstrated, in Mill’s account, by his discovery of emergent laws and by his own personal spiritual recovery.

37.        Brian McLaughlin argues that empirically we don’t need emergence: there simply are no fundamental chemical forces that have to be accepted with natural piety. But even setting aside such empirical considerations, most philosophers are liable to be suspicious of natural piety—just as cultural critics, for analogous reasons, are liable to be suspicious of it. For natural piety seems to recommend that we just give up. Philosophers who will continue to seek a metaphysical solution to the mind-body problem won’t like this, nor will cultural critics who call us to ever more vigilant forms of critique. Furthermore, the quasi-religious language of natural piety, especially as it gets linked up to literature itself in Mill’s reaction to Wordsworth, will elicit objections. If Alexander and Broad were elaborating the metaphysics of Romanticism, then hasn’t that metaphysics already been subjected to stringent critique in the debate between Romantic humanism and its deconstructive and historicist interlocutors?

38.        Here, though, I would insist upon the distinction I made near the beginning of this essay between consciousness and self-consciousness. C. D. Broad, the last and probably greatest exponent of the British Emergentist tradition, quoted Alexander’s invocation of natural piety approvingly, but he titled his 1925 book The Mind and Its Place in Nature.  [32]  There is thus a crucial difference between Broad’s (Romantic) project and the project of a Romantic humanist such as M. H. Abrams, who writes for example in 1965 that “[t]he central enterprise common to many post-Kantian German philosophers and poets, as well as to Coleridge and Wordsworth, was to join together the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ that modern intellection had put asunder, and thus to revivify a dead nature, restore its concreteness, significance, and human values, and re-domiciliate man in a world which had become alien to him.” [33]  Both Broad and Abrams are writing about the relationship between the human subject and the material world. But the crucial difference is that Broad is interested in the mind-body problem and Abrams is interested in the subject-object problem, and the result of that difference is that when Broad considers the mind and its place in nature he can simply avoid the spiritual and ideological weight that Abrams loads up onto what he calls “Romantic philosophy.” Natural piety understood through the lens of British emergentism is not an attempt to “re-domiciliate man in a world that had become alien to him.” Rather, it is consonant with a physicalist/naturalist solution to the mind-body problem.

39.        Left intellectuals, trained by several generations of theorists suspicious of “naturalization,” get nervous whenever anything is labeled “natural.” Upon examination, though, such nervousness depends on an ambiguity in the notion of nature itself. Keeping the focus on the mind-body problem rather than letting it run off in various post-Kantian directions, my suggestion is that the British Emergentist interest in natural piety might help us recover in a theoretically interesting way the important strand of naturalism—that is, physicalism—that runs through Wordsworthian Romanticism but that we lose sight of when we lose sight of the mind-body problem.

7. The Given

40.        Picking up on Wordsworth’s own language, Harold Bloom many years ago called natural piety a “binding agent,” and once again the chemical metaphor seems appropriate to the history of emergetism. Bloom goes on, speaking of the “Intimations Ode”: “Wordsworth’s poem is concerned, not with a history of conceptualization, but with the flowing given of our sensuous experience.” [34]  Contrast Bloom’s comments with those of more recent vintage by Peter Manning, who argues that the lines about natural piety serve to overwrite and simplify the political and emotional complexities of the Ode: “the lyric reinstalls at the head of the text the constant relation of man and nature, affirming at the outset the continuity that the poem must labor to establish.” [35]  Manning’s reading takes its place in a well-established line of criticism that comes at Wordsworth via a critique of Burkean “second nature.” [36]  What drives this line of thought—to reiterate my point—is a notion of critique that takes the subject/object dialectic (Manning’s “relation of man and nature”) and its deconstruction as its point of departure.

41.        I want to side with Bloom in this debate. I think he glimpses something that Manning does not, and that it is the same thing that Liu glimpses when he discusses the phenomenon of local agency in Book 2 of The Prelude. We can describe this thing as the “relation of man and nature,” but this time in a way much closer to Broad’s mind-body physicalism (“the mind and its place in nature”) than to Manning’s invocation of subject-object dialectics. What Bloom and Liu and Broad are all verging upon is the way that subjectivity emerges out of the everyday and mundane material that nature offers up. These are descriptions, in short, of the mind’s place in nature.

42.        If this sort of naturalism or physicalism is not to simply fetishize nature, though, we need to give it a little more theoretical heft. Recall that when he first describes the attitude of natural piety, Alexander remarks that emergent laws could be “noted under the compulsion of brute empirical fact, or, as I should prefer to say in less harsh terms, to be accepted with the ‘natural piety’ of the investigator.” The distinction between “brute empirical fact” and the “natural piety” of the investigator catches one’s attention immediately, and it is tempting to read this revision in ideological terms, such that “natural piety” becomes the way to soften and ameliorate what is nevertheless a brute assertion. We might further note that so understood, this revision nicely glosses one common reading of Romanticism itself, as a conservative reaction to the modernity represented by a tradition of scientific reasoning extending back to Bacon and Newton.

43.        Once again, though, things look different if we come at natural piety from the perspective of emergence. If the emergence of one set of properties from lower level properties is the result of a basic law, and therefore doesn’t require another law to explain it, it is certainly possible to put this idea in brute terms. So understood, it would seem a long way from the fuzziness of natural piety. Thus Colin McGinn: “It is implausible to take these correlations [between neurons and conscious experience] as ultimate and inexplicable facts, as simply brute. And we do not want to acknowledge radical emergence of the conscious with respect to the cerebral; that is too much like accepting miracles de re.” [37]  Here McGinn dismisses natural piety by linking it to belief in miracles, which seems about as far from brute empirical reality as possible. Alexander, though, would refuse to accept this distinction between the brute and the miraculous. The same goes for Tim Crane, who argues that the natural piety of the emergentists is worth attending to because “[t]he availability of the emergentist position encourages us to look with suspicion on the idea that there must nonetheless be a philosophical account” of the correlation between body and mind. On this account, natural piety makes it possible to feel that we don’t have to answer the mind-body problem. This, argues Crane, is the epistemological attitude that emergence recommends to naturalism. [38] 

44.        Working from a very different theoretical archive, Anne-Lise François reaches an analogous conclusion in her use of Wordsworthian natural piety to critique biotechnology. If nature is conceptualized as simply brute, she notes, then it begs for completion. Lately, of course, that completion has come in the form of genetic tinkering: Bt corn, salmon that grow six times faster than normal, silk-producing goats. One need not subscribe to some reified discourse of the natural in order to want to resist this tinkering, which as François points out is done so often in the name simply of undifferentiated “possibility,” the proliferation of “options” that characterizes late capitalism, or even out of sheer boredom. Yet how does one offer such resistance without fetishizing nature, falling back into a series of oppositions (progressive/conservative, urban/rural, artificial/natural) that have their own problematic histories? For an answer she also turns to natural piety, which she nicely describes as “the precarious basis for an otherwise unjustifiable choice in favor of already existing beings.” [39] 

45.        This conception of natural piety leans theoretically on Jacques Derrida’s notion of the given, and in so doing it recalls the complex relationship between brute and pious to which Alexander also gives voice: “on the one hand,” writes François, the given is “a trope for brute priority, for the intractable that precedes and escapes human decision; on the other, [it is] the name for decision itself, the incalculable, unforeseeable response that comes as if from nowhere and cannot be anticipated.” [40]  François is redacting Derrida here, and yet her way of putting it also returns us to Alexander. Thus, helped by François, I think at this point it becomes possible to take Alexander at his word and view brute priority and natural piety as really two descriptions of the same thing. Moreover with the example of biotechnology in mind I believe we can accept his implication that natural piety is to be “preferred” precisely because the bare assertion of brute priority is generally not enough to get us to leave something alone. Quite the contrary.

46.        To say the least, this convergence of Derridean critique and analytic philosophy of mind around a shared reading of natural piety is striking. In the context of a technologically-driven imperative to outperform nature, a restless dissatisfaction with the given and consequent desire to squeeze more out of it, natural piety could take on a new life as a post-ideological ethic. “The challenge for the critique of biotechnology,” François concludes, “is to find ways of presenting incompletion as a mode of satisfied knowledge, and indeterminateness as consummate temporal experience, not simply deficient and as yet unachieved cognition” (68). Perhaps it has taken the biotech revolution to reveal the thread of naturalism in Wordsworthian natural piety. I have been arguing, though, that this thread was there all along, in the way in which the emergentist tradition took up Wordsworthian natural piety as an approach to the mind-body problem. “This [emergentist] way of treating the mind-body problem,” writes Tim Crane, assumes “that we should not say a priori when we should take the facts of nature to require further explanation” (23). In my judgment, coming at this attitude of epistemological modesty through the history of emergentism and the mind-body problem insulates natural piety from charges of ideological bad faith more securely than a Derridean approach can hope to do. As inspiring as I find François’ essay, it seems to me that she is walking a very thin line, and that the naturalism she recommends could be rendered more robustly through an engagement with the mind-body problem.


47.        I don’t want to be taken as arguing that emergence/natural piety, “properly understood,” is actually progressive. The point, rather, is to move away from the language of progressive and conservative altogether. And rather than mystificatory, I would argue that emergence/natural piety is the very opposite: it deflates the language of progressive and conservative because it deflates the oppositions (mind/nature, subject/object) in which that particular political debate is embedded, and returns us to the more defined—if no less mysterious—terrain of the mind-body problem. From this perspective, natural piety’s commitments are broadly empirical and scientific, Anglo rather than Germanic. Here is Broad:

There is nothing, so far as I can see, mysterious or unscientific about a trans-ordinal law [his word for a potentially emergent law]….A trans-ordinal law is as good a law as any other; and, once it has been discovered, it can be used like any other to suggest experiments, to make predictions, and to give us practical control over external objects (79).
This is hardly the language of anti-science. But then Broad goes on:
The only peculiarity of it is that we must wait till we meet with an actual instance of an object of the higher order before we can discover such a law; and that we cannot possibly deduce it beforehand from any combination of laws which we have discovered by observing aggregates of a lower order. (79)
“We must wait” seems, these days, about all we could ask. It is after all with Broad’s basically deflationary posture in mind that Tim Crane remarks that “there is more to be said for the attitude of ‘natural piety’ than is often recognized in recent philosophy of mind.” So to, I would propose, for recent business “innovations,” for recent “advances” in genetic engineering, for recent global military adventures—all of which, as Francois’ analysis helps us to see, rush in deductively and are thus the very opposite of the epistemically-modest empiricism of natural piety that Broad recommends.

48.        And so to, I am arguing, for recent literary study. One virtue of emergence theory is that it forces us to concentrate on the murky and unclear relationship between a novel property and its material determinants. Indeed, the emergentist attempt to describe how C is determined by and dependent upon N, and yet is also something over and above it, is a fascinating analogue of the ever-present discussion in literary studies about the relationship between the literary object and the various cultural forces that determine it. Like non-reductive physicalists, I suspect, most of us want it both ways: we want to be able to dissolve the literary object back into its social, cultural, and historical conditions, but we also want, embarrassingly, to hold onto the novelty or uniqueness of the object itself. [41]  Its appearance on the scene, we would like to think, was not entirely predictable. And we would like to think that it has something to say to us.

49.        My claim has been that philosophical discussions of consciousness have something to teach literary studies about its own hard problem. And I have suggested that emergence, as one approach to the hard problem of consciousness, has important roots in the Romantic period itself. So understood, emergence and its recommended posture of natural piety is a theory of non-intervention—“we must wait”—and, because of this, an appreciation of the difficulty and importance of the mind-body problem.


Dan Kelly, Jonathan Kramnick, Ronald Jager, Brian McLaughlin, Louis Sass, and Orrin Wang generously commented on earlier drafts of this essay. Thanks to Terry Kelley, who suggested that I write it, and to Alan Liu, whose paper at the 2006 NASSR inspired it.

Works Cited

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Alexander, Samuel. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-18. 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1979. Print.

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Print.

Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Rev. Ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971. Print.

Borst, C. V, ed. The Mind/Brain Identity Theory. London: Macmillan, 1970. Print.

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Chalmers, David. "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness." Journal of Consciousness Studies 2.3 (1995): 200-19. Print.

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Chalmers, David, ed. Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Chandler, James K. Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Crane, Tim. "The Significance of Emergence." Physicalism and its Discontents. Ed. Barry Loewer and Grant Gillett. [n.p.]: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Crick, Francis, and Christof Koch. "Why Neuroscience May Be Able to Explain Consciousness." Scientific American 273.6 (December 1995): 85. Print.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Rev. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Print.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1991. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. "Given Time: The Time of the King." Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 162-187. Print.

Fodor, Jerry. "Headaches have themselves." Rev. of Galen Strawson, et. al., Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. London Review of Books 29:10 (24 May 2007). Print.

François, Anne-Lise. "’O Happy Living Things”: Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety." diacritics 33.2 (2003): 42-70. Print.

Gigante, Denise. "Zeitgeist." European Romantic Review 18.2 (2007): 265-72. Print.

Huxley, Thomas. Lessons in Elementary Physiology. London: Macmillan and Co., 1866. Print.

Jackson, Frank. "Epiphenomenal Qualia." Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127-136. Print.

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.

Kim, Jaegwon. Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.

Liu, Alan. "A Forming Hand." Unpublished ms.

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[1] Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, rev. 2nd ed., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xii. De Man’s turn, of course, was to substitute language—allegory, specifically—for the subject-object dialectic that had dominated post-Kantian idealism; the implication is that with this move consciousness is revealed as a rhetorical effect. BACK

[2] For example, Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (Routledge, 1978), originally published in 1966; and Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971) pp. 127-88. BACK

[3] Jerry Fodor, “Headaches have themselves,” rev. of Galen Strawson et. al. Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, London Review of Books 29:10 (24 May 2007). BACK

[4] This essay is not a brief for so-called “cognitive literary studies,” about which I have my doubts. Whether humans have a brain module for understanding fictional characters does not strike me as a very interesting question. BACK

[5] The term comes from David Chalmers. See “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995) 200-19, and Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: in Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: OUP, 1996). BACK

[6] Thomas Huxley, Lessons in Elementary Physiology, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1866) 193; Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985) 51. BACK

[7] John R. Searle, “Minding the Brain,” rev. of Nicholas Humphrey, Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, New York Review of Books 53:17 (November 2, 2006). BACK

[8] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974) 435-45. The phrase “what it is like” has become common in the literature. It is worth noting that this phrase is not intended to name a metaphorical relationship but rather to mark the specificity of a first-person phenomenal experience. A reader might nonetheless wonder about the largely unexamined appeal to “likeness” in the philosophical literature on consciousness. BACK

[9] One answer to this objection, not pursued here, is that literature in fact frequently aspires to describe what it feels like to be conscious; think of a Henry James novel, or the modernist experiments of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, and others. Arguably, this is true as well of earlier writers and techniques: free indirect style, for example, or the movements of thought characteristic of the Greater Romantic Lyric. We could surely go back further. BACK

[10] Francis Crick and Christof Koch, “Why Neuroscience May Be Able to Explain Consciousness,” Scientific American 273 no. 6 (December 1995) 85. BACK

[11] Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982) 127-136. The standard objection to Jackson’s argument is that when Mary leaves her room she doesn’t gain new knowledge but rather a new ability. BACK

[12] The classic behaviorist account is Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949). On functionalism, the most prominent defender is probably Daniel C. Dennett; see Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1991) and “Quining Qualia,” in Chalmers, ed. Philosophy of Mind 226-246. Classic defenders of identity theory include U. T. Place, “Is Consciousness a Brain Process?” and J.J.C. Smart, “Sensations and Brain Processes,” both in The Mind/Brain Identity Theory, ed. C. V. Borst (London: Macmillan, 1970) pp. 42-51 and 52-66; more recent exponents of identity theory include Brian Loar, “Phenomenal States,” Philosophical Perspectives 4 (1990) 81-108, and Brian P. McLaughlin, “Type Materialism for Phenomenal Consciousness,” in the Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (forthcoming). Defenders of epiphenomenalism include Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” and more recently Jaegwon Kim, in Physicalism, or Something Near Enough (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005); panpsychism, generally considered a fringe position, has recently been embraced by Galen Strawson; see Strawson et al., Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?, ed. Anthony Freeman (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic) 2006. It is worth noting that many philosophers regard both epiphenomenalism and panpsychism as forms of dualism. BACK

[13] Again, there is a complicated intellectual history that I must gloss over here, but Kant’s discussion of “things as they are in themselves” in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Fichte’s distinction between dogmatism and idealism in the first introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre (1797) are the key moments in this transition away from Cartesian questions. BACK

[14] As Richardson notes, there are Continental connections as well: Herder, Diderot, Gall, and Spurzheim, among others. BACK

[15] Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 6. BACK

[16] For a related version of this idea see Colin McGinn, “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” Mind 98 no. 391 (July, 1989) 349-366. McGinn is not an emergentist, but the argument pursued in his essay seems to me highly amenable to what I discuss here under the rubric of “natural piety.” McGinn himself would disagree with this assessment. BACK

[17] Brian P. McLaughlin, “The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,” Emergence Or Reduction? Eds. A. Berckermann, J. Kim, and H. Flohr (De Gruyter, 1992), pp.49-93; 54. McLaughlin is concerned exclusively with discussions of emergence in chemistry, which is where emergence theory had the longest life. He doesn’t discuss consciousness itself, except to write in a footnote that “Consciousness, it seems, is the last refuge of an Emergentist” (91). BACK

[18] Such analogies proliferate in Steven Johnson’s popular trade book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001). BACK

[19] This paragraph depends on Tim Crane’s much lengthier and very helpful discussion in “The Significance of Emergence,” in Barry Loewer and Grant Gillett (eds.), Physicalism and its Discontents (Cambridge University Press 2001). BACK

[20] Samuel Alexander, for example, was a vitalist about life, an identity theorist about mental processes, and an emergentist regarding consciousness. BACK

[21] Alan Liu, “A Forming Hand,” unpublished ms. 33. My thanks to Alan for allowing me to cite his essay. BACK

[22] In this sense emergence can stand in for popular interest in the “cognitive” in general—from mirror neurons to the “moral gene”—which seems to promise a clean exit from social debates heretofore largely framed by the cultural Left and its broad commitment to constructivist models of the self. In this context, Liu’s staging of the dispute begins to look like a stand-off between the humanities and the sciences. BACK

[23] Within emergence theory, causation is the more technical version of Liu’s “agency.” Causal powers emerge as a matter of law, though that law is not reducible to the laws governing the lower levels. Moreover, emergent properties exhibit so-called downward causation, that is, they cause change that cannot be predicted at the lower levels. So, for example, mental properties, if they are emergent, would have causal powers that could not be predicted according to the laws that govern the physical substrate of those properties. This seems to violate what is known as “the causal closure of the physical.” BACK

[24] Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-18, 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1979, volume 2, pp. 46-7. BACK

[25] All Wordsworth quotations come from the Complete Poetical Works (London: Macmillan and Company, 1888). BACK


Not of myself I speak;
Such acquiescence neither doth imply,
In me, a meekly-bending spirit soothed
By natural piety; nor a lofty mind,
By philosophic discipline prepared
For calm subjection to acknowledged law; (3.263-68)
Francis Bacon had used the phrase “natural piety” to describe one of the salutary effects of atheism in Essays, Civil and Moral (1597). See essay 17, “Of Superstition.” As befits such a vague phrase, the history of “natural piety” verges variously upon atheism, pantheism, natural theology, and Catholic orthodoxy.


'Lo, Francis comes,' there were who cried,
'A Prisoner once, but now set free!
'Tis well, for he the worst defied
Through force of natural piety;
He rose not in this quarrel; (1229-33)

[28] It is also tempting to speculate that the association of natural piety with emergence comes from the George Eliot / G. H. Lewes relationship. Lewes in fact coined the term “emergent.” BACK

[29] John Stuart Mill, Autobiography and Literary Essays, in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, volume 1, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981) 139. BACK

[30] Autobiography 167. Mill refers to Thomas Thomson’s System of Chemistry, whose third edition, published in 1807, first popularized John Dalton’s atomic theory. Thomson claimed (probably incorrectly) that Dalton arrived at the theory through an analysis of nitrous oxide. Humphry Davy was of course the Romantic-era chemist most associated with nitrous oxide; on Coleridge’s connection to Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide in 1799, see Richardson 51-3. BACK

[31] In the System of Logic Mill postulates the existence of what he calls “heteropathic laws”; George Henry Lewes would rename those same laws “emergent laws.”

On Mill, see McLaughlin, “The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,” pp. 58-65. BACK

[32] When Broad quoted Alexander, he added some sweetening of his own: “there are certain differences which cannot be explained, even in part, but must simply be swallowed whole with that philosophic jam which Professor Alexander calls ‘natural piety’.” See C. D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1960), 55. BACK

[33] M. H. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Norton, 1970) 218. BACK

[34] Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971) 173. BACK

[35] Peter J. Manning, Reading Romantics: Texts and Contexts (New York: Oxford, 1990) 80-1. BACK

[36] For the classic example see James K. Chandler, Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984). BACK

[37] McGinn, “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” 353. BACK

[38] See Crane, “The Significance of Emergence,” 22. To avoid confusion, I need to distinguish the attitude of natural piety from position (a), for example the NCC program. Partisans of (a) think we don’t have to solve the mind-body problem because it isn’t a problem; partisans of natural piety think that the mind-body problem is a problem; what they question is the drive to solve it. BACK

[39] Anne-Lise François, “’O Happy Living Things”: Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety,” diacritics 33.2 (2003) 42-70; 58. BACK

[40] François 46. See Jacques Derrida, “Given Time: The Time of the King,” trans. Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry 18 (1992) 162-187. BACK

[41] For a related description of this embarrassment, see Denise Gigante’s suggestive remarks on vitalism in “Zeitgeist,” European Romantic Review 18.2 (2007) 265-72. BACK