Anyone interested in modern theories of the mind and consciousness has to reckon with Dennett. This book, dense but...



The dean of consciousness-raising consciousness-explaining returns with another cleareyed exploration of the mind.

“How come there are minds?” asks Dennett (Philosophy and Cognitive Science/Tufts Univ.; Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, 2013, etc.), both beguilingly and with just a hint of a challenge. The human brain is both top-down and bottom-up, the latter reflecting automatic, animal impulses, the former the better angels of our nature. How did that top-down control system grow to dominate, producing what we think of as not just brain, but mind? Therein lies a tangled story with many threads, some of which lead into daunting territory: the thought, for instance, that consciousness is really a species of illusion on the part of the “user.” After a few hundred pages’ tour of an evolutionary theater populated by mirages, “feral neurons,” and words that struggle to reproduce and thrive just as living creatures do, such a possibility comes to seem not so strange after all. Dennett defends the human mind as the chief feature distinguishing our kind from other animals; after all, he notes, we are aware of bacteria, whereas other animals are not, and “even bacteria don’t know that there are bacteria.” Yet that knowledge comes at a formidable cost, and when the author enters into the territory of inversions of reasoning and of reasoning about reasoning, of “the evolution of the evolution of culture” and other seeming circularities, you know that you’re in for a bumpy ride: “There are reasons why trees spread their branches, but they are not in any strong sense the trees’ reasons.” The ride may be bumpy for casual readers, but it’s always interesting, as Dennett calls on the likes of Darwin, Descartes, and Gibson—the last the author of a fruitful theory of “affordances”—to explore how we represent and understand representations.

Anyone interested in modern theories of the mind and consciousness has to reckon with Dennett. This book, dense but accessible, is as good a place as any to start.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24207-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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