Fearn joins the ranks of writers attempting to bridge "Established" notions of what constitutes "Western" thought and the new views challenging tradition. Although he's not the first to attempt this synthesis, his organisation and style place him among the leaders of such effort. With gentle precision, Fearn places the advocates in carefully constructed arenas. The book's three sections, "Who am I?", "What do I know?" and "What should I do?" provide the framework for his presentation. Within these arenas, the author introduces the reader to various thinkers through summations of their views. He adds a nice personal touch where he can in relating attributes gleaned through personal interviews. He must be very charming [or bears a charmed life], since he manages personal conversations with many major figures in philosophy. Not all of them are amenable to the "journalistic" approach.
Given the potentially hazardous mix of considered thought and off-hand expression, this book comes off admirably. After some introductory material on how earlier thinkers viewed the "self", Fearn tries to show how views have changed - and why. He has no qualms about "hard questions", since he opens with the debate over how the human mind and computers can be compared. Jerry Fodor's "computational theory of mind" is given a good airing, but, as usual, the model is a bit overdrawn. Equating the mind too closely with a machine has led to questions ranging from brain "transplants" to the plausibility of "Star Trek's" transporter. Fearn, in his contact with Daniel Dennett, might have been set straight on this point, but he seems to have failed to ask the proper questions.
Fearn fares better in the second section, "What do I know?" The inevitable opening, "Is life merely an illusion" doesn't keep him long. He quickly moves to assessing "reality" through reasoning and common sense. More to the point, he recognises that knowledge of our evolution outweighs conjecture about mystical forces impinging on our consciousness. His dismissal of Alvin Plantinga's bizarre notions is nearly as entertaining as Michael Ruse's in "Darwin or Design", although not as knowledgeable. Once we accept there are things to be known, we ascribe "meaning" to them. How do we distinguish what is innate from what we derive during life? Can the distinction actually be made? Again, Fearn mixes ancient and modern views in attempting a synthesis. He ranges from Descartes and Kant to Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge. The dichotomy of meaning being located within the mind or somewhere "outside" takes up much of the section. "Externalism", Fearn contends, shows that philosophical problems "are more than just disputes over words or arbitary definitions". Science can provide the definitions which takes them beyond just an individual's concept of what they are. Yet langauage, that supposedly uniquely human facility, keeps definitions at the edge of perceiving clearly what we know. Fearn demonstrates how far philosophers can stretch such concepts in his dismissal of people like Jacques Derrida and the "French School", which has prevailed in the US as well.
Nobody can write on philosophy without entering the quagmire of "ethics". In his concluding section on "What should I do?", Fearn introduces the concept of "luck" in moral questions. That unexpected element is what brings events in our daily lives into the realm of moral decisions. Was Gauguin morally correct in abandoning his family to live and paint in the South Pacific? Would the loss of his genius been worth keeping the moral code of "family responsibility"? How far such questions can reach is examined in Fearn's discussion of the life and work of Peter Singer. Fearn is just short of contemptuous of Singer's animal rights views, but fails to perceive the science underlying them.
For all Fearn's efforts, the "audit" is incomplete. His concentration on "philosophers" blinds him to the science replacing those classical outlooks. A good many of Fearn's puzzles might have been resolved had he been aware of cognitive science, but the term appears to have escaped his ken. He failed to enquire among researchers such as V.S. Ramachandran, Steven Mithen or Antonio Damasio, who might have expanded on this issue, but restricted his search to those dealing directly with more "classical" outlooks. He does introduce Paul and Patricia Churchland, but on an entirely different question. The humanities haven't been replaced by cognitive science, but philosophy can no longer afford to ignore its findings. He should have provided an overview of this research at the beginning of the book. It is, after all, what is helping us redefine "Who we are". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]