Completely Mental

by Kieran Healy on July 27, 2003

Over the past few weeks, many analytic philosophers — including my wife and several of her colleagues — have received a free copy of a book called The Elements of Mentality: The foundations of psychology and philosophy by David Hume. Not, you understand, the David Hume who wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and other well-known books. He has been dead for some time. This David Hume, as is discreetly noted on the inside back flap is a pseudonym. Why pick “David Hume” out of all possible noms de plume? I suppose it can’t hurt to have your book shelved along with ones written by the most influential English-speaking philosopher in the past three hundred years.

The book is one of those Fundamental Theory of It All books. The letter accompanying the freebie copies says, in part:

bq. The Elements of Mentality is a momentous undertaking, offering a unique articulation of the foundation or first principles of psychology. It does so by identifying the elemental mental experiences … and by describing “mentation” — the cyclical organization of those elemental experiences. The author contends that the resulting elemental model of mentality provides a basis for the analysis of any psychological phenomena. Showing how the structure of all knowledge emerges from this model, the author concludes that the model is also the foundation of philosophy.

Woah. Pretty heady stuff. A quick skim of the book reveals the author as the kind of person who Lays Out His View as opposed to providing anything much in the way of argument. The exposition gets underway immediately, the tone is confident throughout and there is a refreshingly complete absence of footnotes, endnotes, bibliographical references, or passing mentions of any philosophers living or dead, with the exception of (the real) David Hume who gets a quote before the table of contents and Rousseau, who gets a line in the Conclusion. This style is not unknown amongst some great philosophers, but is not by itself sufficient to make a book a great work of philosophy.

“David Hume” — a Google search suggests that Sid Barnett is the author’s real name — argues that there are five elements of mentality, viz, external sensory experiences, internal bodily experiences, emotional experiences, intellectual experiences and experiences of the will. These are the irreducible, fundamental building blocks of mental life. “There are no other types of experiences, no intermediate categories, no hybrids.” This doesn’t sound very plausible. (How to classify experiences such as this?) These five elements combine in a particular unvarying cyclic order to form a “unit of mentation.” The goal here is an analytic description of the flow of consciousness, I think. From here, for reasons which remain unclear to me, the author believes he can get to “a grand philosophy … of the structure of all knowledge.” He attempts this in the short Part Two of the book, which seems to be the most confused bit of the whole thing. It consists mainly of a string of definitions and little argument. Then he moves quickly on to the “Mind/Matter Problem” where further confusion ensues. Even a non-philosopher like me can see problems with, for example, his analysis of how to distinguish causation from mere correlation:

bq. Probable causation … is suggested by a history of consecutive occurences of C[ause] and E[ffect] about T[ime], provided that the occurences of C are indeterminate in time and varied in circumstances. It is the varied and indeterminate occurences of C that suggest the consecutive occurences of E are not mere coincidence…

Alas, the co-occurence of Cs and Es about Ts is what produces correlation in the first place, so it’s not much use citing this condition as the way to discriminate between it and causation. Later, Barnett notices that causation is closely related to constitution:

bq. For example one might say the that the properties of H2O molecules cause the properties of water. Water is composed from H2O molecules; therefore the properties of water are the properties of H2O molecules.

This is false as well. Water can have many properties (volume, color, wetness) that H2O molecules do not have. Here Barnett seems to be reaching for some concepts — like constitution or supervenience — that are out there in the literature. But relying on them might necessitate actually citing someone, which would spoil the sui generis feel of the enterprise.

I got a bit sick of the book at this point. It’s all very reminiscent of the A.M. Monius affair a few years ago. This was the (slightly less pretentitous) pseudonym of a New Jersey businessman with a hankering for metaphysics. His “Institute” offered well-known metaphysicians a lot of money to write “serious” (by which was explicitly meant “favorable”) reviews of his longish paper “Coming to Understanding.” A bunch of them took the bait, with varying degrees of publicly-acknowledged guilt about prostituting their critical faculties. David Hume appears to want to attract the attention of philosophers in a similar way. I wonder whether this sort of thing is becoming a trend? And why is Sid Barnett using a pseudonym in the first place? Is he under a cloud for some other reason? Or is using the name “David Hume” just a cheap way to attract undeserved attention?

The letter sent out with the book says the publisher would “value any brief comments … about the thesis advanced in the book and your analysis of the course adoption possibilities for it.” I doubt it’ll get adopted in any Philosophy courses, partly because he’s not offering any hard cash but mostly because the book doesn’t seem to be any good at all. Perhaps someone teaching a seminar on “Boundary Maintenance on the Fringes of Academia” would be interested. But that’s just what a career academic like myself would say, “David Hume” might reply. Go read the Prologue or look at the Table of Contents for yourself, and see what you think.



Keith M Ellis 07.27.03 at 11:21 am

What is Sid Barnett’s background? There was a discussion (actually, it’s a recurring discussion) on sci.physics that has informed my view of “crankery”. A signal characteristic of cranks is their paranoia, hostility, and above all ignorance, regarding prior work in the field they are attempting to revolutionize. They are usually rather jealous that their sui generis theory might be corrupted by knowing too much about what other people think.

There is some justification for this fear, of course. I think all creative but responsible thinkers deal with this difficulty.

This is a bit of a personal issue for me, including the subject matter. I have a significant amoung of undergraduate philosophy, and am, for a layperson, somewhat aware of episotomology and am quite aware of current thought in cognitive science, AI, complexity theory, and some related fields. I’ve developed over many years a loose, undisciplined epistomology that I think possible has great value, and some people with much more expertise than I have concurred. The thing is, much of my way of thinking about the process of truth-seeking is influenced by the modern practice of science–as such, I tend to see having a really, really good original and powerful idea as rather more mundane than many expect and, in any event, only the first step. Furthermore, one simply can’t be ignorant of prior work in the field. It will inevitably offer critiques and corrections, fill in gaps, and act as a rigorizing influence. My expectation is that were I to get a PhD in philosophy (or somesuch) and work on my epistomology, it would likely in its deepest essence be very similar to how I now conceive it. Does that mean that working through the system would be a waste of time? Not at all, as, again, the difference may be between having a really good idea and having a really good, rigorous, highly structured and easily defended idea. And that may make all the difference. Finally, it’s simply a pragmatic fact that one needs certain credentials and experience in order to be taken seriously. If my theory, or Barnett’s, is correct and valuable, then putting in ten years or so of work in the field is really not too high a price to pay in order to get those ideas a forum. One has to be suspicious of someone who won’t recognize this.

And that’s why you can safely dismiss my ideas, or Barnett’s, because you have every reason to believe that we’re far more likely to be full of shit than not. Barnett’s worse, though, because he’s acting cranky while I act more like an educated layperson with some good ideas.

(Note: having not read Barnett’s book and going only on the gloss of it above, I should make it clear that he only sounds, secondhand, like a crank. Calling himself “David Hume” doesn’t help, though.)


mitch 07.27.03 at 1:12 pm

I’d like to know what D.H.’s answer to the mind/matter problem is. In his conclusion he says, “From one’s inescapable elemental perspective, the universe is constituted from one’s elemental mental experiences…” If “the universe” here is meant to denote the whole of reality, then this appears to be an assertion of solipsistic idealism. If “the universe” here simply refers to the universe of one’s experience (one’s lifeworld, if you will), then it’s reasonable enough, but it’s only an epistemological and phenomenological statement, not touching on issues of fundamental ontology. Looking at the contents, with its references to “behavioral… [and] evolutionary superfluity of mental experiences”, I would guess that “universe” here means “lifeworld”, and that the mind/matter theory espoused is some form of functionalism.


mitch 07.27.03 at 1:45 pm

Further comment (comments aren’t working at the guy’s website yet!): The book apparently resembles Carnap’s The logical structure of the world, which also inventoried the elements of experience, and claimed that all concepts were logical constructions from them. For that matter, Kant did something similar in his enumeration of elementary forms of judgement (although I don’t think he ever got around to describing their rules of combination).

In my view, if Mr Barnett really wants his work studied, he should take the plunge and release the full text online, perhaps under a Creative Commons license.


freddie 07.27.03 at 3:55 pm

Why would anyone use a fake name for what he or she considers important work unless sfrom a fear that there might be reprisals of some sort or that The Authorities might use the materials against him. And how pretentious to use the name of a well-known person!


dsquared 07.27.03 at 11:08 pm

Having said that, The Money Game by “Adam Smith” is a bloody good book, so it’s a poor rule that has no exception.


Kevin Drum 07.27.03 at 11:24 pm

Yeah, “Adam Smith” was the first thing that popped into my mind when I read this post too. He’s written a whole handful of good books.

But Kieran, did you actually read this book? Why? Life is too short for this kind of thing….


JW 07.28.03 at 4:20 am

Is the contemporary economics writer Adam Smith not really named “Adam Smith”? I had always assumed it was. I mean, if Mr. and Mrs. Hume (does Brit have kids?) decided to name their son David, I wouldn’t at all fault him for publishing philosophy books under his own name?


Phillip J. Birmingham 07.28.03 at 4:22 am

Heh. I read “Sid Barnett” as “Sid Barrett” at first. It made lots of sense to me that way.


Belle Waring 07.28.03 at 5:22 am

Yes, I too read his name as Sid Barrett. Maybe there’s been a typo somewhere along the line and this explains the whole crazy thing…I’m sure Sid Barrett’s theories about mentality would be equally interesting, especially if set to strange tunes of a curiously arrhythmic nature.


Kevin Drum 07.28.03 at 7:08 pm

“Adam Smith’s” real name is George Goodman. He used it back in the 60s, when it allowed him to keep his job as a portfolio manager while still writing satirical columns.


clew 07.29.03 at 3:37 am

So – has “David Hume” managed to represent units of mentation in a cellular automaton?


dzwonki polifoniczne 01.13.04 at 9:55 pm

Mein Hobby ist es Gästebücher zu besuchen. Das ist immer ganz interessant und widerspiegelt so, was die Leute im Internet wirklich denken. War auch interessant bei Dir ! Bis zum nächsten Mal. All The Best OfNew Year. Sorry for my english i’am from Germany.

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