A History Of The Mind by Nicholas Humphrey

by stephenpalmersf

In 1992 Nicholas Humphrey followed his ground-breaking book The Inner Eye with an equally brilliant work, A History Of The Mind. The thesis behind this work was that the link between our experience of the mind and its physical place in our bodies can be explained: there is a solution to the mind-body problem. Humphrey in this book tells a tale of evolution, of sensations being related to two distinct experiences – the outside world and the body itself – and of the development of his evolutionary theory of the appearance of mind.

The book is set in twenty nine sections. Humphrey deals with the problem he faces; with the vital importance of physical boundaries to living creatures – me and not-me; with the evolution of the eye as an example of sensory perception, but with the proviso that perception and sensation may not be mutually exclusive; with blindness and blindsight; sensation as “copying” and perception as “storytelling”; five senses; sensory loops; thoughts on how our external surfaces (eg skin) may not be involved in sensations; inner models as substitutes for the real body… and then a new theory of consciousness based on what has gone before.

Many other philosophers have walked this path. In an ironic introduction, Humphrey acknowledges the importance of Daniel Dennett to his work, remarking that, since the two don’t agree on certain points of the theory, “he may sometimes have thought he had introduced a cuckoo to his nest.” Humphrey would later write more about his ideas in the somewhat challenging Seeing Red.

What’s great about this book though is how Humphrey proceeds from the evolutionary perspective (consciousness matters to human beings – it must therefore have a fundamental purpose), using biology, philosophy and the backbone of the ideas presented in The Inner Eye as jumping off points. The book does have a nuts-and-bolts feel to it, in contrast to The Inner Eye, which has more of a sweeping grandeur – not that the final chapters of A History Of The Mind don’t have their own grand rewards. Another wonderful work.