Human reason has this peculiar fate,” Immanuel Kant wrote in 1781, “that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” He was talking about the way reason can speculate about, and yet not know, the ideas that transcend it. For some philosophers, consciousness—what Kant called the self—counts as one of these ideas. We can no more illuminate the nature of our selfhood than, as in a celebrated metaphor sketched by Julian Jaynes, a flashlight can illuminate its own structure. The limit of reflection lies at the margin where reflection is made possible. Still, philosophers are nothing if not persistent in the face of a challenge. Even though one fairly influential contemporary school of thought— called, with a nod to the one-hit wonders who gave us “96 Tears,” the New Mysterians—has concluded that consciousness can never be known, it remains the holy grail of philosophy. From arcane European layerings (Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida) to aggressive reductionist or eliminativist accounts (the mainstream of today’s analytic tradition), everybody has a view of what makes consciousness possible. Few works set out quite so expressly (or, one might add, arrogantly) to settle the question as Daniel Dennett did in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, but one way or another, they’re all in the business of explaining consciousness.
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