On the Nature of Consciousness: Cognitive, Phenomenological, and Transpersonal Perspectives.


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HUNT, HARRY. On the Nature of Consciousness: Cognitive, Phenomenological, and Transpersonal Perspectives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. xvi + 358 pp. $35.00.Only a gifted few can cross disciplinary boundaries and tie seemingly disparate bodies of information together. Harry Hunt is one of them. His topic, the nature of consciousness, was at the forefront of the foundations of psychology with the turn of the century work of William James but was subsequently relegated to the background by the emergence of biological and behavioral approaches to the study of the human condition. The cognitive revolution has brought our attention back to the problem of consciousness. However, as Hunt points out, despite this renewed interest, cognitive psychology is also limited in its perspective on consciousness. Thus, he explains consciousness by drawing on cognitive, phenomenological, and transpersonal insights and findings but also on some thinking from biology and physics. The addition of the transpersonal perspective into the “mix” echoes James's own work; indeed, the intellectual breadth and depth of this book is comparable to the power of James's The Variety of Religious Experiences. Hunt views these states of mind, long reported in the world's various religions, as part of a naturalistic sequence of human experience. Unlike many transpersonal psychologists today who have become insulated from the rest of psychology, as psychology has been insulated from the transpersonal perspective, he speaks with equal ease and authority about the neurobiology of consciousness through the basics of cognition to the nature of the mystical experience. He avoids reductionism, as he did in his very well-received book The Multiplicity of Dreams, by fully embracing the phenomenology of the various states of consciousness. His humility in the face of his brilliance allows the reader to hear not only the occasional illustration from Hunt's own life experience but also to listen to what he has to say about the work of others.The 14 chapters are divided into 7 parts starting with a general psychological, philosophical, and cultural contexualization of our understandings of consciousness. The first chapter, a wonderful overview of what is to come, should be a must read for any student of consciousness. It is probably the most accessible of all the chapters, because a major problem with the book is the density of the subject matter. It is unclear whether this is a demand of the nature of the material or Hunt's writing style. At times I sailed along nodding in agreement or struck with the “Aha!” experience of revelation as he explained ideas that heretofore I had not considered related to understanding the nature of consciousness. Yet at other times, I reread and reread and still wondered what he was getting at. I wonder how much of my sense of the denseness of the material was my own lack of background in some of the areas touched upon. Because so few can skip so gracefully from area to area, I suspect it is largely inherent in the degree to which one is familiar with the wide-ranging ideas that are presented.In the second section, Hunt explores the neurophysiological understandings of consciousness facing head on the question of “is consciousness epiphenomenon of brain?” Here he brings in Gibson's view of the primacy of perception in any understanding of consciousness. In Part III he considers the phenomenology of consciousness then moves in the next two parts to the imaginistic bases of consciousness and the transpersonal experience.

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