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Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of Consciousness Reconsidered and The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.

Titles by This Author

Buddhism Naturalized

If we are material beings living in a material world—and all the scientific evidence suggests that we are—then we must find existential meaning, if there is such a thing, in this physical world. We must cast our lot with the natural rather than the supernatural. Many Westerners with spiritual (but not religious) inclinations are attracted to Buddhism—almost as a kind of moral-mental hygiene. But, as Owen Flanagan points out in The Bodhisattva's Brain, Buddhism is hardly naturalistic. In The Bodhisattva's Brain, Flanagan argues that it is possible to discover in Buddhism a rich, empirically responsible philosophy that could point us to one path of human flourishing.

Some claim that neuroscience is in the process of validating Buddhism empirically, but Flanagan's naturalized Buddhism does not reduce itself to a brain scan showing happiness patterns. "Buddhism naturalized," as Flanagan constructs it, offers instead a fully naturalistic and comprehensive philosophy, compatible with the rest of knowledge—a way of conceiving of the human predicament, of thinking about meaning for finite material beings living in a material world.

Meaning in a Material World

If consciousness is "the hard problem" in mind science—explaining how the amazing private world of consciousness emerges from neuronal activity—then "the really hard problem," writes Owen Flanagan in this provocative book, is explaining how meaning is possible in the material world. How can we make sense of the magic and mystery of life naturalistically, without an appeal to the supernatural? How do we say truthful and enchanting things about being human if we accept the fact that we are finite material beings living in a material world, or, in Flanagan’s description, short-lived pieces of organized cells and tissue?

Flanagan's answer is both naturalistic and enchanting. We all wish to live in a meaningful way, to live a life that really matters, to flourish, to achieve eudaimonia—to be a "happy spirit." Flanagan calls his "empirical-normative" inquiry into the nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing eudaimonics. Eudaimonics, systematic philosophical investigation that is continuous with science, is the naturalist's response to those who say that science has robbed the world of the meaning that fantastical, wishful stories once provided.

Flanagan draws on philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and psychology, as well as on transformative mindfulness and self-cultivation practices that come from such nontheistic spiritual traditions as Buddhism, Confucianism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, in his quest. He gathers from these disciplines knowledge that will help us understand the nature, causes, and constituents of well-being and advance human flourishing. Eudaimonics can help us find out how to make a difference, how to contribute to the accumulation of good effects—how to live a meaningful life.

Consciousness is neither miraculous nor ultimately mysterious. In this broad, entertaining, and persuasive account Owen Flanagan argues that we are on the way to understanding consciousness and its place in the natural order. No aspect of consciousness escapes Flanagan's probe. Qualia, self-consciousness, autobiographical memory, perceptions, sensations, the stream of consciousness, disorders such as blindsight, various kinds of amnesia, and multiple personality all find a place in a constructive theory that brings into reflective equilibrium insights from a wide array of disciplines to reveal the deep, rich, and complex hidden structure of consciousness.

Flanagan roams freely through a variety of scientific and philosophical domains, showing how it is possible to understand human consciousness in a way that gives its subjective, phenomenal aspects their full due while at the same time taking into account the neural bases of subjectivity. The result is a powerful synthetic theory of consciousness, a "constructive naturalism," according to which subjective consciousness is real, plays an important causal role, and resides in the brain.

Flanagan draws the reader into a world of exciting current debates among such philosophers as Thomas Nagel, Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, Patricia Churchland, and Colin McGinn, and he makes this world accessible. He masterfully weaves the latest insights from theory and research in cognitive neuroscience, neural darwinism, connectionist brain architecture, and PET scanners to reveal clear links between events that "seem a certain way" and underlying neural activity. William James's famous phenomenological analysis of consciousness and neurologically impaired characters from the writings of Oliver Sacks and A.R. Luria join the narrative, providing valuable insights into important current controversies on the relation of consciousness to self.

A Bradford Book

Consciousness emerges as the key topic in this second edition of Owen Flanagan's popular introduction to cognitive science and the philosophy of psychology. in a new chapter Flanagan develops a neurophilosophical theory of subjective mental life. He brings recent developments in the theory of neuronal group selection and connectionism to bear on the problems of the evolution of consciousness, qualia, the unique first-personal aspects of consciousness, the causal role of consciousness, and the function and development of the sense of personal identity. He has also substantially revised the chapter on cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence to incorporate recent discussions of connectionism and parallel distributed processing.

A BIT of The Bodhisattva's Brain

Can there be a Buddhism without karma, nirvana, and reincarnation that is compatible with the rest of knowledge—a “naturalized” Buddhism? In this BIT, Flanagan connects Buddhist wisdom to the compassion and lovingkindness that Buddhism endorses—linking Buddhism’s metaphysics to its ethics.

A BIT of The Really Hard Problem

How is meaning possible in a material world? Owen Flanagan proposes a naturalistic (rather than supernaturalistic) way to live meaningfully, to live a life that really matters, to flourish, to achieve eudaimonia—to be a “happy spirit.” In this BIT, Flanagan draws on insights from neuroscience and on the transformative mindfulness and self-cultivation practices in Buddhism.

Titles by This Editor

Philosophical Debates

Intended for anyone attempting to find their way through the large and confusingly interwoven philosophical literature on consciousness, this reader brings together most of the principal texts in philosophy (and a small set of related key works in neuropsychology) on consciousness through 1997, and includes some forthcoming articles. Its extensive coverage strikes a balance between seminal works of the past few decades and the leading edge of philosophical research on consciousness.

As no other anthology currently does, The Nature of Consciousness provides a substantial introduction to the field, and imposes structure on a vast and complicated literature, with sections covering stream of consciousness, theoretical issues, consciousness and representation, the function of consciousness, subjectivity and the explanatory gap, the knowledge argument, qualia, and monitoring conceptions of consciousness. Of the 49 contributions, 18 are either new or have been adapted from a previous publication.

Essays in Moral Psychology

Many philosophers believe that normative ethics is in principle independent of psychology. By contrast, the authors of these essays explore the interconnections between psychology and moral theory. They investigate the psychological constraints on realizable ethical ideals and articulate the psychological assumptions behind traditional ethics. They also examine the ways in which the basic architecture of the mind, core emotions, patterns of individual development, social psychology, and the limits on human capacities for rational deliberation affect morality.

Owen Flanagan is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College.