Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind

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The books and papers listed here are a record of a kind of second career in phenomenology and philosophy I was pursuing in the midst of being a computer scientist. For while I became very good at solving certain kinds of computational problems, such problem solving did not, and could not, engage my deeper being. That being, from an early age, has been concerned with what are essentially philosophical questions. And so I found I could not teach computer science or artificial intelligence without asking after the ultimate meaning of what I was doing. This inquiry first led me to study the philosophical ideas and assumptions that lay behind my artificial intelligence research. Here I discovered the philosophy of mind, and its famous proponents: Andy Clark, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, Steven Pinker, Marvin Minsky, Alan Turing, and so on. And I found I was in fundamental disagreement with most of what these philosophers had to say. It was only when I came across the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the writings of Martin Heidegger that I realised I was not alone in this profound disagreement. And so I set about getting a philosophical education so that I could have some effect in this debate where it seemed to me the fate of the human race was being decided. For the standard view in cognitive science, at least when I began reading in the early 2000s, is that a human being is essentially a highly sophisticated biological robot.

My first positive act was to write a textbook (The Foundations of Computing and the Information Technology Age) and create an undergraduate course based on the book, where I could introduce my students to the philosophical background of the area in which they were about to make their careers. In this course, in more than twenty offerings over ten years, I attempted to explain what computing is, where it came from, and how it has come to dominate our self-understanding, and our mode of economic and social organisation. It turned out, despite expectations to the contrary, that many undergraduate students are deeply interested in these philosophical issues – just so long as they are connected back to the context of the actual lives we are leading here today.

At the same time as running this course, and keeping my computer science teaching and research career alive, I set about studying to become a philosopher in my own right. To this end I enrolled in a second PhD in philosophy at the Australian National University under the supervision of Bruin Christensen and David Chalmers. I also wrote a series of papers and manuscripts (that are available below), most of which were presented at philosophical conferences and workshops, both locally and internationally.

But things did not go well. I found that no one was really interested in what I had to say. I was on a mission to change the consciousness of humanity, and to a professional philosopher, this just seemed naïve. If I were going to get published in a serious journal and gain my PhD, then I would have to tone down my ambitions. But to me, that represented a kind of death. And so, after another brief PhD enrolment at the University of Queensland under the supervision of Deborah Brown, I ended up back at my home university (Griffith) under the supervision of my friend John Mandalios, who had introduced me to Husserl and Heidegger in the first place. With John I could pursue my own line of inspiration without discouragement or censure. But then John had to withdraw from all academic duties due to a serious medical condition, and I was left without a supervisor. At the same time, my mother was entering into the terminal stages of a heart condition. And so I decided to throw everything up, return to the UK and start a new life.

In that new life I began teaching phenomenological philosophy at the Free University Brighton and after a while I decided to transform the thesis I was going to write in Australia into a book that I could publish through the Free University. In this way, out of the UK Covid lockdowns of 2020-2021, The Questioning of Intelligence was born. It is here that I finally say pretty much all I have to say (for now) about intelligence and the way our culture fundamentally misunderstands its essential character. And once this lockdown is finally lifted, I hope to use the book as the basis for a new course that will be open to anyone who cares enough to inquire directly into this question of what it means to be intelligent.


Thornton, J. (2021). The Questoning of Intelligence: A phenomenological exploration of what it means to be intelligent. FUBText: Brighton, 511 pp. ISBN 978-1-8384787-0-4

Back Cover:  The Questioning of Intelligence is an inquiry by intelligence of intellgence. It is a questioning of the ground on which we understand ourselves and our capacity for intelligent thought and action. Our means of inquiry is the way of phenomenology, the way of entering into the immediacy of being conscious, now. It is from here we can start to investigate the philosophical and scientific inheritance that has formed the collective understanding we currently have of our place in the universe. In questioning this inheritance we are asking after the source from out of which it has emerged, the same source that is manifesting our experience of being alive and conscious now. According to the scientific materialism of our age, this manifestation of experience is no more than an effect of microphysical events occurring in our nervous systems, events that themselves have been determined by an inexorably mechanistic process of physical evolution. It is this materialistic presupposition that stands in the way of recognising the essential form of our natural, innate intelligence. For it is unintelligible to think a system of purely mechanistic calculations could produce the experience of meaning that is the hallmark of human consciousness. Seeing this is not a matter of argument or proof, it is a matter of direct phenomenological insight. It is on the basis of such insight that we look again at the meaning of the findings of contemporary science. For once we put aside this collective materialism, our science reveals an entirely new dimension of significance, where the meaning of our being conscious and intelligent is reflected back in the forms of processes that science has already discovered. From here, perhaps, we can even start to intuit the action of a universal intentionality that expresses itself through these processes, including the processes of our own human consciousness.


Thornton, J. R. (2015). The Transcendence of Computational Intelligence. PhD Confirmation Document, 141 pp. Completed under the supervision of John Mandalios, School of Humanities, Griffith University.


Thornton, J. R. (2014). Hierarchical Temporal Intentionality. Abstract in: ASSC 18: Handbook of the 18th Conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Brisbane, Australia, University of Queensland, pp. 41-42.


Thornton, J. R. (2012).  The Phenomenological Negation of the Causal Closure of the Physical. Abstract in: AAP 2012: Proceedings of the 2012 Conference of the Australasian Association for Philosophy, Wollongong, Australia, Wollongong University, p. 22.

Thornton, J. R. (2012). The Phenomenological Negation of Objective Physicalism. Unpublished philosophical paper. 35 pp. Completed under the supervision of Deborah Brown at the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, University of Queensland, Brisbane.


Thornton, J. R. (2011). The Consciousness Test. Unpublished philosophical paper. 25 pp. Completed under the supervision of Bruin Christensen and David Chalmers at the School of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra.


Thornton, J. R. & Christensen, C. B. (2010).  An Essential Difference: Wheeler and Heidegger on the relationship between science and philosophy. Presented at: Reconstructing the Cognitive World: A workshop with Michael Wheeler, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, February 3-4, 2010.


Thornton, J. (2007). The Impersonal Knowledge of Conscious Experience: A philosophical investigation. Unpublished philosophical manuscript. 81 pp.

Thornton, J. (2007). The Foundations of Computing and the Information Technology Age: A historical, sociological and philosophical enquiry. Pearson Education Australia, 286 pp. ISBN 978-0-7339-8848-6

Back Cover: The Foundations of Computing and the Information Technology Age is a book both for undergraduate computing students and for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of technology in the modern world. Dispensing with simplistic explanations, the book first considers the evolution of the computer from the origins of number to the development of the microprocessor. Along the way we meet the early pioneers of mechanical calculation, including Pascal and Leibniz, the groundbreaking work of Charles Babbage and his Difference Engines and the drama of the wartime code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
But this is not just a historical text. It provides an introduction to the theory of computation, showing how Alan Turing’s concept of a universal Turing machine helped form the foundations of modern computer science. Theory then becomes practice as the book explores the von Neumann architecture and shows how simple switching circuits can be used to construct a general purpose computer.
The basic theme running throughout this discussion is that the foundations of computing and the information technology age lie in the scientific turn of mind taken by our entire civilisation. From this perspective, the book traces how information technology has been used to restructure the economic and social life of the developed world and enquires into the ultimate direction and purpose of this process of globalisation. The reader is then drawn to consider how our technical, materialistic understanding has ignored the underlying reality from which all technology emerges: human consciousness.
Finally, the book argues that this inability to acknowledge the central reality of consciousness has caused modern civilisation to enter into an unbalanced pattern of development, where we increasingly understand ourselves as biological machines that must be adapted to the latest technology, rather than as the creative intelligence that technology was originally supposed to serve.