HomeScienceThe Terry Deacon Dilemma

I occasionally run searches on Terrence Deacon to see whether any new essays or videos have become available. Today’s search surfaced an article at about the plagiarism charges made by Michael Lissack and others through the site

So I took the time to post a response, repeated here.

I read Deacon’s Symbolic Species several years ago and considered it to be an outstanding work of scholarship… accessible and convincing. So, when I came across Incomplete Nature in a bookstore around the end of 2011, I purchased it immediately. This book turned out to be an extremely tough slog. Accessibility had clearly been set aside in favor of making a meticulously thorough argument. But the breadth of Deacon’s ambition was stunning, and I finally worked my way through. Excited by the implications of this book, and hungry to understand it better, I then began searching for reviews and critiques. That led me to Lissack’s site, which led to my purchase of Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life and Alicia Juarrero’s Dynamics of Action. My view is that all of them are important works which herald a significant turn in our understanding of the origins of consciousness.

I consider the charge of plagiarism against Deacon to be unfair (Juarrero’s spreadsheet comparison struck me as particularly weak). Certainly, Deacon’s failure to cite (or apparently know about) contemporaries who are leading thinkers in this new paradigmatic approach to consciousness is a mark against him, but a relatively small one in my view and certainly not a showstopper.

Deacon is the vanguard of this new paradigm, not the copycat. All are productively working out how mind emerged from matter. Deacon has reached the furthest, I would argue, because of the extent to which he engaged insights from Claude Shannon in presenting his key arguments.

One of the chief difficulties in appreciating Deacon (after you’ve waded through all those meticulous chapters on emergence, thermodynamics, morphodynamics, and teleodynamics) is the mind-stretching challenge of getting a grip on his core narrative metaphors: incompleteness and the absential. It may help some readers to compare Deacon’s perspective with meontology, which philosopher Simon Critchley describes as an “infinite demand.., to see what is in terms of what is not yet, and to see what is not yet in what is.”

Update 1/7/2013

I just discovered that Michael Lissack responded to this posting at the author page in mid December. The simplest way for me to move his comment from there to here is cut and paste, so here goes.

Submitted on 2012/12/29 at 8:50 am

Craig I am afraid you fail to understand what academic plagiarism is. Please see

Its great that you are a Deacon fan and that you appreciate his ideas. That does not excuse his failure to properly cite those who came before him.

Terry has allowed his hubris to get in the way of his self-interest. In anthropology to “pull a deacon” means “to plagiarize

Just for giggles I Googled “pull a deacon” and anthropology. The result?

No results found for “pull a deacon” anthropology.


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