Philosophy of Mind: Overview

views updated

Philosophy of Mind: Overview

Issues related to the mind are an important component in contemporary philosophy. While colleagues in psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive ethology do empirical scientific studies of the mind, philosophers tend to focus on more general questions: What is the nature of mind, such as it may be found in any creature or thing? Philosophers tend to concentrate on questions such as: How is mind related to body? and How are we to understand the nature of such operations of mind as believing, knowing, perceiving, thinking, willing, understanding, and the like? Philosophers ask as well about the nature of self, of consciousness, and of the relation of these to the capacity for language.

Early Ideas

It is generally agreed that the question What is mind?with all its modern connotationsis not found in ancient texts. The question first emerges clearly in the philosophical work of René Descartes (15961650). For centuries, psychological and philosophical inquiry proceeded together. The term psychology has its roots in the Greek term psyche, which has come to be translated as soul. In very early texts psyche is associated with breath, the loss of which is thought to result either in unconsciousness or death. In the work of Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), the soul is taken to be simple and immortal. It is the souland in particular that rational part of soul, nous that apprehends the Forms, and, in life, controls the body's passions. It is with Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) and his more biological orientation that the study of psychology is launched (although it is not until the late nineteenth century that the discipline is fully defined). In Aristotle we find the idea of the soul as the form of a living body, a form that has different aspects in plants, in nonrational animals, and in human animals.

Descartes's Legacy

The contemporary study of mind was given its shape by the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes begins with questions about what he can know. He carefully peels away from all that he has taken to be true anything that can be doubted. Descartes claims to reach the limits of doubt when he considers that, although he can doubt the existence of his body, he cannot doubt the existence of his mind. Descartes interestingly (and importantly) conducts the entire of his Meditations in the first person singular. He then presents the conclusion of his doubt thus: "I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind." (In another of his works, he formulates the conclusion thus: "I think, therefore I am.") This conclusion then launches him onto an examination of what he (this I ) is. He considers, and rejects, the suggestion that he is a body (he can, after all, doubt the belief that his body exists). Thinking, however, is "inseparable from me." Descartes concludes that he is a thinking thing, "a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sense perception." Descartes interestingly considers sense perception and points out that, although the objects of sight and sound may not exist, it is still indubitable that one has certain visual and auditory perceptionsthat one seems to see and seems to hear. By the end of the Meditations, Descartes has set the stage in the philosophy of mind for the ensuing generations: Mind and body are distinct, each with a different essential nature. The world can seem exactly as it is to a mind, while the bodies to which we take them to correspond may not exist; our world could be the result of the machinations of an evil demon. This is the metaphysical and epistemological position that Descartes bequeathed to future generations of philosophers.

This Cartesian philosophy of mind contains several key aspects. First, it establishes the position known as Cartesian, or substantial, dualism (mind and body are distinct substances). Second, it sets up the possibility of various kinds of skepticism concerning not only the external world, but also the existence of other minds. Third, it sets forth the mind as an arena that is private to the thinker, andas far as what one seems to perceivean arena whose contents are infallible and incorrigible. Fourth, it includes in the term thought (Latin cogitatio ) not only understanding, willing, imagination, and the like, but also feeling. Fifth, it represents a deliberate rejection of the ancient way of thinking about the soul. Descartes holds that mind is not part of the soul but the "thinking soul in its entirety." The result of this shift is significant. Whereas the ancients allowed souls to all living organisms, with mind restricted to human animals, Descartes holds that the soul or mind is to be found only in human animals. All nonhuman living creatures are, accordingly, mere mechanisms. Interestingly, Descartes views the human body as a mere machine, albeit one to which God has endowed a mind or soul.

Philosophy and Psychology

The study of mind, from these Cartesian roots, can be seen to take two identifiable paths (although these paths were not clearly distinguished for some considerable time). One path is through philosophy, where questions concerning mind remain closely connected with other philosophical issues such as the nature of the self, the mind's knowledge of the world, and the nature of perception, belief, memory, and the emotions. The other path leads from philosophy to the development of psychology. The work of the British empiricists (John Locke [16321704], George Berkeley [16851753], David Hume [17111776])in particular their sensationalism and associationismwas taken up in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and developed into a more empirical study of mind. This new study of mind gained momentum both in Great Britain (with associationalists such as David Hartley [17051757], James Mill [17731836] and John Stuart Mill [18061873], and Alexander Bain [18181903], as well as with the more Darwinian-inspired work of Sir Francis Galton [18221911], James Ward [18431925], and G. F. Stout [18061944]), in France (with the work of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac [17151780] and Claude-Adrien Helvétius [17151771]), and in Germany (with the work of Ernst Heinrich Weber [17951878], Gustav Theodor Fechner [18011887], Friedrich Beneke [17981854], Hermann von Helmholz [18211894], Wilhelm Wundt [18321920], and others).

This study transferred to the United States in the very early twentieth century, where it gave rise (by way of revolt against associationalism) to the highly influential school of behaviorism under the direction of J. B. Watson (18781958) and B.F. Skinner (19041990). Behaviorism was a rejection of much of Descartes's legacyof his dualism, as well as of his use of an introspective method in the study of mind. Behaviorists favored a physicalism rooted in the study of responses to stimuli in the environment. Behaviorist doctrines are to be found in both psychological and philosophical studies of the mind at this time. From around the middle of the twentieth century, behaviorist doctrine came under heavy attack. The American linguist Noam Chomsky published an influential review of Skinner's work in which he pointed out that it is not possible to come up with a reduction of, say, a belief in terms of behavior without mentioning other mental states such as desire. The elements of the mind work together to produce behavior. The hope of finding a behaviorist reduction of mind seemed doomed.

With the demise of behaviorism came a renewed interest in mentalist causes and the rise of cognitive psychology. An interaction between philosophy and cognitive psychology emerged in the mid-to late twentieth century in the form of the philosophy of psychology, the study of conceptual issues in psychology using many of the methodological tools of the philosopher. The philosophy of psychology is firmly grounded in empirical studies of the mind. Questions concerning the nature of mental representation, mental imagery, what it is to have a concept, and whether there are innate ideas figure high on the agenda of these philosophers of psychology. Also around this time, there developed a multidisciplinary approach to the study of mind, cognitive science, encompassing philosophy, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and computer science. What these practitioners from different areas of study share is a belief that the workings of the mind can be modeled on the workings of a computerthat the mind is an information processing system and a representational devise. Cognitive science incorporates work that stretches from artificial intelligence (AI) to parallel distributed processing (PDP or connectionist networks). It has been fueled by work such as Chomsky's on generative grammar in linguistics, the work of the American philosopher Jerry Fodor on the language of thought in philosophy and psychology, and the work of the psychologist David Marr on visual processing. The American philosopher John Searle, with a thought experiment called "the Chinese Room," has played the gadfly to much of the work in cognitive science. What Searle questions is the very idea that a computer program, a mere syntactic engine, can be identical to a mind, a semantic engine. In effect, we are back trying to understand the relationship of mind to body.

Identity Theory, Eliminativism, Functionalism, and Anomalous Monism

Attempts to get a grip on mind and to understand its relationship to body proliferated in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, J. J. C. Smart and U. T. Place advocated a form of identity theory. As these physicalists (or materialists) put it, consciousness is a brain process just as lightening is electrical discharge or water is H 2O. This identity was famously challenge by the American philosopher Saul Kripke who, with his "Cartesian intuitions," argued that such an identity could only be maintained if it could be explained why it seemed to one that there could be a brain process in the absence of experience and experience in the absence of the brain process. Alternative accounts of mind were proposed. One highly influential account, functionalism, took its cue from the development of information processing and computer technology, with its important distinction between the level of implemented software and that of implementing hardware. According to functionalism, mental states are the upshot of various causal impacts from the world, and they, in their turn, typically cause certain behavior as well as other mental states. Functionalism was hailed as an advance on both behaviorism and physicalism. Unlike behaviorism, functionalism is committed to internal, causal states. Unlike physicalism, functionalism is defined as a relation among states, thus leaving open the possibility that what realizes this function may vary from individual to individual. In the words of one early exponent, the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, our brains could be made up of gray matter or Swiss cheese; what matters is the functional organization of the system. Another important proposal for the understanding of mind came from the work of another American philosopher, Donald Davidson, who aimed to reconcile the irreducibility of mind with a commitment to monism. Davidson's anomalous monism draws a distinction between type and token identity theories. Earlier identity theoristsfor example, Place and Smartaimed to identify types of mental states with types of physical states (e.g., pain with c-fiber firing); Davidson insisted that only token mental states could be identified with token physical states (e.g., my pain at noon on 3 January 2004 with a state of my brain on that date at that time). Ontological monism (all that there is, is physical) can now be combined with conceptual dualism (mental concepts are distinct from, and cannot be reduced to, physical concepts). The principle of rationality governs the mental realm, but not the physical. With this distinction Davidson hoped to reconcile our culture of materialism/physicalism with an understanding of those characteristics of mind that make us free and moral agents.

By the turn of the twentieth century, it had become clear that talk of "the mind" is too broad and that there may be issues to do with experience and sensation that are distinct from those that arise in connection with such mental states as believing, desiring, and the like (the so-called propositional attitudes). It was thought that, while functionalism, for example, might provide a plausible account of belief, it encountered real difficulties when it came to accounting for experience. This thought was reinforced with the work of the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who pointed out that human beingsas well as other animals such as batsenjoy conscious experiences: there is something it is like to be that organism, something it is like for that organism. Nagel labels this the "subjective character of experience" and he argues that it is hard to see how this subjectivity could be captured in an objective science of the brain. Nagel, like Descartes before him, wants to understand just how the working of the grey matter that constitutes our brain could possibly explain the way the world seems to usexplain the dazzle of fireworks or the taste of chocolate. The philosopher Colin McGinn has argued that there is a very simple explanation here, but it is not one our human minds will ever be able to comprehend. Those working in the scientific study of mind have vigorously rejected this mysterianism. One empirically oriented American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, claims to be able to reconcile our view of ourselves as rational, free, and conscious agents with a belief in the completeness of science by arguing that the former constitutes an ineliminable level of description of our behavior. Others, like the American philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, argue that psychological concepts such as belief, desires, and so on produce no definable brain activity and therefore these concepts should form no part of a completed science of mind.

The study of mind extends from philosophy to psychology and has expanded more recently to include neurophysiology, as well as cognitive ethology. The race is on to look ever more closely at the workings of the brain and at the behavior of all animals. On the one hand there is the age-old fascination with the idea of man as a machine, while on the other there is the hope that by understanding the fine-tuning of behavior we will find evidence that we share mentality with non-human animals.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Cartesian legacy is strong and everywhere apparent in discussions of the mind. It received a penetrating critique in the early part of the twentieth century, however, in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), such as his Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein can be taken to have rejected the introspective method as well as the dualism of Cartesianism, and for this reason is sometimes said to be a behaviorist of sorts. It is, however, best to avoid this comparison. What Wittgenstein urges is that when we study the mind, we need to accept and understand the fact that the mind has both a first and a third person aspect; that is, each one of us knows the mind both from the "inside" as a subject and from the "outside" as the observer of other subjects. For Wittgenstein, the study of mind needs to be taken to be the study of the concept of mind, a concept that has application to oneself as well as to others. Wittgenstein's private language argument is interpreted as a critique of the very idea that one can make sense of the application of mental states to oneself in the absence of the acquisition of a conceptan acquisition that takes place through the use of language and in a social setting. Through the interaction with others, the child comes to understand that pain, for instance, is something that happens when, for example, one encounters sharp objects and reacts with a cry. The child's nature is such as to respond to its environment in certain ways; this nature and this response form the basis of the child's use of language and contribute to the development of the child's concepts. In this way the child develops concepts that have application both to the child and to others. With its constant reminder of the role that others play in the way we understand the mind, Wittgenstein's work offers a fundamental alternative to Cartesian individualism.


The study of mind in the early 2000s has been invigorated through the study of disorders of the mind. Appreciating the ways in which mind can break down can add to our understanding of what it is that we are studying. The mind is at once most intimately familiar to each of us and at the same time most mysterious and elusive to our understanding. While the human mind retains its preeminence, it is a real question whether it represents something continuous or discontinuous with what we find in other animals, and in machines. While materialism is the dominant culture, we must not forget the observations of Descartes and others that make it difficult to understand just how a mere body can produce the various activities we associate with mind. The history of mind is the history of our attempt to explain how our experiences, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and the like can be fully understood in relation to the world of flesh and blood.

See also Behaviorism ; Cartesianism ; Consciousness ; Mind ; Psychoanalysis ; Psychology and Psychiatry .


Chomsky, Noam. "Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. " In Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, edited by Ned Block. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Churchland, Paul. Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1984.

Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

McGinn, Colin. Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Putnam, Hilary. Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953.

Anita Avramides

About this article

Philosophy of Mind: Overview

Updated About content Print Article


Philosophy of Mind: Overview