“Inner” and “Outer”

“Inner” and “Outer”

It is with some reluctance that I undertake a discussion of an obscure and elusive topic: what philosophers mean by “inner” and “outer”, if anything. There is a cluster of putative distinctions surrounding the mental: internal and external, private and public, subjective and objective, mental and physical, spiritual and corporeal, inner and outer. I shall only be discussing the last of these; I mean to cast no aspersions on the others. These are distinct distinctions, as the words used indicate, some more viable than others. I am concerned with the alleged distinction between the property of being inner and the property of being outer, construed as both ontological and phenomenological (so distinct from the property of intersubjective knowability or observability). What does it mean to say that the mind is something inner while the material world is something outer? It clearly doesn’t mean the same as the distinction between being internal and external in the spatial sense: that distinction applies to facts about the body—what is spatially within it and spatially outside of it. The heart and brain are within it (“internal”) while clothes and houses are outside it (“external”). But the heart and brain are not “inner”—they are “outer”. Only the mind is inner, not the internal organs of the body.

What does the dictionary have to say about “inner”? The OED (Shorter) gives: “situated (more) within or inside; (more or further) inward; internal”. This is intended to capture such uses as “inner sanctum”, “inner recesses”, “innertube”, “inner regions”, “innermost”, “inner circle”, “inner workings”—not the nature of the mind as an “inner” reality. We also are given “close to the center” by the OED (Concise), also intended in the spatial sense—central as opposed to peripheral. This distinction makes perfect sense, but it is not the distinction as intended by psychologists and philosophers of mind. The mind is not being conceived as closer to some center than the body or the material world outside the body (literally, spatially). Nor do philosophers want to allow for gradations of innerness, as in “more inner”—the mind is not “more inner” than the body. And what exactly is it inside of—the body, the self? No, the idea is that the mind is inner intrinsically, as a matter of its very nature, as material objects are intrinsically extended, or numbers are intrinsically abstract—it isn’t more or less inner relative to some containing entity. If so, shouldn’t the property be phenomenologically detectable—part of everyday consciousness? But do I experience my mind as inner? Does it strike me as something inner? It is hard to know what this might mean, but in so far as it means anything the answer would appear to be no. It strikes me neither as inner nor as outer; it just strikes me as there. For relative to what would it be inner? What center is it closer to? In what sense of “closer”? Granted, material objects strike me as outer relative to my body—both are objects situated in space—but what does it mean to say they each strike me as outer relative to my mind? It isn’t an object in space that other objects could stand in spatial relations to. By the same token, my mind doesn’t strike me as inner relative to objects of perception, because it stands in no spatial relation to those objects (phenomenologically). It doesn’t feel somehow inner. My heart feels inner in relation to my arms or the chair I am sitting in, but my mind doesn’t feel inner in these ways—I don’t perceive it that way, or otherwise so apprehend it. Thus, this alleged innerness is not a phenomenological datum, not a part of one’s normal self-awareness. How then could its ascription be ontologically true—how could the mind be ontologically inner and yet not phenomenologically inner? How could it be inner without my knowing it? Why would we even talk this way if there was no phenomenological basis to the distinction? The natural conclusion, then, is that there is no such property as innerness (and none of outerness either, except in the innocuous “outside my body” sense).

Why do we talk this way if it has no basis in fact? Well, there is a use of “inner” and “inside” that does apply to the mind, as when I say that my beliefs and desires are inside my mind (not outside it)—that they are inner constituents of my mind. In this sense my mental states are “internal” to my mind not “external” to it. And surely, I do experience my mental states as inner parts of my mind, constituents of it, elements within it. Is thatwhat we mean by calling the mind inner? There are two points about this. The first is that there is no entailment from “beliefs are inner parts of the mind” to “the mind is inner”. That is a simple non sequitur: parts can be inner to the thing they are parts of without the whole thing itself being inner to anything, or nothing. Second, the same locution applies to material objects and their parts: the parts of an engine are internal to it (“inner” relative to the engine), but neither they nor the engine are themselves inner—unless parts of something larger. So, there is no basis here for grounding the concept of the inner, construed as a property of the mind considered in itself. This is just another way of talking about the part-whole relation and has no bearing on the supposed inner nature of the mind. The mind is neither inner nor outer; it simply is. The distinction between what is internal to the person and external to the person, where this coincides with the boundaries of the body, is perfectly intelligible and real; but the philosophical inner-outer distinction looks like a myth, a conceptual snarl-up. It is also true that we have a private-public distinction in good standing, but this epistemological distinction is not identical to the inner-outer distinction—neither entails the other. I don’t even experience my mind as analogous to the inner chambers of a building, because there is no contrast analogous to the spatial relation between periphery and center. I do have what I am pleased to call an “inner life”, but this means nothing more than that I have a mental life in addition to an organic physical life. The word “inner” just means “mental” or “psychological” or “spiritual”; it does not connote anything beyond these terms. Interestingly, the OED gives as its second definition of “inner”, “designating the mind or soul; mental; spiritual”, thus regarding the word as simply synonymous with those terms—in which case “the mind is inner” means “the mind is the mind”. It is obvious that philosophers intend more than a tautology when characterizing the mind as “inner”, but it is unclear whether there is anything more they can mean. It looks as if language has been playing tricks on them, mixing up one “language game” with another (architecture and psychology). Yet it is a trick that has proved remarkably tenacious. It is hard to think of the mind as not inner (in some nontrivial sense of the term).[1]

[1] One might think that since the mind is not conceived as in space (whether or not it really is) it is impossible for it to be outer, so it is “inner” by default.  But this is obviously wrong, because not being in space does not entail being inner in any sense (if anything, being inner implies some sort of spatiality); numbers are not in space but not intuitively inner in any way. It is really tremendously obscure what this talk of the inner amounts to. The plain fact is that I experience my mind as neutral with respect to the inner-outer axis; it is simply present. It is not experienced as within anything—the body, the soul, the cosmos. That is why idealism is thought possible.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I agree private-public seems more apt than inner-outer to describe the difference between the mental and material worlds. However, an expression like “inner dialogue” as opposed to “outer dialogue” seems, or feels, reasonable. (Of course, subvocalised inner speech is just one aspect of mental life – or perhaps it spans the mental and material worlds?)


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