Instantiating the Mental



Instantiating the Mental



Objects have properties: that seems safe to say. But what is an object and what is a property and what is having? We can point to paradigms: the object that is my desk has the property of being brown. Philosophers like to paraphrase such a statement as follows: the desk instantiates the property of being brown. So now we have a threefold scheme—object, property, and instantiation. My question is whether this scheme applies to the mental: can we say that there are objects which instantiate mental properties? Put aside the question of how to define “mental”; the question is whether mental facts (let’s help ourselves to that notion) consist of objects instantiating properties. Does the paradigm of a material object instantiating a physical property carry over to the mind? Put differently, is the threefold scheme a universally applicable structure under which both physical and mental fall?

To be more specific, when someone is in pain or has a belief or is dreaming or feels angry or understands a sentence is that analyzable as an object instantiating a property? The first question that confronts us is what the object might be, and that is already problematic. Is it the mind or the person or the brain or the body or the soul or particular mental events? Each of these could be the instantiating object—the thing that has mental properties (the property of being in pain, of believing, of dreaming, etc.). Let’s assume it is the person or self, since that is our common way of talking; the main question concerns the notion of instantiating a mental property, no matter what the appropriate instantiating object may be. Is it true that when I am in pain a person instantiates the property of being in pain? Is this true in the same sense that it is true that my desk instantiates being brown? Are there any important differences here? We can certainly point to differences between mental and physical properties such as the privacy of mental properties and the publicity of physical properties, subjectivity and objectivity, perceptibility and imperceptibility, consciousness and unconsciousness. But on the face of it these differences don’t entail any difference in the logic of instantiation—in the ontological structure captured by the threefold scheme. Isn’t the mental case just another example of the universal structure consisting of objects instantiating properties? After all, it may be said, that structure applies equally and univocally to abstract objects like numbers, so why not to mental objects (persons) and their attributes? We can say of the number 2 that it is even, and isn’t that just to say that the object 2 instantiates the property of being even? Some may shiver at the use of “object” here, but once that notion is accepted isn’t it a short step (no step at all) to talk of objects instantiating properties? Similarly, a person may be said to be an object instantiating various properties, both mental and physical: the person’s body has a certain shape and color and his or her mind likewise possesses properties like belief and sensation. This is the metaphysical structure that underlies our talk of mind and body and it is uniform in both cases. Facts necessarily consist of objects instantiating properties, it may be said, so how could the mind fail to fit this conception?

But not all philosophers have seen things that way, though skepticism about extending the instantiation relation from the physical to the mental has not been the official motivation. Some have suggested a bundle theory of the self according to which there is no object called the self to do any instantiating; rather, mental attributions are to be analyzed as analogous to set membership—being in pain, say, is one of the several mental states that may constitute a constellation of such states. The mind is nothing but a collection of mental states, so that talk of someone’s being in pain is just including that state in a collection that currently exists (the bundle theory of physical objects has the same consequence: a given property is conceived as a member of a bundle not as something instantiated by an object). Someone who holds that the mind is a subject-less congeries will be resistant to the idea that any object does any instantiating; the only object here is the collection itself, but it contains members without instantiating those members. Then there are those who invoke the idea of a feature-placing sentence to characterize the way people have mental states: just as “It’s raining” has no logical subject, so “I am in pain” has no logical subject, the word “I” acting as a dummy singular term. Mental sentences function as feature-placing sentences and their semantics does not invoke the object-property dichotomy: for how can there be instantiation without denoted objects to do the instantiating?  Another approach is to declare that it is a category mistake to compare mental attributes (so-called) with physical attributes like shape and color, because they are to be analyzed by means of conditionals; and conditionals are not instantiated in the way properties are. Here one thinks of Ryle: the mind is not a repository of categorical properties but a set of tendencies or dispositions or capacities or propensities. And such facts are not composed of properties at all, since there are no if-then properties, but rather reflect our conditional ways of talking. The mind just isn’t substantial in the way it would have to be for the object-property scheme to apply.[1] Similarly, we have the expressive view of mental utterances, according to which no facts are stated in such utterances but rather various acts of expression occur—this is a radical rejection of the physical object paradigm. Persons don’t have mental properties at all; talk of the mental is to be interpreted in terms of expressive acts that lack even truth-value.

So the object-property instantiation model has not been viewed as compulsory, but it is not clear that any of the above really get to the heart of why it can seem misguided. Admittedly, it is difficult to articulate what is dubious about it, though it does seem forced and unperceptive. Isn’t there something unique about the having of states of mind? Perhaps we do better to dwell on another aspect of the case, namely the application of the concept of ownership. There is a sense in which my mental states are mine that goes beyond any idea of mere instantiation: objects simply exemplify properties blindly, as it were, but I claim them as my own—I feel them to be part of me. No doubt this is connected to the fact that they are conscious: I am conscious of my mental states as inhering in me, as bearing an especially close connection to what I think of as myself. This relation is not captured by the general notion of instantiation, which is a pale simulacrum of what I experience. One is tempted to say that I super-instantiate my conscious mental states—they belong to me; they are extensions of me. No one else could have just these mental states, whereas physical objects share their states indiscriminately. There is no conscious possession in the case of physical objects and their properties, but conscious subjects feel their mental states to be their personal property, so to speak. This is mine. However, though that intuition is powerful, it is hard to give any theoretical account of it—or even to pinpoint it precisely. One is quickly reduced to metaphor and invitations to “look within”. We simply have no model of it, and no perceptual representation of what is going on. I can see my body instantiating various perceptible properties, but I can’t see my mind doing this—though I feel my mind to be mine in a much more intimate sense than I feel my body to be mine. It is easy to feel myself to be merged with my mental states, for them to be integral to my identity; but mere instantiation is not enough for this to be so.

What can we say about this special kind of possession? What kind of fact is it? This is where we run into a theoretical brick wall—our conceptual scheme falters. But that is not very surprising, given the generally problematic character of the mind and consciousness. If consciousness is a mystery, it is predictable that its possession will also be: we don’t know what it is for its states to be possessed in the peculiar way that they are. I know that I have various beliefs, sensations, emotions, etc., but I don’t grasp what it is for me to have these states (if “states” is even the right word). The self-mind nexus is a mystery. We say airily that a person instantiates various mental properties, but what this comes down to remains opaque. The self is a notorious puzzle, and so are mental states, but so also is the relation between them—how could it not be, given what it relates?[2] For example, I may utter the sentence “I am in pain” and thereby state a fact, but what is this relation of being in pain? It sounds like saying,  “I am in Miami”, but it clearly means nothing like that. Is it a weak attempt to make sense of the relation between the sensation of pain and myself? Then why don’t we say that I am “in” pleasure or “in” belief? I have a pleasurable sensation and I have a belief, but what is this “having”? It strikes one as a mysterious and unanalyzable relation, certainly not as nothing more than the general relation of instantiation. Perhaps we will one day come to understand its inner nature, but perhaps we won’t. The first step, at least, is to recognize the problem. Here I am, and here are these mental states, and the former evidently has the latter: but what kind of having is this—what mode of possession is invo

[1] So-called adverbial theories of mental language have a similar upshot.

[2] We can therefore add the “having” relation to the mind-body problem alongside mental states and the self that has them. It seems like a sui generis relation not reducible to the relation between the brain and its physical states. Certainly, it would be odd to suggest that it is a “physical” relation in any intelligible sense.

3 replies
  1. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    In the case of an experiential property there is both a having and an undergoing, which is what distinguishes it from a non-experiential property that is had without being undergone. One can even say that in the case of experiential properties the having is the undergoing. They are subjective passions or passive affections of objects, which are thereby turned into subjects.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    It’s tricky to find a shallow spot to wade into this post. But I’ll try. Is it possible to be in physical discomfort but not be aware of it? The answer could be a staunch no, as discomfort implies a conscious awareness. The answer could also be yes: when we calm our minds and turn them to the body, we may become aware of pain points or tension that previously were just under the surface of our awareness. Taking the latter perspective, when I turn my attention to a sensation that previously I was not consciously noting, but now realise was in fact there in the background, of what object was that sensation ‘in the background’ a property? Mind or body? And when I consciously note it, does it then become a property of something else?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That’s an interesting question in the present connection because in the case of bodily sensations the question of what the object is becomes debatable–isn’t it a property of my toe that it hurts? We don’t have the same kind of problem in the case of physical object instantiation. This is a further asymmetry between the two.


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