Mental and Physical
Mental and Physical
The way philosophers use the terms “mental” and “physical” presupposes a conceptual dichotomy with no overlap: what is mental is not physical and what is physical is not mental (except by dint of some speculative metaphysical doctrine such as idealism or materialism). But is that the way we normally think about the things in question? Is there such a rigid separation? Isn’t the mental also physical and the physical also mental? I mean nothing remarkable by saying this—nothing that deserves to be called “metaphysical”. In saying that the mind is physical we can mean simply that it is an attribute of the body with bodily causes and correlates (see my “Truly Physical”): mental illness, say, is physical in the sense that it arises from conditions of the body and brain (it isn’t a matter of demons or immaterial perturbations). Many of our so-called mental concepts reflect this conception: people are said to have backaches, stomachaches and headaches, and suffer from fevers, or fall asleep and wake up. These all involve what the philosopher would call a “psychophysical” fact in which body and mind are brought conceptually together. No normal speaker thinks of headaches without heads or fevers without bodily temperature. The mind involves the body, and the body is a physical thing. Likewise, the physical is bound up with the mental; we don’t conceive of the objects of perception as wholly devoid of mental involvement (though that might be a philosophical doctrine). I don’t mean fancy metaphysics like idealism and neutral monism; I mean such things as secondary qualities and pragmatic classification. We ascribe colors to things and group them according to our interests and innate categories: objects are not conceived as completely mind-independent (which is not to say that none of their properties are mind-independent). When an animal is classified as a “blue-faced monkey”, say, it is tacitly brought under a mind-involving category. Nowhere does common sense stipulate that its objects of interest are completely mind-independent—again, that is a philosopher’s contention. These are described as “physical objects” but that is not taken to imply that they are not mentally tinged. Our ordinary ontology allows for physical objects that have mind-involving attributes, just as it allows for mental phenomena that have body-involving attributes.
In fact, at the ground-floor level we don’t even operate with these abstract concepts of the mental and physical: we just talk about monkeys, tables, rainbows, pains, emotions, thoughts, and so on. The philosopher then comes along and tries to find overarching categories: he or she has a “craving for abstraction” (compare Wittgenstein’s “craving for generality”). We come up with these two words and then we reify them into broad natural categories that are only accidentally joined or not joined at all. Our ordinary ways of talking and thinking don’t respect such abstract distinctions; it is only on reflection that we are taken in by them. Tables have colors and human uses; pains have bodily locations: that’s what tables and pains are. Colors are related to sense perception, and human uses reflect human desires; pains are caused by and felt in specific parts of the body: thus we can apply the terms “mental” and “physical”, respectively, to them. Ordinary ontology is unconcerned with the dichotomy suggested by the philosopher’s exclusive use of “mental” and “physical”. Talk of a mental world and a physical worldis alien to it—a philosophical theory not a piece of cultural anthropology. What is odd is that common sense doesn’t provide any substitute for these terms—no way to describe in general what kind of thing we are dealing with. We want to ask what pains, emotions and thoughts have in common, and we come up with the word “mental”; similarly for tables, rocks and monkeys, and the word “physical”. Shouldn’t there be a way of describing these things that recognizes their double nature as mental-cum-physical? That would be less misleading than “mental” and “physical”—and it isn’t as if these terms have clear meanings. They are too dualistic and their extension is quite unclear. In the “lived world” there is no such dichotomy as these words insinuate. Whether there is one in the theoretical world is another question; but if there is, it is not founded in common sense. We experience external objects as possessing properties reflecting our minds, and we experience our minds as bound up with our bodies; only in theory do we force a wedge between the two. It is odd that our language lacks the means to express the mental-and-physical nature of things in general terms. 
 We talk about “mental illness” while acknowledging that it is also bodily (an illness of the brain)—shouldn’t we talk of “mental-physical illness”? We call a flower “physical” while accepting that its color, smell and taste are all mind-dependent—shouldn’t we call it a “physical-mental” object? Our language is ontologically misleading. The mischief caused by the words “mental” and “physical” is incalculable. Yet we seem to have nothing better. Strange.
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