My Mind

 

My Mind

 

How do I get the idea of my own mind? Do I get it simply by having my mind, or possibly by experiencing the mind I have? Do I perhaps have an “impression” of my mind from which I extract the idea? Here is a problem with this theory: based on my mind alone, I cannot distinguish between it and the world. My mind is my world. The world I know is the world presented to me by my mind, so my world and my mind are coeval and coterminous. The limits of my mind coincide with the limits of my world.[1]  When I gaze at my mind all I see is a world. I don’t have an idea of my mind as something in the world. Merely having a mind does not give me a perspective from which I can grasp my mind as an object: I don’t apprehend it as I apprehend the Sun setting on the horizon.

            How then do I get the idea? First let us ask how I get the idea of other minds. This idea is useful in social contexts: it enables me to think effectively about the behavior of other people. We probably have this idea innately, as do other mammals. It enables us to think of minds as things existing in the world. But my mind is not included in this general conception; it stands apart from other minds. How do I bring my mind under the conception that includes other minds? Not by thinking of my mind as other! But one thing I can know about other minds is that I am other to them: they think of me as an other mind. So we can imagine the child coming to realize that he or she is an object of thought for other minds: “Oh, so they think of me as I think of them”. Now she is thinking of her mind as something in the world: it is her world but it is also an object in other people’s worlds. She thinks of her mind as being an object for the minds of others. This is the exact opposite of her own perspective on her mind, in which world and mind are merged. She sees herself reflected in the minds of others, and this gives her the idea of her mind as one thing among other things. So we grasp our own mind via our grasp of the minds of others, by understanding that we are objects for them. Our mind cannot give us an idea of itself as existing in a world containing other minds, but our grasp of other minds can give us this idea once we grasp that those minds take us as objects. This is a very sophisticated idea and it is doubtful that other mammals and small children have it. They may have the concept of other minds, but they don’t really have the concept of their own mind. Only by recognizing that other people think about them can they manage to think about themselves, i.e. grasp that they are entities of the same kind as other people. The thought “I have a mind” is really the thought “This world is an object of thought for people with other worlds”—that is, “I exist in other people’s worlds”. My mind and their minds form a totality for me because I think this way: I think of myself from their point of view, because I think of other minds and realize that I am considered by them. No doubt my first thoughts along these lines centered on my mother: “I am an object in my mother’s world, so I must be something in the world as well as a world unto myself”. Then I realize I am an object among others, and am nothing unique (a sobering thought in my childish egotism).

            These two thoughts always coexist uneasily: the “I” as object in the world and the “I” as constituting the world for me. Can all this really be just one pinpoint thing in a much larger reality? Thus we oscillate between solipsistic egotism (there is only my world) and vertiginous humility (I am just a tiny speck in a huge wide world). The astonishing thought that I am merely one mind among innumerable others brings together two ways of thinking about the self: the idealist conceit that the world is my world, and the realist concession that the world is much greater than I am. In particular, it locates the self in a world occupied by other equally real selves—as an object of their apprehension. In coming to have the idea of my mind I come to realize that I am much smaller than I thought, even though I know no world larger than the one presented by my mind. The concept of my mind is thus the consummate philosophical concept, because it contains an entire metaphysical outlook on reality, one that generates perplexity and intellectual disharmony. It isn’t just a “faint copy” of a perceptual datum, a “simple idea”. It might even be said that putative possessors of this concept don’t really have it themselves, not fully, because it is just too hard to grasp: I never really understand the idea that I am just one mind among others; my own mind asserts itself too strongly to accept that. I am the world; I am not a minute part of it! Certainly some people never seem to get over the idea that everything centers on them—that nothing else is real (not really real).  The idea of one’s own mind as one thing among others is just too lowering, too ontologically disquieting.

            In any case, our concept of our own mind is a concept originally derived from our concept of other minds, particularly from the idea that other minds regard my mind as an object in their world. It doesn’t spring from a simple encounter between me and myself, as if my mind introduces itself to me one day and I recognize it for what it is (“Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you, good to meet you at last!”). It arises from complex reflection on the minds of others, an idea with roots in practical biological concerns. Not every being with a mind has a concept of that mind, even those with a concept of other minds.

[1] Cf. Wittgenstein: “What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that ‘the world is my world’. The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it”. Tractatus 5.641

Share
10 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Why do so many contemporary academic philosophers write in a style so wooden and pedantic, and why do so few write with the vivacity and color of your own philosophical prose? Is there a common misunderstanding of what rigorous philosophy is, leading many academic philosophers to think that one can’t write in a rich and expressive and attractive way without sacrificing philosophical rigor? Is it that the ability to write attractive prose is simply uncommon among contemporary academic philosophers? Or is it that one has to be a person of unusual intellectual talents to be able to range freely over the whole of one’s native language while still managing to write conceptually clear, logically rigorous, and insightful philosophy?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      They are dull. They are illiterate. They are uncultured. They are humorless. They are talentless. But your last sentence puts it the best: it takes a lot of work and ability to do what you describe so well.

      Reply
  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    This is a wonderful Christmas gift.

    I imagine there would be rich veins here for psychologists to mine in developmental psychology as well as in the analysis of pathologies (both of individuals as well as cultures).

    The questions I indulge in below are of a much more speculative nature (no doubt influenced by the season).

    Can we identify the type of mental activity that underpins this idea of “my mind”? That is, is there a mental activity for which this concept is a mental record? Is this the act of recognition and acknowledgment of others as not just intentional sentient beings existing in an outer physical world shared with me, but also as others that can simultaneously recognise and acknowledge me as such? “I acknowledge a separate you that can acknowledge a separate me that acknowledges a you that ….” (I add the word acknowledge to recognition to emphasise this a process that is both passive/reflective and active/creative.)

    This presents a worldview that has more in it than that of a “bird’s eye” (or “God’s eye”) view of a domain populated with intentional agents each with their own subjective perspectives defined by their individual reference frames; and more in it than a view where additionally each agent can conceive this bird’s eye view with themselves in it, and in which they are both held separate from and united with other agents through transformations of reference frames that express the coherence of their subjective views of a common physical reality. (This view we might associate with the Copernican-Galilean “turn”, one that still underpins the realist scientific worldview.)

    What is more is that the view that recognises “my mind” comprises a world permeated with mutual recognition and acknowledgement. This seems to be more than a simple recognition (say, of a pattern) existing simultaneously in many minds, but a complex recognition where recognising one’s own mind is bound up in recognising that there are other minds like one’s own that recognise one’s own. Perhaps we could say this idea of “my mind” represents an unfurling of the reflexive and contradictory internal nature of this complex recognition.

    Is it sensible to ask what is the medium in which this mutual recognition might occur? Our mental images probably turn immediately to physical bodies embedded in physical space exchanging knowing looks or nods or waves. Despite this physical representation, our minds appear as completely seperate entities, entirely ringed off from one another (like Leibniz’s monads). And yet, mysteriously, they can reflect and acknowledge one another. Minds are embodied, of course, and this no doubt provides common boundary conditions on minds that allow for interaction, and for the evolution of the mental aspects of species and of culture. But a physical substrate does not seem to have the characteristics to meditate mutual recognition. Could this particular type of complex recognition be taken as a basic principle of reality, part of the cosmic fabric?

    Another question of a much more personal nature is whether this mental act of recognition and acknowledgement can itself be mentally perceived real-time (so to speak) – or, even, recognised and acknowledged? (The possibility of this particular type of recognition being able to recognise and acknowledge itself is probably the closest I can come to making sense of what it might mean to perceive the mind of God.)

    Nicolaus Cusanus (a.k.a. Nicholas of Cusa) comes to mind. He was both a skeptic and a mystic, someone who, on metaphysical rather than empirical grounds, predated Copernicus and Galileo in questioning whether than can be any centre to an infinite whole. There is no privileged location (as dogmatists would hold). I understand Cusanus held the (possibly heretical) view that the act of creating beings that can acknowledge Him seems to be a necessary part of God’s being; He could not have existed without His creatures. (Cusano’s God was neither nothing nor something, and was not the same as everything but that from which everything flowed.) Perhaps we can understand something of this in a non-theological context, in terms of the mind’s recognition of itself as an act of co-creation. As part of its recognition of itself, the mind must acknowledge (a creation of sorts) others that can recognise itself within themselves; and though it cannot itself be located (“Oh, hello mind, I see you”), all things for us flow from the mind though the world isn’t the mind; and it’s presence can be grasped even though no “God’s eye” view of it is possible.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      These are interesting reflections that bring out some ramifications of the picture I sketched. As you say, a promising premise for developmental psychologists and others. Is this not the best philosophy blog on the web quality-wise?

      Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        You write in a very clear style that presents as being equally for yourself and for others, while also often tackling deep questions that are on the “borderline” of what we (can?) know. Clarity and courage don’t often find themselves bed mates. Thank you again for sharing.

        Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        Also, though I don’t read many blogs, it is rare to find anything genuinely new (on philosophy or other topics). One typically encounters “branded” recycling. This blog is thankfully different in that regard.

        Reply
  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Does a notion of morality necessarily follow from this idea of “my mind” (given that the recognition of my own mind is bound up in the acknowledgment of other minds)?

    Reply
  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Does this perspective on what it means to recognise one has a mind shed any light on the idea of teaching, what it means to be a teacher (as well as a student)? For us humans, teaching/learning goes beyond the facilitation of mimicry, or practice. It goes beyond some process of downloading data (as one might imagine in a sci-fi context how an older AI might teach a younger one). There is something deeper and more mysterious that has to do with the relationship between the minds of the teacher and student.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.