Object Mentalism and Philosophy


Object Mentalism and Philosophy


What impact would the truth of object mentalism have on the philosophical landscape? For expository reasons I shall speak as if it is true, though we could also conjure a possible world in which it is stipulated to be true and consider philosophy as it exists in that world. So: suppose that all objects (except perhaps the very small) have mental properties in the form of secondary qualities and also contain a perceiving subject, and let’s limit ourselves mainly to speaking of colors. Red objects, say, have the mental property of being red and they also perceive this property in themselves. Then the first consequence we can draw is that there are two sorts of mind, which I will call the internal mind and the external mind. There is the internal mind generated by the brain, which is private and imperceptible, not open for all to see. But there is also the external mind that is perceptible on the very surface of objects, since colors are perceptible. It is true that the perceiving of red by a red object is not likewise perceptible, and it may not much resemble what seeing red is like for us; but there is no denying that if colors are mental properties then we can perceive mental properties in objects. This was tacitly accepted by philosophers of the modern period who distinguished primary and secondary qualities, though I don’t recall any of them noting it explicitly. Someone who believes that color is a projection of inner mental states, and that we see color, is committed to the view that we can see mental states—though the mental states are really possessed by the perceiving subject not the object out there in the world. Once we add that the perceiver is actually the object itself we have the result that the mind of the object is a perceived mind. And note that the brain is a perceptible object, so it has two minds: the internal mind we are familiar with by introspection, containing perceptions of color among much else, and another mind corresponding to its own secondary qualities—color, taste, smell, etc. The brain perceives itself with this mind, though our internal mind has no access to it. Other objects (including other bodily organs) have an external mind but not the internal mind we know from introspection. They do have their own type of internal mind, however, constituted by perceiving their sensible qualities, but this mind lacks much of what brain-based internal minds routinely possess. Still, the object does have a mind that is partly public and easily perceived: the concept of the mental is thus not inherently the concept of a private sphere.

            Secondly, we now have an extra mind-body problem: how does the mind of an object relate to the “body” of an object? Specifically, how does color relate to the physical properties of an object? Here we can envisage the usual options: perhaps the color is merely projected from elsewhere so that it doesn’t exist in the object at all (compare the idea that the mind is just a “stance” we can choose to adopt); or it is identical to the properties of light discoverable by science (type or token identity theory); or property dualism is true, with or without supervenience; or substance dualism is true and there are really two objects there, the bearer of primary qualities and the bearer of secondary qualities, one material and the other immaterial; or perhaps talk of color is just so much prescientific gibberish destined to be eliminated from our world view. It is noteworthy that these options so closely mirror the positions familiar from discussions of the mind-body problem for the internal mind, suggesting that objects do indeed have a kind of mind. Presumably consciousness in some form will be involved in the workings of the external mind, though it may be a form of consciousness alien to us—I picture it as a kind of low-grade murmuring. This consciousness must have emerged from properties of matter that precede the existence of consciousness as it exists in the form of color etc., since it is doubtful that elementary particles and associated forces possess such qualities.  [1] So there will be a hard problem about external conscious minds too, and possibly an irresoluble mystery. In any case, there is a mind-body problem under object mentalism, very similar to the traditional mind-body problem.

            Third, our concept of mind is put under strain by the doctrine of object mentalism. The concept we possess is clearly shaped by our own specific form of mind—the conscious adult human mind we know by introspection. As soon as we venture beyond this, as we clearly must, we run into difficulties, since not all minds conform to this paradigm (for us). What about the unconscious mind, or the minds of animals zoologically remote from us, or the minds of aliens, or the enteric mind, or the mini-minds of the panpsychist? The concept of matter is not dissimilar: it no doubt originates in middle sized dry goods but we find it necessary to extend it to types of matter not normally encountered by us—the very small, the quantum-theoretic, forces and fields, dark matter, etc. The concept quickly runs out of descriptive or intelligible content—yet we keep on extending it. Applying the concept of mind to objects of all kinds, as the object mentalist does, certainly runs the risk of over-extending it, but we need some concept with which to register certain clear similarities and differences. It then becomes a pointless verbal question whether our words “mind” and “mental” properly fit the facts we are trying to capture (similarly for the word “physical” in trying to capture the facts uncovered by physics). We might decide to devise two concepts of mind in order to aid clarity and avoid confusion: the internal mind and the external mind, the subjective mind and the objective mind. Our vocabulary is limited and clearly inadequate, but we have enough to group things together intelligibly enough. In our own tradition terminology has shifted from “spirit” and “soul” to “mind” and “self” under pressure from various cultural and intellectual developments; the same thing could happen in the future if object mentalism gains a foothold.  [2]

            Fourth, in respect to metaphysics we now have a new option to play with: we have not just materialism, idealism, and dualism, but also a new type of generalized mentalism. This mentalism recognizes mind in many more places than alternative views, as various forms of panpsychism also do, by attributing it to ordinary objects in virtue of their secondary qualities; but it doesn’t descend into out-and-out idealism (though it is consistent with that and might be so extended). We could call it “modest idealism”. It certainly has an affinity with Berkeley’s position and relies on some of his insights; it diverges in not bringing in God and not applying itself to primary qualities. Mind turns out to be much less localized than we supposed, much more a general fact of nature; or rather, matter has less hegemony than we have been schooled to think. In fact, there is really no such thing as matter under the object mentalism conception—that is, a substance quite devoid of all subjectivity (this was Berkeley’s definition of matter or “corporeal substance””). Descartes was wrong to carve out an ontological realm from which mind has been completely expunged, in which secondary qualities are assigned to the perceiving mind of humans and other animals. Once these qualities are attributed to objects themselves the moderns’ conception of matter loses application, just as Berkeley argues. This destroys dualism as much as materialism, since there is nothing for pure matter to be. What we have is an inextricable combination of “mental” and “physical” qualities found instantiated together: that is the nature of concrete reality. The opposition between matter as wholly non-mental and mind as contrasted with this material realm collapses. We have been in the grip of the idea that objective reality consists of pure material substance with nothing mental about it, while all along the obvious existence of objects possessing secondary qualities has contradicted that idea. It is our conception of matter that has been at fault—and by “our” I don’t mean the human race but assorted theoreticians with various intellectual and scientific agendas, Descartes being chief among them. Mechanism is the ultimate culprit—the attempt to carve out a conception of reality that leaves mind behind. This is that desiccated, abstract, conjectured, mathematical, merely extended, insensate substance that was supposed to form the subject matter of physics; but there is no such substance, since objects are really colored (etc.). Nor is this a problem for physics as a science; physics simply deals with certain aspects of objects. It is a problem, however, for a certain philosophy of physics—one in which external reality is completely devoid of anything recognizably mental. There is no such thing as that and hence no such thing as Cartesian matter. The metaphysical picture bequeathed to us by seventeenth century thought is fundamentally flawed (according to object mentalism), and in just the way Berkeley diagnosed (his own positive theory is another matter). Matter in that sense is a myth.  [3]

            Finally, the opposition between mind and world has to be rethought. The mind is certainly not “in the head” if objects have minds too; and objects are not “in the world” if that means they lack all mentality. We can see mind in the world, and the world can see its own mind: mind is “out there”. Our internal mind may or may not be “in the head” but the external mind certainly isn’t—though it might be in its own head (if it had one). We have to reformulate the whole way we talk if object mentalism is true, because of its opposition between mind and world: we need to know what kind of mind is at issue, since one kind of mind is literally part of the world. The internal mind is really just one type of mind existing in the midst of innumerable other minds. How these two types of mind are related then remains an outstanding question; and we can’t just assume that the internal mind is fundamental. Maybe that has been our mistake all along. Maybe the world began with external minds and gradually worked up to internal minds, themselves very various.  [4]


Colin McGinn                     

  [1] There could be a form of panpsychism that claims that elementary particles have “proto color” from which arises color-as-we-perceive-it; so electrons and so on would not be completely devoid of color, after all.  

  [2] Have we not discovered, as history has worn on, that our initial concept of mind was hopelessly anthropocentric and parochial? Some people didn’t even think animals have minds! Hindsight recommends keeping an open mind about the extension of the predicate “mind”. 

  [3] I would recommend a close reading of Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) for a critique of seventeenth century conceptions of matter.

  [4] Maybe it wasn’t that human minds created color, taste, etc. but that these qualities created human minds: the ultimate source of human and animal minds is not primary qualities of matter but secondary qualities. It’s worth pondering. 

6 replies
  1. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    You once called panpsychism “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” (* Have you changed your mind?

    (* McGinn, Colin. “Hard Questions: Comments on Galen Strawson.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 13, no. 10/11 (2006): 90–99. p. 93)

  2. Ken
    Ken says:

    This essay is certainly out there – in all senses.:)

    With the caveat that I haven’t read Berkeley in a very long time, when he says that matter doesn’t exist, I’ve always interpreted him to be saying two things:
    1. Matter in the sense of dead, inert substance doesn’t exist. Because I can perceive matter, it must have an active power to cause this perception. And this active power is something a dead, inert substance couldn’t have.
    2. Matter in the sense of external substance doesn’t exist. Yes, matter may be outside my *head*, but my mind “travels” far outside my head and is thereby able to incorporate the entire universe.

    I think that you’re suggesting a third – panpsychist or panpsychist-ish – interpretation: Matter in the sense of unconscious or unperceiving substance doesn’t exist. Am I right? Or am I misinterpreting you?

      • Ken
        Ken says:

        Cool. On second thought, it’s not clear to me that your panpsychist interpretation of Berkeley is different from (1). I can’t remember, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he identified active power (to cause perceptions) with either mind or will.

        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          Oh, it’s not intended as an interpretation of Berkeley but as an independent position (see “Mind in World”). It’s also not the same as panpsychism, which has quite different motivations and pertains to the smallest constituents of matter.


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