Our Concept of Mind




Our Concept of Mind



How good is our concept of mind—how extensive, how accurate, how penetrating? I shall suggest that it is not very good—limited, misleading, shallow. It is much less good than our concept of body. It covers mental reality only ineptly, incompetently. There are three areas to consider: alien minds, other minds, and our own mind. In each of these areas our concept of mind runs into trouble.

            Consider minds very different from our own: not just bats and dolphins that have different senses from our own but animals in general. I don’t know what it is like to be a bat but I am also pretty clueless about what it is like to be a cat or a dog or a mouse. It isn’t that they have phenomenological types of experience I don’t have; rather, the way the different elements of their mind come together baffles me—their desires, thoughts, and emotions (their “form of life”). To be sure, we have some understanding, but we find their inner life enigmatic, just not close enough to our own for full empathy. This is why we think it would be extremely interesting to become a cat for a while and see the world through cat’s eyes (and ears and nose). Similarly for bees and sharks, eagles and elephants. Our concept of mind fails to reveal the inner lives of other animals, even our closest relatives like apes (though we surely have more insight into their minds than we do reptiles). And we don’t believe that further diligent inquiry will resolve the enigma. By contrast, there is no such limitation in our concept of body: the bodies of other animals are not enigmatic to us (I don’t mean their bodies as lived by the animal in question, which is an aspect of their mind). We have a perfectly clear grasp of the anatomy and physiology of the bat or cat or elephant—as clear as our grasp of the human body. Our concept of body extends smoothly to alien bodies, while our concept of mind falters when it comes to alien minds—we can’t get our minds around theirs. They present themselves to us as areas of ignorance, impenetrability. That is, our cognitive resources in conceiving of mental reality are inadequate to capture the (full) nature of alien minds—which is why we call them alien. It is not as if when confronted by other species we just cheerfully assume that we know just what is going on internally, as someone with more capacious conceptual resources might. We don’t look into the eyes of a cat and feel we know just what she is thinking and feeling—what her feline point of view is. Thus our concept of mind, unlike our concept of body, is anthropocentric, geared to the human, incapable of affording (full) access to the inner lives of other species. It remains partial and glancing, skewed to our specific mode of sensibility. It would not be surprising to discover that we really have no idea what is on the minds of other species of animal; we might be amazed by what we experience if we suddenly became a mouse for a day. With other humans we think we know where we are—where they are—and so we don’t wonder what it’s like to be another human. But as soon as a mind begins to be unlike our own mind we start to lose our grip on it, as we don’t for bodies unlike our own body. Our concept of mind is thus confined and parochial, failing to capture the full extent of mental reality. There is a lot it doesn’t encompass. To put it differently, our concept of mind exhibits cognitive bias, even to the point of cognitive closure in some instances.  

            But even in the case of our fellow humans our concept of mind betrays its fragility. For we have difficulty understanding what it is for other people to have a mind, even one just like ours. What is it that I think when I think that someone not myself is in pain? Wittgenstein has a famous passage about this: “If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel. That is, what I have to do is not simply to make a transition in imagination from one place of pain to another. As, from pain in the hand to pain in the arm. For I am not to imagine that I feel pain in some region of his body. (Which would also be possible.)” (Philosophical Investigations, 302) But don’t we conceive of another’s pain precisely by reference to our own? He has what I have when I am in pain except that he isn’t me. Compare: for him to have a self is for him to have what I have when I have a self except that it isn’t my self. I don’t think this way about his body—I don’t think that he has what I have when I have a body except that it isn’t my body. Instead, we have a general notion of body that we apply both to ourselves and to others, without privileging our own body. In the case of mind, however, we start from ourselves and project outward: but, as Wittgenstein observes, there is a question about why this isn’t just conceiving my mind in his body, which is not at all the same thing as his having a mind of his own. Do I really grasp what it is for him to be in pain, as opposed to myself feeling pain in another body? Do I just rely on misplaced projection, failing to grasp the full reality of another mind? Isn’t our concept of other minds irredeemably egocentric (solipsistic)? Think about it: do you really understand what it is for another person to be in pain in just the way you are in pain (but without his being you)? Aren’t you always putting yourself in the other’s place? Again, it is not like the body: here we really do understand the idea of another body, not merely a projection of one’s own body elsewhere, as if the other’s body is somehow an extension of mine. Our concept of other minds seems hazy, confused, not fully up to the job assigned to it—representing the mental reality of others. Our own mind exercises too powerful a hold over our psychological thinking—as it does for alien minds. I can’t abstract my concept of mind away from my own species, and I can’t abstract it away from my own self either—my concept keeps pulling me back to my own mind, refusing to extend to minds beyond my own. To be sure, I have a rough and ready concept of other minds, as I do alien minds, but the concept is inept, incomplete, sketchy, jejune. One might even say that it is childish (and of course young children have a notoriously impoverished understanding of the minds of others). It seems not to have escaped its roots in our own self-representation. To put it simply, we don’t really understand what it is to be another person (self, consciousness). We operate with a patched-up cobbled-together concept based loosely on what we know of ourselves.

            But then isn’t own self-concept entirely satisfactory? Don’t we at least understand ourselves, i.e. what it is for us to have a mental state? Surely I know what it is for me to be in pain! This is tricky territory, but let me offer the following remarks. First, there is the mind-body problem: do my concepts of my own mind enable me to grasp how that mind relates intelligibly to my body? Clearly not, so we have reason to suppose that our concept does not disclose the full reality of what it covers: there is much more to my mind than my concepts reveal (or can reveal). But second, and less familiar, we don’t really have a clear conception of how mental reality in our own case fits into the broader world around us. We don’t clearly see our place in the causal nexus. On the one hand, there are physical objects around us, including our own body, and there is an objective conception of these objects (encapsulated in physics); on the other, there are our inner subjective states that we conceive in a different way entirely. But we can’t integrate these two realms, these two viewpoints. Here is a simple way to put it: while I can observe causal relations between physical objects, I cannot observe causal relations between the mental and physical. Note the word “observe” here: true, I know of such causal relations, but I don’t observe them with my senses. I never see a wound causing me to feel pain, simply because I don’t see my pains. What I have is a kind of mongrel conception of the psychophysical nexus—a bringing together of the objective and the subjective. But the real world must be a unified world, i.e. one in which both mental and physical seamlessly coexist. This means that it must be possible in principle (if not for us in practice) to attain an objective conception of mental reality, so that our limited perspective on our own minds gives way to something more universal (an “absolute conception” in the well-worn phrase). Our present mental concepts fail to provide this detached point of view, because they depict our minds from the point of view of those minds—I describe my mental states as they strike me from the first-person point of view, not as they fit into the broader reality of which they are a part.  [1] Indeed, it is hard for me to think of them as part of reality at all (and easy for me to think of reality as part of my mind): I think of the world as my world, not of my mind as just an element in a far broader totality. It is a strain for me even to acknowledge that my mind is merely one ephemeral speck in a vastly more extensive reality.

            Again, I have no great trouble seeing my body in this way, distressingly so. I see its causal relations to other things and I conceive of it as part of a totality of other physical objects—just one object among others equally real. But I don’t think of my mind in this modest and self-effacing way—I don’t think of it as just another thing in a vast array of things. I think of myself as a throbbing center not as a dot among other dots. My concept of my mind forces me to conceive of it in ways that fail to do justice to its limited and contingent place in the natural order, which is why I find it so difficult to think of myself in this way—and why whole systems of thought have arisen that deny the located and confined nature of mind. In a sense, our concept of mind exaggerates the importance of our own mind. The digestive system we can see for what it is biologically, but the mind resists this kind of demotion, this embedding in the natural biological order. We cannot view ourselves sub specie aeternitatis. And what point would there be in equipping us with such fancy conceptual equipment? Does natural selection care that we can’t represent ourselves form a God’s-eye perspective? Can other animals think of themselves thus objectively? Our concept of mind leaves us in no doubt that our minds are real, but it fails to inform us of how this reality fits into reality as a whole (materialism and idealism try to fill the gap). We are aware that we fit into the natural order, but we have no clear conception of how this fitting occurs, beyond some sketchy ideas of causal connection.

            Mental reality is distributed quite widely in the universe—in oneself, in other humans, and in other species—but our concept of mind fails to encompass this reality. Moreover, the concept fails to locate one’s own mental reality in a broader reality. By contrast, our concept of body doesn’t suffer from these limitations. Thus our concept of mind is limited and defective in important respects. It is not a very good concept. Maybe it could be improved, but as it stands it is rather crude.  [2]


  [1] Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Nagel will recognize these kinds of considerations.

  [2] If we inquire what the biological purpose of the concept of mind is, the following answer seems on the right lines: to inform us of our own mental state, and to enable us to predict the behavior of others. Fulfilling these two purposes requires little in the way of adequate representation of the full nature of mental states. What would knowing what it’s like to be a bat do for us biologically? It’s not as if we have to mate with them! Nature minimizes knowledge where there is no need of it.

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