Qualities of Mind

Qualities of Mind

Galileo, Descartes and Locke divided the physical world into primary and secondary qualities, thus carving out a place for the science of physics (the study of the primary qualities of matter). But they said nothing about the primary and secondary qualities of the mind, in the hope of carving out a place for the science of psychology (the study of the primary qualities of mind). What should we say about this question? The answer is not immediately clear: what would such qualities be? Someone might say that the answer is obvious: since secondary qualities are mental and primary qualities are non-mental, all the qualities of mind are secondary, none primary. The indicated conclusion might then be that there is no science of the mind comparable to physics, on account of a lack of proper subject matter for such a science. You can’t make science out of the merely subjective. Alternatively, and less drastically, it might be said that the relevant qualities belong to the body and are simply a special case of the familiar primary qualities of physical things. Bodies have shape, size, weight, number, and motion, so that we can identify bodily behavior as the proper subject matter of the science of psychology. The so-called mental attributes are all secondary qualities and therefore do not belong to the science of the mind, i.e., behavioral science. In either case, what we naively think of as the mind is consigned to the realm of the merely subjective—like color, sound, smell, etc. This realm contains no primary qualities for the simple reason that the mind does not have shape, size, weight, number, and motion—only the body does. Psychology can thus never be the same kind of science as physics (it might confine itself to introspective reports). It’s either behaviorism or nothing.

It seems to me that this is the exact opposite of the truth. It completely misconceives the concepts of primary and secondary qualities. True, the examples given by the originators of these concepts are as listed, but that is not the same as the underlying conception. That conception invites us to consider the qualities of things that constitute their intrinsic nature as opposed to qualities conferred on them from outside. When we switch subject-matter we must expect a different array of qualities. If we consider the primary qualities of numbers, we don’t expect to find the same qualities that apply to physical objects; we expect to find, and do find, mathematical qualities (being even, prime, motionless, weightless, imperceptible). In the case of the mind, then, the primary qualities will include whatever characterizes the intrinsic nature of the mind, as opposed to how we might subjectively represent it. And there is nothing to prevent us identifying these primary qualities as irreducibly mental. Thus, we might count as primary qualities of mind both phenomenological and propositional qualities (possibly also functional and computational qualities). These are what the mind inherently is, its inner constitution, its objective nature. The science of psychology will then study these kinds of qualities (properties, processes). Just as the standard primary qualities of physical objects comprise how objects are in themselves, independent of subjective viewpoint, so these primary qualities of minds (phenomenological and propositional) fix how minds are in themselves, independent of subjective viewpoint. The qualities that were declared extraneous to physics turn out to be central to psychology: colors, say, were transferred to the mind away from physical objects, but now these mental qualities become the primary qualities of psychology—what that science is really about. They are primary for psychology.

But this raises an interesting question: does the mind also have secondary qualities? What would that mean? It would mean that our ordinary ways of representing the mind introduce one perspective among many possible perspectives on the mind itself. Martians might see what we see as red objects as green, or taste our sweet things as bitter—might we likewise experience our own minds in a particular way possibly not shared by Martians? Might we introspect our minds via subjective representations of those minds? For example, might we introspect our experiences of red as experiences of green? This would be like experiencing the same wavelengths of light in two different subjective ways—as red or as green. The same mental primary quality (seeing red) might be experienced in two different ways—as an experience of red or as an experience of green. The mental quality might have two different dispositions to appear to a subject depending on his psychological make-up. That would be the analogue of the same physical object appearing in different ways to perceivers. If this were so, then that would be a genuine mental secondary quality. There would be a real distinction between mental primary qualities and mental secondary qualities. But surely there is no such thing, nor could there be. We are not at that kind of remove from our own minds; we don’t project qualities onto our minds in that way. I don’t have a subjective viewpoint onto my own mind, which might differ from other viewpoints onto the same (type of) mind. I project colors onto objects, but I don’t project experiences of red onto my own mind. Accordingly, there are no mental secondary qualities; all mental qualities are primary. The mind is not a composite of primary and secondary qualities, as physical objects are, but a collection of uniformly primary qualities, objectively possessed. The qualities of mind are never merely powers to produce impressions of those qualities in that mind or in other minds.

The absolute conception of the physical world supplied by physics involves abstracting away from the human perspective on the physical world; it is subtractive, invidious. But the absolute conception of the mind is not like that: it treats all attributes of mind as part of its subject matter. So far from ignoring subjectivity, it embraces it. In psychology the subjective is what is objective (real, absolute). And of course, this is true: what belongs to the mind objectively exists—though it may not exist “for physics”. If we try to mimic the formation of physics, carving out a subset of the qualities normally attributed to things, we end up with no proper subject matter for psychology (only behaviorism); but we should not attempt to duplicate this kind of movement of thought. There is really no primary/secondary distinction in psychology. Much the same is true in mathematics: there isn’t a collection of attributes of numbers found in common sense mathematics that needs to be jettisoned in order to put mathematics on a scientific footing—as it were, the colors and smells of numbers. There are just primary mathematical qualities. This is the right model for the science of psychology not physics. The metaphysical apparatus of primary and secondary qualities developed by Galileo, Descartes and Locke to put physics on a sound basis does not carry over to the psychological case. In particular, the subtractive impulse is out of place.[1]

[1] It is an indication of how undeveloped psychology was as a science in the seventeenth century that no one raised the question of whether psychology might admit of a primary/secondary distinction analogous to physics. As far as I know, the question has not been raised till now.

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