Subjectivity and Symbolism

Subjectivity and Symbolism



Mechanism in physics was a unified theory of the physical world, positing only bodies in space and contact causation. Newton’s mechanics undermined this unity by postulating action at a distance, thus introducing another kind of causation. Electromagnetic theory undermined it further. Things don’t always operate by impact and reaction. In the case of psychology mechanism took the form of behaviorism, specifically stimulus-response psychology: the stimulus makes its impact and the response is the elicited reaction. The organism is just another body in space being pushed around by impinging forces. The reflex is the perfect exemplification of this theoretical framework: stimulus strikes body, body reacts (e.g. the patellar reflex). The discovery of conditioned reflexes held out the prospect of extending this basic mechanistic model to all behavior—psychology is thus the study of environmental impacts and the resulting motions of bodies. This too is a unified theory, employing a single conceptual apparatus to characterize everything the mind does and is. It is a unified theory that lasted much longer than the mechanism that was undermined by Newton and Clerk Maxwell. Mechanism about the mind persisted long after mechanism about the body had met its demise. Mechanism in physics replaced mysterious teleological conceptions of physical action (Aristotle), while mechanism in psychology replaced mysterious dualist conceptions of the mind (Descartes): but the former kind of mechanism succumbed to the mysteries inherent in Newton’s discoveries, while the latter kind soldiered on.

There were always rumblings against psychological mechanism, despite its dominance during much of the twentieth century; but the rumblings reached a crescendo during the latter part of the century. For convenience I am going to locate these dissenting voices in the persons of Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor; and I am going to summarize their contributions in two words—“subjectivity” and “symbolism”. By now this is a very familiar story, so I won’t spell things out. In brief: Nagel drew attention to consciousness, deploying the phrase “what it is like”, and insisting that there is more to the mind than physiology; Fodor likewise resisted physical reductionism and argued that the mind works symbolically, coining the phrase “the language of thought”, and suggesting that the mind is a computational system. Sensations are the paradigms of the subjective; thoughts are the paradigms of the symbolic. Some scuffles ensued regarding the scope of these basic categories, mainly having to do with whether everything symbolic is also subjective, and vice versa; but a consensus emerged that the mind has both sorts of property. It felta certain way and it representeda certain way. Thus people described conscious experience as consisting of qualia while thought processes were described as consisting of symbols: phenomenology and syntax, respectively. Two approaches to the mind thus came into prominence (one might cite Husserl and Chomsky as the father figures of these developments—or going back further, Brentano and Turing). One approach emphasized the first-person perspective, introspection, and lived experience; the other emphasized language (natural and formal), grammar, and symbolic processing.

The result of these innovations is not a unified theory; it is a disunified theory.[1]The general assumption is that the mind has two aspects, or consists of two sorts of faculty, or is made of two sorts of thing. True, it is subjective in some parts of its being; but also true, it is symbolic in other parts of its being. A theory of mind must therefore recognize a fundamental duality in what the mind is and how it operates. Metaphors have arisen to capture this duality: on the one hand, the stream or river of consciousness,[2]the mosaic of qualia, the theater of the mind; on the other hand, the mind as a computer, thought as inner speech, reasoning as calculating. It is not supposed that qualia are units of computation, and it is not supposed that words in the language of thought are qualitative contents of consciousness. The ontology is quite different, as is the role assigned to the entities postulated. One might say that subjectivity is an analogue phenomenon while symbolism is a digital phenomenon—continuous versus discrete, fluid versus segmented. The chief characteristics of mental symbolism are infinite productivity and syntactic concatenation, while the chief characteristics of mental subjectivity are not described in this way but are thought of a kind of flowing or pulsating (those metaphors!). Feelings don’t combine like words to generate an infinite array of syntactically structured strings, but neither do mental symbols afford a rich subjective life. These ontologies exist side by side, but they don’t interpenetrate—they don’t integrate. There is no unified theory of the subjective and the symbolic. [3]

Here we may be reminded of the current situation in physics, and indeed I think the comparison is apt. The theory of gravitation and the theory of elementary particles form different theories that are not unified or integrated. Indeed, the two theories operate with very different principles and laws. Yet the macro world and the micro world are not separate disjoint worlds; they overlap. What we have is a unified reality and a fragmentation of theory—not a happy state of affairs. There are some who detect actual tensions between the two theories, if not outright contradiction. Similarly, we have two theories of the mind, also not integrated or unified, and apparently about different things. For example, we can approach a given conscious thought in two ways: as a subjective state of consciousness imbued with a characteristic phenomenology, or as a symbolic structure functioning in a computational process (mostly unconscious). Yet we are looking at the same thing—just as a macroscopic object is the same thing as a congeries of microscopic objects. Surely there must be some way to bring these two descriptions together. But where is it to be found? Ideally we would be able to take a subjective description and derive from it a symbolic description, or vice versa—we would see these descriptions as aspects of a single reality. But there is a chasm between them, a dualism withinthe mind. What have qualia and symbols got to do with each other? Couldn’t you have one without the other? Is one more basic? What makes a symbol have a subjective character, and what makes qualia have symbolic properties? The two seem to stare at each other across a vast divide. It is not as if we have a computational theory of subjectivity or a phenomenological theory of symbolism—whatever either of those things might be.[4]The quantum world looks alien to the gravitational world and the subjective world looks alien to the symbolic world, but these worlds must be parts of a seamless whole in some way. In particular, an adequate theory in psychology would integrate the subjective and symbolic perspectives.

I am not saying it can’t be done; I am only saying that we don’t presently know how. The concepts are lacking; the theory is fugitive. At least mechanism avoided this kind of theoretical disunity. Starting with the idea of a reflex (innate and hardwired) behaviorism tried to generalize to cover all aspects of the mind, employing a single conceptual apparatus. That was a dismal failure—an absurd leap of faith. But the apparatus that replaced it is radically bifurcated and dubiously connected; we don’t even know how far the subjective and the symbolic overlap. It would be different if the two theories dealt with different components of the mind—say, subjective theory with sensations and symbolic theory with thought—but that is far from being the case, since sensations occur in perceptual and cognitive processes and thought is imbued with subjectivity. Subjectivity and symbolism exist in the mind in intimate and inextricable connection. So there really oughtto be a unifying theory, but we don’t have any idea of what it might look like. What would be nice is some explanation for how mental symbols are necessarily infused with subjectivity. Spoken symbols have the phenomenology associated with their sensory modality (mostly hearing), but symbols in the language of thought are not sensed in any way, so their phenomenological aspect must have some other source. Granted that the language of thought is innate, is it that the phenomenology of thought is coded into the genetic basis of its lexicon and syntax? The mind reels. Consciousness and computation are not separate aspects of the mind, existing is isolation from each other. A mind (a human mind) is a conscious symbolizer: it symbolizes in the mode of consciousness (as well as unconsciously). Its nature is subjective symbolism or symbolic subjectivity.

I have no suggestions to make about how to integrate these two aspects of mentality; I merely wish to point out the lacuna. As in physics, we live in an era of theoretical fragmentation with respect to the mind, following upon the heady unity promised by a general mechanism. Perhaps the future will bring the kind of theoretical unity that made mechanism so attractive to our ancestors, perhaps not.


Colin McGinn

[1]Functionalism undertook to demonstrate theoretical unity across everything that dwells in the mind, but it succumbed to an onslaught of objections, which I won’t repeat.

[2]Also consciousness as like a mysterious flame or a translucent rainbow or a type of veil or a genie drawn from a lamp or a shimmering force-field over the brain or steam from an engine—and no doubt others.

[3]It is worth noting that psychophysics has never been a symbolic theory, any more than reflexology has been. The law-governed dependence of sensation intensity on stimulus intensity is not a computational process—the sensory systems don’t deducesensation intensity from stimulus intensity. Rather, there are psychophysical reflexes underlying the laws of psychophysics. We have no tendency to invoke a “language of sensation” to explain the facts of psychophysics.

[4]No one writes papers entitled “The Logical Form of Consciousness” or “A Subjectivist Theory of Universal Grammar”. Those sound like category mistakes.

4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Thank you for this. It cuts through, and puts into perspective, a lot – and very simply.

    The relationship between the continuous and discrete is very deep, which is why the circle, being the simplest non-trivial object that unites both, is (still) such an important object in mathematics.

    An analogous question can be asked on the relationship between matter and symbol in the context of the origins of life, or, as Howard Pattee asked, “how the molecule became a message”.

    If life is “matter controlled by symbols that are themselves a function of matter”, is there any sense in which consciousness is “subjectivity controlled by symbols that are themselves a function of subjectivity”?

    Whenever I think about consciousness I keep coming back to memories – discrete renditions of subjectivity that have their own subjectivity and can shape or constrain new subjective experiences. Maybe it is the psychological equivalent of the circle.

  2. says:

    Phenomenology meets thought and concept, if you will, only in the realm of meta-cognition—“feelings of knowing”. Some metaphors, just as some thoughts, seem more apt than others. What criteria determine the “intensity” or drift of one’s meta-cognitive intuitions? Intuitions are of all stripes and sorts, ofcourse, but those related to a proper exercise of one’s intelligence or to an apt exploration and expansion of our conceptual competence seem all the more baffling. The phenomenology of moral intuition, for instance, has at least some basis in a “felt” ontology (pain and pleasure).


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