Where Is My (Place in the Philosophy of) Mind? A History Boy, 22/10/2013

I suppose I need have had no serious concerns about arguments between Joe Margolis and myself over his treatment of the nature-culture relationship in his Aesthetics book. The last quarter begins with Margolis making the same point I did yesterday about culture being an emergence from natural processes. 

This last quarter of the book is where he makes a statement that I knew was lurking under the surface of his analysis for a while, and that I very much agreed with, despite not always wanting to say so. When someone becomes very skilled not only at writing philosophy, but also thinking it, that person can understand how concepts that are at the forefront of one sub-discipline may occur implicitly in a different, seemingly unrelated, field. Margolis is able to connect the tendency of Analytic aesthetics to presume that no cultural knowledge or background is required to understand an artwork, with the principles of eliminativism in philosophy of mind. Both presume that there is nothing about cultural or mental propositions that cannot be explained by reducing them to propositions about natural bodies or mere being in aesthetics, and the brain in theory of mind. 

The classic Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius features
a literal brain in a vat, who is quite desperate to get back to
the worldly action that completes him, mass murder and the
conquest of the universe.
I became fascinated with the problems of the theory of mind in my late undergrad, and wrote my MA thesis on the problem of the relationship of mind to the outside world. I argued, basically, that worldly perception was a part of thought and everything else associated with mind. Internalism about mind makes no sense, the brain in a vat is not a real problem, and one can’t build a workable theory of mind that doesn’t integrate mind with the perceptual relationships of the real world. Basically, exactly Margolis’ point: any account of the human mind and personality is incomplete if it doesn’t include cultural factors, a person’s actual life in the world.

My last public work in philosophy of mind was a commentary I gave at the 2010 Canadian Philosophical Association conference at Concordia University, in Montréal. The paper was about the spectrum inversion problem in philosophy of mind: Victoria sees a particular patch as red, and has seen that colour as red all her life, while Jamie sees and has seen such patches as green, but they both use the word ‘red’ to refer to the colour in question and have no problems saying true propositions about the colour; who sees it correctly? 

The most explicit reason why I left philosophy of mind is a question of style. Writing style: the essays in the sub-discipline abound in ridiculously obtuse technical language. Most papers in philosophy of mind contain so much technical shorthand as to make it utterly inaccessible to non-experts. Not just non-philosophers, but non-experts in philosophy of mind. Sometimes even non-experts in that particular sub-discipline of the sub-discipline (which would mean they’ve created sub-sub-disciplines?). 

An even worse problem I think was more fundamental. What today is called philosophy of mind has its heritage in cybernetics and the cognitive science that arose from it. This was a very multi-disciplinary community: in addition to philosophers, there were computer scientists, mathematicians, robotics engineers, neurologists, psychologists, and biologists. But as the field evolved, it splintered into a cornucopia of different debates and problems with their own concerns and sets of problems. An intellectual movement that began as a wide variety of disparate researchers coming together fragmented into highly technical debates whose terms and problems have become mutually incompatible. 

The paper focussed on the problem of Jamie and Victoria's phenomenal experience. My commentary focussed on what grounds anyone has to say what perceptual qualities are normal in the first place. My critique came from far outside the typical terms of the debate on this problem in philosophy of mind, but I thought it made an interesting challenge. The audience, including a former professor of mine, found my ideas interesting. Through the question period after I delivered my commentary, the presenter didn’t even acknowledge my presence in the room and when the session was over, he stormed out. 

What I find the most moribund sub-fields of philosophy of mind are the ones that refuse to accept what Margolis and I understand: that mind is incomplete without its world. The few, like Andy Clark, who try to explain this in the terms of philosophy of mind end up resorting to ridiculous arguments about shopping lists and iPhones. They try to prove that the mind exists in the world because actions we consider mental, like memory, can be carried on outside the skull. With, for example, shopping lists and iPhones. 

Having to put the argument in the terms of philosophy of mind makes a profound and intriguing argument sound silly. Margolis, and the Adam Riggio of 2007, are trying to explain how worldly perception grounded in a historically contingent and dynamic set of cultural practices and processes is necessary for a complete understanding of the human mind. I find it incredibly difficult to understand how some highly intelligent people need to have it drummed into their skulls that, in the words of Hilary Putnam, meaning “just ain’t in the head.”

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