Introduction to the philosophy of mind

For thousands of years people have been amazed by what we would call mind or soul. Nobody knows what it is to this day. This leaves the questions of how consciousness arises and what is mind, two of the hardest riddles that sit on our necks.

  1. What are mental phenomena?
  2. Differentiation: event and disposition
  3. About characteristics of the mind
  4. René Descartes and conscious states
  5. Franz Bretano and intentionality
  6. Proposition of phenomenal quality
  7. What is the relationship between spirit and matter?
  8. Three conflicting theses
  1. How can one classify mental phenomena?
  2. Are there common and different characteristics of mental phenomena?
  3. How can one try to define the processes of the mind?
  4. What is the general problem with the philosophy of mind?

What are mental phenomena? 

At the beginning of such a reflection on mental phenomena, it probably makes the most sense to first consider what has been classified under the category of ‘mental phenomena’ in everyday intercourse, or what one can at least imagine in it.

Think! – that’s a good keyword. If there is one mental phenomenon that anyone can grasp straight away, it is thinking. But there are many others, such as perception, feeling, remembering and so on. Furthermore, what all these phenomena really are is an entirely different question.

I will not be able to go into what can be understood by thoughts or memories in this article. Instead, I want to show how complicated the subject of philosophy of mind really is and how difficult it is to come to a common denominator. It vividly describes z. B. one of Dehmel’s poems:

What are words, what are tones,
all your cheering, all your complaints,
all these ocean waves beautiful,
insatiable loud questions –
it does not rustle quietly,
soul, always just this way:
quiet, oh quiet, who can say it!
– Richard FL Dehmel [1]

Further classifications can also be found in these lines. One can, for example, read out hopes, which are also part of spiritual phenomena. Basically, after thinking about it for a moment, you can come across the following list and get a very good result. Mental phenomena include:

  • Perceptions, feelings, pains
  • Beliefs, thoughts
  • Hopes, memories
  • Dispositions (behavioral tendencies)

It is important to compare the individual candidates at this point. Are there clearly recognizable similarities? We will come back to this question later. It is easier to distinguish between differences because it is easy to see that there are such things as mental events and mental attitudes (recurring events).

Differentiation: event and disposition

A very helpful way of bringing some form of structure into the world of spiritual phenomena is to separate the event, act or occurrence and the so-called dispositions . An act of thinking is, quite simply, a mental event, as is the case when I think 5 + 5 = 10.

Thoughts can also be dispositions, because when I say “I know that 2 + 2 = 4”, I still have this knowledge even if I am not actively thinking the thought. The knowledge of a thought content can be characterized as a disposition [2, p.10]. The following table makes it clear:

Mental events Mental dispositions
Perceive Acts of perception
(e.g. seeing something red)
(especially phenomenal content)
(the ability to perceive certain content (colors, etc.).)
Feel Emotional experiences
(e.g. experiencing fear, lust or other feelings at the moment)
abilities (ability to experience emotions , e.g. fear, pride, sadness etc.)
Think Thinking acts
(occurrences of wishes, beliefs, fears, etc.)
Thinking abilities / inclinations
(in principle being able to grasp certain thoughts)

About characteristics of the mind

Let us now come to the second big question: Are there not only differences but also common characteristics of mental phenomena? Albert Newen, Professor of Philosophy in Bochum sums up that there have been very many different approaches to standardizing intellectual characteristics, but all of them have more or less seriously failed.

A connection between mental phenomena remains an open question that has not yet been solved or can never be solved (in principle) [2, p.11]. We will now briefly consider some examples of at least attempted solutions.

1. René Descartes and conscious states

One of the best-known proposals to put the category of spirit under a common term was made by none other than the founder of modern philosophy: René Descartes . As is well known, he represented a dualism of substance and to  a certain extent underpinned it with his famous saying  “I think, therefore I am” .

His idea is very simple: mental phenomena are always conscious states. I cannot have any sensations, memories, pain or anything else, if not consciously . This should also apply to non-introspective mental phenomena. So perception is an active event of the mind:

Descartes makes the following assertion: When material things have acted on our body and generated sensory stimuli, this process has given the mind the opportunity to generate ideas. So it is body and mind that are active and, due to their mutual association, produce certain states. [3]

The problem with Descartes’ thesis is quite simply that, since the acceptance of psychoanalysis, there have been enormous objections to the demand for awareness of mental states. It is not for nothing that the unconscious is a central concept in psychoanalysis ! In addition to the other objections that can be derived as a consequence of this thesis, awareness is excluded as an objective commonality.

2. Franz Bretano and intentionality

According to Bretano, mental features as intentional features are characterized by the fact that they are directed at an object. I think about something, remember a specific event and so on. In his own words, he describes it as follows:

Every psychological phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (also mental) inexistence of an object, and what we, although in not entirely unambiguous terms, the relation to a content, the direction to an object (including / a reality is not to be understood here), or what would be called immanent objectivity.

Each contains something as an object in itself, although not each in the same way. Something is presented in the imagination, something is recognized or rejected in the judgment, loved in love, hated in hate, desired in desire, etc. This intentional non-existence is exclusively peculiar to psychic phenomena. No physical phenomenon shows anything like it. [4]

Bretano’s suggestion to bring mental phenomena under one umbrella also fails because of very simple sensations: being tired, nervous and so on are all without objects. Such mental states are therefore without intentionality. It seems implausible that this condition is necessary.

3. Proposal of phenomenal quality

Finally, I would like to briefly present a proposal that, in a sense, counteracts Bretano’s idea. To say that mental phenomena have a phenomenal quality means nothing else than to say that they are linked to a specific experiential character. It means something like having a red sensation.

By the way: phenomenal does not mean fantastic here, but rather offering itself to perception, to knowledge.

It is particularly easy to explain that mental phenomena should have an experiential character when one considers the experience of pain. It is a very specific feeling that only I can understand at this moment. But this requirement is also very questionable, at least in the case of thoughts or unconscious mental states.

Do I really have such an experience when I think that 2 + 2 = 4, or when I say, for example, that ›I know that 2 + 2 = 4‹? It seems very implausible to accept this thesis, especially in the case of unconscious mental phenomena.

What is the relationship between spirit and matter?

The question that perhaps puzzles us the most in modern times is that of the relationship between spirit and matter. For all that we can say through science, mental phenomena must be located in the brain somehow. However, there you cannot see or measure anything other than electrical impulses.

However, I cannot understand whether someone is currently having the experience of tasting chocolate by just licking the person’s brain or measuring electrical impulses. It may be even more difficult when we consider a person’s will. This general volatility of the mind has inevitably led to the belief for a long time that the mind is something outside of the physical.

Albert Newen explains very clearly which hard conflicts arise from this in the light of modern knowledge: In the western world we are of course strongly influenced by the Platonic idea of ​​the separation of body and mind and also by Descartes’ dualism.

But this is only one of three intuitions that determine our everyday thinking. These three taken together form the classic mind-body problem , which shows the incompatibility of the three claims [2, p.14]:

  1. Mental phenomena are non-physical phenomena. (Thesis of dualism)
  2. Mental phenomena are causally effective on physical phenomena. (Thesis of mental causation)
  3. The realm of physical phenomena is causally closed. (Thesis of physical unity)

1. Mind and matter are different

The first claim is based on intuition that mental phenomena are radically different from physical phenomena. A rolling ball and a person’s pain sensation fall into two separate categories. That seems to us somehow plausible, mainly because we cannot give a good alternative how one could link spirit and matter.

2. Mind can have physical influences

The claim from the second sentence is based on the intuition that mental phenomena, such as desires and beliefs, can be the cause of behavior, that is, of physical phenomena. All of our everyday psychological explanations are based on this intuition:

We say yes that someone cries for joy or is rigid with shock. We explain the action of a person, that he gets a coffee, for example through their wishes and beliefs as the causes for the action [ibid.].

3. There are only physical causes for physical phenomena

Finally, we have an enormously strong proposition from the empirical sciences, which – if it were to be wrong – would turn the whole of physics, chemistry and biology on its head. It simply means that a physical phenomenon can only be caused by physical phenomena.

This is in direct conflict with the second thesis, namely that mental phenomena (which according to the first thesis are not physical) can have a causal effect on physical facts. It is obvious that none of the three theses can coexist without conflict!

Again, Newen: If first mental and physical phenomena are separated (M and P are two strictly separate areas) and secondly mental phenomena can be a cause for physical phenomena (from m an arrow leads to p) and thirdly every physical effect is clear has a physical cause (p has a p₀ as a cause), then you can see that we always have two completely sufficient causes for an event p. [2, p.15]

Representation of a dualistic relationship for causes

When the mental and physical realms are separated, there are always two causes for an event, one from each realm. This is known as overdetermination and it seems seriously implausible. Whenever we come across such a result, it is an indicator that we have errors in our assumptions. The solutions to these errors are known as central positions in the mind-body debate, since the first thesis (dualism) seems to us the most questionable.


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