Brian O’Shaughnessy

  • The Character of Mind by Colin McGinn
    Oxford, 132 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 219171 3

The philosophy of mind is a branch of the philosophy of nature. But it has this peculiarity, that the very item that conjures up its questions and vets its answers is the very part of nature under investigation. And it has the added peculiarity that its subject is the mind. A system that can harbour such natural marvels as imagery of what is long past, thoughts of what never even managed to be, and dreams of the logically impossible, in this subject turns its philosophical attention onto itself. In these special circumstances one might expect a few rules to go by the board. In any case, they do. The philosophy of mind is something of an exception to a rule or maxim limiting our legitimate metaphysical expectations: roughly, a rule to the effect that we should expect little or nothing. Now it is well-known that philosophers have long abandoned all pretensions to the role of cosmological sage, of a priori astronomer charting a heaven of ideas, and that this was effected through a sceptical critique that emanated from its own ranks: above all, from Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. A sort of pessimism with regard to metaphysical enterprise seems as a result to have set in at some point, which lingers to this day, in which I suppose we are still paying for the brilliant excesses of our romantic metaphysical forefathers, and of Hegel most of all. Those ‘intellectual inebriates’, in the eyes of some, have bequeathed as our lot a seemingly permanent condition of metaphysical sobriety and philosophical self-consciousness.

Now there can be little doubt that the self-consciousness has been a gain, but even less doubt that the sobriety has gone too far. This victory of self-awareness over natural wonder betokens something closely akin to guilt. Dropping onto their knees before the harsh god physics, fellow-travellers of the physical sciences, as it were, many 20th-century philosophers have been only too ready not only to put metaphysics and even philosophy in the dock, but (in a moment of suicidal madness) the very mind itself along with them. For in one way or another the stocks of these three items have tended to move in parallel in our subject, either in earlier periods of rampant manic excess or in the recent drawn-out era of depressive self-effacement.

The philosophy of mind in its latterday form is, I suggest, one of the chief deliverers from this tyranny of the merely and only physical. Everywhere one looks in this subject it is possible to strike metaphysical oil. Whether the topic is the imagination, thought, the will or the self, an a priori investigation can be set up that stands a good chance of emerging with startling results. It is a double irony that one of the more startling of these results, and in any case the thesis of widest scope, is the metaphysical theory of ‘physicalism’. There was a time when adherents of this doctrine affirmed it as a scientific hypothesis, to be established slowly and painfully by the systematic success of physical scientific procedure, rather in the way the doctrine of vitalism found itself gradually removed from the books. Probably this view still has its supporters today. But not many. If, as seems rather likely, some watered-down non-reductionist materialism proves to be the truth of the mind-body relation, few any longer doubt that the arguments in its favour will be found in philosophy rather than the physical sciences. (Donald Davidson has already made a determined attempt in that direction.) And that is to say that its metaphysical status is more or less acknowledged.

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