Imagining an orgasm

Colin McGinn

  • Mind and Cognition: A Reader edited by William Lycan
    Blackwell, 683 pp, £14.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 631 16763 3
  • Acts of Meaning by Jerome Bruner
    Harvard, 179 pp, £15.95, December 1990, ISBN 0 674 00360 8
  • Modelling the mind edited by K.A. Mohyeldin Said
    Oxford, 216 pp, £25.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 824973 X

The more philosophically interesting a science, the less secure or transparent are apt to be its theoretical foundations, given that philosophy thrives on perplexity. It is some time since chemistry produced much of a reaction in philosophers, but biology can still get their juices flowing, though not so freely as in the days of the Bergsonian élan vital. Quantum physics is a contemporary focus of philosophical attention – despite the suspicion of some that it is only a dispensable anti-realism that generates the putative puzzles. Mathematics induces periodic bouts of fascination, even of deep distrust – as with Brouwer and Wittgenstein – but its rigour and finality tend to keep the perplexities at bay. In the case of psychology, however, philosophical interest reaches its highest pitch, and never more so than at present: perhaps to the chagrin of practising psychologists, philosophers are now very interested in what they are doing – or at any rate in what they ought to be doing.

The reason for this intense scrutiny can be summed up in two words: ‘meaning’ and ‘consciousness’. These crop up with increasing frequency in psychological writings, after a long period during which they were anathematised. And the topics they refer to have never ceased to occupy philosophers; indeed, the theory of meaning might justly be regarded as the central concern of 20th-century philosophy. Together, the two concepts are definitive of what we ordinarily mean by ‘mind’. It is largely because psychology is turning again to these constitutive marks of mentality that philosophers have once more become intrigued by that science. They found little to grip them while psychology perversely defined itself as the ‘science of behaviour’, entirely eliminating the notions of meaning and consciousness from its purview. Put differently, now that scientific psychology is acknowledging its continuity with common-sense or folk psychology, in which philosophers have maintained a steady interest, psychological theories contain concepts that provoke difficult philosophical questions. There is no shame for the scientists in this: it was misguided to defenestrate the mind just because the concepts that characterise it are philosophically rich and demanding. On the contrary, it is good to see one of the more philistine legacies of anti-philosophical positivism finally melting from the scene.

I do not mean to imply that the notions of meaning and consciousness are in good odour with all philosophers of psychology: they are certainly not. But the philosophical issues that surround these notions are now part of what a reflective psychologist needs to be sensitive to: they can no longer be left to those reactionary old philosophers. For these issues determine the shape and content of empirical theories. A central question here is whether theories that make serious use of these notions can be properly ‘scientific’ – whether, that is, their employment calls for a distinctive methodology. Specifically, can the study of meaning and consciousness conform to the theoretical paradigm set by the natural physical sciences? The physical sciences deal with quite different sorts of phenomenon, at least on the face of it: does this mean that a psychology so conceived cannot take the form assumed by physical theories – with their laws, causes mechanisms? What happens to the structure of psychological theories, and the empirical procedures that lead to them, when you make psychology go consciously semantical? How does a psychology of belief and desire compare to a physics of gravity and electric charge?

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