Last week, I participated in an interdisciplinary panel discussion at the Minding the Body: Dualism and its Discontents Conference (held at the CUNY Graduate Center, and organized by the English Students Association.) The other participants in the panel included: Patricia Ticineto-Clough (Sociology), Gerhard Joseph (English), and Jason Tougaw (English). As might have been expected, with that group of participants the discussion was pretty wide-ranging; I’m not going to attempt to recapitulate it here. I do however want to (very) informally make note of one remark I made in the question and answer session that followed, which touched upon the frequently mentioned, discussed and puzzled-over relationship between the brain and the mind. This discussion was sparked in part, by Jason Tougaw’s remark that he had ‘noticed a recurrent phenomenon in contemporary literature [especially the so-called ‘neuronovel]: scenes in which brains (or other body parts) are touched or explored for signs of immaterial elements of self: mind, consciousness, affect, emotion, imagination, desire.’
In response to this perennially entertained scientific, philosophical, and literary possibility of ‘locating’ the mind in the material or ‘identifying’ the mind with it, I said it seemed to me these sorts of prospects traded on a confusion about the mind as a place or an object, rather than as a term used to describe an entity’s capacities. The term ‘mind’ is perhaps best understood as having been coined in order to mark out particular kinds of entities that were able to enter into very distinct sorts of relationships with their environments. This ascription in our own human case goes from the ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ as it were, beginning with mental states perceived from the first-person perspective, but it is then extended by analogy to other creatures that show patterns of behaviors like ours. These relationships display modes of interaction that stand out, for instance, for their rich adaptiveness and flexibility, and show themselves to be receptive to a particular vocabulary of description, explanation and prediction: we might term them ‘mindful’ interactions. So creatures capable of mindful interactions are said to ‘possess’ a mind or ‘have minds’. But this does not mean that they need be radically similar to us. A different environment and a different entity could conceivably generate the same kind of interactions, perhaps one arrived at by a slow, imperfect evolutionary process like ours. These entities might have brains like ours or they might not; they might have bodies like ours, or they might not; they might have biologies like ours, or not. And so on.
Understood in this way, the term ‘mind’ has come to represent over the years what those creatures capable of ‘mindful’ interactions with their environs ‘have’. But speaking of it as something we ‘have’ send us off and running, looking for it. And since we have bodies with components that seem distinctly articulable, it became natural to try and identify one of its components or locations with the mind. But this, to repeat, is a confusion.
To say that something has a mind is to describe that entity’s capacities, its relationship with its environment, and our modes of understanding, predicting and responding to its behavior.