The Mind is not a Place or an Object

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.

3 comments on “The Mind is not a Place or an Object

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    I’m glad you posted this, Samir. I’m continuing to develop these ideas about moments like this in contemporary literature, so it’s nice to have your take to bounce my thinking off. I agree that the mind is not a place or a thing–and that by and large we treat it as if it is and then “go looking for it.” In fact, the mind is really generalized short hand for a lot of different cognitive functions and processes. I would add that there’s an implicit irony in many of the literary works I’m talking about, in which characters touch or probe brains for signs of mind. Texts like David B’s Epileptic or Ian McEwan’s Saturday are pretty clear about the fact that the mind is not a thing or object and that looking for it is a fantastical enterprise. My current thinking is that they engage in a kind of counterfactual representation for a couple of reasons: 1. To make a point similar to yours, that the mind isn’t a thing or place, and 2. To acknowledge that the drive to make it a thing or place is strong and deserves attention, even if it’s misguided. I want to think more about all this. I’m sure there’s more to it, and each literary text will add a different inflection to the questions at hand.

  2. […] Finally: special thanks to Jason Nielsen, Judd Staley, and Paul Hebert for their work organizing the recent Minding the Body conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. Preparing for a panel they organized motivated me to start formulating some of my vague ideas about what it means when characters touch brains in contemporary literature. I’ve only just begun, so I’d love any and all feedback. For more on the conference take a look at Samir Chopra’s blog article, “The Mind Is Not a Place or an Object.” […]

  3. Why do you seem to think/say the mind cannot be found. I don’t mean in the sense of pointing at some cells and saying that’s it. I mean we can calculate, analyze, estimate, and localize the value ‘capacity’ in many systems. A vehicle has a capacity to carry people. A book has a capacity to convey information etc. Even if the ‘mind’ is a capacity, it should be quantifiable and generalized as being located in some set of functions.

    Things like tool use, long range predictive ability and so on should be indicators by which we can measure a capacity of mind. This would require reducing the mind to brain centered functions that are measurable, even if the emergent capacities are not directly measurable on some physical level.

    Why can’t the mind be found?

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