Capitalist Philosophy of Mind: Part 1 – Philosophical History

While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Marxist’, I do identify with the idea of ‘historical materialism’, a term that has been used for Marx’n’Engels’ approach to society. I’m also very interested in philosophy, and so in this post I want to give a historical materialist account of the history of philosophy of mind.

What is ‘historical materialism’? It’s the belief that society forms an inter-connected whole, so that each part reciprocally influences other parts, and moreover that in this web, the dominant influence is had by ‘material’ factors: people’s concrete lived experience. For example, the forms of artistic expression that are widespread in a society will reflect the conditions in which most people live, albeit in complex ways.

This is sometimes mischaracterised as ‘economic determinism’, which is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it’s not (on my understanding) deterministic because it doesn’t claim that each individual’s actions must be the result of their material conditions – merely that the overally statistical averages will.

Secondly, it’s not (on my understanding) purely economic, since things beyond ‘economics’ narrowly-conceived can fall within ‘material conditions’: technology, sexual relations, climate, etc.

So with that hopefully a little cleared up, I want to talk about applying this to philosophy, in particular to dualism/materialism/physicalism in philosophy of mind. (As I use them, metaphysical ‘materialism’ is a different idea to sociological ‘historical materialism’, just as both are different from ‘materialism’ as a graspy, avaricious personality). This first post just runs over the major movements in the history of the subject in recent centuries.

I would distinguish three major ‘conversations’ in European philosophy of mind: pre-Modern, Early Modern, and Late Modern. I’m not all that knowledgeable about the pre-Modern, by which I mean the Aristotelian, Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, but I get the strong impression that the idea of a ‘mind-body problem’ was not a defining issue for it in the way it was later on: the mere existence of minds was not felt to be a puzzle.

The Early Modern conversation is usually traced back to Descartes, and was continued by Spinoza, Kant, and their ilk. Descartes is famous for his ‘substance dualism’: the idea of two radically different substances, two distinct and independent things, one mental and one physical, ‘linked’ by God into the human person. This in the context of a broader world that is now understood as homogenously and narrowly physical, possessing only shape, size, and motion.

Materialists (or ‘mechanists’) like Hobbes agreed with this view of the physical world, but went further and denied the existence of the non-physical mind over and above it. On the other hand, many people, especially in the Church, rejected mechanism and science as a whole. The conflict between these two, and the uneasy compromise effected by Descartes, generated the modern sense of there being a ‘mind-body problem’.

What I’m calling the ‘Late Modern’ conversation is that of the 20th century, with the rise of modern analytic logic and ‘analytic philosophy’ more broadly.

This witnessed a sustained attack on ‘Cartesianism’ from a number of directions. The principal charges against it were, firstly, that the arguments in its support were implausibly theological, relying on premises about God and omnipotence, secondly, that it was nonsensical to say that the cause of a physical effect could fail to itself fall under physical laws, and thirdly, that making mental terms refer to something entirely unobservable made it impossible for them to feature in a shared language, or for us to be confident that other people’s minds even existed.

In place of dualism there were behaviourism, functionalism, reductie physicalism, non-reductive phyliscalism, eliminative materialism, and various other brands of what I will broadly lump together as ‘physicalism’. The basic idea was that the mind fitted naturally into a physical, scientific, theory of the world – we just had to work out how, how to ‘reduce’ or ‘translate’ our ideas and talk of the mind into terms that would fit with the terms of physical science.

One Response to “Capitalist Philosophy of Mind: Part 1 – Philosophical History”

  1. Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 3 – Communist Philosophy of Mind? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Part 3 – Communist Philosophy of Mind? April 17, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork If my last two posts were right in discerning the movements of concrete social forces – feudal religion […]


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