Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle

In my last post I ran through the history of Western philosophy of mind. Now I want to look at how the philosophical developments mirror the social developments over the same period.

Now for each position there are positive arguments and there are negative arguments, and typically they have all been argued by someone. But what’s interesting is how some arguments, but not others, are able to win widespread support.

For example, there is a certain argument that goes something like this: “science in general, in particular physics, is bound to look for explanations of every event that happens, and we have no reason not to expect it to find them eventually. Thus for every event a physical explanation will be found, hence all the world is physical in nature, and no facts about it are irreducible to physical facts.”

This argument has been made in one form or another at many points in history. But the acceptance it’s won has varied. Prior to the scientific revolution, doctrines of this sort (like Ancient Greek atomism) were fairly minor phenomena. At the time of Early Modern philosophy, i.e. in the middle of the rise of science, the argument was strong enough to make full-on ‘materialism’ (in the metaphysical sense) a fashionable doctrine among many people. But it didn’t win majority assent until the 20th (maybe 19th) centuries.

And at this late stage, up to the present day, the argument does not even need to be made: it is now common-sense, the natural assumption. Almost all work is done within a ‘physicalist’ framework – either as an enthusiastic endorsement or a cautious criticism.

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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.

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