Category mistake: Mental illness

Today, I begin to inquire into this strange, fascinating, and mistaken argument:

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

Here, we have a classic example of what the late philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a ‘category mistake’: the misattribution of the properties that properly belong to category P to category Q. Typically, the misattribution is based on a misunderstanding of category Q or on a disanalogy between category P and category Q or both.

Consider the human body. It can be wounded (e.g., in combat) and injured (e.g., in a car accident that breaks one’s leg). It can be sick as when I get the flu. Parts of it can be diseased. A simple example is throat cancer.

The brain, an organ which resides in the head, is a part of the human body. Any number of things can happen–physically–to the brain; any number of neighboring–physical–things can impinge upon its proper functioning. So, a brain can be wounded (say) in combat as well as injured when one falls and lands on it. Part (or parts) of one’s brain can also be diseased.

But the mind is not the brain (about this non-identity, I will have more to say in future posts). Although the human mind cannot exist without the brain’s also existing, it does not follow that they are one and the same. Indeed, it does not follow that they are even analogous: the sorts of activities the brain does are not describable in terms of–or translatable into–the sorts of things the mind does.

If the mind is not the brain and if the former is not analogous to the latter, then we are not warranted in attributing to the mind the properties that we normally and unproblematically attribute to the brain. Hence, we cannot say that the mind is ill, sick, diseased, wounded, or injured because it is simply not possible for the mind to be ill, sick, diseased, wounded, or injured. As we shall learn in future posts, the mind can be tranquil or untranquil (say) or–better yet–thinking can go well or poorly, yet its going well has nothing to do with the mind’s being healthy nor does thinking poorly having anything to do with its being unhealthy. To be sure, an unhealthy brain may make for some poor thinking (think, e.g., of a football player who had a concussion recently), but an unhealthy brain isn’t the same thing as poor thinking. And whatever poor thinking is, it is something else.

If all of this is the case, then we have a lot of rethinking to do. In the first place, we will need to let go of all mental illness talk for it is based on a category mistake. In the second place, we will need to rethink many of the ways in which we think and speak about mental activities that are going well or poorly. In the third place, we will have to re-learn how to understand ourselves and each other in order to understand ourselves and each other clearly and accurately.

For now, however, a category mistake joke in conclusion. Smith: ‘Where is the mind?’ Jones: ‘Well, where is your yawn?’

In time, we will learn to stop asking that mistaken question.