Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character

Recall that this is the invalid and deleterious argument that I have sought to examine:

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

In the past couple of posts, I have been trying to say some things that I believe to be accurate about minding. Chiefly, I am concerned with the question of how we are in the world because I want to understand myself and others better and because I am convinced that we have an erroneous view of ‘the’ mind. The idea that the mind is like the body has held us so transfixed that we have come to believe that minds, like bodies, can be sick or healthy. How strange! And this, in turn, leads us to help, diagnose, treat, manage, and cure. My view is that this picture is incorrect. In much bolder terms, Nietzsche would say that this picture supposes a world of weak persons and proposes a regimen that will only make us weaker.

Continue reading “Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character”

3 poor questions to ask about ‘the’ mind

A Joke

Father: Point to where my left foot is.

Son [points down and to the left]: There!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my right hand is.

Son [points upward and to the right]: There!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my heart is.

Son [points to chest]: In there!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my brain is.

Son [points to the head]: In there!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my mind is.

Son [smiles, shrugs]

Three Erroneous Questions Based on Category Mistakes

1.) Where is my mind?

There is no ‘where’ to the mind if by ‘where?’ we mean that some thing can be plotted on an X-Y-Z axis. This is because the mind does not occupy physical space. It is also because one mental activity just is providing the conceptual framework whose categories are ‘space’ and ‘time,’ the sorts of categories that allow us to point out hands and feet and to distinguish the placement of your hands from the placement of mine.

So, ‘where is the mind?’ makes no sense to ask.

2.) What is my mind?

The mind is not an entity. Neither is it a physical object (like apple) nor is it a concept (like horse). Not actually being an ‘it,’ the mind is not a substance but a concatenation of verbs.

3.) What goes on in the mind?

Well, nothing actually. The mind is not like a private theater in which various ‘inner’ secret plays are performed. The mind is not a container like a house in which family members do all sorts of things.

The mind just is an array of certain activities: thinking, emoting, proposing, willing, believing, imagining, doubting, disposing, replaying (thoughts, say), worrying, etc. It is not that thinking occurs in the mind; it’s that one is minding when one is thinking–and nothing else. (Better: minding as pondering.) It’s not that emotions take place in the mind; it’s that one’s minding just is the feeling of anger. (Minding as getting angry.)

It’s better, then, to think of mind as mindings, some of which unfold at once (in some cases), others occurring one after the other (in other cases), others happening repeatedly (in yet other cases), and so on.

A Few Implications

1. Minding is not secret or hidden, though various mental activities can be silent, less silent, noisier, etc. One can speak to oneself without saying anything aloud, and that is fine so far as it goes.

2. Minding is not mysterious since it lies ‘open to view,’ provided that we understand it in the proper ways. Well, and one can always inquire of another if one is confused about another’s mental life. ‘What you did there–what in the world did that mean?’

3. I can know my mind as well as other minds if only I learn to inquire properly and come to understand these activities. (About this, more in future posts.)

4. Since mental activities are not identical with or analogous with bodily activities, the former are not subject to ‘illness’ or ‘health.’ (How weird if they were.) Mental activities are performed, conducted, brought off (etc.). Moreover, these mental activities can be performed excellently or poorly, clearly or not, spontaneously or deliberatively, carefully or carelessly, etc. And mental activities also admit of degrees: ‘John’s thinking about the math problem was undertaken in a somewhat sloppy manner.’

5. Mental activities admit of poor habits, good dispositions, and needless repetitions. If Jane worries a lot about insignificant things, then Jane’s mental activity is poor, and she is–with each repetition–making this poverty worse. If Sue inquires quite well about herself over and over again, then Sue is doing a good job learning about herself.

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.

Our minds aren’t in our heads

Yesterday, I finished reading Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. The book is mainly a critique of research programs in the scientific study of consciousness and perception, and in this respect it does not intend to set out a full-blooded account of what our mental life is and is like. Still, it gives us the proper orientation we need in order to understand the layout of our mental lives.

With  Noë, we can say that

1.) The brain does not think, feel, or create of its own resources alone a picture of the world; it is the mind that thinks and feels, and it is the mind for which a world ‘shows up.’

2.) The brain enables mental activities but so does the environment. So, the brain is no more than a necessary condition for mindedness.

3.) The mind just is the dynamic interaction or interplay of brain, body, and lived environment.

A few implications for philosophizing as a way of life follow.

4.) Mental disorders or mental illnesses do not exist (an ontological claim), though brain illnesses and body illnesses clearly do. With Gilbert Ryle, we can say that we can mind what we do. We can do things attentively or inattentively, carelessly or carefully, heedfully or heedlessly, etc. Our mental lives can be disorganized, scattered, or disjointed, etc., or focused, concentrated, and integrated, etc.

5.) Quite naturally, philosophers have no business studying the brain, but they do have reason to investigate what our mental life is and is like, with a particular focus (or so I think) on the ‘fitness’ of clear thinking, feeling, and engaging.

5.) It is vital, therefore, that philosophers who wish to lead a philosophical life cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully as well as teach others to cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully.

When the mind is clear, we read in the Daoist works, then we wei follows. Wu wei means ‘doing nothing’ in the contemplative life, acting spontaneously in the active life. But how does philosophy as a way of life bring us into contact with wu wei? How does philosophy teach us to come to as well as remain true to this style of thinking-acting excellently and beautifully?

‘The morning tree wavers, but the mind does not…’

A poetic chant that came to me before a philosophical conversation earlier today.



The morning tree wavers, but the mind does not.

The mind, unwavering, is full of stillness.


When one thing comes to it, the mind takes the thing in hand.

That and that thing only.

When another thing comes to it, then the mind takes that thing in hand.

That and that thing only.


When each thing comes to it, the mind comes to it with ease.

The transition is as natural as the music sounding through the morning tree.

The mind, unmoving, listens still.