Phil 101: Marks of the Mental

There have been various attempts to find a single feature or set of features that all mental states, processes, qualities and so on have, and that all non-mental states and so on lack. If we found such features, they would be marks or criteria for mentality.

However, so far none of these attempts has been successful. Or more accurately, none of them has met with uncontroversial success. For each proposal, it is controversial whether all and only mental states have the proposed mark.

  1. One proposal is that being representational is a mark of the mental. But qualitative states (pains, tickles) are clearly mental states. And as we said, it is controversial whether every qualitative state is also a representational state.

    Another difficulty with this proposal is that some things that we wouldn’t naturally count as mental also seem like they can represent other things. One example is words in the newspaper, representing next week’s weather. Another example are rings in a tree trunk, representing how old the tree is.

    With some of these examples, like the newspaper, it’s plausible that their representational power derives somehow from the fact that people whose minds can represent agreed to use the words that way. So perhaps mental representations are in some way more fundamental than newspaper representations. But even if that’s so, it’s not clear how to turn it into a successful refinement of the proposal that being representational is a distinctive mark of mental states. It also doesn’t address the issue with tree rings.

  2. Another proposal is that being conscious is a mark of the mental. This would include all of our qualitative states, and perhaps it could also include things like our conscious judgments or beliefs. (The philosophers who doubt whether those lack a distinctive qualitative character may still allow that they’re conscious in some sense.)

    It is extremely difficult to understand and explain what “being conscious” amounts to, so this proposal is hard to assess. But on the face of it, there do seem to be examples of mental states that aren’t conscious. For example, arguably you believe some propositions you’ve never consciously formulated and thought about. Consider the example I’ve never ridden a pony and an elephant at the same time. That’s probably not news to you. In other words, you already believed it, before you heard or read me saying it. You just never consciously said those words to yourself.

    So this proposal is also controversial. It seems like there can be some mental states, such as some of your beliefs, that aren’t conscious. Freudian psychologists think there are many of these.

  1. Our third proposal has to do with the special or privileged kind of access we have to our own mental states. This will take some explaining.

    1. Many of our mental states — especially the “conscious” ones, whatever that amounts to — many of these states are ones we can know about in an especially direct way that isn’t based on evidence, observation, or inference. You can just tell whether and when you’re thinking about elephants.

      Other people have to infer what you’re thinking, from your behavior and what you say. So you have some kind of special access to your own mind that other people lack. And you don’t seem to have this access to their mind, either. Nor do you seem to have it to many facts about bodies or brains or your physical environment. You can’t tell how much your brain weighs, or whether your body has paint on it, without looking at or touching or measuring them (or Googling it). You can’t tell what your shoe size or height are in this special direct way — at least not for the first time. Also, other people could in principle be in better positions to know these things than you are.

    2. That last point touches on a different idea, that our access to our own mental states is always better than anyone else’s, or our access to other facts. A label that’s sometimes used here is incorrigibility, meaning no one can be in a better position to know, and so tell you that you’re making a mistake.

    3. This idea that you can’t make mistakes about your own mind is sometimes unpacked using the notion of infallibility. Being infallible about a subject matter means that you can’t have false beliefs. If you believe something, it’s true. Some philosophers think we’re infallible about (at least some of) our own mental states.

    4. A different kind of property is that a mental state “can’t be hidden.” Some philosophers think your own mental states can’t be hidden from you in the sense that if the state is there, then you know it’s there. This property goes by a variety of names, including luminosity, self-evidence, self-intimatingness, and transparency. In some discussions, the last label is used to describe other phenomenon instead.

      But it’s controversial whether our access to our own minds is incorrigible, infallible, or luminous. Arguably, there are at least some facts about our own minds that we can make mistakes about, and that other people may be in a better position to see. For example, other people may be in a better position to know whether you’re jealous of your friend’s success. (You haven’t admitted it to yourself yet.) If Freudians are right, some of our deepest beliefs and desires are hidden. Cognitive science also seems to posit mental states that people aren’t ordinarily aware of having.

    5. A different kind of special property my mind has is that it seems I can’t intelligibly doubt whether my own mind exists. I could entertain doubts about whether my body exists: perhaps I’ve died and this is all an illusion. Or perhaps I never really had a body, in the first place. I can at least imagine that everthing still seems the way it does right now, but in fact I don’t really have a body. It doesn’t seem possible to imagine this with respect to my mind though. I can’t coherently imagine everything still seeming the way it does right now, but my mind not existing. (If things continue to seem this way, doesn’t my mind have to be there to undergo it?)

    The details are controversial, but many philosophers would agree that our access to (at least some parts of) our own minds is “special” in some of these ways. And we don’t seem to have the same special access to anyone else’s mind, nor to facts about our brains or bodies or physical environments.

    Some philosophers have proposed that this special access can give us a distinctive mark of the mental — that is, that something counts as a mental state if and only if the person who’s in that state has this special kind of access to it.

    But as we’ve seen, this is not something that many philosophers would be prepared to accept. It’s not clear whether we really have special access to all our own mental states. (Some philosophers argue that we have it to very few of them.) And some of these kinds of specialness have been proposed about our access to other facts, too, beyond our own minds.

    All that’s really uncontroversial is that for some of our mental states, we’re usually in a better position to know about them than other people are, and in a different kind of position, with the result that other people are liable to make some kinds of mistakes that we’re not. These are interesting and important facts. But exactly what the betterness and differentness of our position amounts to isn’t yet settled; and it’s doubtful that these properties are had by all our own mental states and nothing else.

As I said, it’s very hard to come up with a good account of what all mental states have in common, that makes them mental. Nobody has yet come up with a simple, definitive, and uncontroversial story about this. For each mark that has been proposed, we can find mental states that — at least according to some philosophers — don’t possess that mark. (And sometimes we might find non-mental-states that do possess it.)