Different Kinds of Mental States

We said that a mental state or mental process is a kind of condition or process which can be had only by thinking, feeling creatures.

Some examples we considered were:

  • pains
  • itches
  • the experience of seeing red
  • hearing yourself think
  • wanting to go on vacation
  • remembering that Henry VIII was an English king
  • remembering your first kiss
  • believing that Harvard is located in Massachusetts
  • emotions
  • intending to do the laundry tomorrow

Let's talk a bit about some important categories of mental states.

Representational States

Many mental states are representational. What this means is that they're about things. For instance, consider the belief that Harvard is located in Massachusetts. This belief is about Harvard, and about Massachusetts. The belief that Harvard is located in Vermont would also be about Harvard.

Many representational states concern the possibility of things being one way rather than another. For instance, the belief that Harvard is in Vermont concerns Harvard being located in one place rather than another. My wish that I could dance like Fred Astaire concerns my dancing one way rather than another. We call these states propositional attitudes. A proposition is the sort of thing that can be true or false, and can be believed or denied. Harvard is located in Vermont and I dance like Fred Astaire are two examples of propositions. A propositional attitude is a kind of "mental stance" you take towards a proposition. In the first example, you believe the proposition to be true. In the second example, I wish that the proposition were true.

When we talk about representational states in this class, we will always be concerned with propositional attitudes like that. (It is controversial whether there are any representational states that aren't propositional attitudes.)

Another term that you may see used to describe representational states is "intentional." (Note how it's spelled. There's another term we'll encounter later that's spelled "intensional." That means something slightly different.) When people talk about your "forming an intention," and about your "doing something intentionally," they're talking about your decisions and actions. That's the way you'll mostly have seen the word "intention" used outside of philosophy. When people talk about "intentional states," however, they mean something different. This is a technical expression that just means the same thing as "representational states." It includes, but is not limited to, things like decisions and intentions in the first sense. You may also see people talk about "intentionality." This just means: the fact that there are such things as representational states.

Representational states have some important characteristics which we should take note of.

  1. They can be "incomplete" in certain ways. They need not specify every detail of the objects they're about. Consider my memories of my first-grade teacher. These memories do not represent her as having brown eyes. But they do not represent her as having non-brown eyes either. I cannot remember what color her eyes were. The mere fact that some representational states represents an object, and fails to represent it as being F, does not entail that the state represents the object as being not-F. There is a gap between "not-(representing it as F)" and "representing it as (not-F)."

  2. Here's another way that representational states needn't specify ever detail. They can represent things about an F, without there being any particular F they are about. For instance, a thirsty person can desire that he have a glass of water, without there being any particular glass of water such that his desire is for that glass of water.

  3. In fact, representational states can represent things about an F, even though no Fs ever have or ever will exist. For instance, a child may believe that there is a troll hiding under her bed, even though no trolls ever have or ever will exist.

  4. Representational states can represent that the F is a certain way, and fail to represent that the G is that way, even if the F is the G. For instance, Lois Lane believes that the super-hero who defends Metropolis is strong. But Lois does not believe that the mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet is strong. Yet the super-hero who defends Metropolis is the mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet.

    Contrast this to other, non-representational, relations Lois might stand in to Superman. If she kisses the super-hero, and the super-hero is the same person as the reporter, then it follows that she kissed the reporter, too. If she kicks the reporter in the knee, and the super-hero and the reporter are the same person, then it follows that she kicked the super-hero in the knee, too. But representational states aren't like that. If she believes the super-hero is strong, it doesn't follow that she believes the reporter is strong; even if they're the same person. If she wants to marry the super-hero, it doesn't follow that she wants to marry the reporter. And so on.

    We will discuss this feature of representational states more ¥¥later.

Qualitative States

Many mental states are conscious, and there is some distinctive way it "feels" to be in that mental state. There is no special way it feels to be 6 feet tall, on the other hand. The statue is 6 feet tall, but it doesn't feel anything. Joe and Terry might both be 6 feet tall, but have very different feelings. There is a special way it "feels" to be in pain. Everyone who is in pain feels the same way. Of course, we can be more specific and fine-grained, and talk about stabbing pains vs. dull throbbing pains vs. other sorts of pain. But for each of these, there will be some distinctive way it feels to have that sort of pain.

The same goes for perceptual experiences. When I look at a ripe tomato, I have a certain kind of visual experience, and there is a distinctive conscious character to this experience. Everyone who has the same experience will also have that distinctive conscious character. (For now, let's leave it an open question whether you also have this same experience when you look at ripe tomatos. Maybe you have a different kind of experience. We will discuss that issue more ¥¥later. All I'm saying now is that if you have the same experience as me, there is a distinctive conscious character that you must be having.)

When mental states have a distinctive conscious character like this, we say that they are qualitative states, and we call their distinctive "feel" or conscious character their qualitative character. (You may also see some philosophers talking about "phenomenal states" and "phenomenal character." Those are just another way of saying "qualitative states" and "qualitative character.")

It is a major question in contemporary philosophy of mind how exactly we should understand and explain these notions.

Part of the controversy concerns what the relation is between qualitative states and representational states.

  • Everyone agrees that there are some representational states that are not qualitative. For instance, there is no distinctive way it feels to have a given belief. I may feel a certain way when I believe that Harvard is in Vermont, but you may have the same belief and feel a different way, or have no special feelings at all.

  • But there the agreement runs out. A few philosophers think that the set of representational states and the set of qualitative states are entirely disjoint. They do not overlap at all.

  • Other philosophers think that some qualitative states, for example perceptual experiences, are also representational states. But they also think that there are qualitative states, like pains and bodily sensations, that are not representational.

  • Still other philosophers think that qualitative states are just a certain kind of representational state. So every qualitative state is a representational state (though as we said, there are some representational states like belief that are not qualitative).

We will talk about these debates more ¥¥later.

Marks of the Mental

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

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 are clearly mental states. And as we said, it is controversial whether every qualitative state is also a representational state.

  2. A second proposal is that being conscious is a mark of the mental. This would include all of our qualitative states, and it would also include things like our conscious beliefs, that don't have any distinctive qualitative character. Now, 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. So this proposal is also controversial.

  3. As we said before, we seem to have a privileged epistemic access to our own mental states. We're in a better position to know about our own mental states than other people are, and they are liable to make certain kinds of mistakes that we are immune to.

    Some philosophers have suggested that this kind of privileged access gives us a mark of the mental. Something counts as a mental state if and only if the person who's in that state has this kind of privileged access to it. But this is also controversial. It's not clear whether we really do have privileged access to all of our mental states. For instance, other people might be in a better position than you are to know whether you're jealous of your friend's success, or what your unconscious motivations are.

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.


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