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Mental Substances1

  • Tim Crane


Philosophers of mind typically conduct their discussions in terms of mental events, mental processes, mental properties, mental states—but rarely in terms of minds themselves. Sometimes this neglect is explicity acknowledged. Donald Davidson, for example, writes that ‘there are no such things as minds, but people have mental properties, which is to say that certain psychological predicates are true of them. These properties are constantly changing, and such changes are mental events’. Hilary Putnam agrees, though for somewhat different reasons:

The view I have long defended is that the mind is not a thing, talk of our minds is talk of World-involving capabilities that we have and activities that we engage in. As Dewey succinctly put it, ‘Mind is primarily a verb. It denotes all the ways in which we deal consciously and expressly with the situation in which we find ourseleves. Unfortunately, an influential manner of thinking has changed modes of action into an underlying substance that performs the activities in question. It has treated mind as an independent entity which attends, purposes, cares and remembers’. But the traditional view, by treating mental states as states of the ‘underlying substance’, makes them properties of something ‘inside’, and, if one is a materialist philosopher, that means properties of our brains. So the next problem naturally seems to be: ‘Which neurological properties of our brains do these mental properties “reduce” to?’ For how could our brains have properties that aren't neurological? And this is how materialist philosphers saw the problem until the advent of such new alternatives in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language as Functionalism and Semantic Externalism.



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2 Davidson, Donald, ‘Davidson, Donald’ in A Companion in the Philosophy of Mind Guttenplan, Samuel (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell 1995)

3 Putnam, Hilary, The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body and World (New York, Columbia UP 1999) 169–70; the quotations from Dewey is from Dewey, J., Art as Experience in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 10, 1934 (Carbondale, Ill.'Southern Illinois UP, 1991) 268.

4 See, e.g., Lewis, David, ‘An argument for the Identity Theory’ in Lewis, , Philosophical Papers Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985), where no such assumption is explicitly made.

5 For recent defences of this idea of substance see Hoffman, Gary and Rosenkrantz, Joshua, Substance: its Nature and Existence (London: Routledge 1996), and Lowe, E. J., The Possibility of Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1998). Some of these claims are discussed in section 3 below.

6 Thus Jaegwon Kim Writes: ‘The idea of minds as souls or spirits, as entities or objects of a special kind, has never gained a foothold in a serious scientific study of the mind and has also gradually disappeared from philosophical discussions of mentality⃛ There has been a near consensus among philosophers that the concept of mind as a mental substance gives rise to too many difficulties and puzzles without compensating explanatory gains.’ Philosophy of Mind (Boulder: Westview 1996) 3.

7 For agreement on this point, see Rosenthal, David ‘Identity theories’ in Guttenplan, Samuel (ed.) op. cit., 348.

8 This view is still quite common in contemporary philosophy. For example, when discussing dualism, Jackson, Frank says that ‘ectoplasm is to be understood as the kind of stuff incompatible with the physicalists' view of what kinds there are—perhaps the stuff out of which thoughts are made according to Descartes.’ From Metaphysis to Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 15. For a useful corrective, see Lowe, E. J., The Possibility of Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) 201.

9 ‘Substance’ in her Collected Philosophical Papers Volume II: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).

10 For example: ‘Since there seems no reason to deny the intelligibility of souls, we affirm their logical possibility’, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz, op.cit. 6.

11 SeePapineau, David, Thinking about Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) and Loewer, Barry, ‘From physics to physicalism’ in Physicalism and its Discontents, Loewer, Barry and Gillet, Carl (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001).

12 For more on this conception of the mind-body problem, see my Elements of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001),§19.

13 Foder, Jerry, ‘The mind-body problem’ in The Mind-Body Problem, Szubka, T. and Warner, R. (eds.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 25.

14 A notable exception is E. J. Lowe. See his ‘Event causation and agent causation’, Grazer Philosophische Studien forthcoming.

15 It might be objected that fundamental to substance dualism is the idea that the world does not have one kind of explanation, but that fundamentally different styles of explanation are required for mental and physical substances and their effects. Monists (e.g. physicalists) may then argue that the same form of explanation (e.g. subsmption under physical law) applies to mental and physical things, and this is because they are fundamentally the same kind of substance. This does link the rejection of substance dualism to the current debate in an interesting way, and requires further discussion. My basic response is that the driving idea here is the idea of a single kind of explanation, an idea I was expressing in terms of the causal closure of the physical world. I am indebted here to discussions with Mike Martin.

16 See, for example, Simons, Peter, ‘Farewell to substance: a differentiated leave-takingRatio New Series 11 (1998), 253–252; also in Form and Matter. Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics, Oderberg, D. S. (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 2239.

17 See Davidson, Donald, ‘Events as particulars’ in Davidson, , Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980).

18 Broad, C. D., An Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933,) 138.

19 Wiggins, David, Sameness and Substance Renewed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 31, note 13.

20 This presupposes that attributes are universals in D. M. Armstrong's sense, rather than tropes or ‘abstract particulars’ see Universals and Scientific Realism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) especially volume I. For further discussion of the kind of issue discussed in this paragraph, see Lowe, E. J., The Possibility of Metaphysics Chapter 6, especially 141–2, and Hoffman, G. and Rosenkrantz, J., ‘The independence criterion of substance’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51 (1991) 835–52.

21 Descartes, R., Principles of Philosophy I.51 in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes trans. & eds. Cottingham, J. et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), vol. 1, 210.

22 For the necessity of origin, see Kripke, Saul, Naming and Necessity Oxford Blackwell, 1980, Lecture 3. E. J. Lowe willingly accepts this consequence of the independence criterion in The Possibility of Metaphysics op. cit., 152, but usefully distinguishes between saying that A might have not been born—i.e. might have come into existence without parents, or might have always been in existence—and saying that given that A was born, A might have had different parents. He admits only the possibility of the first of these.

23 See Wigging, Sameness and Substance Renewed chapter 4.

24 See, for example, the criticism in Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics §12. All page and other references to Leibniz's works in this paper are to the translation in G. W. Leibniz Philosophy Texts Woolhouse, R. and Francks, R. (eds.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

25 See Monadology §1–3, and ‘Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason’, §1.

26 Leibniz, letter to Arnauld, 30 April 1687.

27 Leibniz, letter to Arnauld, 23 March 1690.

28 See especially Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990),

29 Op. cit. section 9, especially 81–3.

30 On the reasons why there are simples, see op. cit., 99.

31 Op. cit., 121.

32 Leibniz, letter to Arnauld, 30 April 1687.

33 Leibniz, letter to Arnauld, 23 March 1690.

34 The locus classicus of this kind of view is Quine's, W. V. ‘Identity, ostension and hypostasis’, in Quine, , From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1953).

35 David Lewis's metaphysical system is perhaps the best and most sophisticated example of the combination of these two theories. But the theories are independent of each other.

36 Meditation VI, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes volume II.

37 Strawson, P. F., Individuals (London: Methuen, 1959).

38 Strawson, , op. cit., p. 115.

39 Snowdon, Paul, ‘Persons and personal identity’ in Essay for David Wigging: Identity, Truth & Value, Lovibond, S. and Williams, S. (eds.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) 44.

40 This is the consequence drawn by Lowe, E. J., The Possibility of Metaphysics, op. cit., 172.

1 This paper is intended as a preliminary attempt to bring together issues in the mainstream of the philosophy of mind and the personal identity debate. I am grateful to audiences at the University of Nottingham, the Australian National University, University College London and at the Royal Institute of Philosophy for generous and constructive criticism. I would like also to thank Robert Black, Martin Davies, Stephen Everson, Katalin Farkas, Mike Martin, Hugh Mellor, Peter Menzies, Michael Smith and Daniel Stoljar for especially helpful discussion.

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  • Tim Crane


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