What Is a Mind?

Last Saturday, in his Central APA commentary, Rick Grush raised this question and suggested it is the most fundamental question in the philosophy of mind. He also suggested that if you don’t understand this question and its importance you are missing something.

I must be slow because I don’t think I understand the question.

Is it asking what is the explanation of the mental capacities and phenomena that we observe, such as perception, problem solving, and motor control? If so, the answer lies in the usual mix of theoretical and empirical investigations that scientists and many philosophers of mind are engaged in. But that is clearly not what Rick has in mind, for he argued that the question must be answered before we proceed with our science.

Is it asking what the folk means by “mind”? If so, the anwser lies either in the conceptual analysis of folk psychology (if that project makes sense) or in some empirical study of folk psychology, but it is hardly the most important question in the philosophy of mind.

Is it asking what counts as a mental phenomenon vs. what doesn’t? (E.g., is conditioning properly called a mental phenomenon or not?) If so, presumably this is largely a matter of stipulation, of relatively little theoretical importance.

Is it asking what is the essence of mind (or the mark of the mental)? But why suppose that the mind has one and only one mark or essence? And more importantly, how are you supposed to find out what the essence of mind is before you begin doing science? I thought that in so far as we believe in essences these days, we believe they are discovered empirically.

I don’t think any of the above corresponds exactly to what Rick was trying to ask, but I honestly don’t know what else to suggest. Any thoughts on this?


  1. Ben

    I am fully confident that I’m always missing something. So I’m quite happy to weigh in, confident that I shall be refuted.

    A mind is “whatever a living brain does”. That includes the conscious, the unconscious, the executive functions, connections to nervous system and body, various modules, blah blah.

    Thus, a mind is not an “illusion” any more than the motion of a bicycle is illusory. Just because it isn’t an object or entity, doesn’t mean it’s somehow nonexistent.

    Though, perhaps, the term “mind” is misleading, since it implies an entity where more properly it is a relation between the brain and itself and/or its environment. It may be happier if we said that “my brain is minding”.

  2. Gualtiero, I note that most, if not all, of your interpretations of Rick’s question concern mental properties, but it seems that Rick’s question is most straightforwardly as about particulars. That is, he’s interested in a question concerning the things–minds–that have the various properties you mention.

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