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by David Cockburn
St. Martin's Press, 2001
Review by Gregg Caruso on Jun 29th 2002

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind

            Despite its title, David Cockburn’s new book is less an introduction to contemporary issues in the philosophy of mind, and more a book about personhood or self-identity.  The book revolves around three approaches to the question “What is a person?”  Cockburn focuses on the views of René Descartes, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and current materialist or physicalist approaches to the question.  The main thesis of the book is that both Descartes’ view—that what I essentially am is a non-material ‘mind’ that is distinct from the body—, as well as current materialist/physicalist thinking—that the correct description of a person is that which is (or will be) offered by the physical sciences—are fundamentally flawed.  Cockburn instead defends a Wittgensteinian alternative:  “The alternative that has been presented in this book involves the idea that the real me—the thing that thinks, feels, and so on—is the human being:  one and the same as that which moves the furniture, comforts my friends, and so on”(143).  According to Cockburn, fundamental place should be given to the idea that the person is the human being—the bodily being that we encounter in our everyday interactions with others—and to the ways in which we respond to each other in such interactions. 

            Although the book deals with such traditional issues as the mind-body problem, mental causation, and the other minds problem, it’s unclear who Cockburn’s intended audience is.  At times the book feels more like an introduction to the philosophy of Descartes or Wittgenstein than an introduction to the philosophy of mind.  Cockburn, for example, spends too much time examining the historical views of Descartes and Wittgenstein for the book to act as a good survey to current issues in mind.  And such chapters as “The Cartesian Soul and the Paranormal,” seem to serve little purpose in such a short book.  Cockburn, however, is well aware of his misleading title.  In fact, he writes:  “A potential reader might reasonably expect that this book will be about ‘the mind’.  But the book is not about ‘the mind’.  It is about people:  human beings”(vii).  Cockburn’s main claim is that philosophers, and perhaps others, go wrong when they think that what needs to be investigated is the nature of ‘the mind’.  He argues that there is a shared assumption between both the scientific approach to the self, which he conflates with materialist or physicalist accounts that claim that ‘the mind’ is the brain, and dualist accounts.  The assumption is that, “the real person is something other than the human being that we actually see when we ‘meet another person’”(96).

            The problem, according to Cockburn, is that the mind-body division has become so deeply entrenched and accepted by both parties.  Both the physicalist and the dualist view the ‘mind’ as that part of the person in which thought, emotion, and sensation take place.  The ‘body’ is viewed as all the rest:  the organic, but ‘mechanical’, part of the person, which can be adequately characterized in the terms of natural science.  Cockburn argues that, “The mind-brain identity thesis simply takes over the mind/body distinction as it is understood by Descartes”(96).  And according to such a distinction, the ‘body’—what we see when we look at another human being—is clearly not the entity that feels pains, gets angry, and so on.  He goes on to argue that the dispute between materialists and dualists is simply a dispute about whether ‘the mind’—understood as the bit that does feel pain, get angry or think about philosophy—is just another material object or whether it is an entity of a quite different, non-material, kind.   It’s this shared assumption, Cockburn believes, that has set much of contemporary philosophy off its rightful course:  “I am inclined to think that what the largest number of cleverest philosophers have being saying about ‘the mind’ over the last twenty or thirty years—while it includes material of great importance—bypasses many of the issues that have been central to traditional philosophical thought about human beings and their place in the world; and with that, bypasses a range of issues that might be of concern to a reflective person who looks to philosophy for some insight in this area”(viii). 

            A good subtitle to Cockburn’s book could be “Souls, Science and Human Beings.”   The first two categories represent the two approaches to the self that Cockburn rejects.  According to the first, what I essentially am is a non-material entity—a ‘mind’ or ‘soul’—which, while it in some sense inhabits this body for the period of my life as a human being, is quite distinct from it.  This, of course, is Descartes’ view.  And I agree with Cockburn that it should be rejected.  Not only has it been largely discredited by advances in the physical sciences, it has historically been plagued by the insurmountable difficulty of explaining how the two supposed substances of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ could interact at all.  It’s Cockburn’s treatment of the second approach that I take issue with.  For one, his statement of the approach is vague and ill defined.  In addition, it encompasses numerous positions that really need to be separated out and examined independently.  In the Preface, Cockburn defines the approach as follows:  ‘The second of my three approaches presents matters in this way, suggesting that it is to such sciences that we must look if we are to attain a proper understanding of what a person is:  the description of a person, and the explanations of her behavior, that are offered by physical science are the fundamental truth about what she is.  While in one of its forms this approach suggests that the mind is the brain and that mental states are states of the brain, that familiar thought has, over the past thirty years, been modified in response to various objections”(vii).  Although Cockburn discusses some of these objections and modifications, it is here that I feel the book disappoints.  The philosophy of mind literature is full of various divergent accounts for what it means to say that the mind is the brain, and many of these accounts are conflated and given the same treatment by Cockburn.  Plus, non-reductive physicalist accounts are hardly given any treatment at all.  Any reader who turns to this book in hopes of becoming familiar with the leading positions, arguments, objections, and replies to the mind-body problem and related issues would be better suited looking elsewhere.  Two good suggestions are Jaegwon Kim’s Philosophy of Mind (1996), and David Braddon-Mitchell and Frank Jackson’s Philosophy of Mind and Cognition (1996). 

            In defense of Cockburn, his aim is not to give a survey of the literature but rather to develop a third alternative.  Cockburn argues that the terms in which we normally understand the ‘behavior’ of another are not those of the natural sciences.  “The language of ‘smiles’ and ‘angry glances’ has no place in physics as it is normally understood”(96).  He asks, then, in what sense can it be said that a proper description of what we see when we see another human being can be given entirely in terms of the language employed by the natural sciences?  As a third alternative, Cockburn suggests that it is the human being herself—not some part of her, or something that inhabits, and animates, her body—that thinks, gets angry, feels pains, and so on.  It is the human being that we pity, love or fear.  It is a central claim of the book that, to a large extent, what the other two alternatives share is more important than what they differ over.  Cockburn argues that these views share a distinctively sophisticated conception of ‘the mind’.  “They agree in the claim that the real me—the ‘mind’: the part that thinks, feels and so on—is something distinct from the bodily being that (brain surgeons aside!) others see or touch”(142-143).  They differ, he maintains, only in their views about the nature of this entity. 

            The alternative that Cockburn defends, which arises from the views of Wittgenstein, takes as primitive the human being and his/her behavior.  At the most primitive level, Cockburn argues, we do not ‘see’ others as simply mechanical systems.  Instead, we see the joy in another’s face, we see the anger in the other’s eyes, we see people laughing at jokes and writhing in agony, and so on.  We do not see flesh—i.e., a body—moving in certain ways, and on the basis of this ‘infer’ that there is here a joyful person, or ‘interpret’ this as a person in pain.  According to Cockburn, we see the joy in her face.  We see the pain in her grimaces and hear it in her cries.  And we see and hear these things, Cockburn maintains, in the sense that we respond to her with, for example, a smile, or with pity.  “The language in which we describe what we see is an expression of these responses to others:  responses that, Wittgenstein has suggested, we should not regard as standing in need of any general justification”(102).  

Although I find Cockburn’s alternative approach interesting, it’s unclear what his main thesis ultimately amounts to.  He leaves largely undeveloped his concept of a “human being.”  Are we to view this account as a form of behaviorism?  If not behaviorism, is it a form of non-reductive physicalism?  If neither of these, does it commit itself to a form of dualism?  Although Cockburn would reject such categories, it’s unclear how we are to understand such an alternative.  For example, it’s unclear how we are to read comments like the following:  “Now that research makes it clear, no doubt, that there is some kind of close connection between thought and what takes place in the brain; but that does not, by itself, show that it is brains, rather than human beings, that think”(109-110).  What exactly is the human being here?  Is it simply the body and it’s behavior?  Much more needs to be said before one could make full sense of a statement like this. 

I take it that Cockburn’s position comes closest to a form of behaviorism.  This comes out most clearly in his discussion of Alan Turing and John Searle’s views on whether machines can think.  He writes, “if one holds that the person is the human being, and that there is a link—of roughly the form suggested by Wittgenstein—between the idea of a creature as ‘thinking’ and that creature’s behaviour, then one will maintain that the way in which Turing and Searle set up the issue of ‘artificial intelligence’ is misconceived”(110).  It is misconceived, he argues, because it offer us a seriously improvised understanding of the ‘input’ and ‘output’ that it relevant to the claim that some creature is thinking.  

If I’m correct in viewing Cockburn’s positions as a form of behaviorism, then he has not really offered us a true viable alternative; for he would first need to overcome all the well know difficulties with such a position (a task, I believe, which is bound to fail!).  But if I’m mistaken, and Cockburn is suggesting something different, then it remains a mystery how we are to understand the proposal that the person is the human being.  And it’s unclear how such a proposal would help resolve any of the remaining difficulties that still confront the philosophy of mind.  In the end, I think the book fails to have a clear audience.  It’s not comprehensive enough, or diverse enough, in the positions it covers to serve as a good introduction to someone unfamiliar with the central issues in the philosophy of mind.  And it’s not powerful enough with regard to its positive proposal, due to its lack of detail and development, to be of any real interest to professionals.  


© 2002 Gregg Caruso


Gregg Caruso is currently finishing up his PhD in Philosophy at The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.