Monday, April 18, 2011

Mind-body problem and the nature of philosophy

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind-body problem and the nature of philosophy
Date: 23 January 2002 11:00

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 January, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What is Philosophy? Illustrate your answer using the example of the mind-body problem.'

Some philosophers are happy doing what they do without attempting to define it. In the heyday of Analytic philosophy, when people like Russell and Ayer were writing, there was widespread agreement among Anglo-American philosophers that philosophy is an activity of 'rational, conceptual investigation and analysis'. The philosopher deals with the mind-body problem by offering a conceptual analysis of mind or the mental, or of self or person.

The mind-body problem poses a difficulty for this approach. Why? Because it is a problem of metaphysics, indeed one of the fundamental problems of metaphysics. That is why for the die-hard analytic philosopher (the logical positivist Rudolph Carnap is perhaps the most famous proponent of this approach) is led to regard the mind-body question as a 'pseudo-problem'. The aim of philosophical analysis is to expose pseudo-problems, and so find a way to stop doing philosophy.

In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, the emphasis is much more on putting forward a foundational 'theory' of the mind, looking to find a way to mesh or reconcile scientific research in neurology and artificial intelligence with the pre-philosophical and pre-scientific view of 'folk psychology', as it is rather disparagingly called.

I was never gripped by the idea of philosophical analysis, nor am I gripped by the more recent approach, where philosophers would love to work alongside psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists (and do, at Sheffield). You would have gathered that much from the Mind program. I do, however, agree that philosophy is about 'questioning assumptions', or 'questioning the question'. But what exactly does that entail, in the case of the mind-body problem?

I have had two guiding ideas. The first, which I formulated as a graduate student, is that philosophy is a 'dialectic' which involves the diagnosis of 'metaphysical illusions'. My twin influences were Wittgenstein and Bradley. We are doing metaphysics, but it is a negative metaphysics which ruthlessly exposes false metaphysical ideas. These ideas are not accidents of history, but arise through the very nature of what it is to be human (hence the speculation that Martians might not be subject to these illusions).

By the time I came to write 'Naive Metaphysics', however, I realized that the most important of these so-called 'metaphysical illusions' - the 'I' illusion - was not going to go away merely by administering a strong dose of dialectic. This led to the view of philosophy, or metaphysics, as much closer to the way that the Presocratic philosophers conceived it. The aim of metaphysics is simply to describe reality, as it is; or the world as a world; a world which the subject producing the description stands in relation to, and therefore cannot eliminate themself from the description; for both aspects, self and world, are part of that total reality.

In your essay, you say all the things that should be said. There are points here and there where I can see that you have been influenced by reading the program. But I'm glad to say, not too far. My thoughts on the nature of philosophy are, I fully admit, half-baked, because I have never succeeded in solving, or even formulating, to my satisfaction, the fundamental problem of self and world. The definition of philosophy always comes after the fact. You look at a piece of successful philosophical investigation, and then try to formulate your philosophy of philosophy.

I am glad that we are in agreement that 'eliminative materialism goes to far'. You want to find room for our intuition of consciousness as an 'irreducibly first person phenomenon' and so do I. You would not be happy to be placed in the dualist camp. Neither would I. The question is, Where does that leave us? With an insoluble 'mystery'? I can't accept that, because it renders the philosophical project futile. There must be something to *say* about the mind-body question which is the right thing to say, which isn't just giving up on the problem. But I'm still looking for the right words.

All the best,

Geoffrey