The Character of Mind

Concept Note

The human mind has been the subject of philosophical and scientific speculation for many millennia. Early modern ‘natural philosophers’ targeted the mind’s ‘cognoscitive powers’. Before that, ancient Greek philosophers were fascinated by specifically human domains of knowledge such as arithmetic, music, and geometry. Still before that, Panini, himself based on yet earlier traditions, inaugurated the formal study of universal structures of human grammar. Only 50 years ago, the study of the mind was christened a ‘science’: ‘cognitive science’. What has it revealed, and does a specific concept of mind, new or old, emerge from it? Has knowledge of the character of mind truly increased, ever since its systematic study began? Have we truly accessed the domain of the mental, or are we forever targeting only its outer manifestations, that is, complex human behaviour in socio-cultural contexts? Do we know which kind of data would be relevant to an actual theory of mind? Are these questions ill-formed or premature?

Partly independently of the developments in cognitive science, some of these questions were in fact addressed as analytic philosophers inaugurated the discipline of the ‘philosophy of mind’ more than a century ago. Major philosophical paradigms in thinking about the mind—functionalism, eliminativism, materialism, and dualism—have long been formulated. By now, discussions and arguments have become ever more intricate and arcane, yet an overarching consensus on the character of mind, as well as a strategic direction, appears to be missing.

We aim to bring together philosophers and scientists to review what has been achieved, with a view to linking the development of cognitive science in the 20th century with the earliest efforts that humans have made to understand their mental life.  In effect, we wish to explore the agenda for a ‘new’ philosophy of mind in light of what has been learnt from cognitive science.

Some Sub-themes

To achieve some focus on this vast territory, for now we restrict attention to developments in language theory and the notion of mind that seems to underlie there. We can then ask how much of the classical concerns in the domain of the mental in fact coherently fit the grammatical conception of mind. This issue has at least four major parts.

First, are we in a position to formulate the grammatical conception of mind, say as a specific computational/generative system? How do the current paradigms in (analytical) philosophy of mind, such as functionalism, fare with respect to this conception? We would also want to know how this conception relates to those underlying classical conceptions of language/grammar in the Paninian, Aristotelian and Cartesian traditions. 

Second, which other cognitive systems—classically falling under the domain of the mental—are likely to be covered by the conception of mind emanating from the study of language? Since studies on language and vision are the more advanced areas in cognitive science, we might ask: does the preceding conception of mind extend to the visual system, and to the domain of perceptual systems in general? Does it extend to the so-called language-like systems of music, arithmetic, and logic?

Third,  with a restricted conception of mind in hand, we would want to know if we can make sense of non-linguistic thoughts (or thoughts without language) as falling in the domain of the mental. Supposing there to be a case for non-linguistic thoughts—especially for nonhuman animals—which conception of mind is required to capture that domain, if at all? (‘if at all’ because we might not want to view animal ‘thoughts’ as requiring a concept of mind at all)

Fourth, how does the grammatical notion of mind address the issue of ‘Thinking Matter’—the presence of thought in a physical world? For example, does the conception of mind in hand cover the phenomenon of consciousness which is supposed to be a paradigmatic aspect of the mental since Descartes? In other words, is consciousness—certainly shared with nonhuman animals—a mental phenomenon at all from the perspective of the grammatical mind?

We emphasise two related aspects of this project: (a) it is foundational in character, (b) it is to be pursued basically as a review of contemporary philosophical and (cognitive) scientific literature from the perspective as described. In that sense, the conference is less concerned with cutting edge results in language theory, vision, music, and the like, and more with how the existing body of results cohere around a concept of mind.

To that end, “The Character of Mind” is a good title for a new textbook in the philosophy of mind. It could be at once metaphysical, empirical, and historical in nature, covering ancient as well as modern traditions as outlined. Thus, there would be state of the art chapters on each of the relevant issues which would actually be written by the contributors to this event.