The human mind is a moving target. We might trick ourselves into believing it is a thing, with a definite nature and a set of properties to call its own, but in fact the mind is always under construction. At an early age, we begin to learn what to say about our minds – I see, I understand, I don’t get it, I feel confused, part of me thinks so, but another part isn’t so sure … – and, depending on the feedback we get from our conversational partners, we are brought into a general conformity with the rest of our culture. But that whole culture says what it says about our minds because of a long development of literature, philosophy, art, and science. Mind is about as much of a thing as art is. And, like art, part of what mind is depends on the things we say when we start talking about what mind is. With mind, as with quantum mechanics and the interpretation of novels, what we see depends a lot on what we are looking for.
Consider the greatest mind thingifier of all time, Descartes. When he meditates in his stove-heated room and finds that he is because he thinks, he is only one half step away from declaring that the mind is an independently existing substance, res cogitans. About a century later, when David Hume looked inward, he found only a scattering of impressions and memories with no thing at the base to serve as their foundation. Hume had read Descartes, but he had also read Locke’s skeptical treatment of selves and souls, and had very likely also been speaking with a Jesuit who had recently returned from Japan with insights from Buddhism. A couple of generations later, Fichte and Hegel had realized that humans work out who they are as individuals in communication with others, and by recognizing their place within a social and political structure. The self is a social construction – not discovered on one’s own in a stove-heated room. And later on, Nietzsche, Freud, and Joyce all begin to suspect that the mind is spun from the warp and woof of grammar: our words make us. And, needless to say, they did not believe that language issued from the grand sense of social purpose that fuelled the idealists’ views of mind.
We inherit all these views, and others. When the clutter of life abates we think about who we really are. In the throes of struggle, we know too well the jumbled feelings and impressions that surface. In heartfelt conversations, we hear ourselves putting our selves into words that seem both disingenuous and also the sorts of things we are expected to say. And when we turn to write an essay on what mind is, we can’t resist giving the concept a starring role in some long developmental story.