The mind, as under construction

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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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4 Responses to The mind, as under construction

  1. Had an interesting discussion with Jane, about introverts hide to “contemplate life”, extroverts get into groups to “comtemplate life”. Descartes strikes me as an introvert, I wonder about the others.

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    • Huenemann says:

      I think no philosopher can be an extrovert!

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    • I think pretty much anyone, and especially a philosopher, would be better off as a good mixture of both. Introversion and extroversion are related to the amount of external stimulation someone prefers, and in order to need mental stimulation, one must engage with the outside world and then experience a time of low external stimulation. Needing high levels of stimulation is generally associated with being social and outgoing, and I’ve read that people who grew up in loud or more aggressive households tend to be more talkative. But in order to have a need to think, one must experience things which leave a void to be filled with thought, and in order for that thought to occur, there must be intervals of low stimulation which allow the impressions of the mind to arise. I think being too afraid of either high or low levels of stimulation is a hindrance to creativity and thought.

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      • Huenemann says:

        The best version I’ve heard of the intro/extro distinction asks which sort of mode people find more refreshing, and which more taxing. I think philosophers will generally find introverted activities more rewarding, and extraverted activities as something to escape from as soon as is convenient. But you are right that a real life has to have both, in reasonable measures.

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