Bertrand Russell – The Analysis of Mind

Excerpt from The Analysis of Mind (1921), Recent Criticisms of “Consciousness”

There are certain occurrences which we are in the habit of calling “mental.” Among these we may take as typical BELIEVING and DESIRING. The exact definition of the word “mental” will, I hope, emerge as the lectures proceed; for the present, I shall mean by it whatever occurrences would commonly be called mental.

I wish in these lectures to analyze as fully as I can what it is that really takes place when we, e.g. believe or desire. In this first lecture I shall be concerned to refute a theory which is widely held, and which I formerly held myself: the theory that the essence of everything mental is a certain quite peculiar something called “consciousness,” conceived either as a relation to objects, or as a pervading quality of psychical phenomena.

The reasons which I shall give against this theory will be mainly derived from previous authors. There are two sorts of reasons, which will divide my lecture into two parts:

(1) Direct reasons, derived from analysis and its difficulties;

(2) Indirect reasons, derived from observation of animals (comparative psychology) and of the insane and hysterical (psycho-analysis).

Jim Richard, "Studio (Head)"
Jim Richard, “Studio (Head)”

Few things are more firmly established in popular philosophy than the distinction between mind and matter. Those who are not professional metaphysicians are willing to confess that they do not know what mind actually is, or how matter is constituted; but they remain convinced that there is an impassable gulf between the two, and that both belong to what actually exists in the world. Philosophers, on the other hand, have maintained often that matter is a mere fiction imagined by mind, and sometimes that mind is a mere property of a certain kind of matter. Those who maintain that mind is the reality and matter an evil dream are called “idealists”—a word which has a different meaning in philosophy from that which it bears in ordinary life. Those who argue that matter is the reality and mind a mere property of protoplasm are called “materialists.” They have been rare among philosophers, but common, at certain periods, among men of science. Idealists, materialists, and ordinary mortals have been in agreement on one point: that they knew sufficiently what they meant by the words “mind” and “matter” to be able to conduct their debate intelligently. Yet it was just in this point, as to which they were at one, that they seem to me to have been all alike in error.

The stuff of which the world of our experience is composed is, in my belief, neither mind nor matter, but something more primitive than either. Both mind and matter seem to be composite, and the stuff of which they are compounded lies in a sense between the two, in a sense above them both, like a common ancestor. As regards matter, I have set forth my reasons for this view on former occasions, and I shall not now repeat them. But the question of mind is more difficult, and it is this question that I propose to discuss in these lectures. A great deal of what I shall have to say is not original; indeed, much recent work, in various fields, has tended to show the necessity of such theories as those which I shall be advocating. Accordingly in this first lecture I shall try to give a brief description of the systems of ideas within which our investigation is to be carried on. 

If there is one thing that may be said, in the popular estimation, to characterize mind, that one thing is “consciousness.” We say that we are “conscious” of what we see and hear, of what we remember, and of our own thoughts and feelings. Most of us believe that tables and chairs are not “conscious.” We think that when we sit in a chair, we are aware of sitting in it, but it is not aware of being sat in. It cannot for a moment be doubted that we are right in believing that there is SOME difference between us and the chair in this respect: so much may be taken as fact, and as a datum for our inquiry. But as soon as we try to say what exactly the difference is, we become involved in perplexities. Is “consciousness” ultimate and simple, something to be merely accepted and contemplated? Or is it something complex, perhaps consisting in our way of behaving in the presence of objects, or, alternatively, in the existence in us of things called “ideas,” having a certain relation to objects, though different from them, and only symbolically representative of them? Such questions are not easy to answer; but until they are answered we cannot profess to know what we mean by saying that we are possessed of “consciousness.”

Before considering modern theories, let us look first at consciousness from the standpoint of conventional psychology, since this embodies views which naturally occur when we begin to reflect upon the subject. For this purpose, let us as a preliminary consider different ways of being conscious.

First, there is the way of PERCEPTION. We “perceive” tables and chairs, horses and dogs, our friends, traffic passing in the street—in short, anything which we recognize through the senses. I leave on one side for the present the question whether pure sensation is to be regarded as a form of consciousness: what I am speaking of now is perception, where, according to conventional psychology, we go beyond the sensation to the “thing” which it represents. When you hear a donkey bray, you not only hear a noise, but realize that it comes from a donkey. When you see a table, you not only see a coloured surface, but realize that it is hard. The addition of these elements that go beyond crude sensation is said to constitute perception. We shall have more to say about this at a later stage. For the moment, I am merely concerned to note that perception of objects is one of the most obvious examples of what is called “consciousness.” We are “conscious” of anything that we perceive.

We may take next the way of MEMORY. If I set to work to recall what I did this morning, that is a form of consciousness different from perception, since it is concerned with the past. There are various problems as to how we can be conscious now of what no longer exists. These will be dealt with incidentally when we come to the analysis of memory.

From memory it is an easy step to what are called “ideas”—not in the Platonic sense, but in that of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, in which they are opposed to “impressions.” You may be conscious of a friend either by seeing him or by “thinking” of him; and by “thought” you can be conscious of objects which cannot be seen, such as the human race, or physiology. “Thought” in the narrower sense is that form of consciousness which consists in “ideas” as opposed to impressions or mere memories.

We may end our preliminary catalogue with BELIEF, by which I mean that way of being conscious which may be either true or false. We say that a man is “conscious of looking a fool,” by which we mean that he believes he looks a fool, and is not mistaken in this belief. This is a different form of consciousness from any of the earlier ones. It is the form which gives “knowledge” in the strict sense, and also error. It is, at least apparently, more complex than our previous forms of consciousness; though we shall find that they are not so separable from it as they might appear to be.

Besides ways of being conscious there are other things that would ordinarily be called “mental,” such as desire and pleasure and pain. These raise problems of their own, which we shall reach in Lecture III. But the hardest problems are those that arise concerning ways of being “conscious.” These ways, taken together, are called the “cognitive” elements in mind, and it is these that will occupy us most during the following lectures.

There is one element which SEEMS obviously in common among the different ways of being conscious, and that is, that they are all directed to OBJECTS. We are conscious “of” something. The consciousness, it seems, is one thing, and that of which we are conscious is another thing. Unless we are to acquiesce in the view that we can never be conscious of anything outside our own minds, we must say that the object of consciousness need not be mental, though the consciousness must be. (I am speaking within the circle of conventional doctrines, not expressing my own beliefs.) This direction towards an object is commonly regarded as typical of every form of cognition, and sometimes of mental life altogether. We may distinguish two different tendencies in traditional psychology. There are those who take mental phenomena naively, just as they would physical phenomena. This school of psychologists tends not to emphasize the object. On the other hand, there are those whose primary interest is in the apparent fact that we have KNOWLEDGE, that there is a world surrounding us of which we are aware. These men are interested in the mind because of its relation to the world, because knowledge, if it is a fact, is a very mysterious one. Their interest in psychology is naturally centered in the relation of consciousness to its object, a problem which, properly, belongs rather to theory of knowledge. We may take as one of the best and most typical representatives of this school the Austrian psychologist Brentano, whose “Psychology from the Empirical Standpoint,”* though published in 1874, is still influential and was the starting-point of a great deal of interesting work. He says:

Every psychical phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (also the mental) inexistence of an object, and what we, although with not quite unambiguous expressions, would call relation to a content, direction towards an object (which is not here to be understood as a reality), or immanent objectivity. Each contains something in itself as an object, though not each in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is acknowledged or rejected, in love something is loved, in hatred hated, in desire desired, and so on.

This intentional inexistence is exclusively peculiar to psychical phenomena. No physical phenomenon shows anything similar. And so we can define psychical phenomena by saying that they are phenomena which intentionally contain an object in themselves.

The view here expressed, that relation to an object is an ultimate irreducible characteristic of mental phenomena, is one which I shall be concerned to combat. Like Brentano, I am interested in psychology, not so much for its own sake, as for the light that it may throw on the problem of knowledge. Until very lately I believed, as he did, that mental phenomena have essential reference to objects, except possibly in the case of pleasure and pain. Now I no longer believe this, even in the case of knowledge. I shall try to make my reasons for this rejection clear as we proceed. It must be evident at first glance that the analysis of knowledge is rendered more difficult by the rejection; but the apparent simplicity of Brentano’s view of knowledge will be found, if I am not mistaken, incapable of maintaining itself either against an analytic scrutiny or against a host of facts in psycho-analysis and animal psychology. I do not wish to minimize the problems. I will merely observe, in mitigation of our prospective labors, that thinking, however it is to be analyzed, is in itself a delightful occupation, and that there is no enemy to thinking so deadly as a false simplicity. Traveling, whether in the mental or the physical world, is a joy, and it is good to know that, in the mental world at least, there are vast countries still very imperfectly explored.

First published by Project Gutenberg, December 2008.

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