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Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction
Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction

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3 Varieties of mental phenomena

We have been considering, in a very general and highly speculative way, what kinds of creatures have minds and wondering what these minds might be like. In doing so, we have made reference to various features or elements of mentality, such as thought, sensation, perception, imagination and emotion. These things seem to be typical examples of mentality. But what else counts as mental?

Activity 2

List as many different kinds of mental phenomena as you can, trying to cover as wide a spectrum of mentality as possible. (The reasons you gave for thinking various things had minds in the previous activity will be of use here.) After you have done this, group the items on your list into larger classes of mental phenomena (for example, anger and joy are both emotions, and seeing and hearing are both perceptions.)


Here are some of the kinds of things that might have appeared on your list, grouped into seven classes:

  • Cognition/intellection: belief, knowledge, thought, rationality, judgement, inference, deduction, proof, explanation, recognition, realisation, memory.

  • Conation/volition/motivation: will, intention, purpose, desire, choice, decision, trying, action (in the sense of doing something, such as walking or waving).

  • Perception seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, kinaesthesia (the sense of bodily motion, as when we know our legs or fingers or tongue are moving just by feeling them move ‘from the inside’), proprioception (the sense of bodily position, as when we know whether we are upright or horizontal).

  • Sensation: pain (burns, stings, bites, headaches, cuts, toe stubbings, etc.), nausea, tiredness, orgasm, dizziness, numbness, tickles, itches, hangover.

  • Imagination: imaging, day-dreaming, supposing, hallucinating, creating, inventing, pretending, fantasising, making-believe, seeing-as (e.g. seeing a cloud as a face).

  • Emotion/mood: anger, jealousy, fear, love, joy, sorrow, admiration, hate, envy, disgust, panic, happiness, sadness, embarrassment, irritation, amusement, lust.

  • Character/personality: arrogance, modesty, pride, vanity, generosity, cleverness, wittiness, shyness.

No doubt alternative categorisations are possible and the categories in which I have placed various putative mental phenomena are somewhat arbitrary. They are one way of initially slicing up the mental pie and this division has been done with an eye on the philosophical issues and problems to be discussed in what follows. There are lots of things that do not fit neatly into any of these categories – hope, expectation, wonder, fascination and dreaming, for example. Some of these may well be in some sense combinations of more primitive and simpler cognitive and conative elements, though we will not pursue such an analysis here. It is tempting to put dreaming under the category of imagination. I have resisted this because the imagination seems largely under our control while dreaming clearly is not. Nor is dreaming a straightforward case of sensation or perception since we do not actually sense or perceive the things we dream of. Perhaps dreaming is an eighth category of mentation unto itself.

It is important to note too that the categories probably overlap to a great extent. Emotions are particularly tricky in this regard: many appear to have cognitive, conative and sensational elements. Fear, for example, is usually accompanied by a distinctive kind of unpleasant feeling; but it also has a cognitive component – a judgement about the dangerousness of something – and a conative component – the desire that the thing in question not happen. But it is doubtful that every emotion is simply a separable combination of judgement, desire and sensation. There seems to be something singular about emotions, which prevents an easy analysis of them in terms of other mentalistic categories, even though they involve features common to mental phenomena of other categories. Some emotions, in fact, such as fear, may be among the most phylogenetically and ontogenetically primitive of mental states. Moreover, the boundary between emotions, moods and sensations is probably not very precise. What kind of mental phenomenon is sympathy, for example, or surprise? I have put both under the heading of ‘emotion’ but on the face of it they seem to have cognitive, conative and sensational elements.

In short, the categories are intended to be neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive; they are a way of achieving the generality required in order to pursue a philosophical investigation into the mind. They may need to be revised in the light of further investigation. We may even have to contemplate the possibility that not all of our mental concepts are fully coherent. Moreover, it may well be that not all of them refer to processes or events or states in the same way, or to the same degree or even at all. Dreaming, for example, exhibits a certain peculiarity. On the one hand, we tend to think that people who are asleep are unconscious; when they wake up they come back into consciousness. On the other hand, we also want to say that dreaming is an example of our consciousness in action, since there seems to be some sense in which we are aware of what is going on in us during our dreams.

This brings us to a final point. Neither consciousness nor experience appears on my list (though they may well have appeared on yours). This may seem odd since they are quintessentially mental phenomena. The reason for their absence is that they are terms even more general than the seven categories above. Indeed, some philosophers think, as Descartes seems to have, that the entire mental realm is itself the realm of consciousness and experience. We need not accept this view, however, to admit that experience is an even more general category than the seven, for it is clear that it encompasses many of the mental phenomena grouped under the various categories. Perceiving, sensing, thinking; having an emotion or being in a certain kind mood – these are all different kinds of experience. An experience is an occurrence that we undergo and for any experience, there is always, in the words of the contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel (b.1937), ‘something it is like’ to have that experience. In other words, experiences have a distinctive kind of phenomenology. When I gaze upon a sunset, for example, I have a certain kind of experience, a visual experience. If I close my eyes, or don a pair of sunglasses, my visual experience, what things are like for me visually, changes; when I open my eyes or remove the sunglasses my visual experience is transformed again. It is important, however, not to restrict the notion of phenomenology to the having of sensory experience, for there is equally something it is like simply to be thinking about things, as the insomniac knows all too well. It is important too, always to pay close attention to how mental terms are used. Some philosophers use the term ‘experience’ in a way that does not imply any phenomenology, any ‘what-it-is-likeness’, and when they want to talk about experiences that do have a phenomenology they say ‘conscious experience’. In this course I shall always use the term ‘experience’ to imply phenomenology and use the phrase ‘conscious experience’ as merely an emphatic pleonasm for ‘experience’.

What is the connection between consciousness and experience? This is a difficult question, not only because ‘consciousness’, like ‘mental’, is an exceedingly slippery term meaning different things to different people, but also because even if we manage to settle on one meaning of the term there are still radically divergent opinions about the nature of consciousness, given the univocal meaning in question. If a being is conscious, in one common sense of the term ‘conscious’, then it must be having some kind of (sensory or cognitive) experience with a distinctive phenomenology. To be a conscious being is necessarily to be an experiencing being. After all, it does not seem possible for one to be conscious but to be experiencing nothing (O'Shaughessy 2000, p. 38). The converse may not hold, however: it may be possible to be experiencing something when one is not conscious. Herein may lie the beginnings of an answer to our earlier conundrum about dreaming: perhaps dreams are experiences we have when we are not conscious. Just what we need to add to bare experience to get consciousness is a deep and difficult question that we cannot pursue here. It is important, however, to distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness. As the term suggests, ‘self-consciousness’ is, roughly speaking, one's consciousness of one's own experience or of one's own self, or the ability to become so conscious. Thus, when I am self-conscious, I attend to my own experiences and think about myself. I may notice that my eyesight is getting worse or I may wonder whether I am really any good at philosophy. The distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness allows us to say, plausibly, that some animals are conscious but not self-conscious; that is, they have experiences, whether of their own bodily states or external goings-on, but cannot reflect upon their own experiences.