Review of Minds, Brains and People by T. E. Wilkerson
Hinton (J.M.)
Source: Philosophy, Vol. 50, No. 192 (Apr., 1975), pp. 246-248
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  1. The general view Wilkerson takes is that man should for scientific, but not for philosophical, purposes be seen as continuous with the rest of nature. Throughout, he refers to physicalism based on the identity theory as an instance of revisionary metaphysics. He might be taken to mean that every psycho-physical identity statement is conceptually revisionary in intention. It is not what he says; I will mention a reason why it would not be true. It would overlook the kind of identity-statement led up to by the kind of paraphrase – originating in Smart and discussed by Deutscher, Medlin, Armstrong et al. – in which a topic-neutral component like 'all' or 'some' occurs on the right-hand side. Take the suggestion that 'Bill is short-tempered' ordinarily means not 'Bill tends to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation' but 'Bill is constituted in some way that is in some sense inner, a way such that everything so constituted tends to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation'. Unsurprisingly, a philosopher who takes this view of the ordinary meaning thinks that (the property of) being short-tempered may well turn out to be (that of) being in a certain physiological state that is as yet unidentified. Given, then, that a particular psycho-physical identity claim need not be conceptually revisionary, one can only wonder as to the exact reason for Wilkerson's, as distinct from another thinker's, confidence that a comprehensive physicalism must be conceptually revisionary. Perhaps it must, but he gives no reason for thinking so, though if it is not so the whole structure of the book collapses.
  2. While rejecting a comprehensive physicalism – not because it is revisionary but for other reasons, which we shall come to – Wilkerson himself accepts two large batches of psycho-physical identity-claims, including all those that relate to inner events and dispositional states. This is because he accepts, in their case, the argument from Occam's razor, in the form that what he calls the 'hypothesis' of there being but the one event or state under two descriptions is simpler than that of there being two, while it performs the same function perfectly adequately. The function apparently is that of giving content to the Correspondence Hypothesis, which says there is a true psycho-physical biconditional in every relevant instance. But surely the Correspondence Hypothesis already has content. To apply the principle of preferring the simplest explanation here, you would have inter alia to find something that the particular identity-claim and duality-claim both explain. I cannot find anything that either explains.
  3. Wilkerson's three main objections to comprehensive philosophical physicalism are in Chapter 7. Physicalism cannot produce a coherent analysis of action- and intention-predicates, it cannot cope with the problem of intentionality, and it fails even to construct a physicalist concept of a person that confines itself to Humean materials. I will talk about the first two objections. The first eventually settles down, after certain vagaries, into the familiar observation that a given action can take any one of an indefinite number of physical forms and is made the action it is partly by contextual factors, often involving some normative rule's being obeyed or broken. Wilkerson infers that in most cases, and very obviously in what you might call grossly multiform cases like that of insulting someone, no finite extensional equivalent for an action-predicate could be composed in natural-scientific terms. He allows as possible exceptions cases like sitting down at a demonstration. I am not sure what his thought is here. Perhaps it is this; that keeping still for some purpose would be motionlessness plus an intention, so that if you could physicalize the intention – as he goes on to say you cannot – then, so to speak, the rest would be easy. While in contrast when Wilkerson surveys the various forms of motion (and, I would add, rest) that can be involved in insulting someone, he seems to see a physicalist who is trying to complete the construction of an infinite disjunction1. I doubt if there is much in that, and cannot help wondering whether Wilkerson has forgotten something that connects with my earlier point about topic-neutral paraphrases: the extensional equivalent could involve a quantification over predicates. In the case of 'Bob insulted someone', it might be 'Bob had the intention to insult, and was in some form of motion or rest that expressed the intention'. Problems doubtless remain, but I am talking about Wilkerson's picture of an incompletable disjunction2.
  4. Still under the heading of his first main argument Wilkerson proceeds to a criticism of Armstrong on intention, and here I find him just provoking without being thought-provoking. After a muddled passage about in common and peculiar, the criticism seems to reduce itself to the assertion that it is difficult to see how there could be a natural-scientific condition that was peculiar as well as common to all cases of intending to be Prime Minister. I do not find it difficult to see how there could be one, though I would like to feel critically happier about my lifelong conviction that there must be one.
  5. Wilkerson's discussion of intentionality is not made easier to follow by a printer's or typist's mix-up at the bottom of p. 147. (The preface thanks the typist 'who typed so beautifully', without introducing the still more original practice of thanking the printers, but I do not know whether one can safely use this to allocate blame here.) That is a minor annoyance, but Wilkerson kindly constructs for the physicalist, as a preliminary to refutation, a step by step 'analysis' of a curious and ambiguous intentional sentence – 'A thought about a unicorn intends a unicorn'. Now it is my sincere belief that the 'analysis' will, even after prolonged study, have less meaning for most sensible people who are interested in logical matters than some of the lengthier observations of schizophrenic patients quoted by Kraepelin and Cameron. Where Wilkerson's refutation of the 'analysis' is concerned, one is in a different position. It seems a sane enough jumble of truths and possible truths together with what might well be one falsehood; namely that the above-mentioned ambiguous intentional sentence is non-vacuous. I suppose it is either vacuous or else both false-to-the-best-of-our-knowledge-and-belief and functionless; in which latter case any functionless falsehood will do as its functional equivalent. Why Wilkerson did not select a sensible example of an intentional sentence at this crucial point I do not know: his not doing so has made for what is not, apart from a paragraph or two, a good discussion of intentionality.
  6. The book is a curate's egg, to adopt a little of the author's traditional English humour. And in that it is like most of its kind, our logico-linguistic efforts. I have had to indicate some of the bad parts but it is worth reading.


Review of "Wilkerson (T.E.) - Minds, Brains and People".

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