Souls, Minds, Bodies and Planets
Midgley (Mary)
Source: Anthony O’Hear (ed.), Philosophy, Biology, and Life: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements / Volume 56 / December 2005, pp. 83-104
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. What does it mean to say that we have got a mind-body problem? Do we need to think of our inner and outer lives as two separate items between which business must somehow be transacted, rather than as aspects of a whole person?
  2. Dualist talk assumes that we already have before us two separate things which we don’t see how to connect. This is a seventeenth-century way of seeing the problem. It is tied to views in physics and many other topics that we no longer hold.
  3. ‘Mind’ and ‘matter’, conceived as separate in this way, are extreme abstractions. These are terms that were deliberately designed by thinkers like Descartes to be mutually exclusive and incompatible, which is why they are so hard to bring together now. In Descartes’ time, their separation was intended as quarantine to separate the new, burgeoning science of physics from views on other matters with which it might clash. It was also part of a much older, more general attempt to separate Reason from Feeling and establish Reason as the dominant partner, Feeling being essentially just part of the body. That is why, during the Enlightenment, the word ‘soul’ has been gradually replaced by ‘mind’, and the word ‘mind’ has been narrowed from its ordinary use (‘I don’t mind’ … ‘I’ve a good mind to do it’) to a strictly cognitive meaning.
  4. That was the background against which philosophers designed the separation of soul and body. And they saw it as an answer to a vast metaphysical question of a kind which we would surely now consider ill-framed. This was still the question that the pre-Socratic thinkers had originally asked; ‘What basic stuff is the whole world made of?’ The dualist reply was that there was not just one such stuff but two — mind and body.
  5. In the seventeenth century, hugely ambitious questions like this were much in favour. Perhaps because of the appalling political confusions of that age, seventeenth-century thinkers were peculiarly determined to impose order by finding simple, final answers to vast questions through pure logic, before examining the complexity of the facts. In philosophy, as in politics, they liked rulings to be absolute. The grand rationalist structures that they built — including this one — supplied essential elements of our tradition. But there are limits to their usefulness. We do not have to start our enquiries from this remote distance. When we find the rationalist approach unhelpful we can ago away and try something else.

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