This is Philosophy of Mind
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This is Philosophy of Mind

An Introduction

Pete Mandik

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eBook - ePub

This is Philosophy of Mind

An Introduction

Pete Mandik

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About This Book

This is Philosophy of Mind presents students of philosophy with an accessible introduction to the core issues related to the philosophy of mind.

  • Includes issues related to the mind-body problem, artificial intelligence, free will, the nature of consciousness, and more
  • Written to be accessible to philosophy students early in their studies
  • Features supplemental online resources on and a frequently updated companion blog, at
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Meet Your Mind
Unless you've lost your mind, or never had one in the first place, likely you'll agree that your mind is a pretty special part of you. Maybe, even, your mind is all that you are—maybe you're nothing but a mind. Maybe that's too extreme, but you do have to admit that your mind is an excellent candidate for your single most defining feature. It's certainly a much better candidate for the seat of your you-ness than your foot, your liver, or your haircut. So what is this special thing, this mind of yours? In this chapter we'll examine some of the main aspects of the mind that philosophers have been interested in. We'll also look at some of the main philosophical problems concerning the mind.

Aspects of Mind

Because you have a mind, there are certain special things you can do. You can think and perceive. You can enjoy and you can suffer. You can learn from the past and plan for the future. You can make choices. You can spring into action. You can dream.
Because you have a mind, there are special things that you have. You have beliefs. You have feelings. You have mental images. You have memories. You have the reasons for the way that you act.

Thought and experience

Stop and attend to your mind right now. What do you notice about your own mind? What's in it that isn't in your foot, your liver, or your haircut? One striking collection of items populating your mental landscape is your experiences, especially your sensory experiences. You see colors and shapes. You hear noises and melodies. You feel textures and temperatures. Further, you have experiences besides those that are straightforwardly sensory. You experience a faint twinge of anxiety or are overcome by an intense dread. These are your emotional experiences.
In addition to your experiences, when you attend to your mind you may notice various thoughts that you have. You are thinking when you believe that there are leftovers in the fridge, wonder whether the weather will be nice tomorrow, or doubt that you will win a million dollars. Beliefs, judgments, and doubts are kinds of thoughts.
Like philosophy in general, philosophy of mind is rife with controversy. One sort of controversy concerns the view that our mental states may be sorted into the experiences and the thoughts. Are these groups too few? Perhaps there is more to the mind than thoughts and experiences. Perhaps mental images or emotions are neither thoughts nor experiences. Another perspective is that sorting mental states into thoughts and experiences is to create more groups than there really are. Maybe all mental states are really a kind of experience. Or, instead, all are just thoughts. We will return to such controversies later. Suffice for now to say that the most widely held view on this matter is that there are both thoughts and experiences and there may be other sorts of mental states as well.

Conscious and unconscious

At least since the time of Freud, if not earlier, people have been familiar with the idea that some of our mental states occur unconsciously, while others occur consciously. Freudian psychologists sought to explain much human behavior in terms of unconscious desires such as the unconscious desire to kill one of your parents and have sex with the other one. Perhaps another example of the unconscious is the unconscious knowledge that guides an expert as they hit a tennis ball or play a musical instrument. They aren't consciously thinking of what they're doing, and when they do try to consciously attend to, for instance, what comes next in the music that they are performing, this act of consciousness makes them make a mistake.
In contrast to such unconscious mental states there are, of course, the conscious ones. Consider your experience of the words that you are reading right now. In attending deliberately to the words on the screen or page you consciously experience the way they look (or feel, if you are reading this in Braille).


One fascinating aspect of our mental states, an aspect mostly associated with our conscious sensory states, is something that philosophers call a quale (singular, pronounced KWAH-LAY) and qualia (plural, pronounced KWAH-LEE-AH). The word “qualia” comes from the Latin for “qualities,” and philosophers of mind reserve the term for special qualities of mental states. One important phrase that helps philosophers of mind convey the idea of qualia is the phrase “what it's like.” Consider the question of what it's like to see red as opposed to seeing blue. Imagine the difficulty in explaining to someone who has been blind their whole life what it's like to see red. Would it really suffice to describe it as like seeing something warm or seeing something that makes people hungry? Or instead must such descriptions necessarily leave something out? Consider the philosophers' puzzle of the inverted spectrum: Is it possible that what it's like for you to see red is the same as what it's like for me to see green and vice versa? These are difficult philosophical questions. Anyway, the main point for now is that insofar as you followed this brief discussion employing the phrase “what it's like” in connection with conscious sensory experiences, you have a feel for what qualia are. Qualia are the subjective aspects of experiences, the aspects of what it's like to have experiences.

Sensory perception

It's difficult to deny the importance of sensory perception. One old and influential philosophical position, empiricism, even goes so far as to hold sensory perception to be the source of all our ideas and knowledge: Nothing gets in the mind without first getting in the senses.
Saying what makes sensory perceptions distinctive is an interesting philosophical problem. What serves to distinguish, say, visually perceiving a cat from merely thinking about a cat? One sort of answer to this question is that in the case of perception there must be a direct sort of causal interaction between the perceiver and the thing perceived whereas there need not be such interaction between a thinker and the thing thought about. You can think about things that are too small or too far way to have noticeable effects on you, but noticeable effects are a requirement on the perception of perceptible objects.


Emotions are a very interesting sort of mental state. Consider thinking, without having any emotional reaction one way or another, that there is a dog in the room. Now compare this to being angry or being happy that there is a dog in the room. What differentiates the mere thought from the anger or the happiness? In the case of anger we might be tempted to say there's something intrinsically negative in it, whereas the mere thought is neither positive nor negative. There's something to this suggestion, but it seems not enough. The fear that there's a dog in the room is negative too, but it doesn't seem to be exactly the same sort of thing as anger. So there must be more to these negative emotions than simply adding some negativity to otherwise neutral thoughts.


Here's an exercise of imagination. Imagine a capital letter “J” and a capital letter “D.” Now imagine that the letter “D” is rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise and placed on top of the “J.” Now answer this question: What common object does the resulting figure resemble? If you answered “umbrella” you've thereby demonstrated the power of mental imagery. The word “imagery” is closely associated with things of a visual nature, but there can also be nonvisual mental imagery. It thus makes sense to talk about forming mental images of smells or imagining hearing certain sounds. One thing that's interesting about mental imagery is the way it seems to sit astride the contrast we drew earlier between thoughts and sensory experiences. Images are more similar to sense experiences in some ways and more similar to thoughts in others.
Let us note now a similarity that thoughts and images share that distinguishes each from sensory perception. We can exert a kind of direct control on our thoughts and images that we cannot exert on what we perceive. Suppose you see a red stop sign. While you can easily imagine or think about the stop sign as being some other color, you cannot simply choose to perceive the red stop sign as green. If you wanted to see it as green, you'd have to exert some indirect control on your perception, like painting the sign green.

Will and action

We have, so far, contrasted thoughts and experiences, conscious states and unconscious states, perception and imagery. Here's another contrast of special importance: It's the contrast between what happens to us and what we do. Where perceptions and experiences are things that happen to us, action and will clearly concerns what we do. One way in which some philosophers have sought to explain the difference between what we do and what merely happens to us is by making reference to a special faculty of will, a faculty by means of which events are caused that count as actions we've performed instead mere happenings that occur.


Consider the following questions that concern personal identity: Who are you? What distinguishes you from other people? What sort of thing is a person? What distinguishes people from mere objects?
Some have sought to answer such questions by referring to a certain kind of entity—a self. What is a self? It's what makes you a somebody instead of nobody at all, a person instead of a mere object. And it's what serves to distinguish you from everybody else. Some philosophers have denied that there is any such thing as a self. The philosopher David Hume, being an empiricist, stressed the grounding of what we know in what we can perceive with the senses. Some think of the self as the thing that has experiences, a thing separate from the experiences themselves. But Hume invites us to pay close attention to our experiences and notice that all we are able to attend to are the experiences themselves, for instance, an experience of heat, of color, or of shape. Try as we might, looking inward, we never catch a glimpse of any entity doing the glimpsing—we find only what is glimpsed. Perhaps, then, the self is nothing at all.

Propositional attitudes

One way in which philosophers think about certain mental states, especially mental states such as beliefs and desires, is as what philosophers call “propositional attitudes.” When a person has a propositional attitude, there is a proposition—roughly, a declarative sentence, a sentence that may be either true or false—toward which they bear an attitude, examples of which include believing, doubting, wondering, judging, desiring, fearing, and intending. Consider the following examples, and note that each attitude is in italics and the proposition toward which the attitude is directed is in bold.
1. Alice believes that her team will win.
2. Bruno doubts that the rain will stop before dinner time.
3. Carla judges that there is more water in the container on the left.
4. Dwayne fears that his dog ate his 20 dollar bill.
Other examples of propositional attitudes are not as obvious as 1–4, but nonetheless, we can identify the proposition toward which an attitude is directed. Consider these cases:
5. Eileen intends to go to the movies on Saturday.
6. Franklin desires to eat the biggest piece of pizza.
In 5 and 6, the attitudes are obvious: intending in the case of 5 and desiring in the case of 6. However, what are the propositions in question? We can answer that question by considering another: What proposition has to be true for Eileen to accomplis...

Table of contents

Citation styles for This is Philosophy of Mind
APA 6 Citation
Mandik, P. (2013). This is Philosophy of Mind (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Mandik, Pete. (2013) 2013. This Is Philosophy of Mind. 1st ed. Wiley.
Harvard Citation
Mandik, P. (2013) This is Philosophy of Mind. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mandik, Pete. This Is Philosophy of Mind. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.