I’m currently at work on the final chapter of this book project.  There may be further revision to do, but I expect the draft to be complete before Thanksgiving.  At that point, I expect to be working on revision, proofreading, formatting…and figuring out how and whether to publish it.   So I likely won’t post much more about this project, except perhaps part of the conclusion at some point.

At the outset, I got considerable useful feedback on my posts—although, as one should expect, interest faded over time.  I Thought I’d take one more shot at seeking feedback on the issue that concerns me most: clarity.   To that end, I’m posting here one of the short chapters from the second half of the book, in which I briefly explore many conceptual impediments to a correct understanding of ideology.

This particular chapter seems to me to have reached the level of lucidity I’m working for.  My question is: does it seem as “accessible” (not crazy about this term) to others as it does to me?  Keep in mind, of course, that I do refer to some arguments made earlier in the book—but overall, regardless of whether my concept of “mind” is thoroughly convincing, is it clear what I mean by “mindedness”?  Will readers be able to grasp what exactly I am asking them to at least provisionally accept?

For purposes of feedback on this post, I will not be “monitoring” comments—all comments on this particular post will be automatically approved.  (Of course, I will likely later delete anything that seems obscene, irrelevant, or to be spam.)

This is the chapter, exactly as it appears in my draft, minus only the “suggested further readings.”


Chapter 8: Mind

What do I mean by the term mind?  

It is clearly a key concept in everything I’ve argued here, and understanding this concept will be necessary to developing a more complete explanation of ideology.  But to understand this concept it will be essential to reject two assumptions that are fundamental to most discussion of mind, and to our common sense understanding of what a mind is.

First, we will need to reject the idea that minds exist on a kind of continuum in all living things, from insects to dogs to humans.  What I mean by mind is something unique to humans, something that no other species on Earth has.  

Second, we will need to consider that a mind is not even something we “have” at all.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that we have the capacity for “mindedness,” as a kind of activity only humans can engage in.  

Beginning from there, we can dissolve the seemingly intractable problem of whether the mind is “in” the brain or somehow separate from it.  This perennial problem, so puzzling to most philosophers of mind, will become yet one more example of a misguided question.  

I am going to try to to advance the position that:

  1. Engaging in ‘mindedness’ is something only humans can do, because it depends on the use of language (although language is not sufficient—it requires other kinds of capacities as well).
  2. Mindedness is always collective: it is an activity that requires the participation of multiple human individuals.
  3. We are only fully human when we participate in mindedness. 
  4. There are many kinds of mindedness, and some are better than others in that they better suit our basic human nature. 

Let’s begin with the standard problem of the philosophy of mind.  This is Edward Feser’s statement of the fundamental problem:

How could any material thing—including the grey, squishy lump of matter that constitutes your brain, which seems as brutely physical as a thermostat—have feelings, smells, tastes, and qualia in general?  How could it be conscious and aware of itself and its surroundings? And how could it think rationally about itself and its surroundings, or have intentionality?  After all, a thermostat’s existence surely involves nothing more than the passage of electrical current through wires, the motion of a needle across surface, and so forth; there is no consciousness there, no meaningful and rational thought, only crude mechanical processes.  But how different, really, are the electrochemical signals sent between the neurons of the brain?  How are these any less intrinsically meaningless and unconscious than the electricity passing through the wiring of a thermostat? (16-17)

This is the problem most of us face when we try to think about how a mind could exist.  Often, we wind up assuming there must be some kind of “consciousness” separate from the brain, a sort of ghost in the machine.  Or, we wind up with the kind of self-contradictory reductivism we talked about in Chapter Two. 

What we want to do here is not to come up with a full and complete theory of minds, but simply to shift the founding assumptions from which we begin to think about the problem.  What if, instead of assuming the mind must arise atomistically, from individual brains, we were to consider the mind as something that can only be enacted by a group?  What if the paradigm for mindedness is not reacting to a change in temperature, but something like playing a game of volleyball?  Something we can only do as part of a group working together, giving reasons and making rules, cooperatively.  My point is that beginning from there, we run into none of the dead ends that have been run down over and over for centuries now.  Instead, we begin with a problem that can be worked on and solved.

The usual assumption is that we all have minds first, and then begin to become social. But what if the mind is an inherently social thing?  We can reserve the term for only species that have the unique capacity to communicate in language.  

This may seem shocking—even seriously troubling to most people.  And we will address some of the more common objections later in this chapter.  First, let’s try to get clear what exactly I am asking you to entertain as possibility. Once again, if you can entertain this even provisionally, it might be possible to get a good sense of exactly what Althusser means by ideology.  

This idea is not something I came up with. It is argued for by many of the greatest thinkers throughout history.  In every case, the inability of most readers to even provisionally accept this assumptions has made those thinker seem impossibly difficult.  Let’s consider the example of Hegel, one of the most notoriously difficult thinkers of all time.

In his wonderful, but difficult, book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin explains how “mindedness” helps resolve, or perhaps it is better to say dissolve, the endless struggle between materialism and idealism.  He explains that what Hegel means by the German term “Geist” is something we cannot quite capture with either of the words usually used to translate it (“mind” or “spirit”).  What Hegel is trying to describe for us is “an achieved form of individual and collective mindedness, and institutionally embodied recognitive relations”(39).  I cannot do justice to Pippin’s entire argument here, so let me try to explicate just this one essential sentence.

The point here is that mindedness is not something we inherently possess as biological beings.  For Hegel, a human that is not part of a social group is not fully human at all, is a mere animal.  We must achieve mindedness, as a way of acting collectively.  It is something only humans have, so far as we know, because only humans have language.  We can therefore create what Hegel calls a “space of reasons,” in which we give an account of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do.  Our goals are language-dependent, created by human social practices, by institutions.  We can aspire to become a doctor or a musician only because we are part of a social group in which these roles exist.  At the same time, we can feel shame or pride only because we are part of a social group which has created, in language, reasons for behaving in certain ways and not in others.  

This of course depends upon recognition.  We need to be part of a group in which we are recognized as members, and so can contribute to shaping the collective desire.  We don’t bring our preformed desires into the social.  Rather, desires are those kinds of intentions that are socially produced. Even an amoeba has the drive to go on existing in the way it is; but only humans can have desires to be, say, a good person, or a friend, or a professional athlete.  Recognition is essential to human desires.  We become “individuals” only when we are part of a collective.  I put the term “individual” in quotes here because later, in explaining ideology, we will use the term somewhat differently, to refer to the bodily organism that does in fact preexist ideology; what Hegel and Pippin have in mind here is what we might call, in our fully developed theory of ideology, a subject.  

To try to grasp this point, the difficult idea that the collective precedes the “individual” subject, consider the metaphor of the human body.  A hand has some kind of “individuality,” in that it is distinct from a knee or an ear or a kidney.  It can do things they cannot, can detect the presence of things in the world your pancreas or your femur could not, and so may seem to be an individual “part” that joins to make a whole. But we need to remember that the form of the whole body precedes the role of any individual part, and there could be no hand unless all the other parts were functioning.  If we worry that we are somehow subjugating the hand to the body when we make it do the things it can do—put it to work every day producing what the body needs and caring for the body—then we have missed the bigger picture. On the other hand, it is essential that we “recognize” the needs of the hand, and not subject it to damage for the benefit of the rest of the body. The needs of every part must be considered in determining the goals of the whole. So, for instance, we should not smoke despite the pleasure it gives because this is a failure to recognize the essential role of the heart and lungs.  

Applied to the mind, this is a need to recognize that the abilities and functions of one subject must be considered in creating the intentions of the collective.  But, of course, there is no need for any assumptions of sameness. All subjects need not be identical; they must only be recognized as playing an essential role in the functioning of the whole.  

To be minded, then, is to participate in the production of reasons for the kinds of actions we want to make possible in the world.  To the extent that one cannot participate in this, one is not minded at all, but become something closer to the unthinking automaton that the reductivists we discussed in Chapter Two want to argue we all really are. 

This understanding of mind is essential to grasp the full meaning of ideology.  To clarify this point, let’s explore how humans have minds, and so can have ideologies, while bees do not, and so cannot.  Bees are a good example because it is often assumed that they communicate, and so have a language.  They are sometimes used, then, as the phrase “hive mind” suggests, as an example of what the dreaded communist society would look like: a world in which there is only one collective mind would reduce us all to the state of worker bees.  But bees do not have a symbolic language, in the way humans do.  

When a bee locates a source of food and returns to the hive, it does a “dance” that indicates the direction, distance, and concentration of food it has discovered.  Why exactly is this not a language?  The short answer is: because the bee could not have “said” anything other than what it did.  That is, the response is one that is genetically programmed into the bee, and cannot be changed.  The other bees, seeing the dance, can only go to retrieve the food. There is no other response they can have.  As a result, the bees can only live in the one way: playing their role in the hive.  Bees cannot decide to alter their way of collecting food, or their relations to one another in the organization of the hive.  Only humans can do this. We can do this because our language is symbolic, unlike the communication of the bees which is an automatic response.

Think of language as a kind of map. We create a symbolic representation of things in the world, because of an intention.  We begin from wanting to know the closest source of water, and then create a map to make it easier to get to it. The map can be better or worse, and so we can then have a second-order symbolic representation, in which two people draw different maps and debate which is actually the best route to water. That is, in discussing the relative merits of the two maps, we are creating a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation.  We can then get more accurate ideas about the nature of reality, about what the surrounding terrain is actually like apart from our immediate goal, as we debate which of multiple means to the goal will work best.  Further, we can begin to construct new goals, to debate whether it might be better to move closer to the water source, or whether the threat of flooding makes traveling to collect water worthwhile.  To engage in such symbolic discussions of goals, of how to achieve them, and of the nature of the Mi world by means of which we achieve them, is what it is to be minded, to participate as a subject of a collective mind.

The problem Feser raises, then, is dissolved. There is no longer a need to explain how a purely material brain could have things like intentionality and qualia.  The problem is now how do a group of brains interacting perform mindedness.  Qualia, then, are not so hard to explain. What philosophers mean by qualia is the sense of the quality a thing has beyond its mere physical properties—like the qualia of redness or of sweetness.  But this is not much of a mystery once we have altered our sense of how things have meaning. Redness is then a feature of the role that a thing plays in our socially constructed intentions; it is something over and above the particular frequency of light wave not because our brain adds something to it, but because our collective mindedness adds something to it, assigns it a function, and so a meaning, in our social practices.  

The standard opposition to all of this talk of collective minds is that it all sounds so suffocatingly oppressive, that it denies or destroys our unique individual selves.  But that objection just assumes the existence of a mind full of thoughts, full of concepts and intentions, and so full of language, that exists prior to entering into the collective language.  What we need to entertain as a possibility, if we hope to get an understanding of how ideology works, is that even the very idea that your desires and intentions are uniquely individual is in fact something that is socially produced.  Read that last sentence again.  Underline it.  Try to think as if it is true, even if you don’t yet believe it: what we take to be our deeply held and personal desires and intentions are actually produced by our participation in a collective mind, made possible by uniquely human language.  

Most people, faced with this idea of the social nature of the mind will immediately make an argument of the form: sure, I agree, our mind is socially constructed; but how exactly does that social construction succeed in altering the already existing individual mind?  This is sort of like saying to Galileo: sure, I see you’ve proven that the Earth moves around the sun; now explain how it does that while remaining at the fixed center of the universe.  This is a difficult concept to fully grasp, and we need to be attentive to our tendency to slip back into assumptions of an atomistic mind that preexists the social.

This collective mind must be understood as not oppressive, but liberating.  Unlike the bee, we are free to create a new kind of social organization, one which is not completely determined by our biological evolution.  We can do this only collectively, in cooperation with other humans.  

My guess is that the reason this feels so oppressive is that as things work now most of us have no say at all in the collective intentions of our society. We assume, therefore, that any participation in a collective must be like it is now, under global capitalism: intentions are decided by the powerful few, the rest are, in fact, subjugated by them.  But just because this is the form the mind takes under capitalism does not mean it is the only form it can take.  Mindedness can take good and bad forms.  Right now, it takes a form in which most humans are denied recognition, denied participation in determining the goals of society.  In short, we have a collectively distorted and repressed mind, an unhealthy mind, in which most humans are not actually acting fully as humans at all.  

We are not, however, able to just choose to become a healthier mind.  Even once we understand what I’ve been explaining here, we are not restored to full human mindedness.  We must produce the mind in institutions, which is to say in social practices that enable us to actually engage fully in the production of our collective intentions.  What such practices might be is something we will need to discuss in the final section of this book.

It will probably occur to some readers that this idea of mindedness eliminates one of our most cherished beliefs: the idea that we have free will.  So it is to that problem that we will turn next. 

So, that’s the level of “accessibility” I’m working for. What do you think folks? Will it play in Peoria?