The Great Conversation: Mind
By Gabriel Blanchard
The mind is our window on reality; isn't it?
Defining the mind is a difficult business—possibly because we are so used to having minds that explaining what they are is not generally necessary. Then again, explanations are only comprehensible to other beings that also have minds, so maybe we don’t need to worry about that.
The mind is usually contrasted with one or both of two other things: the spirit and the body. The spirit, or soul, is often thought of as including or containing the mind somehow, but being broader; where the mind is most often identified with our powers of memory and reasoning, the spirit is thought of as embracing the will, character, and emotions. This kind of distinction is not universal, however. Sometimes mind and spirit are treated as synonyms, or different distinctions are drawn within the spirit. Plato, in his extensive discussion of the structure of the human psyche in the Republic, described the mind as embracing not only the intellect but also the will and moral qualities, while treating emotions and animal appetites as two distinct and lower elements of the soul. Aristotle wrote similarly in his De Anima, describing rational, animal, and vegetative kinds of of “soul” or “life” (the Greek term is the same) along similar though not identical lines to Plato’s “rational,” “spirited,” and “appetitive” faculties.
The relationship of mind to the body has been a little more intellectually fraught. The authority of the mind over the body was of great interest to the Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, who strove for a self-discipline and detachment so complete that no anguish or even physical pain could disturb them. Christian moralists borrowed a great deal of this—in Dante’s Purgatorio, the first guardian he encounters is not a saint or an angel, but the pagan sage Cato, representing the need for self-mastery on a natural level before the supernatural work of repentance and growth in holiness could begin.
In the Early Modern period, the accent shifted from the moral properties of the mind to its relationship to knowledge. Conventionally accepted theories of knowledge among the ancients and the Medievals, had largely been either Platonic or Aristotelian: Descartes introduced a radical kind of doubt, questioning all authority, even the authority of the senses. His notorious Cogito ergo sum was the beginning of a journey back into knowledge for him; but radical doubt did not go away, and increasingly skeptical epistemologies emerged. Kant, dividing the intellectual world into the noumenal (things as they are) and the phenomenal (things as we perceive them) declared that we could only know phenomena, never things in themselves. Around the same time, Hume went still further, questioning whether even our knowledge of phenomena could be trusted, since the mere fact that things have happened before doesn’t mean they will happen again. Some thinkers, like Kierkegaard and the Existentialists, sought to reframe the whole problem of mind in terms of human experience instead of abstract logic; others pursued a “scientistic” route, treating the scientific method as the only means to acquire certainty; a handful gave up the idea of knowledge altogether.
More traditional epistemologies have revived in the last century or two, especially Thomism (named for St. Thomas Aquinas, who adopted a basically Aristotelian philosophy of the mind). G. K. Chesterton and Mortimer Adler were particularly outspoken advocates of this revival, urging what they considered a return to a common sense idea of the mind and of knowledge.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate converses with leading academics and educators. Or take a look at our profiles of figures like Cicero, Harriet Tubman, C. S. Lewis, and many more.