Colin McGinn comments that "the idea of a peculiarly mental substance
is, when you think about it, extremely weird: it is quite unclear that there is
any intelligible conception associated with the words `immaterial substance'.
This is shown in the fact that the alleged substance tends to get characterised
purely negatively; it is simply a kind of substance that is not material.
But we need some more positive description of what it is if we are to be
convinced that we are speaking of anything comprehensible... We are prone,...to
picture it in imagination as an especially ethereal or attenuated kind of
matter, stuff of the rarefied sort we imagine...the bodies of ghosts to be made
of--the kind of stuff through which a hand could pass without disturbance."
(The Character of Mind, p. 23)
McGinn goes on in this passage to wonder whether "the immaterial
substance is capable of discharging the role it was introduced to play,"
and whether it is only lack of clarity about immaterial substance that
"induces us to suppose that locating mental phenomena in it is any advance
on monism. The properties of the immaterial substance are
supposed to constitute the nature of mental states:
but what sorts of property are these? Here we seem faced with a dilemma: either
we award the immaterial substance properties beyond the familiar mental
properties, or we do not. If we do, thus conjecturing the existence of
properties of mind hitherto undiscovered,...there will still be the question how
these properties can constitute the essential
nature of sensations and propositional attitudes. We cannot, without absurdity,
postulate the existence of other conscious states which constitute the
nature of the familiar ones; but it seems that nothing else can be the essence of our conscious states." (p. 24)
Earlier statements by McGinn in this same work are hard to reconcile with
what he says here about the "familiar mental properties," and leave
me, at least, somewhat uncertain as to where his real problem with mental or
immaterial substance lies. Here he talks as if the problem were with what the
"familiar mental properties" belong to or were found in, not with
those properties themselves. In conformity with this he earlier said that "Consciousnesss,
like redness or sweetness, belongs to that range of properties that can be
grasped only by direct acquaintance." (p. 12) Concepts--such as sensation
and belief--that apply to consciousness "can be grasped only through
acquaintance with what they are concepts of," and hence are, in his terms, ineffable.
But then he goes on to say some very remarkable things, in this earlier passage:
namely, that "consciousness is elusive even to acquaintance, as an exercise
in introspection will reveal. Consider you consciousness of some item--an
external object, your own body, a sensation--and try to focus attention on that
relation: as many philosophers have observed, this relation of consciousness to
its objects is peculiarly impalpable and diaphanous--all you come across in
introspection are the objects of consciousness, not consciousness itself. This
feature of consciousness has induced some thinkers to describe consciousness as
a kind of inner emptiness; it is nothing per se but a pure directedness
on to things other than itself. No wonder then that it is hard to say what
consciousness intrinsically is." (pp. 12-13)
I have quoted at length from McGinn because I think he gets out in a rather
neat fashion many of the commonplaces about the mind or soul and how it presents
itself that have framed the philosophy of mind and self since the 18th Century
Descartes says what he is and replies to objection that we have no image of
Locke surrenders possibility of knowledge of substance because we have no
idea of substance itself, but only of a "whatever" that gathers
Hume draws the consequences of the Lockean epistemology and makes the famous
statement that that: "When I turn my reflexion on myself, I never
can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I
ever perceive any thing but the perceptions. 'Tis the composition of these,
therefore, which forms the self." He continues to say that
"Philosophers begin to be reconcil'd to the principle, that we have no
idea of external substance, distinct from the ideas of particular qualities.
This must pave the way for a like principle with regard to the mind, that we
have no notion of it, distinct from the particular perceptions."
(Appendix to his Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 634f of the Selby-Bigge
edition) In the chapter, "Of Personal Identity," in Book I of the Treatise
he compared the mind to a theatre, "where several perceptions successively
make their appearance, pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite
variety of postures and situations." Then he adds: "The comparison of
the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that
constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where
these scenes are represented, or the materials, of which it is compos'd."
Kant's section on the "Paralogisms" in the 1st Critique.
Comte's insistence on the impossibility of grasping our mental acts by
reflection: "like a hand striking itself."
G. E. Moore's statements, in "The Refutation of Idealism" (Mind,
1903), that in a sensation of blue "the term `blue' is easy enough to
distinguish, but the other element which I have called `consciousness'--that
which sensation of blue has in common with sensation of green--is extremely
difficult to fix. That many people fail to distinguish it at all is sufficiently
shown by the fact that there are materialists. <Reeeeeaaaly!> And,
in general, that which makes the sensation of blue a mental fact seems to escape
us: it seems, if I may use a metaphor, to be transparent--we look through it and
see nothing but the blue; we may be convinced that there is something but
what it is not philosopher, I think, has yet clearly recognised."
(p. 20 of his Philosophical Studies)
And again Moore says (p. 25): "The moment we try to fix our attention
upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is, it seems to
vanish: it seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to
introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue: th other element
is as if it were diaphanous. Yet it can be distinguished if we look
attentively enough, and if we know that there is something to look for. My main
object in this paragraph has been to try to make the reader see it; but I
fear I shall have succeeded very ill."
And again Moore says (p. 26): "Introspection does enable me to
decide that...I am aware of blue...., that my awareness...has to blue the
simple and unique relation the existence of which alone justifies us in
distinguishing knowledge of a thing from the thing known, indeed in
distinguishing mind from matter." And: "The relation of a sensation to
its object is certainly the same as that of any other instance of experience to
its object." (p. 28) This is the general relation of intentionality or
reference, no doubt.
So McGinn's statements stand in a long tradition--perhaps a long tradition of
confusion. Certainly it is hard to make sense of all that McGinn says. He moves
from the claim that the relation of consciousness to its object is
"peculiarly impalpable and diaphanous" to the claim that "all you
come across in introspection are the objects of consciousnes, not consciousness
itself," and here by "consciousness itself" he clearly is not
refering to the substance of consciousness but "familiar mental
properties." But if that's all you come across, then you could not know
that you were introspecting--since you are only conscious of objects of
consciousness--and you would not know that consciousness is impalpable and
diaphanous. And you would not know it is a "pure directedness on to things
other than itself" (as J.-P. Sartre says: Trying to catch a bus, e.g.) And
if it is pure directedness, then that is, precisely, a determinate nature
and not an "inner emptiness" at all. And if that is true one wonders
why--beyond general problems of substance and quality that afflict the
physical as well as the mental--these determinate natures could not come
together to form substances quite as well as the determinate natures that enter
into physical objects do. Ultimately, of course, everything is
"weird." That is a part of what it means to be ultimate.
Over against the idea that subjectivity or the mental or soulish is an
emptiness stands our de facto awareness of our own mental or experiential
states. When someone asks us how we feel, we can tell them in great detail. When
the Optometrist asks us to look through the lenses and read the letters or
report on other aspects of our visual experience, we do so promptly and
accurately. There is nothing vacuous at all about what we report on.
Motivational psychologists, actors, novelists, poets, interior decorators and
cooks constantly report on and describe the subjective flood of mental life that
makes up our existence. The idea of "inner emptiness" is a ridiculous
contrivance of a view of mind based on the mythology of empiricism.
One finds this inner flood, instead of emptiness, dealt with rather well in
Wm. James Principles of Psychology, Chapters IX and X--"The Stream
of Thought" and "The Consciousness of Self" respectively--though
James also will have nothing to do with the soul as a substance. Chapters
XVII-XXVI cover particular segments of the mental flood, from sensation to
reasoning, from emotions to will, etc. etc. Edmund Husserl treats "the pure
psychical being or the psychical life...as a nature-resembling flow of events in
a quasi-space of consciousness" ("Author's Preface to the English
Edition," hardback ed. p. 24) Here in the nature `transcending' sphere we
have an "infinitude of knowledge previous to all deduction" (p. 12) or
theorizing, "an absolutely independent realm of direct experience, although
for reasons of an essential kind it has so far remained inaccessibe." (p.
11) In Being and Nothingness, J.-P. Sartre takes 900 pages of turgid
French to describe that `nothing' that is the life of the mind. John Searle
states that it is an obvious fact about our own experience that "we are all
conscious and that our conscious states have quite specific irreducible
phenomenological properties." (Rediscovery of the Mind, p. 28) And:
"Beliefs and desires are experienced as such, and they are certainly not
`postulated' to explain behavior, because they are not postulated at all."
(p. 61) He emphasizes throughout his book "the enormous variety of our
consciousness life" (p. 227), which we "experience as such,"
though not "incorrigibly" or by some special faculty of
The "inner emptiness" line cannot account for what we actually know
about the flow of reality that makes up our own lives. Empiricism as a theory of
knowledge is a recognized failure in any form that has been definitely
specified, and has nothing left to support it but the bias of a sensualistic
culture. There is no reason to regard conclusions about mind or substance that
derive from it as serious challenges to what the ordinary, thoughtful and
experienced person assumes to be the case about self-knowledge and
self-identity. Anything that we can accurately report about our experience must
be assumed to be the case, and there are a huge number of things of various
general types that any individual can accurately report about their own minds
and experience. It is these accurately reportable events and structures that
make up the texture of the human mind and soul and reveal its substance.