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Mind & Morals

Mind & Morals

An introduction to our special section by this issue’s editor, Charles Echelbarger.

Almost from the earliest days of philosophy, philosophers have concerned themselves with questions directly or indirectly related to the concept of ‘mind’. Until very recent times, they didn’t think of gathering those concerns under a single heading such as metaphysics or epistemology or ethics. But in about the middle of the twentieth century, they began to use the term ‘philosophy of mind’ to cover a loose collection of topics and issues that didn’t fall neatly into any one of the traditional subdivisions of philosophy. Very few of these topics are new. Examples include: emotion, the will, sensation, thought, imagination, pleasure, happiness, pride, the self, action, voluntariness and a large number of others.

Some of these topics, such as “what is it for an action to be voluntary?” and “what exactly is happiness?” impinge more closely on ethics than others. Some philosophers have begun to refer to these topics as belonging to a distinct area within the philosophy of mind which they commonly refer to as ‘moral psychology’.

Still other topics and issues in the wider collection impinge very closely on that part of philosophy now known as the philosophy of science. These include perception, sensation, consciousness, concept-formation and cognitive processes like reasoning, remembering and mental imagery. The reason they are thought to impinge on philosophy of science is that, in the past half-century, psychology has acquired the reputation of being a respectable scientific discipline. So, many philosophers have come to accept the idea that the experimental methods of psychology will eventually have the last word on the nature of sensation, perception, consciousness, reasoning and the rest. Philosophy’s role with regard to such topics, it is often claimed, can only be to examine the conceptual and methodological foundations of the empirical psychological inquiries and, perhaps, to reflect on whether there may be limits to what can be learned from such inquiries.

Because of its history of concern with these topics, and because of its authority in such areas as epistemology, metaphysics and logic, philosophy is now considered to be one of the disciplines at the centre of the new multi-disciplinary field of cognitive science. Others in the group include linguistics, psychology, computer science and neuroscience.

Because of the recent trend in philosophy of taking a naturalistic approach to a variety of traditional philosophical problems, many philosophers now take the position that the boundaries between philosophy and the various Sciences of Mind are not as sharp as they were once alleged to be, indeed, that they are, at most, flexible, soft and porous.

So, it is no longer considered to be something akin to venal sin for philosophers to take seriously the possibility that empirical investigations may have important implications for ancient philosophical issues, even in such areas as moral virtue, moral character and moral knowledge. David Wong’s article in this issue provides an excellent example of this sort of attitude on the part of a contemporary philosopher. He shows how experiments that support ‘connectionist’ theories of the mind give us opportunities for cross-cultural comparisons in ethical theory.

Güven Güzeldere’s article reviews various ways in which the Mind-Body problem has been transformed, partly as a result of the work of cognitive psychologists, but may, as a result, have become an even harder philosophical problem than previously thought.

Ilya Farber’s review of Owen Flanagan’s book Dreaming Souls gives us a synopsis of Flanagan’s fascinating blend of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience in his study of dreaming.

Recent work in philosophy of mind, moral psychology and cognitive science illustrates Wilfrid Sellars’ idea that “The aim of Philosophy … is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the the term.” (Science, Perception and Reality, 1963). It also supports Sellars’ belief that the two main ‘images’ of ‘man-in-the-universe’, the scientific image and the manifest image, even though they often seem irreconcilably opposed, may be capable of eventually merging into a unity, much as two two-dimensional images merge into a single three-dimensional image in a stereoscope. In any event, this work shows that we do indeed live in a bright and hopeful time for these parts of philosophy.

© Charles Echelbarger 2002

Charles Echelbarger is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY – Oswego and is interested in many areas of philosophy, including that of David Hume, the work of Wilfrid Sellars and various topics in epistemology and philosophy of mind. He is a US editor of Philosophy Now.

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