Friday, 29 October 2010

Defining the mind

I reproduce a passage by Colin Renfrew on how we should best understand and define the human mind, which I think is entirely correct and sits comfortably within a Marxist framework.

At this point it is necessary to point out that the notion of ‘mind’... can be a misleading one if we assume it to be the structural opposite of ‘matter’ or of ‘body’. There is often a tendency to assume a dualism of the kind developed by the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes where mind is contrasted with matter, and body with soul. An unduly mentalist approach tends to equate mind with brain, and to situate mind and its workings exclusively inside the human cranium. But the notion of mind encompasses intelligent action in the world, not merely cogitation within the brain...

The mind as embodied, extended and distributed

[An earlier discussion] makes the point that the brain exists in the body and that the mind is embodied. Weight has first to be perceived as a physical reality — in the hands and arms, not just in the brain within the skull — before it can be conceptualised and measured. The mind works through the body. To localise it exclusively within the brain is not strictly correct.

Moreover, we often think not only through the body, but beyond it. The blind man with the stick apprehends the world more effectively with the stick than without. The draughtsman thinks through the pencil. The potter at the wheel constructs the pot through a complex process that resides not only in the brain, but in the hands and the rest of the body and in those useful extensions of the body, the turntable and, indeed, the clay itself. In each of these cases, the experience of undertaking a purposive and intelligent action extends beyond the individual human body, and well beyond the individual brain. We can speak of an extended mind.

Furthermore, the intention, when we undertake a purposive action, is not always simply the product of a single individual. It can be shared. In a team game, like football, the action is the product of a number of people working together but not necessarily led by a single individual. The same principle that a new outcome can be the result of collective rather than individual action or intention arises in many instances of group behaviour. This can be seen in the archaeological record: it can be the case for a decorative style, which develops through the production of figured textiles, or of painted pottery or of woodcarvings by a number of craftspersons. Working together they arrive at a shared style, which is not simply the production of any one individual and then copied by others. Different people within the group make their own contributions, which are in some cases taken up and incorporated within the developing style. This may be regarded as a broadly cooperative endeavour with a range or distribution of individuals all cooperating. Here it may be possible to speak of a distributed mind.

This discussion makes clear that ‘mind’ is a rather complex topic. Rather than defining it more closely, it may be profitable to focus upon the human actions and activities in which our cognitive faculties (our minds) have an active role — processes of material engagement.

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