Richard Griffin (2002) Mind, Meaning and Cause: so What if the Mind Doesn't fit in the Head. Psycoloquy: 13(015) Mental Disorder (2)

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Psycoloquy 13(015): Mind, Meaning and Cause: so What if the Mind Doesn't fit in the Head

Book Review of Bolton & Hill on Mental Disorder

Richard Griffin
Departments of Experimental Psychology & Psychiatry
University of Cambridge, UK
18B Trumpington Road
Cambridge, CB2 2AH


This review of Bolton & Hill's (B&H) Mind, Meaning, & Mental Disorder examines their non-reductionist yet realist position on mental content. Their arguments are compared to the writings of Dennett and Millikan, where determining function is central to determining information-processing capabilities. The normative nature of function (malfunction) is considered as is its relation to mental states more broadly. Their Wittgensteinian view of meaning as action is accepted as insightful and useful, though some questions remain about their theory of meaning and its applicability to psychological phenomena.


meaning, function, normativity, intentionality, cause, reduction
1. Here's the problem: How can we resolve the apparent tension between meaning as a holistic, world-involving, construct yet at the same time have meanings inside the head, instantiated somehow in neuronal firing patterns? The problem becomes particularly acute when we would like to claim, in a serious way, that mental states play a causal role in our behaviour. Nearly everyone will accept that neurons and neurochemicals play a causal role in behaviour, and the problem would be easily resolved if mental states were simply reducible to brain states. Reduction is nice if you can get it, but the reduction of content-bearing mental states to brain states is far from straightforward and it is not at all clear how or if it can be done. And if it can't be done, how can we say that mental states cause behaviour? In Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder, Bolton & Hill (1996) (henceforth B & H) make a gallant attempt to show us how to navigate this treacherous course.

2. But a treacherous course it is, with a lot of ground to cover, and because many of the issues are still philosophical, having not yet been deemed merely scientific, the ground is a patchwork of mud and quicksand. The goal of the book is to provide a philosophical justification and framework for the use of intentional-level constructs in psychology and particularly psychiatry. A lot of ink has been spilled over the ontological and causal status of intentional states and a lot of the spillage is quite unintelligible to the uninitiated. The first order of business for Bolton & Hill is to review this large literature, all the while building their non-reductionist yet realist position of mental content. This position is then brought to bear on various mental disorders and psychological explanation more broadly. Building this position is huge job and as such comprises most of the book.

3. I mentioned above that their position is realist albeit non-reductionist, which some may take to be inconsistent from the outset. That is, if mental states can not be reduced to brain states then any clear-thinking materialist should deny their existence, particularly regarding their ability to do any causal work. They may exist in a sense, in the same way that unicorns and witches exist, as figments of our naive thinking. Just as a witch can't turn you into a chicken and a unicorn can't dig up your garden, beliefs can't cause your behaviour. This is one way to solve the problem, or rather, to dissolve the problem.

4. Another potential solution is to ascribe to one of several mind-brain identity theses where mental states (at least some of them) are in fact instantiated in the brain. Here we get into issues of symbol processing, syntax, and the familiar computational theory of mind. Thinking along these lines actually dominates the practice of cognitive psychology, despite protests from the connectionist and dynamic systems subcultures, but the myriad problems with this approach may indeed render this school of thought a charming relic of the early days when computation met cognition. Computation and cognition are still wed, but the nature of the computation, particularly regarding the specification and causal role of content, is in crisis. B & H take neither of these paths, preferring instead a complex intermediary position that draws on several sources, most notably Dennett, Millikan, and the later writings of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's later writings on meaning and mind are generally taken to be not only damning but downright antithetical to the representation-in-the-head talk of contemporary cognitive science. Indeed, Wittgenstein is the poster child for the anti-positivist, anti-science, movements that enjoy strong footholds in anthropology, sociology, and literature departments. If, as Wittgenstein argues, meaning is given by its use in activity, then it seems that there's no closing the floodgates of relativism. Combine this with Quine's elegant radical translation argument in Word & Object and we are drawn to the conclusion that there really are no such things as meanings, at least ones that can be nailed down in propositions. How can we build a science of meaning without a foundation?

5. Rather than becoming a guillotine to the cognitive-behavioural sciences, these and related arguments turn out to support a framework for investigating cognitive phenomenon; a framework based on organism-environment interactions. Organisms are built to act, in various ways, in their environmental niches. They are built, moreover, to exploit evolutionary important information from those niches, and exactly how they do it is open to investigation. The roots of meaning are indeed in action, and any intensional (with-an-s) specification of either the function or content of an information processing system will need to appeal to the broad, world-involving, nature of meaning. Neither function nor content can be gleaned by putting a microscope to a neuronal firing pattern or any other kind of transducer. We have to look outside of heads for meaning but this simple fact does not mean that there is no encoding (inside heads) going on. When discussing cause in the bio-psychological sciences it is all to easy to lose cite of the explanandum. We might cite motor neurons as being the local cause of an arm going up, but if the arm goes up in order to do something, to perform a certain act, say, then we'll have to move macro for the causal story. Actions are the basis of meaning, events need not appeal to meaning. Actions can succeed or fail, events just are. Indeed, central to the biological and psychological sciences are normative notions -- e.g., order and disorder, normal and abnormal, success and failure, correct and incorrect, proper function and malfunction, etc. and there's no getting around this. If we'd like to talk about such things, as some of us would, then we'll have to get past the idea that the languages (and the putatively requisite covering laws) of physics and chemistry will tell us what we want to know about such phenomenon. They won't. Such phenomena does not exist in the language of these disciplines. If the path of a molecule is governed by physical laws then it can not be correct or incorrect, right or wrong, in doing so. It can not malfunction or misrepresent. In the world of physical cause there appears to be no such thing as intentionality, or relatedly, information, representation, or meaning.

6. Clearly the physical fabric of the world bears some relationship with the higher level patterns that we so readily see but the relationship may not be all that important depending on the phenomenon that we'd like to discuss. As Dennett has noted, an economist need not know all the details about coinage or metallurgy to do his job. On the contrary, market variables have next to nothing to do with the constitution of a 1000 lira note, quarter dollar, or the colour of a check. In short, the physical constitution is not what's important in this case. In the bio-psychological sciences we care about function, and function is multiply physically realisable. That is, there is nothing stopping different physical configurations from serving the same function just as different functions may be served by the same physical configuration. Certainly structure can tell us something about function, and vice versa, but function is still what matters most in these areas.

7. Determining what something is for or what it does is not the same as determining how it works. Functional talk is not causal talk, but understanding systemic function and in particular what matters to the system in question will allow for an intensional-with-an-s specification of function. Once we have an idea what a system is design to do, we can see where and when it goes wrong, allowing for the specification of information processing capabilities, i.e., we enter the game of content, potential misrepresentation, defined both by the environment and the systems capacities. Readers familiar with issue will see the parallels with Millikan's teleosemantics and Dennett's design stance. Those unsympathetic to these lines of thought will not be sympathetic to the position taken here. B & H opt for a behavioural rather than a causal version of functional semantics, arguing that the latter does not account for the relativity between the environmental content and the representational system that is part and parcel in determining that content. Moreover, it is argued that the behavioural version of functional semantics can better account for empty content, e.g., representation of things with no external counterpart such as unicorns or phlogiston. This is the gist of the philosophical argument regarding content, and it is one to which I am sympathetic. Unfortunately, these issues are far from cut and dried and many would like to stop the argument here and now. B & H would like to push on, but so much time and space has been spent on developing this position that the latter part of the book -- applying this framework to an understanding of psychiatric conditions -- takes second stage. The more psychologically-oriented later chapters, to my thinking, lack the critical eye of the philosophical sections. For example, they accept straight away that "theory of mind" really is a theory, and they give a top-down, decision-making role to "consciousness" which they tie-in with the ill-defined notion of executive function. These are heavily debated topics which, when settled, may make a huge difference in understanding the architecture of cognition and its role in our behaviour.

8. The theory-theory espoused by B&H is central to their program, particularly regarding the causal status of intentional states, but their position is at odds with Dennett's intentional stance, which they seem to accept as correct. Dennett sees the intentional stance as more a set of practices than a proper, propositionally-based, theory. Others, such as the Churchlands, agree with B& H that folk psychology really is a theory, but this is one of their arguments against it being correct. Recent empirical research suggests that many of the cognitive mechanisms underlying our (and other primates) sophisticated navigation of the social landscape are not at all theory-like (Griffin & Baron-Cohen, 2002). There is a big difference between the questions of "How should we predict human behaviour?" and "How do we predict human behaviour?" The "how do we do it" part is being pieced together by the day, largely by developmental, neuro, and comparative psychologists. Issues still remain, of course, and some of the issues are indeed philosophical, which is why the discourse between the two disciples in crucial. But if history is any kind of a teacher, we can expect the science to have a greater effect on the future of the philosophy in this area rather than the other way around.

9. For B&H, their version of how we do it (via a theory) is in form correct and hence we should continue in this way. Certainly folk psychology is limited in its scope, but there is nothing stopping scientific versions from developing more refined constructs that better predict and explain mental phenomenon. Indeed, with the path cleared for the use of non-reducible yet causal intentional constructs via theories, B & H move to the justification of familiar psychiatric constructs such as denial, splitting, projection, and various defence mechanisms from Kleinian and Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and how they can be seen in this new light. Is the path they've cleared too wide, allowing any theory of the mind to compete as a viable scientific theory? I'm not sure. Their theory is importantly constrained in many ways, one of which is the importance of coherence and order in a world with multiple and sometimes conflicting rules. Human language and culture is seen as multiplying potential for rule conflict. What is interesting about this discussion is that they employ the Wittgenstein notion of rule-following, where rules are made in practice rather than being given in advance. This ties into a central theme throughout the book whereby action is order-creating, thought is in the service of action (and in many ways defined by action), and disorders of thought reflect an inability to act.

10. Mind, Meaning, and Mental Disorder is a very impressive work, one no doubt that was many years in the making, and I look forward to a follow-up. Experts in many areas may disagree with arguments here and there, but this is inevitable when some much ground is covered. It could have been two or three books, and perhaps should have been. The discussion of the reducibility of mental content is excellent on its own, and there are more than several beautiful examples of simple intentionality in biological systems (e.g., blood pressure detection and mRNA transcription, to name a few). The application of Wittgenstein's ideas is well-informed and quite refreshing, and the authors force us to think in a new way about content, cause, and levels of explanation. Matters of the mind are hard, and this book will show you just how hard they can be. Nonetheless, the authors provide a useful and optimistic framework for thinking about not only mental disorder, but scientific explanation in the face of relativism.


Bolton, D. & Hill, J. (1996). Mind, Meaning & Mental Disorder: The Nature of Causal Explanation in Psychology & Psychiatry. Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D. & Hill, J. (2001). Precis of "Mind, Meaning & Mental Disorder: The Nature of Causal Explanation in Psychology & Psychiatry" Psycoloquy 12(018)

Griffin, R. & Baron-Cohen, S. (2002) The intentional stance: Developmental and neurocognitive perspectives. In A. Brook & D. Ross (Eds.) Daniel Dennett. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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