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Where does the mind begin and end?

Where does the mind begin and end?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by David Lydon. Originally submitted for Theoretical Issues in Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Margaret Ryan in the category of Psychology
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by David Lydon. Originally submitted for Theoretical Issues in Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Margaret Ryan in the category of Psychology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1
Where does the mind begin and end?
The mind in psychology is often assumed to be delimited by individuals and sometimes evencontained within the central nervous system to the extent that commentators have labelledpsychology an individual-bound discipline (Wilson, 2004). Psychology has, and continues to have, adualistic stance towards the mind (Bunge, 2010). In cognition, for example, the idea of internalmodels of the world, divorced from the body and the world itself, has been widespread (Schubert &Semin, 2009). The individualism of psychology is also clear.
 
Individualism is the thesis thatpsychological states
can be explicated without reference to the person’s social or physical
environments (Burge, 1986). The experimental methods of psychology suggest an adoption of individualism in that they rely on the supposition that it is possible to establish laws of behaviour byisolating individuals from their social contexts.These assumptions about the mind, however, are not givens but are the result of complexsocial and historical processes (Richards, 2002). Comparisons of Western psychology with otherpsychologies make this point clear. Richards (1932) notes that Chinese thinking gives little or noattention to distinctions that are fundamental to Western thought. More vividly, Danziger (1997)writes of his encounter with an Indonesian psychologist and their inability to find points of contactbetween Dan
ziger’s Western psychology and his colleague’
s Eastern psychology. Encounters withother psychologies leads us to question the distinctions Western psychology takes for granted
asthough they belong...
unconditionally to the constitution of things” (Richards, 1932, p.3).
 An examination of the origins of psychology illustrates that
psychology is a “domain of constructions” (Danziger, 1990, p.2).
Psychology developed at a time in which individualism anddualism pervaded common thought. It has been argued that the notion of the individual mind as acontained entity did not emerge in western thought until the early nineteenth century (Richards,2002). This individual focus is thought to be linked to the rise of capitalism and the breakdown of collective social structures. Dualism has a longer history. René Descartes states that the mind, or
“soul through which *we are+”, as he put it, “is entirely distinct from the body” (Descartes
, 1993,p.19). This mind-body disconnection did not originate with Descartes
 –
such a dualism was presentin the work of ancient Greek philosophers such as Hippocrates (Adams, 1939) and Plato (Grosz,1994)
 –
but it has come to be referred to as Cartesian Dualism. Nonetheless, Descartes introducedthree important innovations to this dualism; he conceived of the body as a machine and describedthe mechanisms by which action and sensation occurred; he proposed that the mind and the bodycould communicate through the pineal gland; and he believed that the human soul left the body atdeath (Sarafino, 2002). In this regard, the human body, to Descartes, was passive, mere
res extensa
 
 –
 
 
2part of the physical world
 –
with no intelligence or ability to self-control (Leder, 1984). Fascinated bythe automatons of his day, which were able to imitate the behaviour of living things, he reconceivedthe human body as a machine (Leder, 1992). In contrast to the passive and mechanical body, the
rescogitas
 
 –
the mind
 –
 
held the “essence of the self and the divine aspect of the human being” (Leder,
1984, p.29).Such a conception of dualism led many scholars of this period to regard the body as subjectto the laws of mechanical causality like other components of the physical world
 
and so was open toscientific experimentation (Leder, 1984). Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church grantedpermission for the dissection of the body as the divine aspects of the human were now thought tobe separate from the body. However, the corresponding freedom was not granted to the study of mind and behavior as these areas of study were deemed only suitable for the domain of religion(Engel, 1977). Thus, mind-body dualism was further delineated through what was deemed anappropriate separation of mind and body into discrete areas of study. When considering the originsof psychology it is important to realise that the development did not take in a social vacuum but inan environment in which such ideas as individualism and dualism existed and exerted an influenceon thought.While it is impossible to date the beginning of any discipline, it is fruitful to consider thework of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)
 –
often cited as the founding father of psychology (Rieber &Robinson, 2001) - as it provides an indication of the processes that shaped psychology into thediscipline that it became
. Wundt’s work borrowed heavily from the fields of physiology and
empiricist mental philosophy. From philosophy, psychology received its subject of mental life
(Wilson, 2004). However, psychology was more than just an extension of philosophy. Wundt’s
experimental methods drew heavily on methods in physiology and his first text book, published in1874, entitled
Principles of Physiological Psychology 
contained lengthy accounts of the physiology of the nervous system and sensory physiology research.Inherent in the fields of philosophy and physiology from which psychology emerged was aprivileging of the individual as an object of study. The individual was viewed as a receiver of senseimpressions from the world or as the source of innate ideas in philosophy concerned with the mind,while, in physiology, individuals were viewed as sets of biological systems that made up afunctioning whole (Wilson, 2004).
Wundt’s psychology, in line with its roots in philosophy and
physiology, had an individualistic conception of psychological states. In the experiment,
psychological processes were studied without reference to an individual’s psychological and social
life. The assumption this approach made was that embedded aspects of an indiv
idual’s psychological
 
3states could be bracketed out through experimental control and that something of psychologicalinterest would remain once this was done (Wilson, 2004).
Although Wundt’s psychology had aspects that
dealt with in-the-head mental processesabstracted from the social environment, Wundt also conceived of a more externalist aspect topsychology that focused on external cultural representations. The experimental methods of psychology could not, however, be applied appropriately to study this latter aspect of psychologyand, as the discipline developed beyond Wundt, social and cultural forces led to the development of a psychology allied with the natural sciences. This resulted in a rejection of the latter psychology.Danziger (1990) attributes this development to a surge of scientism in the late nineteenth century.Scientism refers to the belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques (Haack,2003).
 
Its rise in the late nineteenth century was associated with the progress achieved by thenatural sciences. With this surge in scientism came an emphasis on practical, applicable knowledgeand on directly observable facts
and so the parts of Wundt’s psychology that coul
d not be studied inthis way were rejected.The isolated individual was thus the object of psychological investigations. It has beensuggested that Francis Galton (1822-1911) was the most uncompromising in this respect (Danziger,1990) and an examination of his position is further warranted by claims that his influence on thepractice of psychology is as great as that of Wundt and James (Wilson, 2004). Wundt expresseddiscomfort over the way in which psychology severed the individual from the social-historicalcontext. Galton, in contrast, defined the performance of individuals in experiments as expressions of innate biological factors leaving little room for the influence of the social environment. Galtontreated mental characteristics like bodily characteristics and believed that mental traits wereheritable. He was interested in the distribution of psychological abilities in populations and studiedpopulations to produce norms against which the propensities of individuals could be tested. Once
more, like the work of Wundt, the testing situation for Galton’s psychology assumed that
psychological abilities could be studied by abstracting an individual from the social environment.Thus, in tracing the origins of psychology
through two of the discipline’s most influential
founders, we see many social-historical processes at play which shaped the field of psychology intothe individual-laden discipline it has become. According to this psychology and those which it hasinfluenced, the mind
is thought to “begin and end at the skull”
(Wilson, 2004, p.162) but it is clearthat this view has been shaped and is not simply the reflection of an objective reality. To furtherexplore this and to suggest that the mind may not end at the skull, alternative approaches tounderstanding the mind will be discussed.

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