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Mental Phenomena

  Pains, visual and auditory experiences, joy, fear, beliefs, desires and intentions are all mental phenomena. Philosophers often distinguish occurrent mental phenomena or mental events such as pains, gustatory experiences—as of chilli—and thoughts of Paris, from mental phenomena which are not events but dispositions, such as believing that God is good or wanting to read War and Peace.

What is the mark of the mental? That is, what is the property that all and only mental phenomena possess? What is it that all and only mental phenomena have in common?

Many mental phenomena are intentional: they are about something and have an object. My desire for a beer, for example, is about something. But (1) many nonmental phenomena are also intentional—consider road signs and picture-postcards. Perhaps such non-mental intentional phenomena are only derivatively intentional; perhaps their object-directedness derives from the intentional mental states of their creators and interpreters. If so, one might claim that mental phenomena are non-derivatively intentional. But (2) not all mental phenomena are intentional. Pains are not about anything, they do not have an object. And perhaps one can be depressed or anxious without being depressed or anxious about anything. So even if all non-derivatively intentional phenomena are mental, not all mental phenomena are non-derivatively intentional. So intentionality is not the mark of the mental.

Many mental phenomena are phenomenological: they feel a certain way. Certainly pains and perceptual experiences are phenomenological. And perhaps undirected depression and anxiety are also phenomenological. But while all phenomenological phenomena are mental, not all mental phenomena are phenomenological. The belief that grass is green and the desire for a cup of tea do not feel a certain way. So phenomenologicality is not the mark of the mental.

Some mental phenomena, such as beliefs and desires, are intentional but not phenomenological. Some mental phenomena, such as pains, are phenomenological but not intentional. And some mental phenomena, such as perceptual experiences and, perhaps, anger are both phenomenological and intentional. But it seems that every mental phenomena is either phenomenological or intentional. And it is plausible that all non-derivatively intentional phenomena and all phenomenological phenomena are mental. So one could claim that what all and only mental phenomena have in common is that they are either non-derivatively intentional or phenomenological. But this suggestion does not explain why we count non-derivatively intentional and phenomenological phenomena as belonging to the same category, the mental. And it is not entirely clear what it is for a phenomena to be ‘non-derivatively’ intentional. AJ

See also consciousness; intentionality.Further reading C. McGinn, The Character of Mind.



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