Mind, meaning, and the explanation of action

Derek Bolton and Jonathan Hill

in Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder

Second edition

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print March 2004 | ISBN: 9780198515609
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754296 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Mind, meaning, and the explanation of action

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The main idea of this chapter has been that explanations of behaviour in terms of meaningful, mental states have theory-driven predictive power. The first three sections, 1.1 to 1.3, worked out various aspects of this idea, and the conclusion was then drawn in Section 1.4 that such explanations are causal.

Section 1.1 concerned psychological science. The Section 1.1.1 began with a sketch of dualism and the problematic role of mind in the seventeenth-century science. The ill-fit between mind and science became starkly apparent at the turn, of the nineteenth century with attempts to construct a science of the mind, leading first to a methodologically weak introspectionism and then to the other alternative within the framework of Cartesian, dualism, behaviourism. We went on to consider the logic of cognitive explanations of behaviour and influences on the cognitive revolution in psychology. Cognitive animal learning theory drew attention to the fact that the behaviour of humans and of higher animals is ‘intelligent’ (goal-directed and plastic), apparently not only a matter of mechanical conditioning, and proposed that cognitive processes are implicated in the organization, and regulation of such behaviour. It was suggested that folk psychological meaningful states constitute a proper subset of the information-carrying states invoked in cognitive psychology, being those which refer specifically to the highly processed informational states that regulate behaviour; by contrast folk psychology has little or nothing to say about, earlier stages of information-processing. In Subsection 1.1.2 we considered briefly the role within, the cognitive paradigm of affect and consciousness. The cognitive paradigm, can look, especially from the point of view of some of its formative influences, affectless. But this appearance is misleading: affect, or emotion, is essential to cognition, insofar as it regulates the activity of living beings. On the other hand, it is true that the concept of consciousness is not essential to the general paradigm. It assumes importance for the explanation of certain high-level features of action, most though not all of which are characteristically human.

In Section 1.2 we began a task that will occupy us throughout the essay, clarification of that family of concepts which includes intentionality, representation, meaning, and information. After some preliminary definitions we considered the attractive idea, which has a very long history, that such concepts are grounded in resemblance between sign and signified (Section 1.2.1). There are reasons to reject the resemblance theory, however, in favour of the view that signs have meaning (represent, have intentionality, carry information) insofar as they are used in activity (Section 1.2.2). Such use is subject to normative descriptions (right/wrong etc.), and can in this sense be described as rule-following. The intimate connection between concepts of meaning and rule-following begins to clarify a central theme in this chapter, that explanations which invoke meaningful states are effective in prediction: they attribute propensity to follow rules, and hence serve to predict what the agent will do. Dennett's notion of the Intentional Stance, which emphasizes the predictive power of intentional explanations, was also considered in Section 1.2.2. The Intentional Stance predicts intentional behaviour as such, a feat that cannot be accomplished from the lower-level Physical Stance. In this sense at least intentional explanations of (intentional) behaviour cannot be eliminated in principle.

In Section 1.3 we noted that various themes so far and to follow throughout the essay interact strongly with the shift from empiricist to post-empiricist epistemology. Critical to post-empiricism is the idea that knowledge is not derived directly from unconditionally given experience, but is mediated by theory, hierarchically organized systems of belief. The shift away from unconditionally given experience was linked also to the shift from the subject's being seen as passive, to be being seen as active (Section 1.3.1).

We went on to consider the currently influential idea that we use a ‘theory of mind’ to predict behaviour (Section 1.3.2), an idea that clearly belongs to the paradigm being explicated and elaborated in this chapter and the essay as a whole. In terms used so far, the theory of mind involves second-order intentional states, i.e. states that represent intentional states. However the idea that knowledge of mind serves for prediction and involves theory is most clear in the third- (or second-) person case, while the position in the first-person case is less clear. It was argued that theory of mind is used in the first-person case also, and that self-report is generally not a matter of direct, infallible access to private, mental states. But these second-order representations in the first-person case are not used for prediction so much as for the production of action. Second-order states in the first-person case, like intentional states generally, regulate action in accord with them. The implication is that first- and second-order representations in one's own case may be in conflict, a specific kind of rule-conflict that may be involved in disorder, as will be considered later (Chapter 8).

In post-empiricist epistemology theory functions to guide action and to interpret its results, ‘Theory’ in this sense, and meaning, are closely related concepts (as were sense-impressions and ideas in empiricism). It is well understood in post-empiricism that theory has a structure in which beliefs may play different kinds of role. Of particular interest here are ‘core beliefs’, which function as methodological rules on which the continuation of judgement and action depend. These are particularly crucial ‘meanings’: all available means will be used to preserve them, since threat to them threatens breakdown of judgement and action (Section 1.3.3).

The effectiveness of explanations in terms of meaningful, mental states in delivering predictions of behaviour points to the conclusion that such explanations are causal. This inference was drawn in Section 1.5. The argument is indeed relatively straightforward. The problem is not so much the argument but making sense of its conclusion. It was noted at the beginning of the chapter that the problem of meaning and causality arose not within ordinary language or common sense, but against background philosophical assumptions, these being dualism between mind and body, considered in Section 1.1.1, but also the later dichotomy between meaning and causality, and between understanding and explaining. In effect the new cognitive paradigm in psychological science collapses these old dichotomies.

Chapter.  26314 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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