Frederick Adams’ review of The Act of Thinking



Frederick Adams’ review of The Act of Thinking in Mind, Vol.115, No.458, (April 2006)

(Pre-publication draft kindly supplied by Prof. Adams)

Life is short and there are too many good books in philosophy to read to take time to read (or teach from) this book. I will now explain why.

To begin, the thesis of the book is that mental talk is really about action (behavior) covert or overt. Thinking is acting, overtly or by “covert token performance” (xi). Talk about the mind or mental states is really about actions (if it is “about” anything…sometimes it is not about anything, as ‘mind’ fails to refer, on Melser’s view). Any attempt to say otherwise is a kind of mistake…dare I say “category mistake.” Yes, that’s right. This book is a re-make of ideas found in Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind (1949) and in the latter Wittgenstein (1963). Melser even explicitly appeals to “category mistakes,” (221, 233) and he makes similar claims to those of Ryle about confusing thinking with something that goes on in the brain or inside of one’s head. Of course, the book is not only about ideas found in Ryle or Wittgenstein. The author also blends in some ideas about metaphor first argued for in Lakoff & Johnson (1980)—such as that metaphorical use of language distorts and mistakenly nominalizes words like ‘mind’ making us think there are things such as minds. While I won’t have time to lay this out here, I have compared Melser’s list of metaphorical uses of the word ‘mind’ to similar uses of the word ‘heart.’ If Melser has shown that ‘mind’ does not refer because of metaphor then he has also shown that ‘heart’ does not refer—and by exact parity of reasoning. What this tells me is that the reasoning is flawed, since there are hearts (and there are minds too, by the way). Whether we go back fifty years (to Ryle and Wittgenstein) or a mere twenty (to Lakoff & Johnson), this book attempts to move us backward. One cannot overcome the impression of being dragged back into the heyday of ordinary language philosophy, where pronouncements are made upon the metaphysical nature of the mind and action all derived from features of the surface grammar of language. It is déjà vu all over again, and high time philosophers get over it and its vestiges. So to start, the best ideas in the book were stated better by other people first, and cognitive science has taken us past all of this (or should have) in the last fifty years. Weren’t people paying attention?

Next, the arguments for Melser’s thesis are bad. For instance, early on (3-6) Melser paints as mutually exclusive the ideas that what goes on in one’s mind are information processing events that go on in one’s brain (on one hand) versus that thinking is a kind of activity that a person does (on the other hand). He (as Ryle and Wittgenstein before him) seems to take it as an unargued presupposition that it cannot be both. He takes it as given that the person cannot be a composite of sub-personal events or agencies. Here is where Melser seems to see a category mistake…mistaking thinking for something that happens inside of one instead of something one does. But any materialist about persons must take the person to be a composite of sub-personal events. Even if my mental doings are actions of mine, actions at a personal level of description, when I do something, my doing (my causing) something cannot be more than a collection of the proper parts of my brain’s causing something too. My doing is the relevant portions of my brain’s causing the relevant events. The personal level of description may employ mental terms and actional language to describe it, but the very same physical events that make my actions possible have to be able to be described in sub-personal terms. Indeed on a token-identity theory, they are the very same events variously described at different levels (something any enlightened materialists accepts as true).

The closest Melser comes to even noticing this challenge is when he argues against what he calls “action physicalism” in the last chapter of the book. However, he still doesn’t face the challenge I give directly above. He mainly just repeats his presupposition that natural processes in the brain are one thing and learned actions (which he claims are “not a natural process” and are of a “different category”) are another thing (221). (By the way, how does one learn to think? I know one can learn to improve thought. I know one learns to play the piano…by thinking and practicing, but how does one learn to think, if not in part by thinking? Beat’s me. And it must beat Melser too, for he never explains, though he makes the claim that thinking is an action one learns.) At any rate, Melser mentions two reasons why action physicalism is false: The “empathy argument” and the “action metaphors in science” argument.

Melser makes a mess of the empathy argument. What he wants to say is something like what simulation theorists such as Goldman, Gordon, and Heal say. That is, he wants to say that to observe and understand an action one must simulate the actor, simulate one’s performing the action oneself. Now there is interesting literature on autism and on mirror neurons and many other exciting and new things to be learned and to be said about this basic idea that Melser could use to support such a claim. Melser talks about none of this literature. Worse yet, Melser’s proclaimed point is supposed to be about observation of actions…an epistemological point. Instead it comes out metaphysical: “Actions require empathy.” (222). Surely, scratching my nose when it itches is an action. Surely scratching my nose does not require empathy. Frankly, I find it very hard to believe that your perceiving my scratching my nose requires empathy either, for that matter. But this is what we “learn” from the empathy argument. Now how is that a reply to my point about token-identity of actions with physical sets of events? Clearly, it is not.

I suspect Melser thinks this is a reply for this reason. He thinks that if we have to simulate actions to observe them, then they cannot be objective, physical events. He hints that we cannot even refer to them (245). But this does not follow. It mistakes the epistemological for the metaphysical (as noted). What could be a more objective, physical event than my scratching my nose? It can take place at a time (06.02.05 at 10:00 a.m. EST). It can be witnessed (by my office staff). It can be photographed. And so on. How much more physical and objective can something get? Well, that’s the empathy argument.

How about the “action metaphors in science” argument? It is the claim that “scientific explanation…of physiological events requires the use of action metaphors, and this makes physiological descriptions incapable of explaining things that literally are actions” (228). Again, the best I can make of this is our old friend the “category mistake.” The idea is that much of science tries to anthropomorphize nature, make it teleological, or goal-directed. But if events are treated as from agents, then actions cannot literally be explained by science because science is not anthropomorphic, teleological or rational. It would be a category mistake. What is actional is metaphorical, and what is metaphorical cannot be mechanistic or scientific (232-233). This is warmed over Ryle at best, and it ignores most of what happened in the last half the last century, viz. we now understand how to make even guided missiles that are teleological and we are working on naturalizing meaning and mind. Where has Melzer been? Didn’t the news reach his part of New Zealand?

Finally, I will close with a list of things he says that leave one stunned. I know these are taken out of context, but, even so….: “mind is the name of something abstract” (179), “…we do not have, independent of the metaphors, any concept of the mind at all,” (181), “metaphorical-origin theory suggests that we are largely ignorant as to what kind of activity thinking is….” (182) “A word is essentially an action…”, (210), “…things cannot be about things.” (210), “thinking is a learned action and not a natural process.” (221), “Actions require empathy.” (222). “…simulation theory [is] a version of theory theory that claims …” (225), “One’s eyes are not literally…something one uses to see ‘with’….” (233).


Department of Philosophy
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716



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