The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience

What does a psychiatrist-philosopher who does not believe in mental illness have to say about the mind? Quite a lot, as you might expect. In his book, The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality and Neuroscience, Thomas Szasz explains his concept of the mind.

In Szasz’s words: “My aim of this book is to present a systematic exploration and exposition of the thesis that minding is the ability to pay attention and adapt to one’s environment by using language to communicate with others and oneself”.1

Minding

Simply put, for Szasz, there is no mind (noun). There is only minding (verb). The word mind, says Szasz, is a metaphor. He maintains that we make a logical error when we confuse minding – a conscious behavior, with the mind – a metaphorical concept. For Szasz, the mind is something we attribute to a person, not something a person has. We cannot locate the mind somewhere in space, we can only locate persons.

Szasz, master of analogies, takes on the material-reductionist view of persons, he says:

I dare say there is something bizarre about the material-reductionist’s denials of persons. To be sure, brains in craniums exist; and so do persons in societies. The material substrates of a human being – a person – are organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. The material substrates of a human artifact – say a wedding ring – are crystals, atoms, electrons in orbits, and so forth. Scientists do not claim to be able to explain the economic or emotional value of a wedding ring by identifying its material composition; nor do they insist that a physicalistic account of its structure is superior to a cultural and personal account of its meaning. Yet, many scientists, from physicists to neurophysiologist, claim that they can explain choice and responsibility by identifying its materials substrate – that “life can be explained in terms of ordinary physics and chemistry.”…My aim of this book has been to prevent such reductionism form passing as self-evident.2

Consciousness as Self-Conversation

Szasz insists that what we now call “the mind” is really a metaphor for self-conversation. For humans, inner speech is essential. He says:

“Mind is dependent on language, as respiration is dependent on the lung. However, mind is neither brain, nor self, nor language, but the person’s ability to have a conversation with himself – the self acting as both speaker and listener – the “I” and the “me” speaking and listening to one another.”3

If you think about it (or in Szaszian terms, have a self-conversation about it) language is the mediator of so-called consciousness. Language and consciousness are inextricably linked. When a person lacks speech, such as in old age or young children, we say that the person lacks some level of consciousness. Consciousness and mind, for Szasz, are not mysterious things located in space, they are acts of self-conversation.

Szasz gives the example of Helen Keller to illustrate his point. Keller was born healthy but went deaf and blind as a young child due to contracting meningitis. She could not talk or use sign language until age 6. She was unruly and impulsive. Thankfully she had patient parents and a loving tutor. She recalls gaining speech and consciousness at the same time. It happened when her tutor wrote the word, water, in her hand while holding it underwater.

As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free.4

Szasz reflects on Keller’s experience of discovering language and asks:

“Did Helen Keller think ‘in’ or ‘with’ her hands? Was her mind ‘in’ her hands? Such questions help us appreciate our need for the concept of mind as well as the confusion it creates. When two persons talk to one another, their conversation occurs in the physical space they occupy or over an electronic connection. By analogy, we might say that a person’s self-conversation occurs in the metaphorical space we call his ‘mind'”.5

Mind as Metaphor

For the modern reader, the Szaszian concept of mind may be difficult to grasp. Szasz is simply pointing out that mind it is a modern metaphor. Take the concept of love. Love is difficult to define, but it is a metaphor for feeling and behaving lovingly towards another person. So too with the mind. A person does not have a mysterious thing called a mind, but a person can act in a responsible, self-directed way, called minding; as in mind your manners. A person can reflect by having a conversation with oneself. When we lack the ability to have self-conversation, we are said to be mindless.

Responsibility

Szasz was deeply concerned that the biological-reductionist approach to understanding persons, mind, and consciousness, undermined the view of persons as responsible moral agents. He viewed responsibility as an attribute, rather than a phenomenon. He was arguing against the idea that responsibility is something that we can find by examining a brain.

For Szasz, responsibility is something we attribute to a person to influence their future behavior. Responsibility is a value judgment that we attribute to persons, similar to judging other attributes such as beauty. It is not something we can find in a person, like examining the color of their eyes.

Szasz quotes two of his favorite philosophers, Fredrick von Hayek and C.S. Lewis, to illustrate his point.

Hayek asserted: ‘The statement that a person is responsible for what he does aims at making his actions different from what they would be if he did not believe it to be true. We assign responsibility to a man, not in order to say that as he was he might have acted differently, but in order to make him different.’6

C.S. Lewis remarked: ‘Christ died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for; to make them worth it’.7

Szasz maintained that persons are responsible, not because of some scientific finding, but because ethics and morality demand it. He said, “The view that the mind and brain are one is not a scientific hypothesis (or fact)…it is a rhetorical ruse concealing our unceasing struggle to control persons by controlling the vocabulary.”8

Mental Illness

Szasz saw mental illness as another metaphor for existential suffering and what he called solutions to “problems in living”. He shows that even the most “extreme” forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, are merely pejorative labels. We apply such labels to other peoples speech that offends or annoys.

Szasz said:

The Schizophrenic person…has no trouble expressing himself. Indeed he is often garrulous and grandiloquent, or dramatically silent. He is not embarrassed by his speech behavior; on the contrary, he treats it as if it were perfectly normal….The leap from aberrant discourse to aberrant brain function – that is, the proposition that a disorder of language is ipso facto a disease of the brain – is plainly fallacious.9

Szasz cites literature that shows that so-called auditory hallucinations do not light up (as PET scans) auditory parts of the brain, but light up the vocal parts of the brain used for speech. Szasz says this shows that so-called hallucinations are really self-conversations.

Szasz also cites the ubiquity of “hearing voices” as a normal part of the human experience. For example, he cites studies showing that “71 percent of a group of college students queried by psychologists reported that they had heard voices. One respondent stated: ‘I am scared of driving at night and I sometimes hear something or someone telling me to slow down and take it easy’. Another said: ‘Sometimes when I do something wrong, or am about to do something wrong…I hear a sweet voice from my mother telling me to do or not do it.”10

Psychiatrist Jim van Os echoes Szasz’s view on mental illness and schizophrenia in his 2014 TED talk regarding an alternative view of schizophrenia and mental illness. See video below.

Szasz, the perennial skeptic, has argued that mental illness is a myth, psychotherapy is a myth, and now, the mind itself is a myth. Szasz was not on a crusade to proselytize. He found the ideas about mental illness and the mind inherently interesting. He shows that the biological-reductionist model of the mind does not need to be taken as fact. He also provides an alternative model to the brain-mind model. His views of the mind are not mysticism, but persistent skepticism and common sense.

I highly recommend Szasz’s book to anyone interested in the topic of mind and consciousness. Szasz breathes a much-needed breath of skepticism and insight into the subject.


  1. The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. Preface. 
  2. The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 140. 
  3. The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 2. 
  4.  The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 4. 
  5.  The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 5. 
  6. As quoted in, The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 28. 
  7.  As quoted in, The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 28. 
  8.  The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 46. 
  9.  The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 122. 
  10.  The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. pg 124. 

One thought on “The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.