Daily Archives: February 11, 2008

A Way without a Mental State

Picking up on Dan Robins’ comment in the previous post:

“On a more substantive point, I tend to accept Chad Hansen’s thesis that early Chinese philosophers (as well presumably as lots of other people) did not work with belief/desire folk psychology because (in effect) they did not think of human thought as propositional. So I wouldn’t agree that belief/desire folk psychology is universal.”

That gives me a chance to post about both Hansen and Fingarette, two of my favorites. On this topic, Hansen gives an interesting and very different defense of Herbert Fingarette’s thesis in “A Way without a Crossroads” (ch. 2 of Confucius: the Secular as Sacred).

Fingarette famously argues there that in the Analects, the language of an “inner life” with respect to choices and responsibilities is conspicuously absent. That isn’t to say that the notions of choice and responsibility are lacking, but that they are, significantly, not spelled out in terms of what we might call inner “mental states” (not Fingarette’s terminology–he refers variously to “inner shape and dynamics” of choice, “looking inward,” “inner life,” and “inner crisis”). Instead of the “choice-responsibility-guilt” complex that implies an inner life, Fingarette argues that for Confucius, the idea of acquiring the Way is of an edification process that provides a correcting and civilizing influence on a person through the rituals, study of poetry, history and so forth. As I understand it, that means that in Fingarette’s view, if there is an idea of moral agency in Confucius, it is not at all concerned with the agent as rational chooser, but the agent as performer, or perhaps “traveler,” of the Way.

In A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought Hansen takes up something very much like Fingarette’s point. Hansen’s argument for it, though, is grander and more far-reaching. Here, I’m going to try to summarize quickly what his argument is in pp. 75 – 78. Because of the pictographic nature of Chinese written language, Confucius and others of the era thought of language as conventional and public. They did not see the need for a private “language of thought”–or “mentalese”–which Western philosophers have thought necessary for making sense of meaning and translation (they need to suppose each of us has a private language of thought into which any conventional language must be translated in order for us to understand it; this would be a pure language of concepts along with logical apparatus of rationality, or something like that). That provides a plausible explanation, Hansen argues, for why Confucius “offers neither psychological nor other explanations” (77) for the meaning and significance of ritual gestures. And the conventionalism, as opposed to language-of-thought-ism, about language and meaning is why Confucius and those like him would not have been engaged in, because they did not require, the folk-psychology of beliefs and desires to explain the meaning or value of people’s behavior, or the guides (daos) for it.

I realize that might gloss over details a bit from either Fingarette’s or Hansen’s views. But, what’s a blog for anyway, if we don’t do that sort of thing?

I have some worries about whether either of their arguments have anything to do with the folk-psychology of belief and desire, however. First a confession: I’m not really very well trained in philosophy of mind/language issues, so I’ll probably need some rectifying at your hands. I thought belief and desire folk-psychology was something fairly basic and theoretically “thin” that we could attribute to anyone who attributes thoughts and desires to others or to themselves. That’s part of its status as folk-psychology–average Dude doesn’t care about mentalese, language-of-thought, propositional content, or translation; Dude just attributes thoughts and desires to people using language like: “She wants…” “She thinks…” “I guess…” “I’m afraid that…” etc. But that just is the use of belief-desire folk-psychology, isn’t it? If so, isn’t it clear that Confucius and everyone else we’re concerned with engages in it? Attributing a desire and a belief doesn’t have to be so elaborate. Maybe the folk-psychology isn’t in the foreground of explaining the meaning or value of people’s behavior, but that might just have to do with pedagogy. How do you teach people to do right or value the right things? You have to change their beliefs and desires, but how do you do that? You might put at the center some kind of nearly rote behavior which is key to coming to a realization of the value of the activity. Then you wouldn’t say much about changing their beliefs and desires because that just goes without saying.

I could say more, I suppose, but let me see what you think.