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Book Review - The Presence of Mind
The Presence of Mind
by Daniel D. Hutto
John Benjamins, 1999
Review by Bill Wringe, Ph.D.
Oct 24th 2001

According to the publishers blurb The Presence of Mind argues that beliefs and desires have a legitimate place in the explanation of action. A philosophically uninformed purchaser might conclude that 252 pages including substantial notes and a detailed bibliography was a lot of space to spend on establishing this mundane thesis. In fact, though, Hutto's book provides an interesting and often convincing account of a number of issues about the nature of intentionality the property that mental states have in virtue of which they represent aspects of the world. Many of the best-known figures in the philosophy of mind have devoted a great deal of energy to these issues over the past twenty years. A merit of this book is that it presents a comprehensive and well-balanced account of many topics, which are normally only discussed in specialist journals.

The main focus of Hutto's book, is whether we can give a naturalistic account of intentionality. Translated out of philosophers jargon the issue is whether we should expect to be able to give a scientific account of how my desire for a glass of beer, or my dogs belief that there is water in its dish come to have these particular features of the world as their objects. Philosophers from both the analytic and phenomenological traditions -- Quine and Brentano being the most famous examples -- have sometimes thought that we should not.

Anyone who agrees with these two seems forced to say that psychology cannot be a science or at least not a natural science. (One could resist this conclusion by denying that intentional states such as beliefs and desires were part of the subject matter of psychology, but this does not seem an attractive option.) Some writers have gone further and said that it is not merely the scientific status of psychology that is at stake here, but the role that beliefs and desires can play in our everyday understanding of ourselves.

A strength of Hutto's book is that it insists that questions about the scientific status of psychology and about the legitimacy of our everyday practices should be kept separate. His response to the first issue is to develop what he takes to be a naturalistically acceptable account of one basic form of intentionality. Roughly speaking his conclusion is that we can account for the content of an intentional response to the world by thinking of it as being determined by its information-bearing function . This is an argumentative strategy pioneered by the American philosopher Ruth Millikan, who has argued that the most plausible way to make the concept of intentionality naturalistically acceptable is to attempt to explicate it in terms of biological concepts - of which function is one.

Provided that the notion of function is legitimate in biology and there is an intricate philosophical literature arguing that it is even in these post-Darwinian times this seems a fairly plausible line. If biology is not one of the natural sciences, what is? Nevertheless one worry about Hutto's line is worth airing. Hutto holds that one reason for preferring a Millikan-style account of intentionality to some others on offer is that it means that the content of such intentional responses is fully determinate, and intuitively plausible. So to take a well-worn example frogs can be legitimately described as seeing flies rather than little black dots, even though they cannot distinguish flies from (say) small stones flicked across their field of vision by an experimenter, because in order to explain the workings of the frogs perceptual system we have to say that its function is to enable the frog to catch flies.

However it may not be just the notion of function, which is doing the work here. Some seems to be being done by considerations of what would be a good functional explanation. This is problematic because the notion of explanation itself may turn out to need explicating in a way, which makes reference to intentional concepts. So it is possible that instead of an account of intentionality in naturalistic terms we have an account of intentionality in terms of a further notion, which is still intentional. How much of a worry this may depend on exactly what one takes naturalism to entail - and it is perhaps a pity that this is one issue which Hutto does not discuss in detail.

It is not obvious how much of a problem this objection poses to Hutto's overall strategy. In the second half of the book he argues that the naturalistic account, which he has given, is only half the story about intentionality. It is an account of the basic non-conceptual intentional responses of animals and possibly pre-linguistic children, but not of mature language users. Ascriptions of beliefs and desires to language users have an irreducibly normative dimension which means they cannot be naturalized. Given this two-tier account it might be open to Hutto to own up to allow some indeterminacy in the intentional responses of prelinguistic creatures while hanging on to determinate contents for full-blown beliefs and desires.

However, by arguing for the existence of this normative dimension, Hutto seems to concede that full-blown beliefs and desires cannot play a role in scientific theorizing . At this point the distinction drawn at the beginning of the book between the acceptability of intentional notions for scientific purposes and their everyday usability becomes important. For Hutto argues deftly that even if full-blown beliefs and desires cannot play a role in scientific theorizing, this does not prevent them from being real, since in the words of Putnam (whom he quotes), there are whole domains of fact with respect to which science tells us nothing at all.

This position is easier to state than defend and though much of what Hutto says here is plausible it would be interesting to see the anti-naturalistic metaphysical position, which he is committed to deal with at greater length. But this may be too much to expect from a book, which has already covered a great deal of interesting ground. It is encouraging that we are promised a further book from the same author and publisher entitled Beyond Physicalism, which attempts to address this issue.

© 2001 Bill Wringe

Bill Wringe, Ph.D., Department of International Relations, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.