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Book Review - Matters of the Mind

by William Lyons
Routledge, 2001
Review by Mazen Maurice Guirguis
Jan 17th 2002

Over the last two decades, the nature of the mind has enjoyed an ever-increasing share of the philosophical literature. But the enthusiasm has not been confined just to philosophy. Psychologists—who until recently have shunned consciousness as a topic worthy of serious study—are finally beginning to recognize the significance of the questions with which philosophers have been struggling for years: What is the relationship between mind and body? How can sentience be a by-product of what is essentially an electrochemical engine? Will the intentional vocabulary of the propositional attitudes—those couched in the language of beliefs, hopes, desires, fears, intuitions, etc.—survive a mature theory of human cognition?

Even a brief survey of the proposed approaches to these questions will show remarkable complexity and diversity of opinion, and the archive continues to grow daily. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a story to be told here, for the suggested “solutions” often represent discernible intellectual traditions and schools of thought, which, in turn, have their genesis in unique social, scientific, and technological trends. William Lyons in Matters of the Mind thoughtfully tells this story, recounting the perspectival shifts that scholars have undergone in contemplating the nature of mentality.

Starting with the historically persistent dogma that posits a soul separate from the body, Lyons shows how this kind of theistic dualism has been given its basic philosophical shape by the work of René Descartes. The Cartesian “two worlds” view (the world of physical things and the world of non-physical souls and thoughts) is now considered to be a relic of an old, unsophisticated conception of the mind that is incompatible with today’s more secular sentiments. True as this may be, it does not require much imagination or insight to endlessly criticize, belittle, blame, or plain bad-mouth an admittedly problematic hypothesis without taking the time to think about its place in the history of ideas. Lyons does not make this mistake. He remarks—quite correctly, I think—that “with something approaching extreme perversity, Descartes is now best remembered through the fact that most twentieth-century accounts of mind define themselves in opposition to what they take to be Descartes’ account” (p. 4).

Along with logical positivism’s effort to reduce all folk psychological idioms to statements of physics, this century’s most conspicuous attempt to dispel Descartes’ two-world view came from the behaviorist faction. Logical positivism regards the task of philosophy as chiefly comprising the investigation of the logico-conceptual foundations of the natural sciences; behaviorism is the school of psychology in which an organism’s observable (re)actions are the primary topic of interest, and learning new stimulus-response associations, whether by classical conditioning or reinforcement principles, is deemed the most important kind of behavior to scrutinize. Lyons discusses both doctrines in chapter two, but emphasizes behaviorism, especially in regards to its rise and impact on psychology. Though behaviorism is now every bit as defunct as Cartesian dualism—in part because it could not explain one of the most salient aspects of thought, the fact that contentful mental states are generally known to the subject who has them without appeal to behaviorist or otherwise external evidence—Lyons nevertheless argues that much has been gained by the movement. In particular, behaviorism introduced a more objective standpoint into the way psychological inquiry is conducted, which “was to become the norm of all future accounts of mind in both philosophy and psychology” (p. 78).

The demise of behaviorism came at a time when important advances were being made in the area of neurophysiology. Scientists started to know more about how the brain functions, and their discoveries have at least partly motivated various mind-body identity theories, which equate either types or tokens of thoughts with specific brain states, and, a little later, the more polemical attitude of eliminative materialism—the view that, while folk psychological descriptions and explanations may be practically indispensable, mentalistic categories do not actually denote anything real. In chapter three, Lyons takes us through the rise and fall of such positions, along with their similarities and differences, advantages and shortcomings, effects and repercussions. 

Mind-body identity and eliminativist materialism sprung from what was a scientific development: a surge in our understanding of the central nervous system. The next epic in the history of philosophy of mind, according to Lyons, is rooted in what was essentially a technological milestone. We may date the advent of the computer age to the late seventies, at roughly the same time when functionalism—a theory that uses the computer metaphor to describe the mind as the brain’s software—started to flourish in most North-American philosophy departments. Throughout the eighties there was something of a battle between functionalism and eliminativism, with the latter losing ground and the former becoming more established. Functionalism remains popular today, but one significant problem for this approach—reviewed by Lyons in chapter four—is an apparent inability to account for the subjectivity of conscious experience. Lyons talks about the problem of consciousness in chapter five, outlining the different, and often inconsistent, points of view on offer. He concludes the book with a comment on what he believes to be lessons learnt and lessons lost.                   

Lyons does not propose or defend any new theses, and this makes his book largely an expository one. But lest anyone supposes that exposition leaves little room for originality, Matters of the Mind is certainly evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the best feature of the book is its parallel portrayal of the relevant themes in philosophy and psychology. While the two disciplines differ in methodology and scope, they have many points of contact and continue to manifest a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit. What Lyons does is identify the main connections and arrange them into a coherent reconstruction of the forces that have shaped theories of mind over the past five centuries. He does not assume any technical knowledge on the part of his audience, but takes the time—sometimes in the main text, sometimes in footnotes—to explain any philosophical or psychological concept that may be unfamiliar to laity. Although this may prove distracting to the advanced student, it makes the work much more accessible to the general public.

The reader will find many wonderful surprises in Matters of the Mind. It starts with a “Chronology of Modern Philosophy of Mind,” which lists all the main events that have contributed to the subject in recent history, starting in 1890 with William James’ publication of Principles of Psychology, and ending in 1999 with the inauguration of the “Soul Catcher 2025” project (aimed at developing an implantable computer chip capable of recording the entire sum of a person’s visual experiences over a lifetime). The reader will also find helpful illustrations, passages from newspaper articles, diagrams, brief biographies, amusing anecdotes, and a virtual picture-gallery of many prominent philosophers and psychologists. These different elements combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable and informative volume. Matters of the Mind is recommended for everyone, but especially the beginning student who wants a bird’s-eye-view of the entire field.            


© 2002 Mazen Maurice Guirguis


Mazen Maurice Guirguis, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia