On Human Nature and Its Implications for the Mind-Body Problem


Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Mad in America.

Peter Hacker is an eminent philosopher and one of the world’s leading authorities on Wittgenstein. He has published a four volume analytical commentary on the Philosophical Investigations and a brilliant little book on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mind, now sadly out of print.1 He is also well known for his debunking of neuroscientific reductionism in collaboration with various neuroscientists.2,3

In 2010 he published the first of a series of books on human nature. The series is the exposition of the wisdom Hacker has derived over his career from Wittgenstein and many other philosophers, including, importantly, Aristotle. Hacker generously looked over this review for me, so as well as consolidating my own knowledge, I hope I can also convey something of his revelatory understanding of the nature of life.

The first volume of Hacker’s magnum opus is the beginning of an intriguing exploration of what it means to be human.4 Hacker interrogates in detail both what it is to be alive in a general sense, and what it means to be the unique sort of living things that human beings are. The next two published volumes address ‘intellectual powers’ and emotions and passions, and a fourth volume, yet to be published, will cover the subjects of ‘morality, determinism and a worthwhile life.’

In his intention to understand human nature through an analysis of language, Hacker is undertaking the project implicit in Wittgenstein’s view of the role of philosophy — to elucidate the concepts we use and to reveal the origin of the philosophical confusions we become entangled in ‘when language goes on holiday’.5 (§ 38) It is a project of clarification, but in this rather mundane-sounding activity lie profound insights into the nature of being human, for, as Wittgenstein realised, our language expresses the sort of creatures that we are. Through disclosing the conceptual framework within which we think, act and come to know things, our deep and implicit understanding of ourselves and our world is revealed. ‘Essence is expressed by grammar’ as Wittgenstein put it. (§ 371)

In a way, Hacker is only showing us what we already know, but the brilliance and necessity of his analysis is twofold: first he examines concepts and ideas that most of us have never thought to examine, at least not in the way that Hacker does, and secondly he disentangles confusions that have arisen by our desire to explicate concepts in the wrong way. Scientific psychology and neuroscience lead us astray by suggesting that philosophical confusions, the ‘mind-body problem’ for example, are empirical issues to be solved by science.

For me, the revelation of Hacker’s work is the simplicity and common sense with which he describes the nature of living beings in general, and human beings in particular. He reminds us, for example, that human beings are ‘substances’, that is material things, or in Hacker’s words ‘sentient, space-occupying, spatio-temporal continuents of a certain animal kind’ (P 29). We are not minds or disembodied agents, nor are we brains, as much philosophy of mind seems to imply. We are whole material beings that, like other living organisms, have a finite existence. Like all other material things in the macroscopic world, each one of us traces a unique path through time and space. Hacker shows how concepts of material things or substances are among the most fundamental parts of our conceptual framework, our understanding, of the world. Our experience is first and foremost of the material — both of our own bodies and actions, and of the environment in which we are immersed.

Hacker’s most important point, however, is his emphasis on the unique features of living beings and how they differ from inanimate entities and substances. Hacker follows Aristotle in emphasising the teleological nature of life. Teleology is the explanation of things or events in terms of their goals or purposes. Unlike inorganic solids, liquids and gasses, living things grow, develop, reproduce and die. They can ‘thrive and flourish’ or they can ‘decline and decay’ (P 176). Hence it is possible to understand biology in terms of what is good for an organism and what is not good for it. Linked with this, living things behave in ways that are purposive. Their actions can be interpreted in terms of how they fulfill certain goals. The most basic of these are to survive, flourish and reproduce, but complex beings like ourselves can have purposes of our own, such as enjoyment, interest and caring, which may or may not be consistent with biological ‘goods’.

Living things have characteristic ‘powers’ or capacities that depend on the physical structure of their bodies and the development of their internal systems or organs. Oak trees can grow into huge, spreading trees that survive for centuries. A seagull characteristically learns to fly and fish to swim. Higher animals have capacities to nurture their young, to make choices and some of them to cooperate with each other to achieve a goal. Humans have particular physical capacities, including a high degree of dexterity, and they also have unique mental abilities.

Understanding human beings as organisms with certain powers is key to addressing the problem set up by philosophers such as Descartes and Locke about the relation between mind and body, or mind and world. For Aristotle, the psuche or ‘psyche’ was not a separate part of the organism with a relationship of some sort to its body; a creature’s psuche can be seen as the capabilities of the organism, the things it is characteristically able to do. Hacker suggests that, in a similar way, the concept of ‘mind’ can be understood as the set of mental capacities typically possessed by human beings. Most important among these uniquely human capacities is the use of language. Our intellectual ability and facility for language enables humans to be aware of general truths, to ‘reason and deliberate’ (P 239), to reflect on their own actions, thoughts and feelings, to be aware of the past and the future, to have a sense of right and wrong, to imagine things, to cooperate in a whole variety of demanding endeavours and to have complex emotions such as hope and regret.

Hacker also shows how the way that we use the term ‘mind’ in colloquial speech reflects various sorts of intellectual activities. To have a thought ‘cross one’s mind’, for example is ‘for something to have occurred to one’ (P 249). To call something to mind is to remember it. To ‘know one’s mind’ is to have formed an opinion. Thus Hacker concludes that in ordinary speech ‘talk of the mind . . . is merely a convenient façon de parler, an oblique way of speaking about human faculties and their exercise’ (P 250).

Therefore the ‘mind’ is not something inside us. Indeed, it is important to appreciate that it is not a ‘thing’ at all. It is the various capacities the human organism possesses to respond in a particularly sophisticated way to the world around it. These capacities are not separable from the human organism as a whole, including its physical body. The mind-body problem is, to use Hacker’s example, like trying to relate the colour of a five pound note to its value: ‘A £5 note is green and has a value of £5 but the colour green does not stand in any relationship to the value of £5’ (P 283).

In a brief history of teleology, Hacker describes how Aristotle’s views were adapted by Christianity, which introduced a divine Creator, a designer. Henceforth, the purpose of life became to manifest the intentions of the Creator rather than to fulfill the intrinsic nature of the organism in question. Purpose became entwined with design. This modified teleological view was then killed off by modern science, which expunged teleology from its view of the Universe, and attempted to apply the principles of physics to all understanding, including the study of human beings — both their biology and their activity. The modern scientific framework therefore analyses all aspects of the world as a mechanical system, in terms of cause and effect. Instead of looking at the underlying purposes of organisms and how their biological structure enables them to fulfil these, there is a search for the ‘causes’ of certain situations or outcomes. For Hacker this is a mistake. Although some aspects of biology can be understood in causal terms, a rich and complete understanding of life depends on understanding its purposive nature.

Hacker, like other thinkers,6 stresses the difference between nomothetic and idiographic forms of knowledge. The nomothetic is the typical scientific model which looks for generalities and universal laws, and analyses events in terms of cause and effect. The idiographic approach attempts to understand ‘something particular’ (P 162) by reference to its unique circumstances and antecedents. Hacker further distinguishes teleological, nomothetic explanations, which are those that are framed in terms of function, which he refers to as ‘teleonomic,’ for example the functions of bodily organs or instinctive or reflexive animal behaviour. Teleological explanations of human actions, on the other hand, are idiographic. They ‘render an act intelligible but not by relating it to a regularity or law’ (P 162). The idiographic approach does seek generalities, but not universals and it explains by reference to reasons not causes. As Hacker suggests in his third volume of the series on The Passions, we use art and literature to illustrate and explore various forms of emotion and feeling — both the familiar and the more unusual.7 We do not explain emotions by constructing a formula to predict what feeling will occur in a particular set of circumstances, we look to art to help us understand those aspects of our common human experience that are difficult to describe directly.

For Hacker, therefore, understanding human behaviour is not a science — it is something that everyone achieves to a greater or lesser degree through participation in the language-using community of human beings. A proper understanding of human behaviour, one that does justice to its nature, differs from the form of understanding that is proper to the natural world. Yet, unlike other critics of positivism, Hacker further distinguishes between the living and the non-living world, and suggests that the way we understand life, both the biology of the body and the behaviour of organisms, is fundamentally different from the way we understand the inanimate world, because the former is teleological, and the latter is not. Living things can be understood in terms of purpose, but inorganic matter cannot.

Hacker’s distinction between the teleonomic and the idiographic suggests, however, that aspects of the study of living things can be approached using the methods of natural science. Causal explanations are legitimate when studying biology, but they explain how an organism has the powers that it does and what mechanisms come into play when it does certain things. They do not explain or predict what exactly an animal will do, for which we need a sense of the animal’s purposes. Yet, Hacker further points out that many animate things do not have a purpose; disease, for example.

The teleological approach is, however, helpful to clarify what has become a tortuous discussion about the nature of disease. Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether mental disorders qualify as diseases for a moment, as far as physical conditions are concerned, health can be understood as a state of the body that enables the organism to undertake the activities typical of its kind. Disease is a state that interferes with this, including all the defects of organs and systems that prevent them from enabling the organism to function as a member of its species normally would. According to these definitions, which are simple, but also compelling, there is no great difficulty in characterising health and disease. There is no need to agonise about whether or not concepts of health and disease are socially constructed. Although there will always be debate at the margins, in general the concepts are implicit in a proper understanding of the nature of biology. Setting aside his attempts to incorporate mental disorder into a disease framework, they roughly coincide with the philosopher, Christopher Boorse’s naturalist definition of disease as the breakdown of a biological function.8

I agree with Hacker that Aristotle’s concept of a human being as an organism endowed with certain characteristic powers is correct and useful, and, following from this that the ‘mind’, or mental capacities, are necessarily inseparable from the material substance or body whose capacities they are. However, there is a way in which our mental attributes are more central to our identity than our physical or corporeal properties.

Our mental capacities, beliefs, preferences and choices can be thought of as our personality, and our personality is, I would suggest, what we think of as being most distinctive about us. I can imagine, for example, having a different sort of body, although this is, or course, a logical impossibility — a ‘nonsense’ to use Hacker’s term. Yet I cannot imagine having a different personality and still being me. My beliefs, attitudes, inclinations, emotional responses, and the activities all these are manifest in, are essential to my sense of myself in a way that my height and my hair are not. My beliefs and proclivities may change, of course, but in this case I am changing too.

This is relevant when thinking about the nature of ‘mental disorder’, which, as a variety of beliefs and actions has, I believe, a deeper and more direct relationship to our sense of ourselves than a disease of the body, except when that disease affects the brain. Diseases that affect the brain such as advanced dementia can change the personality profoundly, of course, but then we do not think of the person as being ‘themselves’ any more. Having a chronic disease of another part of the body can also affect an individual’s personality, but indirectly, through the way someone has to adapt to the presence of the condition, or the life lessons that can be learned through having it. The disease does not constitute a change in personality in itself, it leads to one. Yet a change in one’s beliefs and actions, as occurs with the onset of a mental disorder, like depression or schizophrenia, is a change in one’s personality, in itself. Although brain disease can cause personality change, I suggest that most situations we label as mental disorders are not the result of brain disease. Wittgenstein saw this when he suggested that that “Madness doesn’t have to be regarded as an illness. Why not a sudden — more or less — change of character?”9(P 62)

In my view, our desperation to view mental disorder as a disease leads to unhelpful assumptions that it is somehow distinct from the ‘true’ self, as bodily conditions to some extent are, and this encourages the supposition that it can be treated or cured without changing the individual’s personality. This has led to a huge programme of medically-disguised social engineering, in which people are encouraged to change the way they think and behave, by being persuaded that they have a medical condition that needs to be eliminated. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are doled out with no attention as to how they alter normal intellectual and emotional capacities, on the unsupported grounds that they are rectifying an underlying neurochemical deficit. Even psychotherapy is presented, sometimes, as if it is a remedy for a medical disease. While it may, on occasion, be desirable that people should change their behaviour, either for their own sake, or for other people’s, this should not be something that is achieved through subterfuge, even if the majority of the population are signed up to that subterfuge.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Peter Hacker who very generously looked over this review and helped me to clarify my ideas; also Steven Tresker for helping me to understand Boorse’s view of disease.

  1. Hacker PMS. Wittgenstein. London: Phoenix; 1997.
  2. Bennett MR, Hacker PMS. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; 2003.
  3. Nachev P, Hacker P. The neural antecedents to voluntary action: a conceptual analysis. Cogn Neurosci. 2014;5(3-4):193-208.
  4. Hacker PMS. Human Nature: The Categorical Framework. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.
  5. Wittgenstein L. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; 1953.
  6. Lindlof TR. Nomothetic vs idiographic science. In: Donsbach W, editor. The Encyclopedia of Communication, First edition. 2008: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2008. p. 1-5.
  7. Hacker PMS. The Passions: a study of human nature. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell; 2017.
  8.  Boorse C. A Second Rebuttal On Health. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press; 2014. 1 online resource p.
  9. Wittgenstein L. Culture and Value. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; 1970.