Rorty's Mark of the Mental and His Disappearance Theory

In “Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental” [The Journal of Philosophy (June 25, 1970). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations will be from this article], Richard Rorty argues that although there is no characteristic that marks off everything that is mental, the contents of the stream of consciousness (thoughts and sensations) may be considered as that which is paradigmatically mental, and they are distinguished by the fact that sincere first-person reports about them are currently treated as incorrigible. (From now on, “incorrigible” will stand for “treated as incorrigible”.) He adds that “beliefs, desires, moods, emotions, intentions, etc”. (p. 491) are also taken to be mental because reports about them are almost incorrigible.

The claim that all first-person reports about a stream of consciousness are incorrigible is on first glance attractive. If one thinks of reports of pain, for example, it seems plausible to say that there is no accepted procedure for correcting them. But many other mentalistic reports are clearly not incorrigible. Consider the following case. A says that his after-image of a polygon has fourteen sides. B says that A must be mistaken because the polygon responsible for the after-image had sixteen sides. Surely it would seem far more plausible to claim that A had miscounted the sides of his after-image than that a sixteen-sided figure was responsible for a fourteen-sided after-image. And if more evidence was wanted, one might discover that from time to time A had miscounted the sides of geometrical figures.

I don’t think that the sort of error in question is limited to after-images. I could have used, instead, an example of a person making a mistake in relation to his sensory-experience when he was looking at a physical object. I chose the after-image case in order to avoid difficulties in relation to describing one’s visual experience when looking at something. I think that such an experience is indeed describable, but I want my counterexample to be as uncontroversial as possible.

If Rorty has failed to find a mark of the mental, he is in serious trouble in relation to his disappearance theory—the view that mental qualities may disappear at some time in the distant future. Unlike Smart, he holds that reports that appear to be mentalistic really are mentalistic rather than (as Smart thinks) topic-neutral. A defense of his disappearance theory will therefore require him to determine what mentalistic quality or qualities we attribute to events in the stream of consciousness, and to show that it or they will at some time cease to exist. On the basis of his view that incorrigibility is the mark of the mental, Rorty offers the following argument [Rorty has acknowledged in a letter to me that I have given an accurate account of his argument for the disappearance thesis. He says, “the argument you sketch is indeed the only argument which I have to offer”]:
For something to be paradigmatically mental, it must be private. For something to be private, it must be such that one and only one person can make incorrigible reports about it. At some time in the distant future, scientists may make such great advances in the study of the brain that there will be grounds for challenging reports about the stream of consciousness. Then challenges to first-person reports of mental events will be in order; such reports will cease to be incorrigible. As a result of this, the stream of consciousness will cease to be private and therefore will cease to be mental. Mental events will have “disappeared.”
Unfortunately, from the point of view of a materialist, this argument won’t work because as we have seen, incorrigibility is not a mark of the mental. It would have been particularly desirable in terms of a disappearance theory for incorrigibility to be such a mark, because reports might be incorrigible at one time and corrigible at some later time, so that something could at one time be mental and then at a later time cease to be mental. If incorrigibility is not a mark of the mental, and if we assume that Rorty is not prepared to retreat to Smart’s topic-neutral position, he has the difficult task of finding something else that is a distinguishing characteristic of mental phenomena and is such that certain events could be mental at one time and then cease to be mental at a later time. None of the things that are commonly thought of as marks of the mental are likely to fulfill the latter requirement. This would seem to leave Rorty in a difficult position.

There is another line that a materialist could take. Fie could argue that we attribute a mental quality to a certain class of things, but that we are systematically mistaken in doing this. Flere again, he would have to come up with a mark of the mental, and this time it would have to be claimed that our attributions of the quality in question are invariably mistaken even now, as opposed to in the distant future. Flere again, the materialist would seem to have a difficult order to fill.

Is there, then, any way to distinguish the contents of one’s stream of consciousness from physical objects? I think there is at least one. It is logically possible to have an hallucination in regard to a physical object, but it is not logically possible to have an hallucination in regard to the contents of one’s stream of consciousness. An hallucination can’t make you think that something is a part of your stream of consciousness that is not. An hallucination is a part of your stream of consciousness.


Rorty's Mark of the Mental and His Disappearance Theory
Author(s): R. I. Sikora
Source: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sep., 1974), pp. 191-193
Published by: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40230494