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The Social Mind

David Best


I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the celebration of Drid's work. I have admired her persistent determination, through considerable adversity, over the years. I hope that I have offered some support.

     I am indebted to Brenda Farnell for doing me the honor of inviting me, and I congratulate her on her remarkably efficient organization, which was especially difficult at such a distance and when she was obliged to change the venue at a late stage. Great appreciation is also due to the staff of the Sociology Department of Hong Kong Baptist University, who took on the staging of this conference at a late stage, organized it with superb efficiency, and gave us all a remarkably warm welcome, which I shall never forget. In particular, I must mention the warm and unstinting help given to me so generously by Vivien Chan and Cindy Wong.

     It is a great privilege to be invited to speak in China, with its profound and rich history of cultural traditions.


I can offer only a very condensed and simplified outline of complex issues, in the hope of raising deep and crucial questions which may not have occurred to you. My aim is, first, to expose the deep misconceptions inherent in the common, traditional assumption that a mind is a nonphysical entity, or a brain, encased in a physical body. This relegates bodiliness to at most a secondary status. And, second, I shall argue that a coherent conception of a person is that of a unitary human being, whose identity is constituted by actions and responses inseparable from bodiliness and cultural context.

     I am greatly indebted to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein and some of my teachers at Cambridge, who left me with a lifetime of thought, even though, later, I came to disagree with some of them.


It is obvious that society consists of individuals; it is far less obvious that an individual person is significantly a construct of society. It is natural to assume that the essence of anything can be discovered only by probing narrowly and deeply. Thus, the philosopher Descartes argued convincingly that while I can doubt the existence of all physical things in the world outside me, including even the existence of my own physical body, I cannot doubt the existence of my mind, because it is that mind which does the doubting: hence, his famous conclusion, "I think, therefore I am." That is, his influential conclusion is that it is my nonphysical thinking mind which is the essence of my being.

     This conception of the autonomous, metaphysical mind or self, an entity distinct from but enclosed in the physical body, is normally referred to as body/mind dualism or subjectivism. It has been aptly called "The Ghost in the Machine" (Ryle 1949; see Figure 1). The ghost is the metaphysical mind, self, or soul, and the machine is the physical body. This concept dominates Western attitudes but is also prevalent in other cultures, for instance, in religious doctrines of a nonphysical soul, believed to survive the death of the physical body: hence, belief in reincarnation.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Ghost in the Machine. Drawing by Jennifer Bird.

According to this conception, I cannot know for certain, for instance, that anyone else feels pain since I can never get to his inner self. I can see what happens to his body, but I have to infer to his inner mind to achieve the belief that he is in pain. But when I see someone hit his thumb with a hammer and cry out, I do know, for certain, that he is in pain. I do no theorizing or inferring; I see directly that he feels pain. This indicates immediately a fundamental flaw in the subjectivist/dualist conception.


A common assumption some years ago was that by rejecting the ghost we must be left simply with the machine, the physical body. This theory is called "Behaviorism." I cannot discuss it adequately, but it can be seen to generate equally intractable problems. For instance, it cannot explain intentional action. Concentrating solely on the mechanical physical movement cannot explain the difference between "My arm goes up" and "I raise my arm." The essential point is that an agent is required for intentional action, that is, someone or something to set it off, and behaviorism denies the agent because of the common assumption that the only possible agent is the ghost, which it rightly rejects as making no sense. What is required to solve the dilemma is a completely different way of looking at the issue: neither a ghost nor a machine, but a human being, whose identity is constituted by a social context.

Subjectivism Again: Meaning in Language

Let me expose in another way the misconceptions inherent in subjectivism, which is my main target of criticism. It purports to explain not only the relation of body to mind, but as part of it, meaning in language. According to subjectivism, just as pain-behavior is assumed to be an external manifestation of the "inner" mental sensation of pain, so language is believed to be the external expression in symbols of "inner" private thoughts. As an example let me quote the well-known American art-educator Elliott Eisner:


Humans not only have the capacity to form different kinds of concepts, they also, because of their social nature, have the need to externalise and share what has been conceptualised. To achieve such an end, human beings have invented . . . forms of representation [which] are the means by which privately held conceptions are transferred into public images so that the meaning they embody can be shared (my emphases). (1981:17)

This theory may initially sound plausible, and it is held by many. But it is riddled with insuperable problems. For instance, on this theory, how do we understand and communicate with each other? Subjectivists, such as Eisner, argue that human beings invented language in order to express private thoughts and feelings. Let me illustrate:

Figure 2

In Figure 2, A represents one person, B another. According to subjectivism, the thoughts and feelings of A are completely private, but she wants to communicate them to B. So to achieve this, she invents a word. B hears it and is supposed to understand. But this makes no sense. For how can B possibly understand it, since, according to the subjectivist theory itself, the thought expressed by the word is private and cannot be known to anyone else? Indeed, on this theory, one could never know whether other minds exist at all.

     Moreover, how can person A utter a word since a word already presupposes a public, shared language? And, on a subjectivist view, how could a public language be invented? Do they set up a committee to invent language? It would be a very strange committee since no one could communicate with anyone else; for not only do they have no verbal language, they cannot communicate even by signs and gestures, since these would symbolize or express equally private mental states. According to the theory, it is impossible for anyone else to access other people's minds.

     So, paradoxically, the only way in which a language could be invented is if there were already a language in which to invent it.


is another crucially significant consequence. Note that, according to Eisner, it is because of their social nature that humans wish to communicate with each other. But this is back to front. For it is not that humans began with a social nature which caused them to invent forms of communication; on the contrary, the forms of communication are their social nature: these public forms are what their social nature consists in. This is hard to grasp. We need to recognize how radical is the difference of the conception which I am outlining from the traditional, widely prevalent subjectivist conception, which has had, and still has, a pervasive and profound influence in most areas of thought. This different conception is hard to understand because we have all been brought up on what Kerr (1986) aptly calls the "mentalist-individualist" conception, which is the deeply ingrained assumption that, at base, each of us is a separate metaphysical self, logically distinct from our social and physical context. As Wittgenstein puts it, "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it." The imprisoning picture is the powerful appeal of the idea of the self concealed inside the person.

     Of course, it is possible to keep one's thoughts and feelings to oneself, to hide them. In Shakespeare's play Macbeth, the king, who has been treacherously deceived by one of his followers, exclaims, "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face: He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust." That is, this man had pretended to be loyal to the king, but all the time he was hiding his real feelings and thoughts. And, less dramatically, we often do not express overtly what we think and feel. But it is important to recognize that this is a secondary, acquired ability. To make this clear, consider this: it would be logically impossible for all or even most people to tell lies all or even most of the time. To be able to tell lies relies on the fact that most people most of the time do not normally tell lies.

     But it is partly because the possibility sometimes of keeping one's feelings to oneself is grossly exaggerated that the idea has arisen that all thoughts and feelings are purely private and inaccessible to others. In fact, on the contrary, the possibility of keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves is a development from the roots in public reactions and language. This becomes evident if we think of the ways in which young children react, immediately, without prior thought.

     We need to reject the conviction that the foundation of the human being is the solipsistic, private self, and instead recognize that it is language and the social forms of life which are the roots of the individual. That is, the emphasis at the deepest level is not "I" but, to use Kerr's illuminating phrase, "the conversation which we are."

     To quote my late colleague D. Z. Phillips (1970: 6),

The problem is not one of how to bridge an unbridgeable gulf between a number of logically private selves . . . .On the contrary, unless there were a common life which people share, which they were taught and came to learn, there could be no notion of a person . . . .Our common ways of doing things are not generalisations from individual performances, but the preconditions of individuality. The public is the precondition of the private, not a construct of it. This being so, what it means to be a person cannot be divorced or abstracted from these common features of human life.


To relate my thesis directly to the theme of this conference, it is important to notice that subjectivism relegates bodiliness to a mere secondary appendage. It is clear why body/mind dualism is inseparably related to religious belief. For, according to subjectivism, it is the inner self, mind, or soul which is all-important; bodiliness, the physical container, may be temporarily necessary, but it gets in the way of direct communication with others and, more importantly, with God and spirituality. It is the prolonged and deeply ingrained influence of such a conception which, for example, in some Christian beliefs, has led to the conviction that dance is sinful, in that it involves the use of the body, encourages the temptations of the flesh, etc. Physical, bodily functions are regarded as mere temporary, unfortunate necessities. Some of us, trying to support dance, still encounter residual, if diminishing prejudice against it. As Brenda Farnell puts it in a recent article, "The reasons for such neglect stem from a long-standing bias against the body in Western philosophical and religious traditions" (1996: 536–41).

     However, let me warn that my argument for the essential bodiliness of human beings lends no support whatsoever to behaviorism. The bodily actions of a person are not mere mechanical movements but the intentional actions of a human being.


A currently prevalent concept has arisen which relates to both behaviorism and subjectivism, namely, the mind/brain identity theory. According to this theory, it is not a ghost which is the essence of a human being but a brain. Notice the similarities: the emphasis is on an essence, in this case, like behaviorism, a physical entity, and like subjectivism, it again relegates bodiliness to a subsidiary position.

     There is a complex academic debate going on about the mind/brain identity theory. All I have time for is to point out again that any physical action, including a brain process, requires an agent. As we have seen, this cannot be the subjective ghost, and a purely physical phenomenon, such as a brain, cannot operate itself.

     To put this notion in perspective, it is worth noting that, for Aristotle, the heart, not the brain, was the seat of thought, and thus the central, most important organ of the body. In Shakespeare's time, other parts of the body were thought to have mental attributes. Thus, the liver was the seat of courage; to call a man "lily-livered" was to call him a coward. The spleen was the source of anger. And, as Valentine cards remind us, more recently the heart was supposed to be the seat of love. We now regard such ideas as quaint, but the temptation to locate the thinking, feeling being, or aspects of it, in parts of the body remains strong. In due course, I hope that the idea that the brain does the thinking will also be recognized as a quaint confusion.

     It is, of course, true that one could not think without a brain, but that is not to say that it is the brain which does the thinking. A brain may be necessary for thinking, but it is not sufficient. It is sometimes objected that an injury to the brain may affect one's thinking, so that surely proves that it is the brain which does the thinking. But consider an analogy. I cannot run without legs, and injury to my legs may affect my running. But it is not my legs which do the running; on the contrary, it is I, the human being, David Best, who does the running. It is neither the ghost nor the brain but the human being which is the source of action and thought.

     To clarify, let me recount a true anecdote. Some years ago, I was invited as visiting professor to our largest University of Art and Design. The director of the Design Faculty asked me to advise him about a book he was writing on the creative design process. During our conversation, he repeatedly emphasized that what was most important was not so much the product but the process of creative thinking. I entirely agreed with him. "But," I asked, "Why do you keep tapping your head when you speak of creative thinking?" He was surprised and replied, "Because that is where creative thinking goes on. You surely agree with that." I replied, "No." He was startled and exclaimed, "As a distinguished philosopher, you are surely not denying that thinking goes on in the head." I replied, "Yes, that is what I am denying." To which he retorted, triumphantly, convinced that he had a winning point, "So where does your thinking go on then?" I replied, "Well, for instance, in my study, or the train, or even in bed at night, and many other places."

     He was exasperated and thought that I was being facetious. But, on the contrary, I was being totally serious; I was making the crucial point, unrecognized by most people, that it is not a brain which thinks but a human being. The criteria of creative thinking are what one does or could do.

     In a tutorial, I criticized a student's essay for lack of clarity. "Oh," he said, "but it is clear up here," tapping his head. Well, such an assertion might make some sense on occasion, but if this were to happen with every essay, it would reveal that his thinking was not clear. To adapt what Wittgenstein once said, it would make no difference to what we say about thinking, intelligence, creativity, etc., even if our heads were full of sawdust! Thinking does not go on in the head.

     This mechanistic conception of human beings is well exemplified by the currently fashionable Howard Gardner, of Harvard University, who contends that cognition and understanding are based in the nervous system, that mental processes are mechanisms, that emotional feelings are open to "electrophysiological measures" (1973, 1993). I cannot spend longer on this now; I have given detailed critiques of Gardner at conferences in various countries. But I hope I have said enough at least to indicate some of my main lines of criticism. As Kerr (1986:185–86) puts it, "If our mental processes once seemed to be a deficient form of angelic intuition, they have now become an inefficient kind of mechanical calculation. The ghost in the machine has given way to the clockwork in the animal . . . .The age-old dream is repeating itself, that thinking is better done independent of bodiliness."


Earlier, I briefly discussed the common fallacy that, in order to understand anything fully and in depth, we need to uncover its essence. This fallacy is closely related to the conviction that the meaning of a word is what it names or refers to. This misleading meaning-as-naming fallacy has been the cause of numerous misconceptions. It may be initially plausible to assume, for instance, that the meaning of the word book is that it refers to this thing (although even in such a case it is mistaken.). But what of the meaning of words such as if, but, and many others? They do not name anything. What of the meaning of the word good? It is used in so many different contexts that it would be absurd to maintain that it names something. A classic example of confusion engendered by this essential/naming fallacy can be seen in assumptions over the meaning of the word beauty. Because of the naming assumption, many philosophers have spent years of research trying to find what precisely what the word beauty refers to. But, as Wittgenstein once said, to call something beautiful usually amounts to exclaiming "Ooh!"

     In the case which concerns us, it is the naming fallacy which leads to seminal misconception. One asks, "What is a mind? Where is it?" The assumption is that the word mind names something and, thus, that it makes sense to ask what it is and where. Ryle (1949) gives an illuminating example of someone who asks to see Cambridge University. We show him around extensively, but he remains unsatisfied. He complains, "I have seen the Colleges, lecture rooms, administration offices etc., but where is the University?" He fails to realize that in seeing the colleges, lecture rooms, etc., he has seen the university; it is not a separate, named thing. Similarly, imagine someone asking where he can see Chinese national pride. We remind him that he has met several Chinese people who are proud of their country. He agrees but still wants to know where is the pride itself.

     This is an obvious mistake, but there are numerous less obvious examples of academics and others, including well-known philosophers, who are led into confusion because of the very common assumption that the meaning of a word is what it names or refers to. (It may also be misleading in conceptions of religious belief, for instance, to put a complex issue with oversimple brevity, in the assumption that the meaning of God consists in its naming something.) In this case, in order to avoid such confusion, one should ask not "What is a mind?" but perhaps, "What is involved in thinking in a specific area?"

     Of course, this is not to deny that speaking of a mind may be perfectly intelligible, as long as we are clear about the issue. Renford Bambrough, one of my teachers at Cambridge, and subsequently a good friend, used to give an illuminating example, emphasizing the important distinction between

(a) There is no such thing as a mind


(b) There is no such thing as a mind.

The first sentence, stating that there is no such thing as a mind, may be understood as denying that we can think, which is obviously untrue. On the other hand, the second sentence is a rejection of the naming assumption, the assumption that the word mind names or refers to something. To say that someone has a good mind is not a reference to an object; it means that he is a good thinker.

     The same confusion is exemplified in very prevalent theories which purport to account for linguistic meaning in terms of symbolism. According to such theories, the meaning of a word is what it symbolizes. But this idea that the meaning of a word consists in its acting as symbol of something else is similar to the naming confusion which we have already discussed. For of any symbol it can be asked "of what?" Gardner, for example, supposes that linguistic meaning is symbolic of something in our neurological system. It would be too much of a diversion to consider this issue carefully. I have already indicated the metaphysical unintelligibility of dualistic theories of meaning, most commonly expressed in the supposition that linguistic terms are symbols of inner states of mind. This is not in the least to deny that, in particular cases, symbolism may make sense; my criticism is of the assumption or theory that symbolism is the general explanation of meaning.


Questions are often misleading. For instance, to ask, "What is the difference between a living man and a dead one?" may already be misleading. Many would be inclined to reply that the difference is that the soul of the dead man has left his body. But that leads us back to unintelligible metaphysical realms, in this case, the confused idea that a soul is a sort of nonphysical, spiritual entity. However, if instead of asking, "What is the difference?," which implies a single entity which can be named, we were to ask "What are the differences . . . " we should be much less inclined to be misled. For there are obviously numerous differences which avoid incoherent metaphysical speculation. The dead man no longer breathes, speaks, thinks, walks, or eats dim sum, etc.

     This is not to deny the intelligibility of talk of a soul. It is to deny that it makes sense to regard a soul as an inaccessible metaphysical entity, a sort of ghostly spirit encased in a physical body. On the contrary, as Wittgenstein puts it, the clearest picture of a man's soul is his face. However, this way of putting it may also be misleading because a picture is normally of something else, whereas his point is that the soul is not another thing, pictured by the face. So I should prefer to say that to talk of a man's soul is to talk of nothing other than the character of his complex of attitudes, thoughts, actions, etc. There is no entity distinct from these.

     A friend referred to another as a deeply unspiritual man. In order to consider whether that attribution is justifiable, it would be absurd to suppose that we need to carry out an impossible investigation into his supposed lack of a private, inner ghostly spirit. On the contrary, we consider how he lives his life. So far from hiding the soul, bodily actions reveal it.

     There are not two things, a body and a soul, but only one, a human being whose life and actions themselves manifest his soul or spirit. There are not two things, a body and a mind, but only one, a human being who behaves in certain ways.

     Much of my whole thesis today is captured in condensed form by Wittgenstein's seminal statement: "My attitude to him is an attitude to a soul; I am not of the opinion that he has a soul." It is an immediate response, unmediated by reasoning or theory.

Social Context

I have argued that the common belief that we are all isolated private autonomous selves makes no sense. On the contrary, we need to recognize the conversation which we are, that is, we need to recognize the essential interconnectedness in language, social norms, activities, customs, and traditions which make up what we are as human beings. It is hard to grasp this revolutionary concept because it is the very opposite of the deeply ingrained conviction that each of us is an inaccessibly private, individual being. To repeat, this is certainly not to deny individuality; it is to give sense to the conception of individuality as constituted by social context. That is what is meant by the phrase "the conversation which we are." Nature and culture cannot be disentangled.


We need to examine more carefully the notion that the roots of our being and identity are necessarily social. Earlier, we saw that it makes no sense to suppose that language could be invented, no sense to assume that it could it have been created by ratiocination. So how did humans acquire language? Language evolved from its roots in actions, primitive gestures, responses, ways of life. I have insufficient time to discuss this adequately. Wittgenstein quotes Goethe: "In the beginning was the deed." That is, language developed from its roots in actions and responses. Again, as Wittgenstein puts it, the sentence "I am in pain" replaces the natural instinctive response characteristic of being in pain. This is why I refer to such actions and responses as the roots of language, for just as the roots give life to the superstructure of a tree, so these natural, instinctive responses give life and meaning to language. Of course, language has developed far beyond these basic forms to give the possibility of highly sophisticated expressions. Thus, Shakespeare's language has richly and considerably deepened and extended the possibilities of experience. Nevertheless, the primitive reactions are the roots without which such refinements could not have developed. Those roots still give life and sense. To repeat, my attitude, immediate attitude, is to a soul; I have not formed the opinion that he has a soul.

     As has often been pointed out, for instance, the criterion of wanting is trying to get. Where there is a mismatch between what a person says and what he does, normally it is what he does which is definitive. It is a fundamental, if deeply tempting, illusion to assume that all that we say and do is brought about by thought and willing. I am using rationality to show the limits of rationality. Reasons have to come to an end. Those ends, what they rest on, are their roots in natural, shared responses, in the common forms of life which constitute our being.

     It is important to recognize that my thesis is not causal but logical. That is, I am not talking about the causal effects of society on me. What I am saying is that I am constituted by such social factors, just as a square is not caused by four straight sides but is partly logically constituted by them.

     A clear example of underlying action and response can be seen in the concept of causation, which, of course, is central to the sciences. Wittgenstein writes,

We react to the cause. Calling something "the cause" is like pointing and saying: "He's to blame." We instinctively get rid of the cause if we don't want the effect. We instinctively look from what has been hit to what has hit it.

The meaning or significance of movement is there, in the movement itself, in a particular context. Actions and gestures are not symbols of supposed "inner," mysterious mental states; they are what is meant or felt. This reveals again the fundamental but common confusion of theorists such as Howard Gardner, who regards language, the arts, and social practices as symbols of mental or neurological states. On the contrary, meaning is on the surface, as it were. Of course, that is not to imply that meaning is always simple; it may be very complex. But it is possible to work toward understanding it, by reflection, or learning about, or induction into, that kind of activity, or that language, in its context of a way of life, with its interconnected social practices. On a subjective theory, it would make no sense to suggest that one could ever come to understand what others say or do. About music, but it applies more generally, Wittgenstein writes, "If a theme, or phrase, suddenly means something to you, you don't have to be able to explain it. Just this gesture has been made accessible to you." Martha Nussbaum (1985:516) writes, "Our highest and hardest task is to make ourselves creatures on whom nothing is lost."


Actions, responses, as part of a shared social life, are the roots, the preconditions of thought and what gives sense to personal identity and personality. The traditional subjectivist conception of an inaccessibly private mental ghost, like the currently fashionable concept of our essential selves as mechanical brains, can only obscure what we are by relegating bodiliness and social context to mere secondary appendages. By digging deeper in this way, we bypass what our thinking is, what we are. To locate it, we need instead to look around us, on the surface. In that sense, our minds are constituted by our social humanity.

     We need to recognize how very powerful is the appeal of the idea of a self-entity, contained in a body. Only by recognizing its power can we appreciate the deep misconception inherent in it. It is fundamentally mistaken to believe that I have privileged access to my own mind and that I cannot be mistaken about myself. It is a very common experience to realize that one has mistaken one's own intentions and feelings. King Lear's daughters say, "He hath ever but slenderly known himself." And even Lear himself later realizes this, crying out, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" Angelo, in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, bewildered by his own actions, cries, "What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?" He suddenly realizes that he has never understood himself, never known who he really is.

     It is even more obvious that we do not have access to our own brains. And it is very odd to think that the pulpy mass of gray stuff in our heads is where we reside!

     Wittgenstein writes somewhere that it is humiliating to regard oneself as an empty tube inflated by a mind or brain.

     As Kerr ironically puts it, "It is not our bodies but our minds which prevent our understanding each other" (1986:185) He is, of course, referring to the traditional concept of the hidden, isolated mind, for such a concept of mind cannot account for communication between people. For mutual understanding, it is necessary to recognize the crucial significance of the natural expressiveness of our bodily actions.


(1) The assumption of a nonphysical inner self, mind, or soul, encased in a physical body makes no sense.

(2) The individual is a construct of the social.

(3) A brain cannot think.

(4) Language is not symbolic of inner mental states.

(5) The roots of language are instinctive responses.

(6) Bodiliness is not secondary but a necessary aspect of a human being.

(7) Actions and responses, rooted in social life, are the preconditions of thought and self.

References Cited:

Best, David
     1992. The Rationality of Feeling. London, Washington D.C.: Falmer Press. An updated and revised edition has been published in Chinese by the Psychological Publishing Co. Ltd., Taiwan.
1985. Feeling and Reason in the Arts. New York: Allen & Unwin. Recently published in Mandarin in mainland China by the Workers' Publishing House. Translated by the Marx-Lenin Study Room of the Central Translation Bureau.

Eisner, Elliott
1981. The Role of the Arts in Cognition and Curriculum. In Report of INSEA World Congress, Rotterdam. Amsterdam: De Trommel: 17–23.

Farnell, Brenda
1996. Gesture and Movement. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (ed. D. Levinson and M. Ember). New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files, Yale University, American Reference Publishing Co.: 536–41. Reprinted in JASHM 12(4).

Gardner, Howard
1973. The Arts and Human Development. New York: Wiley.
1993. The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. London: Basic Books.

Kerr, Fergus
      1986. Theology After Wittgenstein. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nussbaum, Martha
     1985. Finely Aware and Richly Responsible: Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature. The Journal of Philosophy 82(10): 516–29.

Phillips, D. Z.
1970. Death and Immortality. London: Macmillan.

Ryle, Gilbert
1949. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson and Co., Ltd.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
1958. Philosophical Investigations. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell. I have also referred to several other works.



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