on October 17, 2011
This set of fifteen lectures delivered in 1921 and available on line at the Pennsylvania State University, are important but have aged tremendously. Today we can follow in real time the activity of the brain and nervous system for any mental activity, or motor activity as for that. So a great number of pages discussing the difference between a sensation, purely at the level of the contact of some sensorial organ with an outside stimulus, and an image which is a mental representation of what the stimuli are bringing in, or of some mnemic, in other words remembered or recollected, representation in the mind can clearly be solved. Thinking of something or seeing something are very similar but different, just as doing something and seeing someone doing something are very similar but not exactly the same thanks to mirror neurons. And we can "see" the brain working today.
In the same way he spends a tremendous amount of time demonstrating the existence of the mind, of a specific mental level of brain activity. But today that is no longer something to be discussed in such length because thanks to the tremendous progress of medical imagery we know that the brain can work without any outside stimulus, on a stimulus that comes directly from inside, thought, recollection, imagination and so on. But Buddhism is more advanced on the subject than that because they consider that there are six senses in man: the five sensorial senses we know that receive the stimuli from outside and the mind that processes these stimulated sensations to analyze them, recognize them, classify them, identify them, etc, but also, because it is a meta-sense, the possibility to do the same with abstract notions that cannot be at the origin of a physical sensorial stimulus, and of course all other mental or brain element that activates the brain, because the brain can work on its own like an autonomous or semi-autonomous organ (dreams, abstract or artistic activities, etc.).
He thus would have been able to come to a clearer notion of knowledge, something that is acquired and accumulated by a subject within some conditions and a context, most of the time collective. But strangely enough Russell neglects, if not rejects, the subject as an essential entity. The learner, the speaker, the hearer, the individual that receives the stimuli through his/her senses and then processes them, the individual that acquires some knowledge through a threshold of the acquisition of knowledge that is his or her own with motivation(s), cognitive strategies and cognitive styles, with the desire to learn or the refusal to learn. These mental dimensions are all motivated by the context of the subject and his own experience, and his experiential history.
That's the word that is missing essentially: experience.
If we consider the individual in his experience of the world in which he has five physical senses and the mind, a meta-sense in the brain, that receives experiential stimuli all the time in a situation where he has to learn to become autonomous when a new born and independent when autonomous, if we take the individual in that context he is not an abstract subject but he is an experiencer. If we taker language he is a hearer or a speaker, eventually a writer but when Russell brings together hearing, speaking writing or reading, there is something wrong in his vision of language. Writing and reading are the results of a late invention in the phylogeny of language in humanity, and a late learning in children, and has little to do with oral language. We do not speak what we write first, but we speak first and we eventually write what we have spoken or what we are thinking with our mental voice.
He would have then enriched his vision with that set of concepts he does not use. Matter the way it is defined by physics is a construct but that does not in anyway permit anyone to say that matter is a mental imaginary entity. Matter is what is outside us and it does not need to be seen, heard, touched or whatever to exist. We can only experience this material world through our senses in a situation of extreme need and feebleness for several years. There is no escaping that. And it is this extreme inferiority that forces humanity as a whole and each child to communicate, hence to learn a language, hence to learn a lot of things and increase their mental powers. Then the rest is social and no longer individual. If the new-born was to be an absolutely individual being it would not survive twelve hours. That social dimension of the mind is not taken into account properly, neither phylogenetically for the human species with the emergence of modern man and homo sapiens, not psychogenetically for each new-born.
"All psychic phenomena are built up out of sensations and images alone." That's a good conclusion but tremendously short of the real situation. The very first experience of a new-born and even of a foetus over 24 weeks are going to be engraved in the brain and mind of that new-born and will build all his attitudes, motivations or de-motivations, learning experiences or learning refusals during his whole life. Then sensations and the mental representations a person may have in his mind going back to the first three to five years of his/her life are a lot more than just plain sensations, mnemic sensations, images, mnemic images, or whatever. They are most of the time unconscious and embedded in the brain at a very physical level, even in the architectures of the dendrites of the neurons that have grown along with this experience.
I will not comment on what he says on language. He had not read de Saussure, that's obvious but today we are far beyond his very naïve definition of the word as if Semitic languages, isolating languages and agglutinative, synthetic or syntactically analytical languages could have the same definition of a word, which are in fact roots in Semitic languages, frozen categorized parts of speech (very badly called like that) in isolating languages, and fully syntactic words in all other languages with different levels of realization of the syntax on the word (agglutinative) or around the word (the others). Paradigmatic and syntagmatic dimensions are essential for the various basic elements of our articulated languages, an other word, articulation, that is never used. Our languages have three articulations and we cannot economize on these facts.
An important set of lectures though more for the historical approach of the :mind in out western society. We must also keep in mind that many languages do not have a word equivalent to "mind" in Europe and the West because "mind" is typically English and other languages have given some Christian or religious values to the words they may use to designate the physical and psychological dimension of the brain's functioning.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU