- Response to Jonathan Gold’s Review of Brains, Buddhas, and Believing
I have enjoyed spirited philosophical conversations with Jonathan Gold for well over a decade now, and I always learn from them; I am grateful, then, to the editors of Philosophy East and West for the opportunity to share something of our long-standing conversation in this forum, just as I am grateful to Professor Gold for his characteristically generous and insightful engagement with my book. While the philosophical and interpretive alternatives he develops in response to my book’s critique of [End Page 1057] Dharmakīrti are undoubtedly defensible, it will come as no surprise to Professor Gold that I am generally not persuaded that they succeed in getting Dharmakīrti (or cognitive-scientifically inclined philosophers of the present) off the hook. I have little expectation that what I have to say in turn will persuade unregenerate empiricists such as Professor Gold; in the hope, though, that our exchange might nevertheless bring the basic issues more clearly into focus, I would like to sketch some of the reasons for thinking that Gold’s more sympathetic reading of Dharmakīrti does not escape the line of critique I have pressed.
The basic problems in philosophy of mind that my book explores can be brought into view by attending to the two fundamentally different senses of the word thought. ‘Thought’ can refer to something one does, to particular acts of thinking such as occur on specific occasions with particular psychological and other conditions in their past; ‘thought’ also refers, however, to the semantic content of such acts, to what particular occasions of thinking are about.1 (The same observation applies to a whole range of verbal nouns including judgment, belief, etc.) The first sense of the word represents the purview of psychology, which concerns such questions as how, as a matter of empirical fact, human mental processes tend to operate, what their causes and conditions are, etc. Insofar, however, as one is concerned with the second sense of the word—with what is meant when someone says “my thought is x ”—one has brought essentially logical considerations into play, raising such questions as whether one thought is justified by another, what its entailments are, and so forth.
Among the enduring questions in philosophy of mind is whether it is possible to explain the second, logical sense of ‘thought’ with reference only to the first, psychological sense. Insofar as they are apt to suppose that the only finally real things are those that figure in causally describable perceptual encounters with the world, those of a generally empiricist persuasion—chiefly exemplified, in my book, by Dharmakīrti (for whom perception is privileged just insofar as it is nonconceptual) and Jerry Fodor (for whom the semantic content of thought is finally a function of the “syntax” of particular brain events)—are by and large committed to explaining mental content as an exhaustively psychological phenomenon; after all, if one is committed to the view that only perceptible particulars count as “real,” it stands to reason that everything about our mental lives must admit of explanation in terms thereof.
The view that such an explanation can be carried out is psychologism—a view paradigmatically exemplified by Locke, whose basic notion of “Ideas”2 problematically conflates the two senses of thought, referring at once to particular mental representations, and to the semantic content of such representations. This view was famously targeted early in the twentieth century by Husserl and Frege, with the latter’s notion of “Thought” (Gedanke), for example, meant precisely to counter Locke’s problematic conflation: “What is a content of my consciousness, my idea, should be sharply distinguished from what is an object of my thought.”3 Frege’s “thought” thus denotes the intersubjectively available content of acts of judging, in contrast to Locke’s “Ideas,” which chiefly denote the particular mental events (immediately accessible only to the subjects thereof) that bear that content. This way of framing the [End Page 1058] issue should be recalled with regard to Gold’s characterization of my book as arguing that “[t]here is no possibility of describing ideas causally . . . because what operates causally is...