Philosophy Part 2: How should we think about mental states? The contribution of Ludwig Wittgenstein.


There are two broad approaches to the ‘mental’ that Wittgenstein’s ideas challenge. One is that all our feelings, thoughts and behaviours are caused by, or ‘epiphenomena’ of, a specific brain state or process. This is sometimes referred to as ‘physicalism’ (‘epiphenomenalism’ being one variant of physicalism). On this view- the one that much neuroscience is based on- the brain states that lie behind the sensations and behaviours are what is primary and important. Just as to accurately understand the behaviour of water we need to know its molecular structure, to understand human behaviour we need to identify the brain states that produce it.

The second approach to understanding human experience is the ‘psychological’. By this I mean the idea that mental events and behaviour can be studied and theorised in their own right, without reference either to the brain or to the individual that has them. According to this view mental states have independent characteristics that can be categorised, compared and experimentally manipulated just like material things in the world, such as minerals or plants.

Although Wittgenstein did not deny that we have personal experiences, for example pain or sadness or guilt, some of which we refer to as mental or psychological states, what he pointed out is that we understand these experiences through the way we express them. We express ourselves through words, gestures and actions, and all of these derive their meaning through the way they are used in a public and social context.

philosophical investigations

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein gives the example of pain. Although pain is a personal or subjective experience, we express pain through well-recognised responses, which are both automatic or involuntary (recoiling from the painful stimulus, crying out) and voluntary (begging someone to stop doing whatever it is that hurts). These behaviours and utterances are recognised as manifestations of pain by other people when they occur in particular circumstances (such as someone falling over or stubbing their toe). If someone is screaming but no painful stimulus is apparent, we might doubt whether their behaviour is a manifestation of pain, even if they claim it is. Think of a young child who learns that expressing pain will bring love and attention from a grown-up! The point is that it is the public manifestations of pain and their particular context that constitute our immediate, ordinary understanding of pain, not the ‘internal’ or personal experience of it and not whatever it is that goes on in the painful area or in the brain or nervous system. The meaning of pain is how we use the word in everyday language (1).

We can however, investigate the neural basis of pain, and the local bodily processes that produce it. This is a perfectly legitimate activity but it does not reveal the meaning of pain. It reveals the bodily basis of pain, but not how we understand the phenomena of pain in everyday life.

The Wittgenstinian philosopher, Peter Hacker, has described how emotions and moods are also understood through particular public expressions, which form the criteria for ascribing an emotional state to someone (2). Some emotions are demonstrated by an immediate reaction, like a smile or expression of surprise, and some, like sadness, grief or anxiety, by longer lasting patterns of behaviour. Implicit in most emotion language is the idea that the feeling is a reaction to someone or something. Love, hate and anger often have as their object another living being. Surprise and delight are usually immediate reactions to proximate events. Sadness, fear, guilt, shame and happiness are less immediate reactions, but also normally understood as responses to something that has happened, is happening or might happen to someone. Part of the context of emotion language is the object or events at which the emotion is directed.

We recognise sadness when someone tells us they are sad, when someone looks sad, and behaves in a sad way, and usually this involves explaining what made them sad. These things are necessary for us to understand and accept that someone is sad. If someone says they are sad, but has a big smile on their face, and proceeds to laugh and act in a lively and cheerful manner, we would not understand their claim to be sad. Similarly, if someone says they are sad, but can’t explain why, we would not necessarily disbelieve them, but we would find their assertion more difficult to accept than if they told us they were sad because their cat had been run over.

As Rom Harré (another philosopher much influenced by Wittgenstein) has pointed out, emotions are different from physiological responses like pain or hunger, which are primarily experienced in the body. Emotions may be associated with particular bodily sensations, but they are not reducible to these sensations (3). Therefore, unlike pain, it is not clear that emotions have specific physical correlates. In fact evidence suggests they do not. Several different types of emotion; fear, anxiety, anger and euphoria, for example, are associated with the physiological state of arousal that is linked with the release of chemicals like adrenalin and noradrenalin (sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response). This physiological state and its biochemical characteristics are not specific to a particular emotion, therefore, but cut across several types of emotional response.

Even if we did find a specific brain state that correlated perfectly with the experience of fear, and another one that was present every time anyone felt joy or pity, the brain states are not what we understand as emotion in everyday life. It is not brains that feel fear, pity and joy, it is people. Emotions are attributes of people living and acting within a social or public world.

So what does all this mean for the study of the ‘mental’ realm, including the situations we refer to as ‘mental disorders.’ It means that we understand them through the public expressions by which they are manifested. This is what our language of mental states and emotions refers to. It refers to the publically available voluntary and involuntary actions of whole living persons who are actively engaged in the social and material world.

Take depression for example, or prolonged sadness or melancholy or despondency (the term depression has become so strongly associated now with the psychiatric approach, it is sometimes better to use other words to clarify what we mean when we think about this sort of emotional state). There are various patterns of behaviour we might associate with this emotion as broadly conceived. Someone might take to bed and cease to go about their everyday life. Someone might be crying a lot and displaying obvious signs of distress. Someone might become preoccupied with a negative and pessimistic view of the world. Usually, use of such terms implies a change; that someone was previously acting normally, and then starts acting in a depressed manner. The important point is that the sorts of behaviours we associate with depression are not signs or symptoms of an underlying brain disease or mental construct that is what depression really is. When we refer to someone as ‘depressed’, even when we do this as psychiatrists in the framework of diagnostic systems like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM), we are not identifying the real nature of their nervous system or mental make-up. We are referring to the sorts of behaviours (4) they are displaying, and how we normally interpret these. Depression just is the behaviours that we understand as expressing depression.

The ethnomethodologist, Jeff Coulter, has written about the characteristics of the expression of psychosis or madness. Coulter explains that madness is attributed when someone acts in a way that is not easily understandable, and breaks unwritten rules of social conduct such as behaving unpredictably, or failing to undertake expected tasks. Following Wittgenstein, Coulter stresses that madness, like other mental states, is recognised and attributed by the community in response to public patterns of behaviour, and is not something hidden that can only be detected by experts (5).

So the important point that Wittgenstein makes is that mental states, including mental disorders like depression or psychosis, are not just, or primarily, private events- whether these are considered as brain events or events in an abstract mind. We recognise and identify these situations through the sorts of behaviours and reactions that people display publically, and the context in which these occur. Neither brains nor minds are depressed, anxious or psychotic – real people are, in real social situations!

Studying mental disorders as if they are conditions of individual minds or brains therefore misses the point of them. We need to understand them at the social level, as problems that show up in social groups or contexts. Yet our current mental health services are set up to adjust individual brains or minds, as if this could fix the problem. But the problem lies in the interaction of a person’s behaviour with their social environment, which includes the social expectations of how people should behave.

This suggests that sometimes it may be the environment that needs fixing, rather than the individual. Take the example of so-called ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’. Many people have pointed out that instead of adjusting individual children’s behaviour through brain-modifying chemicals, we should devise an education system that accommodates a wider range of developmental trajectories; one that is better able to cope with children who need more physical activity and stimulation than the average child of their age (6).

Other ‘mental disorders’ also act as barometers that reveal the strains and tensions of our social institutions. If we recognised this, we might be able to imagine other ways to organise society that might render ‘mental disorders’ less prevalent or less problematic.



15 thoughts on “Philosophy Part 2: How should we think about mental states? The contribution of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

  1. Thanks this is very interesting. I wonder what the focussing therapists/buddhists would make of ref 3…emotions are not reducible to physical sensations…they certainly advocate ‘going towards’ emotion, focussing on it, feeling where it is in body…dissolving it of its charge. The Buddhist perspective of being with in order to disidentify. ..the paradox of immanence /transcendence

  2. What you seem to be neglecting is that Wittgenstein drew a firm line between philosophical and scientific inquiry and primarily addresses the former. One example of this distinction is in section 89 of Philosophical Investigations:

    89. These considerations bring us to the problem: In what sense is logic something sublime?
    For there seemed to pertain to logic a peculiar depth – a universal significance. Logic lay, it seemed, at the bottom of all the sciences – for logical investigation explores the nature of all things. It seeks to see to the bottom of things and is not meant to concern itself whether what actually happens is this or that – it takes its rise, not from an interest in the facts of nature, nor from the need to grasp causal connections: but from an urge to understand the basis, or essence, of everything empirical. Not, however, as if to this end we had to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.
    Augustine says in Confessions: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who has asked, I do not know.” This could not be said about a question of natural science (e.g. “What is the specific gravity of hydrogen?”). Something that we know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of. (And it is obviously something of which for some reason it is difficult to remind oneself.)

    From this it’s pretty clear that when Ludwig talks about ‘essence’ and ‘understanding’ he’s talking about what we can say about something rather than investigating its putative causality or substance. Augustine already knows what time is. His problem is how to articulate what he knows. The difficulty is ubiquitous. Just try to articulate your understanding of “consciousness” or “fear” or “blue” for example.

    We don’t need symbolic expression of pain, sadness or guilt to understand it in ourselves. We only need language to communicate it or to try to understand the pain, sadness or guilt of others. If everyone stopped talking about pain my personal pain wouldn’t go away. Just the philosophy of pain. Pain itself isn’t a social phenomenon but a subjective one.

    The mind ‘sciences’ (setting aside the question of how scientific they are) are committed to trying to objectify (not merely articulate) these subjective experiences in order to make them objects of scientific inquiry. Hence the DSM, alleged neurological correlates of mental states, behaviouralism, the collection of patient histories, etc. They’re not about to limit themselves to how we socially construct the definition of ‘madness’, nor should they. They purport to be science, not philosophy.

    I agree with you that psychiatry (and neurology) is riddled with inappropriate reification of symbolic abstractions and could do with a good shake out of terms and meanings. I also agree that it all too often relocates social problems within individuals (society sews the straight jacket and the shrinks trim us to fit). But I don’t think attempting to impose Wittgenstein’s philosophical ‘understanding’ of madness onto the (allegedly) scientific framework of psychiatry offers a way forward.

  3. I enjoyed this post quite a lot. A conceptual reflection about the mind, the brain and “mental disorders” is really neccessary.

    I woud like to add to the debate that B. F. Skinner proposed a very similar approach years before the publication of the Philosophical Investigations (Skinner, 1945,
    There he proposed the social construction of the private world through the interaction with the verbal community, for example.
    However, the science of behavior analysis has evolved quite a lot since then. Lots and lots of empirical evidence have been added to this proposal, and new theoretical and empirical insights habe been incorporated. For example, this view is routinely used to teach individuals who lack the ability to recognize or express emotions, or to recognize several aspects of their own behavior and sorroundings.

    Finally, I would like to point out that behaviorism (past or actual) does not align “human behaviour with instinctual animal behaviour or neurological reflexes”. For behaviorism, behavior is an interaction between the organism and its environment (including its social aspects), and related to his or her personal and evolutionary history.

  4. Great post. My only concern is that there has been much misunderstandings around behavioristic positions. There are current “behaviorisms” (Teleological behaviorism by Howard Rachlin or Interbehaviorism by Ribes-Iñesta) assuming positions in relation to pain and emotions very compatible with the description here presented, and also influenced by “the second” Wittgenstein. I think that it is interesting to recognize these positions as friendly and compatible, to sum voices that are reaching to the same or compatible conclusions from different theoretical and practical start-points, particularly in this neuro-era. Thanks!

  5. I should probably restate that I agree with the thrust of your argument, as this 2015 blogpost shows. But I don’t think we can wrest mental healthcare from a technocratic elite by invoking a notoriously difficult philosopher.

    Nor do I think psychiatry can or should be bound by some kind of consensus social definition of its terminology. If that were the case depression would be ‘persistent sadness’, schizophrenia would be ‘split personality’ and psychosis would be ‘the compulsion to attack women with sharp implements while they’re isolated and naked’.

    • Thats a great blog, and supported by the evidence that people have more stigmatising attitudes to brain disease than to problems that are conceived as ‘psychological’ (as on a continuum with more everyday suffering). I am not saying that quoting Wittgenstein will change anything, but I do think its important to be clear about what lies behind the language we use, in order to challenge the status quo.
      In response to your previous comment, the very next blog is about knowledge, and about what scientific techniques and forms of knowledge can appropriately be applied to and what they can’t.

  6. There are so many interesting viewpoints in this article, I hope it finds a wide audience. It’s interesting how we could use philosophy to point out illogical concepts, to ask what people are really saying when they repeat a psychiatric “theory” that has become a mainstream truth.
    You wrote: “Studying mental disorders as if they are conditions of individual minds or brains therefore misses the point of them. We need to understand them at the social level, as problems that show up in social groups or contexts.” That alone would be of much help. There would no longer be one person judging and one person judged. The fact that someone might not understand somebody’s behaviour would not result in them being labelled mentally ill.

  7. Just a random (my son’s term) viewpoint about a psychiatrist in the highlands being in front of a judge, who asked him to define schizophrenia.
    Answer – he said ‘me Lord, I canna define an elephant, but if I see een, I will know fit it is’
    So there!

    • Hello, I wondered if you came across Jiddu Krishnamurti’s work on “thought” and our identification with an “I”. This identification in itself is questionable – i.e. un-“real”, in the sense that we “are” not the thought we have of ourselves – our heart doesn’t beat in that “picture” or memory of “us” age 5 for example yet we “feel” as if age 50 we “are” that 5 years old (we say we “were” that 5 years old but feel that we are one same “I”). If mental “illness” is a distance of the mind from “reality” then I am not sure human consciousness in its normalisation of the belief in an “I” actually experiences mental “health” much…:)

      • Hi Jo, haven’t heard from you for a while until the 5HT article!
        On mental state examination, during most consultations, given enough free reign (like open dialogue) patients tend to swap between history and current experience. The skill of a psychiatrist is to note these separately. As at least 40% of our patients have experienced trauma, it is not surprising they do this. I see history as an indication of duration and precipitants of illness and mental state being indicative of severity and risk.
        Kind regards

  8. Pingback: Philosophy Part 6: Are mental disorders brain diseases ‘in waiting’? | Joanna Moncrieff

  9. Pingback: Philosophy Blog 7: So what is mental disorder? Part 1 Reasoning and meaning | Joanna Moncrieff

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