The Department of Philosophy, as part of our weekly Speaker Series, is pleased to welcome Donovan Wishon, Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi. He is visiting the Department this term as a Visiting Russell Professor.
Talk title: Russell, Brentano, and the Case Against Neutral Monism
Abstract: Neutral monism—the view that both mind and matter are composed of, or grounded in, more basic elements of reality that are intrinsically neither mental nor material—has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest by both philosophers of mind and historians of philosophy. Historically speaking, its chief proponents include Ernst Mach, William James, and Bertrand Russell, among others. Yet before his conversion in 1918, Russell was a mind-matter dualist and one of neutral monism’s fiercest critics.
Russell’s early mind-matter dualism was heavily influenced by Franz Brentano and his students via his own Cambridge teachers James Ward and George Frederick Stout. In fact, Russell asserts that Brentano’s act-content-object distinction lies at the heart of debates about idealism, neutral monism, intentionalism, and relationism. Whereas intentionalists like Brentano hold that our mental episodes normally involve each element of this tripartite distinction, idealists typically take them to have contents without distinct acts or objects, while neutral monists dispense with mental acts or contents distinct from the (intrinsically neutral) objects of experience.
According to Russell’s relationism, the mental episodes of subjects involve both mental acts and objects distinct from them, but not contents connecting them together. Instead, he defends the view that all mental phenomena ultimately rest on the power of minds to be directly acquainted with independent objects presented in experience—objects which are typically themselves not mental in character. Initially, he holds that we can become aware of the distinction between subjects, their mental acts, and the objects of those acts simply via careful introspective inspection. But Russell soon concludes that we are, in fact, unacquainted with the subjects of our mental episodes.
Recently, David Bostock (2012) and Mark Textor (2021) have questioned Russell’s grounds for holding that our experiences are dual relational in character given our lack of acquaintance with one of the alleged relata. Previously, I have offered a simple answer on Russell’s behalf: namely, that subjects can be introspectively acquainted with their psychological acts, and thereby be in a position to know their relational character, even if they lack self-acquaintance (Wishon 2018). Textor has rightly pointed out that this response, as it stands, is insufficient. Moreover, it seems to conflict with what Russell plainly says: “But although we found no difficulty in being acquainted with an experience, the most attentive introspection failed to reveal any constituent of an experience except the object” (1913: 121). For this reason, Textor takes Russell to rest his case for relationism about experience on several theoretical considerations rather than empirical ones. But on closer examination, he concludes that Russell’s arguments fail both in telling against the existence of contents and in establishing the existence of subjects. Hence, Textor holds Brentano’s intentionalism to be a more promising response to neutral monism than Russell’s relationism.
In this talk, I will (1) argue that Russell is not denying our ability to discover the relational character of experience via introspection in the highlighted passage, (2) offer an alternative reconstruction of Russell’s key arguments for relationism over intentionalism, idealism, and neutral monism, and (3) make a case that Russell has more nuanced views about “subjects” of experience during this period than critics have appreciated. In doing so, I hope to shed light on some of the key issues involved in Russell’s complex relationship with neutral monism.