Saturday, March 26, 2016

Russell's Analysis of Mind book review

taken by: CDC/ Laura R. Zambuto; source:
Somewhere right after I had read Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy and Logicomix by Doxiadis an audio version of Russell's Analysis of Mind was released on librivox. After listening to that while doing stretches I discovered that I had not retained anything (curiously, only that, on free fall, one's will amounts to nought). I could not let this stand and decided to try once more, this time with an ebook version, and take notes and all. This is my impression.

Analysis of Mind is a set of series of lectures delivered by Russell in China in the 1920s. According to some biography I checked he began working on them while in prison. With them he sets forth to show how mind can be reducible to images and sensations alone. In the first lecture he gives an overview of what is to follow on the rest of the lectures. He starts philosophically by retaking the opposing views of Materialists and Idealists which is reminiscent to what one finds in his Problems, and it appears that he is going to keep at it, but then channels the subject matter into a purely psychological groove.  Psychology at that time was being swept by the ascendant of Watson's behaviorism and Russell explicitly agrees that the only things that can be learnt of the mind are from external observation. However, he doesn't  takes all of Watson's assertions at face value, calling him on here and there. When appropriate, Russell also weaves in the viewpoints of other psychologists such as, Wundt, Thorndike, James among others.

On lecture III, Russell  takes what now appears as a conceptual dead-end, which is that of Richard Semon's engrams and mnemics as model. He believes that experiences might change the brain, but says he has no proof (we have now).

Something that I didn't catch on the first try, struck me this time around. In the the fifth lecture Russell roundly denies causality. He had already intimated this before, but now he was going full-steam ahead, which makes for an odd/uncomfortable way of looking at science.  On the positive side it makes me look into this quandary further.

Lectures IX - XIII (memory, words & meaning, general ideas, belief, Truth) appear to me the most true to Russell's style from Problems. By  time  of lecture XII however I had come to the realization that I was not getting something tangible out of the book.  Lecture XIII was interesting in itself as it expanded some of his already covered ground from Problems. Then again this lecture was more about philosophy than on actual psychology.

The second to last lecture, on the emotions, where he takes a look to the James-Lange theory, and the will, appears as if its going to get exciting and then abruptly ends making it  the shortest in the series.

The final lecture wraps up all the pieces from the previous ones in a unified whole, and thus 'proves' his thesis. My assessment is  that the structures he puts forth seem workable, but you have to buy into them by temporally forgetting what you know about current theories and in light of them Russell's feel a bit forced or unnatural. What's more it now makes me suspect his philosophical approach proper. Maybe he's got that wrong too!

After having finished the book I'm sad to say that after all I didn't get much new or revealing insights from Russell's analysis. He tries his best, sure, but the material that he works from is still primitive and much have been superseded or revised in the intervening century. One wishes that Russell could have had what we have now. Then, he could've made something remarkable to our current eyes.  The only reason I'd recommend it is for the mental challenge of trying to get to grips with it all; otherwise, not worth the trouble.  If you still want to check it out, start by the last lecture where he gives his uninterrupted argument and then decide which lectures you want to read if any.


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