The project The Life of the Mind aims to examine selected theories about the mental development of persons in modern and contemporary philosophy that draw on some notion of life. The core idea is that the human mind is best understood as something living or as fundamentally instantiated by living beings.

The historical positions I consider include Leibniz’s theory of the mind as fundamentally teleological entity, Kant’s theory of a self-knowing and self-determining person, Wilhelm Dilthey’s theory of lived experience (‘Erleben’), and Edith Stein’s account of the combination between an organic, a psychic, and an intellectual life. 

What is the “Life of the Mind”?

What are minds? What makes us mental beings? Do minds exist distinct from matter? These and related questions have been vividly discussed in the history of philosophy. A standard story of this history of (Western) philosophy construes a dialectical development between two rival theories of the mind: dualism, according to which the mind is an immaterial self-subsistent entity that grounds all mental activities and exists detached from the natural world, and materialism, according to which all mental phenomena can be ultimately traced back to the properties of matter.

Yet this standard story overlooks a major position that has been present throughout the history as well: the view that the mind is best understood in terms of a living entity that is endowed with mental powers. Through exercising these powers in the course of life, a mental being develops in a characteristically unified way. For human persons, these activities typically include acts of sensing, thinking, willing, and feeling. In the course of their lives, human persons form themselves as individual beings based on individual mental activities, interpersonal interaction, mainly mediated by language, and relevant environmental factors.

The concept of life should not be understood here in the narrow sense of referring only to organic life. Rather, life, taken more generally, refers to the ability of a being to change or develop according to a characteristic form, an inner principle, a Gestalt or an idea of what it is to be or become. In the Greek tradition, this concept of life – as the becoming from an inner principle – is often rendered as “βίος (bios)”, in contrast to “ζωή (zōē)”, the animal life. Since this position presupposes such a form, principle, Gestalt or idea as not yet fully realized in nature, it shares certain aspects with idealist theories of the mind, according to which all reality is ultimately grounded in something mental, of which the natural world is only an appearance (e.g. Leibniz). However, the core assumption that the mind is understood as something living is neither necessarily nor predominantly associated with idealism. The crucial point – against the rival views of dualism and materialism – is that a person’s mind should not be conceived as an entity fundamentally detached from the matter through which the person is realized in nature, nor should mental activity be thought of as reducible to the mechanical forces of material bodies.

The central questions that any such model must answer include:

  1. What are the basic constituents of mental life, including a set of mental powers, and what is the relation between parts and the whole?
  2. How can the characteristic kind of mental unity, i.e., the goal, purpose, or telos to be realized through/in life, be conceived?
  3. What conception(s) of life and what principle(s) of development and self-formation does the model presuppose?
  4. What conception(s) of time and temporal change does the model include?
  5. How does the model appeal to the distinction between efficient (mechanical) causality and teleology?
  6. How can the dependence between belonging to a collective mental life and individualization be modeled?
  7. How can stages of human development, personal growth, and character formation be understood in the model?
  8. How can fragmentation, crisis and stagnation of human life be explained?

The project was funded by a Feodor Lynen Research Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for two research stays at the Université Paris VIII (January to July 2021 and May to July 2023).

In April 2024, we are hosting a conference on this theme at the History of Philosophy Forum, University of Notre Dame.

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation: