Mind, brain and the problem of responsibility

Thomas SZASZ

SUNY Health Science Center, 750 East Adams Street, Syracuse, New York 13210, USA


The word "mind" names one of our most important, but most confused and confusing, ideas. The Latin mens means not only mind but also intention and will, a signification still present in our use of the word "mind" as a verb. Because we attribute intention only to intelligent, sentient beings, minding implies agency. It is easy to overlook, however, that attributing or refusing to attribute moral agency to the Other is a matter of both fact and tactic - a decision that depends not only on the Other's abilities, but also on our attitude toward him.

The dependence of moral agency on mindedness renders the judgment of mindlessness of paramount legal and social significance. Two common tactics - usually ignored by moral philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychiatrists - deserve special mention in this connection. One is treating a person as incompetent when in fact he is not (thus harming him under the guise of helping him) ; the other is treating a person as a victim when in fact he is an active agent (excusing him of responsibility for his self-victimization and blaming his self-injury on innocent third parties).

Although mind is a moral and psychological concept, it is now regularly addressed by biologists and neuroscientists as well. Most of these investigators ignore the actual uses of the term "mind". Instead, they treat the mind as if it were the brain, or a function of the brain, and define their task as offering observations and speculations about the workings of that organ. To properly evaluate the merits of these studies we must not lose sight of the fact that the word "mind" is a part of our everyday vocabulary and that we use it most often, with the most far-reaching practical consequences, in ordinary discourse, law, and psychiatry.


Plenary 1   (Eugen Bleuler Lecture)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999