Bleg: Mental Activities?

I want to make a distinction between mental activities and mental states.

As I only have some vague ideas, it is easier to point to some examples. Some examples of mental activities: counterfactual reasoning, doxastic deliberation, planning, daydreaming, dreaming, playing a pretend game. Some examples of mental states: beliefs, desires, imaginings, emotions, perceptions. My sense is that there really is something different about the former cluster compared to the latter. Any suggestions on how that distinction might be made more precise?

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12 Responses to Bleg: Mental Activities?

  1. Steve C. says:

    Here’s a quick, non-precise thought: the examples in the first class are processes that involve agency (whatever that is), whereas those in the second are static/states (?) and do not necessarily involve, or result from, agency (as you might just find yourself having certain beliefs, desires, imaginings, emotions, and perceptions).

  2. Clayton says:

    I won’t add a suggestion as to how to make the distinction precise, but I would recommend Steward’s The Ontology of the Mental and the new Oxford anthology on mental action if you haven’t taken a look at these.

  3. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Thanks for the suggestions, Steve. Thanks for the references, Clayton. I’ll try to look at them. I’m having trouble tracking down the Oxford anthology though; can you give me a bit more information (e.g. editors)?

  4. jmsytsma says:

    I’m not sure I get the distinction you are after. Following Steve’s suggestion, it is far from clear to me that dreaming is deliberative (is that what agency amounts to here?) and far from clear to me that imagining isn’t. Further, it would seem misleading to call that an activity/state distinction: Why not two types of activities or two types of states (for most of these terms the “ing” can be readily added or removed)? Perhaps beliefs and/or desires can be non-occurrent, which might count against treating them as activities (that you have a belief doesn’t mean that you are believing). But, same holds for plans I would think (that you have a plan doesn’t mean that you are planning). Could you say a bit more about what your vague idea is to flesh out what you want from the distinction and how the examples apply? Does believing or perceiving go in the first list for you? Does a plan or dream go in the second list for you?

  5. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Hey Justin. You’re right that I don’t think Steve’s distinction is quite it. (We talked about some of this in person.) So I added more examples.

    I guess a rough idea I have is just that a mental activity typically involves more than one state of the same attitude, and typically involves more than one attitude/mechanism. Mental activities constrain how different mental states relate. To give my hand away, in the end I want to say something like mental activities have some normativity by itself, whereas the mental states only have normativity derivatively. But of course I would like to see some independent distinction before making that point!

  6. Sven Nyholm says:

    What do you mean when you say that “mental activities have some normativity by itself, whereas mental states only have normativity derivatively”? Is that for something to count, at all, as a mental activity is for there to be some norm governing it, whereas in the case of mental states we don’t need norms to distinguish between different mental states?

  7. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Well, I don’t want to say anything about that right now, since I’m not even sure there is a distinction between mental activities and mental states!

  8. dtlocke says:

    How about:

    An activity is a temporal sequence of states.

    A state is not a temporal sequence of states.

    Of course these aren’t definitions, but they do draw a distinction. Is it the right one? One worry: not all temporal sequences of states are are activities. So we’ll need something to divide the temporal sequences into those that are and are not states. Perhaps a causal principle? Or a normative principle? (I don’t usually like drawing distinctions using normative principles, but as long as we’re clear that all we are doing is giving ourselves a way to divide the two things, and not saying what the *real* difference between them is, then I’m cool with it.)

  9. dtlocke says:

    Oops! “are and are not states” should be “are and are not activities”.

  10. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Interesting. Dustin– why don’t you like drawing distinctions using normative principles? Is it worry about interpretation? Mysteriousness?

  11. dtlocke says:

    I wouldn’t advance that as a general principle, just in cases where it seems that we are dealing with a distinction that is, at rock bottom, a distinction between two types of physical processes. But like I said, I don’t think that that precludes using a normative principle to draw a conceptual distinction.


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